Choosing a Graduate Program
Types of graduate programs
There are several different types of graduation programs for you to choose from, so the first step in choosing the graduate program that's right for you is to understand the differences between these programs.
- Masters only program (aka, terminal masters): These programs usually require 2 years to complete and the admission standards are generally lower than Ph.D. programs (e.g., 297 GREs). Some master programs do not require a thesis and are course-oriented with a practical experience requirement.
- Doctoral program (Ph.D.): As a Ph.D. student, you complete your master's and Ph.D. in the same program. You do not have to reapply to the Ph.D. program once you've completed your Master's requirements. The average length of a doctoral program is 5 to 6 years and requires the completion of a dissertation.
- Ph.D. vs. Psy.D. programs: This distinction pertains to graduate study in clinical psychology. Ph.D. programs prescribe to a scientist-practitioner model (e.g., The Boulder Model) in which equal weight is placed upon the development of research competencies and clinical skills. Boulder model programs provide rigorous education as a researcher (e.g., training in statistics, history and systems, research methods) and a clinician (e.g., courses in development, learning, therapy, etc.). Ph.D. programs are almost exclusively located in graduate programs of universities. Students of Ph.D. programs receive a doctorate of philosophy. On the other hand, the focus of Psy.D. programs is to train scholar/professionals (e.g., The Vail Model). Emphasis is placed upon clinical service provision and less on research. Psy.D. programs may be housed within a psychology department, within a university-affiliated psychology schools, or within an independent, freestanding psychology school (e.g., California Schools of Professional Psychology). Students of Psy.D. programs receive a doctorate of psychology. Often Psy.D. programs are easier to gain admissions to but are more expensive. The Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology, 2002/2003 Edition has a listing of APA-accredited Psy.D. programs in clinical psychology for students who are interested in locating these programs.
- Accreditation: An accredited graduate program has been judged as having met minimum standards of quality for education in psychology. The American Psychological Association only accredits doctoral programs in four specialty areas: clinical psychology, counseling psychology, school psychology, and combined professional-scientific psychology. Masters programs are not accredited by the APA. Other professional organizations, such as the Association for Behavior Analysis, may also accredit graduate programs in Psychology, including masters programs. Accreditation becomes an important issue for prospective graduate students as a degree from an institute that isn't accredited may not recognized by licensing boards, certifying organizations, or insurance companies. Students from APA-accredited programs are generally more competitive in terms of their internship choices and employment prospectives. Additionally, sitting for licensure or certification board exams is an easier process if the student comes from an accredited program than a non-accredited program. Though students coming from non-accredited programs are not excluded from these examinations, the process is often difficult as they must prove they have demonstrate certain proficiencies to be able to sit for the exams (e.g., have completed certain coursework, clinical proficiency, etc.).
- Licensure: In most states, you must be licensed in order to provide psychological services. There are several categories of therapists including licensed psychologists and limited licenses. Depending on the state you are in, the licensure process will determine what you will be allowed to do (e.g., be able to bill insurances, open one's own independent practice, or having to work underneath a supervising psychologist, etc.). Depending on the state that you wish to practice, the licensure process will determine what you are allowed to do, not the graduate program you came from. You must be sure that you have the requirements to sit for the licensure exam.
Note: Western's undergraduate curriculum has been pre-approved by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board. At graduation, our undergraduates will have completed the necessary coursework to apply to take the Board Certified Associate Behavior Analyst exam. Students will also need to supply additional documentation regarding supervised applied experience and proof of BS degree.
Areas of interest in psychology
Psychology is a vast discipline and therefore, graduate study in psychology encompasses a wide variety of topics. It is important for prospective students to identify their particular area of interest and then search for programs that have faculty members working in this area, as they will be the ones to guide and shape your graduate education. Graduate programs in psychology include:
- Behavior analysis/ therapy
- Behavioral medicine
- Behavioral neuroscience
- Clinical psychology
- Cognitive psychology
- Community psychology
- Counseling psychology
- Developmental psychology
- Educational psychology
- Experimental psychology
- Industrial/ organizational psychology
- Marriage & family therapy
- Mental retardation
- Psychiatry (medical school)
- School psychology
- Sensation & perception
- Social psychology
- Social work (clinical)
- Sports psychology
APA Divisions explains more about these programs.
Considerations in selecting a school
There are a wide variety of considerations that one must make when choosing graduate programs to apply to.
- Type of program: Doctoral programs are often more competitive than master's programs, Clinical programs are more competitive than other types of programs and Ph.D. programs are more competitive than Psy.D. programs. Therefore, when selecting programs to apply to, it is best to choose a variety of Doctoral, Masters, and program types. This will increase your chances of being accepted into at least one program and will give you options to choose from when making the final decision. If you are absolutely sure you want to get a Ph.D. but are not accepted into a program, think about getting a Masters and then reapplying. The master's degree will increase your marketability as a candidate (be aware that you may need to complete certain requirements when transferring into a Ph.D. program, such as defending your thesis again).
- Research interests: When searching for programs, it is important to find programs that have faculty members who are doing work within the areas that you are interested in. Essentially you are searching for a professor who is a good match for you, and this requires a lot of research on your part. Find articles in your area of interest and see where the authors are working and if they are affiliated with a graduate program. Read the faculty members Web pages, descriptions of their research/clinical work, articles and books that they have written, etc.
- Clinical opportunities: If your interests are applied in nature, it is important to find a faculty mentor who is working within your area of interest. You will want to find out a faculty member who is practicing within the clinic you would like to work in.
- Theoretical orientations: It is important to determine the theoretical orientation of the graduate program you are interested in applying to as this orientation will be a large factor in determining your experience in that program. Five common orientations include:
- Applied behavioral analysis/radical behavioral
- Family systems/systems
- Financial aid: An important consideration in choosing a program is the probability of financial support. Some types of common aid include tuition waivers, assistantships, assistantship and waiver, and graduate fellowships in addition to student loans. It is also important to know what duties would be expected of you by receiving these certain types of aid (e.g., teaching, research, etc.). Also, some schools require additional applications to be considered for different forms of financial aid so make sure you have the proper paperwork filled out when you apply for this program.
- Quality of life: Consider quality of life issues (e.g., geography of the school, it's surrounding community, attractions, proximity to family, etc.) as this is an area in which you will be spending the next two to six years and you want to make sure that it is an area where you can see yourself living.
Resources for researching graduate programs
- Graduate Study in Psychology (2011 Ed.)
- Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology (2008/2009 Ed.)
Both books are available in the psychology undergraduate advising office (2124 Wood).
Tips for success
- Do your research to find the programs and professors that are right for you, and apply to a wide variety of master's and doctorate programs.
- Talk with our faculty about your interests. These individuals are a wealth of information and may be able to direct you to certain professors and graduate programs that may be a good match for you.
- Try to make contact with potential professors you are interested in working with as a graduate student. Write a letter (or email) to them expressing your interest in their particular research area and request more information about the work that they are doing in their labs and if they will be taking graduate students in the upcoming year. Another method for getting to know a professor is to attend a professional conference in which they are presenting and introduce yourself.