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Freshman Issue: Psychology the toughest grad program to get into at UNM

For some incoming freshman getting ready for their first taste of college, graduate school might be nowhere on their minds. Many aren’t even sure what degree they will end up majoring in.

Still, other freshman might see grad school as an inevitability, already thinking about the best ways to build up an academic resume and make their case for acceptance in a few years and beyond.

UNM has several graduate-level curriculums housed on main and north campus. The toughest to get into? The Psychology Department’s, which has accepted class sizes between 12 and 15 in recent years.

Last year, the number was 15, out of 245 total applicants, according to Rikk Murphy, graduate program coordinator for the Psychology Department at UNM, which specializes primarily in clinical treatment.

The logic behind accepting such a small number of students each year is twofold: available funds and an efficient number of faculty.

UNM covers tuition, provides the financials for stipends as graduate students in the department conduct research and also pays for their health insurance, as with other University employees.

“We can only afford to fund a certain number of PhD students,” Murphy said. “We guarantee funding for at least five years.”

The department currently has 28 faculty, and while more instructors could potentially mean the ability to accept more students, it could logistically make things difficult for the department.

For example, some students in the program get experience at the UNM Psychology Clinic working with patients, supervised by instructors. The more students that go through that training, the more time is used up by instructors.

On a more practical level, department chair Jane Smith said the department is simply running out of offices for faculty of the department, which is located in Logan Hall.

“We’re outgrowing the building, practically,” she said.

So how does an undergraduate psychology major who is thinking about taking their studies further stand out amongst his or her peers in a popular field of study?

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Aside from strong GPAs and test scores, an adequate fit with the department’s graduate concentrations and research experience are key.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize how important it is to have good research experience when they apply to psychology graduate programs,” Smith said. “We also look at faculty who write their letters of recommendation, that’s a really important thing.”

Aside from technical experience that undergrads majoring in psychology should work to attain, there is a more intrinsic requirement for graduate program hopefuls.

Murphy said applicants to the program should have a core question or concept they would be invested in exploring for five to seven years in graduate school.

“That’s what their research is most likely going to be based on for the duration of their time in the program,” he said.

For Melissa Pielech, a graduate psychology student who just completed her second year in the program, that focus she is studying now – clinical psychology – is a bit different from her interest as an undergrad at Lesley University in Massachusetts.

“My career goal at the time was to be an art therapist,” she said, which consists of integrating the creation of art into more traditional, verbal therapy. “I thought sometime down the line I might do a PhD, but I always thought it would be in art therapy or something like that. I totally had not considered clinical psychology at that point.”

Pielech began her graduate studies in the fall of 2014, the culmination of a hectic time during which she said she would wake up at five in the morning to study for graduate entrance exams, go to work in a busy lab for ten hours, then spend her evenings writing applications.

She said she applied to 12 or 13 schools, all of them being in the northeast area of the country, except for UNM, where she would eventually end up.

While the environment and culture of the Southwest appealed to her, Pielech said her adviser’s approach to balancing work and life was especially important in coming to UNM, which graduated 15 students with doctorates in psychology this year.

That strong bond is one advantage of having a low number of faculty.

“A faculty member might not be able to get justice to their mentees if they have five or six, where with three or four they can do it,” Murphy said.

While in today’s society some undergrads may view graduate school as a necessary next step for their careers, Pielech said students should consider whether it’s their best option.

“Sometimes I think people need to slow down and be a little more thoughtful about if that’s really what they need to do the career they want to do,” she said.

Though other students see graduate school as an inevitable next step in journey through academia, others might neglect to apply because of fear that they won’t be accepted, something Smith said shouldn’t hold them back.

“How do you know unless you apply?” she said. “It varies tremendously.”

Pielech herself said she had apprehensions about whether or not she would be accepted somewhere.

“The entire time while I was applying I was terrified that I wasn’t going to get in and I was going to fail,” she said.

She was accepted, however, and a big part of her success thus far can be attributed to her small class size.

“I wouldn’t be where I am right now without my cohorts,” she said. “We put in a lot of effort to built a community within each other to get to know Albuquerque and get to know each other.”

For undergrads who may be hesitant about graduate school and are wondering if it’s a right fit for them, Pielech advises to reach out to those with knowledge and experience.

“I would really advise them to connect with (an) adviser and grad students in the department,” she said. “I’m always more than willing to meet with (an) undergrad to make this process easier for them or help them think about next steps. I don’t think there’s any reason to not help each other out.”

David Lynch is the editor-in-chief at the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at editorinchief@dailylobo.com or on Twitter 
@RealDavidLynch.

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