Preparing for Graduate School in Psychology
- Degrees and Areas of Psychology
- The Admission Process
- Graduate Programs Outside of Psychology
- Related Links
Graduate Program in Psychology
A Doctorate (Ph.D.) is required for the independent practice of psychology and for college and university teaching jobs. A Master's degree (M.A., M.S., M.Ed., M.S.W.) can be suitable training for many industrial positions and for clinical or counseling positions in settings in which you are supervised by a psychologist with a Ph.D., or a psychiatrist (M.D.).
Psychology departments at most major universities only admit students who intend to get the Doctorate. The typical student will have a B.A. or B.S. in Psychology when admitted and may, or may not, earn a Master's degree en route to the Ph.D. You do not need a Master's to be admitted to a Ph.D. program and you do not (usually) need to get a Master's before getting the Ph.D. It typically takes at least four years to get a Ph.D. Ph.D.'s in clinical or counseling psychology will require an extra year of internship. The minimum time is three years; some students take up to eight years.
Some universities only have Master's programs that typically take two years to complete. While admission to a Master's program is much less competitive than admission to a Ph.D. program, career opportunities are more limited. You can get a Master's at one institution and then apply for admission to a Ph.D. program at another; however, graduate coursework does not transfer between universities so earning a Master's before going to a Ph.D. program will add to the time required for the Ph.D. Usually you would choose this route only if you are denied admission to Ph.D. programs at first and need to prove competence in graduate coursework to apply later. Some universities that offer the Ph.D. will admit students into a Master's program and then use performance in that program as a screening device for admission to a Ph.D. program. And a few universities offer separate Master's and Doctorate tracks.
Area of Psychology
At the graduate level, you must decide on an area of specialization within psychology (e.g., clinical, counseling, social, biopsychology, industrial, cognitive, etc.) to list on your application to be reviewed by the faculty in that area. If chosen, you will be admitted into that particular area and you usually cannot change to another area of that department. Use the "Index of Programs by Area of Study Offered" in Graduate Study to find departments that offer training in your area of interest. (See Information Resources below.) There is often more than one name for an area: biopsychology programs can be called biopsychology, psychobiology, physiological, etc., and a cognitive program might be called cognition, cognitive, human experimental, etc. Therefore, think of synonyms for the area in which you are interested when you use this index. For advice on strong programs for your chosen area, you should ask UT faculty in that area to name the current top schools; you can review the current journals for that area and see where the published authors are working; and you can use the number of applications to number of available spaces ratio information in Graduate Study as an indicator—the best programs tend to attract the most applicants.
Clinical or Counseling?
The APA investigates and accredits programs in the areas of clinical, counseling, and school psychology, but not programs in the other areas of specialization. In these areas, you should try to get admitted to programs approved by the APA; it will affect your internship setting and enhance your employment possibilities.
What are the differences between clinical and counseling programs? There is a considerable amount of overlap between these programs, but there are differences in emphases. Clinical programs tend to have more of a research emphasis; counseling programs tend to emphasize the practice of psychology. Clinical programs tend to emphasize more severe, biologically-based disorders; counseling programs tend to emphasize adjustment or coping difficulties. These statements are generalizations and will not apply to every clinical and counseling program. If you are interested in an academic position, you should attend a clinical program. If you are interested in becoming a private practitioner of psychology, you should consider either a counseling program or a clinical program at a regional university. Major universities stress the research aspects of psychology. Clinical and counseling programs that offer the Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) degree have a strong practitioner orientation.
Many undergraduate students are interested in becoming practitioners of psychology and apply to doctoral programs in clinical and/or counseling psychology. Therefore, admission to these specialization areas is very competitive, and clinical programs tend to be more competitive than counseling programs. UT- Austin receives approximately 350 applications to the clinical program, admit approximately 10 students, and hope that 6–7 will matriculate. (The others will have received admission offers from other major institutions and will have decided to go elsewhere.) Programs in desirable locations (Boulder, the San Francisco Bay Area, etc.) and programs in large cities also tend to be more competitive.
What can you do if you are not admitted to a doctoral program in these areas or if you doubt that your application would be competitive? First of all, do not give up. Apply to programs at less well-known institutions. You may want to consider Master's programs; the M.A. degree in clinical or counseling psychology will allow you to function as a psychologist under the supervision of a licensed Ph.D. or M.D., or with some additional coursework will make you eligible for certification as a Licensed Professional Counselor (L.P.C.). You may also consider a Master's program with the goal of applying to a Ph.D. program: this route works best for students whose low undergraduate GPAs make admission to a doctoral program difficult or who are unable to obtain supportive letters of recommendation.
There is no quick fix for admission to a graduate program in psychology; there is no one thing that you can do to guarantee your admission to the program you desire. Grades, and especially grades in upper-division courses and courses required for admission, do make a difference. An "A" in statistics and experimental methods helps; a "C" in those courses hurts. Therefore, your course selections make a difference. Admissions committees at major research universities prefer students with a strong mathematics and natural sciences background; the belief is that these students are more "scientific" and will be better researchers in psychology. In addition, a substantial amount of research in all areas of psychology involves advanced mathematics (through calculus) and involves the biological substrates of behavior. Admissions committees may prefer "B"s in math and science courses over "A"s in some other courses.
Research experience helps. You should try to obtain research experience in your area of interest. Doctoral programs are (usually) research oriented. They seek students who have become involved in research activity and who are turned on by research endeavors. Research activity with a faculty member should also generate a meaningful letter of recommendation. If you cannot become involved with a research project in the area of psychology that interests you, become involved with a research project in a different area. A person who displays interest and aptitude for research in one area is likely to be a good researcher in a different area. Applicants to clinical and counseling programs should have some applied experience in these fields, although the emphasis on "clinically related public service" varies considerably from program to program. (Counseling programs tend to weight it heavier than the more research-oriented clinical programs.) This can be volunteer experience at a local hospital or human services agency, and is often valuable in itself because it will cure you of the belief that you, once you have your degree, will be able to solve the problems of the world.
Graduate programs in psychology generally require 12–15 hours of upper-division psychology courses in addition to an introductory statistics and research methods course (our 418). For doctorate programs, you should also take an advanced methods course (our 458). You should, rather obviously, include courses in the area to which you are applying. Research experience courses (our 357) are very desirable; much of graduate work is research training and the demonstration of interest and competence in research is helpful. Some programs have additional specific course requirements; however, such programs may admit you on a conditional basis and allow you to make up your deficiency at that university.
GRE and Other Tests
Almost every graduate program in psychology will require you to take the GRE general (aptitude) test. The programs will want the test scores by their admission deadline and it takes the Educational Testing Service close to two months to report your scores. Therefore, you should take the GRE no later than the early October administration, about a year before you hope to begin your graduate work. Ideally, you should take the GRE general test in early June after your junior year. If you do this, you will have your scores when you are considering programs. You will also be able to re-take the test the following October if you did not perform as well as you thought you could. Remember that you need to apply for the GRE some six weeks before the administration. You may obtain a GRE Information Bulletin, which contains the application material for this test, from the Vick Center for Strategic Advising & Career Counseling in Jester (Room A115) or the Measurement and Evaluation Center at 2616 Wichita.
The GRE general test has three sections—verbal, quantitative, and analytic. Graduate programs in psychology do not usually mention the analytic section in their program descriptions: do not, however, view it as unimportant, for some use it to discern between applicants with similar scores on the verbal and quantitative sections. Most graduate schools have a minimum score requirement for the sum of the verbal and quantitative sections—at UT, this requirement is a score of 1000. Programs within universities can have higher requirements—the UT Psychology program requires a minimum of 1200. Graduate Study lists the minimum requirements, preferred scores, and the median scores of students admitted the previous year. Graduate programs in psychology recognize that the GRE scores of non-traditional and educationally-disadvantaged students may not display their educational potential. You should prepare for the GRE general test before taking it. You can do this with a book (How to Ace the GRE), a computer program, a free course at the Learning Skills Center (Jester A332), or a commercial course. Preparation for the quantitative section is especially important and will result in the greatest improvement in the least amount of time. It is relatively easy to relearn that high school algebra and geometry that you have not used and forgotten. It is harder to improve on a highly practiced skill like reading comprehension.
Some schools also require the GRE subject test in psychology. The best preparation for this test is a good, solid Introductory Psychology text, e.g., the text by Atkinson, Atkinson, and Hilgard. Another advantage of taking the general test in early June is that you can take the subject test in October and avoid having to take both tests on the same day. A few schools want you to take the Miller Analogy Test (MAT). This is administered at the Measurement and Evaluation Center. Obtain some information about it before you take it; it is tricky and tough.
For Psychology programs, see a current copy of Graduate Study in Psychology and Associated Fields, a book published by the American Psychological Association (APA). You can order it from: Order Department, American Psychological Association, P.O. Box 2710, Hyattsville MD 20784. (Write them for an order form and then send the form and the money—around $20.) Copies are sometimes available at the University Co-op. You can borrow (overnight) a copy from the Psychology Undergraduate Office, BUR 230, and you can look at a copy in the Career Center, Jester A115A. For counseling programs through Social Work, see a copy of Summary Information on Masters in Social Work Programs, published by the Council on Social Work Education (1600 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 22314). Although they are revised yearly, the changes are relatively minor. Read the introductory material and the descriptions of programs that interest you.
Obtain program information and application materials from a large number of schools. Write them (address the letter or postcard to Graduate Advisor at the addresses listed in Graduate Study or Summary) and request the information. (Do not bother to send for catalogs from universities—they cost money and are written in catalog-ese.) Specify the area of psychology in which you are interested when you write for this information. You will typically receive a brochure, application form, and a detailed description of the area from the department, and a graduate school application form from the university. These may not arrive at the same time and they may take a while to get to you because they are usually mailed in bulk-mail batches. The Undergraduate Advising Office has some catalogs, program descriptions, and other useful information about applying to graduate school that may make the process easier for you, and professors can often advise you about good programs in their own areas of research and about the orientations of these programs to help you make your decisions on where to apply. Choose a graduate program for its program, not its location—because few schools hire their own Ph.D. students, you don't want to do your training in a city where you want to spend more than the two to five years it will take for your degree. You want the best training you can get, so aim high!
The admission deadline for most major universities is February 1 for admission for the following fall. (Most Ph.D. programs only admit students in the fall.) Some programs have earlier deadlines; carefully read the information you get from the programs. Deadlines for Master's programs are usually somewhat later.
You need to apply to several schools. The APA suggests targeting at least 10 programs, including a few at the Master's level, to ensure admission to one. It is expensive, but it may save you from having to wait another year for the next round of admissions. The number will depend on your qualifications, the specific schools to which you apply, and your area of specialization. Applicants to clinical and counseling programs, because they are the most popular areas, should apply to more schools.
It is not an easy task to fill out the application forms correctly and have all your material sent to the appropriate places. Different schools have different procedures. Typically, material is sent to two different places—the graduate school admissions office and the department itself. The graduate school admission office essentially certifies that you are qualified to be admitted—that you meet the minimum requirements for the institution—while the department itself makes the admission decision. The graduate school usually requires the graduate school admissions form, official transcripts, official GRE reports, and an application fee. The department usually requires a departmental application form, an application for financial assistance, a personal statement, letters of recommendation, transcripts, and a GRE score report. Departments will often accept photocopies of transcripts and the GRE score report. (The reason for sending transcripts and the GRE report to both places is that the department can then start processing your application without having to wait for the official material to filter down from the graduate school admissions office.) If you can get all this stuff to the right places, you deserve to be admitted.
Even if you are highly qualified for admission, you will find that the financial support from different schools will vary. Most major universities support their new students by a combination of teaching assistantships (T.A.'s), research assistantships (R.A.s), and fellowships. Support varies from school to school and even from area to area within a department. Fellowships, T.A.s , and R.A.s provide about $9,000 for nine months and some tuition reduction. (You won't get rich while you are a graduate student.) If you do not need financial assistance, you should state that in your personal statement; it may make a difference in the admission decision. Regional universities and universities with only M.A. programs generally provide less financial assistance. Even if you receive assistance, and especially if you do not, you should contact the institution's financial aid office for information about graduate student loans.
Your personal statement is very important: it is your only chance to "speak" directly to the selection committee. It is also very difficult to write. Read the information you receive from the programs and, if a program interests you, meld your interests to the orientation of the program. (This task is facilitated by word-processors.) It is reasonable to mention the names of specific faculty and their research in your statement as examples of the people you would like to work with and the research you would like to do. But, unless your interests are very specific, use the names and research areas as examples; the specific faculty member whom you mention may have left the department or be working in a different research area or have too many students.
Be honest. Do not say that you are committed to conducting research in clinical psychology if you are, in fact, committed to the practice of clinical psychology: you would not be a happy graduate student if you are admitted. If there are obvious weak spots in your record, address them in your statement. (If they are familiar enough with your background, have one of your recommenders discuss it in their letter.) Do not be a "single-issue" advocate and avoid stressing a narrow research interest. For clinical or counseling programs avoid expressing interest based on your personal life experiences (e.g., avoid "I want to work with and study children of alcoholics because my parents were alcoholics."). There are three problems with this type of statement: the stated interests are too narrow (graduate training in any area is broad); the program may not have expertise in your specific interest area; and your interest in and motivation for graduate training in psychology should stem from broader and more general concerns than specific personal experiences.
Your personal statement and entire application should indicate that you are definitely interested in graduate work in psychology and that you have some idea what graduate work in psychology involves. You can acquire information about graduate study in psychology by talking with your T.A.s. How can you show your motivation? Get research experience. Do more than is necessary in courses or research projects; this does not go unnoticed in letters of recommendation. Join organizations such as TSPA or Psi Chi and become a student affiliate of A.P.A. Attend departmental colloquia. Enroll in the honors program. Tell the selection committee what turns you on about psychology.
Letters of Recommendation
All programs require letters of recommendation; most require three. Letters from psychology faculty members are most desirable, but don't hesitate to ask faculty members in other disciplines for a letter if they know you and if you think they have a good impression of your academic or research abilities. Most students at a large university need to plan ahead to be able to ask three faculty members to write letters for them. Take some smaller classes such as PSY 458, 341K or 379K, honors courses, or individual instruction courses (357 and 359) in which you have an opportunity to become known by a faculty member. A faculty member in a large lecture course can usually write only that you were in the top XX percent of the class; a faculty member in a smaller course, especially one with a substantial writing or research component, can say more. You can, if you want, submit additional letters from work supervisors or people with whom you have worked in an academic setting, if you think they can address your motivation and ability to do advanced academic work. However, do not substitute those letters for letters from faculty members. Letters from work supervisors or people outside your university are given much less weight by admissions committees.
It is acceptable to ask a faculty member to write a letter to each of the 10 or so programs to which you are applying: most will write one letter and photocopy it to attach to the recommendation forms supplied by each school. You should, however, make the recommender's task as easy as possible. You should supply a list of the schools and programs that you are applying to and their admission deadlines; the recommendation forms with the top sections correctly filled out and the right of access to the letter waived; and stamped envelopes addressed to the schools with the sender's return address on them. (The simplest address for UT faculty is: Dr. Ima Psychologist, Department of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin, TX 787l2.) Your recommenders will want some or all of the following information from you to write a knowledgeable letter: a brief statement of your interests in psychology; your various GPAs (overall, upper-division, and psychology); psychology courses taken; other areas of concentration besides psychology (minor or other set of courses); GRE scores (if known); relevant research and work experience; and any papers written for the course(s) taken from them.
Your undergraduate degree in Psychology provides you with more options for graduate school than you might imagine. There are many doctoral and masters programs outside Psychology departments that you should consider. If your interests are in applied aspects of psychology, you should consider graduate programs in related fields such as special education, school counseling, career counseling, vocational rehabilitation, criminology, and social work. The M.S.W. (Master of Social Work) degree may be especially appealing. With the M.S.W. and some years of supervised experience you can become licensed to practice psychology as a psychotherapist. Many staff members of rehabilitation clinics and hospitals and many practitioners in the areas of substance abuse have a M.S.W. degree. M.Ed. (Master of Education) programs are especially good ones to consider if you are interested in counseling in a school or university setting or if you are interested in rehabilitation or career counseling. If your interests are strictly in applied psychology and your goals are to obtain certification for a professional career as quickly as possible, Masters programs may be your best choice.
If you are interested in basic science doctoral programs and you have a strong orientation toward research in certain areas, Ph.D. programs outside Psychology departments might be worth investigating. If you are interested in biological, physiological, or sensory psychology, you might consider Neuroscience programs or programs in the neurobiology areas of Biology, Zoology, Physiology, or Anatomy. Consider Pharmacology departments (often in Pharmacy Schools or Health Science Centers) if your interests are in mechanisms of drug actions; Linguistics departments if you are interested in language processing; and Sociology, Economics, or Business programs such as Management or Organizational Behavior if you have interests in the social psychology of decision making or group dynamics. Each of these will have different admission requirements (most, if not all, of which you would meet with your undergraduate psychology degree) and each would provide slightly different training. Nevertheless, the faculty interests and research undertaken in these settings are often indistinguishable from those in Psychology departments. These are only a few suggestions. You can get more and get some advice about your options for graduate school by talking to Psychology faculty members in your area of interest.
Preparing for Graduate School
- Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) Mentorship Directory
- Petersons.com: The Graduate School Application Process
- US News & World Report: American's Best Graduate Schools
- Psychology Degree Guide
Learn More about Graduate School in Clinical Psychology
- American Psychological Association: Applying to Grad School
- Graduate School and Careers in Psychology
- The Student Doctor Network: Advice from Prof for Applicants to PhD Programs
- The Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology: Student Resources
- The Pursuing Psychology Graduate School Information Page
- Graduate Training Programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Related Fields