If you want to work in the field of psychology, you’ll need to earn at least an undergraduate college-level education. While there are some jobs available to those with bachelor’s degrees, most careers in the field require a master’s degree or higher.
There are many options when it comes to graduate school and a lot of things for you to consider. You’ll need to figure out the path you want your career to take, determine what you want in a program, and meet the admissions requirements of your top-choice schools. The exact steps you’ll take will depend on your goals, but in general, there are six main points to hit as you work to earn your grad school acceptance.
Pick a Career Path or Specialty
You’ll need to make some decisions about what you want the focus of your career to be before you apply to school. There are many specialties within psychology but not every school will offer all of them. Some paths you could take with an advanced degree include:
It can help to volunteer in a few different settings to get a feel for the specialty you’d like to pursue. You might even be able to find full-time employment if you have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, working under the supervision of a licensed practitioner. Either way, gaining more experience can help you narrow down your options and plan ahead for your career.
Choose a Degree
Your second step should be choosing the exact level of degree you need. There are three primary paths you can take in psychology grad school—pursuing a master’s, a specialist, or a doctoral degree. The degree you ultimately earn will depend on your goals, but keep in mind that if you plan to become a legally licensed psychologist, a doctoral degree is almost always needed.
You can choose to pursue either a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Arts (MA) in Psychology. One might focus more on conducting research and the other working with patients, but both options will prepare you to take the first steps in your career. Those with a master’s can work as psychological assistants or associates, or in related fields like substance abuse counseling or social services. Unlike other licensed psychologists who need a doctoral degree, school psychologists may only need a master’s.
Specialist degrees sit between the master’s and doctoral degrees and are typically designed for school psychology. The most common option is the Education Specialist (EdS) degree, which often takes at least three years compared to the two years it usually takes for a master’s.
Psychology students who wish to get licensed and practice independently will want to work toward earning their doctoral degree. While there are a few different options, in most cases you’ll choose between a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. PhDs focus more heavily on research and methodology, while PsyD degrees emphasize the practical application of psychological knowledge.
You might also have the option to pursue a dual degree, which lets you simultaneously earn your master’s and doctorate at an accelerated rate. This can be an especially good option for those who wish to work in a more highly specialized area. For example, if you want to work specifically with issues affecting females, you might get a master’s in women’s studies before earning a PhD in clinical psychology.
Find the Right Grad School Program
Once you know what specialty and type of degree you want, it’s time to start looking into programs. With over 1,500 available across the United States, this process can seem overwhelming. Of course, the program you choose should fit your individual needs and goals, but you can use the following list of things to consider to help guide you along the way.
Look for Accreditation
It’s important to make sure that the program you’re considering is accredited. Accreditation verifies that the education you’ll receive meets the quality standards set forth in the field. Attending a non-accredited school could mean you won’t qualify for federal financial aid and often that you won’t be allowed to earn your licensure.
So, how do you know if a program is accredited? In the United States, the easiest way is to check with the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA keeps an up-to-date database of accreditation status for psychology programs, as well as for residencies and internships.
Online vs. in-classroom programs
Deciding whether to attend school online or in the classroom is another important step. There’s no difference in the education you’ll receive, so the choice depends on your lifestyle and learning needs. Students who have commitments such as a full-time job or young children at home might find that an online program is the perfect fit. Conversely, some students learn better in a more structured and traditional classroom environment, with daily interactions with their professors and peers.
Keep in mind that even if you do choose an online option, you won’t be entirely behind a computer. While your classroom courses can be taken online, any lab work, clinical internships, or other hands-on experience will need to happen in person.
Ask questions about the program
There are many important things to consider as you research and compare programs. Before making your final choice, make sure you know (and like) the answers to the following questions:
Meet or Exceed the Admission Requirements
Once you’ve narrowed down your top-choice schools, you’ll need to make sure you meet their admission requirements. Different programs require different things, but there are generally some standard benchmarks to meet:
Other requirements will vary depending on the program, as well as your educational background. For example, if your bachelor’s degree wasn’t in psychology, you might need to take a semester or two of undergrad prerequisites such as statistics, biology, and social sciences.
Make Your Application Stand Out
Along with meeting or exceeding the standard requirements, there are other things you can do to make your application stand out. Volunteering in the mental health field will not only give you valuable experience that can help you determine the specialty you want to pursue, but it will also look good on your application. What’s more, volunteer positions are an ideal place to network with other professionals in the field and make connections that can earn you strong letters of recommendation.
You’ll stand out especially, experts say, if you get some research experience and write a compelling statement of purpose. Work in a lab setting to prove that you understand research methodology and documentation will show commitment and give you a deeper academic experience. But because this is ultimately a field in which you’ll be working with and helping people, it will also help to draft an engaging story detailing your passion for psychology. Describing what drew you to this area of study in a college essay-style statement of purpose—which can be a stand-alone document or part of your essay—will demonstrate next-level dedication to the field.
As simple as it sounds, cover the basics. Get started on your applications early so you’ll have plenty of time to get your application materials together and have advance notice of any supplemental materials a school may require.
Plan to Pay for School
Of course, getting into the program of your choice is just a part of the process. You also need to figure out how to pay for it. Thankfully, there are plenty of options to help you fund your education, including loans, grants, scholarships, fellowships, and work-study programs. The first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which will determine any need-based assistance you qualify for.
Once you know what you’ll receive from the government, you can supplement that aid in other ways. There are countless scholarships, grants, and fellowships available through psychology associations and private organizations. Those who are pursuing their doctoral degrees might also receive full or part tuition remission for assisting with research or teaching. If you’re working while going to school, your employer might offer contributions to your education.
If you’ve exhausted your options for free financial aid, loans can fill in the gaps. If you do end up needing loans, keep in mind that federal assistance often has advantages to loans from private banks, including potentially lower and fixed interest rates and the possibility for loan forgiveness.
Student loan forgiveness
You may qualify for student loan forgiveness through the government if you meet certain criteria.