Helpful Hints From Psych Department Professors! They Know A Thing Or Two…

Are you an undergraduate student looking for tips and tricks to help you succeed in your studies? Look no further!

The Psychology Department at Roanoke College has gathered advice from our experienced professors to help you get the most out of your undergraduate career. In this post, we will discuss the top tips and tricks for undergraduate success, courtesy of our very own professors. We have also asked professors to advise specifically to the feat of preparing and applying for graduate schools. There is a lot of great information that will truly help you make the most out of your time and successfully prepare yourself for what is to come! You can only benefit in learning from those who have achieved before you.

Dr. Buchholz quotes Albert Einstein in saying that “Genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work. Thinking is hard work; that’s why so few do it.”  

  • According to research into growth mindset and academic success, the biggest factor in academic success is effort; and effort does not always mean the amount of time you spend. While many things like writing a paper or studying for a test do take time, it is crucial that the time you spend is spent wisely—some methods of studying are more effective than others.
  • Reach out to your instructors and advisors for help navigating how to be both efficient and effective. Your professors spent many years figuring out how do this well and all of us chose to teach at Roanoke College because we care about helping our students thrive.  
  • In addition to putting in the work, wellbeing is another critical component to academic success and thriving as a human being. Take care of yourself, get enough sleep, develop self-compassion for your shortcomings, try mindfulness practices like meditation, exercise, and most importantly, spend time with others.  

Dr. Allen speaks to cultivating relationships, getting letters of recommendation and building a resume for yourself:

  • Cultivate relationships with faculty so that professors can write you a meaningful letter of recommendation when the time comes. These letters of recommendation are so important! Your quantifiable information like GPA and GREs can get you on a short list, but then it’s activities and your letter and your LORs that make the difference whether you get the nod or not. 
  • If you can, get an internship in a relevant organization.  That way you can get a LOR from someone who has seen you in a situation that’s different from what your professors have seen.

Dr. Findley-Van Nostrand provides students with numerous tips on preparing for graduate school and life after Roanoke:

  • Think about grad school as prep for your career… what do you want to do longer term? Make sure your program gets you there (especially in Psych, where programs have a very wide range of intended outcomes).
  • If you want a Ph.D. – why? Many students aim for this without recognizing that the career they want might not require a Ph.D. (for instance, counseling or social work!)
  • Differences between kinds of helping professions are important – talk to us about social work, counseling, psychiatry, psychology, etc.
  • Do well in your classes, but also think about what other experiences you can aim for to make yourself competitive. Internships and supervised research are at the top of that list for psych and psych-adjacent programs! Try not to wait until your senior year – given application timelines, the earlier you can jump on experiential learning, the better.
  • Make an individualized plan, and give yourself timelines to achieve different parts of the plan. Assume that applications will start being due the November prior to any Fall start date (for instance- want to start Fall 2025? Assume your materials should be together by Nov 2024). This is a conservative timeline since some programs accept applications all the way up until April or May of the same-year start – but it ensures you are prepared.
  • Look into what the application requires. Personal statement? Get as many professional eyes on it as possible – from career service folks, but also your professors who are in the field. GRE? Many don’t require it anymore, but some do… if they do, prep for the test and don’t take it cold (don’t waste your money with the attitude of “I can always take it again”). Do you need recommendation letters? Give your letter writers plenty of time and all details about you and the places you are applying (many require 2-3 letters, some require those letters to be from professors specifically… think about who can best evaluate your ability to succeed in the program and career you are aiming for).
  • Don’t apply to the shiny named schools only – some of the best experiences will be had in programs that are not in fact on a Google-able “top 10” list.
  • If you are aiming for a career that requires licensure, be sure to think about that process in addition to the academic components, and also pay attention to state-by-state licensing rules.
  • Don’t be nervous about whether you are good enough, and if you get a rejection, don’t let it derail you. It’s a numbers game that doesn’t always land in your favor and is often not at all about you. Shake off the imposter syndrome! What feels hard now will help you improve your future life.

Dr. Cate provides insightful tips, and personal experience, regarding Ph.D. programs:

  • Attending a Ph.D. program is free, in the sense that 1) you don’t pay tuition, and 2) you usually get paid a very modest stipend.  The stipend is almost always in return for teaching courses as a teaching assistant, or doing similar work (such as research assistant for your advisor).  I didn’t know this at first when I was in college, and it ended up having a big influence on my decision to get a Ph.D. versus another kind of degree.
  • The best thing you can do when applying to Ph.D. programs is to have some kind of personal contact with a faculty member.  Applying to Ph.D. programs is not at all like applying to college.  When it comes down to it, you will be accepted by one individual faculty member at your school, and not by a committee.  This means that someone has to know your name, either because your application materials are outstanding, or because they talked with/read an email/heard about you.
  • Actually, even if your application is outstanding, there is no guarantee that anyone will read it, so I can’t emphasize getting your name into faculty inboxes enough.  I think a great way to introduce yourself is to send a brief message to interesting-looking faculty, asking them whether they are planning to accept graduate students this year.  (Do this before applications are due.)  You don’t necessarily need to say anything else about yourself (but it wouldn’t hurt!).  The point is to get the faculty member familiar with your name so that they will make the effort to look over your application later.  Your application will have good things in it, and you will want people to read it! 
  • Even if you’re not sure whom you would like to be your advisor yet, it’s good to get in touch with someone.  When I worked at Virginia Tech, I accepted a great grad student based on the recommendation of a colleague who had read their application and thought we were a good match. 

A couple addition notes:

Juniors – Fall Break can be a great time to begin researching graduate programs, even if you aren’t applying until next year. Plan on talking with your advisors after Fall Break about what’s involved in applying to graduate school or what would be helpful to do to prepare for a job after graduation.

All – Please reach out to your advisors or other college faculty and staff if you would like more support in your post-graduate decisions and endeavors. Roanoke College is intended to get you to graduate, but we also want each of you to succeed for years to come. Please utilize the resources available to you and speak with your experienced and knowing advisors/professors/PLACE staff, etc.

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