Every semester, I have at least a dozen undergraduate students contacting me for advice about graduate school. Questions take many forms – what will make me competitive? How do I apply? How do I get in? What is graduate school like? Should I get a MA/PhD/JD/MD? How long is graduate school? I have spoken to UTEP’s PsiChi Society about getting into graduate school (I encourage you to watch this video if you would like to have a walk-through presentation), but based on the continued interest, I have decided to write a series of blogs to address many of the graduate school questions I am asked. My hope is that these blogs will help my students, and others who may wander across this blog, make informed decisions that will best set you up for success in the future. I figured the beginning of a new semester would be a great time to do this series.
Before providing advice, I would like to introduce myself and give my background in order to provide context for any advice I provide. I went to Claremont McKenna College as an undergraduate where I double majored in Psychology and Legal Studies with a Leadership Sequence. As you might be able to tell, I was torn between psychology and law. I enjoyed doing research in the cognitive psychology lab I had joined, but I also was considering being a lawyer.
My junior year at CMC, I took a Legal Psychology class with Dr. Jennifer Groscup. I was so excited that I was able to take a class that combined my interests in law and psychology! Plus, I had loved the show Criminal Minds, so at that point I was thinking it might be interesting to be a criminal profiler. Dr. Groscup’s class blew my mind. First, I learned that criminal profiling isn’t really a career option. Second, I learned that I could combine my love of psychology, law, and teaching into one. There was really cool research in psychology and law, which would allow me to ask/answer questions that really interested me.
During the first class, Dr. Groscup said “If anyone is interested in doing research in psychology and law, please come to my office hours – I am always accepting research assistants.” I was in her first office hours of the semester and joined her lab immediately. I helped her with her research for two years, and also did my own project with her in the form of an honors thesis.
After Dr. Groscup’s class, I decided I wanted to be just like her. I wanted to be a professor who did research on legal psychology and taught. I was amazed that I could combine all of my interests into one job.
In order to prepare myself for graduate school, I tried to learn more about my newfound area of interest in other ways. I took every class I could on the topic including Social Psychology and the Legal System with Dr. Groscup and Forensic Psychology with Dr. Daniel Krauss. I did a legal psychology project for my Research Methods class with Dr. Mark Costanzo. I took more law classes and more psychology classes. I realized that I love social psychology. I took as many statistics/research methods classes as I could (even when not required). I stayed involved in research in Dr. Groscup’s lab and the cognitive psychology lab I had joined my freshman year. I did my own research in the form of the honors thesis. I presented that project as a poster at the annual American Psychology-Law Society conference, where I attended every session I could to learn more.
I applied to graduate school during my Senior year of college. I was accepted to several programs, but ultimately decided to go to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) to work with Dr. Brian Bornstein. Dr. Bornstein was doing interesting work on jury decision-making. He seemed like the right fit of mentors. I’ll talk more about mentor fit in a future post, but finding a person who gives you the right balance of autonomy and supervision is really important. Dr. Bornstein was relatively hands-off, so I was able to ask the research questions I wanted but I had to be very self-motivated.
UNL also allowed me to go to law school at the same time as going to graduate school in psychology through their joint JD/PhD program (following in Dr. Groscup’s footsteps). It took me 7.5 years to complete graduate school. I started at UNL in August 2010. My first year at UNL was spent entirely in the law school (consistent with UNL’s joint program). After that, I split my time between the law school and the psychology department. I earned my MA in May 2014, my JD in December 2015, and my PhD in December 2017. I taught at UNL almost every semester (Learning & Memory, Advanced Social Psych, Advanced Psych & Law), and taught Introduction to Psychology at Doane University for a year. I did my own research and worked on Dr. Bornstein’s projects. I also did work with other mentors and community partners.
After graduating, I started a 1.5 year NSF-funded post-doc position at Cornell Law School with Drs. Valerie Hans and Valerie Reyna and taught Law Governing Lawyers. at Cornell Law School. I was fortunate that there were several law-psychology programs hiring when I was applying for academic jobs and I received several offers. I accepted the position at UTEP because their Legal Psychology area (and psychology department as a whole) was the best fit for me. I have now been at UTEP for 2 years, teaching and doing research on legal decision making.
I will go more in-depth on some of these elements as they are relevant to the future posts in this series. However, it is important for you to understand my background in order to give context to my advice. I was lucky to find my path my Junior year of college. I knew I wanted an academic position that would allow me to combine all my passions – teaching and research on legal psychology.
I also had the freedom to make choices that allowed me to pursue a career in academia. I have made four major moves across country since high school – college in Southern California, graduate school in Nebraska, post-doc in New York, and then a tenure-track position in Texas. Committing to PhD programs in particular (less so with law school), often requires mobility. It can also require a lot of time. Academia is great because it is very flexible (I can basically set my own hours within reason), but many academics also struggle with work-life balance.
I also need to recognize my financial privilege that has allowed me this opportunity. I was privileged to have parents and a grandmother who paid for my schooling, so I did not take out any loans as an undergraduate student. I was responsible for myself financially after college. I had to take out loans for the first year of law school. But, I did not take out as much in loans as many graduate students in my field – I was fortunate that Nebraska is one of the best value law schools, I earned some scholarships, and cost of living in Nebraska is relatively low. After the first year I had assistantships throughout my PhD program that covered tuition/insurance and also provided a monthly stipend. It wasn’t much, but I was able to pay my bills with only one year of federal loans and some smaller familial loans. Programs are very different in terms of the financial stability they offer students, so this should absolutely be a factor that students consider.
Note: The opinions here are entirely my own and do not represent UTEP or anyone else. I would like to thank my colleagues, Dr. Katherine Serafine and Dr. Hannah Volpert-Esmond, and the students in the Legal Decision Lab for their suggestions.