Every year, prospective graduate students will begin the process of submitting applications for psychology graduate programs. In fact, some estimate more than 100,000 applications will be submitted (Stamm et al., 2016).
So, you’ve decided to search for a graduate program in psychology, but where do you start? And how do you decide which one is right for you and your goals? The answer to these questions really comes down to what is most important to you. Though this is a personal choice, here are some of the questions to consider when choosing a psychology graduate program.
What kind of psychology career or job do you want?
If you can answer this question, then you can work backwards to determine what kind of education and training you need to achieve your goal. However, if you are like some prospective graduate students, you may not know what kind of job you eventually want…so how do you decide?
There are a number of things you can do to help you decide which career path in psychology is right for you. First, you can look at the many different branches of psychology to help determine which areas interest you the most. Some refer to these as areas of concentration, fields, or areas of specialization. Second, you can talk with psychology professors at your undergraduate institution or at other graduate schools to find out how and why they chose their particular career path. Third, you can also talk to psychologists within, and outside of, the academic field. Fourth, you may want to consider reaching out to current students in the program to ask some questions (what they like and dislike about the program, what advice they have for you, what would they do differently, funding opportunities, which faculty are accepting new students, etc.). Finally, you can do your own research…read books, explore websites, and listen or watch psychology podcasts to get a better understanding of possible careers and advice.
As a psychologist, do you want to meet with clients or focus more on research?
There are many branches of psychology and some of them are more focused on a clinical path versus an experimental path. Some of the branches or concentrations that focus on the clinical path include clinical, applied, counseling, neuropsychology, clinical health, and school psychology. Some of the branches that focus on the experimental path include cognitive, developmental, experimental, forensic, industrial organizational, legal, and social psychology.
What kind of training model does a psychology graduate program follow and does it fit your goals?
Graduate programs typically fall under one of three training models. First, the research/scientist model focuses predominantly on research and treats psychology as a scientific field. Most experimental programs follow this model, however, some clinical programs also follow this model. This model prepares the student for careers in research and academia. Second, the scientist/practitioner model focuses on, and tries to balance, both research and practice (or clinical). This model prepares the student for both academic research as well as clinical experience. Third, the practitioner/scholar model focuses primarily on practice while still promoting academic research and scholarship. Many of the programs which follow this model may offer a PsyD and may require little to no direct research experience. This model prepares the student who wants to focus more on the applied clinical path (i.e., someone who would rather see clients than conduct research).
Do you want to receive a psychology master’s degree, or would you like to continue your graduate education and receive a doctorate?
You can receive a master’s degree by completing either a Master of Arts (MA) or a Master of Science (MS) program. It usually takes 2-3 years to complete your master’s degree and most, if not all, require you to complete a thesis. In most states, you can become a licensed practitioner with a master’s degree in psychology, however, check your state to confirm.
If you want to continue your graduate career in psychology, you can receive a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), or a Doctor of Education (EdD). The PhD is recognized as the most prestigious graduate degree and usually takes around 5-6 years or more to complete and is usually capped by a dissertation. Please note that PhD candidates earn their master’s while working on their doctorate. Doctorate programs can be clinical or non-clinical. A PsyD is a relatively newer graduate degree when compared to the PhD and usually takes around 4-5 years to complete. The PsyD emphasizes practice over research and usually involves several practica or a practicum where the student sees clients while under supervision from advisors. Though the PsyD usually doesn’t require a dissertation, most programs will require a smaller-scale research paper. The EdD is a third doctorate option for those interested in a career as a school psychologist or a position in a related education field. It usually takes around 3-5 years to earn your EdD. Please note that people who begin their work toward an EdD may already have a master’s degree while those who begin working on their PhD or PsyD usually have completed a bachelor’s degree.
When selecting a psychology graduate program, would you like to work in the academic field or outside of academia?
If you would like to work as a professor, you would work toward your PhD. If you are not sure if you want to teach, many colleges and universities allow you teach while working on your master’s or doctorate. This may help you determine if you enjoy teaching while keeping your educational costs down as you can earn a stipend, receive a reduced tuition rate, or simply get paid for teaching.
Which faculty members are well-known in their psychology field or specialization?
Look at the research of the faculty members within the school and program in which you are interested. You can try to find a program where several professors are currently doing, or have done, research in the same area. You may also pick a school or program based on faculty members under whom you would like to work.
Furthermore, though applications are received by graduate schools and programs, many times in psychology, the prospective faculty advisor plays an important role in the decision-making and acceptance process. Therefore, you can do your research on the faculty. For example, look at their bios, lines of research, CVs, and their most recent publications to get a good idea of their past and present interests. You can tailor your application and personal statements or areas of interest to the faculty members with whom you want to work.
Should you select an accredited psychology program?
Programmatic accreditation for PhD programs is awarded by the American Psychological Association (APA) or Canadian Psychological Association (CPA). The APA only accredits doctoral level programs. If you are interested in becoming a clinical psychologist, most resources recommend choosing an APA-accredited doctoral program as this enhances your career options. Many state licensing agencies and internships require students to attend an APA-accredited program. An accredited program also helps ensure that you receive a quality and well-rounded education as a program must meet a set of standards established by the APA’s Commission on Accreditation. Both the American Psychological Association (APA) and Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) have more information on their accreditation requirements, policies, and directories of doctoral programs that they have accredited.
How much do you want to spend on your psychology graduate degree?
During your research, you should consider the tuition costs, application costs, cost of official transcripts, cost of the general GRE test, cost of GRE psychology subject test, and the corresponding GRE score reports.
This also leads to questions regarding available financial aid, cost of living, and costs associated with living on-campus or off-campus as well as whether the school offers online vs. in-person/in-class courses. Though online courses may be less expensive, the curriculum and requirements will be the same as in-person/in-class courses.
Should you attend a public or private psychology graduate school?
There are more public schools available and they tend to be larger, offer more degree options, and be less expensive than private schools because some of the funding is subsidized by the state. On the other hand, private schools are smaller, offer fewer degree options, and are more expensive than public schools. Private schools may have lower rates of admission which means they have a smaller student-to-faculty ratio and more generous scholarship opportunities as funding comes from alumni and school scholarship programs.
What are the EPPP pass rates of the psychology graduate program?
If you want to practice psychology, then you must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) which is a computerized test typically containing around 225 multiple-choice questions. It is designed to evaluate your knowledge of essential areas of psychology including assessment and treatment as well as other areas such as bases of behavior. With this in mind, you can pick a program with a high pass rate. For more information on the EPPP, licensing and credentialing, and verifying a license, you can visit the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) website.
Other areas to consider when choosing a psychology graduate program
Other areas to consider include location, length of program, application process and acceptance criteria, how many people are admitted per term or per year, and the overall feel of the program. For example, programs may offer cooperative or competitive funding, stipends, grants, or fellowships. Some states also offer reduced tuition rates for in-state residents or reciprocity for students in neighboring states. On average, in-state tuition can save you 40% to 60% compared to out-of-state tuition. Given today’s environment, you may want to consider whether you can take the classes online or whether you need to meet for classes in person. You should also consider the travel and living arrangements while enrolled in the program.
In the end, the only way to decide which graduate school and program is right for you is to do your research, decide whether you want to see clients or conduct research (or both), and then decide which factors are most important for you. If you are not sure whether you want to see clients or do more research, then select a program that follows the practitioner/scholar model so you get a taste of each as it also allows you to continue your graduate education by entering a doctoral program. If you know your career goals (what you want to do after graduation) then select a school and program that specializes in, or offers concentrations in, your area of interest. If you are not sure, then select a school with a reputable, general education in psychology before entering a specialized program.
References and Resources
Kracen, A.C & Wallace, I.J. (Eds.). (2008). Applying to graduate school in psychology: Advice from successful students and prominent psychologists. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Norcross, J.C. & Hogan, T.P. (Presenters). (2015). Preparing and applying for graduate school in psychology: A free video series to guide students through research, applications, interviews and decisions. American Psychological Association.
Stamm, K., Michalski, D., Cope, C., Fowler, G., Christidis, P., & Lin, L. (2106, February). Datapoint: What are the acceptance rates for graduate psychology programs? Monitor on Psychology, 47(2), 16.
The American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) also has a Committee for the Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Diversity (CARED) which has several resources for students of color. For example, the APAGS Resources for Students of Color Applying to Graduate Schools in Psychology web page includes podcasts, videos, and resource guides for ethnic minority graduate students.