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Graduate School - Getting Started

Do I really want to go to graduate school?

Graduate work is very difficult and is fun only if you are highly interested and motivated. Graduate school is not a good place for delaying career decisions or avoiding honest labor. A doctoral program is much more than a few more college years. You start out as a student and eventually develop into a qualified and independent professional. TOP

How difficult is graduate school?

A good graduate program differs more from college than college differs from high school. You have to be well organized and you cannot depend on weekly quizzes and constant supervision to keep you from falling behind. You will work harder in a graduate program than you ever have or ever will again. You must really want the education. Count on the workload being impossible unless you are very highly motivated. TOP

How long does it take to get a Ph.D. or an M.A.?

The usual time from a B.A. to a Ph.D. is four to five years. Most M.A. programs take two years. From an M.A. to a Ph.D. would usually be an additional three years, for a total of five. TOP

How much money do I need for graduate school? Should I work for a few years to save money? What are my chances for a fellowship or assistantship?

It is very difficult to save much money in your first few years after college. You should expect to support yourself in graduate school with the aid of student loans. Many programs offer half-time teaching or research assistantships that are considered a necessary part of the graduate program, and the stipends typically cover tuition and a modest standard of living. Fellowships require no work (permitting full-time course work) and generally provide more money than assistantships.

Graduate school costs are high but your greater earning power with an advanced degree makes it a good investment. Tuition at private universities can be very expensive, while state universities (even out-of-state ones) generally are much lower. Many programs have financial aid geared to need, but you might not get precise numbers until after you are accepted. Most applicants ask to be considered for financial assistance, so this should not affect your chances of acceptance. Your bank can tell you about special low interest educational loans (such as the Guaranteed Student loan) that are not paid back until after you finish school. Even if no departmental support is directly available, there may well be jobs at a local hospital or clinic. Try to get assurances from the department on an outside job before accepting admission. After the first year, most students have suitable assistantships or jobs. TOP

What area of Psychology should I go into to get the best job?

None. If your primary motivation for graduate work is to make money, then you are likely to be unhappy in graduate school and in your subsequent career. In any case, the job market fluctuates, so considering the 3-5 year interval between starting and finishing graduate work, it is very difficult to predict. Your best bet is to follow your interests and abilities to become highly qualified, whatever the job market. All things equal, employment prospects are generally better in applied areas such as clinical, counseling, and organizational than in more basic academic areas such as experimental, social, and personality. Unfortunately, for new Ph.D.s the academic job market (one that permits a balance of teaching and research) is likely to continue to be tight as university and college budgets remain under pressure. TOP

When should I take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)?

The October test is best. Later tests might not be scored in time to catch up with your applications. Scores for the October test arrive early enough for you to modify your school selections and (if necessary) retake the GRE. You may want to take just the aptitude part in October and if any school requires the psychology exam, you could take that section later.  TOP

Should I take the GRE for practice in my junior year and then again as a senior?

The practice test is not worth much more than what is available in the study guide. A trial run would help reduce your anxiety on the final test only if you are the edgy type. If you were sick and performed poorly on the day of the GRE, a retest would be worthwhile. In any case, both scores would be reported to the schools, with the higher score having the greater weight. A study guide is a good investment to become thoroughly familiar with the instructions for each section, test-taking strategies, and the typical problems or questions on the test. TOP

Which is more important -- grades or GRE scores?

A good predictor of graduate school performance is a combination of grades and GRE scores, but the weight given to each measure varies from school to school. If one is weak and the other good, the better measure might have greater weight as showing potential. The GPA for the junior and senior year is extra important, so if you started slowly and then improved, make a prominent note of the last two years' GPA on the front of your application to avoid being filtered out due to a weak overall GPA. TOP

How do I interpret my GRE scores?

The Quantitative and Verbal GRE scores are the most important. You are in good shape if your GRE  scores are above the averages for the program you are considering. The Psychology advanced test score is used for comparing applicants because students have taken a range of psychology courses from few to many. Grades, letters of recommendation, and research experience are large factors in any admission decision and can offset low(ish) GRE scores -- particularly if your grades are on the high side. TOP

Which counts for more - overall grades or grades in psychology courses?

Both are important, but high psychology grades can help offset weak overall performance. The more demanding courses (experimental, statistics, research and lab courses) get extra attention. Good letters of recommendation and research or clinical experience can help to compensate for unimpressive grades. If your grades are below those indicated for a given program (but other factors are in your favor), you might get admitted as an unclassified student. With good performance, you could change to regular status the following semester or year. TOP

How important is research, clinical, or applied experience?

In applying to any graduate program, your chances are better if you stand out from the crowd.  Regardless of the type of program, research experience is quite important and the more the better. Reports of your work to a departmental colloquium or to regional conventions are very impressive. A publication would be even better, but takes much more effort and time. Clinical, counseling and other practical experience will certainly help your chances for a clinical program.

Volunteer work is a good way to gain experience and training outside the classroom. Perhaps more important, this experience is an excellent way to check on your interests and abilities. Work supervisors who can report on your ability to work with people are excellent sources of letters of recommendation for graduate admissions or for jobs. Remember, you can have more than the required minimum number of letters for a graduate application, so be sure to include one from your work supervisor. TOP

What is the most important factor schools look for?

All applicants are good students (they all finished college) even though they differ in relevant experience and recommendations. But the key factor is evidence of strong motivation. No one will do well in a graduate program without the desire for a career in psychology. Motivation by itself is not sufficient, but it is necessary. Your application should provide clear evidence of your interest in a career in psychology. Point out volunteer and other work, research, and any other relevant activities, including any obstacles you have overcome. These experiences would carry more weight if they are elaborated upon by the writers of your letters of reference. TOP

Do I have to major in psychology to have a chance at graduate school?

Not at all. See the section on Graduate Psychology Programs for Non-Concentrators. Majoring in other areas is fine, provided you take the basic psychology courses, with introductory psychology, experimental, and statistics as the minimum. A few additional courses to test your interest in psychology would be wise. On the other hand, a major in psychology is good preparation for many other graduate programs that place a premium on language skills and a knowledge of behavior, such as education, social work, business, and law. TOP

Useful website:

American Psychological Association - Applying to Graduate School