Applying to Graduate School in Psychology
Prepared by Professor Mark Leary
Note: For specific questions and for assistance in the application process, speak with your advisor and/or the Director of Undergraduate Studies. The DUS office can assist you with identifying programs that match your interests, reviewing your personal statement and resume, and with mock interviews. You'll also find a listing of specific resources to consult at the end of this document.
Applying to graduate school can be a confusing and intimidating affair. With several hundred graduate programs in the United States alone, students may become overwhelmed by the application process. This brochure discusses the process of applying to graduate school and answers commonly-asked questions about grad school.
Types of Graduate Programs
The number and variety of graduate programs in psychology is staggering. Fortunately, a complete catalog of all programs in the United States and Canada can be found in the book, Graduate Study in Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association. This guide may be ordered from the APA website.
Master's programs. At the most general level, there are two kinds of master's programs. "General" (sometimes called "general experimental" master's programs) provide a strong grounding in basic theory and research across all areas of psychology, but do not train applied psychologists. "Specialized" or "applied" master's programs (such as those offering master's degrees in clinical, school, counseling, or industrial-organizational psychology) provide training for people who wish to practice psychology after receiving their master's degree.
Which program is best for you depends on your career goals. If you intend to stop your education with a master's degree, after which you will practice psychology, a specialized master's degree program in clinical, counseling, school, or industrial-organizational psychology may be your best route.
However, programs in general psychology are appropriate if you (a) plan to go on to get your Ph.D. after completing your master's, (b) want to work in a setting other than practice after getting your master's (community college teaching, research, consulting), or (c) know that you want to go on in psychology but aren't quite certain which specialty area is best for you. Opportunities for work in applied/practice settings are possible with a general M.A., but such opportunities are limited.
Note that, if you want to go on to get your doctorate in clinical, counseling, school, or industrial-organizational psychology, you are often better off having a general master's degree than a specialized (clinical, counseling, school, or I-O) master's. This is because Ph.D. programs in the applied areas prefer their students to enter with a strong background in general psychology and research on which they can build applied skills. Students with a master's degree in general psychology are often better prepared for doctoral-level work in applied areas of psychology than students with a specialized master's degree.
Doctoral programs. Students desiring to obtain their Ph.D. must choose the area of psychology they wish to specialize in before starting the application process. Different universities have strengths in different areas so that those with the best programs in some areas of psychology are not necessarily those with the best programs in other areas.
If you are applying to doctoral programs in clinical, counseling, or school psychology, you need to consider whether the program is APA-accredited. Accreditation by the American Psychological Association indicates that the program meets the APA's minimum qualifications. Programs in areas of psychology other than clinical, counseling, and I-O are not accredited.
As you probably know, competition for doctoral programs is intense, particularly in clinical, counseling, and I-O psychology. It is not unusual for a program to receive over 300 applications, from which less than 15 students are chosen. As a result, many people who want to get a Ph.D. in clinical, counseling, or I-O psychology choose to get their master's degree first. Armed with proof that they can do graduate-level work, master's graduates are more successful in being admitted to highly competitive programs than applicants with a B.A. only.
Also, all students intent on applying to doctoral programs, regardless of specialty, should think about "backing up" their first choices with applications to good master's programs. This way, should you not be admitted directly to a doctoral program, you can take the master's route.
Other programs. Keep in mind that you may not need to go to graduate school in psychology to obtain the sort of job you want. Many other fields specialize in preparing people for the "helping professions," such as social work, special education, rehabilitation counseling, physical therapy, and so on.
Generally speaking, the admissions committees for all graduate programs use five primary pieces of information to make their decisions: scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), undergraduate grades, research experience, letters of recommendation, and your statement of purpose. Programs have markedly different requirements regarding the scores and grades needed to be a viable applicant. Refer to Graduate Study in Psychology for this information.
Graduate Record Exam. The "General" portion of the GRE is a test of verbal, mathematical, and analytic ability that resembles an advanced version of the SAT. The test can be taken at almost any time, but you should take it not later than October if you plan to attend graduate school the following year. Waiting until later may lead you to miss early application deadlines.
Like the SAT, scores on each section of the GRE range from 200 to 800. Most graduate schools use the GRE chiefly as a way of screening out those applicants who appear unable to handle graduate-level work in their department.
Grades. Generally speaking, students must have an overall grade point average of B or better for admission to most graduate programs, although the more competitive programs may require a GPA over 3.5. Most programs are interested primarily in grades during the past two years, so don't worry too much if your freshman or sophomore grades are weaker.
Research experience. Getting research experience does several things to boost your attractiveness to admissions committees, demonstrating that you (a) acquired knowledge and experience that will help you in graduate school, (b) are interested in research (which is an important part of most graduate training), and (c) had the motivation and initiative to become involved in out-of-class scholarly activities. Furthermore, letters of recommendation from faculty members with whom you worked on a research are an important source of information about your personality, conscientiousness, and work habits.
Letters of recommendation. Graduate programs usually ask for three letters of recommendation. These letters should be from faculty members who know you well; letters from faculty for whom you worked directly on research are particularly useful. Overall, letters from psychology faculty probably carry more weight than those from other departments. However, if you have worked closely with a faculty member in another department, don't hesitate to get a letter from that professor.
If you want to obtain a letter of recommendation from someone who is not a faculty member--a former employer or supervisor, for example--this should be in addition to the normal three letters.
Statement of purpose. Most programs ask the applicant to write some sort of personal statement that describes their reasons for choosing psychology as a profession. Because your statement provides the admissions committee with information about your goals, motivation, writing skills, and other intangibles, it's a good idea to have your advisor proofread and edit your statement.
A Note About Choosing Programs
In selecting the programs to which you will apply, do not be influenced by your perceptions of the undergraduate aspect of the institution. Many universities that are not known as particularly strong undergraduate schools have fine master's and doctoral programs. Likewise, some strong undergraduate schools have weak graduate programs. Do not let the criteria you used to choose an undergraduate school unduly influence your choice of a graduate institution.
Common Questions about Graduate School in Psychology
What can I do with a master's degree in psychology? In general, people with a master's degree can do virtually the same kinds of activities as people who have the Ph.D. Not only can they can practice as master's-level clinical, counseling, and school psychologists, but they can teach, consult, and work as researchers. However, psychologists with a master's degree often work under the supervision of a doctoral-level psychologist, and may be limited in how far they can advance in their careers.
What is the difference between an M.A. and an M.S. in Psychology? Nothing. Through historical accident and university tradition, some psychology departments grant the M.A. whereas others grant the M.S. It makes no difference.
Is the competition for graduate school as great as I've heard? It depends on the program. Some doctoral programs in clinical psychology receive several hundred applications, from which only a handful are admitted. Typically, the competition for nonclinical programs is less fierce, but, even then, the better programs choose only a few students from several dozen applicants.
How important is research experience in getting admitted to graduate school? Very! Surveys of graduate admissions committees in psychology show that research experience ranks among the top three considerations in admissions decisions (along with letters of recommendation and GRE scores).
Is it beneficial to work a few years before going to graduate school? Generally, it doesn't matter a great deal one way or the other. If you do work before applying to graduate school, you should work in a position in which you build your clinical or research skills and can demonstrate abilities that are relevant to your career goals.
I don't think I can afford graduate school. What should I do? Many students do not realize that the majority of graduate students across the country not only do not pay tuition but are actually paid a small stipend to allow them to attend graduate school. Often, graduate students work as research assistants or teaching assistants, or receive scholarships or fellowships.
Do graduate schools ask for interviews? Programs in clinical and counseling psychologists often invite applicants for an interview, but required interviews are rare for other kinds of programs. However, most programs will grant you an interview if you request it, and an interview may help you decide whether a given program will provide what you want. Some schools use telephone interviews to help guide their selections. If you are asked for a personal or telephone interview, prepare for it carefully by learning everything you can about the program and by developing a short list of questions you would like the interviewer to answer.
Should I sign the waiver on the recommendation form? The recommendation forms used by most programs ask the applicant to indicate whether he or she waives his or her right to inspect the recommendation forms and letters of reference. (Federal law grants you the right to see what your references say about you unless you waive this right.) Although you may be tempted to retain your right to see your recommendations, virtually all applicants waive their right to do so. This is because admissions committees are far more likely to believe a reference's glowing praise about an applicant if the letter-writer knew the applicant would not see the evaluation.
How long can I expect to spend in graduate school? Master's programs usually require one to two years to complete. Doctoral programs typically require four to six years. Students in applied programs must also complete internships toward the end of their training. If the time requirements seem overwhelming, keep in mind that graduate school is usually much different than undergraduate school. As an undergraduate, you received most of your education in organized courses. As a graduate student, coursework is much less important, and your education is based more heavily on direct experience in research, teaching, or applied settings.
Resources for Students Considering Graduate School in Psychology
The American Psychological Association (APA) website: www.apa.org
There is outstanding information here on careers in psychology as well as graduate school information. This includes the following:
http://www.apa.org/topics/psychologycareer.html provides an excellent overview of career opportunities in psychology
http://research.apa.org/employmentdata.html provides recent employment data at the PhD, Masters, and BA level
http://www.apa.org/students/student3.html provides a variety of information about getting into graduate school and a listing of all programs currently accredited by APA
http://www.psychology.uwaterloo.ca/gradprog/preparation/grad_school_in_psych.html provides an excellent summary about the entire application process and the steps you can take to make yourself the strongest possible applicant.
http://www.psychwww.com/resource/deptlist.htm provides links to over 1000 psychology department web sites where you can find information on the graduate training being offered.
Books Worth a Look
Graduate Study in Psychology is published by APA and offers complete practical information about over 500 psychology programs in the United States and Canada. This edition provides current facts about programs and degrees offered, admission requirements, application information, financial aid, tuition, and housing.
Getting in: A Step-by Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School in Psychology. This is another excellent publication from APA - see details at http://www.apa.org/books/4313011.html
Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology by Michael Sayette, Tracy Mayne, and John Norcross. This is an invaluable resource for students interested in clinical or counseling programs. In addition to excellent advice on the entire application/admissions process, the book includes helpful summary information on virtually all APA accredited programs including: the emphasis placed on research vs. clinical training, theoretical orientation of faculty, GRE and GPA requirements, the percent of students who are women and the percent who are ethnic minorities, success in placing students in APA accredited internships, research areas of faculty, and clinical opportunities.
Career Paths in Psychology is another APA publication in which successful psychologists in diverse fields - from academics to the military - describe what psychologists in their field actually do on a daily basis and what the opportunities are in their field.
These books are available for review in Undergraduate Psychology office - Rm 242. We also have a collection of sample personal statements from current Duke graduate students that can be reviewed as well.