When Should I Take Steps to Prepare for Graduate Schooll?
If you are reading this, the time to start is NOW. The process for developing a strong graduate school application (detailed below) can take several semesters, and the earlier you get started the better off you will be. If you end up applying for graduate school, you will be that much closer to having the qualifications that you need. If you decide not to apply, much of this advice will be helpful to prepare for a variety of professional careers. If you begin considering graduate school later in your academic career you may need to plan on additional work after graduation before your applications will be successful (and please note that several current faculty members did exactly that!)
Is Graduate School for You?
Should you go to graduate school in psychology? In order for you to continue with a career in psychology beyond the supervised research or human services assistant level, graduate study is a must. Graduate programs offer different degrees: Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MS), Master of Education (M.Ed.), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), and Doctor of Education (EdD). The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes the master’s degree (MA, MS, or M.Ed.) as the appropriate degree for supervised delivery of psychological services, but for independent practice the doctorate (Ph.D., PsyD, or EdD) is essential.
Carefully consider how deep your commitment is to a career in psychology. Gaining entry to graduate school in some areas of psychology, such as clinical, is very competitive and difficult. The average program accepts about 16 percent of its applicants; some clinical programs accept fewer than two percent. Graduate school training is also very challenging: more self-motivation, higher scholastic achievement, and a heavier work load will be required than many students are accustomed to as undergraduates. But, if you are intelligent, persistent, and willing to work hard, graduate school and the career in psychology to which it leads just may be for you.
Master’s Degree Programs
There are two types of master’s degree programs in psychology. The professional or terminal master’s program is designed to provide training for immediate employment in applied settings such as community mental health centers, businesses and industries, and school systems. These programs are usually offered at regional or state universities whose primary mission is to serve students and communities in their geographic area. The second type of master’s program prepares students to enter a doctoral program. Some of these programs are located in institutions that do not award a doctoral degree, which means that their graduates must apply to doctoral programs in other institutions after completing the master’s degree.
If you decide to go into a master’s program, be aware of one possible disadvantage. As was previously mentioned, obtaining a master’s degree at one school does not ensure your entrance into a doctoral program at another school. If you are accepted as a transfer student into a doctoral program after completing a master’s degree, you may have to repeat some coursework. Some doctoral programs provide more flexibility than others. The advantages to a master’s program are that it exposes the student to the rigor and climate of graduate school and also enables the student to be better prepared for a doctoral program than an undergraduate with no graduate experience. In general, master’s programs that include a thesis are better preparation for doctoral study than master’s programs that do not include a thesis.
Doctoral Degree Programs
The doctoral degree in psychology opens up many career opportunities. At least four years of study are usually required to obtain a doctorate. If you wish to provide mental health or similar services, another year for the internship and at least one additional year of supervised practice are necessary. Normally a graduate student begins to work with a professor in an apprenticeship role early in the graduate program to learn how to conduct research. After the coursework is completed, students must still prepare for and pass comprehensive exams and write and defend their dissertations.
People interested in careers as professional clinical, counseling, or school psychologists may consider the “Professional School” doctoral programs, some of which offer the PsyD rather than the more traditional Ph.D. or EdD. Professional schools place greatest emphasis on professional practice and a smaller emphasis on research, whereas the more traditional programs range from a balanced emphasis on both practice and research to a greater emphasis on research and a smaller emphasis on practice. PsyD programs tend to feature more structured course sequences as well as extensive practical work and less (but some) reasearch. Usually the student completes the program in three years and does an internship during the fourth.
Professional schools usually have less rigorous admission requirements, but weigh particular criteria, such as clinical experience, more heavily than would traditional graduate programs. Students in professional schools tend to be older and to have more working experience in applied psychology, and many already have master’s degrees in psychology. However, these are matters of emphasis: All graduate programs differ in admission requirements; therefore, it is important to contact individual programs for information.
Should I Get a Master’s Degree Before Entering a Ph.D. Program?
Many students, when considering graduate school, want to know the value of obtaining a master’s degree before applying for admission to a doctoral program. Going this route has its advantages, but may also be limiting in your academic career.
Entering a master’s program may allow you to strengthen your research experiences. If you are lacking in this area, a master’ s program will allow you to work closely with faculty on research projects, and perhaps even get published. By doing this, you are gaining experiences that doctoral programs value when looking at applications.
Getting a master’s degree before pursuing a doctorate also has its drawbacks. Some doctoral programs may be less likely to admit applicants who have a master’s degree. Also, some schools may not accept graduate level credits from other universities, meaning that you may have to take the same courses over again, and you may also have to do another master’s thesis.
Students may overestimate the importance of a master’s degree and graduate level grades as selection criteria. If your GRE scores, undergraduate grades, and letters of recommendation are not strong, simply getting a master’s degree may not offset them. Weigh your options carefully before making a decision, and look into the specific types of Ph.D. programs you wish to enter to ensure they will see a master’s degree as a positive when assessing applicants.
“Objective” Critera: GRE Scores, Grades, and Coursework
A typical question many undergraduates ask is “just what qualifications do graduate schools expect you to have?” The answer is that it depends upon the program that you are interested in and/or applying to. Many programs have information about mean or median GRE scores and GPAs on their website. The American Psychological Association publishes a book with these figures that is updated annually. However, keep in mind that achieving these scores doesn’t guarantee admission to a particular graduate program, but instead allows one a reasonable chance of acceptance. Remember also that many successful candidates scored considerably higher and some scored considerably lower than the values in this table. Hence, if one or more of your GRE scores is somewhat lower than the values provided by the institution, don’t be dissuaded from applying to a particular program. However,the more competitive a program is, the more likely it will require higher scores and grades. These figures are guidelines, not hard and fast rules.
In terms of undergraduate course work, beyond the requirements of the psychology major, programs may have a preference for related courses taken at the undergraduate level. For example, Abnormal Psychology is would be a good course to take if you are interested in Clinical or Counseling Psychology, while students interested in Ed. D. programs may prefer a Developmental Psychology course. Other graduate programs may have no preferences for additional course work. If there are programs that you know you want to apply to, you might contact them to find out what particular coursework they require or prefer.
Letters of Recommendation
All graduate programs view letters of recommendation as both required and important. Many students feel a little discomfort when they have to ask a professor or supervisor for a letter of recommendation. But professors consider recommendations to be part of their job and are usually more than willing to assist you.
It should go without saying, but the best way to get a great letter of recommendation is to do great work, on a research team, in class, or in a work/volunteer setting. Be sure to pick individuals who you’ve done your best work for. Recommenders must be honest with employers and graduate schools; if you have achieved only a D in a professor’s course, he or she can hardly present you as the “best student I have ever taught”.
Does this mean that you must have an A from a professor before I can ask that professor for a recommendation? No, in many cases a professor can still write you a good recommendation depending on the type of job or graduate school, and, in some cases, extenuating circumstances. The professor might also be willing to write you an acceptable recommendation but not the best possible recommendation depending on the type of job or graduate school. As a general rule for classroom instructors, the more prestigious the graduate program or job, the better your class performance should be. As another general rule, it usually is not a good idea to ask a professor from whom you have received a D or an F or research mentors who have asked that you not sign up for their team again for a recommendation.
Most forms ask recommenders how well they know the applicant: try to pick people who can say at least fairly well (with very well being ideal). Most recommendations ask for evaluations in areas other than just academic performance. They want your recommender to tell them about your interpersonal skills, level of maturity, mental stability and level of motivation. Obviously, if you have taken just one class from a professor and the class had 100 students, it is going to be difficult for your professor to comment on these other areas. Basically, what the professor knows about you is that you achieved a certain grade in the course and that you can consistently sit for 50 to 75 minutes without having to go to the bathroom. When looking for recommendation writers, it is far better to ask:
1. Professors whose research projects you have worked on (see the Research Experience section below). This person is uniquely qualified to comment on your ability to work on research projects, so if you will be applying to a program with a thesis/dissertation component, your research advisor should be your top choice.
2. Professors from whom you have taken several classes.
3. Professors from classes that require a large amount of student participation thus allowing the professor a chance to get to know you personally.
4. Work, internship, and volunteer supervisors – if that person can give specific career-relevant examples of professional behavior.
5. Professors from smaller classes that once again give the professor a chance to know you personally.
6. Professors who know you from a variety of activities such as class, Psych Club, and advising. Don’t overlook your academic adviser as a potential recommender.
7. Professors from other departments from whom you have had several courses or other types of interactions. Don’t forget professors from your minor areas as potential sources of recommendations.
In general, letters from regular full-time faculty are preferred to letters from graduate student instructors. You can find a list of the full-time faculty for most departments on their departmental website.
Be sure to find out if a professor is willing to give you a good recommendation by asking them first if he or she would be willing to write you letters. Ask each professor in the manner in which he or she prefers to communicate with students – so catch your professor who likes to chat before class before class, send an email your “please email me first” professor, and stop by office hours for the “drop by sometime” professor. Be as specific as possible about the job or graduate program for which you are applying. You may wish to phrase your request in the following way:
Dr. ____________, I am applying for a Master’s Degree in clinical psychology at Western Carolina and several other regional schools. Do you think that you would be able to write me a good recommendation?
Dr. ___________, I am going to look for a job as a management trainee with K-mart, Wal-Mart, and a couple of other companies. Do you think you could write me a good recommendation?
The professor will then be very straightforward with you about your request. The professor will tell you if he or she is willing to write a recommendation and will also tell you about the general quality of that recommendation. You can usually expect to hear something similar to the following:
Pat, I’d be glad to write you a recommendation for graduate school. I can write you a very strong letter for a Master’s program but I would be weaker on a recommendation for a Ph.D. program.
Professors will also tell you at this time if they would rather not write you a letter of recommendation or feel they could only write you a mediocre letter. The reasons for refusing a request or warning you that it would have to be a weak letter are usually a low opinion of your chances of success or not knowing you well enough. A professor will not lie to you. If a professor tells you he or she will write a good letter, you will get a good letter!
Never just put a letter writer’s name on the application form without asking first. This is a bad idea! As mentioned above, a professor will tell you the nature of the letter he or she intends to write. Checking beforehand avoids unpleasant surprises and is just a common courtesy. If you should be taken by surprise at a job interview and have to give references unexpectedly, you may put down a professor’s name. Be sure to inform the professor about using his or her name as soon as possible!
The earlier you request a recommendation and get your completed recommendation forms to the professor, the easier it will be for both you and the professor. Many professors have recommendations to complete for 20 or more students each year. These recommendations all seem to pile up in November, December, and January. Most professors work on a “first come, first done” basis. Those who get forms in early get their recommendations completed first. Those who get them in late just have to wait and take their turn. Ideally, most professors like to get recommendations at least one month ahead. This gives them time to write a personal letter and complete your forms. Less than two weeks’ notice is really pushing a professor.
The most time-consuming part of writing letters of recommendation is writing a base letter describing the individual student and her or his suitability for graduate study of a particular type. Sending that form to multiple schools takes much less effort, so once a professor has agreed to write you a recommendation for one school, the most time consuming part is over. Do not worry about asking (even later on) for additional recommendations – we expect that. Do, however, make sure that for each program, you indicate the TYPE of program it is (e.g., Industrial-Organizational Psychology), the LEVEL of the program (e.g., Masters), and the date that the application is due. Although most programs use online applications that will automatically send an email to the faculty member, typos and server problems do occur. So be sure that you let your recommenders know what to expect and when they need to have it in. You are responsible for helping letter writers manage the process – make it as easy for them as you can. Should a program require paper forms, be sure to print them for the faculty member and proved preaddressed, stamped envelopes. If you are able to check the status of your recommendations, please do so and follow up if you do not have a recommendation in by 48 hours before the deadline. Professors are human and make mistakes too, but the ultimate responsibility to make sure that your recommendations got in is yours.
Finally, please do keep in touch with your letter writers. The professor has most likely spent several hours on your recommendations and requests only one small favor. A “thank you” is nice, but what you really owe each of your recommenders is feedback about your acceptance for graduate schools or job placements. This includes the good news and the bad news. Such information is vital to us if we are to advise other students about jobs or graduate programs. Sadly, over 50% of our students fail to tell us where they are going to graduate school or the type of job offer they have accepted. Please don’t be one who takes the recommendation and disappears.
Most graduate programs, regardless of discipline, view research experience as a crucial asset for graduate school admission, and students who do high quality work in the same lab for multiple semesters are likely to have a substantially stronger application than students with only a one credit, one semester research experience. Your research experience(s) will give your letter writer valuable information about you (see Letters of Recommendation above) and will give you relevant experiences to write about in your essays (see Fit and the Graduate Admissions Essay below). You can be on one or more Creative Inquiry Teams (PSYC 4980), although designing and completing a Directed Studies Project (4970) or Senior Honors Thesis (PSYC 4900/1 for those in the honors program) are also options.
If you are interested in graduate study, get involved in research as soon as you can. Note that if you come to discover a passion for psychology late in your college career (as several faculty did), all is not lost. Get in the experience that you can while you can, and be sure to remind your research letter writer that you did not decide on psychology work until later in your college career.
To find available experiences, look at the Creative Inquiry website (search for Creative Inquiry on the Clemson home page) to find current CI projects. You can also click on the People page of the Psychology Department homepage to find out more about each CI mentor and other faculty who might supervise a Directed Study or Honors Thesis. It is completely acceptable to work on a project that is not directly related to your career goals, but you do want to get research experience in something you find interesting.
Once you have identified potential mentors, contact them! If you are taking a class with a faculty member you are interested in working with, you can ask them before or after class. If you do not already know the faculty member, feel free to email them – faculty need students on their teams! Think of your contact as if you were applying for a job: why are you interested and excited about their particular research? Be sure to describe what can you offer the team even, (or especially) if it is primarily hard work and a passion for the topic.
Most teams fill up before registration or even advising for the next semester begins, so be sure to search out research experiences and get your request in early!
Other Undergraduate Experiences
Specific types of graduate programs differ in the weight they assign to other undergraduate experiences. Many clinical/counseling programs consider work experience or clinically related public service to be important, while Education programs emphasize the importance of work related experience. Unlike many undergraduate admissions, extracurricular activities are of limited importance for graduate school admission, but they might be a great place to find letter writers (see Letters of Recommendation section above). However, realize that if you are finding relevant work experience in a particular field difficult to find, graduate schools will be aware of this issue as well!
Fit and the Graduate Admissions Essay
In many ways, graduate school is more like a job and less like school and fit is an important qualification. Just like an employer, in addition to knowing your raw ability, graduate schools want to know if you are a good fit for their program and if their program is a good fit for you. This is primarily assessed through the essays you will write. Because they are about fit, a suggested rule for writing essays is to plan to work on essays for one (and only one) school at a time. A generous rule of thumb is to plan half a day for each school. Vividly imagine that you’ve been admitted to that particular program. What would you be excited about? What would you be most looking forward to? How does that program fit your personal career goals? Craft an individual essay or essays for each program based on your answers to those questions. If you cannot find something about the program to be excited about, don’t apply. Graduate school is a good deal of work and money; don’t waste either preparing for a career you don’t want. Similarly, if you need to leave something out of your essay for the University of X because they do not offer it but you really want it (e.g., child clinical experience in an adult clinical program), don’t apply there.
For graduate programs that include theses, dissertations, and other research projects conducted under the supervision of a faculty research advisor, many schools give faculty members the applications of all candidates who have passed a minimal bar for admission to the program and who express an interest in working in their lab. Each individual faculty member then decides which students (if any) on the list they are interested in working with, and those students are offered admission. For such programs, the personal statement and any other essays are of utmost importance –faculty want to supervise students who are a good fit based on interest and experience with their expertise and current research goals. Visit the webpages of faculty you would be interested in working under and search for their recent papers by author name and institution in PsycINFO or Google Scholar. Read their current research, and select at least one and at most three faculty in each program. Be sure to reference the faculty by name in your statements, and be sure that you explain how your training and interest can benefit their lab as well as how experience in their lab can benefit your career goals. Not all faculty will be accepting a new graduate student in any given year – if there is someone you are particularly interested in working with, it is acceptable to send a brief, professional email to that person before you begin the application process. In your email, express your interest in their particular research, state that you are currently in the process of applying for graduate school, and inquire (politely) if they will be accepting a new student in their lab for the upcoming year.
Preparing for Success
It is important to remember that graduate school admission is very competitive; consequently, it is important that you prepare yourself well. First, you should complete our core courses (Psychology 2010, 3090, and 3100) as soon as possible and do your best work in them. These classes will help you with both research and classroom courses.
Second, you need to become known to the faculty so they will be able to write excellent letters of recommendation for you. Get involved in a research project as soon as you can. Third, join and actively participate in the Psychology Club and Psi Chi. Fourth, begin searching for the right graduate school in which to enroll. Fifth, take the GRE. There are multiple online sources of information on preparation for the GRE. Use your preliminary list of schools to find out if you need to take a subject GRE (and if so, which one). Sixth, check to be finalize your list of schools, and write your applications.
Selecting Graduate Programs
Another typical question many undergraduates ask is “just what should I look for in a graduate program?” Some important factors that you should consider when looking at and comparing programs are:
1. The specific programs offered which lead to an advanced degree.
2. The number of professors teaching in the program.
3. Specific research areas of faculty in the program. (You can even start from here if you have a particular interest. For example, if you are interested in treatment of childhood trauma, you can look for researchers in that area in PsycINFO, then find the programs that employ them.)
4. Stated goals of the program, particularly if you are planning on an applied field. Programs that train primarily practitioners differ from programs that train primarily researchers in an applied field.
5. The number of hours required to obtain a degree.
6. The ratio of openings for new students each year to the number of applicants.
7. The total number of enrolled students in each emphasis area.
8. APA approval of the school if your field requires licensure for practice.
9. Requirements such as GRE scores, letters of recommendation, work and/or research experience, etc.
10. Compare tuition costs and review the availability of financial support including graduate
teaching and research assistantships.
11. Examine the program to see if it fits with your values, abilities, and interests. Students are encouraged to consider graduate programs outside their immediate geographical area. Many fine programs can be found in other regions of the country.
Virtually all graduate programs maintain an active, updated web site. Such sites usually contain degree requirements, course descriptions and a list of current faculty, with most including faculty vitas and faculty publications. As an added bonus some sites include information links to local businesses, recreation facilities and cultural centers. You can gain a good deal of information about the “flavor” of the area by checking these links.
You can also find out a good deal about graduate study on the American Psychological Association (APA) website. Don’t forget to look at the professional division websites linked there as well – for example, SIOP (for I-O psychology) maintains a list of relevant graduate programs and information about them. The Association for Psychological Science (APS) website also has good resources.
A Timetable for Applying to Graduate Schools
The following timetable is suggested if you plan to attend graduate school. If you have any questions concerning the timetable, speak with your academic advisor or one of the graduate school advisors (see the main CU Psychology website).
FRESHMAN or early SOPHOMORE YEAR – plan to take Introduction to Psychology (201) as soon as possible (ASAP).
SOPHOMORE YEAR – plan to take Introductory Experimental Psychology (309) ASAP, join the Psychology Club, get to know the Psychology faculty informally, seek out PSYC research and Psych-related work experience if possible – either volunteer or paid.
Late SOPHOMORE or early JUNIOR YEAR – plan to take Advanced Experimental Psychology (310) ASAP, join Psi Chi if qualified, check with your advisor about appropriate psychology courses for your area of interest and declare a minor area of concentration.
JUNIOR YEAR – consider appropriate Practicum courses, increase your involvement with the Psychology Club and Psi Chi (run for office if possible), continue interactions with faculty, attend the Graduate School presentation given by the Psychology Club, talk to Graduate School advisors, watch for Graduate School Fairs sponsored by the Career Center, look on the American Psychological Association’s website for information about graduate study, look up academic researchers of topics you find interesting in PsycINFO, and browse the internet for graduate programs of interest.
SENIOR YEAR – register for and take the GRE in the early Fall of your final year. Talk to the Clemson Psychology Department Graduate School Advisor early in the fall semester, get serious about reading graduate school websites for different programs. By November, decide on schools to apply to. Be sure to include a few dream schools, a few schools you stand a solid shot at, and a few schools you stand an excellent chance at. If you are applying in a very competitive area (such as clinical), select at least ten schools.
Pay attention to the application deadlines for each school. If your earliest applications are due Jan. 1, complete the application forms from November through winter break. WARNING: filling out the forms is much more time consuming than it appears! Request letters of recommendation from professors who know you well. For the essay type questions, be sure to have a professor look over a rough draft of a sample before it is submitted. Request that University Transcripts of your academic record be sent following the fall semester. Then, wait, GOOD LUCK!
POST-SENIOR YEAR – Keep in touch with your professors after you graduate. Information about where you are working or studying, the quality of the job or graduate program will help them advise future undergraduates about good options for their futures.