How to Succeed in a Graduate Psychology Program

graduate psychology programs

Given the time, effort, and money required to succeed in a graduate psychology program, students need to make every effort to make sure that they see a sufficiently rewarding return on their investment. In this guide we walk you through everything you need to know in order to succeed in a graduate psychology program–from the moment of receiving your acceptance letter to graduation.

Why Graduate School is a True Challenge

Few challenges in life inspire the same trepidation and worry as graduate school. For many of us, graduate school stands at the top of the mountain named academia and functions as the pinnacle achievement in education. The primary purpose of graduate school is to elevate students as professionals and academics to the level of expert and specialist, where one has mastered a knowledge base and skill set, hence the name ‘master’s program.’

Needless to say, the road to mastery is long and winding, fraught with peaks and valleys where graduate students experience the highest and highs and the lowest of lows.

Whereas one might rely on talent, caffeine, or explosive study-binges to fly beneath the radar in college, there is no such leeway in graduate school. This is particularly true in master’s of psychology programs which are distinctly more intimate and allow for little-to-no anonymity in terms of individual involvement and personal progress.

Because the field of psychology is one demarcated by specialties and APA governing bodies to manage them, students should expect a similar ecology in psychology graduate school. That is, psychology graduate students can expect to be paired with faculty who demonstrate an expertise in their desired specialty–designated in a mentor-mentee format.

Are you palms sweating just thinking about this level of involvement? Don’t worry, we have created this guide to walk you through the process of building success in graduate psychology from the moment of acceptance to graduation and thereafter by maximizing opportunities for success and minimizing opportunities for failure–because while these opportunities might be the same in real life, graduate school still holds true to the morals of an education, which means the odds are ever in the students’ favor so long as they know how to play them.

But if you are still in the phase of seeking acceptance to graduate school, consider our previous guide on how to best prepare.

So You have been Accepted to Graduate School, What Now?

Earning acceptance to graduate school marks a tremendous achievement and requires no small effort, but contrary to common intuition, much of the real work starts after acceptance and before the start of semester. Let’s break it down into three phases:

Determine your Specialty

If you read our previous guide on preparing for graduate school, you will know that this should have been done before seeking acceptance in graduate school. So if you earned acceptance without designating a specialty, congratulations you beat the odds.

But now is the time to buckle down on choosing your desired career path. This does not always mean choosing with one-hundred percent certainty, but it means narrowing down the options of what you want to do, because unfortunately graduate school is designed in such a way that each school is only designed to support so many specialties.

Identify your Instructors

Once you clarify your desired specialty, investigate which faculty members are most involved with the subject. Many students will be assigned a mentor faculty member at some point after acceptance and before enrollment, though some programs might use the first semester to streamline the process.

The important point here is that students should evaluate the course of their graduate journey as early as possible. We will dive deeper into the importance of bonding and relating to your mentors shortly.

Setting your Pace and Schedule

After you receive your acceptance letter, you only have a limited window of time to decide whether you wish to progress through the program at a full-time or a part-time pace. This will be a relatively new consideration for students coming straight from college, for whom a full-time education has been the default daily existence for the better part of two decades.

Additionally, there are some unique pros and cons to these choices that are specific to the context of graduate school. So let us discuss these options in more depth.

How to Choose between Full-time and Part-time Graduate Study

Although the landscape continues to evolve, most undergraduate students choose full-time enrollment–the thought being that such a schedule provides the quickest and most direct route to employment, since a Bachelor’s degree is the bar to meet for many professions.

However in graduate school there are many other angles to consider. Consider these questions before enrollment:

1. Are you experiencing academic burnout or will you?

If you thought college was hard, graduate school is harder. So if you were experiencing academic burnout or fatigue to a detrimental degree in college, consider slowing your pace in graduate school.

Taking longer to graduate is several orders of magnitude better than never graduating, and not to mention that a part-time schedule allows one to pursue part-time employment while completing their master’s.

This can alleviate some of the financial burden of graduate school while also diversifying one’s daily schedule to reduce further burnout and academic fatigue, which can help you put your best foot forward in the daily throws of graduate study.

2. Will you benefit academically, personally, or professionally from a slower pace?

It is important to really consider this question because unlike college, graduate school is all about hitting your personal career goals. If you thrive in the academic environment and cannot wait to graduate, then full-time enrollment is probably best suited to you.

If you are someone who prefers to ponder things while taking your time to digest them, it might be best to consider a part-time enrollment, particularly if you want more time to complete your graduate thesis.

Is there a job or internship opportunity that you would hate to forgo for graduate school? Was there a personal event that would be more easily handled with a part-time schedule? Simply put, there are many reasons why someone should seriously consider part-time graduate school–even if it goes against your thinking at the time.

3. Did college move too fast or too slow for you?

Believe it or not, graduate school moves even faster than college in many ways. Students are expected to dive deep into subjects before moving on to new ones, all while maintaining a high comprehension of materials covered. I

Do you have ADD or general problems with concentration? If so, then you may want to consider part-time enrollment. After all your retention and ability to comfortably progress through the program is what confers its value in the first place.

Conversely, if you are a freak of nature who prefers a full-plate during graduate school, consider developing relationships with faculty outside of your specialty who might be able to provide additional research projects or professional opportunities such as a work-study job or teaching position.

Why do Students Fail to Graduate from Graduate School?

In order to maximize your chances for success, it is important to also understand the dynamics of failure and how to avoid it. A proven method for this is examining the mistakes of others so that you do not repeat those mistakes.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the data.

How many drop out of graduate school? Why do students fail to graduate from graduate school?

While the data is lacking on specific drop out rates for specific programs, we know that a jaw-dropping 50% of students drop out of their graduate programs (Chronicle.com). While this high percentage is attributed mainly to PhD programs, it is concerning all the more given the fact that many consider earning their master’s degree as a segway to a PhD program. So why do so many students drop out?

While there are many reasons, the data seems to point overwhelmingly in one direction: burnout. Because let’s face it, by the time one has reached a PhD program they have invested decades of their life into education, and not just any education–grueling, demanding, unrelentingly rigorous education.

For many students the path through graduate school involves a battle of attrition where each individual must decide how much they have to give and how much their program asks them to. The inevitable result of an unequal exchange being a dropout or fail out.

Let’s list some of the other reasons why students do not graduate from grad school, so that you can anticipate and side-skirt similar pitfalls:

Personal health issues

Many students often forego their own health–be it mental or physical–in order to progress through graduate school more efficiently. This is never a beneficial trade-off as students eventually pay the price one way or another.

This problem can be circumnavigated entirely by prioritizing your own health throughout your graduate school journey. And while it may be alluring to make personal sacrifices for short-term gains, the truth is that the slow and steady investment in one’s health provides the real payout.

Financial issues

Graduate school is expensive and many students enroll without fully considering the burdens of full-time academia. Beyond tuition, there is the daily cost of living to consider as well as the cost of relocating for students who seek enrollment at a distant school.

This problem is easily remedied by responsible, realistic financial planning and self-evaluation. If there is any question whether you might struggle financially during graduate school, then consider part-time enrollment subsidized by part-time employment. Only rely on student loans if you can accurately forecast their lifespan and effects.

Inability to Integrate Studies

Students go to graduate school to further their careers, but for many a point comes where they realize that what they are studying will not translate into the careers and/or lifestyle they had been working towards. This is a larger issue than just graduate school, and boils down to variables of economics, self-knowledge, and planning ability.

Many students unfortunately discover that they have chosen the wrong specialization or that they have chosen the wrong career altogether. For this reason, it is important to evaluate your chosen path earnestly.

Be honest with yourself about where your current trajectory will place you in one year, three years, five years and more. The field of psychology is ever-changing but some aspects remain static.

How to Integrate Graduate Studies into Your Career

While grades earned and overall academic performance certainly impact the value of one’s graduate studies, the ultimate value is conferred by how well those studies translate into professional advancement. The tricky part is that some programs are stronger academically than they are professionally.

How high should you value a graduate-level specialty which leads to exactly no job opportunities?

That question will have to be answered differently by each student, and of course will be a non-issue for students in some specialties of higher demand. But even in the case of enrolling in a popular specialty, students should be constantly evaluating how their studies apply to their profession.

Remember your younger days of elementary calculus when you would ask your mom, “why would I ever need to know this in real life?” Well, in graduate school you should be constantly asking yourself, because the answer will have one of two implications:

i.) Either you’re studying the wrong material for your desired career.

ii) Or you’re studying the right material but you have desired the wrong career.

In the first case, you might need to speak with faculty to have them realign your curriculum with your goals. In some cases you might even need to seek enrollment in a different graduate program or graduate school altogether.

In the second case, you need to totally reevaluate whether the career you desired was realistic and then, whether your program enables a path to a career you desire. Unfortunately, by the time students truly begin to understand the nature of their profession, they are often so deep that they feel they cannot back out.

Let’s run through a graduate student’s checklist of how to consistently integrate your studies with your desired career outcome:

1.) Ask professors what job opportunities you can expect after graduation with the work you have done, or plan to do.

2.) Explore the Bureau of Labor Statistics and seek out industry-specific data on job opportunities in your field and near your location–and what specifications those jobs require.

3.) Reach out to a job recruiter or speak to the career services of your graduate school, and begin building professional connections with job providers who can give you a realistic perspective on what is available and what is required to find employment in your desired field.

4.) Ask your professors if any students who graduated before you, who are doing exactly what you want to do. Then reach out to that student and see if they had to build any additional experience or studies to enable that professional path.

5.) Take a look at industry trends. Is the job market moving away from your desired type or work? Or is the market developing more opportunities in your field? How can you mimic these trends in your studies?

6.) Ask professors what job opportunities you can expect after graduation with the work you have done, or plan to do.

Frame every day of your work in your graduate program in the context of professional development and career-advancement–will your work improve your hireability or your profitability? If what you are studying seems disconnected from those goals, how can you add value? Consult your mentors if you do not have the solutions.

How to Build Relationships in Graduate School

Whether one commits to networking in college, it takes on new importance in graduate school. Who you know and the extent of the relationship is often a direct predictor of opportunities after graduation. While this may be true across many different types of graduate school, it is particularly true for graduate psychology.

This is because in psychology graduate school, students often work closely with each other and instructors. Research projects often involve close collaboration on a daily basis, and the mentor-mentee relationship with faculty means that students should be prepared to cultivate these relationships in order for them to be most productive.

So let’s break down the process into some easy steps.

Integrate yourself in the graduate school environment.

Many graduate psychology programs have designated study rooms for your specialty. It may seem like a superfluous effort, but in time you will find relationships being formed among those in the building.

Offer help and accept help.

Graduate school is extremely difficult–for some more than others. An excellent way to integrate yourself into the network of instructors and students is to participate in study groups and tutoring efforts. These actions can even lay the groundwork for official teaching opportunities.

Ask your instructors if you can assist with any of their projects.

Graduate-level faculty often wear many hats and participate in projects of both academia and the corporate sector. If you have the bandwidth to spare, joining in on these projects can be a great segway into research and internship opportunities, as well as more opportunities after graduation.

Explore local professional, social, and volunteer opportunities.

Sometimes the best opportunities come from outside your graduate program. Consider any state grants or research initiatives that might have use for an up and coming graduate student of your specialty.

Stay involved with alumni networks and school community programs.

In many cases, alumni look to their alma mater when recruiting. They might directly reach out to the program heads, or they may simply make an effort to hang around more. Essentially the best advice here is to keep an eye out for opportunities, because they come from many directions.

Good fences make good neighbors.

While the intimacy of on-campus graduate school is something to be taken advantage of, it is also important to remember that good boundaries are the basis for any healthy relationship. Do not hesitate to establish personal space and reprieves where helpful.

And in the end, if the social nature of on-campus graduate school sounds too stressful, then one might want to consider enrolling in an online graduate program where these interactions are carried out digitally and students have the option of communicating from a comfortable environment of their choice.

How to Choose your Projects in Graduate School

While this may sound contrary to the advice of previous sections, there is tremendous importance placed on discernment when choosing your graduate projects. While you should make every effort to stay on top of your game, to drum up new opportunities and evaluate them accordingly; it is equally important to maintain an awareness of your finite resources as a graduate student.

As discussed in the section on integrating your studies into your career, many students realize too late that what they endeavor to work on has no bearing on their actual careers. In short, it is best to take on a few projects that directly mirror your career aspirations, rather than many that have nothing to do with them.

Alternatively, choosing great projects in graduate school can set you up for smooth sailing in one’s career after graduation.

So let us break down how to choose your projects in graduate school.

Goal Evaluation
To effectively judge what projects will be best for you, it is crucial to first determine your goals and desired professional outcomes. If you wish to go into laboratory research, your goals should be different than someone who wishes to work in private practice. In many cases though, students will have some level of uncertainty about what they wish to do at this phase.

If this is the case for you, just be sure to set several realistic goals that will cover you in various outcomes–such as taking several different projects that might open doors to different opportunities so that you can better experience those options.

Project Evaluation
Evaluating which projects will be best in actualizing your goals actually breaks down into several smaller decisions.

First, you have to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, because sometimes the best opportunities present the most adversity and require one to overcome their weaknesses. Ultimately whether or not this is a reasonable path to tread depends on how much one knows about themselves.

Second, is evaluating whether the juice is worth the squeeze–whether the rewards on offer are commensurate with your efforts. This is likely the most important step for most, given that students have such a limited supply of spare mental bandwidth in graduate school.

Outcome Evaluation
To effectively decide whether a project is worth your time, the last step involves carefully outlining the projected outcome of the project. So let’s break this step down into some simple questions to ask:

1.) Will you be making sacrifices–personally, professionally, or academically–to engage the project?

2.) Will performance in classes or in other projects suffer?

3.) Will the project position you to take advantage of bigger and better opportunities in the future?

4.) Will the project provide financial or academic stability? (Such as a paid internship or a research grant)

5.) Will future employers look fondly on the project?

6.) Will you be motivated to see the project through to its conclusion, even amidst hardship or confusion?

While in lower levels of education, students are often encouraged and rewarded for exploring their interests, in graduate school students must approach their endeavors with a forward-thinking mentality centered around career outcomes.

If you are having trouble evaluating a project or answering the above questions, consider seeking out a faculty member who could assist. And if you are evaluating a project with a very clear career path in mind, consider reaching out to an employer who might be able to answer your questions.

Self-Improvement and the Field of Advanced Psychology

One of the least talked about subjects in the field of psychology is also the most impactful in terms of succeeding in graduate psychology and the larger field in general. And that subject is mental health and self improvement.

For years, there was an exceedingly unfortunate trend in psychiatry of elevated suicide rates far above the national average. Since then, the field of psychology has performed countless self-evaluations and the results will be hard to miss as a professional in the field of psychology.

What this means is that you are held to a certain standard in advanced psychology that you will not be in other professions. If you are unwell, you will be expected to get well. If you have poor coping skills, you will be expected to replace those with better coping skills, because doing so is actively participating in the confirmation of psychology’s general premise: that humans are in charge of their mental reality.

But the unfortunate reality is that dysfunction often masquerades as function and vice versa.

While many graduate schools may work to combat this reality, many students face a problem in advanced psychology where they are simply expected to avoid showing any dysfunction. In psychology, your mind is the focus; so it should be no surprise that students will be evaluated on the merit of their own mind–whether that evaluation is biased or not.

Few of us who have completed psychology graduate school are willing to address this subject, but in my mind it is crucial to giving students all the tools needed to succeed.

So how can you incorporate this information into an informed plan for success in graduate psychology? Let’s break it down into some quick and simple tips.

1.) Prioritize your health–both physical and mental–above all else.

2.) Practice self-improvement: challenge yourself to step outside of your comfort zone in order to evolve as an individual.

3.) Make sure that you have a support system in place–even if they are far away–so that you can seek support outside of the graduate program.

4.) Try to avoid entering enrollment with baggage; look to resolve any life-issues or majors stressors before you begin this new phase in life.

5.) Avoid or minimize the impact of negative influences in your program.

This last point is a contentious topic, because unfortunately while your professors and peers are likely to be high-functioning, intelligent, and successful, there is a chance that at least some of them will have a negative impact on you in some way.

Whether it is a clash of personalities or clash of values, many students will need to overcome these challenges. In many cases the solution requires one to walk the fine line between professionalism and self-care.

Never be afraid to speak out or walk out of detrimental environments if there is no reasonable method for maintaining a healthy environment.

Employing Theory into Practice

Whether you are learning the theoretical foundations of psychology, or exploring the best methods for succeeding in graduate school, there comes a time where each student must put the rubber to the road and transition from theory into practice.

We have covered a lot of material in this guide and different portions of it will be more meaningful at different times during your graduate journey. So do not make the mistake of assuming you have it all figured which inevitably leads to ‘blind spots’ in one’s perspective.

The ultimate key to success in graduate school is realizing that success is not any one destination, it is the journey itself–or more specifically, a state of mind to be maintained during said journey.

With this in mind, there are no easy answers to be given on how to succeed–only many steps to be taken in a never ending journey. While this may sound daunting or discouraging, all we can do is look to those who found success before us and trust them when they say that all the hard work was worth it.

Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor