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Undergraduate Program - Graduate School Preparation

Deciding to Apply

Graduate education can lead to stimulating opportunities to expand one's knowledge and skills, and ultimately to a higher-paying job. However, graduate education is usually far more demanding than undergraduate education, and it may be frustrating to continue to be a student for several years after other people your age have already started their careers. Ultimately, the decision about going to graduate school depends on your own assessment of your resources, both personal and financial, and on your career goals.

Individuals planning to attend graduate school ought to be well-informed about job prospects in their field of study. The job outlook for individuals who have earned a Ph.D. in psychology remains generally positive. Recently, US News and World Report reported that employment opportunities for Ph.D. psychologists are growing. Unemployment among individuals with a new Ph.D. in psychology has been reported by APA as being about 3%, with overall unemployment for all individuals with a Ph.D. in psychology being 1%. However, there are some areas of the country, some types of employment (e.g., college teaching), and some specialties within psychology, where there are shortages of jobs for psychologists. It is certainly possible to read extremely pessimistic accounts of the employment prospects for psychologists.

How to obtain information about graduate programs in psychology

The best starting place is the APA publication entitled Graduate Study in Psychology. Write for more information to those programs that sound interesting or visit the programs' Websites.

How to decide on a program (PhD, PsyD, MA, MSW)

Graduate programs in traditional academic areas of psychology (developmental, physiological, social, etc.) usually emphasize research and often are aimed at preparing people for careers as college professors. In contrast, graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology differ in how much of an emphasis they place on research and whether they attempt to prepare people mainly for clinical or academic jobs. At times those differences are reflected in either the type of doctoral degree that is awarded or the setting in which training takes place. Beginning in 1968, a number of programs have been developed that award the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree. In contrast to traditional Ph.D. programs, Psy.D. programs place more emphasis on the development of clinical skills and less emphasis on training in research. Most graduates of Psy.D. programs are pleased with their training, but a Psy.D. program would be a poor choice if you are seeking an academic or research career. Until the mid-1970s, all Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs were found at universities. Since then, a number of professional schools with no affiliation to a university have been developed. These professional schools emphasize the development of clinical skills, and many of them place little emphasis on training in research. One disadvantage of professional schools is that the ratio of students to faculty is much higher than it is in graduate programs at universities. Although Ph.D. programs generally emphasize research more than Psy.D. programs, and Psy.D. programs generally emphasize clinical training more than Ph.D. programs, there are exceptions. For example, some professional schools award the Ph.D. degree.

There are two reasons to attend a master's degree program in psychology--to earn a degree leading to a job, or to enhance one's prospects of being admitted to a Ph.D. program. Many individuals with master's degrees have good jobs and satisfying careers. In psychology, the job prospects and salaries are not as good overall for individuals with master's degrees as they are for individuals with a Ph.D. Three cautions about programs that award master's degrees: There is a wide variety in the quality of master's degree programs in psychology, having a master's degree may not be an advantage in applying to Ph.D. programs, and if you earn a master's degree from one university, you may not be able to transfer much academic credit to a Ph.D. program at another university.

There are a variety of graduate programs in areas related to psychology that ought to receive strong consideration from undergraduate students in psychology. For example, students who are primarily interested in working as counselors might do well to pursue training in social work (M.S.W. programs) or in master's degree programs that prepare individuals to become licensed professional counselors.

How many schools should you apply to?

There is no simple, easy answer to this question. For many students, the correct answer is probably some number between 5 and 15. For example, the average applicant in clinical psychology applies to around 13 programs. Instead of being concerned about the exact number of programs to apply to, consider carefully how competitive the programs are that you are applying to, how strong or weak your credentials are, and how much time, money, and effort you realistically can put into the application process. There may be circumstances that dictate a special answer to this question. If your spouse is already employed and has limited job mobility, then you may want to apply to only a few programs in the area where the two of you live.

The exact number of schools that you apply to is far less important than selecting appropriate schools to apply to. Follow these rules: (1) Only apply to graduate programs that you know offer the type of training you want and that you are seriously interested in attending. For example, if you would despise living in a big city on the East Coast, do not apply to graduate programs there. (2) Apply to graduate programs where the students have about the same level of grades and GRE scores that you do. Be cautious about applying to programs that are a "long shot" for you. In other words, if your Verbal GRE score is 450, avoid applying to programs where the average Verbal GRE score is 650 (2 standard deviations higher). (3) If you are applying to graduate programs that receive a large number of well-qualified applicants, you should probably apply to at least 10 programs.

Considerations in selecting a graduate program

Deciding where to attend graduate school is a big decision and should be made wisely. One important factor to take into consideration is the location of the graduate programs you apply to. How far will you be from loved ones? If you expect to visit family often you may want to consider graduate programs that are closer to home. Climate is also something to keep in mind. If you have any allergies or preferences do some research on the regions you are considering moving to. If you are planning to attend a doctorate program you will be living in this new location for about five years. You want to make the transition as easy as possible.

In deciding to go to graduate school, you need to understand what it will be like when you get there. This link to an article on "How to Succeed in Graduate School" has a lot of good advice on getting financial aid, choosing an advisor, and selecting a thesis or dissertation topic.

Is it a good idea to take time off before graduate school?

Taking time off can give you the opportunity to better define your career goals or to acquire experiences, either in research or in community service, that will enhance your chances of being admitted to a graduate program. However, in making a choice about this issue consider what is best for you, not what someone else thinks you should do.

Research experience

Research experience is an important key to getting in to a graduate program. This will impress many graduate programs. Graduate programs that emphasize experimental research will favor an applicant who has been involved in research.

In our department you have the opportunity to work closely with professors on research projects, when you take the individual problems course (4000). Take advantage of this! Find a faculty member that is doing research in your area of interest then talk to them about doing a 4000 course with them.

What undergraduate classes should be taken to prepare for graduate school?

Most psychology departments have requirements that guarantee that their undergraduate majors are prepared for graduate school. Whether you major in psychology or not, courses in statistics and research methods are essential. It is also wise to select undergraduate courses so that you are knowledgeable about several of the fundamental areas of psychology (cognitive, developmental, personality, physiological, and social) and about the specific area in which you want to do graduate work. For example, if you want to attend a graduate program in clinical psychology, you should take an undergraduate course in abnormal psychology and you might also want to take an additional undergraduate course in some area such as interviewing, counseling, or tests and measures.

Students who are aiming for admission to Ph.D. programs in psychology should plan to become involved in research as undergraduates, ideally by the start of their junior year. Many universities award course credit for such research work. Working on a research project with a faculty member while you are an undergraduate student has several advantages. You gain a much better idea of what psychological research is all about, while also demonstrating your interest and motivation in doing research. If this work goes well, you have a faculty member who can advise you about applying to graduate school and can write a strong letter of recommendation for you. Students who wait to begin their involvement in research until their senior year will have begun that work only a few months before they are applying for graduate programs and asking for letters of recommendation.

Careers in psychology

There are many different careers paths that can be taken in psychology. Please visit our Careers page for more information

Timetable for preparation for graduate school

Spring Semester of your junior year:

  • Decide or at least think about which type of program you are interested in. Are you interested in a doctorate program or masters program? If you want to do a doctorate program do you want to get a PH.D. or a Psy.D.? Do you want to attend a program that is within the school of psychology or within the school of education? Do you wish to attend a clinical, counseling, or experimental program? These are all very important questions that you must think about.
  • Talk to the faculty about letters of recommendation. Also just talk to the faculty to find out about their interests. They are valuable sources of information.
  • If you have not already been involved in an independent research course (4000) with a faculty member, do so.

Summer before your senior year:

  • Get a copy or borrow a copy of Graduate Study in Psychology
  • Make a list of schools you wish to apply to
  • Write your personal statement
  • Begin studying for your GREs
  • Write or e-mail schools for applications and information about their programs

Fall semester of your senior year:

  • At the beginning of this semester, make a definite decision on which schools to apply to and start the application process
  • Ask faculty for letters of recommendation
  • Keep studying for the GREs and take the GRE toward the end of the fall semester

More information on applying to graduate school

Several types of resources can help answer your questions about being admitted to graduate school in psychology:

  • Information about the availability of jobs. An objective source of information about the job prospects for psychologists is the Occupational Outlook Handbook (available from the US Department of Labor for $32, or on-line at
  • Information about specific graduate programs and about applying to and being admitted to graduate programs. A number of valuable publications are available. Some are relatively inexpensive and may be available in the university library, in your department, or from your faculty adviser.
    • Getting In: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology. (1993). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. (Available from APA books, call 800-374-2721).
    • Graduate study in psychology. (1998). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. [Available from APA books, call 800-374-2721]. Detailed information for over 500 graduate programs. A new edition is available each year.
    • Keith-Spiegel, P. (1990). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology and related fields. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    • Sachs, M. L., Burke, K. L., & Salitsky, P. B. (Eds.) Directory of graduate programs in applied sport psychology. Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology. [Order from Dr. Michael L. Sachs, Department of Physical Education-048-00, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122; telephone: (215) 787-8718; E-mail:] Briefly discusses careers in sport psychology, types of graduate programs in sport psychology, and certification requirements.
    • Sayette, M. A., Mayne, T. J., & Norcross, J. C. (1998). Insider's guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology: 1998/99 edition. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Other information about applying to and being admitted to graduate schools. Talk to faculty members, graduate students, or professional psychologists. Do not hesitate to contact people you do not know.