The Psychology Grad Student’s Guide to Thriving in School and Career

In this article we explore the process of preparing, applying, and then attending graduate school for psychology. We then walk you through all the various professional phases that one might transition through after graduation. 

Like in graduate school itself, there’s no substitution for preparedness and vision. And likewise, succeeding after graduation will test your commitment and your successful display of these virtues throughout your education. Keep reading to learn how to navigate psychology graduate school, and more importantly how to thrive while doing so. 

We’re bringing a lot of information to the table, so feel free to jump to the section that interests you most!

Page Jumps!

The Uphill Trek from College to Graduate School

Graduate Schools have been around since the late 1800s and they’ve evolved from rare and specialized opportunities designed only for the cultural elite to commonplace opportunities at many major universities (learn more interesting facts about graduate school here). 

But while they may have become increasingly common, making an investment in graduate school is no simple process. Prospective students need to not only display a clarity of purpose and vision in their desired futures, but they must also work under the assumption that this investment will see a fortuitous return on their investments. 

Students will quickly find that graduate school stands apart from college in many ways. Most noticeable among these differences is the shifting tides of personal responsibility. In college, students are young, inexperienced, and more often than not, somewhat irresponsible (at least when measured against the responsibility these individuals will demonstrate later in life). 

Many college students see their tuition paid for by parents or loved ones, or they offload financial considerations by taking on long-term student loans. This creates a dynamic where college professors–at least in many cases–feel responsible to coach, and yes even parent, their students.

But Graduate School is a Different Beast Altogether

By the time you reach graduate school, things are much different than they were in college. You will be expected to act like a functional adult–at least in the context of professionalism in academics. While you might get lucky in finding a graduate professor to take you under your wing, the odds are against you–and in many cases your instructors might actively test you to determine your grit. 

If you didn’t know graduate school was going to be so intense, don’t worry. We’ll walk you through the process, so that by the end you will be ready to pass the test that is graduate school 

Methodology for Setting up this Guide

In these next sections, we will walk you through everything you need to know about preparing for graduate school while enrolled in college or even before. Next, we’ll talk about earning enrollment in your desired graduate school, and how to have actionable backup plans if you don’t get your first choice. Lastly, we’ll provide a game plan for maximizing your time in graduate school and how to succeed after graduation. 

Throughout this guide, we’ll provide links to our other content on the topic, so that you can more deeply explore the topics most relevant to you and your journey.

Answering General Questions about Psychology Graduate School

Whether you’re in college, preparing for college, or you’ve taken some time off from academics to join the workforce–there’s plenty that can be done to set you up for success in graduate school. 

But first, let’s break down what we anticipate to be the most common questions for those who are not quite set on working towards graduate school. 

How Long is Graduate School?

Some graduate programs will take longer than others. The truth is that this investment and time and money will be steep for some but worth it for many. Consider our guide covering all the components of a graduate school’s syllabus and time-to-graduate.

How do I Balance Family and Graduate School?

This question is more easily answered for some than others, but thankfully we can rely on the guidance and advice of those who came before us. Many graduate school students have found success while juggling jobs, family, and other responsibilities. 

If you’re driven enough, you can too! 

How do I Pay for Graduate School?

This question is a bit more tricky, because students’ financial situations vary between one another so drastically. But thankfully, we’ve done the legwork and provided you with an excellent guide on how to navigate the nuances of building towards graduate school tuition. 

To this end, we recommend exploring the various grants, fellowships, and scholarships that might be available to you. One common misconception here is that you must be an academic wizard to land a scholarship. This isn’t true, as many scholarships and grants are need-based and/or culture-based.

If you don’t know where to start here, consider checking out our ranking of the best scholarships for psychology grad students.

Should I NOT Attend Psychology Graduate School?

While we believe attending psychology graduate school is an excellent choice for many, it won’t always be the best path available. In this guide, we break down the fundamentals of weighing the pros and cons of attending graduate school. 

Conversely, if you’re looking for more reasons on why you SHOULD attend graduate school, consider our guide on the matter. 

Has Covid-19 Negatively Impacted Graduate Programs?

In short, yes and no. The only permanent outcome that students might find disagreeable is the increasing prevalence of online components of graduate school. Students might find that some classes occasionally meet online, while other programs have moved entirely to online education. 

The extent to which this affects you will depend on your sentiments towards online education and social distancing protocols. 

How to Best Prepare for Graduate School of Psychology

In order to get the most out of graduate school, you need vision and understanding. You need to know what graduate school will ask of you, and how to thrive under such constraints. Additionally, you will need the foresight to forge a path that’s most suitable to your desired career. 

Because, trust us; graduate school is not something you want to do twice because of poor planning. With this in mind, let’s break down the most important components of preparing for graduate school of psychology. 

How to Prepare for the GRE

If you want to consider enrolling in the best psychology graduate schools, you will need to nail your GRE test scores. Thankfully, this test is reportedly not as difficult as tests like the LSAT, however you will certainly need to prepare, especially if you’ve been out of academia for a while. 

In the above guide, we provide all the information that you will ever need to prepare and successfully complete the GRE.

How Do I Prepare for a Grad School Interview?

Perhaps the single most important step in earning enrollment to psychology graduate school comes down to the interview. As more and more students seek graduate school to elevate their careers, programs become more selective about who they allow into theirs. 

This means that psychology graduate schools can and will exercise discretion in how they choose to admit students–and this process will vary from program to program. But the TLDR is that you should operate with this interview in mind. 

How will you sell yourself? How will you distinguish yourself as the best student for a particular program? You should probably have different strategies for each psychology graduate program.

What Makes a Great Graduate Student Candidate?

To excel in your preparations for graduate school, you will need to know: what makes a great graduate student? In the above guide we break down the various elements of this question, and provide you with the framework to emulate the strategies of the best graduate students. 

What Questions Should I Ask About Graduate Programs?

In order to identify the best psychology graduate program for you and your goals, you will need to properly understand what each program offers. Unfortunately, the relevant information will not always be clearly available or readily transparent. 

For instance, you will probably want to consult previous students of a particular program to get an insider’s view of the program. Even the best graduate programs come with problems, but it will be up to you to decide which problems are acceptable and which are not. And for obvious reasons, a graduate school will not make much effort to advertise shortcomings.

In the above guide, we provide a strategy for teasing out a good understanding of your prospective graduate schools.

How to Prepare Specifically for a Graduate Degree in Psychology

Ultimately, pursuing a graduate degree of psychology will present challenges and complexities unlike those encountered in other graduate programs. The field of psychology stands apart from many other sciences, and thus requires unique considerations of those looking to build careers in it. 

One of the best characteristics of a professional psychologist is consistency. While some programs may smile upon students who have dabbled in many different areas of psychology, most graduate schools will want to see consistent thriving in one or two areas. 

Because at the end of the day, psychology is a field of specialization. Even the field of general psychology becomes increasingly focused the further one proceeds in education. For this reason, you should consider our guide on the topic! 

How to Succeed in a Graduate Psychology Program

Once you’ve settled on the type of degree you want to pursue, it can be tremendously helpful to understand what success in said program looks like. While the process of achieving that success will look totally different depending on the individual, there are some universals to consider. 

Because psychology is a field of specialization, one universal of success is building expertise in a specific specialty. In the above guide, we walk you through this process from beginning to end, so that you can begin this process of specialization well-before you earn enrollment to graduate school. 

What if I didn’t Get into My First-Choice School?

If you didn’t get into graduate school, don’t worry. There’s many more steps to take before giving up, because the numbers are on your side. There are quite literally thousands of graduate schools to consider. 

But first you’ll want to consider a few things.

  • Did you conduct a proper self-evaluation of your background and performance?
  • Were you a proper match for the program that you applied for?
  • Did you sell yourself as a proper match to the program?
  • Did you collect letters of recommendation from your professors (who would be on your side)?
  • Is there any additional work you can do to improve your value as a candidate? 

If you’ve answered these questions, and still don’t understand why you were turned away, that’s okay. 

Getting turned down by a graduate school feels a bit like a breakup, it can be a heartbreaking experience that leaves you asking the question, “Why?” Thankfully, the American Psychological Association conducted a review of graduate psychology departments and their process of evaluations (you can read the full report here).

The Data on Psychology Graduate School Admissions

According to the data, the most heavily weighted criteria for graduate institutions within universities is research background and GPA. Other factors certainly play a role, but these two seem to demand the most attention on average. 

Unfortunately, your GPA cannot be changed without going back to school. But your research background is something you can work on. If you believe your research background is lacking, then consider finding an internship or other professional opportunity that will allow you to pursue research in an area closest to that of your desired graduate program. 

And try to remember that many students have found themselves turned away from programs, but ended up finding a great match in the end. Keep trying, keep applying! 

How to Thrive in Graduate School of Psychology

Okay, so you’ve moved through all the stages of preparation and study required to gain enrollment in a good graduate psychology program. But you want to make sure that your time and money are well-spent, so that after graduation you can enter the job market with momentum. 

In this section, we will review perspectives on how to succeed as a graduate student once you’re in a program. 

Commit to a Specialization! 

Psychology is not a specialization. Psychology is a field of science that contains hundreds if not thousands of specializations. Graduate School of Psychology is quite literally the process of pursuing said specialization. 

College students are forgiven for–if not expected to have–confusion about their desired profession. But by graduate school you will need to be ready to commit to a specialization. In fact, most graduate psychology programs will assign you to a mentor or faculty member based on your specialization and how it relates to the specialty of the faculty member. 

Without a doubt, the most fundamental aspect of thriving in graduate school of psychology is committing to a specialization and developing expertise within it. 

How to Stay Productive in Graduate School

One of the pitfalls of graduate school is the belief that the work ends when homework ends. Unlike college, graduate school presents many macro-goals that won’t always be tracked or monitored by your instructors. 

For instance, many psychology graduate programs will require a thesis which represents the whole of your graduate study and the direction of your desired speciality (learn more about a thesis defense). Additionally, some classes will assign large semester long projects that require one to schedule work on their own time. 

But most of all, graduate students will find that much of their free time goes to professional preparations: internships, independent research, etc. With all of this work on your plate, you’ll need to stay productive, but we’ve created a guide on how to do just that! 

What Are the Key Habits of Succeeding in Graduate School?

On this same topic, we’ve compiled this guide that outlines 20 of the most crucial habits to build in order to succeed and thrive in graduate school. If you focus on building these habits, not only will you find yourself positioned for success in graduate school, but you’ll also build a foundation for success in any professional endeavor. 

Know Your Career Goals and the Limitations of a Speciality 

No amount of theory will prepare you for success if you cannot put these theories into practice in your own life. So what does this mean in the context of graduate school for psychology? 

It means that you should establish–as early as possible–your desired career destinations and aspirations. Because psychology is a field of specialization, failing to build a profile of specific expertise may lead to certain doors being closed to you.

Thus in order to truly thrive in your psychology career, be sure to evaluate where certain degree programs lead.

What programs can you afford? What can you do with certain specialties? Does your desired profession require certain specialties? If you’re looking to attend a PhD program, which program do you have in mind and what types of candidates do they enroll? 

In this section we’ll compile our work in answering these questions:

For many students, finding the ideal career path will involve a number of things personal to each students’ unique desires and aspirations. But let’s be honest, for most people there’s one fundamental offering that any career must have–particularly one earned by way of an expensive graduate program. 

We’re talking about money. After spending years in school and internships, students do need to know that their investment was worth it. So in this section, we’ll take a closer look at the job market for students graduating with a graduate degree in psychology. 

How to Thrive in Your Career after Graduate School 

This might seem like some tricky logic, but the honest truth is that to thrive after graduation requires careful planning and execution for the years leading up to it. Of course all hope is not lost for students who may have wandered from the path a bit, but the competitiveness of the job market is the ultimate arbitrator. 

And the job market should act as a litmus test of sorts for strategic, career-oriented decision making. Because too many students will focus primarily on their own interests without factoring in the interests of the job market in the context of regional influences. 

Review Salary Data and Regional Job Market Discrepancies 

What does this mean? Well, the Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks California as the one of largest employers of psychologists–from a range of specializations–both in private industry and state-run organizations. This large and highly concentrated job market often brings in outside talent from other areas of the country. 

Many students may review these opportunities and mistakenly interpret them to represent country-wide trends. Unfortunately, many of the most active job markets for psychologists in California are found in cities with inordinately high cost of living. Thus the salary data in play here can be quite misleading. 

So when you review the highest paying job opportunities in psychology, pay close attention to the cost of living in certain areas. Additionally, a general rule is that high population areas will generate more opportunities for specialized psychologists. 

So if you prefer to locate in more rural areas, you may need to prepare yourself for more meager opportunities and in severe cases you might even need to to launch a private practice.

Trends of Employment and Wages for Psychologists 

To leverage your graduate degree of psychology for success, you’ll need to understand the lay of the land in the job market. 

According to the BLS and the APA, there is an excellent trend of growth within the general economy for psychologists. Employment in this job market will grow a whopping 19% from 2014 to 2024. This rate of growth dwarfs the national average of job growth, which sits at 7%.

Additionally, we see a trend of diminishing returns on investment for students looking to pursue some specialities. Specifically, psychiatry and social work are two subspecialties which noticeably lag behind the other thriving fields of psychology. This means that these job markets will be noticeably more competitive, as they will not be able to accommodate the advancement of as many professionals.

There’s no hard data to explain this, but common speculation points to the shrinking number of nonprofits. These business are no longer able to employ specialized social workers. Additionally, many Americans have stopped seeing psychiatrists. They opt instead to seek forms of alternative therapy and find solutions in holistic health traditions. 

The Fastest Growing Job Markets in Psychology 

Jobs for clinical, counseling and school psychologists show the strongest growth of all fields in psychology. These job markets grow at a rate of 20%. This tremendous growth means that this sector will employ more aggressive tactics in scouting and hiring talent. This means that overall this explosive job market will demonstrate opportunities with more competitiveness than a saturated one. 

The American Psychological Association reports that this growth largely results from three factors. That is, aging generations, veterans with special needs, and increasing populations with autism. The pandemic also spurred an explosive need for more mental health workers, across many different fields. 

Industrial Organizational Psychology 

A close second in terms of growing job markets, resides in the sector for non-medical specialties. Specifically, the field of Industrial-Organizational Psychology demonstrates sector-wide growth of 19%. Experts believe this growth results from an increasing trend of companies looking to incorporate business-facing psychological strategies.

But the APA urges perspectives of this field to show caution, because although this field experiences rapid growth annually, its popularity among students outpaces this growth. This means that graduates of IO Psychology programs will face staunch competition in the job market. 

For a more complete look at the industry of psychologists and the job markets of each specialty, consider our complete guide on the subject

How to Build Universally Valued Skills in or after Graduate School

It’s almost taboo to mention this, but just because you went to graduate school in psychology does not mean you must stay in the field. 

Because one thing most guides will not prepare you for is failure, but it’s something every professional faces at some point in their career. Learning how to fail and what to do after is what will determine your long term success. 

As we have learned as a country in recent years, circumstances may change quickly. Various job markets rise and fall each year, while entirely new markets spring into existence. The challenge you will face is knowing when to stay, and when to go. 

While you may think that your skill set as a psychologist is too specialized to translate to another field, there are things you can do to open doors to new opportunities. For instance, countless industries are looking to incorporate psychological perspectives into their efforts. 

Legal, marketing/advertising, and fields of business operations represent just a few industries that often employ professionals with psychological backgrounds. This means that graduate school of psychology can function as legitimate preparation for other industries outside of traditional psychology. 

What are Universally Valued Characteristics? 

According to Monster’s Future of Work Report, survey data indicates an interesting story. Employers heavily value a set of certain attributes and skill sets. These assets will serve you both in the field of psychology. But they will also serve outside of it should you choose to branch out.  

58% of the 3,000 business leaders surveyed in this reported a common problem. They report the biggest challenge of the last year has been finding candidates with the “right skills.” While 63% said that they would hire those with “transferable skills.” 

To understand what they mean here, think of universal skills that will work in various roles. Specifically, the business leaders surveyed in this report named several characteristics that they valued highly:

  • Teamwork
  • Time-Management
  • Leadership

So what skills will contribute to demonstrating these professional characteristics? One expert answers this question for us. 

The Three Universal Skills of Success

LinkedIn career expert Andrew McCaskill describes that professional success comes down to three universal and transferable skills. These skills will be valued in practically any work environment.

Make these skills the bedrock of your professional development. They will function as the most dependable way to set yourself up for success.

Dependability 

Do you say what you mean and mean what you say? Will you follow through with your commitments? Do people depend on you in your personal, professional, or social life? 

If your answer was no here, then you may need to work on your follow through. Don’t let yourself fall prey to easily accessible excuses. Follow the mantra, “your word is your bond.”

If you ever make a promise or commitment in a professional setting, don’t let anything get in the way of you following through on it. 

If your employer thinks of you as dependable, you’re already winning. Employers today see more turnover than ever before. So if they believe they can rely on you–you’re on your way to becoming a competitive candidate. 

Communication 

Cell phones, emails, and texts. These wonderful advances in technology have increased the margins for misunderstanding and poor communication skills. To properly navigate professional and social situations, you’ll need to command an expertise in using language

This comes down to employing words to a desired effect and then employing empathy to understand how these words were received. It sounds complicated when framed this way, but communication is a “feeling game” that’s more art than science.  

Good communicators are highly sought after candidates, because this skill is not easily taught. Though if you’re concerned about your communications skills being lacking, there are many resources to help you.

Problem-solving

This skill is a bit more tricky to define. Because if you put together a puzzle for children ages 6 and up, you’re technically a problem solver. But where this skill starts to demonstrate tremendous value is when you’re good at solving problems–in general. 

Are you a curious person who loves teasing out the solution to complex and ambiguous problems? If you answered yes, then chances are that you’re a problem solver. The challenge is demonstrating this skill in a professional context, because all sorts of new challenges can arise. 

You might see a solution that’s risky or might run contrary to a leader’s plan. But that’s a topic for another time! Your first task of problem solving will be this:

To successfully earn a graduate degree in psychology and then to leverage that degree for a great job. 

Ready? Set. Go!

Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor