Graduate education in the United States, and across the globe, has become increasingly valued over the past half century. The value of graduate education has been enhanced as our economy has shifted from one based predominantly on producing goods to one based on providing services and information.
Whether you are an undergraduate student, have recently received your bachelor's degree, or received your bachelor’s degree years ago and are considering a career change, the first decision you need to consider is whether graduate education in psychology is the best option for you.
Which is the "best" program in psychology?
This question is frequently asked by people who are thinking about graduate study in psychology. The answer is that there is no "best" program for everyone. Rather, people should ask "which graduate programs are best suited for my personal interests and my own professional goals?"
Psychology is a broad scientific discipline bridging social and biological processes, and influenced by disciplines as diverse as philosophy and mathematics. Due in part to the scientific and professional breadth of psychology, there are many types of graduate programs. This is one of the reasons we do not rank graduate programs. Programs differ in their purposes, emphases, sizes, and available resources. Some programs focus on preparing people for a research and/or teaching career at a college or university. Others focus on preparing people for applied research in a public or private sector setting. Others prepare students to provide psychological services as licensed professional psychologists. Moreover, there are programs that bridge these various goals.
If you are interested in learning more about the diversity of graduate psychology programs, obtain a copy of the APA publication "Graduate Study in Psychology." You can do so online at Graduate Study Online. The information in this publication, together with follow-up contacts you will make yourself with specific graduate programs of interest to you, should help you determine which programs are best for you. This question is frequently asked by people who are thinking about graduate study in psychology. The answer is that there is no "best" program for everyone. Rather, people should ask "which graduate programs are best suited for me?"
How do I determine which program is best suited for me?
Selecting the graduate program in psychology that is best for you requires thoughtful consideration. Overall, your selection should reflect consideration of your: a) academic background, b) learning preferences, c) career goals, d) work experience, and e) financial resources. In addition, as you review any graduate program you are considering, you might want to ask the following questions:
- What is the profile of students recently admitted to the program, in terms of academic background, standardized test scores, and demographic characteristics?
- What is the program's "track record" in terms of the percentage of admitted students who graduate, and the average number of years required to do so?
- What are the goals and objectives of the program? Do they match my interests and academic preparation as a prospective graduate student?
- For programs with an emphasis on academic and research careers, what is the record of graduates' success in obtaining postdoctoral research fellowships, academic appointments, or applied research positions outside a college or university setting?
- For programs with an emphasis on professional practice, what is the program's accreditation status (if applicable), the record of its graduates' success in obtaining licensure, and its graduates' selection rates for advanced practice residencies? For programs that require an internship or practicum, what is the success rate of placement for students attending the program? What level of assistance is provided to students in obtaining practicum and internship placements?
- What financial resources are available to students, and what is the average level of indebtedness among recent graduates of the program? For example, are out-of-state students offered out-of-state tuition waivers? Are all admitted students guaranteed funding? If so, what portion of this funding is based on serving as a teaching assistant versus a research assistant?
- What is the “culture” of a particular program? Is it “sink or swim” for new graduate students, or is there an atmosphere of support and collegial cooperation? How does this suit your own personal habits and values?
- How do specific course requirements fit your academic background, personal strengths, and interests? For example, is there a very heavy graduate course load with many required statistical classes? Or is there a more flexible set of course requirements with fewer core or required courses? Would you have to take a number of prerequisite courses before you could pursue a particular program of study?
What types of employment opportunities are available to me with a degree in psychology?
Although people with master’s degrees in psychology often work as researchers, teachers, and human service providers, people who wish to practice as independent, licensed psychologists will almost always need a doctoral degree in psychology. The doctoral degree is also the preferred degree for most college and university teaching positions, and it is a hard and fast requirement for faculty positions that emphasize research. Many departments and programs track the employment and other postgraduate activities of their students. Contact the department or program you are in interested in attending for specific information on employment outcomes for the graduates of their programs. The accompanying graphs summarize the types of settings in which graduates of master's and doctoral programs are employed.
Figure 1. Employment for Master’s Recipients: 2009-2010
Figure 2. Employment for Doctoral Recipients: 2009-2010
Should I apply to a master's or doctoral degree program?
The answer to this question depends on many factors. Some students find that their career aspirations do not require a doctoral degree in psychology. Other students consider a master’s degree program an intermediate step toward their ultimate goal of earning a doctoral degree. Still others know early in their careers that they will want to pursue a doctoral degree right after completing their undergraduate education.
Nearly one fourth of those awarded a bachelor's degree in psychology continue in graduate or professional education in psychology or other fields. Some students earn a master's degree, work for a few years, then return to study for a doctorate in psychology or another field. Other students earn a master's degree as part of their doctoral program preparation. Still others bypass the master's degree and work directly on the doctorate. Doctoral programs vary widely in their practices and admission preferences in this regard.
For specific information on master's and doctoral programs offered in psychology, obtain a copy of the APA publication "Graduate Study in Psychology." As noted earlier, you can do so online at the APA GradStudy webpage. This publication, coupled with follow-up contact made directly with specific graduate programs of interest to you, should help you determine the type of program and degree you wish to seek.
What is the difference between a PhD and a PsyD?
The two most common doctoral degrees in psychology are the PhD and the PsyD. A few programs in Colleges of Education may offer the EdD. The PhD is the oldest doctoral degree, and it is generally regarded as the research degree. Although many independent schools of professional psychology award the PhD degree, they typically have an emphasis on the integration of research training with applied or practice training.
The PsyD was first awarded in the late 1960s but is increasing in popularity. This is a professional degree in psychology (similar to the JD or MD). Programs awarding the PsyD place major emphasis on preparing their graduates for professional practice but typically with less extensive research training. Presently about two-thirds of all doctoral degrees in psychology are PhD degrees. For degrees in clinical psychology, about half are PhDs (the other half being PsyDs). The graph below gives a profile of the areas of focus in graduate school for all psychology doctoral degree recipients in 2009-2010.
Figure 3. New Doctorates in Psychology by Subfield: 2009-2010
What are the admissions requirements for graduate programs in psychology?
Gaining entry into graduate school in psychology can be difficult. The number of applicants typically exceeds the number of openings, sometimes by a very great margin. Inquire from the department or program about the number of applications received by the department or school and the number of students accepted. These numbers should provide you with a sense of the competition you can expect when applying to a particular department, program, or school.
Requirements for admission vary from program to program. Most, but not all, psychology programs prefer or require significant undergraduate coursework in psychology, often the equivalent of a major or minor. In addition, many graduate programs prefer students with substantial research experience (with a lot of variation across programs in what is considered “substantial”). If you successfully completed an undergraduate honors thesis, you probably filled this requirement. If you did not do a thesis, having served as an undergraduate research assistant in one or two research labs is extremely useful.
Evaluate your educational background and be realistic about your academic achievements and academic potential. If you do not have an undergraduate degree in psychology, you might consider pursuing a master’s degree in psychology before applying to doctoral programs in psychology. If you are a psychology major but have had no opportunity to work as a research assistant or do independent research, you might also consider pursuing a master’s degree first (or getting undergraduate research experience now if there is still time and opportunity).
To assist in their evaluation of academic potential, many graduate departments require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), some require the GRE-Subject (Psychology) test, and a few require the Miller Analogies Test (MAT). If the programs in which you are interested require these standardized tests, you should make sure to take them all in time for the scores to be included with your application materials. In addition to transcripts and test scores, many programs will require up to three letters of recommendation from your former professors, as well as a statement of career goals and reasons for pursuing a graduate education in psychology. Some programs will also require a writing sample, such as a completed research paper or an undergraduate thesis. Other criteria considered as admission factors may include previous research activity, work experience, clinically related public service, extracurricular activity, and an interview. Letters of reference from psychologists are always valuable but are probably particularly important, for example, if you did not major in psychology.
What is accreditation?
Many students ask about a program's accreditation. The American Psychological Association (APA) accredits doctoral programs in clinical, counseling, school, or a combination of these areas. The APA does not accredit programs in other areas of professional practice (e.g. industrial/organizational psychology). It does not accredit master's degree programs.
As an additional note, accreditation applies to educational programs (i.e., doctoral programs in professional psychology) and institutions (i.e., colleges, universities, and independent schools of professional psychology), not to individuals. Accreditation is a system for recognizing educational quality as defined by the profession or other accrediting bodies. Graduation from an accredited institution or program does not guarantee employment or licensure for individuals, although being a graduate of an accredited program may facilitate such achievement. For more information on programs accredited by the APA, go to the APA Accreditation webpage.
Do I need a license to practice psychology?
If you are interested in eventually practicing psychology in the U.S., it is important to know that the doctoral degree is generally considered the entry-level degree in psychology for the independent, licensed practice of psychology as a profession. To practice psychology in a state, province or territory of the U.S. an individual must be licensed as a psychologist according to the laws and regulations outlined by that particular governmental entity. Requirements for license to practice in psychology are not standardized across states. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) has a Website that provides links to state psychology boards, in addition to general information about the requirements in education (which may include graduation from an APA-accredited program) and examinations. In addition, licensure for the professional practice of psychology may require additional years of supervised training experiences, such as an internship or post-doctoral residency. You will need to research and contact the Board of Psychology in the state in which you are interested in practicing for information on the supervised experience required.
What is the length of time required to complete a degree?
Actual time to earn a degree varies due to program requirements and differences among students (e.g., the extent to which they are financially supported, time to complete dissertation, etc.). The average time to earn a doctoral degree is approximately 5-6 years. The minimal time to degree is usually four years. Programs in certain areas of professional psychology (including clinical) also require a 1-year internship as part of the doctoral program, effectively making the minimum time to degree five years. Master's degree programs generally require 1-2 years of full-time study to complete, with the exception of the Education Specialist degree (in school psychology) which is usually a 3-year program.
How much debt can I expect to incur in graduate school?
Graduate education can be expensive. Tuition for out-of-state students in public institutions and for all students in private institutions will often be high. Many students require loans, even when receiving fellowships, working as teaching assistants, or doing other part time work to pay for their graduate education. Indeed, the amount of debt incurred by graduate students can be significant, as illustrated in the following graph. That being said the level of indebtedness typically incurred on the way to an advanced degree in psychology is typically much lower than the level of indebtedness one could expect in law school or medical school.
Figure 4. Level of Cumulative Debt Related to Graduate Education: 2007 Doctorate Recipients
According to the APA Center for Workforce Studies' 2007 Survey of Earned Doctorates, 31.98 percent of doctorates graduated with no debt; 6.7 percent with less than $10,000; 7.1 percent with $10,000 to $20,000; 11.3 with $20,000 to $40,000; 10.6 percent with $40,000 to $60,000; 9.5 percent with $80,000 to $100,000; and 15.4 percent with more than $10,000 in debt.
Figure 5. Level of Debt by Broad Subfield for Recent Doctorates in Psychology: 2009
2009 Doctorate Employment Survey. Compiled by APA Center for Workforce Studies, April 2011. Note. Health Service Provider subfields for this slide include: Clinical, Counseling, Child Clinical, School, and Family.
Figure 6. Level of Debt by Type of Degree for Recent Doctorates: 2009
2009 Doctorate Employment Survey. Compiled by APA Center for Workforce Studies, April 2011.
What type of financial assistance is available?
Financial assistance in various forms is available to many students. Thus, you may wish to apply for a fellowship, scholarship, assistantship, or another type of financial assistance. Many fellowships and scholarships are grants or subsidies and require no service to the department or university. Assistantships in teaching and research are also available in many programs. These are forms of employment for services in a department. Teaching assistantships may require teaching a class or assisting a professor by grading papers, acting as a laboratory assistant, and performing other such supporting work. Research assistants ordinarily work on research projects being conducted by program faculty. In exchange, the department will waive your tuition costs as well as provide a small stipend to pay for living expenses.
The amount of work required for fellowships, assistantships, and traineeships is expressed by departments and programs in hours per week. Stipends offered by departments and programs may be for an academic year or nine (9) months. Students should inquire, when receiving an offer of financial assistance, as to the amount to be given in terms of tuition remission versus a stipend.
In addition to the financial assistance offered by specific universities, there are some national competitions for highly prestigious fellowships. You may want to review the APA Education website for information about scholarships, fellowships, grants, and other funding opportunities. For example, the National Science Foundation offers annual competitions for the prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships.
Want to learn more about Graduate Study in Psychology?
The APA publishes “Graduate Study in Psychology,” which provides information related to graduate programs in psychology in the U.S. and Canada. The current edition of the publication can be purchased from the APA for $28.95, plus shipping. In addition, most university libraries and university psychology offices have the publication on-hand for check-out. The publication contains information about departments and programs, including the number of applications for programs, number of individuals accepted in each program, dates for applications and admission, in-state and out-state costs, availability of internships and scholarships, orientation and emphasis of departments and programs, plus other relevant information. You may order a copy online at APA Books. Access to the listings from “Graduate Study in Psychology” are also available through Graduate Study Online.