Graduate School

So, you are considering graduate school.  Or at least are wondering why anyone in their right mind would consider going BACK to college after graduating!  Good questions!

First, why.  Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes.  People interested in careers in psychology (that is, not only applying their knowledge of human behavior in day to day life, but actually working in the field) need advanced study in the science.  Further, if you desire to apply psychological principles to reduce human suffering (as in becoming a counselor or clinical psychologist), you are required to have advanced study and training before you can legally provide services to others.  So, realistically, if you enjoy psychology and want to work in the field, you need to go to graduate school.

But…students are often concerned about the costs and time involved. Remember – graduate school is intensive and focused study on the topic you are trying to use for the rest of your life.  In other words, it’s exciting, challenging, and fun!  Hard work?  Absolutely!  But since you already love the field, you don’t really mind doing it. Crazy, I know!

That said, deciding to go to graduate school in psychology should not be taken lightly.  I strongly encourage you to read the following article on reasons NOT to go to graduate school.

A quick summary:  Do not go to graduate simply because you want to help people, you can’t find a job so staying in school seems like a good idea, it’s the next logical step, and you want to better understand yourself.  The linked article explains things to consider if any of the above have contributed to your thoughts.  Rather, graduate school is a good choice if you are interested in understanding a problem that requires advanced study or if your desire to help others is focused on mental health issues that can only be addressed with an advanced degree.

Degree Choices

There are two primary “divisions” in graduate degrees.  There are the Experimental degrees, and the Clinical degrees.  Experimental programs are designed for people who desire greater understanding of the science of psychology and who are interested in a career that involves conducting research.  This is very broad, of course, as there are many “sub disciplines” within the field.  Social psychologists, developmental psychologists, cognitive psychologists, Industrial-Organizational psychologists, physiological psychologists, comparative psychologists, and others all have degrees in experimental psychology and specialize in those areas of most interest to them.

Experimental degrees in psychology might simply be a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) degree, or you may decide the doctoral degree (Ph.D.) is the way to go.  Which one you choose depends on your ultimate goals.  The Master degree will provide you with the advanced study and preparation for working in a research laboratory in the area you have chosen to specialize.  The master’s degree will also provide you with the option of teaching at a community college such as Palomar.

The Ph.D. in Experimental psychology provides advanced graduate study in the field.  It is designed for individuals who wish to conduct their own research in their own laboratory. Many, but by all means not all, Ph.Ds in psychology work at a four-year university and teach as part of their profession.

A degree in Clinical and/or Counseling Psychology will provide you with the background and credentials needed to treat individuals struggling with mental health or phase-of-life issues.  Clinicians, therefore, may find themselves working with people suffering from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, psychosis, developmental disorders, and so on.  They might also work with people experiencing marital or parenting difficulties or problems adapting to career/school performance.  As with experimental degrees, you can choose the Master’s degree (MA, MS, or MFT – Master of Family Therapy) or the doctoral degree (Ph.D., PsyD, EdD) and which one you choose depends on your goals.  The doctoral degrees perhaps offer the most flexibility in terms of career choices, but they do require a greater commitment.

Ph.D. vs PsyD: Another question for people interested in Clinical work is whether to pursue the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degrees.  Both are doctoral-level degrees in clinical psychology that will give you the training and experience necessary to treat patients with mental illness.  That is, there is no difference when it comes to obtaining a license to practice, so long as your graduate program was APA accredited.  So…which should you choose?  Some people incorrectly state that the Ph.D. is for researchers, whereas the PsyD is for clinicians.  INCORRECT. Both degrees in clinical psychology train you to treat people with mental illness.  The difference lies in emphasis.  The Ph.D. provides a greater emphasis on producing AND applying research findings in the treatment of psychopathology. The PsyD, in contrast, is a relatively newer degree that emphasizes applying research findings in a treatment context, but with less emphasis on creating your own research.  If you feel you will ONLY want to provide treatment, the PsyD is a viable option.  If, however, you want to keep your options open, or are intrigued by conduction research in psychology, the Ph.D. may be your better choice. Keep in mind that these are generalities – both degrees can lead to excellent clinicians AND researchers.  The program and what you put in to it have a big impact on the quality of psychologist that you become.

How long will it take?

Master’s degrees typically require 2 years of study after your bachelor’s degree.  Doctoral Degrees (Ph.D./PsyD) can take anywhere from 4-7 years after the bachelor’s degree.  Now, this may seem like a long time when your non-psychology peers are out starting their careers.  However, you are doing something you LOVE (hopefully!) and the time flies by.  The rewards are immeasurable.

Choosing Where to Apply

If you are a current student at Palomar, you have a couple years at least before you start applying, so don’t panic yet!  You’ll probably start the application process during your senior year, meaning you should start researching schools during your junior year.  How do you choose?  There are several sources of information out there.  One good one is a database published by the American Psychological Association called Graduate Study in Psychology.  It breaks down over 600 school in the US and Canada, arranged by state/province.  Additional information by the APA on the decision to go to graduate school in psychology can be found  here.  Both resources give you lots of information to decide if a school can meet your goals AND if you are competitive based on the types of students they tend to admit in recent years.

One additional note:  If you are going into clinical psychology, meaning you intend to treat patients with mental illness, licensing in the US will REQUIRE that your graduate program be accredited by the American Psychological Association.  Make sure your program has this accreditation.

How Many Schools?

As noted above, grad school admission is competitive.  There are a lot of people wanting a limited number of spots.  If you are applying to doctoral programs, it is recommended that you apply to 10-15 schools (Master’s programs are a little less competitive, so maybe 5-10 schools for Master’s programs).  You may choose 2-3 schools that, based on your background and experience, might seem a little out of reach but you would LOVE to go there.  Go for it!  You never know what a school is looking for on any given admission year and you might have just that unique “thing.”  Another 7-10 applications should go to schools that you are competitive for (based on your research) AND you would love to go there.  Lastly, you should choose maybe 2 “backup” schools – schools you KNOW you are qualified for.  If you are applying to doctoral programs, maybe these two are masters programs.  If you don’t get accepted to the doctoral programs, you can at least continue your post graduate studies, demonstrate that you have what it takes to succeed in graduate school and then apply to doctoral program after you get your masters degree.  However, don’t apply to schools that you know you would never attend, even if accepted.  You are wasting your time and money as well as the school’s.  Cast a wide net, but choose wisely.

Getting in to Graduate School

Here is a series of links for getting into graduate school compiled by Linda Walsh of the University of Iowa.  There is a GOLD MINE of information here, so spend some time on it!

In general, graduate schools will look at your grades, your GRE scores (the Graduate Record Exam is basically the SAT for graduate school), research experience, letters of recommendation, and your goals.

1.  Grades.  Grad school classes are small.  Many doctoral programs, for example admit only 8-12 students each year, but they may get 200 applications for those spots!  Right or wrong, grades serve as a reflection of your commitment to academics.  Even if you don’t think grad school is right for you now, do everything you can to keep your grades up NOW because you simply don’t know how you’ll feel in a year or two (or more) and playing catchup to try and rehabilitate your GPA is a real challenge.  MANY students have come to us professors having recently decided to go to graduate school, but their GPA’s simply aren’t competitive.  Why?  Because they didn’t work as hard during first couple of years of school and only towards the end did they get serious.  So, they had excellent junior and senior-year grades, but their earlier performance was lacking and this hurts your chances.  A little extra effort now will pay off BIG TIME in the future.

2. GRE Scores.*  The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test similar to the SAT designed to assess your foundational knowledge felt to be helpful for success in graduate school.  These scores, along with your GPA, can be thought of as “threshold metrics” meaning if you have solid grades and a good foundation in Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical Writing the admissions committee will likely look at the rest of your application.  Low grades or low GRE scores will likely make it more of a challenge for the committee to read further.  So, take these seriously!  You can find out more information about the GRE here.

*The GRE requirement has been dropped or suspended by many programs so be sure to check the requirements for the specific schools you are considering to decide if you need to take it.

3.  Research Experience. Grades and cognitive skills are not the whole picture.  You also want to show good practical experience.  Psychology is a scientific discipline so make a priority during your upper division years to volunteer in a laboratory to obtain research experience.  Even if you intend to go into clinical psychology and not do research, you need research experience.  It really doesn’t matter what topic you are researching, so long as you are learning how research is conducted.  Sure, it helps if you are interested in the topic, as you will likely put more effort into the process, which translates into better preparation, but don’t worry if you aren’t getting experience in the topic that is most interest to you.  That’s what grad school and your career will give you!  Taking Psyc 230 will help prepare you for upper division Research Methods lab courses and ultimately fitting in to a research lab.  Also, here is a tip…GET INVOLVED IN THE LAB.  Don’t just do your duties, but participate in lab meetings and take on as much as you can.  The more you participate, the more you are learning and the greater the likelihood that your name gets added to a publication or conference publication. Being an author on a study like this is very attractive to graduate school admissions committees!

4. Commitment.  Get active and involved on campus by joining Psychology Club or one of the honor societies in psychology.  Psi Beta is the National Honor Society in Psychology at Community Colleges and Psi Chi is the International Honor Society in Psychology at 4-year universities.  Being involved on campus helps you network and interact with faculty and other students who share your interests and gives you some great experiences.

4. Letters of Recommendation.  With 200 or more applications, letters of recommendation can carry a lot of weight when making you stand out among your peers. You will typically need 3 letters from your professors.  How do you get a strong one?  Be active in class, work hard, and visit your professors during their office hours to discuss the class.  Show them that you are smart, interested, and curious!  Also, being an active and visible research assistant (#3 above) is another great way to show a professor your strengths and suitability for advanced study.  Imagine trying to recommend someone who never spoke up in class, never visited you in person, and never participated in research meetings beyond merely doing what people asked you.  It’s hard to make you stand out under those circumstances.

5.  Goals.  When you apply to grad school, you’ll typically be asked to write a letter describing your past and your goals in grad school and beyond.  You might be a straight-A student with awesome GRE scores and research experience, but if you say your heart lies in studying language development in Autism but nobody at that graduate program is studying Autism or even language development, you won’t be getting an offer of admission.  Make sure you put some thought into what interests you and apply to school who can offer that experience.  Now, don’t panic if your interests are general. You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life.  However, make sure that at least some of your broad interests can be explored at the schools you apply to.

Final Note – PLAN NOW!!!

Don’t get discouraged!  I know a lot of the info above might seem pessimistic.  It is not impossible to get into graduate school, but it is a serious process that requires dedication and determination.  The goal of this website is to give you the information you need so that you can start planning NOW so that you are the strongest applicant you can be.

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