Choosing a Graduate Program

How to Narrow Your Search

Kathryn R. Klement

Are you majoring in psychology? Confused about what to do after graduation? Thinking about graduate school? Have no fear—read on for some steps to deciding what kind of graduate program may be right for you.

First things first – what type of program are you looking for?

1) Area of concentration

In deciding on an area of concentration, the first step is to figure out if you want to take a clinical or an experimental path. Clinical concentrations involve practice; these are the psychologists who can be licensed to see clients. Experimental concentrations emphasize research and generally do not see clients.

Examples of clinical and non-clinical concentrations:





Clinical Health






2) Training model

The majority of graduate programs follow one of three training models. Depending on your interests, as well as your future plans, one model may fit better than another.

Research-Scientist: This model emphasizes research. This style is mostly found in experimental programs, but there are a few clinical programs that follow it; they’re usually called “Clinical Science” programs (e.g., Indiana University). This model focuses on psychology as a scientific field and trains students for careers in research and academia.

Scientist-Practitioner: This model balances research with practice. While programs under this model emphasize practica and clinical experience, they also train students for performing research. Clinical programs that use this model may focus on evidence-based practice.

Practitioner-Scholar: The most recent of the training models, this one focuses primarily on practice, while still promoting research and scholarship. The majority of programs that utilize this model grant a Psy.D., and require little direct research experience.

3) M.A. vs. Ph.D. vs. Psy.D.

The Master’s degree (either an M.A., Master of Arts, or an M.S., Master of Science) is the next stage after the Bachelor’s degree. It usually takes between two and three years to complete and is usually capped by a thesis. Counselors with Master’s degrees can be licensed as therapists, but they have restrictions on their abilities to practice, while PhDs do not.
Pros: Shorter term, higher acceptance rates
Cons: No (or little) funding, lower salary in research or clinical settings

The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is recognized as the most prestigious graduate degree and usually takes around six years to complete. In psychology, a Master’s is not usually required to earn a Ph.D.; most Ph.D. candidates earn their Master’s while working on their doctorates. Programs will be either clinical or not. Clinical and counseling programs are very difficult to get into and require internships prior to graduation.
Pros: Funding opportunities, prestige, greater employment opportunities in research or clinical settings
Cons: Lower acceptance rates, longer term

The Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) is relatively new, as graduate degrees go. While still a doctoral degree, Psy.D. programs emphasize practice over research. Psy.D. programs usually take about five years to complete, and though there is usually not a dissertation involved, several practica (courses where the student sees clients under supervision from advisors) and a smaller-scale research paper is typically required.
Pros: Slightly shorter term, higher acceptance rates
Cons: No (or little) funding, less prestige

A perfect fit – finding a faculty match.

Faculty match is the biggest secret in the application business. Applications are received by programs or graduate schools, but in psychology, the prospective faculty advisor is a major unnamed player in accepting applicants. During application season, programs provide information on which faculty members are accepting new students. Applicants should tailor their personal statements to the faculty members they are looking to work with. Faculty match is important, not only for the application process, but also for your sanity. Getting accepted into a good program is good news, but it’s going to be a long six years if you’re working on an area you find boring. While grad students are not pigeon-holed into the research area their advisors work within, it is important to realize that until the dissertation and beyond, students are essentially at their advisors’ beck and call.

Finding a good faculty match primarily involves reading. Read faculty bios, check out their CVs, look at their lists of publications. Read their publications (or at least the abstracts). If you can imagine working on those experiments, or are excited by them, you’re probably on the right path.

Now – follow the money.

1) Funding opportunities

Tuition remission: Very few Master’s or Psy.D. programs grant tuition remission or even a reduced rate (unless you work for the university). Many Ph.D. programs, however, usually grant some form of remission, and many of those grant full remission.

Competitive vs. cooperative funding: Some programs will explicitly say that funding is competitive. This means that students are given funding based on their output (e.g., publications, poster presentations).  Some programs only guarantee funding for three or four years. How long students are funded depends on a variety of factors, the two most important being how much money the university has, and how much grant money the faculty advisor is receiving. Even if the program will not guarantee funding, if the faculty advisor is working under a large grant, students can receive a stipend from that money.

Stipends: Many Ph.D. programs grant tuition remission and stipends. The stipends can range from $10-$20K per year and are often attached to assistantships – graduate, teaching or research. Students are expected to TA or actually teach classes, work in one of the labs, or work for the department to earn their stipends.

Grants: Grants are generally funding for a special project you’ve proposed, and may be paid through a university office of grant administration.

Fellowships: Fellowships generally provide funding for a specific period of time and may be based on need, academic acheivement or other criteria.

2) Location

There are all types of programs spread all over the country (and the world). If you’re married, or committed to your current location, it might be a better idea to only look at programs in the immediate area. You can geographically restrict your search however you want. Keep in mind that any type of restriction at the outset may result in missing a better-fit program. Also, note that if you’re looking at programs that require internships, you might have to move for your internship anyway (something else no one talks about).

3) Cost of living

Geographical location also determines the cost of living, and the program’s location may be an adjustment. Unfortunately, the amount of funding you could receive has little relationship with where the program is located. You might get $11K from a program in New York City or $20K from a program in Alabama. Cost of living is important to consider because it is inevitable that you’ll be taking loans, and lower cost of living means that your money will go farther.

4) Cost of applying

Applying for grad school is also expensive by itself. You have to pay to take standardized tests, pay for transcripts, pay for mailing applications, and pay fees for the applications themselves ($35-$80 per school). You may also face travel costs if a program you’re applying to has required onsite interviews.

This is an example of potential costs for applying to 10 schools:

General GRE- $140
Psych GRE- $140
GRE Preparation (books)- $50
GRE Score Reports ($20/ea)- $60 (4 are free)
Travel costs- Highly variable

Transcripts ($5/ea)- $50
Application Fee ( $50/ea)- $500
Office Supplies (paper, ink)- $30
Postage- $50

Total: $1020 (excluding travel)

To each his own – other things to consider.

1) Acceptance criteria

Many applicants will separate their prospective schools into categories: reach, reasonable, and backup. The schools in the reach list require qualifications that are a little beyond what you have, but you’re still going to give it to a try. Reasonable schools are just that, schools you have a good shot with.  Backup schools are those you can fall back onto if you don’t get offers from other programs.

2) Program feel

If you have the opportunity, visit as many programs that you’re applying to as you can. While everything previously stated is important to consider when choosing a program, if the atmosphere is not a good fit, you’re not going to have a good time. Think about any potential deal-breakers you may have (e.g., political climate; formal vs. informal atmosphere; cranky, arrogant advisors), and be honest with yourself. If you notice a red flag, pay attention to it. It’s better to attend another school, or even to wait another year, than to accept an offer to a program you can’t stand one month into the first semester.

Bottom line.

In the end, the only way to decide which program is a good fit is to decide for yourself, using whatever factors are most important to you.

There are many resources available with information on applying to graduate school.  Here are a few:

American Psychological Association.  (2007).  Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Asher, D.  (2008).  Graduate admissions essays: Write your way into the graduate school of your choice (3rd ed.).  Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Kracen, A. C. & Wallace, I. J.  (Eds.).  (2008).  Applying to graduate school in psychology: Advice from successful students and prominent psychologists.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Assocation.

Sternberg, R. J.  (Ed.).  (2007).  Career paths in psychology: Where your degree can take you (2nd ed.).  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Kathryn R. Klement is finishing her Master’s in Psychology at Concordia University Chicago, and will continue on to Northern Illinois University’s Social Psychology Doctoral program in the fall.  Her research interests include non-normative sexual behavior, religiosity, and excitation-transfer theory.  She can be reached at