Applying to Graduate School in the Midst of a Pandemic
Mayra Solis is an undergraduate Research Assistant in the Adolescent Development and Delinquency Lab. She earned her BA in psychology from the University of Texas at El Paso and has recently received an acceptance to attend the Human and Family Development Ph.D. program at Pennsylvania State University. Mayra has agreed to answer some questions about her experience applying to graduate school—both in a general sense and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic—as a way of helping shed some light on this process for others who are preparing to apply in the coming application cycle.
Anna: First, could you first tell us a little bit about your background? That is, what did you major in for your undergraduate degree, what are your research interests, and what kind of graduate programs did you apply for?
Mayra: Yes, of course. My undergraduate major is in psychology with a minor in biology. My research interests fall in the field of child and adolescent development, specifically how children and adolescents who have been maltreated develop resilience. I focused on finding programs that would allow me to research child and adolescent maltreatment.
Anna: Did you have a hard time deciding whether you wanted to apply to Ph.D. or MA/MS programs?
Mayra: I’ll be honest—at first, I told myself I would only apply to Ph.D. programs. I had a clear sense of what I wanted to study and where I wanted my career to take me. I did get discouraged after looking into several great programs because I felt that I would not get accepted. I believed I was not good enough. This was when I decided to only apply to M.S. programs. The Ph.D. program at Pennsylvania State University had everything I wanted—the professors, the students, the location. It was perfect but felt so out of my reach. Right when I had decided I would not apply, I heard a quote by Les Brown “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you will land among the stars.” I did; Pennsylvania State was my moon. The only Ph.D. program I would apply to.
Anna: How did you choose which schools you would apply to? Did you reach out to potential mentors at these schools before you applied?
Mayra: I chose programs that I would apply to based on professors I found whom I shared common interests with. I did reach out to every professor I was interested in working with. I introduced myself and asked for a few minutes of their time to meet via Zoom. Every professor responded. Even if they did not have the time, they provided valuable information via email.
Anna: We often hear the advice that application materials should be prepared well ahead of time. How early did you start preparing your materials? How early did you start reaching out to potential letter of recommendation writers?
Mayra: I started working on my graduate school applications seven months before the deadline. Preparing to take the GRE, drafting and revising my statement, and working on my curriculum vitae required several months. Most of my applications were due in December or January, and I started reaching out to potential letter writers at the beginning of October.
Anna: Along those same lines, is there any advice you would give to other applicants about reaching out to potential letter of recommendation writers? This seems to be a particularly stressful task for many. How did you choose who you would ask to write your letters?
Mayra: I would recommend asking for a letter of recommendation to be done face to face, even if it is via Zoom given the current circumstances. Write an email and ask to meet the person you are interested in having as a potential letter writer. Without realizing it, the two Principal Investigators (PIs) in the labs I had joined became potential letter writers. When I first joined the Adolescent Development and Delinquency lab, I realized how important building a professional relationship with PIs would be when asking for a letter of recommendation. This is when the advice of interacting with your professors or joining a research lab should be essential. I chose Dr. April Thomas and Dr. Caitlyn Muñiz as my letter writers, as I know they would write great things about my work ethic. They knew the type of student I was and my potential.
Finding my third letter writer was harder. I had been in contact with an advisor (Mr. Adolfo Alvarez) in Psi Chi, the international honor society in which I am currently serving as the UTEP Chapter President. Although I had not had a chance to interact with my advisor face to face due to the pandemic, I asked to meet him through Zoom several times before asking for a letter of recommendation. During one of our meetings, he offered his support in reviewing my graduate school applications. This was exciting, as I felt we had built a professional relationship. After reviewing my application and meeting with me several times, he offered to be a potential letter writer. Mr. Alvarez was also a great resource in helping me prepare my graduate applications.
Anna: On a more general note, what did you do to prepare for the graduate school application cycle? Was there anything you did to prepare that you think you might have done differently had you not applied during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Mayra: I have to give Dr. Thomas so much credit for helping me prepare a competitive application for graduate school. She did a virtual Graduate Application class during the summer of 2020, where she met with us to help us work on our applications. I am grateful she volunteered her time to help us and created a team of students who were all in the process of applying to graduate school. She and the graduate students, Anna Drozdova and Isabelle Clough, reviewed our material and provided us with feedback. This ensured that, by the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, I had most of my material ready.
I studied for the GRE for close to two months. Being at home and having more time helped me prepare well for the GRE. If we had not gone through this pandemic and had the opportunity to stay at home, I would not have had so much time to dedicate to studying for the GRE and preparing my application materials.
Anna: Did you ever think about not applying during this application cycle due to the pandemic? If so, why did you choose to apply after all?
Mayra: I had considered waiting to apply until after I graduated in the Summer 2021 semester because I felt that applying during a pandemic would be particularly stressful. I chose to apply when Dr. Thomas talked about the summer Graduate Application meetings where those who wish to apply could join and work on preparing their materials.
Anna: What was the most stressful part of the application process? What was the most exciting part?
Mayra: The most stressful part was my Personal Statement and deciding what programs I wanted and could afford to apply to. The most exciting part was meeting other professors over Zoom. I was very nervous, but once we started talking and it was clear that our research interests aligned, it became more of a casual conversation about their research and my interests.
Anna: Did you get to visit any of the schools you were interested in applying to (or interviewed for)?
Mayra: Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I did not get to visit any of the schools I was interested in applying to. This was something that I was looking forward to doing before the pandemic.
Anna: I also understand that you have a son and that your decision to apply to graduate school and accept the offer to attend the Human and Family Development Ph.D. program at Pennsylvania State University relied on whether this decision would benefit the both of you in the long run. Was there ever a time you considered not applying to graduate school within this context? Were you ever worried about work-life balance? Is there any advice you can give to other parents looking to pursue graduate school?
Mayra: Once I realized the field I have a passion for was not offered at the University of Texas at El Paso, I thought about my son. I thought about what a move out of his hometown would mean. It did not cross my mind not to apply. If anything, looking at him gave me an extra push to follow my dreams. He looks up to me, and I had to show him that we should never give up. Even if he is just seven years old, I have always made sure to discuss any decisions that would impact his life with him. He was aware I would apply to schools in other states and that there was a potential for us moving out of the city. Now that I received this acceptance, he is very excited to move. He is happy for me and knows I will be doing exactly what I have always dreamed of.
I was worried about work-life balance, I hear graduate school is demanding, and I worried how I would balance my life. Now that I have a clear sense of where I am going, though, I am making a plan to balance the essential things in my life. My advice to other parents is that we should look at our children as a drive to keep us going. As long as they are with us and seeing us do what we love, everything else falls into place—keeping in mind that our children will do as we do.
Anna: If you could only choose one main takeaway from your experience in applying to graduate school, accepting the offer to attend a doctoral program, and preparing to enter your first year of graduate study, what would it be? What is the most important piece of advice you think future applicants should know before they start preparing their application materials and putting together their list of potential schools?
Mayra: One main takeaway from my experience in applying to graduate school, accepting the offer to attend Penn State, and preparing to enter my first year would be that even if I believed I would not get accepted, I went for it and reached for the moon. The most important piece of advice I think future applicants should know before they start preparing their materials and putting together their list of potential schools would be that they should start preparing their applications a year before they are due. It is essential to look into programs you are interested in, do your research on potential mentors, and reach out to those professors you are interested in working with.