Choosing a graduate program in psychology can be overwhelming

November 9, 2020

Jazzmin Hurst

Psychology is an enthralling field with numerous paths to take

The search for a graduate school can be an overwhelming task as there are numerous schools in the United States that have various programs in the field. There are many questions you must ask yourself such as:

  • What subset of the field do you want to work in, and do you want to further your education to a doctorate?
  • Do you want to specialize in applied behavioral analysis? Do you want to work as a licensed clinical social worker?
  • Do you want to become a clinical psychologist?
  • How much do you want to spend?
  • Do you want to go to school online, hybrid, or brick and mortar?
  • Where in the United States do you want to work after you finish your program?
  • What licensure will you need?

The answers to these questions factor into your decision about which programs you look at, and where in the United States you consider studying. The first step is to buy a notebook to keep track of the information you have gathered on the schools, programs and licensure requirements of the states you are interested in working in. You will want to essentially create a master list of schools and programs. Research online based on the route you want to take in your career. Contacting schools and asking questions is the best way to get started. Length of the program, cost of attendance, credits, location, internships are all important factors to inquire about.

When inquiring about a field, ask to speak to someone in the department or even a professor.

Ask the right questions

When you contact a school and speak to an advisor keep in mind that they want you to apply to the program. You may even find advisors who give you incorrect information, possibly unintentionally, about licensures and about other programs. For instance, in some states you can practice as a limited license psychologist at the master’s level and under the supervision of a fully licensed psychologist. However, I have had advisors tell me that this is not the case and that a doctorate degree is required.

If an advisor does comment on another school, program or licensure, take it with a grain of salt, because ultimately, they want you in their program. That is not to say you won’t have advisors that are helpful, you most certainly will. But for this reason, you will most definitely want to do your own research and keep track of your information in a personal notebook.

Through advisors I was able to gain knowledge of the field, particularly in cases where they were in the field themselves. When inquiring about a field, ask to speak to someone in the department or even a professor. Many professors are more than willing to email or have a phone chat with you about the field and the program. This can be great chance to build a mentorship, if you do choose that program.

Pay attention to the cost of programs

In the United States, there are prestigious private schools with very high tuition costs for master’s degrees that lead to careers that have an income limit. Case in point, there is a famous, highly regarded private university that has master’s of social work program from upwards of $110,000, while the average social worker salary caps out around $65,000. The cost of this program does not match the earning potential for the career, and one could speculate that the program takes students with lower grade point averages, who are willing to pay the cost just to have the university name on their degree.

Cost versus earning potential is an important consideration as you need to decide what you are willing to pay out of pocket or back in loans. On the flip side of this, there are programs that are extremely low cost. Again, you have to weigh the pros and cons to find a balance that is right for you. When it comes to costs, you will find that graduate programs rarely offer financial aid outside of loans or paying out of pocket. There may be scholarships available, but you will have to search for them. There are some scholarships available to certain demographics, fields, or even to students associated with the military. It should be a no brainer to say that you will want to ask numerous questions about financial aid, as you decide on how you intend to pay for your program.

It is a good idea to make sure that the program you choose matches the licensure requirements and has met the accreditation standards necessary for that state.

Is the school a for profit, non-profit or a public benefit institution?

There are key differences between these types of schools, notably that for profit institutions are just that, for profit. Checking the accreditation, record and reputation of these schools is absolutely paramount.

Some programs have a list of prerequisites that you need to complete before you apply for admission. For example, some programs in social work require that you to take a statistics course prior to applying. There are also many graduate level psychology programs where you are required to have completed coursework in psychology in your undergraduate program, especially if your undergraduate degree is not in psychology.

It would certainly be in your best interest to also research the licensing regulations of the states you are interested in working. Some fields in psychology have careers in which it may be beneficial to hold licensure in multiple states; for instance, if you lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is in close proximity to Georgia and Alabama. If you intend to go into private practice, you may want to look at the licensing requirements of Georgia and Alabama, due to the possibility of increased earning potential or lower taxes in different states. It is a good idea to make sure that the program you choose matches the licensure requirements and has met the accreditation standards necessary for that state.

Checking on licensure in various states is important because interstate moves can be problematic for certain careers. Board Certified Behavior Analysts, for example, find it easy to gain licensure in multiple states because they are only required to sit for one state exam, which is overseen by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, and is recognized by many states. In comparison, psychologists have to sit for a board exam in each state they wish to practice in.

Deciding on a program and career path is an exciting journey, although finding a graduate school can be daunting. You may have trouble knowing where to start and in keeping track of the information you receive. Doing your own research is important, and having clearly recorded notes of program, financial and licensure information, all in one place is key. Do not hesitate to reach out to those in the field and build a relationship whenever this is an option. Making connections can help you in your graduate school and professional journey.

Best of luck! The field of psychology is challenging and rewarding. Graduate school is just the beginning.

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