This page offers tips and guidelines about applying for a Psychology PhD research degree program — some of which you should know wherever you apply, and some of which is special to our department. We also provide grad students’ opinions on living in Boston.

Applying to a psychology research PhD program


Living in Boston

A big consideration is the place you’ll be spending the next few years of your life. Would you like it here in Boston? Here we offer you a few different views of Boston, supplied by our own grad students here at Northeastern University.


Applying to a psychology research PhD program


Areas of psychology covered in the department
Find out what areas of psychology are covered in the department. Not all graduate programs train students in all kinds of psychology!

Our graduate program is concerned with basic and translational science, and not with clinical or counseling psychology. We have four main areas in which each student and the faculty work: Cognition, Behavioral Neuroscience, Perception, and Personality/Social. Often, faculty members and grad students do research that spans two or more of these areas but everyone’s primary affiliation is in one of these four areas.

What degrees the program offers
Find out what degrees the program offers. Some departments have only a master’s program, some have separate master’s and PhD programs, and some offer the PhD but not a separate master’s degree.

In our department, there is no free-standing master’s degree. Students either come with a master’s degree already earned, or they earn their master’s degree on the way to the PhD (the latter is most common).

Support and time in the program
Find out what the department offers in terms of support and time in the program. Departments differ greatly in how much monetary support they offer (tuition remission and/or living stipend) and how long students spend in the program.

Our program is designed to be a five-year program, and students are fully supported (living stipend, tuition, and health insurance) for all five years. The time may be shorter if you come with a master’s degree; this is determined on an individual basis.

Non-academic features of the department
Think about non-academic features of the department that are important to you. These could be geographical location, size of department, representation of women or minority groups in that department or campus, the local morale in the department, and many more. Only you know what kind of place you’d like to spend the next five or so years in.

Our graduate program is small and close-knit—fewer than 35 graduate students total—and 21 tenure/tenure-track faculty. You get a great deal of attention from your advisor/mentor, classes are very small, and the graduate students interact with each other and faculty all the time.

Diversify your applications
Don’t put all your eggs into one basket! You are very wise to apply to a range of “difficulty levels”—and that includes applying for some master’s programs along with applying to PhD programs. Getting the master’s degree is a great stepping stone, as people with master’s degrees are taken very seriously as candidates for PhD admission. Many people are not quite sure what area of research they want to commit to, and use their master’s degree studies as a way to refine their interests. They also may use that time to develop a stronger transcript and a higher level of skills than they obtained in college.

Students who enter our program with a master’s degree have fewer credits to take, and typically some of their required courses are waived. Most students stay the whole five years; however, some finish in a shorter period of time. The specific program of study for students who enter with a master’s degree is determined in consultation with your advisor and our Director of Graduate Studies.

Faculty research interests
Find out the research interests of the faculty in each department you investigate. In some departments, it is not crucial that a student be “matched” with a faculty member at the time of admission.

In our program, each student is matched with a faculty member who serves as the student’s research advisor, and this match is absolutely crucial. This means you must investigate which faculty members’ research is exciting to you and compatible with your background. You can easily find out the basics by navigating to individual faculty members’ profiles.  Also you can establish an email correspondence directly with the faculty member. Be sure to inquire whether a given faculty member is looking for a new student. In our admissions process, you are asked to choose up to three faculty members as potential advisors.

Writing your personal statement
Be sure to talk about faculty research in your Personal Statement. Sometimes Personal Statements are too vague, too nonspecific about what the student wants to pursue and which faculty are of greatest interest. Show the admissions committee that you have done your homework by finding out what your preferred advisor(s) do and make a case for why you are well suited to join their lab.

In our department, your personal statement is an important part of your application.

Take advantage of all the networking you can. Ask your professors or grad students in your current school for advice on applying to graduate school. Write to graduate students at the schools you are thinking of applying to, to get their advice.

Our graduate students will be very happy to answer your questions, as will the Director of Graduate Studies, Prof. Judith Hall (

Letters of recommendation
Plan ahead so that you can be sure there are individuals who can write convincing letters of recommendation. Whether you are a student (bachelor’s or master’s) or are working in a paid position in an organization such as a research laboratory or a company, you should find and get to know people to be your recommenders. You may be the top student in your course, but if the professor does not know you personally, he/she cannot write a persuasive letter on your behalf. So get to know people who might be your letter writers. It is fine to tell them frankly that you’d like them to know you better in case they are willing to write a letter for you.

In our department, we think a convincing letter has individuating information in it about you — your aptitude, preparation, motivation, and character.

GRE scores
Departments take the GRE very seriously, even if it’s not the main standard they use for admission.

In our department, the GRE is very important, though it is only one of our criteria for admission. We also care about your GPA, research experience, interests, motivation, and letters of recommendation.

Research experience
Get research experience! Your chances in any research-based graduate program are greatly reduced if you do not have research experience. Depending on the research area, this experience needs to be very specific, or it could be more general. But if you do not know what it is like to do research then you could be ill-equipped and also you could risk discovering you don’t actually like it after enrolling. No one wants that to happen! There are many ways to get research experiences—working in professors’ labs for money, academic credit, or as a volunteer, getting a job in research after graduation, or doing your own research as an honors student or a master’s degree student.

In our department, research experience is essential!

Living in Boston


Generally, when we talk about Boston, we’re really talking about Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. But people seem to prefer talking about Boston “proper” in terms of its neighborhoods, which have the feeling of being different cities altogether: Jamaica Plain (JP), Dorchester, Roxbury, Allston, Brighton, Southie, the North End… it’s all Boston, but what that means really depends on which neighborhood you like.

Peer PRO’s

  • “Between Boston and Cambridge, everyone finds something they like to do.”
  • “I love the surrounding neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain, Somerville and Cambridge. They have a small-town, local vibe, but are every bit as vibrant as Boston itself. When you’re in the mood for a farmer’s market, brewery tour, or even a shop that sells nothing but honey, these places are your go-to.”

You really don’t need a “cah” (that’s Boston-speak for a vehicle). Boston is like the smallest “big” city in America, and there’s a very comprehensive network of trains, busses, and boats. Having a car is convenient when you need to go grocery shopping or want to spend the day in Ikea, but traffic is pretty bad during rush hour, the roads are old, small, and completely illogical. Parking is basically a nightmare.

Peer PRO’s

  • “You can get around Boston without a car: biking, walking or public transportation.”
  • “Everything is within walking distance.”
  • “I think the best thing about Boston is that it is has a good mix of city and suburban life. It doesn’t have the mad pace of a major city but still retains all the perks of one.”

Peer CON’s

  • “Don’t forget your GPS when driving in town.”

Boston is becoming increasingly a bike-friendly city (more dedicated bike lanes, a great bike-sharing program), though it still seems like a risky endeavor to bike in Boston, given the large number of terrible drivers. One biker claims that Boston is “so bike-able,”’ but another warns of “…@#$@% roads, and drivers that make biking an adventure activity.”

Life Here
It’s ok to “be you” in Boston. Your race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identity, political affiliation… It’s a pretty diverse place and I’d say people aren’t really obsessed with that kind of stuff here. However, if “being you” means being the kind of person who likes to flip over cars just because the Red Sox win the World Series…. then…maybe not so ok to be you.

You’re surrounded by some of the brightest people in the world. Boston’s many universities bring together incredible minds. It’s inspiring, and it’s motivating. And a ton of it will be available to you. There are so many public lectures and events, not to mention opportunities to meet and work with scholars from just about every university in town.

Peer PRO’s

  • “It’s a great place to be a grad student—proximity to other universities, opportunities to collaborate, etc.”
  • “Interesting talks always going on at NU, BU, ‘Hahvad,’ MIT.”
  • “It’s nice to be around so many other academics. It seems like everyone in this whole city is interested in research!”

If American history’s your thing, this is your town. If you like architecture, you’ll probably like it here. There’s not a major music scene, but the music schools here are pretty much the best in the country, so it’s not hard to find good music. The food scene in Boston continues to impress.

Peer PRO’s and CON’s

  • “Great food everywhere (no authentic, good Chinese food though, I have to emphasize this).”

It’s easy to change your surroundings. You don’t have to travel far outside the city to find amazing beaches (30-45 minutes will put you on the “north” or “south” shore, and a little over an hour will get to you the beginning of “the Cape”). And because the state (well, technically, it’s a commonwealth) is small, you can get to parts of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, and New Hampshire in less than two hours. The mountains of Vermont are three hours away, and New York is four or five.

Peer PRO’s

  • “I love that Boston is so close to the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, the beaches of Maine and Cape Cod, and the countryside of the Berkshires. It’s nice to be able to hop in a car, drive just two hours, and be someplace totally different.”

Who Might NOT Like Boston
People who are used to punctual, reliable subway service. In your state/country, when it says, “Next train in five minutes,” the next train probably really does come in five minutes. Don’t expect the same in Boston. It can often take quite a while to get anywhere in Boston on the “T,” even if it’s just a couple stops away. No one knows why. It just happens. Many cited this as a negative.

Peer CON’s

  • “The public transportation here gets a solid rating of ‘Meh’ in my opinion.”
  • “Unreliable public transportation.”
  • “The T is unreliable and does not run very late at night, which can be a drag.”

People who don’t like extreme weather. Boston can be uncomfortably hot and humid in the summer and uncomfortably cold and snowy in the winter. Spring can either come or not come (but when it comes, it’s totally worth the wait), and fall almost always seems to come too early. The winters are long and it gets dark before 5 pm for what seems like an eternity. People complain a lot about the weather.

Peer CON’s

  • “Can it be worse in winter?”

Party animals. Despite the large student population, Boston is as much “town” as it is “gown.” And the town part can be pretty conservative in funny ways. Almost nothing is open 24 hours. Clubs, bars, and most kinds of “nightlife” establishments don’t stay open past 2 AM. People who are looking for a city that never sleeps aren’t likely to find it here.

Yankees fans. New Yorkers are always welcome, though.

People who dislike hipsters. There are a lot of hipsters here, whatever that means. People can get pretty pretentious and go to great lengths to look like they didn’t go to great lengths to look cool. It’s not all bad, though: better coffee shops, farmer’s markets, retro cocktails, food trucks.