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Planning for a Career in Psychology

One of the reasons psychology is such a popular major at universities around the country is that a degree in psychology prepares you for a wide array of career paths. The American Psychological Association also produces two publications that can help you plan for a career in psychology. First, a 37-page booklet titled “Psychology/Careers for the Twenty-First Century” is available free of charge by calling 1-800.374.2721. Second, a 297-page book called Career Paths in Psychology: Where Your Degree can Take You is available for $19.95, and can be ordered by calling the same number. Students may also want to look at the portion of the American Psychological Association's (APA) website that focuses on career topics.

Planning for Graduate Work in Psychology

Many careers in psychology require master's or doctorate level training, for example, counseling, clinical psychology, teaching, and research. However, competition for admission to graduate schools in psychology is very strong and graduate level work difficult. There are several different degrees, both at the masters and doctoral levels, that allow students to work professionally in the field of psychology. These include but are not limited to masters level degrees in social work, school psychology, counseling, and marriage and family therapy. Doctoral degrees in the field include PhDs in clinical work in a variety of psychology related-research fields and practice oriented degrees like PsyDs. Students who think that they might want to pursue a graduate degree after completing their BA or BS are encouraged to talk with a faculty advisor, participate in the various clubs that are available through the department or attend informational events that are held that focus on choices after graduation.

A student who is thinking about graduate school should have a high overall grade point average (GPA) and a high GPA in psychology. Good performance in courses such as Statistics (Psych z270) and Experimental Methods are especially important. Graduate schools also look for relevant research and work experience, honors work, extracurricular activities, excellent letters of recommendation from professors who know the student well, and good scores on exams such as the Graduate Record Examination.

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

Most graduate programs require applicants to take the GRE General Test, which is designed to measure verbal and quantitative abilities (similar to the SAT test), and the GRE Advanced Psychology Test, an achievement test. The exams are administered in a computer-based format, which offers greater scheduling flexibility as well as the ability to see your score immediately. Two free booklets, the current GRE Information Bulletin and Description of the Advanced Psychology Test, are available upon request from GRE, Educational Testing Service, Box 955, Princeton, New Jersey 08540. The Educational Testing Service, which administers the GRE, also has an extensive web page at which provides scheduling information, sample questions, test-taking tips, and other information.

Many graduate schools place a great emphasis on GRE scores, so students are advised to prepare well for the exams. Ideally, the GREs should be taken the summer before applying to schools, when you have more time to prepare and study for them. The advanced test in Psychology covers all areas (personality/clinical, social, developmental, cognitive, and psychobiology). Courses that are especially helpful for this test include History and Systems of Psychology (Psych 380). Before taking the test a student might want to review an introductory textbook.

The Miller Analogies Test (MAT)

Some graduate programs in Psychology require the MAT, a 50-minute test consisting of l00 word analogies. Many colleges administer this test on an appointment basis. A free booklet describing the MAT can be obtained by writing to The Psychological Corporation, 304 East 85th Street, New York, New York l00l7.


Students planning to attend graduate school should choose their undergraduate courses carefully. Statistics (Psych z270) is required by most graduate programs. An Experimental Methods course and History and Systems of Psychology will both help prepare you for graduate study. Graduate programs also look favorably on students who have some research experience; you can get such experience through the Directed Study in Psychology (Psych 488, 489), or a Research Apprenticeship (Psych 486), and/or through the Psychology Honors program. Finally, if you are thinking of an applied Psychology graduate program, consider taking the Internship in Psychology (Psych 430 or Psych 442) course, which is offered in both fall and spring semesters as well as in the summer. Close consultation with your faculty advisor is the best way to be sure that you are choosing your courses wisely.

Letters of Recommendation

Graduate school applications typically require three to five letters of recommendation, primarily from faculty members. Usually schools provide forms for these letters in the application packet. The student should request permission of the people who will be asked to serve as references before their names are submitted. It is then advisable to prepare a short biography for the referee in order to familiarize the professor with your record. This should include accurate and up-to-date information about courses taken, grades obtained (if possible, include a copy of your transcript), academic awards or honors, research experience, teaching experience, psychology-related work experience, extra-curricular activities (Psychology Club, student government, etc.), and interests. It may also be helpful to give the professor copies of papers written for courses taken with them. A stamped addressed envelope for each letter of recommendation should be provided to the referee.

Recommended Reading

A volume called Graduate Study in Psychology is published annually by the American Psychological Association (APA). It provides descriptions of programs, admissions requirements, and information on tuition and financial aid for accredited institutions offering master's degrees and doctorates in psychology (however, many programs in counseling, school psychology, and social work are not described).

The APA also maintains a website about graduate work in psychology, which includes an online version of the Graduate Study in Psychology brochure. A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology (Washington, D.C.: APA, 1993) is another excellent resource for students considering graduate work in psychology. Students should read it before entering their senior year. Yet another excellent reference is Patricia Keith-Spiegel’s book The Complete Guide to Graduate School Admission (Erlbaum, 1991).