Graduate programs in psychology vary widely in their competitiveness. Even students who comfortably fit a program’s qualifications may not receive admission. Acceptance into a doctoral program requires related work experience and/or research experience, as well as excellent undergraduate performance. In general, master's programs are less competitive than doctoral programs. There are a few reasons for this. Number one, there are limited positions in doctoral programs. Number two, and more importantly, due to the present job market, many people have gone back to school to get their Ph.D. This puts recent college graduates at a disadvantage. You may be applying for the same positions as are people with years of field experience.
When considering whether or not to attend graduate school, you need to decide if you would like a career that surpasses that of a supervised position. If you do, you should consider furthering your education. The practice of delivering independent services as a psychologist ordinarily requires a doctoral degree. Still, there are settings where a master's degree may be sufficient.
The first step in choosing which graduate schools to apply to is to decide upon the area of psychology in which you wish to be trained (i.e. clinical, counseling, experimental, cognitive, etc.) and the degree you wish to pursue.
Once you have decided on the degree and specialization you want to pursue, you should begin to find information about individual programs at particular schools. Do not make the assumption that all graduate programs are the same. Investigate! Be knowledgeable about each program’s philosophy, training goals, specific features and faculty interests.
This can be accomplished by consulting the most recent issue of the APA’s Graduate Study in Psychology. This book provides recent information on over 500 Psychology graduate programs in the U.S. and Canada, at both the master’s and doctoral levels. You should apply to schools that offer both the degree and specialization you eventually wish to realize. If you choose a terminal masters program, there is a possibility that one institution will not accept the credits earned at another institution (if and when you decide to pursue your doctorate). It may also be difficult to transfer from one program to another (e.g. social to clinical).
Admission requirements vary from program to program, so you need to check the requirements for each program that interests you. This information is also available in the Graduate Study in Psychology book. However, there are some basic guidelines that may be helpful. Most graduate programs require, or at least prefer, significant undergraduate course work equivalent to a Psychology major or minor. "Departments commonly require or prefer undergraduate courses in introductory or general psychology, statistics and research design" (APA, 1991 p. XIII).
Although your grade point average is an important factor for admission to graduate school, several other criteria are also considered in the process. Among them are: research experience, work experience, standardized test scores (GRE General Exam, Psychology Subject Exam and the Miller Analogy Exam), extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, interviews, and, finally, the autobiographical statement or statement of intent. The degree of importance placed on these criteria vary from program to program.
It is important that you get to know your professors. They can be a valuable source of information about the field of psychology, and you will need to ask them for letters of recommendation. Your professor will need to know more about you than where you sit in class or the grade you received in a course. One way to accomplish this is to work with a faculty member in a directed study, advanced research class, internship and /or practicum.
Most programs require that you take the GREs (Graduate Record Exam) and/or the Miller Analogies Test. Information regarding these exams can be found at the Kruse Center for Academic and Professional Excellence. It is important that you prepare for these tests.
Be sure to type all communication on your graduate school application and be certain your grammar and spelling are correct. Take advantage of the Center for Writing and Academic Achievement to help with this process. When writing your autobiographical statement, you are advised to "...try to focus on particular educational and occupational experiences you have had that could account for your interests, rather than personal experiences." (APH Observer, 1989, p. 18). This statement of intent is EXTREMELY important. Give it special attention.
Most programs offer some sort of assistance, although assistance for a doctoral program is much more common. You are advised to apply for financial assistance to every program to which you are applying to for admission. Available in the Kruse Center are GAPSFAS (Graduate and Professional School Financial Aid Service), financial statements and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Types of financial aid include: fellowships, traineeships and assistantships. A wonderful book which you might consider investing in is Free Money for Graduate School
Universities, private foundations and governmental agencies award fellowship stipends on the basis of both financial need and academic achievements. "In order to attract students of merit, some universities waive tuition for fellowship holders who would not ordinarily be eligible for tuition remission" (Fretz & Stang, 1983, p. 64). Some fellowships are granted for only one year, while others are renewable if the student continues to do well in the program.
Traineeships are awarded and funded by outside agencies, but are usually granted and administered by the graduate program" (Fretz & Stang, 1983, p. 64). These students may be given responsibilities separate from their academic work.
Lastly, students can work as teaching, laboratory or research assistants. Teaching assistants may teach a small number of classes or grade papers. Laboratory and research assistants may engage in general projects for the department as a whole or they may work for a particular professor. Numerous governmental loan programs are also available. Some of them do have maximum income limits. Do some research in this area to find out if you qualify.
This section is dedicated to those of you who are considering applying to Graduate School, but are confused about which degree is appropriate for your needs and interests. When you graduate from Stonehill, you will (probably) have earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Advance or graduate degrees, on the other hand, are typically offered for areas of specialization within psychology. The following is a brief description of the different degree options available to you.
Doctor of Philosophy
(Ph.D. in Clinical, Cognitive, Counseling, Developmental, Experimental, General, Industrial/Organizational, Social, etc.)
The Ph.D. "is the traditional degree given by departments of psychology and it is conferred only when someone has completed a formal dissertation as well as appropriate doctoral-level course work." (Fretz & Stang, 1983, p. 14). Ph.D. programs favor those with a strong commitment to and high interest in research, indicating the importance of gaining experience in research. A Ph.D. normally takes four to five years to complete depending on whether you have completed a master’s degree or are applying right out of college with your bachelor’s degree. The majority of Ph.D. programs these days do not require you to obtain a master’s degree before applying, but the competition to gain acceptance into a Ph.D. program is extremely competitive (particularly for those individuals interested in obtaining a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology). It is to your benefit to apply to Ph.D. programs which are accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) as these accredited programs are carefully monitored by the APA and are looked favorably upon by professionals in the psychology field (i.e. coming out of an APA-accredited program will enhance your chances of obtaining employment in the psychology field).
Competitive applicants to Ph.D. programs should have solid research experience (a paper published in a psychology journal or presented at a regional conference is looked extremely favorably upon), a relatively high G.P.A (the standard cut-off for most programs is 3.0, although many programs have a much higher cut-off), high GRE scores on both the general and/or subject test in psychology (score cut-offs tend to vary from program to program, but you need to STUDY A LOT to do well on them!), and a well thought out personal statement. In addition to these requirements, Clinical and Counseling Ph.D. programs ask for a certain amount of volunteer/work experience in a clinical setting (it helps if you have been supervised by a Ph.D. level psychologist, although this is not always possible for undergraduate interns). The best way to become a competitive applicant is to plan ahead. There are many opportunities to gain research experience in psychology. Refer to the section on directed studies, as well as the course descriptions of the research classes which are offered by different professors periodically. It is recommended that students interested in doctoral programs apply to 10-12 programs. This is an extremely expensive ($$$) process, so start saving now! If you feel that you are not as competitive an applicant as you would like to be, you should apply to master’s programs to fall back on.
Doctor of Education
Programs for obtaining an Ed.D. are similar to those of a Ph.D., but are honored in Schools of Education. It is important that when you look for graduate programs in psychology, that you look under Schools of Education, because many Counseling and School Psychology programs are contained in a university’s School of Education, rather than in the School of Arts and Sciences. Here, again, it is wise to be sure that the programs you select are APA accredited.
Doctor of Psychology
The Psy.D. is a relatively new degree that reflects concentration on the applied training side of psychology. The dissertation requirement of a Psy.D. may center more on practical application and less on research. Like the Ph.D., the Psy.D. may take anywhere from four to five years to complete. It is important to note that if you are ever considering teaching at the college level, most colleges and universities require a Ph.D. to teach in their Psychology Departments and will not hire individuals with a Psy.D. An individual with a Psy.D. degree can take the licensing exam and become a licensed psychologist.
(M.A., M.S., M.Ed., in Clinical, Cognitive, Community, Counseling, Developmental, Experimental, General, Industrial/Organizational, Social, etc.)
A Master’s Degree in Psychology normally takes about two years (full-time) to complete and usually involves the completion of a thesis before a degree is conferred. Some master’s programs are geared toward preparing students for entry into doctoral programs while others, known as terminal master’s degrees, aim at preparing students for entering the work force. Entering a terminal master’s program does not necessarily mean that you are banned from applying to doctoral programs, but you may have a difficult time transferring credits and it may take you longer to complete your doctorate.
There are different types of master’s degrees in psychology, and it is important that you explore your options to determine which degree best suits your needs and interests. If you are certain that you would eventually like to pursue your doctorate in clinical or counseling psychology, a master’s degree in clinical or counseling psychology might be your best option. But again, research your programs carefully, because there are some distinctions which are important to take note of.
These distinctions are important when researching schools which offer a master’s in clinical psychology degree. Some schools will have two separate degrees - an M.A. in Clinical and an M.S. in Clinical. The M.A. is sometimes geared towards those intending to pursue further doctoral study, while the M.S. is a terminal degree for those seeking employment after graduation. Look for similar distinctions between Applied Master’s and Master’s with Thesis Degrees. If you are certain that you want to pursue a doctorate in psychology but feel that you are not prepared enough to apply for Ph.D. programs at this point, apply to master’s programs at schools which offer Ph.D.’s in the area in which you wish to specialize, and which are also accredited by the APA. This is to your advantage because most institutions offer advanced standing to candidates who are accepted into Ph.D. programs and have completed their master’s degree there as well. Earning a license requires additional supervised experience and passing a state licensing exam.
General or general/experimental master’s degrees are an option for those of you who feel that you need more preparation before applying to Ph.D. programs, and do not yet have a specific Ph.D. specialization in mind. There is arguably a higher acceptance rate into Ph.D. programs for individuals who have chosen this option.
Master’s in Social Work
What’s this?! I’m interested in psychology, NOT Social Work!!! Many of you who are budding clinical and counseling psychologists have probably not thought of the M.S.W. degree as an option. You might picture a social worker as someone who hands out food stamps, but that really is no longer the case. The M.S.W. degree is extremely marketable these days, especially with the way the healthcare system is heading. Most M.S.W. degrees take about two years (full-time) to complete and allow you to become licensed upon completion. Most programs allow you to specialize in either clinical or macro cocial work. Clinical social workers work in a variety of settings ranging from independent practices doing individual and group work to agency and hospital settings. Macro social workers are involved with more of the administrative aspects of social policy. In addition, many Schools of Social Work at large universities offer dual degree programs in conjunction with other schools on campus where individuals can complete two degrees in less time. A popular dual-degree is the M.S.W./J.D., where individuals go part-time in the School of Social Work and part-time in the Law School of a university.
There are a variety of advancement opportunities in the social work field because it is a field that is rapidly growing and changing. Individuals with M.S.W. degrees may also pursue their Doctorate in Social Work (D.S.W.) or may still pursue a Doctorate in Psychology if they choose. Earning a license in social work requires additional experience beyond the master’s, such as regular professional supervision and passing a state licensing exam.
Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study
This is a post-master’s degree program designed for individuals who have already completed a master’s degree in counseling or psychology and who wish to further their knowledge of theory and practice.
Common Specialized Fields
The more common specialized fields in Psychology include:
- Biological Psychology
- Clinical Psychology
- Cognitive Psychology
- Counseling Psychology
- Developmental Psychology
- Educational Psychology
- Experimental Psychology
- Forensic Psychology and Criminology
- Health Psychology
- Industrial and Organizational Psychology
- Psychology of Religion
- School Psychology
- Social Psychology
Undergraduates must have a background in chemistry and biology, and courses in experimental psychology, personality theory, motivation, learning and abnormal psychology. Graduate study emphasizes neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, animal behavior and laboratory techniques. Graduate students conduct research under the supervision of their professors.
Work in this area includes neurology, pharmacology, biology and ethology, as well as the newer areas of neuropsychology and psychopharmacology.
Clinical and counseling psychology are closely related. The distinction is in the emphasis of therapy and in the intensity of graduate training. The Clinical Psychologist helps clients with difficulties ranging from emotional problems and personality disorders to psychoses. Admission to Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology is very competitive.
An undergraduate intending to pursue a higher degree in clinical psychology should obtain both clinical and research experience, as well as a solid background in psychology.
Graduate studies in this field may emphasize skills development in testing (personality assessment), treatment planning, and therapy, as well as the importance of research and research techniques. Students can choose to specialize in a variety of fields, including but not limited to, behavioral neuroscience, health psychology and child psychopathology.
Career placement includes mental health clinics, hospitals, prisons, consulting firms, private practices, universities and colleges (as an instructor), and research centers. Graduate education is necessary in this field, as better positions exist at the doctorate level.
Undergraduate students intending to pursue graduate studies in cognitive psychology should obtain a solid background in psychology, including statistics and research methods.
A doctorate is necessary for positions above the assistant or technician level. Many cognitive psychologists work as researchers and professors in colleges and universities.
Graduate studies involve courses in developmental, educational, personality and social psychology, as well as training in counseling skills and psychological testing and research.
Career placement in this field includes work in community guidance centers, rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, consulting firms, schools, colleges, universities and private practice. A master’s or doctorate degree is needed to enter a counseling position.
Undergraduate students wishing to pursue careers in developmental psychology are best advised to acquire a broad selection of psychology courses including course work in development and personality. Graduate study for a developmental psychologist includes general, experimental, social and theoretical courses in psychology, as well as specialized courses in childhood and adolescence, and the psychological problems of adulthood and old age.
A doctorate is necessary for employment above the assistant or technical level. Many developmental psychologists are employed by colleges and universities, and typically occupy teaching positions. Most developmental research labs are connected with hospitals or homes for the aged.
Undergraduate students with an interest in educational psychology should acquire a broad foundation in psychology and should consider electives, or a concentration in, education. Educational psychologists complete graduate study in counseling, guidance and measurement techniques. Teaching experience is invaluable, and is required in some states, because as an educational psychologist, one must be able to understand classroom procedures and communicate with teachers and administrators.
Career placement includes positions in colleges and universities, on boards of education, and in secondary and elementary school systems.
The undergraduate who intends to pursue this area of psychology should focus on the study of statistics and research methods, and the natural sciences. Preparation for graduate school should also include developmental, cognitive, social and personality courses.
Graduate school students are expected to master experimental methods and the functions of the sense organs. They are required to understand analysis of the learning process and related theories as well as to design and conduct experiments. Any degree below the doctorate level is generally considered inadequate for a professional career in experimental psychology. Two-thirds of experimental psychology research is performed in universities and colleges, where psychologists both teach and conduct research.
Forensic Psychology and Criminology
A few universities offer joint Ph.D. - J.D. programs for those wishing to pursue a law degree and a Ph.D. in psychology. A Ph.D. in psychology with a specialty in forensic or correctional psychology is also adequate. Many law schools and psychology departments are working together to enhance the psychological knowledge contained by both.
Health psychologists help individuals and families cope with chronic illness and disability and provide wellness and preventative health services. Common therapeutic techniques include biofeedback, relaxation training, stress reduction, cognitive restructuring and systematic desensitization. Health psychologists are also involved in research to further augment knowledge in this rapidly growing area.
Undergraduate preparation for a career in health psychology includes a general psychology curriculum, courses in statistics and research, experimental psychology and biological psychology. Graduate students can choose to specialize in health psychology.
Health psychologists are often employed in health care settings, working alongside other medical staff as an interdisciplinary team. Most career opportunities exist at the doctoral level, although supervised employment does exist at the master's level.
Industrial and Organizational Psychology
With a bachelor’s degree, an entry level position in a human resource office is attainable. With a master’s degree or a doctoral degree, possibilities include being a director of human resources or acting as an inside or outside consultant for a business. Positions are available in consulting firms, colleges and universities, and within the government and armed forces.
Psychology of Religion
Graduate studies consist of courses in developmental, personality, abnormal psychology and theology. Graduate degrees are offered at the master’s and doctoral levels. Career placement in the field includes positions in an academic or church setting.
The undergraduate psychology student who is interested in psychometrics must obtain a background in mathematics, particularly calculus. Graduate studies include training in statistics, tests and measurements and computer applications.
There is demand for psychometricians wherever any aspect of humanity is measured, for example, federal, state and local government agencies, schools, businesses and industries, consulting firms, and research bureaus. Teaching positions are also available in the psychology and education departments of colleges and universities.
Training at the undergraduate level in this field should involve course work in psychology and education. Graduate studies include courses in developmental, educational, personality and social psychology, as well as in measurement.
Positions in this field exist at the master’s and doctoral levels.
Career placement include positions in the public and private school systems, boards of education, colleges, and universities. School psychologists occupy jobs as directors of guidance and supervisors of psychological services in a school system.
An undergraduate intending to pursue graduate study in social psychology should obtain a solid general psychology background, and some type of research experience.
Research in this field is useful in industry, especially for market research and advertising. Career placement for social psychologists includes positions in universities, research institutions, government agencies, and market research and consulting firms. Research findings can also be used in jury selection and other legal issues.
*Information for this section was obtained from Opportunities in Psychology Careers, copyright 1988, by Charles Super, Ph.D. and Donald Super, Ph.D. and Peterson’s Guide to Graduate Programs in the Humanities and Social Sciences 1992 and Biopsychology copyright 1993, by J.P.J. Pinel. The Stonehill library provides reference books about psychology. Used for this text were Raymond J. Corsini’s Concise Encyclopedia of Psychology, copyright 1987, and D.H. Borchardt and R.D. Frances’ How to find out in Psychology, copyright 1984.
Graduate schools will look especially closely at your grades in statistics and research methods, so plan to do very well in these courses. You can also enhance your application by completing a research project. You will do one in research methods, and can follow that up by doing a directed study or by working with faculty on their research.
Plan to take one or more courses from the professors from whom you will want recommendations by the fall semester of your senior year. Also, take time to talk with them outside of class so they can get to know you. This will ensure that they will be familiar with you and your work before they write letters (typically in January). You will usually need letters of recommendations from three faculty members.
Begin some serious reflection on the areas in psychology that most interest you. When you apply to graduate school, you must apply to programs in specific areas (clinical, developmental, experimental, social, etc.).
Read: Preparing for Graduate Study in Psychology and The Complete Guide to Graduate School Admissions.
Strive to meet the requirements for membership in Psi Chi, the national honor society in psychology, in your junior year so that you can list this on your application materials.
Review the latest edition of the book Graduate Study in Psychology and Allied Fields. This book describes the programs, admissions requirements, and deadlines for almost every psychology related graduate program in the U.S. and Canada.
When you narrow your list of possible graduate programs to 20 or less, you should write to these schools or go to their website to get their catalogs and the latest, detailed information about their programs and deadlines. The summer is a good time to begin collecting this information.
Don't hesitate to ask your faculty advisor when specific questions arise.
Summer Between Junior and Senior Year
Early in the summer, view websites to get application materials. Be sure to seek out information about financial aid.
Use the summer to review the information. You might want to apply to two programs that are "long shots" (schools whose entrance requirements--GRE and GPA--you don't meet); 2-3 which are "borderline" programs (you meet the GRE requirement, but not the GPA or vice-versa); and 3-5 which are "good match" programs (those whose average scores match yours). Apply to 1-2 programs that are "almost sure bets" (programs whose requirements you exceed).
Once you know what schools to which you will apply, prepare a set of index cards or a chart with information on all the schools, application materials required, financial aid application information, and all relevant deadlines. Use the chart to help you meet your deadlines.
Use the summer months to prepare for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and the Miller Analogies Test (MAT) if you need to take it. More than anything else, your admission to graduate school will depend on your scores on the verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking and analytical writing skills of the GRE (not the Special Test in Psychology).
Use the summer months to prepare a draft of your autobiographical statement. Most schools require a statement about your personal and educational background. Be honest, objective and brief (2-3 pages).
Graduate schools will be evaluating your transcripts in January and February of your senior year so plan ahead in your course selection.
- If possible, get research experience by fall semester and submit your paper to a research conference. Listing participation in a research conference will enhance your application.
- Contact faculty members to write recommendations for you.
- Work on your autobiographical statement.
- Take the GRE by this date.
- Ask faculty members to review the draft of your autobiographical statement. Make revisions as necessary.
- Give recommendation forms to the faculty who will be writing recommendations for you.
- Request that transcripts be sent to programs from all colleges attended.
- Complete applications with January deadlines and mail them with several weeks to spare. Be sure to: (1) TYPE all application materials, (2) PROOFREAD all materials for grammatical errors and misspellings, and (3) XEROX COPIES of all materials before you send them.
- Call the departments to which you have applied to be sure that they have received all your materials. Most schools will not consider incomplete applications.
- If there are any outstanding letters of recommendation, check with faculty to be sure that they have been sent.
- Most schools will notify you of your status (regular acceptance, provisional acceptance, on waiting list, application denied) on or around April 15.
- Upon receiving notification of acceptance(s), consult with faculty in making your final decision. Once you have notified this school, be sure to tell other schools you will not be coming so they can offer your place to another student.
- If all of your applications are rejected, consult with faculty about your options. You might: (1) work for a year, prepare for the GRE, and re-apply to psychology programs, (2) enter a master's program in psychology, re-take the GRE, and reapply to doctoral programs, or (3) think about applying to degree programs in fields similar to psychology such as social work (M.S.W.) or education (M.Ed. or Ed.D.) if you have not already explored these options.
Acknowledgements: Some of the information in this section was taken from the psychology department website at Georgia State University.
Here are some psychology-related links you may find helpful.
- APA.org - The American Psychological Association is a professional organization. Student memberships are accepted. The site includes information on the latest findings published in the APA journals, links to the various Divisions of APA, information on the many publications of APA, etc.
- PsychologicalScience.org - The American Psychological Society is a professional organization for psychologists with research interests in any field of Psychology. Student memberships are accepted.
Psi Chi is the national honor society in psychology. This organization was founded in 1929 for the stated purpose of "encouraging, stimulating, and maintaining excellence in scholarship and advancing the science of Psychology". It is a national organization with chapters at more than 875 colleges and universities across the country.
The criteria for induction into the society are as follows:
- Student must be a psychology major or minor
- Student must be at least in their junior year
- Student must have completed at least four Psychology courses
- Student must have a minimum GPA of 3.2 in their Psychology classes
- Student must be in the top 30% of their class overall
- Students are inducted into Psi Chi in the spring. If you are wondering if you meet the criteria for membership, contact Professor Mike Tirrell, the faculty advisor of the Stonehill chapter.
Stonehill Graduate Degrees
The following is a short list of degrees and occupations that psychology majors at Stonehill College entered after graduating. There are many possible occupations for psychology majors; this is not a comprehensive list of career options.
- Cognitive Psychology
- Clinical Psychology
- Developmental Psychology
- Social Work
- Social Psychology
- Clinical Psychology
- Art and Museum History
- Experimental Psychology
- Industrial/Organizational Psychology
- Occupational Therapy
- Physician Assistant Studies
- Public Relations
- School Counseling
- School Psychology
- Social Work
- Applied Educational Psychology
- Educational Psychology
- Speech-Language Pathology
- Human Resource Management
Psychology graduates from the classes of ’73 to ’07 were surveyed and asked to list their current job. Below are just some of the jobs psychology graduates hold. Many pursued jobs directly related to their psychology degree, however, the degree is truly applicable to many professions.
- Clinical Social Worker
- DSS Social Worker
- Guidance Counselor
- School Counselor
- Speech Therapist
- Community Care Assistant Director
- Nursing Home Administrator
- Physical Therapist
- Occupational Therapist
- Registered Nurse
- Clinical Researcher
- Neuroscience Researcher
- Research Assistant
- Research Project Coordinator
- Correctional Officer
- Police Officer
- Probation Officer
- Account Manager
- Financial Analyst
- Sales Representative
- Peace Corps Community Development Advisor
- United Way Director
- VISTA Coordinator
- College Administration
- Human Resources
- Officer Manager
- I/O Consulting Firm
- College Professor
- Elementary School
- High School
- Special Education
For more information about careers, talk with your academic advisor and/or visit the Career Development Center.