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Skidmore College
Psychology Department

Student Advice - Graduate School

Luckily, you have all sorts of resources available to you as you make decisions about graduate school in psychology. Probably the best resources are the faculty in the department. You should be sure to talk to a number of faculty to gain a sense of their collective wisdom. This page represents Hugh Foley's web advice, which is not a substitute for an office visit, but which may be a good starting point for many of you (and certainly for those of you who are not from Skidmore). This page is a bit of an expansion of a document that has been floating around for a while.

At the outset, let me point out five useful resources that you will find to be helpful guides:

  1. Patricia Keith-Spiegel's and Michael Wiederman's book The Complete Guide to Graduate School Admission: Psychology, Counseling, and Related Professions (2nd Ed.), Psychology Press. A sampling of chapter headings will give you a sense of the wealth of information contained in this text: What should I be doing when?; What are "They" looking for?; What if my grades aren't so hot?; What about letters of recommendation?; What about statements of purpose and other essays?
  2. Graduate Study in Psychology, American Psychological Association. This book is updated routinely, so look for the most recent edition. The book is organized alphabetically within states, but an index allows you to search for programs within particular areas.
  3. ("The most comprehensive online source of graduate school information") It may not live up to its billing, but the site has lots of good information!
  4. And if you're interested in clinical or counseling psychology, you should check out Mayne, Norcross, and Sayette's Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology, Guilford.

And once you're committed to a graduate program, you might want to read a book edited by Walfish and Hess: Succeeding In Graduate School: The Career Guide For Psychology Students, Psychology Press. The book contains chapters that are relevant to making decisions about graduate school and professional directions in psychology, but many of the chapters deal with issues that may well emerge in graduate school.

OK, here's my advice organized as responses to questions:

Should I go to graduate school?

Obviously, this is a very personal question. At one level, you might approach the question in the same way that you would ask yourself if you needed a hammer. People rarely acquire a hammer unless they anticipate a need for one. Thus, if you foresee a professional future for which an advanced degree in psychology is essential, then I think that you need to plan on pursuing a graduate degree in psychology. Though his comments are directed primarily at people pursuing an undergraduate degree, you might find it instructive to read Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The bottom line is that one should not go to graduate school unless it is essential for one's goals.

Should I go to graduate school directly after graduation?

You'll find a lot of people who would advise you to wait before applying to graduate school...and that's becoming more and more common. Often students seek a research assistant position, which provides additional experience and professional contacts. I'm not opposed to waiting, but I do think that some undergraduates are ready to proceed directly to graduate school. I think that you'll know if you're ready to go to graduate school immediately after graduation. Basically, you'll have a good sense of the sort of program to which you want to apply, you'll still enjoy the process of learning (in the classroom and in the laboratory), and you'll manage your time well (so that you can complete the applications during a hectic time of your senior year). If those characteristics don't describe you, then you may want to wait until after graduation to apply to graduate school.

When should I start to plan for graduate school?

Frankly, you can't start to plan for graduate school too early. I try to identify strong students in their first or second years to talk to them about the possibility of graduate school in psychology. It's certainly possible to decide to pursue graduate studies long after you have received your undergraduate degree. However, your life is made substantially easier if you can make your decision while you are still enrolled as an undergraduate. Even if you are only interested in exploring graduate school options, it would be a good idea to speak with your advisor or other faculty in the department at the earliest possible moment.

What do typical graduate schools require?

Your best source for the requirements of particular programs is the APA Graduate Study in Psychology book. You'll find the essential information listed under Admissions Requirements within each department. Look carefully at the information about required or preferred courses (typically heavy on statistics and experimental psychology), scores/GPAs (but remember that the average reported cuts across programs, so the average GPA or GRE within clinical is likely to be higher and the average outside clinical is likely to be lower), and Other Criteria (note the extent to which research is often high). In general, you should find the following requirements:

  • Three letters of recommendation written by faculty who know you well.
  • A good grade point average (certainly above 3.0 and higher in psych). Some schools get a separate reading for your last two years to see if there might have been some problems early in your academic career that you overcame.
  • Good math and verbal GRE scores (with little or no emphasis on the Analytical Writing part). {Because the exam was revised in August 2011, we're still in a bit of limbo regarding how programs will evaluate new GRE scores.} In addition, some programs require the advanced test in psych. Some programs may still require the Miller Analogies Test, but that's becoming uncommon.
  • Research experience is important for most programs—including clinical and counseling programs. Remember, a Ph.D. is a research degree, and one is expected to do original research. In addition, faculty at graduate programs are heavily involved in their own research, and they see you as a potential research assistant and coworker.
  • Practical experience is important in some programs, though it is typically far less important than research experience.
  • An application with a personal statement.

How can I meet all those requirements?

  • To get good letters of recommendation, try to get to know faculty better. You can accomplish this by taking several courses from the same professor, by trying to get into smaller classes (e.g., seminars), by getting involved in departmental affairs (becoming a member of Psi Chi, etc.), and (my personal fave) by doing research with a professor. You must realize that it is necessary, but not sufficient, to get a good grade in a course from a professor if you want them to write you a strong letter of recommendation. For a professor to write a good letter of recommendation, it's also important that she or he knows you fairly well. Do you now see the necessity for planning? It isn't easy to get three faculty to know you well. And, unless you get started really early, it's virtually impossible to get research experience with two different faculty.
  • I'm not really sure how to go about improving one's GPA, except to encourage you to study harder or more efficiently. If you're not doing well in a particular class, and you're working hard, don't hesitate to ask the professor for ideas about how you might improve.
  • How well did you do on your SATs? That's probably a good indicator of how you're likely to do on your GRE's. If you don't do well on standardized exams, then you should really try to be sterling in all the other areas. I'm not a big fan of Kaplan-style courses, but some serious preparation for the GRE's is probably essential. I certainly think you should have taken a practice GRE or two before going in to your first "live" exam. I also think it's a good idea to take your GRE prior to your senior year (or at the very least early in your senior year). That way you minimize the pressure (you can easily retake the exam later). I'd also wait to take the advanced psych test on a separate date. Otherwise it's a very long test-taking day. You can learn more about the GRE and about preparation for the GRE at:
  • Here's a GRE tip from Donna Marino (of Career Services): With computerized testing, your scores are available pretty much immediately, but in the past it could take two months or more to secure a test date at the local Sylvan Learning Center (in Albany) so call well in advance to schedule a testing date that works for you! (869-6005)
  • Most faculty here have active research programs. Try to find someone who is doing research in an area that interests you and ask that professor if you could get involved in a research project. Not only will the faculty person come to know you better, but you will get some research experience and a sense of whether or not you enjoy doing research. It would also help to have taken the relevant background courses (e.g., PS 217, PS 306) as early as possible. At the very least, you should plan on conducting a senior thesis.
  • You can get practical experience through many volunteer programs or internships. Again, several of the faculty here would be able to give you an idea of the programs available. The Career Services folks maintain a list of internships that are available.
  • Personal statements can be very important. Be sure to have at least one trusted member of the faculty read over your statement. You can learn more about writing such statements from the RPI Center for Communication practice's site. And here's another site to check out!

What sorts of programs and degrees are available?

You have a wide range of programs and degrees from which to choose. From one perspective, you can see graduate programs in psychology as divided into programs that lead to academic positions (at colleges, universities, or research centers) and programs that lead to applied positions (in business, school, or clinical settings). From another perspective, you can see graduate programs in psychology as reflecting the sorts of empirical interests reflected in a typical introductory psychology textbook (or as divisions of APA). You are quite likely to find several areas of psychology that interest you, so you'll have to make some difficult choices as you reach the point of actually applying.

You will also see that programs offer a wide range of degrees: M.A., M.S.W., PSY.D., Ed.D., and Ph.D.

  • In general, you should think of M.A. programs as a means of correcting shortcomings in your undergraduate career. For instance, you may have come to psychology late and not obtained any research experience. Or you may not score very well on standardized exams, so you may view a M.A. program as a means to demonstrate your abilities in a graduate program. If you are concerned that your application to Ph.D. programs may be flawed in some fashion, I would certainly advise you to apply to several terminal master's programs. That is, you would benefit from being in a program where you were the most advanced student occupying the professor's attention. (You are also more likely to get some sort of support from a master's program if that's the highest degree offered in that department.)
  • If you are interested in working with people, but want to avoid clinical/counseling programs, you may want to consider getting a degree in social work. You should recognize, however, that it may take many years before you're able to parlay an M.S.W. into a vehicle for opening a private practice. Be sure to ask questions of practicing social workers before moving in this (or any) direction.
  • A Psy.D. is intended as a professional degree (like a law or medical degree) and it is primarily a clinical degree. Because it's a professional degree, students in such programs almost never get any support. Class sizes in such programs may also be much larger than those found in other degree programs. If you are absolutely certain that you only want to work in such applied settings, then the Psy.D. program may be the one for you.
  • If your orientation is more toward educational settings, you may find that a program in an Education Department (e.g., educational psychology, school psychology) may work well for you. In such programs, you would obtain an Ed.D. as the highest degree. [You could also pursue a school psychology Ph.D. within a psychology department.] [School Psychology Site]
  • For the most part, you are likely to be oriented toward obtaining a Ph.D., which would typically give you the greatest flexibility in terms of your long-term future. Programs offering the Ph.D. are also most likely to offer you some form of financial support (tuition remission and a stipend for being a teaching assistant, etc.).

Are some programs more selective than others?

It's definitely harder to get into some areas of graduate study in psychology than other areas. Right now the clinical/counseling area is the most competitive (e.g., at several schools the admissions committee won't even look at your application if your combined Math+Verbal GRE score isn't above 1250...and many set the bar higher still!!). In terms of admissions percentages, it is at least as difficult to get into most clinical Ph.D. programs as it is to get into medical school. If you are thinking of pursuing a career in the mental health field, you might want to consider a master's program initially, or possibly a related program (e.g., a Psy.D. or an Ed.D. in counseling). Ask yourself what aspects of mental health are attracting you, and see if there might be some viable alternatives to a clinical Ph.D.

What kind of financial support is available?

Many types of financial support are available, from loans to fellowships. For the most part, people in Ph.D. programs work as teaching or research assistants and receive some level of tuition remission (often complete) and a stipend. The National Science Foundation provides fellowships, as will other institutions, including the universities of the departments to which you are applying. Such fellowships are often prestigious, so they are also relatively rare. Financial support in graduate school is rarely need-based, so your financial background is not likely to be an issue. The support is intended to allow you to devote your energies to the scholarship that lies at the heart of the degree.

How do I learn about various graduate departments?

I've already mentioned the best starting point, which is the APA's Graduate Study in Psychology. However, you'll also find that every psychology department has some kind of web presence:

How should I select graduate programs?

I would suggest that you pay less attention to the rankings of particular programs in making your decisions about the schools to which you will apply. Instead, you should look for the programs that appear to be the best fit with your interests. And you should focus on faculty rather than programs. To learn what faculty are "out there" and what they're doing, you need to read the journals in areas that interest you. That's a time-consuming process, but I think that ultimately you'll be in a better position if you take that tack. Particularly if you see a person who publishes with his or her students, you can have some confidence that your work with that person would be appropriately acknowledged. At the end of the graduate school process, your advisor will be extraordinarily important to your future, so you will want to find the best advisor you can.

However, you would often be better served by going to a program that has a number of faculty working in areas that interest you. You'll find that taking such an approach is useful if the professor with whom you want to work moves to a different school (and you stay), or the professor turns out to be a bad fit for your personality, or you find your interests shifting once you're in graduate school. For those reasons, you would be best served by applying to strong (and large) programs that have a number of people working in areas that may interest you.

Ideally, what should an undergraduate do to gain admission to graduate school?

Of course, you could deviate substantially from the timeline I offer below, but if a first-year student came to me and asked me what she or he might do to ensure admission to graduate school, here's what I would say:

  • In your first two years, take Introductory Psychology, Statistics, Experimental Psychology, and at least two (typically 200-level) psychology courses. Start to identify faculty with whom you might enjoy working, as well as those you might want to write recommendations.
  • In your junior year, take Advanced Statistics and two other psychology courses, especially ones with laboratories. Try to begin doing research with a professor (possibly as an independent study course). Try to find a professor who would work with you on a student/faculty collaborative summer project (February application deadline). Check out NSF REU or NIH summer research fellowships (typically early spring application deadlines). No later than the spring semester, when you register for fall courses, line up a professor to supervise your senior thesis. Become a student member of the APA, so that you can begin to scan the Monitor on Psychology to get a sense of positions available in the field. Try to attend a professional conference (see APA Monitor for a listing of conferences).
  • In the summer between your junior and senior years, try to conduct research (see above). Start the process of narrowing down your interests and determining the programs to which you intend to apply. Start to work on your personal statement. Prepare for the general GRE. Take the general GRE and score 800 on both math and verbal. (OK, just kidding, but high scores would help!) If your scores are high enough, start to prepare for the Psychology GRE. If not, identify areas that need work and continue to prepare for the general GRE.
  • In your senior year, you should conduct a senior thesis. Presuming that you have completed some research project, apply to present a poster at a professional conference sometime during the year. In the fall, you should work on your thesis, make final decisions about the schools to which you will apply, obtain application materials from those schools, take the Psychology GRE, have faculty read and comment on your personal statement, ask three faculty to write letters of recommendation (in late November or December), and complete the applications. In the spring, you should complete your thesis, travel to those schools that accepted you (don't accept any offer without a visit!) to meet with faculty and graduate students, accept the offer from the program you prefer.

What do other people have to say about grad school?

Want to see the advice that other people have developed? Luckily, many have been kind enough to post student advice on the web. Below are a number of sites that you should find to be useful. If you come across another site that you find useful, let me know and I'll add it to the list.