Preparation FAQ

What is the goal of Graduate School?

For a PhD student, the primary goal is to emerge at the dissertation defense as an independent researcher.  This involves becoming an expert in your field of study, learning to identify unsolved problems, crafting hypotheses and experiments to frame and test your ideas, understanding and implementing rigorous methodological approaches, interpreting the data fairly, and framing your results in the context of what knowledge existed prior to your project and how it shapes future research.

Is Grad School for me?

This is such an important question to answer for yourself before applying to graduate school. The best way that you can answer this question is to get some research experience in a psychology lab. Ideally you would also work on a senior thesis or have some other direct experience with conducting scientific research. Being able to demonstrate that you have research experience and know how to talk about research will, of course, be important for your application, but more than that it will give you a sense of what it is like to be a graduate student.

Being a PhD student in psychology is not like being a psychology major who takes more advanced courses in psychology. There is a large shift in your role and expectations when you move from undergrad to a PhD program. As an undergraduate student, you are primarily a consumer of knowledge. You take classes and your job is to consume as much information as possible. When you move to being a PhD student, your role is now to be a producer of knowledge. You still take classes, but these are really there to aid in your new goal of producing new knowledge by designing research to test hypotheses.

Getting your PhD is a challenging endeavor that can take up the majority of your time during the pursuit. Consider your professional interests and goals; do they require a PhD? Consider your academic interests and goals; are you passionate about a topic enough to have your life and career revolve around it? Do you believe in the pursuit of knowledge enough to be satisfied with this as an end goal for graduate school? Have you gotten enough experience to know that the day-to-day process of achieving a PhD is compelling and rewarding for you?

Do you offer a terminal MA in Psychology?

No, we do not. Students interested in pursuing an MA at the University of Chicago are encouraged to apply to MAPSS (Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences) where students have the opportunity to concentrate in psychology. Another terminal MA is the MA in Computational Social Science.

Would entering a Master's program like MAPSS be beneficial for me?

Getting accepted for our PhD program is a highly competitive process. If you are invested in earning a PhD but realize that you were unable to complete relevant coursework or would benefit from gaining research experience before applying for the PhD program, taking a year or two for an independent Master's degree or working as a full-time research assistant in a lab relevant to your interests may be beneficial for you.

How do I know which program is a good fit?

There are a lot of factors to consider when you decide on a PhD program. One very important factor is the match between you and your potential advisor(s). We suggest that you take some time to think about your prior experiences, personal and professional goals, environments in which you have felt successful, and other life considerations. It may be impossible to have every factor optimized, so knowing what is going to be the most important factors for you is the key to identifying programs that are good fits.

There are researchers in cognitive, social, computational cognitive neuroscience, and developmental psychology as well as integrative neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

Is there a clinical program in the department?

We do not offer a degree in Clinical Psychology or Counseling. If you are interested in this career path, we suggest you consider the programs available at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.

Does a gap year help or hurt me?

A gap year spent gaining more research experience is a boon to an applicant. It also can be useful if a student needs more time to develop their research questions and identify which programs and faculty member will be a good match for them. The advantages of a gap year diminish if the time is spent for activities that cannot be leveraged into strengths for graduate school success. It is worth noting that many of our PhD students did not go straight from undergrad to graduate school and so students should not feel as though they need to apply during their senior year to be competitive.

Preparing a Competitive Application

When should I start preparing for Graduate School applications?

To have a strong application, we recommend a timeline such as this.

Can I be competitive if I don't have an undergraduate degree in Psychology?

Yes! If you peruse our department's list of faculty, you will see that our research spans broad fields that require knowledge in a variety of areas.

Is research experience expected?

Yes, we expect that our PhD students enter with research experience. Simply the best way for students to know that they truly want to pursue a PhD is to have first-hand knowledge of what being in a research environment is like.

Do you accept students directly from their undergraduate institutions?

While many of our students do come directly from their undergraduate institutions, we also have students in the program who have MA degrees or who have pursued research opportunities, such as full-time research assistantships, after college.

What kind of coursework is expected?

Specific courses are valued differently based on the research that the applicant would like to do. For example, for biologically-oriented labs, biology, chemistry, and physics courses are expected. For cognitive labs, computational skills are often relevant. In general, having some background in statistics will be valuable.

Are there grade or GRE-score cutoffs applied to applications?

General GRE scores are optional (though recommended); we do not require a subject GRE. Strict GPA cutoffs are not applied; the quality of coursework preparation is, however, an important element of the application.

What if I am certain that I want to pursue a PhD in psychology at the University of Chicago but have extenuating life circumstances that lowered my perceived academic achievements?

If you have experienced factors that have affected your academic record, we invite you to provide some context in the candidate statement. Here, you can provide what information you would like us to understand about overcoming difficulties. In addition, you may have letter writer(s) with knowledge of these circumstances who can speak to them in their recommendation letter.

Can I contact faculty members whose research I am interested in?

Absolutely! We encourage you to email faculty members (don't hesitate to send a follow-up or two, too!) and open a discussion about possible research opportunities. This is especially valuable if done the summer before applying.  In your email, you can introduce yourself and your research interests, explain why you are interested in working with the faculty member, and attach your CV or resume. We recommend keeping emails brief and personalizing them for each faculty member you contact. Before contacting faculty members, it is a good idea to have read a few of their recent papers so that you know the topics they are working on.

What if I have more questions about the program or my area of interest?

For questions about the department, please contact the graduate program administrator, Kristi Schonwald, at or (773) 702-8861.