Navigating the PhD Application Process: An interview with Robert Byrom

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As students in Pepperdine’s GSEP program, you have probably considered what comes next after graduation. Some of you will get licensed as Marriage and Family Therapists, and others will go on to attend Doctoral school. Hoping to help shed some light on the application process for next year’s applicants, we caught up with Robert, who, starting next fall, will be pursuing a PhD in Counseling Psychology at the University of Nebraska.

How many schools did you apply to?

As many as I could afford, which ended up being fewer than I would have initially liked. After factoring in the application fees, score reporting fees, transcript request fees, and whatever amount you consider justifiable for your hourly rate, you are looking at roughly 100+ dollars per application. For some (more affluent) people, this may be small change, but for most graduate students it can be a daunting blow to the personal finances. If I had started saving a year in advance, putting away 100 bucks each month, I would have comfortably been able to apply to 10 schools. Instead, I whittled down my top 10 choices into a top 4 and took my chances. This ended up working in my favor, because I really focused in on the specific aspects of the programs that I most wanted to attend, in a way that would have been more difficult with 10+ applications.

How much time did the application process take?

A lot. First, there was the research phase. I researched many more schools than I ended up applying to, just to make sure my target programs were definitely those where I would be likely to fit in well. My research efforts took at least a hundred hours, spread out over several months. Next, there was the time spent on personal statements (conceptualization, deciding what to include or not, writing the statement, and editing it). Only the very luckiest, or most calculating, individuals will be able to reuse their personal statements for each of their applications. After research and statement writing, there were still applications to fill out, letters of rec to request, and departments to contact about funding. Thankfully, I had already taken the GRE or that would have been another important time constraint. Start early!

Did you know what you wanted to research when you applied?

I did. I’m fascinated by intrigue, intrigued by curiosity, and curious about fascination. In short, I find whatever it is (within us or without) that grasps our respective attentions and holds those reins tightly is of extreme interest to me. The best instructors (both inside and outside of the ivory towers of academia) I have ever had have been deeply interested in their preferred subject matters, and were thus interesting to be around. Beyond that, I am interested in remaining as much of a generalist as possible, which is difficult given the ever-increasing preference given to specialists in modern society.

What was the interview process like for you?

I was pretty nervous leading up to interview day, but was equally intent on having a good time and counting my blessings for having been offered a chance to go and meet with everyone else who was hoping to gain admittance into the program. I can only speculate, but my hope is that this proclivity for maintaining a positive attitude really came through during the various interviews.

What was your favorite part of the interview process?

I really loved the way the interview day I attended was structured. The day started at 9am and ended at 5pm, and each interviewee had only three 15 minute interviews (one with each full-time faculty member). In the middle of the day, there was a tour of the on-campus counseling center. This left several hours to get to know the other applicants and to get a feel for what it might be like to be in a doctoral cohort with them. In a funny turn of fate, the two people I spent the most time talking to were also admitted, so we are already (very loosely) acquainted with one another.

What (if anything) would you do differently if you had the chance?

I accepted the offer of admission in less than 24 hours despite having an interview for another program the Friday of that week (which I courteously canceled). A friend in another doctoral program advised me to attend the second interview and leverage any potential admissions offer for more funding from the program that I most wanted to attend. If I had the chance to do it again, I would consider attending the other program’s interview day and attempting to navigate that process of negotiation, if only for learning’s sake.

What advice would you give to students who are about to apply to Doctoral school?

First, before you apply, figure out what your wants and needs are in terms of program. Do you want a program that has great funding or can you afford to pay out of pocket for your education? Is there an area that you want to restrict your search to (for family or other reasons, like not wanting to leave sunny California) or are you willing to relocate just about anywhere if you and the program match well? The main advice I would give is to know yourself, know the impact you want to make on the world, and pursue programs that will support your doing just that. In the meantime, soak up what you are learning in classes and engage with the professors in meaningful ways, because you are almost always as interesting as you are interested.

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