Four questions to ask before applying to graduate school

Grad school FAQs.

By Garth Fowler, PhD, Susan Zlotlow, PhD, and Robin Hailstorks, PhD

What are my interests?

This is the foremost question to ask — and only you know the answer. Psychology is a broad discipline focused on understanding the mind, brain and behavior. Psychology is also, in some areas, a profession. That means some graduate programs prepare you for a specific profession in which you provide psychological services to patients or clients — like counseling or being a consultant. Other programs provide the opportunity to develop discipline-specific knowledge and experimental skills — such as research and data analysis — that can be applied in a broad set of careers. Take time, before you apply, to figure out which field of psychology you’re interested in and whether you want to pursue research, practice, advocacy, public health or education after you complete your graduate degree.

Should I apply to a master’s or doctoral program?

Master’s degrees are earned as a stand-alone degree (often called the terminal master’s), and in some doctoral programs you earn a master’s degree as part of your work on your thesis. Here we will discuss the terminal master’s degree. Master’s degrees give you an opportunity to pursue a particular, more narrowed area of interest than studying psychology at the undergraduate level does. Individuals entering terminal master’s programs usually have one of two goals: to gain extra training and credentials to enter a doctoral program; or to acquire skills and knowledge to advance further in a specific career or work environment. About 30 percent of individuals who graduated with master’s degrees in psychology in 2012 enrolled in a doctoral or other professional program. That means a majority of master’s degree recipients entered the work force. Individuals with master’s degrees find employment in a wide variety of settings — private business or government, schools, hospitals or mental health settings. When considering a master’s degree, you should ask individual programs what career path graduates pursue and how the program prepares them for that path.

Doctoral programs engage students in greater depth of knowledge and skills in a specialized subfield of psychology. Students interested in the production of new knowledge through scientific research — setting up experiments, collecting data, comparing experimental groups and learning statistical and analytical techniques — usually apply to PhD programs. Some PhD programs, however, offer both training in providing psychological services and the production of new knowledge. Programs conferring the PsyD degree focus heavily on the application of psychological science to service delivery at the individual or group level. When gathering information about particular programs, it is important you understand what training and education the program provides so you understand what skills and abilities you will acquire and how that will prepare you for a career after you get your doctorate.

Do I need to apply to an accredited program?

To fully answer the question, you need to understand there are two types of accreditation that affect graduate education. This first is regional accreditation — which refers to the entire school or institution. Anyone interested in graduate education should apply to schools or institutions that have regional accreditation. Regional accreditation for a school does not come from the APA.

APA accreditation applies to doctoral-level programs in counseling psychology, clinical psychology and school psychology (or any combination of the two) that prepare students to provide psychological services to patients and clients (APA’s Commission on Accreditation does not accredit master’s programs). If you are interested in studying something other than counseling, clinical or school psychology (for example, neuroscience or cognitive sciences), then you do not need to consider if the program is accredited by CoA. To learn more about accreditation, visit the APA’s Office of Program Consultation and Accreditation website. 

Is a doctoral internship required as part of my doctoral degree?

If you are considering a doctoral degree in an area that is CoA accredited (see above), you will be required to complete a doctoral internship. Accredited doctoral programs are required to provide information on the number and percent of their students who are accepted in internships — as well as the number and percent who are accepted in accredited internships. In other subfields of psychology, however, an internship may not be required, but graduate programs will have other academic and research requirements.

How can I learn more?

APA publishes a guide to nearly 600 graduate programs in psychology called “Graduate Study in Psychology.” The APA website also includes a number of FAQs about graduate school that can guide students to more information about graduate education in psychology.

Paying for graduate school

A brief overview of actual costs for graduate study and how to pay for it.