Getting Ready to Work in the Field of Psychology

If you are interested in a career as a psychologist, you have to complete graduate school in psychology. While most graduate programs in psychology are in academic departments located in university colleges of arts and sciences, some are located in professional schools of psychology, education, business, medicine and engineering.

Take time to research your choices. The program should match your interests. Although most psychology departments offer a breadth of education in the discipline of psychology, they vary in their strengths or areas of emphasis. You need to find out what those are and match them to your graduate education interests. The areas of expertise and research interests of individual faculty members may be a guide to you in matching your career interests with a specific area of research or practice in psychology.

A graduate or professional school’s catalog, brochures and website are generally the best and most current sources of information about the nature of each graduate program and its program and admission requirements. A composite source of such information is also available in the American Psychological Association (APA) publication Graduate Study in Psychology, which can be ordered from APA via email, telephone (800-374-2721), or using our online database.

Throughout the application process, discuss your plans with an advisor or undergraduate faculty members. Apply to a number of programs that offer you a reasonable chance of acceptance. For more information, contact the APA Education Directorate at 750 First Street, NE, Washington, D.C. 20002-4242 (email/web).

High school preparation

A strong college preparatory high school education is a good beginning for a career in psychology. High school psychology courses, whether Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or regular psychology courses, can give you an overview of the field. In addition, courses in science, math, English, history, social studies and a foreign language are important. Science and math are particularly important because they provide the necessary skills for research and analysis in college psychology courses. You can also conduct a research project in psychology, find a volunteer job where psychologists work or read about psychology in newspapers and magazines to explore the field. APA’s Monitor on Psychology® monthly magazine is a great source of information for anyone interested in the field. Do not be misled, however, by popular stereotypes of the field. Psychology is a broad behavioral science with many applications.

Bachelor’s degree

Most undergraduate programs require a blend of science and liberal arts courses for a bachelor’s degree in psychology. The courses usually include introductory psychology, research methods and statistics. Other required courses may be in learning, personality, abnormal psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology, physiological or comparative psychology, history and systems, and tests and measurement. Typically, you will be ready to take electives in psychology by the time you are a college junior. This is a good time to make graduate school plans that so you can make wise choices about future courses and extracurricular activities during the last 2 years of college. Only about 15 percent of graduate programs in psychology require an undergraduate psychology major. However, most graduate programs require at least 18 credits of basic course work, including statistics, research methods and a lab course.

The value of the undergraduate degree

Psychology majors, whether they have gone on to careers in psychology (the majority do not) or other fields, cite courses in the principles of human behavior as especially important to life after college. The additional insight gained from these courses helps them, whether they are functioning as parents at home, managers on the job or professionals in other fields. Many bachelor’s degree holders credit their college psychology courses with teaching them how people, including themselves, learn. “I use information on learning theory every time I conduct a training session for my employees,” says a manager in a consumer products company. Above all, it is the rigorous training in the scientific method — the need to do thorough, objective research, analyze data logically and put forth the findings with clarity — that stands psychology majors in good stead as they pursue their future careers.

Graduate school

Most graduate departments make entrance decisions on a variety of factors, including test scores, GPA, course selection, recommendations and practical experience. Most departments furthermore require that you take a standard aptitude test, usually the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Programs vary in the weight they attach to test scores. In August 2011, the GRE introduced a new scoring system. Scores now range from 130 to 170, measured in 1-point increments. Contact the psychology office at the schools to which you are applying to determine if your GRE scores will qualify you for consideration by those programs. Competition for spaces in graduate school is keen.

Master’s degree

Undergraduate course requirements for a terminal master’s degree are relatively few: usually, a background in introductory or general psychology, experimental psychology with a laboratory course and statistics. The university usually takes the undergraduate grade point average into account as well.

The top three programs for terminal master’s degrees are clinical psychology, counseling psychology and industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology. In programs such as I/O and social psychology that include a heavy emphasis on research, facility with research methods, statistics, computers and technology is important. Course work at the master’s level often also includes study in ethics, assessment, program evaluation and personality-related topics.

A master’s degree in psychology, along with preparation in the natural sciences or mathematics, is increasingly valued by doctoral programs in psychology. Data indicate that those who enter a doctoral program with a master’s degree are more apt to complete the program than those who do not have a master’s. Each doctoral program decides which credits earned at the master’s level will be accepted for transfer. Occasionally, students need to repeat some course work. Some institutions will not accept a master’s degree from any school other than their own. For these reasons, it is important to ask questions about these and other issues early in the application process.

Doctoral degree

Each graduate program determines its own entrance requirements. Some doctoral programs require applicants to have a master’s degree in psychology. More commonly, students can enter the doctoral programs with a bachelor’s degree and work directly on a doctoral degree.

Most doctoral degrees take 5–7 years to complete. Some institutions require their students to complete their doctoral studies within 10 years of admission to the institution. The sequence of education and training in a doctoral program depends on the area of the degree in psychology and the emphasis placed on research productivity for the degree and program. You will need to check on the specific requirements for the degree of interest. In addition, you must pass a comprehensive exam and write and defend a dissertation or other scholarly product.

If you want to be a professional psychologist in clinical, counseling or school psychology, you will also have to complete a 1-year internship as part of your doctoral study in these areas of practice. Accredited doctoral programs are required to provide information on their websites about the match rate of their students-to-internship placements. Some universities and professional schools offer a PsyD degree in lieu of the traditional research doctoral degree (PhD) or EdD degree. These PsyD degrees, with their emphasis on clinical psychology, are designed for students who primarily want to do clinical work exclusively.

The importance of accreditation

Accreditation is the mechanism used to ensure educational quality at the institutional and programmatic level, as appropriate. At the institutional level, there are regional and national accrediting agencies. There are six regional accrediting bodies that accredit colleges and universities in different geographic regions. National accrediting bodies accredit institutions or specific vocations. Specialized and professional accrediting bodies generally accredit at the program level. To ensure the accrediting body acts in a reputable manner, both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognize — or “accredit” — the accrediting bodies.

Membership in APA requires that one’s education and training occur in a regionally accredited institution. Accreditation of programs in psychology occurs only for the specific practice-related areas of clinical, counseling and school psychology (as well as combinations of these areas). As such, most state licensing boards in psychology require, at a minimum, an applicant to have completed a program in a regionally accredited institution. Many also require graduation from an accredited program.

The APA Commission on Accreditation (CoA) is recognized by both the U.S. Department of Education and the CHEA as an accrediting body that meets their standards of recognition. The CoA accredits doctoral programs in clinical, counseling and school psychology as well as programs that combine these areas; internship programs in professional psychology; and postdoctoral residency programs in professional psychology and in specialty areas. Increasingly, employers and health services reimbursement companies require that the psychologists whom they employ or reimburse be graduates of programs in professional psychology that are accredited by the APA CoA.

If you need financial aid

You may be able to get financial aid to attend both undergraduate and graduate school. Assistance comes in different forms: fellowships, scholarships, grants or subsidies, work study programs, federal loans and teaching or research assistantships. Graduate assistantships and work study require part-time work.

In many PhD programs, financial aid packages that include tuition, some benefits and a stipend are available. Students applying to PhD programs will want to check on the availability of such packages and their eligibility for them. For those accredited programs in professional psychology (clinical, counseling and school), the program must provide information on its website about cost, financial aid, time to degree, attrition and so forth.

Students seeking financial aid for a graduate degree should get advice as early as possible. Consult with both the psychology office and the office of financial aid on your own campus and also with the office of financial aid at the school to which you are applying. Students of ethnic minority background should also contact the APA Minority Fellowship Program.

Licensure and certification

You must be licensed as a psychologist for the independent practice of psychology anywhere in the United States or Canada. Before granting you permission to take the licensing exam, the state licensing board will review your educational background. A doctoral degree does not automatically make you eligible to sit for the licensing exam; requirements vary from state to state. States require, at a minimum, that the doctorate be in psychology or a field of study “primarily psychological in nature” and that it be from a regionally accredited institution. You must also have had at least 2 years of supervised professional experience. Information about state and provincial licensing requirements may be obtained from the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) at the following addresses: P.O. Box 3079, Peachtree City, GA 30269 or the website.

APA:  Careers in Psychology


Aug 5