The decision to go to graduate school is a major milestone. Attending graduate school shows that you’re serious about the profession you’ve chosen and that you’re ready to make a commitment to the field of psychology.
One of the great things about pursuing a graduate level degree in the field of psychology is that there is such a wide range of paths to choose from, depending on your individual needs and goals. The downside is that the variety and sheer volume of choices can become overwhelming and confusing.
This guide answers some of the most common questions about applying to psychology graduate school, taking you step by step through the process.
Know Your Goals and Preferences
Many undergraduate students choose a major in college based on their interests, with little knowledge of the professional world that awaits them after graduation. There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it can be a great way for students to discover themselves and explore the topics and professional fields they’re passionate about.
However, when it comes to graduate school, the importance of knowing where you want to end up professionally takes on a greater importance. Graduate school is a major investment of both time and financial resources, and you will want to make the most of it.
If you have an undergraduate degree in psychology or a related field, and want to pursue graduate level study in psychology, start by asking yourself a few questions:
- Do my undergraduate grades, standardized test scores, and professional experience make me a candidate for the most competitive psychology programs?
- Am I more interested in research or clinical work? (i.e. designing and performing experiments vs. treating patients in a mental health setting)
- Is there an area of psychology I would like to specialize in? (i.e. forensic psychology, neurology and cognition, social psychology)
- How much time can I commit to earning my degree? Can I work on my degree full-time, or will I have to enroll in a part-time program to maintain employment while I’m in school?
- Do I prefer to attend classes online or in person?
- If I prefer to attend an in-person program, am I willing to relocate, or do I want to stay local?
- What is my budget for graduate school? Am I comfortable assuming some debt in order to pay for it?
- What level of income do I want and need to achieve in my career?
These questions can help narrow your search to the graduate program best suited to your needs.
Know Your Options
Before you begin your search for a graduate program, it can be helpful to know the types of degrees available, and the career paths they can offer.
Master’s Degrees in Psychology
A master’s degree in psychology can lead to a rewarding career in the field, or it can be a stop on the way to earning a doctoral degree in psychology. Many professionals with a master’s level degree in psychology go on to enjoy careers as human resources managers, organizational psychology consultants, community college professors, leaders in non-profit organizations, and in a variety of other roles.
It is also important to understand that your career choices may be limited with a master’s degree in psychology. Many students enter the field of psychology with the intention of becoming psychotherapists. If that is the case for you, the master’s degree in psychology may not be the right choice. While a few U.S. states allow professionals with master’s degrees in psychology to work in clinical settings, most require clinicians to have a doctoral degree.
Master’s degrees in psychology can take anywhere between two and four years to complete.
Doctoral Degrees in Psychology
There are two main types of doctoral degrees in psychology: the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy), and the Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology). Doctorate level degrees in psychology usually take five to seven years to complete.
Ph.D. programs in psychology prepare students for careers primarily in academia and scientific research. Some graduates also become consultants in mental health fields.
Psy.D. programs train psychology professionals to apply the knowledge of psychology research in clinical settings with individuals and groups.
Graduates of both Ph.D. and Psy.D. psychology programs are eligible to obtain licensure to practice psychotherapy, and some go on to complete post-doctoral programs in psychoanalysis and other areas of study.
Finding the Right Program
Once you’ve decided on the type of degree and career you want to pursue, it’s time to find the best psychology graduate school program for you. Because most graduate school application deadlines fall between October 31 and December 1, it’s a good idea to start this process in the spring or summer. Not only will you need time to research potential programs, but you will want to give yourself ample time to gather your application materials.
Considering your answers to the questions at the beginning of this article, begin some internet research on the kinds of schools and programs that interest you. For example, if you plan to attend a psychology Ph.D. program, prefer to stay local in your home state of Massachusetts, and you graduated at the top of your undergraduate class, you might try a Google search for “most competitive psychology Ph.D. programs in Boston”.
Develop a list of five to 10 programs that you would consider attending based on the programs’ requirements and your preferences. Then, make a list of the application requirements and deadlines for each of the programs you’re considering. While the application requirements across each program are likely to be similar, there may be some small variations. For example, some programs require GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) scores and/or candidate interviews, while others do not.
From this list, you may decide to narrow it down a bit further, especially considering the application fees associated with most applications.
Preparing Application Materials
You’ve made a list of the application requirements for each of the schools and programs you’re interested in. Now, it’s time to compile your application materials.
Your list probably includes some or all of the following: GRE scores, college transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal statement, and a resume or CV.
When it comes to gathering the pieces of your applications, time is of the essence. Here are a few tips on how to successfully prepare each piece of your application.
Most graduate programs require GRE scores as part of their application process. If your preferred program requires GRE scores, give yourself plenty of time to prepare for the test and receive the scores well in advance of your application deadlines. You can take the GRE General Test once every twenty-one days, up to five times within any continuous twelve-month period.
The registrar’s office at most undergraduate universities will send official transcripts on your behalf to the institutions you’re applying to, upon request. Keep in mind that many registrar’s offices will charge a small fee for this and you might save some money if you have them all sent at the same time.
Letters of Recommendation
You will likely have to provide two or three letters of recommendation along with your applications. Ideally, these should come from professors who knew your work well during your undergraduate program. If you have been out of college for a long time, it may be appropriate to ask a professional associate to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf, especially if they work with you in a psychology-related field. It is worth noting that it isn’t appropriate to ask a psychologist who is treating you in a mental health setting to provide a letter of recommendation.
Personal Statement and Resume
Your personal statement and resume give you an opportunity to show the admissions committee what makes you unique! These parts of your application may carry more weight if your test scores and grades fall on the lower end of the program’s minimum requirements. A personal statement is a short essay that helps admissions committees understand your personal reasons for pursuing a degree at their institution. Each school or program you apply to will likely provide you with a prompt or series of questions to answer. Be sure to answer these questions thoughtfully and honestly.
Your resume or CV should include a brief overview of your educational and professional experience, highlighting any work or study related to psychology.
Consider having a friend look over your personal statement and CV with a fresh set of eyes to make sure there aren’t any grammar or spelling mistakes.
Choosing a Program
After submitting your graduate school applications, you can expect to start receiving admissions decisions in March or April.
Whether you are accepted to one program or a dozen, take a moment to celebrate! Being accepted to graduate school is a huge accomplishment.
Before making a final decision, consider reaching out to alumni of the programs you were accepted to through the program’s alumni affair’s office, or even on LinkedIn, to ask about their experience during their studies and after graduating.
You did the research, crunched the numbers, and set your goals. Armed with so much knowledge, you’re ready to make an informed decision about where to enroll.
The process of applying to psychology graduate school is daunting, but an exciting and rewarding career awaits!