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Careers: Graduate Study

Further education in psychology

If you are considering graduate study in the field of psychology, you're probably wondering what kind of career prospects you'll have when you finish your advanced degree. You might also be wondering what you need to do to prepare for graduate school, what graduate programs are looking for in applicants and what kind of degree you should get. The following is a short guide to answer some of these questions.

Timeline and tips for Calvin students applying to graduate school.

Types of degrees

Traditionally one earned a baccalaureate degree, then a masters, and finally a doctorate. However, because of increasing requirements for certification and licensing, a masters degree is not adequate in many states. Because of this, students are increasingly admitted to a doctoral program directly after their undergraduate work.

The typical doctorate is a PhD, the PsyD, or doctor of psychology, which emphasizes what a practitioner (e.g. therapist) needs rather than the traditional emphasis on research and scholarship. (See Peterson, D.R., "Twenty years of practitioner training in psychology," American Psychologist, April, 1985, pp. 441-451, for a description and evaluation of the Psy.D. degree.)

See information about specialized fields to learn more about specific degrees in the field of psychology.

Graduate schools

When you decide to go to graduate school in psychology, you will need to learn more about programs in the field. Graduate Study in Psychology, published annually by the American Psychological Association (APA) lists all graduate programs in psychology and related areas in the United States and Canada. The book gives you a great deal of concise information on each program. The department library has several copies of this book for perusal. Professors in the psychology department are also good resources for gathering information about graduate programs in psychology. They can also help you discern what your interests and abilities are in the field and then recommend graduate programs that could be appropriate for you.

Most schools admit only a fraction of the applicants. This fraction varies from one specialty area of psychology to another with clinical psychology being one of the most competitive areas for students to be accepted into. However, because most students apply to many schools, the reality is not quite so grim as it first appears to be. Most students who really want to pursue graduate education eventually get admitted somewhere, but not necessarily to a doctoral program. For more information about Ph.D. programs in psychology, students are recommended to view a recent assessment of research-doctorate programs in the United States.

In some ways the situation has reversed itself. Though students still fear not getting in, a few graduate programs are experiencing a shortage of students. Some eagerly recruit and admit students while not being fully honest about whether there are jobs for its graduates. Buyer beware!

After you have decided which graduate programs interest you, given your interests and abilities, the next step is to request further information and the needed forms. You should typically apply to anywhere between 4-10 schools which seem to be a good match, with 1-2 a cut above, and 1-2 a level below as a safety net in case you are not admitted to your preferred schools.

Career prospects

The market for college teachers, traditionally the source of employment for the great majority of PhDs in psychology and other disciplines, has remained tight for some years now.

Some college teaching positions will open, of course. Moreover, psychologists can do many things other than teach. Job openings are better in the areas of clinical, counseling, health, organizational, and quantitative psychology. Nonetheless, students today need to be more imaginative in their career planning. Various sources in the department library will help you consider innovative and nontraditional career plans.

Keep in mind the significant ramifications of managed health care. For example, it is now more difficult to be in "private practice" because HMOs typically authorize for fewer sessions than clients had in the past.

Considerations in graduate school acceptance

Entrance into graduate school is competitive and not everyone is admitted. The following factors seem to be the major considerations:


Your cumulative GPA will be one determinant of whether you are admitted to a graduate program. (Most graduate schools put greater weight on your most recent work recognizing it as a more valid indicator than your earlier semesters). As a very general guideline, a GPA below 3.0 will hurt your chances for admission and one above 3.6 will enhance chances of getting into the better schools.

Scores on standardized tests

Graduate schools emphasize these scores because they provide a common yardstick for comparing applicants, whereas grades are affected by the varying standards of colleges and professors. The following Graduate Record Exams are commonly required (also see

  • Graduate Record Exam - General Information
    When people refer to "the GRE", they usually mean this test. It is much like the SAT and other aptitude tests you have taken in the past and yields three scores-verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing. There are a number of study manuals on the market (some are in the departmental library) which are helpful in familiarizing you with the type of questions asked (In the Fall of 2007 there will be significant changes made in the general test.) This exam is now computerized; there is no paper and pencil version. Most graduate schools give great weight to these scores. For a look at a free practice GRE test online, see
  • Graduate Record Exam - Subject
    This 2 ½ hour GRE is offered at various sites in April, November and December (but you need to register about 5 weeks earlier). Results of the December sitting are not reported until about mid January. This is too late for schools with a final application date of January 15 and earlier. This test measures one’s knowledge of a certain field, e.g. psychology. Surprisingly, one of the best ways to prepare is to master a rigorous introductory text. Reviewing texts and notes from previous courses is also helpful.
  • A very helpful booklet which describes the GRE tests, answers many of your questions, and gives the information needed for registration is available free at the Registrar's Office.

Research experience

Because most doctoral programs are research-oriented, graduate schools look with favor on applicants who have research experience, particularly if demonstrated by a publication or presentation. This is difficult for an undergraduate to accomplish, but three possible ways are: 1) take Psychology 356 and present your paper at the Midwestern Psychological Association Conference, the Michigan Undergraduate Psychology Research Conference or a similar conference; 2) assist a faculty member with his/her research; 3) assist a psychologist in the community with his/her research.

Learn more about doing undergraduate research at Calvin.

Letters of recommendation

Most schools will ask for 3-4 such letters from professors or work supervisors who know you. Obviously, it is advantageous if several professors get to know you, e.g. by doing distinguishing work in their courses. Students should provide the letter writers with the necessary forms, addressed and stamped envelopes and adequate time to meet the deadlines.

Work experience

If you have been a RA or worked at places like Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services or Wedgwood Christian Services, it could indicate strengths relevant to career plans. Nonetheless, it seems as if this factor carries less weight than the four discussed above.

Learn more about part-time work in the field of psychology.

Your application

Many applications require a personal statement. It is useful to ask a faculty member to read your personal statement before you finalize and submit it. Finally, keep in mind that you are being evaluated through your application; it should be complete, neat, with all requested materials in by the stated deadline.

Financial considerations

Graduate education is costly; non-resident tuition is often three times higher than the basic tuition. (Generally, you do not become a resident of a state by doing your undergraduate work there.) Fortunately, there are sources of financial aid beyond the loans and grants you are familiar with.

You can apply for fellowship and financial stipends, sources of aid which are usually based on academic achievement without required duties. Research or teaching assistantships, as the names suggest, might also pay $8,000 to $16,000 per year but require some duties. Nonetheless, those duties frequently lead to valuable experience and contacts and often change one's tuition status to "resident".

Graduate schools and programs

Graduates of the psychology department at Calvin have gone into the following programs:

Ball State University
Counseling Psychology

Boston University
Social Work

Calvin Theological Seminary Masters of Divinity

Carnegie Mellon University Health Psychology

Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Claremont Graduate University Social Psychology

Colorado State
Masters of Social Work

Duke University Law School

Fordham University
Developmental Psychology

Fuller School of Psychology Clinical Psychology

Gonzaga University
Counseling Psychology

Grand Valley State University
Masters in Social Work

Loyola (Chicago) University
Social Psychology

Michigan State University School of Economics

Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Northwestern University
Physical Therapy

Princeton Theological Seminary

Indiana University Law School

San Diego State University Industrial/Organizational Psychology

UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television

University of Calgary Medical School

University of Denver
Masters in Forensic Psychology

University of Illinois-Chicago
Cognitive Psychology

University of Minnesota
School Psychology

University of Notre Dame
Counseling Psychology

University of Utah
Educational Psychology

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Clinical Neuropsychology

Valparaiso University
Law & Psychology

Vanderbilt University
Special Education

Washington University
Doctor of Physical Therapy Program

Wayne State University
Clinical Psychology