My path to becoming a social psychologist probably began in high school. I took a general psychology class at the high school I was attending at the time, and found that the section on social psychology, and especially the research of Stanley Milgram, really captivated my attention and imagination. The work of Milgram, especially, offered explanations for why some of the bullying behavior I had witnessed might occur, as well as for what might have driven some of the atrocities that friends of mine who had immigrated from Vietnam and Cambodia had endured in their native countries. Since then, my primary research interests boil down to a simple question: why do we sometimes harm each other?
After high school, it took me a while to get focused, and eventually I ended up double-majoring in Psychology and Philosophy. My philosophical interests were primarily driven by the work of existential-phenomenologists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, and in particular the Sartrean concepts of self and person perception were of great interest to me. I was also attracted to the very new area of social cognition, which amounted to an application of information processing approaches to social phenomena. Eventually, I would see how these perspectives could be combined in such theories as Terror Management Theory.
I wasn't the best student as an undergraduate, which meant my path to earning a Ph.D. was a bit longer than what one might ordinarily expect. One thing that helped me was that I did do a few of the right things during my last two years as an undergrad. One was to improve my grades, which meant putting in the necessary effort to earn GPAs that would get me on the Dean's list each of the last four semesters. I also got involved in an on-going research project with Dr. Stanley Woll, which led to my first poster presentation at Western Psychological Association. That was a good accomplishment to have as I finished my last semester as an undergrad. In addition, I went ahead and enrolled in an Advanced Statistics course that I knew would be required of me for a Masters program to which I intended to apply. The additional coursework, along with the undergraduate research experience and excellent GRE scores made it easier to get accepted into a Masters program in what Cal State Fullerton called Experimental Psychology. With regard to the GRE, I spent numerous hours preparing for both the General GRE and the Psychology Subjects GRE. I purchased study books, worked through sample tests, and got an idea of my likely baseline scores before I even went to the test sites. I was glad I did. I would strongly recommend going into that particular test without preparation.
My main reason for enrolling in a Masters program was to gain the necessary course work and research experiences to make me attractive for Ph.D. programs in Social Psychology. It meant I would spend a couple more years as a graduate student than I might have had I gone directly into a Ph.D. program. However, my experiences working at the Student Outcome Assessment Center as a Research Assistant, along with my other research activities and course work gave me both the skill set and confidence I needed to tackle work at the doctoral level. By the time I left that program and headed for Missouri, my Masters Thesis had been accepted by my Thesis Committee, and I had an article in press, on which I was the first author.
To get accepted to Doctoral programs, I narrowed my search of programs to those who had faculty interested in my particular set of interests, and which would offer me the chance to enhance my methodological skill set. I also made a choice to be as portable as possible. As much as I loved Southern California, I knew that the really interesting opportunities in my area would likely take me to the Midwest. Ultimately, I applied to nine programs: eight of which were ones I considered dream programs for one reason or another, and one that was my back-up if I could not get in elsewhere. All of the programs were sufficiently high quality that I felt certain I would be poised for a professional career in my field regardless of where I landed. Of the nine, I got accepted to two. I chose to go to University of Missouri-Columbia (or Mizzou, as we affectionately call it).
At Mizzou, I worked primarily in Anderson's aggression lab, as well as worked with Thayer and with Bettencourt (who would end up as my dissertation advisor). One of the great things about most social psychology programs is that they tend to prepare students to be first-rate methodologists. While at Mizzou, I took numerous advanced statistical courses (ANOVA, Regression, Meta-Analysis, Latent Variable Models, Experimental Design, and Non-Parametric Statistics), in addition to the required methods sequence (Basic Research Methods, Applied Research Methods). There were numerous content area courses that I took, and of course most importantly there was my lab work. I gained some teaching preparation from serving as a lab instructor for undergraduate-level Research Methods labs and Stats labs.
Overall, it took me roughly two years to finish my Masters and an additional five years to complete my Ph.D. By the time I was done, I was competitive for Federal-level research jobs as well as more traditional academic jobs. I was always a bit more passionate about teaching, so I have largely stuck to my first love.
My advice is to take full advantage of whatever opportunities are available to you as an undergraduate. That was one lesson I had to learn the hard way. I did learn it, however, and in the nick of time. If you have some poor grades early on, make sure that you repeat courses to improve your GPA, and make sure that you focus on getting A-averages on the courses you take during those last two years of undergraduate work. If you can get involved in undergraduate research, do it. The workload may be greater as a result, but you end up with a tangible product at the end of the experience (such as conference presentations, and perhaps publication possibilities). I would also suggest getting involved with your institution's Psychology Club, and at least one Honors Society if available (Psi Chi, for example, would be quite relevant for Psych majors). For students planning on entering the helping professions, make sure to get involved in internships prior to graduating. They look good on a resume or CV, and provide valuable networking opportunities. I cannot emphasize enough that you should take preparation for the GRE seriously. I was glad I did. Otherwise, my quantitative scores would have looked artificially low. Don't be intimidated by poor grades, especially if they happened early in your undergrad career. If you do have holes in your transcript such as poor grades or a lot of withdrawals, be open to taking a more round-about path toward getting your graduate degree. Not all of us who earn Ph.D.s were great students initially, but all of us, by the time we successfully complete our dissertations, have matured into solid students by the time we're done.
In graduate school, make sure that you and your thesis and dissertation advisor are a good fit. If you are not getting the mentoring you need to progress through the program, switch advisors. There are plenty of discreet and politically savvy ways to do so. But the bottom line is that you need to protect your own career aspirations. Some faculty at the graduate level are better at mentoring than others, and some are more interested in advancing the interests of their advisees than others. If it is taking too long to get your thesis committee assembled, or if it becomes clear that your advisor has a hard time with colleagues or a hard time attracting and keeping advisees in his or her lab, you might want to make a change. Obviously, it goes without saying that you should carefully research graduate programs before even thinking of applying. By the time you are applying, you should have a solid idea of your theoretical orientation, your research interests, and which scholars provide the best match, and of course where those scholars are currently working. Be open to relocation, especially in social psychology, and try to get into programs that offer teaching and research assistantships as well as full or partial tuition and fee waivers. Needless to say, programs willing to invest that much into each student are going to be highly competitive, but those who get in are well rewarded over the long haul.
Okay, that is just a bit of advice that I hope would be of some use. This is the sort of material I discuss with my undergraduate advisees and students, as they prepare for life after their undergraduate years.