Students wishing to obtain careers in academia, counseling or clinical work, pharmacology or other professions requiring a license will need a graduate degree. Completing a graduate program is a huge investment, both in time and money. A master’s degree typically can be achieved in 2-3 years, whereas a Ph.D. degree will take a minimum of 4 years, with the average program being 5-6 years.
Graduate programs are extremely competitive, and the application process can be expensive and quite time consuming. Students with intentions to go to graduate school will need a good GPA, strong letters of recommendation, a well-written personal statement and solid scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Typically, students apply to 8-10 graduate programs to increase their chances of being accepted.
How to Get Yourself on Track for Graduate School
1. Get experience in the field – Complete a real-life and/or research practicum.
2. Make the best of your research methods, statistics and data analysis courses.
3. Join and be active in Psi Chi and the Psychology Club.
4. Improve your writing skills.
5. Identify a particular career or subfield of psychology that you want to pursue, such as: social, personality, developmental, cognitive, clinical, counseling, school, forensic, experimental, community, cross-cultural, health, quantitative, biopsychology and neuropsychology. Descriptions of these subfield can be found on Marky Lloyd’s Careers in Psychology Page.
Starting the Application Process
Here is a Graduate School Timeline to help you in preparing for the graduate school application process.
1. Make a list of the programs and their application deadlines.
2. Most applicants have good GPA’s (>3.2), so you will need to find other ways to distinguish yourself.
3. Find out what the programs offer in terms of monetary assistance – Most master’s programs do not offer assistance so you likely will need to look into student loans. On the other hand, most Ph.D. programs offer assistantships or fellowships to help pay for living expenses and tuition costs. Assistantships can come in the form of a teaching or research assistantship where students receive money in exchange for teaching and/or work. Fellowships function more closely like scholarships.
4. If you are applying to clinical programs, it is strongly recommended that you apply to programs that are accredited by the American Psychological Association.
5. Many websites, books and organizations compile information about graduate schools that offer psychology programs. Here are just a few:
American Psychological Association Graduate Study in Psychology (available in the Psychology Resource Center)
The Graduate Record Exam (GRE)
1. Most graduate programs require the GRE General Test, which assesses critical thinking, analytical writing, verbal comprehension and quantitative reasoning skills.
2. Study! Many schools have cutoff scores for applicants. Either purchase books containing practice tests and/or enroll in a GRE General Test preparation class. Books with practice tests also are available for student use in the Psychology Resource Center.
3. Plan to take the GRE General Test at least twice (once in the spring of your junior year, and once in the fall of your senior year). Your exam scores should be received by your programs on or before their application deadlines.
4. Some, but not all, graduate programs require the GRE Subject Test in Psychology, in addition to the GRE General Test. This subject test assesses information you have learned in your psychology courses. Your general psychology textbook is a good study tool for this subject test, as are the books containing practice tests that you can purchase (or check out from the Psychology Resource Center).
Also see What is the GRE?
Writing Personal Statements
1. Do not write one personal statement for all applications. You want to tailor your personal statement to each program.
2. Your personal statement should answer why you are applying to graduate school, what interests you have about the particular program and what you hope to accomplish with a graduate degree.
3. Pay attention to page length. Personal statements typically should be no more than 2 pages in length. Remember the programs are reading many applications so they appreciate when you get to the point and are concise.
4. Sometimes programs have additional questions to answer that are unique to their programs.
5. Start early on your personal statements and ask peers and/or professors to review them. You likely will have multiple drafts before the final product.
6. Research each program and identify particular faculty with whom you would like to work. If time permits, read journal articles published by those faculty so you can refer to them in your personal statement (e.g., what you think is interesting about their research and why).
7. If you have any concerns about your application packet, you may include a few sentences near the end of your personal statement to address these concerns. For example, if you had a particularly bad semester in college, resulting in a lower GPA, you might want to explain what happened and what you have done since to improve.
Asking for Letters of Recommendation
1. Most graduate programs ask for three letters of recommendation. Your best options for good letters are your faculty advisor, research supervisor, or professor of a small, seminar-style class. These individuals most likely know you best.
2. It always is best to ask individuals if they can write letters of recommendation for you, as opposed to assuming that they will do it. Also, when asking for a letter of recommendation, ask if the individual can offer a “good” letter of recommendation.
3. Your letter writers are busy too, so make sure you ask them well in advance of the applications’ deadlines (i.e., at least one month).
4. Once you have secured your letter writers, provide the following information to them:
– Your overall GPA
– Your Psychology GPA
– Unofficial copy of your transcript
– Your most recent resume
– A description of your career goals
– A list of programs to which you are applying and their mailing addresses (i.e., where the applications should be sent)
– Any recommendation forms provided by the particular programs
– Instructions for completing the letters. Some letters can be mailed directly to the programs, whereas other letters must be submitted with the application. This information should be provided to you by each program. If your letter writers are mailing recommendations directly to the programs, provide postage stamps (envelopes are not necessary because letters will be sent in “official” envelopes)
Last, but not least, if you ever have questions about any application, programs usually provide phone numbers that you can call to get answers to your questions.