You don’t need an undergraduate degree in psychology to get an advanced degree

November 9, 2020

Will Bennis

People without backgrounds in psychology or recent academic training can be the best candidates for a master or doctoral degree, especially at top-tier universities

Have you recently discovered – or rediscovered – a passion for psychology? Maybe you like helping others or have a talent for empathic listening? Maybe you are passionate about a particular topic in psychological science that you want to pursue as a career? If you do wish you could go back to school for an advanced degree in psychology, you may also worry that it’s too late, that you missed your window of opportunity.

Perhaps you studied psychology for a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree, but then worked for a few years in an entirely different field and you don’t remember enough basic psychology to feel qualified. Or perhaps you didn’t study psychology at all, but wish you had, and so you think you would have to start over with a new undergraduate degree, spending several years, time and money that you can ill afford. If you’re like me, you didn’t study psychology for your undergraduate degree, and, you worked for several years after your undergraduate degree in unrelated fields, doubly unqualified for an advanced degree.

It is reasonable to think that it may be too late to be a good candidate for an advanced degree in psychology. Or to worry that you would have to start your undergraduate studies over again in order to do so. Reasonable, but wrong.

In this blog post, I’ll tell you my own story of how I went from being one of the least likely candidates for an advanced psychology degree to being admitted to 2 of my top 3 choices for graduate school.

As long as you are passionate about what specific area of psychology you want to pursue and willing to put in 6 months to a year of focused time finding the right program and preparing your application, you do not need an undergraduate degree in psychology. Nor do you need to go directly from your undergraduate education to studying for an advanced degree: indeed, time away getting life experiences can be an advantage, especially if you didn’t study psychology at the undergraduate level. You don’t even need to have been a great student. Again, this is particularly true if you’ve spent a few years doing something else that demonstrates aptitude for critical thinking and the kind of work ethic necessary to succeed. And often it’s the very best psychology programs that are willing and able to make exceptions and accept students who did not follow a standard path.

In this blog post, I’ll tell you my own story of how I went from being one of the least likely candidates for an advanced psychology degree to being admitted to 2 of my top 3 choices for graduate school. After that, I’ll share what I think are the key lessons from my own experience and why you should be optimistic about your own chances. As long as you bring passion, a compelling narrative for what you want to do, readiness for hard work, and the right kind of intelligence for the field, you may be an ideal candidate.

My story

I received a B.A. in political science and philosophy. My grades were mediocre, and I had little passion for what I was studying. After college, I worked for a year in the city where I had studied, then I went abroad to teach English in the Czech Republic. I wasn’t teaching English because I was passionate about the subject or passionate about teaching, or because it paid particularly well. I taught English because it was something I could do that would allow me to live in an interesting place at an interesting time. It was a few years after the fall of Soviet-style Communism in the region. After a year of teaching, a friend and I decided to start a business, and after a year of working on that, we decided to call it quits before making a single sale.

Challenges raising money and with the partnership itself led both of us to want to move on. I decided that I wanted to go back to school, to get a Ph.D., and specifically to study moral sensibilities and rationality, inspired – in part – from some of the experiences working on starting a business. I didn’t want to study it just anywhere I wanted to go to a great university and get the best training and mentorship possible.

An obvious problem was that, on paper at least, I was a terrible candidate

There was nothing about my background other than the fact I had graduated from college that prepared me as a candidate for an advanced degree in any field, much less psychology. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to study psychology. I had taken exactly one psychology course, Introduction to Social Psychology, at university and my interests now were a kind of mixture between evolutionary theory, cultural anthropology, and psychology – 3 fields I had no formal training in.

My grades had been mediocre, and I was doubtful about getting any positive recommendations from my previous teachers at university, if they remembered me at all. I had been out of college for 3 years, which would be 4 by the time the next school year started, and nothing in my work after my B.A. degree was – from my perspective – exemplary in any way, or remotely related to psychology, except to the extent that human social interactions are inherently psychological.

If you are like many of my U.S. friends and family at the time – and if the introduction to this blog post hadn’t already prepared you for the outcome – you might marvel at my naive overconfidence. Indeed, if I hadn’t been overcome by a passion for what I wanted to do, I probably would have seen it as unreasonable myself: I had no reason to think I would be a plausible candidate for a master’s degree in psychology at a second-rate school, much less a Ph.D. candidate at a top-tier university. If a friend had told me my plan, as if it were their plan, I probably would have thought to myself that they were being unrealistic and would have to adjust their goals downwards once they faced reality.

The cultural perspective

That’s from the perspective of an American, a culture with an almost institutional commitment to the idea that people can do anything they put their minds to, and with a system of higher education particularly suited to starting late. If you are not an American citizen, odds are you would have had an even more skeptical view about my expectations at the time. In the U.S., undergraduate students usually do not choose their field of specialization until the start of their third year of studies, out of 4 years, whether that field is psychology, literature, biology, math, physics, or something else. Culturally, Americans tend to promote the idea that you can be anything you want to be as long as you believe, and to favor the idea that the aptitudes we are born with matter less than that belief in self-determination.

In the Czech Republic, to use a contrary example, students need to apply directly to a psychology department when they start their undergraduate education, and they must demonstrate substantial knowledge in the field in competition against a deep field of other aspiring psychology students. Furthermore, there tends to be a stronger commitment to the idea that aptitudes from birth matter a great deal, and that those aptitudes need to be nurtured from early childhood. Historically Czech students often chose their fields of specialized in high school, and still do so to a lesser extent today. I would certainly not suggest you could get an advanced degree in psychology in the Czech Republic without having a background in the field.

But American higher education is different. You do not need to know very much about a field to receive a B.A. in that field: a broader, general education is deemed more important at the undergraduate stage, and there is a general openness to the idea that you can learn what you need to know to become a specialist in a field at a later stage. That makes the U.S. system of higher education particularly amenable to starting late, and it meant that a person with my background wasn’t as naive as it might have first appeared.

Don’t think that because you’re taking a non-standard route to graduate school that you need to set the bar low. The opposite may be true.

So, what did I have going for me?

I loved to read popular science and to engage in ideas, and I had become passionate about a certain set of ideas that were relevant to certain specialized areas of psychology. I knew – or thought I knew – what I wanted to study, and I had read a handful of popular books on the subject. That excitement and that basic background and some reasonably good aptitude in writing and critical thinking was pretty much it. I also had a parent in academia, which shouldn’t be underrated. He made that trajectory less foreign and unknown, he gave me the encouragement that probably made the difference: the sincere support from a person who had first-hand insight into whether it was a reasonable goal, and he encouraged me to reach out to people in academia for guidance, many of whom certainly made an extra effort to help because of him.

Once I decided this was really what I wanted to do, the first thing I did was spend time reading about the domain that interested me. Then I put together a draft statement of purpose. The statement of purpose is a standard and central component of most graduate school applications. It says, in a page or so, what you want to study, and why. Why it is important to you, why it should be important to others, and why you are the right person to pursue it.

The second thing I did was to email that draft statement of purpose to several professors at various universities who were experts in that domain to ask them for advice about who I should read, who I should consider working with, what departments were the best for exploring these fields. Many of these professors did not reply at all. Many replied saying my ideas were grandiose, or simplistic, or far-fetched. But a handful replied with advice where I should look further. And a smaller handful replied saying that I should consider applying to their department and working with them.

This process turned out, far and away, to be the most important step in getting into a good graduate program. In many departments, especially at top-tier schools, professors themselves have almost entire control over who to accept. Psychology students are often accepted to work with particular faculty members; those faculty members have funding and space for a certain limited number of students, and often they decide who to accept and will only be over-ruled by the department or university if the applicant falls outside certain minimum standards of the university. Top-tier universities often have fewer absolute rules about minimum standards, and so those faculty members can have almost complete say in who they accept.

The feedback I received was that I probably did not have what it takes

I was still unsure about exactly where I wanted to study. And in my case, there were too many things working against me. I didn’t have the background. I didn’t have the grades. I didn’t have the recommendations. I couldn’t demonstrate a readiness for sustained hard work in an academic setting, or an aptitude for social science. But these scholars told me what I would need to do to get where I needed to be to apply to their programs within a year.

One scientist was impressed enough by my passion and fluency on the topic I wanted to study, that he accepted me into a Ph.D. program for a year to work with him with the understanding that I would probably end after one year with a terminal master’s degree and apply elsewhere once I knew more about my options. It was a neuroscience program, not what I thought I ultimately wanted to study, but interdisciplinary enough and on-topic enough that it would give me time to figure out where I should be.

The summer before starting, I volunteered at a comparative psychology research center, studying lemur – a primate – social behavior, the only place I could find to volunteer on short notice. By shortly after Christmas of that year of studies, I knew where I wanted to apply and did so. By then, I had also demonstrated commitment, developed relevant training, done well enough in my classes to get outstanding recommendations, and clarified my own thinking about what I wanted to study.

I applied to 9 Ph.D. programs in a variety of fields, not just psychology

A couple programs were in biology departments working with non-human mammals on comparative psychology. Some were in anthropology programs looking at cultural influences on morality. Some where in cognitive psychology programs looking at decision psychology.

My top 3 choices were (1) the Department of Psychology, Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago which looked at human development from psychological, anthropological, biological, and sociological perspectives, and (2) the anthropology department at the University of California, San Diego, which had one of the leading psychological anthropology programs in the country and also a strong primatology program with a scholar specifically looking at evolutionary origins of morality in line with my own ideas, and (3) the psychology program at the University of Michigan which, along with having a very strong mainstream psychology department, also had a strong comparative psychology department, and leading experts in evolutionary and cultural psychology. I ended up getting accepted to both the University of Chicago’s psychology program and the University of California, San Diego’s anthropology program, and had to make a decision that I had no idea how to make, because I loved both programs for very different reasons.

What I haven’t said yet is that I was not accepted to any of the other 9 programs I applied to. Ultimately, I was only accepted to 2 of the 9. But it is not a coincidence that they were 2 of my 3 top choices. Fit matters, and I was accepted into those programs because they were a good fit for what I wanted to do. I saw it, and so did they. I was not accepted to most of the other programs because I was not a good fit.

Indeed, except for that one other program I already mentioned, none of the other programs felt right for me and I would have been ambivalent about saying yes to any of them. I was completely unambivalent about the 2 I was accepted to, and the hardest part about deciding was that I had to say no to one of them. That was certainly reflected in my applications and in my subsequent conversations with the people deciding whether to accept me. Getting into graduate school, at least taking this particular road less traveled, is a matter of committing and finding the right fit, and you are less likely to get in anywhere, if you don’t work hard to find a place that really fits what you’re trying to do.

You do not need to know who you’ll work with or what you’ll study

You do not need to know who you’ll work with or what you’ll study. One last point about the process is worth emphasizing. It might seem from all that has been said so far that you need to know who you’ll work with and what specifically you want to work on in order to be accepted to a graduate program. That is absolutely not true.

First, the path I took was one particular route to getting into graduate school, and there are many others. Second, when I started my process, I didn’t have a meaningful idea of either who I wanted to work with or what I wanted to work on. I had a broad sense of a topic that was ill-formed and not even specific enough to know which field of study it was in, and no idea who I wanted to work with. I developed my statement of purpose and the list of people who I thought were a good fit after putting in extensive time preparing the application, reaching out to people, and studying.

But most importantly, that list of people who you think you’ll work with is just preliminary, and that topic you wrote about in your statement of purpose is just to help the faculty assess whether you look like a good fit with the department. Beginning graduate students are just that: beginners.

Once you enter graduate school, there is extensive course work to catch you up on the core knowledge of the field, you are generally expected to work on projects with different faculty members where you’ll get a clearer sense of what people do and how you fit with them and with their projects. Most students have little idea of what they actually want to do for their dissertations, and those who think they do usually change their minds once they learn more. I started expecting to work with one of 2 faculty members and focused on moral sensibilities, but I finished working with a different faculty member altogether and on the psychology of judgment and decision making. Once you’ve been accepted, you are in the department; you’ll have time after that to figure out who you will work with and what you will work on.

Take home lessons

A lot of what was written about above is certainly idiosyncratic to my particular case. So, what are the take home lessons that apply more generally? Below is a list of what I think are the most important points to remember, many of which were not explicitly stated above.

It helps to have a B.A. in the field, but it’s not a requirement

  • Specialized learning in graduate school really is specialized: you won’t have learned what you need to know at the undergraduate level anyway, so many programs are fine with the understanding you’ll learn those things as you get your advanced degree.
  • New and original research often brings in new perspectives, and so people coming to psychology from other disciplines and with work and life experiences can often bring insights, methods, and models that help make their graduate work – and their later career as a psychologist – better.
  • Graduate programs require a repeat of basic coursework that they’ll expect all students to know. Those first couple of years may be harder for you if you don’t have an undergraduate degree in the subject, but as long as you can make it through those courses and stick with the program, you’re assured to learn what you need to know.
  • Passion for ideas and the right kind of mind for high level scholarly thought is more important than particular training at the start of graduate school.

Often the very best universities are the ones willing and able to make exceptions

Don’t think that because you’re taking a non-standard route to graduate school that you need to set the bar low. The opposite may be true.

It’s hard work and you need to demonstrate commitment to succeed

  • Volunteer to work in a psychology research lab.
  • Read up on the topic that you’re passionate about so you can discuss it intelligently with scholars who know the field.
  • Be prepared to take preliminary coursework to learn the basics and to build relationships with people who can write you strong letters of recommendation.
  • Invest the time and work to write a preliminary statement of purpose that helps you clarify to yourself what you want to do and why, and that you can use as a tool to reach out to others for guidance and help.
  • Reach out to the scholars and departments where they do the work your passionate about.
  • Consider entering a master’s program for a year or 2 first to build your expertise if you really need it.

You are not expected to be an expert on the field when you apply

Beginning graduate students really are beginners, and the department faculty members likely know that even better than you do.

Finally, do not worry that the people you said you wanted to work with, or the theme you wrote about in your statement of purpose, are going to define your graduate school experience

You’ll have time to see who you fit well with and to develop your ideas and passions after you start the program.

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