Degree In Sight

Five bad reasons to go to psychology grad school — and a few good ones.

If you're considering going to psychology grad school, you might want to stop and take a good, honest look at what's driving you. However well-intentioned you are, there are some motivations that just don't pan out in the end — and it's usually because students just aren't clear on why they want to do it or what they're getting themselves into, says Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, PhD, chair of Yale University's psychology department.

"Students have lots of reasons for pursuing graduate degrees in psychology — some are more compelling and motivating than others," she says.

Going to grad school for the wrong reasons can make for an unpleasant experience, put you on the wrong career path and waste your time and money. Here, psychologists, career advisors and students weigh in on the most misguided motivations for going to psychology graduate school.

Bad reason #1: You just want to help people

The desire to assist others is not enough to justify six or more years studying graduate-level psychology, says Nolen-Hoeksema. Many jobs allow you to help others, without all the added years and expense of an advanced degree. You can always help humanity by, for example, working at a refugee camp in Kenya or at a homeless shelter in your own town. But providing psychological services to people takes a lot of training.

Also consider that there are many distinct disciplines within psychology, and they all provide different opportunities for helping people. Puncky Heppner, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri, makes sure his "students really grasp the differences and similarities [among] counseling psychology, clinical psychology, school psychology, human development, social work or health-related professions."

These differentiations, he says, depend on the types of clients you want to work with and the types of problems you will be helping them solve. For example, if you want to work with patients after stroke or other types of brain trauma, a neuropsychology program would be best. But if you want to work with people dealing with depression or anxiety, you'd probably do best in a clinical or counseling psychology program.

Bad reason #2: You can't find a job

Given the tough economy, graduate school may seem like a more appealing option than it once was. Maybe you can't find a job or perhaps you want to postpone the job search in hopes of encountering a better economy on the other side. Unfortunately, a doctoral degree doesn't necessarily mean a job will be waiting for you when you graduate. Michael Warner*, who entered his PhD program in cognitive psychology already having his master's, says that he's on the brink of leaving his program precisely because of the changing job market.

"Now, compared to when I entered it, there are fewer tenure-track positions and too many PhDs for the openings that do exist," he says.

That reality, coupled with a hefty load of student loans, led Warner to consider other options that are possible with a master's degree, such as teaching at a community college. Given his experience, Warner urges students not to rush into grad school like he did. "Taking time off between undergraduate and graduate school to really learn about the field and the job prospects is a good way to go," he says.

Bad reason #3: It's the next logical step

Just because you loved your undergraduate psychology classes doesn't mean you should continue on to graduate school, says Robert Biswas-Diener, PhD, a psychology instructor at Portland State University.

He learned this the hard way. Biswas-Diener enrolled in grad school for the "momentum factor," and ended up dropping out — twice. To avoid that pitfall, make sure you have a clear idea of what life as a psychologist is really like, Biswas-Diener says.

"The advice I give to my own undergrads: Whichever areas you're thinking of going into, go interview a person in the field," Biswas-Diener says. For example, if you want to be a clinical psychologist, talk to some clinical psychologists about their day-to-day life — how they gain clients, deal with insurance companies, feel about working alone or with partners, and what it's like to work with patients one-on-one all day.

Or if you want to be a psychology professor, talk to some first- or second-year professors to get a feel for the grueling hours they put in to get tenure and apply for grants to fund their labs. Knowing exactly what you'll be getting into may give you a little extra fuel to get through a rigorous program.

Bad reason #4: Visions of riches

The promise of money, prestige, fame or to call yourself "doc" may be the worst reasons for going to psychology grad school, says Suzanne Roff, PhD, a New York City-based consulting psychologist. Psychoanalysts used to make great livings helping people pore over their pasts and pick through their subconscious minds, but "clients no longer have time or funds for a long treatment," she says. Plus, she adds, "managed health care has made private practice financially difficult."

Before applying to grad school, weigh these numbers against your passion for a career as a psychologist: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of clinical psychologists is $68,640; for mental health counselors with a master's degree, it's $39,710. People who take assistant professor positions after getting a doctorate in psychology make, on average, a little more than $50,000, according to APA's Center for Workforce Studies. And the debt involved is not a pretty picture: Over three-quarters of people coming out of clinical or counseling doctorate programs are in debt, with an average of over $78,000. By contrast, only about half of those who go into research or teaching come out of grad school in debt, and the average there is around $46,700.

That said, however, psychology makes for a very rewarding career, Roff says. "For many of us, the benefits easily outweigh the financial challenges."

Bad reason #5: You want to understand yourself

It's not just a cliché: Plenty of students enter grad school to sort out their own problems or inner struggles, without necessarily even realizing it, says Christopher M. Adams, PhD, who advises psychology majors at Fitchburg State University in Fitchburg, Mass. But going to grad school in hopes of understanding yourself can backfire, especially for students who want to become therapists.

"If you haven't dealt with your own issues fully, you can actually inflict more harm on the client that way," Adams says. "Therapists may do or say things in sessions that are addressing their own wounds rather than the client's." If you want to work through your issues, get a therapist, not a PhD, says Richard Wexler, PhD, an organizational psychologist and past president of the New York State Psychological Association. "You do not emerge from psychology graduate courses with all of your issues washed away. In fact, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing … especially if you think you now have all the answers to straighten out everyone in your own personal world." Since the motivation is not always a conscious one, spend some time thinking about whether you have any "unfinished business" of your own: Do you have long-standing issues with a family member? Did you start crying in abnormal psych class? You can always go to grad school after getting a handle on your own mental health concerns, says Wexler.

Good reasons to go

Do you have a burning research question or career goal that can be addressed only by a doctorate in psychology? If so, that's a great reason to sign up for grad school, says Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, a Yale University psychology professor and former APA president.

"Are you really intrigued by something in psychology, like how the brain works on solving problems and making seemingly new connections while you are asleep? Or how exercise, some psychotherapies and some medications alter depression?" If not, don't go, he advises. "Life is too short and career options are too many."

If you're already invested in a grad program and are questioning whether it was a good decision, take heart — psychology often allows room to switch topics and to ask new questions as they evolve, Kazdin says. Kazdin himself didn't know exactly what he wanted to do when he ventured into a clinical psychology program, but he did know that he'd have a lot of options. "In my case, in clinical psychology, one can teach at all sorts of levels, do research, work in business, at hospitals, engage in clinical work and more. What career flexibility!"

Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a writer in New York.
*This name has been changed to protect privacy.