Applying to Graduate School | Department of Psychology

Applying to Graduate School

Thinking of applying to grad school?

Graduate education can lead to stimulating opportunities to expand one's knowledge and skills, and ultimately to a higher-paying job.The US News and World Report reported that employment opportunities for Ph.D. psychologists are growing. Unemployment among individuals with a new Ph.D. in psychology has been reported by APA as being about 3%, with overall unemployment for all individuals with a Ph.D. in psychology being 1%.

However, graduate education is usually far more demanding than undergraduate education, and it may be frustrating to continue to be a student for several years after other people your age have already started their careers. Ultimately, the decision about going to graduate school depends on your own assessment of your resources, both personal and financial, and on your career goals.

The best starting place is the APA publication entitled Applying to Graduate School. You can also write for more information to those programs that sound interesting or visit the programs' websites (e.g.,

How to decide on a program to apply for

Master's degree in psychology: a graduate-level degree generally involving 2 to 3 years of study after you complete your undergraduate (bachelor's) degree. The two most common types of psychology master's degrees are the Master of Arts (M.A.) and the Master of Science (M.S.). Many individuals with master's degrees have good jobs and satisfying careers. In psychology, the job prospects and salaries are not as good overall for individuals with master's degrees as they are for individuals with a Ph.D.

  • There are two reasons to attend a master's degree program in psychology

  1. To earn a degree leading to a job
  2. Enhance one's prospects of being admitted to a Ph.D. program.
  • Three cautions about programs that award master's degrees

  1. There is a wide variety in the quality of master's degree programs in psychology,
  2. Having a master's degree may not be an advantage in applying to Ph.D. programs
  3. If you earn a master's degree from one university, you may not be able to transfer much academic credit to a Ph.D. program at another university.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in psychology: the highest level of graduate degree in the field, usually taking up to 5 to 7 years. PhD psychology programs are plentiful, but also fairly competitive, with more rigorous admission criteria. Because of the strong focus on research, they're ideal for students not only interested in clinical practice but also in academia and research. PhD psychology programs also provide valuable training for those who want to practice psychology in clinical settings.

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree in psychology: degree was introduced in the 1970s as an alternative for students who were less interested in conducting ongoing psychological research and more interested in providing psychological services to patients and the public. The focus of this program is to train students to engage in careers that apply scientific knowledge of psychology and deliver empirically based service to individuals, groups, and organizations. It usually takes 4 to 6 years to complete. If you are wanting to seek an academic or research career, it would be best to apply for a PhD. One disadvantage, compared to PhD, is that the ratio of students to faculty is much higher than it is in graduate programs at universities.

Considerations for applying to a program

Read pages 33-35 in the Undergraduate Manual for information on the components needed for applying to a graduate program.

​Timetable for Applying after Undergraduate Studies

If you intend to go to graduate school right after you finish your undergraduate, here's a rough timetable for preparing your applications

Spring semester of sophomore year or fall semester of junior year:

Summer before senior year:

  • Make a list of the schools and programs you would like to apply to
  • Start writing your personal statement
  • Studying for the GRE (costs $205 to take)
  • Email schools you are interested in for information about their program
  • Ask your professors for a letter of recommendation
    • ​It is important for students to begin developing and fostering a good relationship with a professor that includes interactions in and outside of the classroom, such as office hour visits, etc. Teachers often have trouble writing good letters because of a lack of rapport with students.
    • It would also be helpful for students to take 2 or more classes with potential letter writers. Additionally, employers and volunteer supervisors make wonderful letter writers since graduate programs want to know about the student's work ethic.

Fall semester of senior year:

  • Take the GRE around September so that if you need to take it again you will have time by the typical Dec.1 deadline
  • Complete your applications and send them off (for Ph.D. programs they are typically due at the beginning of December, and master's programs vary).

Here are some helpful links about applying to graduate school

Frequently asked questions

What undergraduate classes should be taken to prepare for graduate school?

Most psychology departments have requirements that guarantee that their undergraduate majors are prepared for graduate school. Whether you major in psychology or not, courses in statistics and research methods are essential (i.e., PSYC 2317, PSYC 3650). It is also wise to select undergraduate courses so that you are knowledgeable about several of the fundamental areas of psychology (cognitive, developmental, personality, physiological, and social) and about the specific area in which you want to do graduate work. For example, if you want to attend a graduate program in clinical psychology, you should take an undergraduate course in abnormal psychology and you might also want to take an additional undergraduate course in some area such as interviewing, counseling, or tests and measures.

Should I obtain research experience? If so, when should I start?

Research experience is an important key to getting in to a graduate program. This will impress many graduate programs. Graduate programs that emphasize experimental research will favor an applicant who has been involved in research. For admission to Ph.D. programs, students should plan to become involved in research as undergraduates, ideally by the start of their junior year. Working on a research project with a faculty member while you are an undergraduate student has several advantages. You gain a much better idea of what psychological research is all about, while also demonstrating your interest and motivation in doing research. If this work goes well, you have a faculty member who can advise you about applying to graduate school and can write a strong letter of recommendation for you. Students who wait to begin their involvement in research until their senior year will have begun that work only a few months before they are applying for graduate programs and asking for letters of recommendation.

I'm already a senior and have no research experience, is graduate school even an option anymore?
Though it is ideal to have a bunch of research experience, it is not impossible to be accepted without as much. Do your best to start working in a lab and get to know faculty to write you letters. You might also consider taking a year after you graduate to gain more experience.

Is it a good idea to take time off before graduate school?

Taking time off can give you the opportunity to better define your career goals or to acquire experiences, either in research or in community service, that will enhance your chances of being admitted to a graduate program. However, in making a choice about this issue, consider what is best for you, not what someone else thinks you should do.

How many schools should you apply to?

There is no simple, easy answer to this question. For many students, the correct answer is probably some number between 5 and 15. For example, the average applicant in PhD clinical psychology applies to around 13 programs. Instead of being concerned about the exact number of programs to apply to, consider carefully how competitive the programs are that you are applying to, how strong or weak your credentials are, and how much time, money, and effort you realistically can put into the application process. There may be circumstances that dictate a special answer to this question. If you are wanting to stay around family or close others you may want to only apply to programs near the area where you live. The exact number of schools that you apply to is far less important than selecting appropriate schools to apply to.

Follow these rules

  • Only apply to graduate programs that you know offer the type of training you want and that you are seriously interested in attending. For example, if you would despise living in a big city on the East Coast, do not apply to graduate programs there.
  • Apply to graduate programs where the students have about the same level of grades and GRE scores that you do. Be cautious about applying to programs that are a "long shot" for you. In other words, if your Verbal GRE score is 450, avoid applying to programs where the average Verbal GRE score is 650 (2 standard deviations higher).
  • If you are applying to graduate programs that receive a large number of well-qualified applicants, you should probably apply to at least 10 programs.

I fear my grades/test scores/research experience may not be adequate. What should I do?
While graduate school is competitive, you do not need to be perfect in every area; use your personal statement to explain weaknesses and emphasize strength, and look into schools with faculty who share your interests. You can also consider applying to a masters program rather than, or in addition to, doctoral programs as they are often less competitive.