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Graduate School

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Ask yourself – Why do you want to go to graduate school?

It should not be because you do not have a job lined up, because you think getting an advanced degree is something you have to do, or because you are not sure what to do. When you can answer this question in terms of what you envision yourself doing as a career and whether or not graduate school can help you pursue this career, then you are at a good starting point.

Getting Started: Finding the Right Program for You

Know that it takes time.  It takes a lot of time to wade through the many graduate school options to decide whether they best meet your individual goals and that you also stand a good chance of being admitted to. If you think you are bound for graduate school, it doesn't hurt to start gently exploring your options during junior year and early in your senior year. Many students also consider taking a "gap year" or two after graduation. During this time, students can continue gaining experience and take their time with their applications.

Really do your research.  The information you gather will help you figure out if you are adequately preparing for graduate studies and what types of programs are out there. There are a lot of options that seem overlapping so you have to ​dig deep to figure out if the differences are important to you. Start by going to individual graduate program websites – check their program objectives, prerequisites courses, and the profiles of admitted students (e.g., GRE scores, GPAs). You could also contact the directors of the programs you are interested in for more information.

Prioritize the fit of your goals with the program.  Students often consult online school rankings such as what you will see on this list or this list or even the US News rankings. But treat rankings with a grain of salt. You want a program that suits your interests and faculty mentors who do the kind of work you want to do. You also want programs with a history of graduates that get and succeed in the type of job and training that you want. The program that is the best fit for you might not be top-ranked; that is okay.

Use APA and our Advising Office resources The American Psychological Association (APA) website offers a wealth of useful information about graduate education and the application process. Our Advising Office also has a number of excellent books about how to prepare for graduate school and in-depth information about a variety of graduate programs. Come by any office hours to take a look!

Get some help.   In all honesty, there is a quite a lot to consider when you apply for graduate school. Make an appointment with our Career Services Center staff – they are an incredible, FREE campus resource. Also, a faculty mentor can give you additional advice and help you identify good graduate programs for your goals. Visit your assigned advisor, the Assistant Director, the Director of Undergraduate Advising, or better yet, a professor who knows you very well through courses and/or research assistantships.

Also, check out this excellent guide written by a graduate student about what what to think about before applying to graduate school.

Master's or Doctoral Program?

  • ​The master's degree is typically earned for one of two reasons:

1.  As a stepping-stone into doctoral degree programs.  If you want eventually to get a Ph.D. in psychology but don't have a strong record after your B.A., a general, research-based master's degree is a good option. A master's degree in general psychology gives you the chance to gain valuable research experience (even publications), new and improved letters of recommendation, and the chance to demonstrate to Ph.D. programs that you can excel in graduate school. They can also help you narrow down your interests in psychology. Many students go this route when their GPA's, GRE's, and research experience are not strong enough to get into a Ph.D. program straight out of college.

Some East Coast institutions that have general master's programs include:

Wake Forest UniversityWilliam and Mary
St. Joseph's UniversityTowson University
Villanova University
New York University

In addition to doing research online, you can learn about general master's programs in the APA book, Graduate Study in Psychology. Come by the Advising Office in Wolf 202 to take a look!

2.  To learn specialized skills and knowledge to get ahead in a specific work setting.  When considering a master’s degree to obtain specialized training, the most important thing to do is find out directly from the programs about what type of employment settings their graduates go into. If the setting involves some kind of licensing (or other certification), ask about what percentage of their graduates pass their exams. Often, for students who are interested in becoming certain types of counselors and therapists, this is a good option.

  • The doctoral degree is typically earned to obtain a depth of knowledge and skills in a specialized subfield of psychology.

The goal is to produce new knowledge through scientific research. Students interested in being just like their professors usually apply to Ph.D. programs. There are some Ph.D. programs that offer training in clinical work as well as the production of new research, but the Ph.D. is generally regarded as a research degree. Other programs like Psy.D. programs predominantly focus on the application of psychological science to provide services to others. This degree is generally regarded as a professional degree. The Ph.D. offers the widest range of career opportunities, but these programs can be difficult to get into and are rigorous. However, unlike other graduate programs, you typically complete a Ph.D. with little to no debt – see the data here!

If you decide to pursue a doctoral degree that prepares students for delivering services (i.e., counseling, clinical, school psychology), it is very important that the programs are APA accredited. To learn more about accreditation, visit the APA accreditation website.

What Graduate Degree Should I Get to Be a Therapist?

Many students envision a future career focusing on some type of clinical work, but admittedly, there are many ways to reach this goal. You could become a counselor, therapist, social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist – just to name a few job titles. Each one of these careers has different educational requirements and different types of responsibilities.

You can view this Brief Comparison of Selected Clinical-Oriented Degrees.pdf. Not every program fits the descriptions listed and there are more options than appear — treat this table just as a starting point. An excellent way to learn more about these degrees is to visit the websites of the graduate schools that offer each degree.

Importantly, in order to practice independently in most states, you must be licensed (typically as a psychologist, professional counselor, or a clinical social worker). Generally speaking, licenses requires:

  1. the appropriate education (a Master's, Ed.D., Psy.D., or Ph.D. in counseling, clinical psychology, or social work)
  2. a state licensure exam
  3. supervised clinical hours (like an apprenticeship) which can range from 300 to 3600, depending upon each state's own requirements

Check out these excellent resources about clinical graduate school:

A free resource provided by the Council of University Directors of Clinical Psychology. It covers information about whether this path is right for you, costs and acceptance rates of clinical programs, application tips, and much more.

Dr. Mitch Prinstein is the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina. He wrote up this guide to help students navigate the different types of possible career options with an emphasis on the clinical psychology doctoral (Ph.D.) program.

This document was written by a graduate student and is meant to be an informal step-by-step guide for applying to graduate school, particularly clinical psychology doctoral (Ph.D.) programs.

Applying and Getting Into Graduate School

​Requirements for admission vary greatly from program to program. You need to do your research before submitting your applications, so you do not waste your time and money! This research will also help you tailor your applications to each program.

What does the typical application to graduate school in psychology include?

In addition to your background information, many applications require:

  • Academic records (e.g., transcripts, GPA, GRE scores)

Typically, a minimum of a 3.0 GPA is required, but many Ph.D. or more competitive programs require a 3.5 GPA. Many committees will look at the courses students have chosen to take (e.g., avoided science core courses, taken more challenging courses).  If a GPA is not stellar, they also look if there has been a positive trajectory where students have brought their grades up over time.

Many programs require the GRE and some will also require the Psychology Subject Test. Visit the GRE website to learn more about the tests and how to prepare. Plan to take the GRE for the first time at least 6 months before the earliest application deadline. That way, if you are not satisfied with your scores, you still have time to study and retake the test.

Note that all schools have different criteria, and some programs even weigh the GRE more heavily than your GPA. The APA publication, Graduate Study in Psychology, reports the average GRE scores of students in all APA accredited graduate programs. Come by the Advising Office during any drop-in hours to check out this book!

  • Personal statement

The purpose of the personal statement is explain who you are, your background, and why you are pursuing a particular degree at a particular program. However, the requirements for this statement will vary widely from program to program. Some will have standardized sets of questions; others will be more broad. It also serves as a way for committees to evaluate your written communication skills – a disorganized statement full of mistakes conveys that an applicant is unable to clearly communicate and thus, unprepared for graduate school.

The personal statement is probably most important as a way to help you stand out in a competitive program where many applicants have similarly high-level qualifications. Committees read anywhere from 100-250 applications so be specific and concrete as to why you belong with their program. A common mistake is for applicants to divulge about their own mental health problems. Also, avoid vague generalities like "I am a hard worker". If you are a hard worker, demonstrate it through your examples of what you have actually done. Committees are looking for evidence that applicants have engaged in a level of research, skills, and experiences that indicate that this person is prepared and knows where they want to go with their education.

The Career Services Center has a helpful Personal Statement handout and The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article with tips to keep in mind as you write and revise.

  • 3-4 letters of recommendation

Your letter writers should be professionals very familiar with your academic and research achievements – a professor, lab instructor, or research advisor. These individuals should be able to comment in detail about your strengths, achievements, and your potential for success in graduate school. Do NOT get letters from individuals who only know you on a personal basis (e.g., relatives, ministers) or from professors who barely know you. Committees look unfavorably at letters that simply say, "This student received an A in my course".

You will probably apply to at least a handful of programs so make it easy on your letter writers. Give them an organized list of the schools you're applying to, the deadlines, the submission requirements (e.g., online or paper), and a summary of your accomplishments. Send reminder emails about a week before each deadline – it is your responsibility to follow up. Last, remember to thank each letter writer individually! (Hint: People love handwritten notes more than emails.)

  • Writing sample

A handful of programs will require a sample of your academic writing. It can take on multiple formats but most commonly in psychology programs, it will be an analytic paper you wrote in an upper-division course or your senior thesis. It is very important that you submit your highest-quality work – go back and polish it up! Remember to submit the sample exactly as requested (e.g., do not go over the page limit).

  • An interview

Although an interview is not a part of the initial application process, it can be an important part of making sure you get in. Note that not all programs require an interview, but if you are applying to Ph.D. programs, you should expect it. At this point, your qualifications "on paper" look good to the committee.  Now, they are looking for indications of how well you would work with others, you ability to think quickly in challenging situations, how enthusiastic you are about the program and your work, and how well you can speak about your own background experiences. Basically, they are looking at if what you have written on paper translates to the person in front of them.

The Association for Psychological Science (APS) has a nice article that answers many frequently asked questions.

What if I do not get accepted to graduate school?

First, know that it is not the end of the world. You will be okay!

Next, examine potential reasons why you were not selected:

  • Graduate search committees look for the goodness of fit between the prospective student and the needs of the particular program and its faculty. You may not have been selected because you applied to a program with a heavy emphasis upon research and your interests were more applied. Make sure to find graduate programs that align with what you want to learn. After additional research, you can submit applications to these better-suited programs.
  • You may need to gain more experience. Taking a year or two to work in a research lab or in a field position to acquire and deepen your skills can be time well spent in making your application more competitive the next time around.
  • It may also be possible that graduate school is not right for you, at least not right now (this choice can always change in the future though). If this is the case, you can still use your undergraduate training to pursue fulfilling jobs within a wide range of professions. Remember, always think of the training and the skills you acquire as an undergraduate as transferable skills that likely apply to a wide range of careers beyond your major.

After Graduate School

If you have attended graduate school for clinical or counseling psychology (or social work), the typical next career step is to become licensed in the state where you want to practice.

Of course, you could enter the world of academia and become a university professor. But you have MANY other options!

A psychology degree teaches you, above all, how to conduct research on people (and sometimes on animals).  When organizations hire Ph.D. (or M.S.) psychologists, they are mainly hiring them for their research skills.  Of course, content is also important; the Ph.D. does teach you basic lessons about cognition, social behavior, neuroscience, and so on, depending upon your specialty.  If you are broadly interested in an area of psychology and, as a career, want to do a variety of research in that broad area, then consider getting a graduate degree and working in an applied setting, such as one described below: 

Social or Personality. You can work for social media companies like Facebook hire social psychologists to study how users interact with their website. Check out this Facebook Data Scientist job. You could also help presidential candidates maximize their campaign strategies, like this team of scientists who helped President Obama!

Cognitive. You can work as a human factors psychologist, helping design products and spaces so that human beings can use them better.  Human factors psychologists help design car consoles and cockpits to make them easy to use and to reduce accidents. 

Neuroscience. You could work as an applied researcher working with developing health programs and interventions. You could also work as a consultant in the pharmaceutical industry.

Developmental. You could work as a director of research for children's TV programs, or you can help the government use research for writing policies. Or you could work as a consultant with toy companies to help design toys and activities that are appropriate for children.

Industrial/organizational. You can conduct and apply psychological research to help companies hire a better workforce, and to help companies lead, motivate, and reward employees more effectively.  For example, psychologists in this field helped NASA to develop ways to help astronauts work together during a long space voyage!

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