How To Prepare For a Graduate Degree Program in Psychology

graduate school of psychology

Given the time and financial costs associated with graduate school, students often experience tremendous worry about making the right decisions leading up to enrollment. But worry not, because in this guide we will take prospective students through everything they need to know to prepare for graduate school in psychology. In this guide we cover everything from which specializations are available and how to prepare for them, to personalized tips for increasing odds of enrollment in a top program, and much more.

The Challenge of Preparing For a Graduate Psychology Program

Preparing for any graduate school presents a gargantuan task with many challenges and unfortunately some types of graduate schools present more complexity than others.  This is certainly the case for students considering graduate school of psychology where students face a considerable number of hard choices–many of which are hard to judge at the time when most students consider enrolling in graduate school.

For instance, many students might not fully comprehend the unique format of graduate school psychology programs. At many of these schools, programs facilitate a mentor-mentee format where students work closely with a specialized instructor who oversees students’ progress in said specialty, rather than the traditional undergraduate format where students’ education is provided through an impartial network of professors. 

For prospective students of research-oriented psychology graduate programs this means that not only will a strong conviction be required to commit to a specialization, but it also means that students will need to carefully vet graduate schools to confirm that:

  • A.) The program’s faculty offers the desired area of specialization to incoming students. 
  • B.) The faculty in charge of one’s desired specialization has space for new students. (Sometimes more popular and/or niche areas of study are highly competitive and fill up quickly)
  • C.) The desired area of speciality provides enough work and credits to graduate from the program. (Oftentimes students will need to take on a subspecialty or be prepared to take more generalized courses as well)
  • D.) There are resources to support new research in one’s desired area, or that existing research teams have space for a new student.(In many cases, the success one has in graduate school is attributed to the research they are able to participate in during their enrollment)

And not to mention, all of these considerations are tacked onto the general challenges of seeking out graduate school and preparing for it in the first place, but don’t worry! It is not all doom and gloom–there are many effective tricks and strategies for making the most out of the process, so that you can hit the ground running in your graduate psychology program. 

Should You Enroll in Psychology Graduate School?

Before we dive-in to these tricks and strategies, let us address the elephant in the room. Many students are rightfully on the fence about whether graduate school is really worth it. Considering the investments of time, money, and effort involved, prospective students should understand the value offered and the opportunity costs in play. 

So to answer the question of, “Should I enroll in a Graduate School of Psychology?” you should first be able to answer the question of whether it is worth it to you BOTH as an individual and as a professional–and that is an important dichotomy to consider; because what is commonly beneficial professionally might be detrimental to someone as an individual. 

So let’s break down the statistics at the core of the value proposition embedded in graduate level psychology and who benefits the most from enrolling in these programs.

Who is enrolling in graduate psychology programs?

According to the American Psychological Association about 3.5 million held a Bachelor’s of Psychology in the United States back in 2017. This number has only grown since then, which makes it one of the most popular undergraduate degrees in the United States. So while students are certainly able to earn distinguishing records in college, a Bachelor’s of Psychology might not be enough to jumpstart one’s ideal career given the stark competition. 

  • According to the APA, roughly 14% or 500,000 individuals hold both a Bachelor’s of Psychology and a graduate-level psychology degree. 
  • Only about 4% go on to earn a doctorate degree in psychology.
  • 30% pursue graduate programs other than psychology (popular choices are education, health, and social services).
  • Roughly 56% of the 3.5 million students with Bachelor’s of Psychology do not go on to graduate school.
  • Students who earn a graduate level psychology degree typically do so earlier in life with the majority having done so by their 30s.

(Data compiled from National Survey of College Graduates Public Use Microdata File and Codebook)

Know Thyself to Prepare Thyself

Many careers of psychology require a graduate degree but some do not, so commit to careful research to determine whether or not your desired career path benefits from a graduate degree. And then there is the added complexity of whether you as an individual find yourself thriving in school more than the workplace for learning, or vice versa. Some individuals will be better served working their way up the professional ladder.

The age old adage of “Know Thyself” is never more important than when making a pivotal life decision such as whether to enroll in graduate school. People go through phases and its important to recognize your own patterns in order to get out of your own way. Additionally, it is important to remember these three points:

Don’t Rush, Take a Break

Many students will complete their bachelor’s degree earlier in their twenties, but regardless of when you do it is important to remember that academic fatigue is real. You need to go into your graduate program with zeal and zest, so don’t sell yourself short by rushing into a program directly after earning your bachelor’s if you are burnt out. 

Don’t Lose Momentum

On the flip-side of the issue, it is equally important to not let your momentum die out. Depending on your personality, you might be someone who is better suited by directly enrolling in graduate school right after earning your undergraduate degree. And if you do take a break, just be sure to measure your own energy and trajectory: taking a break need not equate to professional stagnation. 

Commit to Self-Appraisal

Only you know what you are capable of and what you are comfortable with, however self-knowledge is key when pursuing an intellectually demanding and professionally rigorous career in psychology. Whether you take a break or seek immediate enrollment in graduate school, commit yourself to appraising your actions and the results they reap.

One can supplement a break from school with an internship or research project, which can be a great way to prime one’s self for a graduate program. Additionally, graduate students can adjust their pace by considering part-time enrollment, which might offer a balanced alternative between taking a break or full-time enrollment. 

The 20 Most Popular Specializations in Graduate Psychology

The best method for preparation will largely depend on the desired route and endpoint of study for each student. Highly technical subjects (such as neuroscience) often require students to demonstrate familiarity before enrollment in graduate school, which means prospective students will need to begin preparation in their undergraduate programs or play catch up afterwards by pursuing relevant research and professional opportunities.  

So with this in mind, let’s take a look at the most popular specializations of graduate level psychology programs and how to best prepare for them:

Applied Psychology

What is Applied Psychology? 

Applied Psychology is the field in which psychologists apply theory to solve practical problems. These professionals work in a wide array of fields and subspecialities and is more of a discipline than a traditional specialization, however graduate programs do exist that offer focused specializations in applied psychology. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Applied Psychology?

Students can best prepare for graduate school in Applied Psychology by participating in coursework and research projects focused on creating real-world solutions to practical problems. Seeking an internship for a professional role in this context would be ideal. 

Behavioral Psychology

What is Behavioral Psychology?

Behavioral Psychology–like the name suggests–is the field in which psychologists study behavioral patterns of living beings. Subspecialties exist for different kinds of behaviors as well as different types of beings, such as animal psychology. Professional behaviorists work with individuals to correct behavioral problems, and thus often work in a therapeutic capacity or in correctional programs.

How do I prepare for graduate school in Behavioral Psychology?

Behavioral psychology is often a core element of undergraduate curriculum, but students can begin hedging their bets by pursuing additional classes or projects in the subject. Seeking an internship with a behavioral science team would function as great preparation. 

Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology

What is Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology? 

Unlike behavioral psychology, Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology is the prerequisite of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) specializations where professionals look to correct behavioral outcomes by addressing underlying cognitive problems and vice-versa. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology?

Prospective students should seek out training in counseling psychology, behavioral psychology, and cognitive psychology. Many undergraduate programs offer options for all three, but students can participate in independent studies to fill in any holes.

Clinical Psychology

What is Clinical Psychology? 

Clinical psychology is the prestigious field of diagnosing psychological conditions and providing medically-sound treatment plans. Clinical psychology is one of the most academically rigorous and professionally competitive fields in all of psychology. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Clinical Psychology?

Students must build a spotless academic record to excel in this field, and will likely need to pursue a doctorate. With this in mind, students need to prepare not only for graduate school but the PhD program that best matches their desired subspecialization. 

Consumer Psychology

What is Consumer Psychology?

Consumer Psychology is the rapidly growing field where professionals look to understand, objectify, and predict consumer behavior and tendencies. This field is largely dominated by data science and quantitative psychology. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Consumer Psychology?

Prospective students should pursue coursework and research in statistics, data science, and quantitative psychology. Additionally, a double major in marketing or business could be tremendously beneficial for positioning students for enrollment in a high-end consumer psychology graduate program.

Cognitive Psychology

What is Cognitive Psychology? 

Cognitive Psychology is the field in which professionals master the science behind thought and consciousness. Interesting subspecialties exist for unconscious thought, abnormal thoughts, and animal cognition. These psychologists work in a range of fields, but for the most part work towards research-oriented objectives. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Cognitive Psychology?

Prospective students should seek out as much coursework and research as possible in the subject. Cognitive Psychology can function as a subspecialty in other areas as well, so students should be able to build a robust portfolio of research and work with a theme of cognitive science.

Counseling Psychology

What is Counseling Psychology? 

Counseling Psychology is a robust field of interdisciplinary psychological sciences and incorporates many different schools of thought. For this reason, counseling psychology is one of the most broad and dynamic fields where professionals constantly iterate and develop new forms of practice. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Counseling Psychology?

Counseling Psychology usually begins in more traditional routes of study where students look to acquire appropriate licensure, meaning interested students should investigate which licenses are appropriate and seek out graduate programs that offer relevant inroads.

Developmental Psychology

What is Developmental Psychology? 

Development Psychology is the field in which professionals study the various stages of life and how psychological development proceeds through them. These professionals can specialize in different stages of development, such as those who specialize in working with developmental deficits in children. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Developmental Psychology?

Not all undergraduate programs offer advanced coursework in developmental psychology, so prospective students will need to seek it out for themselves or create opportunities through independent research projects. But thankfully, there are many inroads to the profession which means students should be able to find an internship that provides relevant experience. 

Educational Psychology

What is Educational Psychology? 

Like developmental psychology, Educational Psychologists specialize in the various components of education throughout the developmental stages of life. As such, these professionals often pursue subspecialties in areas such as early-life education or geriatric education. An array of organizations and institutions employ these professionals, such as schools, hospitals, and large corporations. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Educational Psychology?

Prospective students will want to build a background in school psychology, developmental psychology, while working towards specialized experiences in the education industry. Internships are key in this context.

Forensic Psychology

What is Forensic Psychology? 

Forensic Psychology is the field wherein professionals employ a mastery of psychological science to contribute practical solutions to problems of criminal justice. These psychologists can work in the field to employ expertise to solve criminal investigations, or they can work in the back-end by participating in the research that sets baselines and standards for their comrades in the field. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Forensic Psychology?

This is a very specialized area of study, and not all undergraduate programs offer appropriate preparation. With this in mind, students should look to build a strong foundation in Applied Psychology while developing a portfolio of research in Forensic Psychology. Internships work as crucial compensation for any deficits in undergraduate studies.

General Psychology

What is General Psychology? 

General Psychology is the field in which professionals either commit to a general area of study, or go on to pass on a complete picture of the field to students in the classroom. As a very broad field, these professionals run the gambit of profiles but the majority find themselves in education.

How do I prepare for graduate school in General Psychology?

Students interested in this field will want to broaden their horizons as much as possible, and cover as many foundational subjects in psychology as possible. Success depends on being able to pull from various disciplines to form a unified theory of psychology.

Health Psychology

What is Health Psychology? 

Health Psychology is a relatively new specialization wherein professionals look to develop theories and practical solutions regarding health problems, whether they be physical, emotional, or psychological. This field incorporates interdisciplinary approaches and practices as opposed to the traditional formats of counseling psychology.

How do I prepare for graduate school in Health Psychology?

Prospective students will want to build a diverse background in research, theories, and practices for combating health problems. Students might be well-served to pursue a double-major or subspecialty in a medically relevant field such as biology or biochemistry. 

Industrial Organizational Psychology

What is Industrial Organizational Psychology? 

Industrial Organizational Psychology or IO Psychology is one of the most popular fields for professional psychologists and also offers some of the most competitive earning potential of all specialties. This is because the field incorporates psychological science to improve business operations. These professionals often oversee or direct human resource departments, develop employee policies, and work as a go-between for company managers and employees. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Industrial Organizational Psychology?

Given its prominence, many undergraduate programs will offer at least some coursework centered around IO Psychology. Students will want to prepare for graduate school by taking this to the next level by pursuing research projects on the subject matter, as well as an internship in an HR department of a large company.

Neuropsychology

What is Neuropsychology? 

Neuropsychology is the fascinating field where specialized scientists look to establish the connection between brain science and psychology, specifically through investigating the physiological and chemical interactions within the brain’s network of neurons. These professionals often work at the cutting edge of the field as Neuropsychology is a field that has only recently been enabled due to advances in technology.

How do I prepare for graduate school in Neuropsychology?

Neuropsychology is a pillar of modern psychology, and so students should have many opportunities to participate in coursework throughout their undergraduate career, however it is important to pursue advanced studies in the subject as this will be closely evaluated by neuropsych graduate programs.

Personality Psychology

What is Personality Psychology? 

Personality Psychology is the field wherein professionals specialize in the relationship between psychology, physiology, and personality. The field combines a number of subspecialties to inform a larger unified theory of human personality. Professionals with this specialty can work in counseling, clinical psychology, or education, but many will go on to research-centric professions.

How do I prepare for graduate school in Personality Psychology?

Those interested in this field will want to skew their studies toward personality-related subjects. Pursuing relevant research projects will be a crucial aspect of preparing for graduate school. 

Psychology of Religion

What is Psychology of Religion? 

Psychology of Religion is the field wherein specialists look to identify and demystify the history and function of religion through human history with special consideration given to its effects on modern human psychology. These professionals work almost entirely within the capacity of professional research though this often leads to opportunities in the education industry.

How do I prepare for graduate school in Psychology of Religion?

Those interested in this field might want to consider a subspecialty or even double major in philosophy or religion. Because religion is largely ignored by many fields of psychology, it might be difficult to develop a robust background in the subject otherwise. 

Quantitative Psychology

What is Quantitative Psychology?

Quantitative Psychology is the specialized field where psychologists employ a mastery of statistics, math, and data science to further the field of psychology. This involves applying the doctrine of quantitative psychology to any interest of research psychology and also serves as the backbone that informs the practices of applied psychology. These professionals typically work exclusively in the environment of professional research psychology.

How do I prepare for graduate school in Quantitative Psychology?

Those interested in graduate study will want to build an unimpeachable command of statistics and data science. To this end, it might be worthwhile to pursue additional study in statistics programs before pursuing a graduate degree in Quantitative Psychology. 

School Psychology

What is School Psychology? 

School Psychology is the field wherein professionals employ a command of the psychological sciences to better inform the practices, standards, and expectations of school programs. These professionals often indirectly develop subspecialties by focusing on the dynamics from the perspective of the school, or from the perspective of the student. As such, these professionals are often employed by schools or go into private practice to work one-on-one with students. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in School Psychology?

School Psychology is not as competitive as many other graduate programs, and so students do have more flexibility in the resumes needed to gain enrollment, however it will be crucial to have demonstrated some success in related studies. Students should seek out an internship with a school psychology department to fortify their application.

Social Psychology

What is Social Psychology? 

Social Psychologists attempt to answer the question of why we do the things we do to one another and how these behaviors might be rooted in individual psychology or group psychology. These professionals typically work in research or in education, as their profession is defined by answering questions of psychological importance. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Social Psychology?

Social Psychology is one of the most popular psychology courses in undergraduate programs, so students should not have trouble building at least some experience with the subject. Social Psychology graduate programs can be competitive though, so students should look to pursue advanced studies even if that means building an independent studies track. 

Sports Psychology

What is Sports Psychology? 

Sports psychology is a niche subject wherein professionals use psychological science to identify and solve practical problems faced by sports enthusiasts and professional athletes. These professionals are typically employed by large sports organizations but might also find opportunities in the sports-health sector. 

How do I prepare for graduate school in Sports Psychology?

As a niche area of study, students will not be penalized for a lack of prodigious work in the field of sports psychology. However it will be necessary for students to have demonstrated some knack for the subject, which could be conveyed by successfully completing a Bachelor’s of Psychology with at least some research demonstrated in the subject of sports psychology.  

Tips for Preparing for Graduate School

Regardless of what specialization you choose, there are some additional tips and tricks that will both boost your chances of acceptance as well as make your graduate school career more productive and thus more cost effective. And on the topic of cost-effectiveness, savvy planning enables some opportunities for grants and/or scholarships that can greatly mitigate the financial burden of graduate school.

Evaluate and Mitigate Expenses

  • According to the Summary report, Graduate Study in Psychology 2016: Admissions, Applications and Acceptances, earning a Master’s of Psychology will cost you somewhere between $8,000 and $34,000 depending on several factors.
  • The median annual in-state tuition cost of earning a Master’s of Psychology at a public institution is $8,640 and about $20,000 for nonresidents.
  • The median annual tuition costs of earning a Master’s of Psychology at a private institution is $30,000.
  • To mitigate these expenses, consider targeting research grants to complete during your graduate school career. Many times this research can double as a thesis project or in another capacity that conveys program credits counted toward graduation.
  • Additionally, many graduate schools offer specific scholarships that are designed to reward certain areas of research and/or achievement. These are often significant enough to warrant significant consideration, and might even justify enrolling in a program because of their scholarships offered.

Demonstrate Interpersonal Success with Faculty, Peers, and Communities

  • Because psychology graduate school emphasizes an intimate collaboration between mentors, students, and professionals, students should aim to demonstrate success in these endeavors in undergraduate programs, internships, and any jobs held prior to enrollment.
  • Aim to build a significant relationship with at least two faculty members of your school’s psychology department.
  • Demonstrate your skills and aspirations to these faculty members so that you will have two shining letters of recommendation that are able to specifically mention your goals and strengths.
  • Ask your faculty members for help in setting up opportunities that might increase your odds of success in graduate school: research projects, internships, work-study positions, or community service.
  • Reach out to graduate schools well-before you apply, and ask questions about how you can best prepare. Every school is different, so you might get some valuable advice here.

Do not Underestimate the Value of Your Personal Essay

  • Your application’s essay is your opportunity to say the things that cannot be communicated by your file.
  • If your grades do not accurately represent your ability, then explain the life events that caused this and why things would be different in graduate school.
  • Is there something that make you special? Some life event, achievement, or personal characteristic? Use the opportunity to be more than just a name, and root yourself in the mind’s of the reader.
  • Graduate school is where dreams meet reality: be sure to write about what you will do in the graduate program and how that will enable your professional dreams after graduation–with a description of the drive and commitment which your willing to employ in order to get there.

Where You Go to Graduate School Matters, Geographically

  • Be sure to factor in the geographical location of each graduate school in relation to the industry you want to work in.
  • While some specializations can be effectively pursued from virtually anywhere, students in some specialized programs will benefit immensely from being located in close proximity to thriving professional networks.
  • Large population centers are excellent locations for research-oriented specialties who can more easily access large participant pools and data sets.
  • Additionally, therapist and counselors will benefit from being located near the type of area they want to work in–that is, a counselor wanting to focus on work with rural communities will want to find an appropriately located graduate school.
  • Salary-motivated individuals will want to compare the cost of living in an area to the average salary packages of their desired position.
  • Pay close attention to the cost of living in the area of the graduate school, as this can often cause more stress than tuition or it can become a lifestyle enabler through careful planning.

Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor