SCHOOL AND CAREERS IN PSYCHOLOGY
We have gathered the following information to help you make choices about graduate school and careers. Not all this information will be relevant or useful to you, but much of it should help.
Do I want to go on to graduate school? There are some jobs in the human service or mental health fields that you can get with a bachelor's degree. In general, however, the more education you have, the more opportunities open up. Many positions in the mental health fields require a master's degree. In order to become licensed as a psychologist, you need a doctoral degree, such as a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. (doctor of psychology). If you desire a career in academia (teaching or research), a Ph.D. is usually necessary.
Do I want an M.A. or a Ph.D.? To answer that question, you should explore your goals. For example, if your lifelong dream is to do counseling but not to teach, a master's degree may be fine. A doctoral degree takes considerably longer to obtain than a master's. For example, you should expect to complete your Ph.D. in 5 - 10 years, with about 8 years being average for a clinical Ph.D. Experimental Ph.D. programs are somewhat shorter; some finish in 4 years. However, the trend now is for an Experimental Ph.D. to enter a Post-doctoral Training Program (post-doc) for a year or two before hitting the job market. In Ph.D. programs the expectations of performance are quite high, and they are competative to enter. One of the reality checks is to see how you would measure up against the competition trying to get into these programs. Go to a library reference desk and look over the APA publication called Graduate Study in Psychology, which contains information about average GPA and GRE scores, as well as preferred/required courses. You can also find information about many graduate programs on the Internet.
Although doctoral programs take some time, it is not just a matter of going to classes. You will also be working on research, possibly teaching, and doing more and more actual psychology. In clinical programs, you spend some of your time doing clinical work, and your last year is a full-time, paid (although not much) internship during which you are essentially functioning as a psychologist.
Indeed, some doctoral programs prefer applicants who have already earned a master's degree (along with some experience in the field). Norcross, Sayette, and Mayne, in their book Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology, (Guilford Press, 1996; ISBN: 1572304952), say this: "In clinical psychology, Psy.D. programs and practice-oriented Ph.D. programs tend to accept proportionally more incoming students with master's degrees than with baccalaureate degrees only. Two-thirds of incoming students in APA-accredited counseling psychology programs already held their master's" (p.12). (By the way, this is a good book for you to read if you are going into clinical or counseling.) Although it may take an extra year or so to get a master's and transfer into a doctoral program, it may well be worth the investment. Also, a master's degree can increase your chances of getting into a doctoral program if you were not successful with only a baccalaureate.
Psychology offers a Ph.D. in
Health Psychology. For information, call the department at
556-8565 or visit at NC (North Classroom) 5002. Also, the
School of Education and Human Development offers several M.A. programs in areas such as
psychology, family counseling, and public school counseling. For
information, call 303-315-6300, or mail education.ucdenver.edu. Another
may be relevant for those interested in mental health careers is the
master's of social work. These degrees are offered at
What do graduate schools look at when selecting their students?
There are three main objective criteria that graduate programs consider:
It goes without saying that you need to maintain a healthy GPA.
GPA of successful applicants is about 3.4, and students typically need
a 3.0. Some schools look at your major GPA and/or your GPA from
two years, but overall GPA is important.
Courses you have taken: Every graduate program has required and preferred courses. Find this out IN ADVANCE of your last semester at CU-Denver. Clinical programs often like to see courses including Statistics, Research Methods, and Abnormal, and prefer courses in Physiological, Learning, and Personality. I/O programs will place a strong emphasis on Statistics, Research, and I/O courses. Outside of psychology, programs generally view math and science courses favorably.
GRE scores: GRE (Graduate Record Exam) scores area still important in most graduate programs. My advice is to take the GRE relatively soon (like the spring of your junior year). You should also prepare for the test. You can get good review books like Practicing to Take the General Test and the Princeton Review's Cracking the GRE and Cracking the GRE for Psychology (ISBN 0375753982). For those needing more structure, you might sign up for a prep course. The Office of Continuing Professional Education at MSCD offers GRE prep courses several times a year. Call their office at 303-741-6394. You can also learn more about the GRE at their web site: http://www.gre.org.
Here are the three main nonobjective criteria that graduate programs consider:
of Recommendation. Most schools ask for 3 - 4 letters of
recommendation, at least 2 of which need to be from professors.
to have faculty who can say more than "She showed up in class and got
A." Interact with your instructors. Visit them during their
office hours. Do well in class. Be pleasant. Volunteer to
research with them. Your goal is to have a letter that can say
about you academically (past performance and future potential), professionally,
personally. When the time comes to ask for these letters, stop by
office hours and ask your professors whether they would feel
writing you a positive letter. Do not leave memories to chance.
a lot if you prepare an organized packet containing the courses, and
received in the courses and for each assignment, paper topics (or
things you did in and out of class, GRE scores (if you have them),
research experience (where, with whom, responsibilities, resulting
or presentations), and relevant volunteer work or internship experience
resume or vita can contain much of this information. Also include
personal statement and any other information you think your recommenders should
know or remember about you. Also include in your packet a list of
programs (including specialty area) you are applying to, the relevant
recommendation forms, address labels (or notice that they will submit letters online), and the deadlines by which you
letter written. Remember to fill out your part of the forms,
your signature on the "waiver" section. Have everything ready
several weeks before deadlines, and always leave a contact number in
Practical Experience. Ph.D. programs will place emphasis on research experience. See who is conducting research in the Department, contact them, and offer your assistance as a volunteer (sometimes you can get academic credit). If you have computer skills, have already taken the statistics and research methods courses, or have some other "gifts," mention these. Clinical programs also value clinical experience. Such experiences, like working in homeless shelters, mental health centers, etc., can be paid or volunteer. You may obtain these experiences via contacts you have in the community or through the
Personal Statement. This is your chance to provide important information to help programs differentiate you from other applicants. The article later in this packet provides some guidance, and some of the "getting into graduate school" books have samples. Be sure to follow the school's guidelines if they offer any. Always have others read drafts of your statement for clarity, consistency, grammar, and flow.
The short answer to this question is that you can do anything with a bachelor's degree in psychology that you can do with any bachelor's degree, plus a range of human service jobs. More comple answers are contained in the following sources:
Check out LOTS of articles at the Psi Chi site: http://www.psichi.org/search/all.asp?bst=BA+in+psychology
"An Online Career-Exploration Resource for Psychology Majors" - http://www.teachpsych.org/Resources/Documents/otrp/resources/appleby15students.docx
"I'm Getting My
Degree in Psychology--What Can I Do With It?" - http://www.kean.edu/~psych/doc/Job%20Titles%20Relevant%20to%20B.A.%20in%20Psych.pdf
What Can You Do with a BA in Psychology? - http://www.psichi.org/?page=052EyeWin01eAubrecht
Getting a Good Job - http://www.psichi.org/?page=031EyeFall98dMorgan
Degree," from CNNMoney -http://money.cnn.com/2000/12/08/career/q_degreepsychology/
Job Skills Valued by Employers Who Interview Psychology Majors - http://www.psichi.org/?page=043EyeSpring00aApple
172 Career Opportunities - http://teachpsych.org/resources/Documents/otrp/resources/appleby11.pdf
Career Options with a Bachelor's Degrees in Psychology - http://psychology.about.com/od/careersinpsychology/a/careersbach.htm
should serve as a
guideline. There is nothing sacred about the timing of each of
activities, and some may not be possible. They are only
student member of the American Psychological Association (APA).
The address is
Begin collecting information from the WWW. Also, order the pamphlets and books described in the Jalbert article (which follows this timetable). Notice the toll free numbers for APA and Erlbaum Publishers. The articles will cost some money, but are great investments because they contain so much valuable information. You may be able to get a group of students to share the cost.
Develop a general plan for your psychology major, making sure to take the introductory, statistics, and research methods classes as soon as possible.
Begin the process of determining your specific interests in psychology (e.g., clinical, industrial) and the type of employment you will eventually seek.
Begin taking at least one more math, science, writing, and speech course than is required in the core.
Find out the research interests of the psychology faculty, and contact or take courses from those whose research interests you. You can volunteer to assist them with their research.
Contact a graduate of the psychology department (or anybody else) who has been to graduate school and ask him/her to give you advice about preparing for graduate school.
Talk to faculty members and other students about graduate programs they recommend.
Read the journals looking for people publishing articles on interesting topics. Find out where they teach.
Narrow your choices of graduate programs, and write to 20-50 schools asking for information about their programs. You may want to write or e-mail the specific people who published interesting articles, and ask them about the program and their current research.
Prepare a folder for each school. Record specific deadlines and requirements (e.g., number of letters of recommendation) from the information you receive.
Join and become active in Psi Chi, the psychology honor society.
Become involved in a research project with a faculty member, if you can. If you have not done so as part of a course, choose a topic of interest and write an APA-style paper on it of sufficient quality to strengthen your graduate school applications.
Pick up information about the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and register to take it by October of your senior year.
Ask at least three faculty members if they are willing and able to write you strong letters of recommendation.
The Summer Before Your Senior Year
Visit your top graduate school choices.
Prepare a letter for each of the faculty members writing you a letter of recommendation.
September to November
Give your letters to your faculty recommenders.
Obtain your transcript and check it for errors.
Prepare drafts of personal statements requested by graduate schools, and have faculty read them and make suggestions. Prepare the final copies in your most professional manner.
Take the GRE if you have not done so.
Request that your GRE scores and college transcripts be sent to your chosen graduate schools.
Make a copy of each application and record its address and mailing date. File this information for each school in its respective folder.
Mail application forms. Be sure they are typed and proofread carefully.
January to March
Arrange interviews with your top choice graduate schools by phone, go for the interviews, and record the strengths and weaknesses of each school.
Write thank you notes to each faculty member and graduate student with whom you interviewed. Include copies of any research papers that you think would help strengthen your application.
April to May
Replies from graduate schools should arrive. Call schools to check the status of your application if they have not replied by April 15.
After careful consideration, decide which school you will attend and inform all schools of your decision. Also, inform your recommenders.
Norine L. Jalbert, Ph.D
(The following article was originally presented at a Working Lunch Session
at the meeting of the New England Psychological Association.
Saturday, October 30, 1993, and appeared in the Spring 1994 Psi Chi Newsletter)
[This is edited to update it and save space.]
Let me begin my introductory statement with the disclaimer that there is no guaranteed formula for getting into graduate school. All that can ever be offered is a set of guidelines that can help you channel your energies into the most productive paths. As with most guidelines and help aids, the focus is on some ideal steps to follow in order to increase your chances of getting accepted into a graduate program of your choice. It is not necessarily the case that any of your professors followed each and every one of these steps to get into graduate programs; nor do we really expect that you will follow each and every step. Your own needs, skills, talents, judgment, circumstances, etc. have to be included as an integral part of the process of making wise decisions and choices about how best to proceed. My second disclaimer in this introductory statement is to clarify that this information and material is not the result of my solitary effort. I wish especially to acknowledge and recognize Dr. Susan E. Dutch from Westfield State College, who originated the outline of things to consider in the admissions process, and Dr. Lisa Gray-Shellberg, who provided the worksheet for preparing one's personal goal statement.
The Admission Process: Some Things To Consider
1. Applications for Admission
2. Curriculum Vitae/Resume
3. Personal Goal Statement
4. Letters of Recommendation - See The Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Psychology, by Tracy Mayne, Michael Sayette, and John Norcross, page 48, figure 4-4, (ISBN 1572304952) for sample cover letter to your referees
6. Candidate Interview
Personal Goal Statement: Preparatory Draft
Jot down the first things that come to your mind in each of the four areas below. Don't worry about grammar, punctuation, or spelling at this time; just write whatever occurs to you.
1. I have the following skills and abilities to offer your school/graduate programs
2. My educational experience has been
3. Other experiences that have shaped me include
4. I'm interested in your school/graduate program because.
1. Where to Start
2. Getting Information About Specific Programs
3. The Graduate Record Examination
4. The Miller Analogies Test
Linda J. Hayes and Steven
Reprinted from the APS Observer, September 1989.
[This version is edited to reduce redundancies.]
Admission into graduate programs in psychology can be quite competitive. High quality programs are, of course, more competitive than lower quality programs; in general, doctoral programs are more difficult to get in than master's programs. Usually, applied programs are more difficult to get in than basic programs.
The primary determinant of success in applying for graduate school is the quality of your background in abilities. But these qualities are not assessed magically. They are evaluated on the basis of a limited number of kinds of information. The purpose of this article is to review those kinds of information for the purpose of understanding the process.
Assembling a Competitive Application
Record Exams and
Other Admission Tests
Most graduate admissions committees require the GRE, and a few still require the MAT. These scores will often be interpreted as a measure of the student's general intellectual ability ad likelihood of success in graduate school. Thus, it is wise to obtain the best scores you possibly can.
Some believe that it is impossible to study for these exams, but it is not true. For example, if you haven't taken a mathematics course in some time, review materials can be quite helpful. If you are unsure how to take tests of this type, examination of one of the books on the market about the GREs may help. Students have been known to pull up their scores greatly through careful preparation.
Be sure that your scores are available by the admission deadline. Incomplete applications are not usually considered, and when they are, the fact that they are incomplete refelcts poorly on the candidate. If the candidate couldn't manage to get their admission materials together on time, will they be late with class assignments as well? Are they generally disorganized? Are they disorganized, careless?
Your grades reflect your standing among your peers. Obviously, grades are important and no good student needs to be reminded of that. As it applies to admission into graduate school, what students do need to be told is that it is wrong to assume that good grades are enough. There are too many students with good grades out there interested in graduate training. You will need other qualifications to distinguish yourself.
Intent/Statement of Interest/Autobiographical Statement
Most applications ask for a statement of interest. This is sometimes called an "autobiographical statement." The request for an autobiographical statement is often misunderstood by student applicants. Students who take the request literally harm their applications by appearing to be unsophisticated and naive. It is sadly not uncommon to see such statements begin with "I was born in a small town in the mid-west." What is being requested is: (1) a statement of your interests in psychology and how you came to have those interests, and (2) what your goals and ambitions in the filed of psychology are, and (3) how the program to which you are applying can help to achieve those goals.
With respect to your interests and how you came to have those interests, some words of advice: while it may seem to you that the reason you are interested in psychology is that you want to help people, this reason has become a terrible cliche and should be avoided. The problem is that it adds little information. Can you imagine anyone saying that they want to get into a field in order to hurt people? Particularly in applied fields, of course, helping people is an obvious motivation, but it would be better to be specific. Perhaps there is some particular kind of human problem that evokes your desire to be helpful—maybe you are particularly interested in helping emotionally disturbed children or the aged. In addition, this will allow you to couple your emotional motivation with the serious intellectual interest you may have.
Secondly, in describing your interests in psychology and how you came to have them, try to focus on particular educational and occupational experiences you have had that could account for your interests, rather then personal experiences. For example, it is probably unwise to say that you are interested in the neural basis of depression because you want to find out why your father became depressed and had to be admitted to a mental hospital. Such personal experiences are difficult to put into a short written statement without either trivializing them or needlessly confining your intellectual interests to emotional motivation. It helps to think of your audience. Who will read this statement? It will be read by academic psychologists who dedicated their careers to scholarly endeavors. Scholars rightly distrust too much personal motivation entering into science because it can lead to a distortion of the scientific process. They are looking for the kind of motivation they themselves either have or wish they had—and intrinsic and serious interest in the substance of the issues dealt with. Try to share experiences that reflect on that part of your reasons for seeking graduate level training. If you cannot find such reasons, perhaps now is a time to think out whether a career in science is for you.
As for your goals and ambitions, you should try to be as specific as possible. When candidates are asked "why do you want to go to graduate school?", or "what are you interested in doing in this program?", a common reply is, "I just want to learn. I'm open minded. I want to study a bit of everything and then I'll decide on my career." This can be taken to mean that you don't know why you want to go to graduate school, and that you have no idea what you are interested in studying. You should try to be more specific, while at the same time showing an openness to learn new things. Too much specification suggests that you do not plan to benefit from what you may learn in graduate school about the discipline and various career choices. Position yourself between these poles. You can, for example, state your current interests in the field. You will not be held to these interests. It is assumed that your interest will be shaped in graduate school. On the other hand, keep in mind that ill-defined goals suggest you haven't thought much about the future. It can suggest you don't care much about the future, or that you aren't very ambitious.
It is wise to apply to schools that have faculty with interests that fit your own. Do your homework. Go to the library and look up the publications of the faculty. Decide whether this kind of work is what you want to do. Many schools admit students into specific labs. That is, each faculty member will admit ? number of students. In this case, the goodness of fit between your interests and your mentor-to-be is crucial. You should know that person's research program. If it fits what you want, say so, but do so after you have carefully researched the matter or you will inevitably appear unsophisticated or even manipulative.
Other things that may go in your statement of interests are research, applied and professional experiences, and relevant skills such as computing skills.
Letters of recommendation are extremely important. They can help or hurt you. The most helpful letters come from teachers who have had considerable contact with you, especially in non-classroom settings, such as research labs. A letter from a teacher who says he or she can't remember who you are exactly but you got an "A" so you must be quite bright, is not helpful. After all, information about course work is available on your transcript—the letter adds nothing and may, in fact, subtract something; it suggests you haven't had sufficient contact with your teachers to have secured a more informative recommendation. What does this mean to committees? Maybe it means that you are an extremely timid person, the kind who disappears into the background, does well on tests but says nothing in class, for example.
The best kind of letter is from someone who has been involved with you professionally, someone who has supervised research on your part, who has co-authored a paper with you, who has served as an adviser to you in your role as an officer in Psi Chi, and so on. However, if you want to have a really fine letter of recommendation, you have to have done some really fine things, such as conducting quality research or making presentations to professional meetings. You have to have been involved in the discipline of psychology if you expect to get a really good letter of recommendation.
A letter from an employer can be useful if the job was in the field of psychology, and the letter comments on your accomplishments of specific duties, your aptitude for this type of work, and so on. Otherwise, such letters are usually not helpful. Also, don't include letters from public officials or professionals with whom your contacts have not been of a professional sort. What the mayor has to say about you is of no interest to admissions committees. It may even do you a disservice. It suggests that you believe that you ought to be looked upon more favorably because you have some contact with important public officials. This will probably be offensive to most academics. Likewise, you don't get your priest or rabbi or minister, your family doctor or other individuals of that kind to write a letter in your behalf. Last but not least, don't ask your personal therapist to send a letter.
Include a Vita
It is a good idea to include a carefully assembled vita even if some of the material is redundant with the application itself. A vita is something you should begin right now, if you haven't already done so. If you do not know how to construct one, you can write the authors of this article for a copy of an article on the topic.
All of your communications should be typed. Don't send anything hand written. You should be certain that your letters are grammatically correct, and that they contain no misspelled words and no colloquialisms. Have someone else read your letters, if necessary.
If you visit the program (see below), look presentable. Parties sometimes happen on interviews. Don't drink too much. Don't flirt. Don't talk much about unrelated leisure time activities. Don't gossip. Don't follow-up on remarks made from one office to the next (e.g., "That can't be right. Dr. So-and-so said you never did research"). Don't assume you are not being evaluated just because the setting is informal. For example, do not assume that your interactions with students at the program are "off the record." They probably are not.
Finding the Right Program
Putting together a competitive application through careful preparation is one thing. Applying to the right program is something else. In the "one down" situation, most undergraduate students feel they are in, it is easy to get into an "anybody take me, I will go" type of attitude. Such an attitude, if taken to the extreme, is dangerous. You have to be happy with your education. It has to fit with your values, abilities, and interests. It is wise to make sure you are applying to the right program.
Try to be clear with yourself about what you're looking for. What sort of career do you want to have? In what area of psychology? What graduate programs offer training in this area? What theoretical orientation do you have? Are you a behaviorist? Are you a cognitivist? What programs have such an orientation? Whose work have you found most agreeable? Where does this person work?
Once you are clear, examine programs that fit in terms of sub-disciplinary area. The APA book on graduate training in psychology is a good place to start. Write for the catalogs of as many programs as seem in the ballpark. Ask your professors about possible programs. If you have come across researchers in your area of interest, get the materials from their programs. Don't write to faculty members for catalog and admissions materials. Write to the department.
As you narrow down the list you may find particular people who stand out. Should you contact them directly? If you have a specific interest in their work, it is fine to do so, but only after you have done your homework. It is reasonable to request reprints of articles. It is reasonable to comment on how much you have enjoyed or gained from reading something this person has written, although don't overdo it. It is also reasonable to ask an intelligent question arising from something this person has said or written. This is especially good if you know what you are talking about. It is not wise to make a point of telling someone exactly what you think is wrong with their theory, their method, etc., on the grounds that they will be convinced of your superior intelligence. Most academics are pleased to have others interested in their work. Be respectful.
If you want to explore the possibility of working with them, say so. You might ask if they are accepting students into their lab (sometimes the answer is "no", due to upcoming leaves or other reasons). If you know you re very serious and your qualifications are reasonable, you might ask if it is possible to visit. Not all academics will grant such visits because they can be time-consuming, but it will not offend to inquire. Some programs (especially applied programs) have a policy of inviting applicants for interviews as part of their admissions procedures. If they wish to interview you, you will be invited. In this case, if you are not invited, you will not be welcome to visit.
If you begin to center on some programs, do not forget that other students can be a valuable source of information. Sometimes it is easier to talk informally to a student in the program you are interested in and get a clearer view of what it is like.
When you have your list, put together your applications carefully. How many programs should you apply to? It is not uncommon for applied students interested in Ph.D. training to apply to 10-12, including one or two "fall backs" (e.g., M.A. programs). Basic students usually would apply to smaller numbers.
What do you do after all this if no one admits you? If you are committed to further training, it makes sense to try again. Examine the reasons why you were not competitive. Was it a bad letter? Poor GREs? Lack of experience? Did you apply to too few programs? Try to correct these problems. If you are graduating, try to see if you can get a psychology-related job. You may be able to take a few graduate courses at your local University on a non-degree basis, just to keep your hand in and to show your commitment and ability. It is not unusual to find well-known psychologists who did not get in their first time around.
Most graduate schools require a personal statement as part of your application. This statement is often centered around your interest in psychology, your personal background, the reasons you are applying to that particular graduate program, and your career and personal objectives. Although a well-written personal statement will not overcome poor grades or low GRE scores, a poor one will surely hurt your chances of acceptance. Fretz and Stang (1988) cite the following example:
"Take the case of the student with a competitive grade point average and good references who was not accepted to any of the 11 programs he applied for. One cannot be sure, but the biographical statement included with his applications is suspected as the reason. First, it was poorly typed, with many smears and crossed-out words. The spelling and grammar were both appalling. Finally, the content left much to be desired. It was far too long—about 15 pages—and went into detail about this person's philosophy of life (which was far from the established viewpoint). It also stressed emotional agonies and turning points in his life. Hoping to cure the world of all its evils, this person tried to indicate how a Ph.D. in psychology was necessary to fulfill that end. In short, it was an overstated, ill-conceived essay that may have been received so badly that it overshadowed his other attributes and data" (p.45)
Plan and produce your personal statement as carefully as you would a crucial term paper. The following tips, quoted from Fretz & Stag, will help you produce an impressive and effective personal.
Psi Chi Articles
"Eye on Psi Chi" regularly published articles about careers and graduate school. You can search for what you need at http://www.psichi.org/search/all.asp?c=&bst=Graduate+School.
General Psychology Sites