- Graduate School
- Choosing a Program
- Deciding to Apply
- Preparation Timetable
- Application Process
- After Applying
- Additional Resources
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 PhD in psychology remains generally positive. Recently, US News and World Report reported that employment opportunities for PhD psychologists are growing. Unemployment among individuals with a new PhD in psychology has been reported by the American Psychological Association (APA) as being about 3%, with overall unemployment for all individuals with a PhD 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.
Undergraduate Research Experience
Participation in undergraduate research is strongly recommended for students planning to attend graduate school. Graduate programs that emphasize experimental research will favor an applicant who has been involved in research. The valuable knowledge and experience you gain through undergraduate research will better prepare you for graduate work and demonstrates to graduate programs your interest and motivation in doing research. In addition, your research advisor can support you when applying to graduate school and can write a strong letter of recommendation to submit with your applications.
When should I start thinking about research?
As soon as possible, even as early as your first semester. Ideally, you will make plans to begin undergraduate research by the start of your junior year. 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.
Review our available faculty labs to identify and contact faculty members whose research interests you. Please note that most labs require completion of both PSY 2400 (Statistical Methods) and PSY 3401 (Research Methods) before you may begin a research position.
How much research experience do I need?
Ideally, you will work in three different labs in order to gain different experiences and perspectives. This would also result in you having three faculty members who could write strong letters of recommendation for your graduate school applications. Most labs prefer that students stay with them for at least two semesters, so to work in three labs you should expect to complete three years of lab experience.
I'm already a senior and don't have undergraduate research experience – is graduate school still an option?
Though it is ideal to have as much research experience as possible, it is not impossible to be accepted in graduate programs with little or no research experience. We recommend doing your best to get into a research lab during your final semesters at Texas Tech, or consider taking a year after you graduate to work in a research lab and gain more experience before applying to graduate programs.
I'm worried that my GPA/GRE score/research experience isn't adequate – can I still go to graduate school?
Graduate school is competitive, but you don't need to be perfect in every area. Other factors such as “program fit” and compatible research interests also play a role in your likelihood of acceptance.
Use your personal statement to explain weaknesses and emphasize strengths – you can also describe how any “trouble” areas led to personal growth that will support your success in graduate studies. Find programs with faculty who share your interests and reach out to the admissions coordinator with your questions before applying. Consider applying to master's program rather than, or in addition to, doctoral programs because master's programs are often less competitive.
Choosing a Program
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. Those differences are sometimes reflected in either the type of doctoral degree that is awarded or the setting in which training takes place.
Types of Programs
Below are descriptions of the most common graduate degree options for Psychology majors. Within each degree, the application will be divided into sub-fields.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
The PhD is at the same level as the PsyD, but is the older of the two and can be found in more fields such as Education, Business, Science, Communication, etc. It is a field that is heavily involved in research and the creation of new research, although those with a PhD in Clinical or Counseling Psychology also have the option of practicing in the field. It typically takes about 5-7 years to complete a PhD, but depending on your specific field it may take more time.
Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
Beginning in 1968, a number of programs have been developed that award the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. PsyD is offered only within Psychology fields, most commonly Clinical or Counseling Psychology. In contrast to traditional PhD programs, the PsyD is a practitioner degree and the training provided focuses on practice and the consumption of research in practice rather than on the creation of new research in the field. Most graduates of PsyD programs are pleased with their training, but a PsyD program would be a poor choice if you are seeking an academic or research career. PsyD programs generally take about 4-5 years to complete.
Institutions Awarding Doctoral Degrees
Until the mid-1970s, all PhD and PsyD 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 PhD programs generally emphasize research more than PsyD programs, and PsyD programs generally emphasize clinical training more than PhD programs, there are exceptions. For example, some professional schools award the PhD degree.
There are two reasons to complete 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 PhD program. Many individuals with master's degrees have good jobs and satisfying careers. However, in the field of psychology, job prospects and salaries are not as good overall for individuals with master's degrees as they are for individuals with a PhD. Master's degrees are awarded in many different fields including Counseling, Higher Education, General Psychology, Speech and Hearing Sciences, etc. These degrees are generally more practitioner oriented and require about 2-3 years of additional coursework and training to complete.
Words of caution about pursuing a master's program: There is wide variation in the quality of master's degree programs in psychology; having a master's degree may not be an advantage in applying to PhD programs; and if you earn a master's degree from one university, you may not be able to transfer much academic credit to a PhD 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. Many students also choose to enter programs such as Masters in Business Administration (MBA) or Masters in Education (MEd) to support their career goals.
At many universities, graduate programs for some areas of applied psychology, or for areas related to psychology, are often found in academic departments other than psychology departments. For example, graduate programs in sport psychology are rarely found in psychology departments. More commonly, they are found in departments of health, physical education, and recreation.
Visit the American Psychological Association FAQs about graduate school for further information about types of degree programs.
Deciding to Apply
The first step to applying to graduate school is identifying programs that meet your needs. A great place to start is the American Psychological Association (APA) Database for Graduate Study in Psychology. This database helps you search and compare admissions information for masters and doctoral programs at schools and departments of psychology in the United States and Canada. After identifying your target programs, visit their websites and contact each program's admissions coordinator should you have questions or need more information.
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 allergies or temperature preferences, do some research on the regions where you're considering moving. If you're planning to attend a doctoral program you will be living in this new location for about five years; try to make the transition as easy as possible.
When deciding to go to graduate school, you need to understand what it will be like when you get there. For helpful advice on getting financial aid, choosing an advisor, and selecting a thesis or dissertation topic, check out How to Succeed in Graduate School by Princeton faculty member Dr. Marie desJardins.
How many schools should I apply to?
There is no simple answer to this question. For many students, the correct answer is probably some number between 5 and 15; however, the number of schools that you apply to is far less important than selecting appropriate schools to apply to.
Carefully consider how competitive the programs are that you are applying to, how well your credentials match admission standards, and how much time, money, and effort you realistically can put into the application process. There may also be circumstances that dictate a special answer to this question. For instance, if a partner or family member is already employed and has limited job mobility, then you might choose to apply to only a few programs in the area where you live.
When applying to graduate programs:
- 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 be unhappy living in a big city on the East Coast, do not apply to graduate programs there.
- 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).
- 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.
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, such as in research or community service, that will enhance your likelihood of being admitted to a graduate program. However, in making a choice about this issue, consider what is best for you and not what someone else thinks you should do.
What undergraduate classes should I take 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 that cover 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, a student who wants to attend a graduate program in clinical psychology might select a course in abnormal psychology and an additional course in some area such as interviewing, counseling, or tests and measures.
Students aiming for admission to PhD programs in psychology should plan to become involved in research as undergraduates, ideally by the start of their junior year. 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.
Before Your Junior Year
- Join professional organizations associated with your career(s) of interest. Many of these professional organizations have a student chapter – check TTU's list of student organizations.
- Try to become active as a student member in the professional organization(s) you chose. Try to participate some type of mentorship, or student leadership program in your professional organization (if available).
- Begin undergraduate research (PSY 4000) with a faculty member.
During Your Junior Year
- Begin/continue undergraduate research (PSY 4000) with a faculty member.
- Seriously consider which type of graduate program you're interested in. For instance:
- Do you want to attend a program in psychology or a different field?
- Do you wish to attend a clinical, counseling, or experimental program?
- Are you interested in a doctoral program or master's program?
- If you want to do a doctoral program, do you want to get a PhD or a PsyD?
- Talk to faculty members about their research and interests. You can also ask for guidance regarding graduate programs and career options – they are valuable sources of information and advice.
Summer Before Your Senior Year:
- Purchase a subscription to APA's Graduate Study in Psychology and compare program options.
- Make a list of schools you wish to apply to. Contact a program's admissions coordinator if you have questions or need additional information about the program.
- Write your personal statement – you will need several versions to allow you to tailor your essay to each program.
- Begin studying for the GREs. The GRE General Test is usually required; some programs may also require the GRE Psychology Subject Test.
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. Make note of deadlines for each program and set calendar reminders if needed to keep you on track.
- Ask faculty for letters of recommendation. Make your requests at least several weeks before the deadline, but preferably as early as possible.
- Keep studying for the GREs and take them no later than October.
Start preparing for graduate school begin at least one year in advance. You will need to invest a lot of time in choosing a school and applying to one. Trying to get everything submitted at the last minute is not recommended. Deadlines are usually firm; programs will not look at late materials. Also, financial assistance is sometimes on a first come-first serve basis therefore, early application is recommended.
Applying to graduate school has associated costs; it's wise to begin planning for these expenses as early as possible. Below is a breakdown of average anticipated costs:
~$632 Graduate program applications x14
~$320 GRE test x2
~$322 Sending GRE scores, ~$27 each
~$100 Transcripts x20, costs will vary
~$1374 Total application process*
*Interviews or program visits will incur additional costs for things like transportation, lodging, and food, which may total ~$500 per trip.
Some of these costs, such as application fees and GRE Test fees, can be reduced. Ask if you qualify for financial assistance through fee waivers or reductions.
When to Apply
Most graduate programs in psychology accept students only in fall semesters. Application deadlines vary from December 1 through about March 15. Doctoral programs, especially in clinical and counseling, tend to have earlier deadlines than master's programs. Almost all programs require the GRE General Test; some also require the GRE Psychology Subject Test. Make arrangements to take this well before the application deadline for the programs you're applying to.
The GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, consists of three sections: verbal, math, and analytic. Some programs also require you to take the psychology subject test.
Many preparation courses and books are available to help you prepare for the GRE. Many free resources can be found online, as well. You should take the GREs no later than October of the year you plan to apply to graduate schools. Although you receive your GRE score the same day that you take the GRE, it will take longer for schools to receive the scores. Also, many programs will not look at your application until your GRE scores are received.
The Importance of GRE Scores
The GRE is an important source of information about students' academic potential. Strong GRE scores (Verbal+Quantitative > 1200) increase your chances of being admitted to a graduate program; extremely low scores (Verbal+Quantitative < 800) may make admission to any graduate program unlikely.
Graduate programs with large numbers of applicants may use GRE scores and undergraduate GPAs as a way of reducing the pool of applicants to a more manageable number. For example, faculty on the admissions committee for a competitive graduate program may read the applications materials only if applicants meet a minimum GPA or GRE score. Fortunately, graduate programs that are not highly competitive often accept students with average GRE scores (Verbal+Quantitative ≈ 1000) if those students have other evidence of academic potential, such as high undergraduate grades, good letters of recommendation, and previous experience working in psychological research.
Plan to complete the GRE no later than October so that your scores will be available to the programs where you will be applying. Be aware that some programs require the GRE Psychology Subject Test and/or other tests such as the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). At a minimum, prepare for the GRE by familiarizing yourself with the basic structure of the test: the sections that are included, the type of questions asked, and the time allowed in each section. Free practice exams are often available online through ETS and test prep providers.
Many graduate school programs require a certain GPA or higher. If you have a lower GPA than what is required, some programs will immediately reject your application. Very competitive programs may prefer a GPA of 3.5 or higher, while less competitive programs may accept 3.0 or slightly lower. The higher your GPA, the better your chances of acceptance; however, a low GPA can be somewhat offset by stronger performance in other areas.
Letters of Recommendation
Many graduate schools place great emphasis on applicants' letters of recommendation. Strong letters of recommendation can compensate for lower GPAs and GRE scores. If you have any doubt about whether someone will write a good letter for you, ask them directly. If they say “No,” thank them for their honesty and find someone else.
Be courteous to the people from whom you're requesting letters of recommendation. Ask them several weeks before the deadlines (the earlier, the better) and give them the appropriate forms. Most programs accept or require electronic submission of letters of recommendation; however, should a physical letter be required, provide your letter-writers with stamped and addressed envelopes.
Who should I ask for letters of recommendation?
Many of your psychology courses may have been in large lecture sections, so the faculty may not know you well. You can address this problem by taking intentional steps to cultivate professional relationships with faculty throughout your undergraduate program. Attend office hours, participate in undergraduate research, and seek out faculty to ask about their interests and research. Faculty who teach large lecture sections of courses may be interested in becoming acquainted with their students, especially those students who are doing well on examinations and term papers, or who are interested in pursuing graduate work in the faculty member's specialty area. The better you get to know faculty members and the more they know about you, the more personalized and robust they can make their letters of recommendation.
Remember that admissions committees for graduate programs are usually made up of faculty members who are primarily evaluating your academic potential. The best letters of recommendation to submit with your application will be from faculty in psychology, but letters written by faculty in other departments can also be helpful. If you have been out of school for a while, a letter from an employer may be helpful, but generally avoid letters from people who cannot offer direct information about your academic potential.
One more tip: provide your letter-writers with some written information about yourself, the courses you took with them, your grades, any activities you undertook in our department or on campus, etc. A curriculum vitae (CV) is helpful for this purpose because it provides much of this information in a professional and concise manner.
Writing Your Personal Statement
Your personal statement is a critical part of your graduate school application. As with letters or recommendation, the personal statement can often make the difference in whether a candidate is accepted or rejected by a graduate program. Neither the importance of the personal statement nor the time required to prepare it should be underestimated. The most common problem students encounter with the personal statement is not allowing sufficient time to develop their essays. To write a good essay, you must allow ample time to write, revise, edit, and proofread. It is recommended to have someone else proofread the essay as well as proofreading it yourself. Take advantage of resources available to you as a TTU student, such as the Undergraduate Writing Center and the University Career Center.
Graduate programs will vary in the type of essays they require of applicants. The three themes most typical of graduate program essay requirements are 1) long-term career plans; 2) areas of interest in psychology; and 3) your reasons for choosing that particular program. Tailor your essay to the program; it may be necessary to write an original essay for each program. Focus on summarizing important events and/or experiences that influenced your career goals and shaped you as a person, but do not go into excessive detail describing your entire life history.
Ideally, your essay should reveal the relationship between your interests and goals and the focus and philosophy of the program to which you are applying. Graduate admissions committees are looking for students whose interests, ambitions, and career goals that closely match what the program has to offer. It is a good idea to look at the research interests of the faculty and use your essay to show how your interests fit with those of a few faculty. Mentioning faculty members by name and discussing your interest in their work can improve your odds of admission.
Take great care to follow the instructions provided. The essay should come as close as possible to the word limit specified in the instructions. If no length or word limit is specified, keep the essay between 500 and 1000 words. Plan to write several drafts of your personal statement, obtaining suggestions for revisions from peers and your faculty advisor.
For more information on writing your personal statement, refer to Getting In: A Step-by-Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School in Psychology by the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA also offers The Power of Personal Statements, a video guide that's part of their Finding Fit webinar series.
Visiting Graduate Programs
It is a good idea to visit the programs that you wish to apply to. Although the expense of travel may limit the number of schools you visit, it can be helpful in deciding which program to attend. Whether you visit in person or not, make efforts to learn as much as possible about the program. Ask the admissions coordinator if you can speak with faculty and students in the program via phone or internet videoconference. Use online search tools to research faculty and learn about their research interests. Do not hesitate to email people you don't know, such as graduate students or faculty members, to ask questions. Collecting information about different schools will allow you to make an informed choice in selecting an appropriate graduate program.
If I'm admitted to several graduate programs, how much time will I have to decide which one to accept?
The Council on Graduate Departments of Psychology has adopted April 15 as the standard deadline for making decisions about accepting offers of admission and offers of financial aid for graduate programs in psychology. If a graduate program offers you admission, that program will expect to hear your decision by April 15, and that program should not pressure you to make a decision before April 15.
What if I'm not admitted to any of the graduate programs I applied to?
If you aren't admitted to a graduate program the first time you apply, you can reapply the following year, especially if you take steps before then to enhance your likelihood of being accepted. If your GRE scores are average, consider preparing for and retaking the GRE. Graduate programs usually accept the highest scores when an applicant has taken the GRE more than once. If you lacked research experience the first time that you applied, arrange to acquire that experience before you reapply. If you applied only to a few highly competitive PhD programs, consider applying to more programs, applying to good programs that are less competitive, or applying to master's degree programs.
If you applied unsuccessfully to a number of graduate programs, one possible strategy for evaluating your chances of success if you reapply is to call and ask the admissions coordinator for a candid evaluation of the strength of your application. Be courteous in making such calls. Do not argue with the person you talk to or attempt to convince them that you should have been admitted. Be prepared to hear some information that may be upsetting. For example, the person may tell you that your personal statement sounded arrogant, or that your letters of reference were neutral about your personal and academic qualities. Remember that such candid information can help you have stronger applications the following year.
- MyNextMove.org – Career exploration and employment trends
- US Department of Labor, Bureau of Statistics – Employment trends for psychologists
- What Can I Do With This Major? – Texas Tech University Career Center
- Preparing and Applying for Graduate School in Psychology – American Psychological Association
- Career Decision Tree for Psychology Majors – Hanover College
- Becoming a School Psychologist – National Association of School Psychologists
- Mitch's Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology – Dr. Mitch Prinstein
AddressTexas Tech University, Department of Psychological Sciences, Box 42051 Lubbock, TX 79409-2051