Questions from current undergraduate students who wish advice on applying to graduate school
Is a career in psychology right for me?
Are psychology courses among your most enjoyable? Are you intrigued by psychology's examination of human behavior? Are you unsure as to whether psychology could be your career path? Career decisions require an exploration of your own skills and interests, an exploration of the field of psychology, and an assessment of how well they fit together.
What are some of the different specialty areas of Psychology?
Since psychology is such a broad field, it is sometimes a daunting task deciding on an area of interest within the field. The following is a list of some of the various subsections of psychology and a brief description of what a psychologist in that particular area would do. For more extensive definitions, please see the APA's website.
Description of subfields of psychology, with appropriate links
- Clinical Psychology
- The field of Clinical Psychology integrates science, theory, and practice to understand, predict, and alleviate maladjustment, disability, and discomfort as well as to promote human adaptation, adjustment, and personal development.
- Community Psychologists
- Focus on prevention and treatment in community programs.
- Counseling Psychologists
- Help people accommodate to change or make changes in their lifestyle.
- Developmental Psychologists
- Study the psychological development of the human being that takes place throughout life.
- Educational Psychologists
- Concentrate on how effective teaching and learning take place.
- Experimental Psychologists
- Focus on methods and techniques for acquiring psychological data, as well as analyzing and interpreting data about fundamental processes, such as cognition, perception, learning, memory, etc.
- Forensic Psychologists
- Apply psychological principles to legal issues.
- Health Psychologists
- Focus on how biological, psychological, and social factors affect health and illness.
- Human Factors Psychology
- Also referred to as ergonomics, Human factors Psychology is a multi-disciplinary field of study devoted to the understanding and optimization of performance, health, safety, and comfort of humans working with systems, machines, or products through the application of principles from the fields of engineering, psychology, design, and biology.
- Industrial/Organizational Psychologists
- Apply psychological principles and research methods to the work place in the interest of improving productivity and the quality of work life.
- Explores the relationships between brain systems and behavior.
- Rehabilitation Psychologists
- Work with stroke and accident victims, people with mental retardation, and those with developmental disabilities caused by such conditions as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and autism.
- Social Psychologists
- Study how a person's mental life and behavior is shaped by interactions with other people.
- School Psychology
- School psychology is a general practice and health service provider specialty of professional psychology that is concerned with the science and practice of psychology with children, youth, families, learners of all ages, and the schooling process.
- Sports Psychologists
- Help athletes refine their focus on competition goals, become more motivated, and learn to deal with the anxiety and fear of failure that often accompany competition.
Books about Graduate School in Psychology
Read material that discuss careers in psychology, for example
- Keith-Spiegel, P. & Wiederman, M.W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology, counseling and related professions (2nd ed). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Hill Call No: BF 77.K35 2000
- Sternberg, Robert A. (1997). Career Paths in Psychology: Where Your Degree Can Take You. Washington, DC: APA.
Hill Call No: Latest version: REFERENCE - BF 77.G73
Earlier versions: STACKS - BF 77.G73
"In this book, several psychologists who have achieved great success in a variety of areas discuss their work: what got them into it, what they like and don't like about it, what a typical work week is like in their chosen specialty. These psychologists offer advice, information, and the inspiration of their own career paths. They speak frankly about salaries and job opportunities, and about what it takes to make it in their field." From the APA website.
How can I learn more about whether my interests fit with some specific areas of psychology? Practical steps that you can take right now.
Become a Student Affiliate of the American Psychological Association
Undergraduates taking courses in psychology are eligible for membership in APA as student affiliates for the remarkable fee of $27. It's a great way to begin to get a sense of what the field is like, and decide whether you would like to hang out with these kinds of people!
"Student affiliates receive free subscriptions to the journal American Psychologist and to The APA Monitor on Psychology -- a monthly magazine that covers the work of the four directorates of APA (Practice, Education, Science, and Public Interest), the impact of psychology on society, and the work of the association and individual members in advocacy and legislative action affecting psychology and behavioral science. The Monitor also has extensive job listings. Student affiliates may purchase other APA publications at special rates and attend the APA annual convention for a reduced registration fee.
For membership information, see the APA page on student affiliates. In addition, undergraduates are often able to become student members of a specific division.
A great way to learn a more about a potential career is to have a focused discussion with someone connected with your field of interest. Typical questions: "How did you become involved in this field? What is most satisfying (or most trying) about this kind of work? What would you suggest to someone who was interested in this field?"
Along the same lines, you can request to "shadow" or follow around a professional for a half-day or a day. The objective is to get a sense of what this career is about and what a typical work setting is like.
Volunteer or Work Experience
Getting involved in some actual helping or research tasks can help The NSCU Psychology Department offers research experience to undergraduates majoring in psychology through PSY 499. Check with faculty members in the department regarding opportunities.
Employment and volunteer work that relates to psychology is another way to get immersed in the field. The NCSU Career Center offers assistance in job searching.
I am not interested in psychology as a career. What careers are available for someone with a Bachelor's degree in Psychology?
An undergraduate degree in psychology provides you with a well-rounded education, giving you skills necessary to be successful in a variety of entry-level jobs. After completing your Bachelor's degree, you have skills in research, writing, and critical thinking, just to name a few.
The following links provide resources if you are interested in a career with a Bachelor's degree
- A section of the American Psychological Association's (APA) website that provides information about the job outlook for Bachelor's, Master's, and Doctoral level graduates
- Marky Lloyd, a Professor of Psychology at Georgia Southern University, has developed a website listing resources for those interested in careers in psychology as well as graduate school in psychology.
- Psych Web provides a comprehensive website of resources for careers in psychology
- Case Western University provides a document titled "Psychology, what can I do with this degree?" The document lists service areas along with employers and strategies for getting involved in those areas
- University of Northern Iowa provides a list of career resources for psychology majors.
- The Wall Street Journal provides a website pertaining to careers, salaries, interviewing, resumes, etc.
- The Occupational Outlook Handbook is a document provided by the US Department of Labor that contains employment statistics nationwide.
I would like to have a career that involves helping people. What options are open to me?
The field of psychology offers a background appropriate to many helping roles. There are a number of bachelor's level careers in this area including caseworker, drug/substance abuse counselor, director of volunteer services, and many more. It is wise to get some volunteer experience as an undergraduate, in order to find out what jobs interest you the most. Local hospitals, mental health centers, and community service organizations are good places to look for volunteer opportunities.
What about a career as a clinical psychologist?
As a psychology major, you have certainly read about the clinical and research contributions of clinical psychologists. What is this career all about?
The role of clinical psychologists
Clinical psychologists work in academic university settings as teachers and researchers, as well as in hospital, clinic, private practice and other settings as psychological service providers. Traditionally, clinical psychologists have been concerned with assessment and intervention with the whole range of psychological disorders, including those with the most severe psychological disorders. Increasingly, clinical psychologists are involved with a number of emerging and exciting areas: health psychology, forensic psychology, neuropsychology, prevention (e.g., HIV, smoking cessation), addictions treatment and so on.
Clinical Psychology Training Programs
- Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)
- Programs in Clinical Psychology generally follow the "Boulder Model" of training, which emphasizes the importance of integrating research and practice. One's clinical practice should be more effective as a result of knowledge of current research on assessment and intervention. One's research program should be more sophisticated as a result of insights gained from clinical practice. Therefore, most PhD programs will have substantial research training. Requirements include courses in statistics and methodology, and completion of experimental research (i.e., a Master's Thesis and a Doctoral Dissertation). Thus, completion of a clinical psychology doctoral program will generally involve 5 or more years: Initial coursework in psychological assessment and intervention; research methods; completion of thesis and dissertation requirements, and application to (and completion of) a year-long clinical internship. The clinical internship generally involves full-time supervised practice in a hospital, clinic, or other service provision setting that has an APA approved internship program.
- Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology)
- Programs generally emphasize the acquisition of clinical practice skills, and place less emphasis on preparing individuals to produce knowledge through research. Many PsyD programs are in "free-standing" professional schools, which means that they are not associated with a University. Nonetheless, research requirements in Psy.D training programs can be much more substantial than those for other providers of psychological services (e.g., MSW).
Licensure as a Clinical Psychologist
In order to practice independently (and be reimbursed by health insurance providers), clinical psychologists must be licensed by the state in which they intend to offer psychological services. In most states, psychologists with masters degrees are not permitted to practice independently (i.e., without the supervision of another licensed provider). In order to apply for licensure, clinical psychologists are generally required to have 1 to 2 years of supervised clinical experience after receipt of their Doctoral degree. The licensure process generally involves passing a national written test and a state-specific exam (e.g., an oral exam in front of a panel of psychologist examiners).
As a result of managed care and other forces, the health care marketplace has changed considerably in the past decade. Mental health services have not been immune from such changes. Himelein suggests:
"Although most of [counseling / clinical psychologist] responsibilities involve direct clinical service, it is likely that in the near future, the role of doctoral level [counseling / clinical] psychologists will change. Psychologists are expected to be less involved in the practice of psychotherapy and assessment, due to the increasing number of lower cost providers taking on these activities (e.g., social workers, counselors, master's level psychologists). Instead, [counseling / clinical] psychologists may be more involved in program development, administration, supervision, health promotion activities, community intervention, and public advocacy."
Students who are interested primarily in direct provision of services (and are NOT interested in research) should consider other disciplines (e.g., social work, psychiatric nursing, and so on) before making a final decision.
What about other helping-oriented careers?
Graduate school for a helping-oriented profession
If one is interested in post-BA training, there are opportunities in psychology as well as in other helping professions (e.g., Social Work). A Student's Guide to Careers in the Helping Professions by Melissa J. Himelein is a very helpful source in understanding the variety of helping-oriented professions both within and outside of psychology. This guide describes 15 helping professions both within and outside of psychology, with regard to typical job duties, job outlook, potential earnings, and required professional degrees.
Useful Web Sites
I am interested in graduate study in psychology. Where can I find information about different graduate programs?
APA Resources on Graduate Schools
Graduate Study in Psychology is an annually-updated publication of the APA; it should — without a doubt — become one of your key resources.
Graduate Study in Psychology, 2004 Edition. (July, 2003). Washington, DC: APA
Hill Call No: REFERENCE -- BF 77.G73
LRL Call No: BF 77.G73
"Graduate Study in Psychology offers complete practical information about over 500 psychology programs in the United States and Canada. This edition provides current facts about programs and degrees offered, admission requirements, application information, financial aid, tuition, and housing." From the APA website.
APA also offers also offers a fully-searchable online database version of Graduate Study in Psychology. The online database gives you full searching power on over 500 psychology programs in the United States and Canada.
Once you have found a program in which you are interested, it is a good idea to visit that school's web site for additional information.
Ratings of Graduate Programs in Psychology
How does one find out about the quality of programs once you have narrowed down your interests to a particular subfield? Probably the most useful approach is to find a faculty member with a degree in the area in which you are interested. He or she can help you figure out the kinds of programs that would best match your interests and qualifications. If you can't find a faculty member with training in the field in which you are interested, ask your advisor to help put you in touch with such a person.
There are a number of web sites that offer descriptions, and sometimes rankings, of graduate school programs. Although rankings can be helpful, there are several limitations to keep in mind. First, the quality of programs can change quickly as key faculty change, and rankings can become out of date very quickly. This is especially true of small programs where a change in a few faculty members can have a big impact. Second, ratings are based on overall reputation in a program area; however, there may be specific issues of interest or concern to you that may not be reflected in the ratings. Furthermore, some rankings are inherently limited by the methods used to select the individuals who will be doing the ranking. Third, not all program specialty areas are ranked.
- National Research Council Rankings of Ph.D. Programs in Psychology
- Princeton Review Rankings of Ph.D. Programs in Psychology by Area
- Peterson's Graduate School Information Channel
- National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology
- Graduate Record Examinations
- U. S. News and World Reports — Graduate School
- Graduate School Information
What are the steps for applying to graduate school?
Useful Web Resources
- The National Psi Chi website offers "quick tips" for applying to graduate school.
- The APA website also lists some helpful tips when applying to graduate school.
- A section of Marky Lloyd's Careers in Psychology website lists strategies, timelines, information about the GRE, personal statements, and letters of recommendation.
- The Psychology Graduate Applicant's Portal provides additional resources all the way from the start of your undergraduate degree to finishing graduate school.
It is best to start preparing for applying to graduate school as early as possible during your undergraduate career. Below is a suggested timeline for gaining the experience and skills needed to be accepted into graduate school.
- Sophomore Year
- Complete foundational coursework in psychology.
- Become involved in Psychology Club and/or Psi Chi activities.
- Look for opportunities to become involved in research.
- Junior Year
- Continue your involvement in research.
- Identify your preferred area of specialization and read about it.
- Begin thinking of faculty members whom you could ask to write a recommendation.
- Investigate graduate programs at different schools. Visit web sites of possible programs. Make a list of preferences.
- Contact your top XX graduate programs for applications and other pertinent program information (i.e., areas of specialization, faculty research interests, financial aid, assistantships, etc.), IF such information is not already easily available through their web sites, Graduate Study in Psychology, etc. (XX might be anywhere from 5-15, depending upon your interest areas.)
- Begin studying for the GRE and take it during the Spring semester of your junior year or the Fall semester of your senior year. Check on whether the Advanced Subject Test is required for any of your programs; testing dates for the Subject Test are much more limited than for the general GRE.
- Senior Year (Fall semester)
- Narrow your list of programs and complete the required applications.
- Write your personal statement, adjusting it for each program that you apply to.
- Request your letters of recommendation from faculty as soon as possible after the beginning of the Fall semester. Provide the specific name of each program and its deadline for materials. Also, provide your references with as much background information as is reasonable (e.g., an unofficial transcript, a "generic" copy of your statement, a resume). However, you should always ask before providing copies of term papers, etc.
- Contact a faculty member at each program you are applying to and try to visit the school. Making a personal contact can make a difference. It will also give you a feel for the program. Don't feel put off if you are asked to delay your visit until a specific "visitation" date; some programs are inundated with requests for individual visits and cannot accommodate everyone.
- Fill out any necessary forms for financial aid at each school.
- Submit your application and allow plenty of time for it to arrive at the school before the deadline.
- Verify that each program has received your application, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation.
APA (1993). Getting In : A Step-by-Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School in Psychology. Washington, DC: APA.
Hill Call No: BF 80.7.U6 G47
LRL Call No: BF 80.7.U6 G47
"Applicants are taught how to define their training goals, what to look for in a program, and why. They learn what criteria admissions committees use to evaluate applicants, how to improve their qualifications, and how to best showcase their talents in personal essays, letters of recommendations, and preselection interviews. The costs of a graduate education and financial aid information specific to graduate students are also discussed." From the APA website.
What are other NC State Resources on Careers?
See also the website designed by Advising Central, The University Career Center, CALS Career Services, and Textiles Career Services to help all undergraduates explore majors and careers. It can be found at