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Choosing a Program

Many people make the mistake in thinking that graduate students in psychology have only two paths: clinical psychology and "rat-running" experimental programs. This is not the case. Psychology has a lot of sub-fields.

Clinical psychology is often a "default" choice for students who wish to help individuals with their problems. It is a very broad sub-field, with many applications, but it is not necessarily the best one for you. Non-clinical psychology programs cover a wide range of areas including experimental, developmental, cognitive, social, and organizational. You may be better off in one of those programs.

Here's an exercise: Visualize yourself working as a professional psychologist. Who are the people benefiting from your services? Are they disturbed older adults? Teenagers with social and family problems? Small children acting up in school?

  • If you want to work with small children, consider Developmental Psychology or Counseling.
  • Problems with children and teenagers often become evident in the classroom. If you want to work with children in a school setting, consider studying School Psychology, Counseling, Special Education, or Learning Disabilities. These programs are often found in schools of education.
  • Specializing in Counseling or Social Psychology would be a good background for working with older children and families. These programs emphasize prevention as well as treatment.
  • Medical settings often have programs in Health, Rehabilitation, or Sport and Performance Psychology. Get some practical experience in a clinic, school or hospital to give you a better feel for these areas and of your interests.
  • Quantitative and Experimental Psychology explore new ways to study and record human behavior.
  • If you want to help people in work settings, or if you want to use psychological principles to designcheck out Industrial and Organizational or Human Factors and Engineering Psychology.
  • Helping people navigate the public sector is the work of people who study Social or Forensic and Public Service Psychology.

As always, you should discuss your plans and goals with your professors. They can discuss the pros and cons of the different paths in more detail.

These graduate programs are generally easier to get into than top clinical programs (but still not easy). Some students change their concentration after a year or so of graduate work. Keep in mind that you usually cannot change from nonclinical to clinical. You cannot use a non-clinical program as a "backdoor" to a clinical one.

Non-Psychology Programs

There are also non-psychology graduate programs where you will use your undergraduate background in psychology, including:

  • School Counseling (Ed.D. programs)
  • Education (Master's, Ed.D., or Ph.D. programs)
  • Social Work (M.S.W. programs)
  • Psychiatric Nursing (Ph.D. or M.S. programs)
  • Business (especially in marketing, human resources, and management)
  • Law
A Note About Psychiatry

Being a psychiatrist has many advantages that follow from having a medical (MD) degree. The main ones are the right to prescribe medication and the strong probability of earning more money than someone with a Ph.D in psychology.

There are disadvantages, however. Medical school involves four years of setting bones and lancing abscesses, but very little psychology until you specialize. A clinical Ph.D. program is four years of studying psychology followed by an internship. Medical school is also more expensive than a psychology doctoral program, with less financial aid.