Degree In Sight

Applying to grad school

You've started your search for a doctoral program, but do you know how to pick the one that's right for you?

"In psychology, we pride ourselves on being evidence-based, but sometimes we forget to look at all the data when we're making our most important career choices," says John Norcross, PhD, a University of Scranton psychology professor and co-author of "The Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology" (2010).

According to graduate program directors and other experts, you've done your homework if can answer these six questions:

1. What kind of job do you eventually want?

Imagine your future career, and work backward to determine the kind of training and education you need. If you'd like to help companies select employees and build better teams, look into industrial-organizational psychology programs. If you want to investigate learning and memory, check out experimental psychology programs. If you hope to someday help judges determine who is competent to stand trial, explore forensic psychology programs.

"Talk with the psychology professors at your undergraduate institution about pathways in psychology, and read books and websites about psychology careers," advises Cynthia Belar, PhD, executive director of APA's Education Directorate. Then, check out APA's online database, "Graduate Study in Psychology," which provides descriptions, admission requirements and application deadlines for more than 600 psychology graduate programs in the United States and Canada.

2. How much debt can you reasonably take on?

Figure out how much you can expect to earn once you have your degree, and then use that number to calculate the amount of graduate school debt that's reasonable for you. According to 2009 data from APA's Center for Workforce Studies, the median starting salary for assistant psychology professors is $53,000, while a clinical psychologist can expect to start out earning $58,000. Given those salaries, it could take years to pay off the median debt loads of new psychologists: $120,000 for clinical PsyDs, $68,000 for clinical PhDs and $38,500 for research-focused PhDs.

If you don't want to be eating ramen into your golden years, limit your applications to psychology programs that offer financial aid in the form of fellowships, scholarships, research and teaching assistantships, and traineeships. "While cost shouldn't be your only basis for selecting a doctoral program, you don't want to wind up saddled with debt you didn't expect," says Elizabeth Klonoff, PhD, co-director of the San Diego State University/University of California, San Diego Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology.

3. What is the added value of selecting an APA-accredited program?

If you're studying clinical, counseling or school psychology, choosing an APA-accredited doctoral program increases your career options. Many internships require students to attend an APA-accredited program, and some state licensing agencies and employers — including academic institutions and government agencies — likewise require a diploma from an APA-accredited doctoral program.

APA accreditation also helps provide some assurance that you'll receive a quality education. To be awarded accreditation, a program must demonstrate that it meets a set of standards established by APA's Commission on Accreditation — for example, it has to have qualified faculty and adequate facilities and student support services, and it must publicly disclose its requirements and policies. View a list of APA-accredited doctoral programs.

4. What are the internship match rates of the graduate programs you are interested in?

Before you can earn your degree in clinical, counseling or school psychology, you'll need to complete a yearlong internship. Unfortunately, there's a shortage of internship programs, with a quarter of psychology graduate students unable to find internships through the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Center's match. Not having one can indefinitely delay your degree. So, before you apply to grad school, be sure the programs have good records for matching students to APA-accredited internships, says Klonoff. To find out programs' match rates to all internships (not just APA-accredited ones), visit the APPIC website (PDF, 1.4MB). APA-accredited graduate programs are required to list their match rates to APA-accredited internships on their websites. "A program that has historically matched really well is likely to match well in the future," says Klonoff.

5. What are your potential programs' EPPP pass rates?

Another issue for future therapists: Practicing psychologists must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, a computerized test of 225 multiple-choice questions. It's designed to evaluate your knowledge of core areas of psychology such as assessment and treatment and the biological bases of behavior. Pick a program with a high pass rate — for a list of pass rates by graduate school, visit the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards website

6. Who are the schools' top researchers?

If you're aiming for a research-focused program, study university websites to identify faculty members under whom you'd like to work. Ideally, you should pick a program where several professors are doing research that interests you, says M. Ellen Mitchell, PhD, dean of the College of Psychology at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. "If you want to do developmental psychology, it may not be the best decision to go to a program with only one faculty member whose work is in that area, unless that person's work aligns very closely with what you want to do," she says.

If possible, meet future faculty advisers at professional conferences or when you visit campuses for pre-admission interviews. "That's probably the best way to assess whether there's a good fit," says Rod Wellens, PhD, who chairs the University of Miami psychology department. "Also, look at the past performance of a potential faculty mentor — are their students publishing and getting good postdocs or other employment positions?" Check the professors' webpages for a list of their current students and postdocs. Then enter those students' names into PsycINFO and Google to search for their publications or other information about their work. 

If a particular faculty member shows he or she is really interested in working with you, that school should zoom to the top of your list, says Norcross. That's because a good faculty adviser is key to graduate school success. "They can offer individualized advice, serve as role models, and assist you in selecting an internship and launching your career," says Klonoff.


Jen Uscher is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.