A reader submitted the following question:
I have a BA in psychology and just recently applied to doctoral programs in psychology and gender studies. Considering how competitive these programs are, I am currently trying to figure out what my back-up plan is. I do not want to give up on my dream of doing research on sexuality and relationships, but it seems that most research opportunities outside of graduate school are unpaid. I am having some trouble finding job opportunities related to sexuality and I was wondering if you have any suggestions or resources.
Thanks for this great question! Let me first say that if your goal is to be a sex researcher, you’re on the right path by applying to doctoral programs. A doctoral degree will give you the necessary skills, training, and credentials to carry out independent research in this area, and it will also open up the most high-paying job opportunities for you down the road. But you’re absolutely right that Ph.D. programs are competitive and you're smart to be thinking about a back-up plan—indeed, in my experience, I have found that doctoral programs in many areas of psychology tend to have far lower acceptance rates than most medical schools!
That said, here’s what I suggest: First, don’t look at applying to doctoral programs as a one-shot deal. In other words, if you don’t get in this time around, it doesn’t mean you have to give up on the idea altogether. If it comes to this, I would recommend having one of your professors or an academic advisor review your application materials and pinpoint the areas you need to strengthen in order to increase your odds of being accepted to graduate school in the future. For instance, if they think your GRE scores are on the low end, you might enroll in a preparatory course and take the exam again before re-applying. Alternatively, if you don’t have much research experience, you might spend the next year building up that part of your resume before applying again.
You are correct that most of the research opportunities available for graduates with a Bachelor’s degree are probably going to be unpaid assignments; however, there are at least some paid options available for those interested in sexuality research. For instance, I have seen the Guttmacher Institute in New York (an organization that funds a lot of research on sexual and reproductive health) advertise for Research Associates with a Bachelor’s degree. Fenway Health in Boston (an LGBT health and research organization) often does the same. Thus, I would encourage you to do a search for sexual health organizations around you or in places you would be willing to move to explore such options. You might also consider joining some professional societies (e.g., the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality) because some of them have student listservs through which these and other research opportunities may be announced. If you land one of these paid assignments, that would give you some breathing room to decide if you're happy where you are, or if you want to leverage that experience to get into graduate school. If you cannot find a paid sex research position, you might consider other employment opportunities instead and just get involved in sex research on a volunteer basis in order to build your experience.
A different back-up option that you might consider is enrolling in a terminal Master’s program in psychology before applying to doctoral programs again. If you enroll in a program that is research-based (i.e., a program in which you take methodology and statistics courses and write a thesis), that can make you a stronger candidate when you go to apply for doctoral programs because it signals that you are capable of graduate-level work and that you’d be ready to hit the ground running when it comes to research.
You could actually apply to Master’s programs now (many of them have later deadlines than doctoral programs)—so this is an option you could take advantage of right away. However, take care in selecting a Master’s program to find one that will give you solid research training, that has a track record of success with regard to sending graduates into doctoral programs, and that offers some sort of tuition remission or stipend (e.g., through teaching or research assistantships or fellowships) in order to minimize what you add to your student debt. If you can't find a Master's program that meets all of these criteria, proceed with caution.
Also, I should caution that it may be challenging to find a Master’s program where there would be a lot of opportunities for conducting sex research specifically—but I wouldn’t let that that put you off. View the Master’s instead as a stepping-stone to conducting the research you want to later on (I speak from experience on this matter, as someone who completed a terminal Master’s in general experimental psychology before pursuing my doctorate).
Hope this helps, and best of luck to you!
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