Career Information

If you are interested in becoming an academic or professional psychologist involved in teaching, doing research and/or obtaining a license and practicing independently, it is necessary to obtain a doctoral degree in psychology. In general, you must obtain at least a ‘B’ average (a GPA of at least 3.00) in order to be seriously considered for graduate school. The higher your grades are, the more likely it is that admission to a quality program will be possible. Therefore, you need to think early about whether or not graduate school in psychology is a possibility and strive to obtain the best possible grades and the broadest base of knowledge.
 
 

 What Do Psychologists Do?

 

Psychology is the study of behavior and mental processes, human as well as animal. Psychologists are individuals with advanced training who study behavior and mental processes and apply their knowledge and skill in a variety of ways. For example, here are some positions psychologists might take:

  • Teachers - psychologists teach classes at universities, two-year colleges and high schools;
  • Researchers - psychologists are employed by universities, government agencies and businesses to conduct basic and applied studies of human and animal behavior;
  • Service Providers – psychologists work with people of all ages and backgrounds who are coping with every imaginable kind of problem by assessing their needs and providing appropriate treatment;
  • Administrators – psychologists work as managers in hospitals, mental health clinics, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, schools, universities and businesses; and
  • Consultants – psychologists with expertise in a variety of areas are hired by organizations to provide consulting services on a subject or problem.
Psychologists frequently perform in more than one of these roles. For example, a psychologist might teach graduate students at a university and also maintain a private practice providing therapy to individual clients, families or groups. In addition to teaching, psychologists and researchers frequently provide consulting services to organizations or individuals. So, a person with a background in psychology has many career options.
 
Whether you are interested in human services, computers, management, education, technology, sports, or one of many other fields, you are likely to find psychologists working in that field. When you remember that psychology involves the study of behavior and mental processes, it is not surprising to find a vast array of applications of the discipline. There is also great flexibility and diversity within psychology.
 
Information about specific areas of psychology can be obtained from relevant American Psychological Association (APA) Divisions. You may also want to look at career descriptions for different subfields of psychology at http://www.apa.org/students/brochure/subfields.html in the APA’s website. Other ways to become informed are to read relevant articles in journals and books, write to colleges and universities with specialized training programs and talk to psychologists knowledgeable about the area.
 
Brief summaries of some of the major specialty areas within psychology are listed below:
  • Clinical psychologists diagnose and treat people with mental health problems, whereas Counseling psychologists work with individuals or groups, helping people deal with problems in various areas of their lives, extending throughout the life span.
  • Health psychologists are concerned with the study of biopsychosocial factors that contribute to health and illness, and with the causes of healthy and unhealthy behavior. They are concerned with health maintenance and prevention of illness through promotion of healthy behaviors.
  • School psychologists study children’s development in school settings. They assess the needs of special children with developmental difficulties or delays and they develop programs and assist teachers and staff in dealing with special needs children.
  • Developmental psychologists study changes that take place in sensory, perceptual, cognitive and emotional processes that occur over the lifetime of the individual, from infancy to old age. They observe and describe these changes and attempt to construct explanations for such changes.
  • Experimental psychologists study the processes underlying sensation, perception, cognition, learning, emotion, information processing and performance, in both humans and animals. They also study the physiological substrates of mental activity and behavior and attempt to relate findings in neuroscience with findings in psychology.
  • Neuropsychologists study the relationship between biological systems – specifically neural structures – and human mental states and behavior. Neuropsychologists also diagnose and treat psychological disorders that relate to brain damage or dysfunction.
  • Psychometric and quantitative psychologists specialize in the rigorous methods and techniques often used to study psychological factors. Psychometricians are concerned with test construction, development, and revision. Quantitative psychologists develop and use statistical and mathematical methods to design and analyze data from experiments and research studies.
  • Social psychologists are interested in psychological aspects of human interactions in groups. Attitude formation and change, conformity, social cognition, interpersonal relations involving love, and aggression in societies are some examples of topics studied by social psychologists.
  • Industrial/Organizational psychologists are concerned with psychological aspects of work in industrial and organizational settings. They study the selection, testing and training of workers at all levels, the selection and training of managers, and human performance in environments increasingly controlled by machines such as computers and robots.
The list of specializations given above should not be thought of as exhaustive. Moreover, a psychologist may often fit into more than one of these specializations. Psychologists, in general, also use their degrees as a foundation for careers in related fields such as business or law. Furthermore, there are numerous areas of psychology that are either emerging or expanding, or might be considered unconventional.

 

 Graduate Degrees in Psychology

 

If you are interested in becoming an academic or professional psychologist involved in teaching, doing research and/or obtaining a license and practicing independently, it is necessary to obtain a doctoral degree in psychology. In general, you must obtain at least a ‘B’ average ( a GPA of at least 3.00 ) in order to be seriously considered for graduate school. The higher your grades are, the more likely it is that admission to a quality program will be possible. Therefore, you need to think early about whether or not graduate school in psychology is a possibility and strive to obtain the best possible grades and the broadest base of knowledge. Note that the Department of Psychology Web Site provides information on graduate schools and careers which complements the information provided here.

Types of Graduate Degrees in Psychology

There are at least three types of doctoral degrees and two types of master’s degrees that can be obtained in psychology. The Ph.D. or Doctor of Philosophy Degree is the traditional degree held by most psychologists. It is the most advanced academic degree that is given in most areas of academic specialization. It is generally obtained after a three- to six-year period of intensive graduate study after the baccalaureate. The Ph.D. is generally considered to be a research degree. In addition to completing graduate courses, the student is required to take an extensive written and oral examination (typically called the “qualifying” or “preliminary examination”) and to complete a major research project as a basis for the doctoral dissertation. Students interested primarily in the research or laboratory areas of psychology (learning, social, developmental, perception, etc.) or applications of psychology (counseling and clinical) will generally be interested in applying to a Ph.D. program.
 
Students interested in an applied area of psychology (clinical, counseling, school, or industrial/organizational) with less emphasis on research may wish to enter programs leading to either a Psy.D. or an Ed.D. The Psy.D. or Doctor of Psychology Degree is a relatively new degree usually offered by a new kind of graduate school known as a “Professional School of Psychology”. There are Professional Schools in many states, but due to their recent entry into academia some may not be accredited. Students should always be careful to apply only to accredited schools no matter what degree they are seeking. This is especially important in the case of a new degree such as the Psy.D. The Psy.D. programs typically replace the research-based dissertation with a major project which involves some applied area of psychology such as diagnosis, therapy, consultation, etc.
 
Some individuals interested primarily in counseling psychology may find programs located within Colleges of Education which grant an Ed.D. or Doctor of Education. Many of these programs also offer degrees in guidance counseling, which is best suited to an educational career. Students should be aware that the term “counseling” alone does not necessarily imply a program in counseling psychology. If you desire a career in counseling psychology, you should apply to programs that are specifically in counseling psychology.
 
Students who plan on gaining State Licensure as a psychologist and inclusion in the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology (which puts one in the best position to carry out a private practice in psychology and allows one to be called a psychologist), are advised to pursue an American Psychological Association (APA) approved academic program and internship in clinical or counseling psychology.
 
For students not wishing to pursue a doctoral degree, there are master’s level programs at numerous colleges and universities. These programs may grant a Master of Arts or Master of Science degree (M.A. or M.S.). There are also programs that offer a Master of Social Work degree (or Master of Clinical Social Work degree) that may, with appropriate practical experience and certification, enable one to carry out supervised work in therapeutic settings.
 
Students may wish to obtain a master’s degree as either a terminal degree or as a step on the way to a doctoral degree. However, it is important to remember that persons having only a master’s degree in psychology are typically not allowed to practice independently and in most states would not be able to obtain a license for the independent practice of psychology.
 
Persons with a master’s degree often work in government or community agencies in fields such as mental health, alcoholism, drug abuse or delinquency. The decision as to what specific level and type of graduate education to obtain is one which need not be made until the formal application process begins in the senior year.

Selecting Schools to Which to Apply: Process & Timetable

During the freshman and sophomore years it is necessary to begin consideration of your future in psychology. Good grades in psychology, as well as in all of your other courses, will be important. Should your decision be to go on in psychology, the junior year is an important preparatory time. It is important to take PSY 300-Statisitics and PSY 389-Experimental Psychology no later than the junior year so that you will have the information from these courses in time for the Graduate Record Exam which should be taken in August or September of the senior year.
 
The Department of Psychology maintains a current copy of a book entitled Graduate Study in Psychology which lists all approved graduate programs in psychology found in the United States and Canada. Spring semester of the junior year is a good time to check this book out from the Department of Psychology office and begin to examine the information contained in it. The book includes a list, by state, of graduate programs identifying their type and general faculty characteristics. It also includes admission information, characteristics of the most recently accepted graduate students, and other information helpful in the initial screening process. This book is in considerable demand during the fall semester by seniors, and students might wish to consider purchase of the book on an individual or small group basis. It is available from the American Psychological Association, 1200 17th. Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.
 
Three other publications that might serve the prospective applicant well are:
  1. Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical Psychology by T. J. Mayne, J. C. Norcross and M. A. Sayette (Guilford Publications, 1994/95). This publication contains invaluable information about preparation, graduate school selection, application, interviewing and decision-making. It has a variety of sample letters, documents and worksheets that will help you in tackling multiple applications. It is available in the Psychology Department Office.
  2. The Common Boundary Graduate Education Guide by C. H. Simpkinson, D. A. Wengell and M. A. Casavant (Common Boundary, 1995). This is a guide that focuses on holistic and humanistic programs of study that involve spiritual and existential approaches. It is available in the Reference Room of the University Library.
  3. The Directory of Graduate Programs in Clinical Child/Pediatric Psychology by American Psychological Association (APA) Division 12 (1995). A copy is available in the Psychology Department Office.
An alternative method for selection of a graduate school program for application may be made on the basis of the interests of one or more of the faculty members within that program. Thus, during the junior year (and earlier if possible), you should note the names of individual psychologists whose work interests you, and find out at what graduate school these psychologists are located. A good source of information about the current location and the education and training history of most individual psychologists is the American Psychological Association Membership Directory available in the University Library Reference Room. Other directories are published by the American Psychological Society (APS), the Psychonomics Society, and the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy. Another possible way of obtaining this type of information is by searching the web. Use one of the tools which can be found at the Psychology Department’s Web Site.
 
Early in the senior year, there are numerous important steps which you should take. The process involves considerable work and some monetary expense. Students should be prepared in advance for this. Some students have reported that the application process itself generates work equivalent to taking another three-credit course.
 
The Graduate Record Exam is required by most major university programs (the requirements for admission are generally stated in Graduate Studies in Psychology, mentioned above). The Counseling Center on our campus maintains a current information booklet on applying for and taking the Graduate Record Exam. This exam, which is administered by computer, can be taken at any time during each semester, however the best time to take it is during late August or early September of one’s senior year. Note that the application for this administration of the GRE must be submitted by early September. Further, some schools may require the Miller Analogies Test which is also administered through the Counseling and Human Development Center. In September or October at the latest, the Graduate Study in Psychology book should be examined again more thoroughly and a number of graduate schools should be selected for application inquiries.
 
If you are at all interested in a graduate program, a preliminary letter of inquiry should be mailed; thus, as many as 15-20 of these letters may be sent. This letter should contain a request for application and financial aid information and should specify the particular graduate program to which one is interested in applying. These letters should be sent off early in the fall semester, preferably not later than the end of September. When application information comes back from the schools you have written to, you will find that it contains more detailed and current information about each specific graduate program. Some of the schools which you had been initially interested in may be eliminated by reading this material.
 
As you collect information, you might want to write to (or email) one or two selected faculty members at programs that you are applying to, who most closely match your research interests. Do a little background study on them and read their publications. Express interest in working with them if admitted to the graduate program at their institution. Discuss your own ideas and interests with them. This will generally alert at least one faculty member to your application, and if he or she is interested in your ideas, your application might get added support during the admissions process. At the very least, it helps your application stand out, especially if that faculty member happens to be involved in the admissions process.
 
You will discover that the application form for each graduate school is slightly different, and that you will need to do considerable tailoring of your answers to the questions contained on each application. You will further find that some schools require a fee to be paid with the application which may, in conjunction with the amount of work involved in completing applications, constrain you to limit the number of schools to which you will formally apply. Some schools waive application fees for students on financial aid. Try not to let these factors discourage you from applying to schools in which you are sincerely interested. The average number of final completed appli­cations per student is between six and ten, although there is wide variation among students.

Additional Psychology Experiences

Increasingly, it is necessary for a student to show evidence of some extra achievement (over and above good grades alone) in order to obtain admission to graduate school in psychology. It is important to be more than just a student who sits in class and obtains respectable (or even superior) grades.
 
Participation in optional activities such as independent study in faculty-supervised research projects, field placement experiences, relevant work study experience, student clubs, volunteering in the Association for Community Tasks, or summer jobs in the human services field, is the kind of experience which increases your chances of successful graduate school application. (See the section of this handbook on Co-curricular Activities for more information.) Serving as a teaching assistant in PSY 300 - Statistics is often a very useful qualification. Graduate programs often seek students with good quantitative skills. The same applies to experience with computing applications, and also to experience with specific research methods and techniques such as psychophysiology or test construction.

 

 Apply to Graduate School

 
During the freshman and sophomore years it is necessary to begin consideration of your future in psychology. Good grades in psychology, as well as in all of your other courses, will be important. Should your decision be to go on in psychology, the junior year is an important preparatory time. It is important to take PSYC 200 Research Methods in Psychology in your Sophomore year and PSYC 300 Statistics for Psychologists no later than the Junior year so that you will have the information from these courses in time for the Graduate Record Exam which should be taken in August or September of the senior year.
 
The Department of Psychology maintains a current copy of a book entitled Graduate Study in Psychology which lists all approved graduate programs in psychology found in the United States and Canada. Spring semester of the junior year is a good time to check this book out from the Department of Psychology office and begin to examine the information contained in it. The book includes a list, by state, of graduate programs identifying their type and general faculty characteristics. It also includes admission information, characteristics of the most recently accepted graduate students, and other information helpful in the initial screening process. This book is in considerable demand during the fall semester by seniors, and students might wish to consider purchase of the book on an individual or small group basis. It is available from the American Psychological Association, 1200 17th. Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.
 
Three other publications that might serve the prospective applicant well are:
  1. Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical Psychology by T. J. Mayne, J. C. Norcross and M. A. Sayette (Guilford Publications, 1994/95). This publication contains invaluable information about preparation, graduate school selection, application, interviewing and decision-making. It has a variety of sample letters, documents and worksheets that will help you in tackling multiple applications. It is available in the Psychology Department Office.
  2. The Common Boundary Graduate Education Guide by C. H. Simpkinson, D. A. Wengell and M. A. Casavant (Common Boundary, 1995). This is a guide that focuses on holistic and humanistic programs of study that involve spiritual and existential approaches. It is available in the Reference Room of the University Library.
  3. The Directory of Graduate Programs in Clinical Child/Pediatric Psychology by American Psychological Association (APA) Division 12 (1995). A copy is available in the Psychology Department Office.
An alternative method for selection of a graduate school program for application may be made on the basis of the interests of one or more of the faculty members within that program. Thus, during the junior year (and earlier if possible), you should note the names of individual psychologists whose work interests you, and find out at what graduate school these psychologists are located. A good source of information about the current location and the education and training history of most individual psychologists is the American Psychological Association Membership Directory available in the University Library Reference Room. Other directories are published by the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the Psychonomic Society, and the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy. Another possible way of obtaining this type of information is by searching the web. Use one of the tools which can be found at the Psychology Department’s Web Site.
 
Early in the senior year, there are numerous important steps which you should take. The process involves considerable work and some monetary expense. Students should be prepared in advance for this. Some students have reported that the application process itself generates work equivalent to taking another three-credit course.
 
The Graduate Record Exam is required by most major university programs (the requirements for admission are generally stated in Graduate Studies in Psychology, mentioned above). The Counseling Center on our campus maintains a current information booklet on applying for and taking the Graduate Record Exam. This exam, which is administered by computer, can be taken at any time during each semester, however the best time to take it is during late August or early September of one’s senior year. Note that the application for this administration of the GRE must be submitted by early September. Further, some schools may require the Miller Analogies Test which is also administered through the Counseling and Human Development Center. In September or October at the latest, the Graduate Study in Psychology book should be examined again more thoroughly and a number of graduate schools should be selected for application inquiries.
 
If you are at all interested in a graduate program, a preliminary letter of inquiry should be mailed; thus, as many as 15-20 of these letters may be sent. This letter should contain a request for application and financial aid information and should specify the particular graduate program to which one is interested in applying. These letters should be sent off early in the fall semester, preferably not later than the end of September. When application information comes back from the schools you have written to, you will find that it contains more detailed and current information about each specific graduate program. Some of the schools which you had been initially interested in may be eliminated by reading this material.
 
As you collect information, you might want to write to (or email) one or two selected faculty members at programs that you are applying to, who most closely match your research interests. Do a little background study on them and read their publications. Express interest in working with them if admitted to the graduate program at their institution. Discuss your own ideas and interests with them. This will generally alert at least one faculty member to your application, and if he or she is interested in your ideas, your application might get added support during the admissions process. At the very least, it helps your application stand out, especially if that faculty member happens to be involved in the admissions process.
 
You will discover that the application form for each graduate school is slightly different, and that you will need to do considerable tailoring of your answers to the questions contained on each application. You will further find that some schools require a fee to be paid with the application which may, in conjunction with the amount of work involved in completing applications, constrain you to limit the number of schools to which you will formally apply. Some schools waive application fees for students on financial aid. Try not to let these factors discourage you from applying to schools in which you are sincerely interested. The average number of final completed appli¬cations per student is between six and ten, although there is wide variation among students.
 

 Letters of Recommendation

 
Virtually all graduate schools request one or more (typically three) letters of recommendation from faculty who know you well. These letters are extremely important and should not be treated lightly. If you have been properly preparing yourself for graduate study in psychology, there should be several faculty members who you feel confident would be able to write a positive letter of recommendation for you. Do not be hesitant in approaching faculty about writing these letters, and do not feel guilty about the work it entails for the faculty member. Most faculty believe that, even though writing letters of recommendation is difficult work, it is one of the more important aspects of their job. They take this responsibility seriously and are eager to tell others about their good students.
 
You should approach the faculty members you have selected to write recommendations for you as early as possible in order to determine their willingness to write for you. Most faculty who feel they cannot write a good letter will either say so directly or will suggest that you contact another faculty member who “knows you better”. Once you have obtained the agreement of a faculty member to write in your support, there is much you can do to make the job easier. In order to enable the faculty member to write the best possible letter, you should provide the kind of information outlined below. It will help personalize and individualize your recommendation and make the writing of your letter easier for the faculty member, especially at those times when the faculty member may be writing letters for a number of different students.
 
Feel free to speak well of yourself and stress your strong points in the material you provide to your recommenders--if you do not think you are good and deserving of the program or position you are applying for, how can anyone else think so?
 
The following specific items of information (or as many as is practical) should be supplied to each faculty member who will write letters of recommendations for you.
  1. A copy of your resumé or vita, autobiography, or a similar statement summarizing, in general terms, your background. If you want constructive criticism of this statement, ask the faculty to provide you with some.
  2. If any of the schools to which you are applying request a statement of purpose or goals from you, provide a copy to the faculty member. This statement is a very important part of your application package. Therefore, we strongly encourage you to obtain constructive criticism of this statement. Ask your faculty advisor to provide you with feedback on your personal statement.
  3. Stamped, addressed envelopes for each letter of recommendation to be sent (the faculty member will take care of the return address). Attach any forms which must be completed to the appropriate envelopes. Make sure to fill out and sign any relevant portions of these forms. Typically you must sign in agreement or disagreement with a waiver that makes the letter confidential.
    1. A copy of your transcripts.
    2. A list in outline form containing the following information:
    3. Current date, name, current address, phone number(s) and, if appropriate, your email address.
    4. A list of names and addresses to which any general letters (those without forms) are to be sent.
    5. A list of all letters to be sent along with the deadline for their receipt. This list should also indicate the type and level of each program to which you are applying (i.e., clinical, counseling, industrial, organizational, experimental, school, social, etc., as well as Master’s, Ph.D., or Psy.D., etc.). Try to give the faculty member at least a week to write the letter. Also, it is advisable to check to make sure the letters were received by the school.
    6. The date you first met the faculty member (which is typically the semester of your first course with the faculty member).
    7. The type of contact you have had with the particular faculty member (i.e., list of classes taken and grades received, advisee, teaching or research assistant, informal contact, etc.).
    8. Information regarding your academic achievement including your GPA, major(s) and minor(s), academic strengths and weaknesses, the relationship between your academic preparation and the program or job for which you are applying.
    9. Anything extra or unique about your academic background such as honors received, research experiences, departmental assistantships, work study positions, independent reading or research, specialized computer skills, etc.
    10. If you have obtained Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores or the results of other such standardized tests, report these.
    11. Highlight your non-academic background including jobs, hobbies, sports, community work, political or social involvements, semester abroad, travel, etc.
    12. If the letter of recommendation is for a job, include some kind of a job description.
    13. Provide any other information that will enable the faculty member to write you a strong letter.
 
Since the faculty member is expending considerable time in writing a letter of recommendation for you, it would be common courtesy to keep the faculty member informed of the result of your application process.
 

 Links to Other Resources

 
Resources Specific to Psychology
Resources Specific to Graduate School