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Problem-Focused Coping: Autism and Preparing for Graduate School in Research Fields

As you go about your post-secondary studies, you may find yourself thinking about what you’ll do after you’ve graduated. These sorts of transitions can be stressful! There is much uncertainty, and it’s natural to worry. But perhaps the most effective way of coping with such stress is problem-focused coping: actively taking steps to prepare for the transition from college to whatever lies ahead.

One path that you might want to take is the path to grad school. In some fields (especially computer science and some branches of engineering), people can often find good jobs with just a Bachelor’s degree. As a result, relatively few domestic students go on to seek graduate degrees in those fields, and those graduate programs often have to look internationally to recruit students. But in other fields, a traditional four-year Bachelor’s degree just doesn’t have as much value in today’s economy. In those fields, getting a graduate degree might dramatically boost one’s employment prospects. My own field of psychology, which is one of the most popular undergraduate majors, is one of these fields.

Unfortunately, we often don’t do a good job of explicitly explaining important things to undergraduate students. How to prepare oneself for graduate school is definitely one of these things that we don’t tend to communicate well. Graduate schools have very definite ideas about what a successful applicant to a graduate program looks like, but this is information that we don’t really explicitly give to people. You can’t even rely on the lists of requirements that are put up by graduate programs – there’s a pretty good chance that they haven’t bothered to mention some important expectations.

I am putting this next sentence in bold because it is very important: The only way to get good information about the unwritten expectations of preparing for graduate school is to talk to the experts – to your professors and your TAs. I’m providing some information here, and I hope that it will be helpful, but you should still try to engage your local experts in a discussion about graduate school in your chosen field.

Fortunately, I managed to navigate the graduate school application process – in part because I was able to get good information from professors. I’m currently at UC Davis, studying in a graduate program in experimental psychology (which is not the same thing as clinical psychology – see my little appendix below). If everything continues to proceed smoothly and without complications, I should have a PhD in three or four years.

I was lucky to get as much research experience as I did early on, because a lot of people in psychology graduate programs actually have to take a year or longer between their undergraduate or graduate degrees getting research experience working as a lab manager.

Early Preparations

Some parts of preparation for graduate school begin early. You may not be anywhere near ready to apply for graduate school or even to decide what specific field interests you, but if you think you might be going to grad school, you should still be thinking about the need to get the right kinds of experience on your resume.

In part, I only got where I am because I was lucky enough to get one of the more important requirements for experimental psychology grad school, which is plenty of research experience. At the beginning of the second year of my undergraduate studies, I more or less stumbled into a position as a paid research assistant in a psychology lab. I enjoyed the work, so I went ahead and also registered in a seminar class that was focused on doing research in a psychology lab, and in my final year, I participated in the honors program and got even more research experience through that.

If you are looking for research experience, you can probably find it volunteering in a professor’s lab – you might even be able to get course credit for it. That experience might then be a stepping-stone to other research experiences.

I was lucky to get as much research experience as I did early on, because a lot of people in psychology graduate programs actually have to take a year or longer between their undergraduate or graduate degrees getting research experience working as a lab manager. Nobody said that getting a graduate degree was quick and easy.

There are lots of other things on the checklist of steps towards making oneself a competitive applicant for experimental psychology graduate programs. They include, but may not be limited to:

  • Good grades – especially in your third and fourth years. (Americans call those the junior and senior years.) There’s usually some flexibility in terms of how good depending on the quality of the program and how outstanding you are in other areas.
  • General work and volunteer experience. Although psychology graduate schools are especially interested in research experience, it’s good to have some “roundness.” Ideally, you want to show that you are a responsible person, that your past experiences are interesting and contribute some value to who you are, and that you care about your community.

In general, if you want to go to graduate school, I would encourage you to go slowly through your studies and make sure to get lots of interesting experiences on the way. I ended up taking five years to get my Bachelor’s degree, not four, but that gave me the extra time to get lots of interesting experience on my resume. It made me a much more competitive candidate.

Final Preparations and Applications

Of course, eventually you will reach a time where you’re actively preparing to apply for graduate school and ready to get the specific details of your applications together.

One of the first things you need to get out of the way are GRE tests. I actually left these a little late, finishing them in a stressful rush late in the fall, while I was in the middle of the academic semester, just before my graduate applications were due in December! Please learn from my mistakes and get them done earlier.

In experimental psychology, the mentor-mentee relationship is absolutely crucial. Because our programs are focused on research, students are going to spend a lot of their time working in the lab completing research projects. In most programs (although not all), students will be paired with a specific mentor from the moment of their acceptance. Thus, it is crucial to look up information online and find potential faculty mentors whose research excites your interest. When you identify such people, you can write a polite email introducing yourself and asking if they are currently looking to recruit a new graduate student.

Another good piece of advice, I think, is to apply widely. How widely, I suppose, should depend on how easy it would be for you to move to an unfamiliar community. Do you have family commitments that will keep you in one place? Do you think you are ready to live independently? If you do have the flexibility to move anywhere you want, I would recommend applying to at least ten programs. If not, apply as widely as you can.

You might also want to apply to slightly different types of programs at schools of differing quality. It’s possible that you might find, as you move through the applications process, that your interests are shifting from one area to another. Alternatively, you might find that the schools you were hoping to get into are too competitive. It’s good to have options – a Plan B, as it were.

After you send in your applications, you will be invited to visit any graduate programs that are interested in you for a final set of interviews. Because these visits go by extraordinarily quickly (generally over the course of a single day), you should be prepared to absorb all the information you can about the program’s culture and whether it is compatible with your own interests and working style.

When you are preparing for visits to a prospective graduate program, you should think about questions to ask graduate students currently enrolled in the program. This is delicate, especially if you anticipate that you might encounter challenges or barriers due to your autism and want to get a sense of how accepting and supportive the program might be. Faculty will generally ask current graduate students for their impressions of a candidate, so you might not want to ask particularly unusual or probing questions. Instead, you might want to focus on generalities, asking about the degree to which faculty members are involved in and supportive of their students’ work.

Some sample questions you might want to ask graduate students to get information about a program, lab, and faculty mentor:

1. How often do you meet with [faculty mentor]? Is [faculty mentor] available when students have questions?

2. Do students in this lab generally work on their own projects or does [faculty mentor] have projects for students to work on?

3. What does it take to get authorship on a publication in this lab? What does it take to get first authorship?

4. Do you generally find that the culture among graduate students here is collaborative or competitive?

5. Do students ever switch labs and faculty mentors? Does the program offer support to students if they start to have a poor relationship with their faculty mentor?

6. How much time do graduate students have to spend working as TA’s?

7. Do some students take longer than expected to finish their degrees, and does the program support such students?

8. Do a lot of graduate students here have families? Does the program support these students if they have to invest time in family?

9. What do you like about this graduate program?

10. Are there things you dislike about this program or that you wish you had known before you started here?

You might also want to spend some time practicing for the interviews beforehand, maybe role-playing with someone, since interviews can be very difficult and stressful for many of us on the autism spectrum.

One other thing to consider is money. You may or may not be aware of this, but in good experimental psychology research programs, there is an expectation that the program will be paying the graduate student, not vice versa. Psychology graduate students are basically people with jobs: we do research, we work as TAs, and so forth. Yes, we do some coursework, we take some graduate seminars, but I still think it’s reasonable for us to expect financial support. So when you visit programs, you should definitely try to get the details.

If you look online, you should be able to find plenty of much more detailed advice about the process of applying for graduate schools. I’ve been quite general here.

The Question of Disclosure

You should also spend some time thinking about whether you want to disclose your autism diagnosis, and if so, at what stage. (In your initial application? After you have been accepted?) This is an extremely difficult question to answer. In my case, I disclosed, but I was explicitly applying to do autism research, so I had a reasonable expectation that people would be more familiar with autism and would be relatively accepting. My diagnosis was also very relevant to my story – to my decision to pursue research in the autism field – which made it difficult to leave it out of my application letters. Furthermore, I wanted to see how people would react – if they reacted negatively, perhaps their program would not be the right fit.

On the other hand, while I don’t have any proof of this or anything, I am almost certain that some programs reacted negatively to my diagnosis. I’m pretty sure that, in some cases, it was off-putting enough to the graduate programs that they ended up choosing a safer, neurotypical candidate. Your prospective faculty mentor may get lots of applications, and when they are thinking about making a commitment to work with someone for many years, they may want to “play it safe.” An autistic candidate might not appear a safe prospect to some people.

Ultimately, for yourself and in your own particular context, you will have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of disclosure and decide accordingly.

And I Repeat: Talk to Professors and TAs

I hope this has been helpful in illuminating some aspects of the hidden expectations related to preparation for graduate school in my field. Due to the complexity of these issues and the limited space I have available, this post can unfortunately only cover some of the most general expectations. As I said before, whether you are applying to programs in experimental psychology, or some other field entirely, you should definitely try to get advice from professors and TAs. You could go to their office hours, if the office hours aren’t busy with students who have urgent course-related questions, but you might instead want to send them a respectful email saying that you are interested in graduate school and that you are hoping to ask them for advice. If you can, try to go to the meetings with some specific idea of what information you are trying to get from the conversation.

Please do add any comments you have – questions, relevant experiences, additional thoughts, or whatever else you might want to share!

Appendix: Experimental vs. Clinical Psychology

Experimental Psychology

Clinical Psychology

You can apply to a Master’s program or to a combined Master’s-PhD program.

You could apply to “research-practitioner” PhD programs or practitioner-only PsyD programs.

Hard to get into, not for everyone, but the difficulty will vary a lot depending on the quality of the school.

As noted earlier, research experience is important.

The clinical PhD programs might be the most difficult kind of graduate program to get into. It’s not impossible, but law or medicine would be easier.

Research experience is still important for PhD programs, but you will also need community/clinical experience.

The PsyD programs aren’t quite as competitive as the PhD programs.

Depending on whether you applied to a Master’s-only program or a combined program, you are probably looking at 2-5 years of work, or longer if you choose to move more slowly. Considering that you will have TA duties, research, and classes, you’ll be pretty busy.

PhD programs can involve about 7 years of intense work (or longer if you go slowly) doing research, comprehensive coursework, practicums and clinic hours, and TA hours.

PsyD programs aren’t quite as busy.

Your employment prospects are pretty good – hopefully you’ll learn enough programming and statistics to be competitive in industry, working for the big companies. If you don’t mind getting a postdoctoral position first, you could try to get a faculty job, although those are harder to come by.

We always need more clinicians. The problem is getting into these programs; the whole reason they invented the PsyD was because we weren’t training enough clinical PhDs.

On the other hand, if you just want to help people in the community, you could do that with a degree in counseling and save yourself a lot of stress.

One Vital Distinction

  • Clinical vs. experimental programs. My focus here is on experimental programs; clinical programs can be much more competitive. Clinical psychology PhD programs are harder to get into than law school or medical school. PsyD programs are a bit better.
  • In addition to the research experience I mentioned, should have clinical experience.
  • Lot of stress in clinical psychology PhD programs. Longer than other graduate programs. Lots of classwork, practicums, plus research.
  • As an alternative, some recommend studying counseling if you want to help people, or studying experimental psychology if you want to do research. On the other hand, would be wonderful to have some autistic clinicians…
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Patrick Dwyer

Patrick is an autistic graduate student in the psychology department at UC Davis with a broad interest in helping to ensure that autistic and neurodivergent people can lead fulfilling lives. He plans to use eye-tracking and electrophysiology to explore the heterogeneity of the autism spectrum and different phenotypes of autism, and is particularly interested in studying sensory processing and sensory sensitivities in autism. He has also facilitated peer-support groups for other autistic college students. You can find more of Patrick’s writing on his blog at autisticscholar.com.

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