Graduate school general information

Graduate School in Psychology

Before discussing such topics as applying to graduate school, it would be helpful to give a brief summary of just what graduate school is. Graduate school is postgraduate education, taking an average of two years for the master’s degree and 4-5 years total for the Ph.D. (“doctoral”) degree (5-6 years in clinical or counseling psychology). 

There are a number of significant ways in which graduate school differs from your undergraduate experience. 

First, the credit-hour load will be lighter in graduate school (9 or 12 credits is a typical graduate load). You can, however, presume that each course will demand a fair amount of time.

Second, you will take psychology courses almost exclusively.

Third, your professors will give you more freedom, thus increased responsibility, regarding the entire learning process – from completion of assigned work (no one will nag you), selection of courses, class attendance, etc. In a phrase, you will be expected to develop into mature, independent scholars.

Fourth, class sizes will be smaller. Some seminar courses may have as few as four students, in which each is expected to master a special topic and “teach” his/her fellow students. In lecture, the professor will often expect you to master the textbook, while she/he discusses related material. In addition, scholarly work in the library is often expected. Finally, you will probably experience a closer bond between yourself, fellow students, and your professors due to the preceding points and also the smaller student/faculty ratio. Many people find that the tight psychological and social bonds formed in graduate school remain throughout their lives.

Must I Go to Graduate School?

No. Graduate school in psychology is not the only option when one receives a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Many have found rewarding work with a B.A. or some advanced study in a related area outside psychology. Some of the obvious avenues open are social work, special education, speech therapy, specialized counseling, hospital-related jobs, pharmaceutical research, and personnel work. Both sales and management careers require an ability to deal with people and their needs. See the “What can I do with this degree?” section in the subsequent pages for additional careers with a bachelor’s or advanced degree. 

Should I Go to Graduate School?

There is no universally correct answer to this question. Each person must decide for him or herself. Here are some things to consider when making your decision:

Do you have aspirations of a career which will allow you both vertical mobility (e.g., promotional and salary ladders) and horizontal mobility (e.g., the opportunity for one to switch from one area to another with the same career)?  People with a doctorate generally have more career choices open to them than master’s level psychologists in the same area. They start at higher positions than those without advanced training.

Do you want a career with a good income? People with a doctorate are usually hired at a higher salary than other people. Having a Ph.D. in academia as well as in industry or clinical practice usually insures at least an adequate income (If the cost of graduate school is deterring you from going on, then consider the money as an investment in your future with a high rate of return). Keep in mind that nearly all students accepted to a doctoral program receive total or partial funding (this is not always the case for master’s and professional (Psy.D.)  psychology programs). 

Finally, are you satisfied with the knowledge of psychology you have now? A B.A. gives you a foundation of knowledge. To gain further expertise and sharpen your talents, graduate school is the place to go. Of course, you must realize you don’t get something for nothing. The benefits of an advanced degree only come after more effort and application of yourself. Attending graduate school does not guarantee that you will land a terrific job. There are many other factors that influence your life’s course other than education. However, with all other things being equal, graduate school is the safest place to start towards a sound future.

What Can I Do With a Doctorate?

There are many opportunities available for the recipient of a doctorate. You may be involved in academia, research, pharmaceuticals, and, for those who pursue the clinical/counseling, private practice and public consultation.

What Can I Do With a Master’s?

If one decides to terminate studies at the master’s level, there are various options open.  A majority of those who do not pursue a doctorate enter the job market, possessing more mobility than the holder of a bachelor’s degree. One job related to psychology that requires a master’s is the school psychologist. Also, many holders of master’s degrees pursue a career in industry (e.g., industrial/organizational psychology). Finally, much of the clinical work directly with clients is performed by psychological associates with the master’s degree. However, the majority of states now require the doctorate for licensure as a psychologist.

How Should I Best Prepare for Graduate School?

The obvious answer is to perform well in all your academic pursuits. Less obvious but equally important is to prepare early for your graduate school career. In fact, the leading advice book on how to apply to graduate school in psychology is subtitled, “not for seniors only!” The two most highly rated objective criteria for admission into graduate school are your GPA and scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE: a glorified SAT). The implications are thus clear: maintain a high GPA and prepare thoroughly for the GREs. The following is a table reflecting what doctoral graduate programs look for in undergraduate psychology coursework. As was the case with the survey reported earlier in relation to clinical/counseling doctoral programs, these percentages are underestimates because they do not include those schools that simply responded that an undergraduate degree in psychology was required for admission. The message here is: get a strong background in psychology!