8 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Psychology Graduate Program

psychology bachelors student researching grad schools

Choosing to pursue a graduate degree in psychology is a smart move for advancing your job prospects in the field. Depending on the type of degree you complete, a graduate program can expand your career options to teaching, conducting research, or working in independent practice. Whatever you do, you’ll be prepared to make a direct contribution toward improving people’s lives in a significant way. 

But of course, earning your degree means finding the right program to meet your needs—and there are many factors to consider. When you’re comparing graduate schools and program features, be sure to ask these important questions.

1. What Types of Degrees Does the Program Offer?

There are several ways to earn a graduate degree in psychology. While the length of time and content will vary for each option, your career goals should be the key thing to consider when choosing which degree to pursue. The level and concentration of each degree will prepare you for a somewhat different career path.

Setting long-term plans can help you choose the academic program that’s right for you. If your ultimate goal is to be fully licensed as an independent psychologist, you’ll need to take the steps that are necessary for earning your doctoral degree.

A master’s degree in psychology is the first level of graduate education offered in this field of study. You can choose to pursue either a Master of Arts (MA) or a Master of Science (MS) in Psychology. Both programs cover similar curriculum, though an MA might emphasize study from a liberal art approach, while an MS might focus more on the sciences and research. Either degree should take roughly two years to complete and prepare you to pursue a doctoral degree.

Remember that you must become licensed to work with the title of psychologist and—except in the case of school psychology—a master’s isn’t sufficient if that’s your goal. Depending on your state, what it can prepare you for is:

  • Meeting the licensing criteria for some types of counselors and therapists
  • Earning your license as a school psychologist if your degree is in that concentration
  • Becoming licensed as a psychological associate with a limited scope of practice

A specialist degree sits between a master’s and a doctorate. In the case of psychologists, these degrees are typically designed for those planning to go into school psychology. Of these degrees, the most common option you’ll see is the Education Specialist (EdS). These take around 3 years to complete and prepare you to work with at-risk or disabled students, collaborate with teachers and parents to address behavioral or learning issues, and implement policies that impact both the education and safety in schools.

If you want to achieve the highest level of education in the field, then a doctorate in psychology is the ultimate goal. In most cases, you’ll choose between two degrees—the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). In these programs, you can expect to spend a minimum of 4 years earning your degree, though some students take up to eight years, depending on the criteria of the program.

A PsyD and PhD can prepare you for licensing in most of the same independent professional roles. However, there are differences in the curriculum and approach that each degree takes.

The goal of a PhD program involves training students for roles in research and academia by emphasizing the development of critical thinking skills and analytical expertise. A PhD program can help you:

  • Work in research positions to develop new knowledge in the field
  • Teach psychology at the university level
  • Lead in administrative positions in schools, businesses, and community programs
  • Qualify for state licensing as a psychologist in private practice

On the other hand, the goal of a PsyD program is to teach students how to use existing principles of psychological theory to assess, diagnose, and improve the lives of their patients. A PsyD program can help you:

  • Qualify for state licensing as a psychologist in private practice
  • Consult in specialty areas such as forensic or organizational psychology
  • Work as a school psychologist

You may come across other doctoral degrees as well, though these aren’t as common. A Doctor of Education (EdD) can prepare you to work in developmental or educational psychology, while a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) can be designed for those who want to apply industrial-organizational (I/O) psychology to high-level roles within business organizations.

2. Does the Program Offer the Specialization I Want?

While general psychology degrees can prepare you for many types of roles, most students choose to specialize their degrees. There are so many options in the field of psychology that no school can possibly offer everything. It’s important to figure out which sub-fields of psychology interest you so you can choose the program that offers that kind of coursework.

Popular areas of concentration or specialization include:

  • Child and adolescent psychology
  • Clinical psychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Industrial-organizational psychology
  • Marriage and family therapy
  • Neuropsychology

3. What Type of Training Model Does the Program Follow?

Graduate programs in psychology typically fall into one of three standard training models. Knowing a program’s structure can help you determine whether it’ll be a good fit for your preferences and goals. While individual programs vary, here’s a general overview of your choices:

Type of Program

Emphasis

Best preparation for…

Research-scientist

Research under a mentor

Careers in research and academia

Scientist-practitioner

Balance of clinical training and mentored research

Careers in clinical research or program design and evaluation

Scholar-practitioner

Mostly clinical with little research

Careers in clinical practice

4. Is the Program Accredited?

Ensuring the school and program you want to attend are accredited is an important step in choosing a grad school. Accreditation verifies that the quality of education you’ll receive meets the standards defined by the U.S. Department of Education and the psychology profession. Accreditation is also necessary if you wish to earn your license, qualify for federal financial aid, and transfer any credits to or from another institution.

To verify school accreditation:

Doctorate degrees

The American Psychological Association (APA) and Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) have directories of doctoral programs that they have accredited.

Bachelor’s and master’s degrees

In the U.S., there are six regional accrediting agencies that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as reliable authorities for quality postsecondary education, including colleges and universities that offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs in psychology.

Consult this chart for a directory of schools that offer a bachelor’s or master’s program in psychology that are regionally accredited.

5. Is the Program Compatible with My Lifestyle?

You’re going to be spending several years in your graduate program, so it’s important to make sure the two of you get along. While you’ll likely find several schools that offer the degree and specialization you seek, there are other factors to consider when determining the right fit.

You should feel that your goals and interests align with those of the faculty, and you should comfortable working alongside your instructors. If possible, arrange for an onsite interview to meet with faculty of the program. If you can’t make it in person, try to arrange a phone or video conference to determine your comfort level with their personalities, teaching styles, and goals for their students. Read faculty bios and published research to determine if working with them seems appealing.

What’s more, individual instructors may come and go, so you should also determine your overall comfort level with the department as a whole. This includes faculty, administrators, other students, and everyone you’ll be interacting with if you choose to attend. Every department has a “personality,” and you’ll want to find out if you’ll fit in.

If you’re interested in research, get specific details about a program’s resources. Look for ones that have research related to your specific interests and goals. Find out what they’re exactly they’re working on and who’s doing the research. Investigate factors such as funding for special projects and conferences and find out how much access you’ll have to these opportunities as a student.

You may be passionate about getting a graduate degree in psychology, but full-time classroom attendance isn’t always possible for everyone. If you’ll be juggling work or family obligations while studying, find out if your program offers classes online.

Many programs let you take traditional classroom courses online, allowing you to work your education into your schedule. However, keep in mind that you’ll still have to fulfill any internship or research requirements in person. Some graduate psychology programs offer hybrid options that combine online courses with periodic in-person seminars held on campus or at regional locations.

6. What’s the Student Success Rate?

When evaluating a specific program, consider its track record of student success. A solid graduate program should set students up the right knowledge and experience they need to meet the requirements for graduation and licensing.

Internship matches

Internships are a key requirement for APA-accredited doctoral-level programs and for obtaining your state licensing. However, every year, the total number of applicants exceeds the number of psychology internships available. It’s a simple problem of supply and demand, but one that can delay your career. Missing out on an internship can postpone your degree and leave your professional plans in limbo.

If your program is APA-accredited, it must list its match rates to APA-accredited internships on its website. The Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Center (APPIC) also publishes match rates by program. A consistent history of strong match rates can give you an idea of how internship programs regard applicants from your potential program. In many cases, this success can also indicate the support of astute advisors who help students identify the types of internships where they’ll have the best chance of acceptance.

Exam pass rates

To be eligible for a psychology license in your state, you’ll need to pass the appropriate licensing exam. A program with high pass rates has proven to be successful at providing students with the well-rounded knowledge they need to legally enter the field.

While school psychologists need to pass the Praxis subject exam, all other psychologists need to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). A 2017 report from the association breaks down the pass rate for every program across the U.S. and Canada.

Psychology Exam Passing Scores

Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology
  • 500 out of 800
Praxis School Psychology Exam
  • 147 out of 200

7. How Much Does It Cost to Apply?

You’ll increase your chance of admission if you apply to as many programs that meet your criteria. However, it’s important to consider whether the time and cost involved is worth it. Don’t limit your options but, if finances are an issue, choose wisely.

If you’re unable to meet a specific program’s non-refundable application fee, which can range from $50 to $100 or more, contact the school. You might qualify for a fee waiver with proof of financial need or by meeting other criteria.

Admission requirements vary by program, and some are more affordable than others. Here’s a list of the typical costs involved when applying to a graduate program in psychology:

Psychology Grad Schools Fees

Item

Cost

GRE practice materials

Varies from free online resources to hourly rates for private tutor

$205 per test

GRE score reports

Four free reports; $27 for each additional report

Application fee

Varies widely, but averages about $70 per school

Travel expenses

Varies depending on distance and length of stay; School-based interviews might include meals or other assistance

Official transcripts

Costs vary by school, but averaging between $3 and $10 per transcript

8. How Much Will It Cost to Attend?

There’s nothing worse than finding what seems like the perfect graduate program and realizing that you can’t afford it. You can minimize this type of disappointment if you plan a realistic budget and look at programs that meet these criteria. Determining the cost of a graduate psychology program includes several factors.

Just like undergraduate programs, graduate tuition fees vary widely. Generally, you’re likely to find your most economical options at public institutions in your state. Attending these schools as an in-state student gives you access to the same education that out-of-state students pay for at two or three times the cost.

However, there are plenty of reasons that this may not work for you. If the type of programs offered at local public institutions doesn’t match with your goals, you’ll have to consider private or out-of-state options.

A recent APA study reported the following median annual tuition rates for master’s and doctorate programs.

Degree Level and Type of Institution

Master’s, public and in-state

Master’s, public and out-of-state

Master’s, private

Doctoral, public and in-state

Doctoral, public and out-of-state

Doctoral, private

Median Annual Tuition

$8,640

$19,997

$30,345

$10,800

$24,000

$33,698

The availability of tuition remission or stipends varies by institution and program, psychology students pursuing graduate degrees have a good chance of qualifying if they participate in assistantships for research or teaching. Some schools offer partial remission while others might cover the entire cost of your tuition. These positions could also include benefits like free or reduced housing, health insurance, and meals.

According to the APA, roughly 60% of public master’s programs offer some sort of tuition remission, while around 90% of doctoral programs offer the same.

Some schools have scholarships or funds reserved for students who meet financial requirements for aid. They typically require that you submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to prove your eligibility. If you meet these criteria, you might also qualify for an on-campus job through the Federal Work-Study program. The FAFSA also serves as the basic application for determining whether you’ll get federal financial aid or reduced-interest federal student loans.

You may also find financial help from scholarships and grants if you meet academic or other specific requirements. Sources include private businesses, professional organizations, and employers. There are countless options available for students at all levels, as well as aid designed specifically for students of certain specializations, background, race, gender, and more.   

When calculating your total cost of attendance, don’t forget to consider costs like lab fees, textbooks, food, housing, and transportation while you’re at school. You should also plan for tuition increases if you’ll be subject to new fees after your first year.

You’ll also want to consider how the cost of living varies by city and state. For example, if you live in Chicago and want to attend school in New York City, it could cost you as much as 30% more to maintain your lifestyle, depending on the number of people in your household. A simple thing like shopping for groceries could cost you thousands of more dollars a year. NerdWallet offers a handy calculator to help you determine how far your money will take you in different U.S. cities.

Ready to Find a Grad Program?

Completing a graduate program in psychology can expand your career opportunities and qualify you to make a difference in the lives of individuals, families, and groups. If you’re ready to begin your search for the right program, start looking for schools that meet your needs by clicking the button below.

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