• Your 7-step guide to becoming a Psychology Grad Student

Many people have a very narrow view of what fields of psychology exist and are unaware of all of the career possibilities that fall under the umbrella of psychology. Some believe that the only psychology-related jobs that exist are those in the mental health field. In actuality, career options in the field of psychology are virtually limitless. To some, that is enticing; to others, it is overwhelming. Once you make sure that pursuing an advanced degree in psychology is the right path you, there are a few considerations you will need to make to help narrow things down.

First, you must consider what field of psychology is most interesting to you. Second, a choice needs to be made between focusing more on research and teaching or on clinical practice and applied work. Finally, you will need to make decisions about which degree and/or license is required to pursue your intended career. Talking to your professors about this and talking with people working in the professions you are interested should help you to come to some conclusions. Also, working in different settings, including internships, may help you decide what careers or specialties you will or will not enjoy working in.

Deciding to Pursue an Advanced Degree

Psychology has become a popular major for undergraduate students. A common myth many students believe is that “you can’t do anything with just a bachelor’s in psychology”. In reality, however, there is actually a lot you can do with just a bachelor’s degree in psychology. An undergraduate degree in psychology will allow you to develop many important skills that will be an asset in whatever career you pursue. It is such a broad degree that it can be applied to almost any career.

On the other hand, obtaining an advanced degree in psychology will open up many doors for you and will certainly lead to professional and financial advancement. Is graduate school in psychology the right path for you? If you are passionate about psychology, have strong academic skills, and are at a point in your life where you can commit time and effort toward your academic and professional goals, then graduate school is the right choice for you.

You should not decide to obtain a graduate degree in psychology just because you feel that psychology is interesting, or because you aren’t sure what to do with your bachelor’s degree in psychology. Graduate school in psychology will require a lot of time, effort, and money. In other words, it requires a lot of commitment, motivation, and persistence. You should consider that it will be more difficult and demanding than earning your bachelor’s degree was. Before finalizing your decision to pursue an advanced degree in psychology, you should have figured out what career you wish to achieve, and it should be clear that the graduate degree you intend to earn is necessary to reach that career choice.

Choosing an Area of Psychology to Study

Whether you decide to become a researcher or teacher, or to do applied work, here are just some of the many areas of psychology you may choose to specialize in:

  • Clinical: assessing and treating individuals with psychological disorders.
  • Cognitive: focuses on human perception, thinking, memory, and learning.
  • Counseling: helping individuals solve problems.
  • Developmental: studying human development over the life span.
  • Educational: focuses on how individuals learn in educational settings.
  • Engineering: focuses on the relationship between humans and products we use.
  • Evolutionary: studying the relationship between humans and our surroundings.
  • Experimental: conducting research on humans and/or animals.
  • Forensic: applying psychological principles to legal cases.
  • Health: studying the interaction of biology, psychology, and the immune system.
  • Industrial/Organizational: applying psychology principles to the workplace.
  • Neuropsychology: studying the relationships between the brain and behavior.
  • Personality: studying the unique characteristics and traits that make people differ.
  • Quantitative: studying methods for designing experiments and analyzing data.
  • Rehabilitation: focuses on individuals with disabilities and chronic health conditions.
  • School: combines educational and clinical psychology to help students.
  • Social: studying interactions among people and their social environments.
  • Sports: focuses on sports, exercise, and physical activity.

Making a decision about what area to specialize in may seem at first to be a difficult task. Here are some things you can do to help with this process.

Talk to Someone

A very helpful strategy is to talk to people who work in the different professions you are interested in. It could be a boss or supervisor at a job or internship you’ve worked in. You may need to ask your boss or teachers if they know anyone in the professions you are interested in learning about, and they can provide you with contact information. Don’t be afraid to contact someone you don’t know to inquire about their job or education.

Take Many Courses

As a student, you have the opportunity to take many elective courses in psychology and related fields. Your experiences in these different classes will help you decide what areas you like or dislike. Make a list of all of your favorite classes. Look at the list generally and try to decide if there is any type of common theme to it.

Work in Different Settings

Working in different settings may help you decide what careers or specialties you will or will not enjoy working in. Your school may have a class you can take in order to gain an internship. You can also seek an internship or volunteer work without being a student, or as an extracurricular activity. Taking the time to experience working in different settings will surely help you make decisions about what areas are right for you.

Campus Resources

Your school probably has an advisement center that can help you consider your options. They can help you think about the possibilities available to you. Also, check with your school to see if they have a career center that helps you with planning and placement. They may have resources to help you make decisions, including individual assistance with job search, career and internship fairs, and a library of helpful resources.

Deciding Between Research and Applied Work

Just like narrowing down a specialty in psychology can be difficult, some people may have a hard time deciding if research or applied work is a better fit for them. It is likely that you will need to make a clear decision about which path you wish to take (research or applied work). However, some programs provide a combination of both. These programs are good preparation for going into either or both fields (i.e., if you are planning to do clinical work and also teach at a university). You can work in academia with either training, but it is possible that certain universities may prefer certain training or experience over others.

Applied Work

Applied psychology work takes the information researchers have discovered and applies it in real life settings. Applied psychology involves using psychological principles and working with others to solve real life problems in various settings, including:

  • mental health
  • community and social services
  • residential care
  • education
  • health
  • business
  • law
  • human resources
  • management

To find out if you would like to work in the field of applied psychology, obtain a job, internship, or volunteer position in a setting where you are able to apply psychological principles to your work.


Research psychology involves researching different topics, designing research studies, collecting data, conducting scientific experiments, data analysis, and writing articles. Every area of psychology has a need for research to be conducted.Careers in research can also lead to excellent preparation for teaching in psychology. Researchers can work in various settings, including:

  • universities or colleges
  • state or federal governments
  • hospital or business settings
  • independent research organizations

To decide if research might be right for you, it is a good idea to participate in research activities, and often, this might be required experience in order to apply for a research graduate program. If you are a student, inquire within the psychology department or related departments about getting credit for helping faculty members with their research. If you are not a student, you can still contact faculty members or other researchers about volunteering in order to get research experience.

Deciding Between a Master’s and Doctorate

When deciding between earning a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in psychology, there are quite a few issues you will need to consider. An important contributing factor to this decision is how well you are prepared, or in other words, how much experience you have earned and how high your grades are. Doctoral programs will have much higher expectations and will be more difficult to get accepted into than master’s programs will be. Another major factor is the amount of time you can commit to obtaining your degree. On top of the time spent as a graduate student, if you intend to earn a license to do applied work (i.e., therapist, psychologist, etc.) you need to factor in the additional time it will take to finish any licensing requirements and to study for licensing board examinations. Keep in mind that the years you spend earning your degree are years spent out of the workforce. You also need to consider the difference between the costs of the different levels of degree programs (i.e., paying for 2 years versus paying for 5 years of school). Of course, an even more important consideration is determining which degree is necessary for you to achieve your career goals.

Master’s Degrees in Psychology

Master’s degrees typically take about 2 years (or sometimes 3 years) to complete. The programs could be titled Master of Arts or Master of Science, depending on how the program chooses to label them. Course requirements vary across the different programs. Additionally, some master’s programs require a thesis project, and some do not. Thesis projects are great preparation for a career in academia or applying to a doctorate level program.

With a master’s in psychology, you could become a therapist, a community college teacher (with tenure), a university teacher (non-tenure track), or a researcher. You could also work in human resources, social work settings, rehabilitation settings, government positions, and many more. In order to practice psychology as a masters-level therapist, you will need to earn a license through your state licensing board. Each state has its own specific licensing requirements, including taking various educational courses, taking licensing exams, and accruing supervised clinical hours. Programs will vary in how well they prepare their graduate students for state licensure; there may be additional requirements that are not met even after earning the proper degree.

Doctorate Degrees in Psychology

Doctorate degrees typically take about 5 years (or sometimes 6-7 years) to complete. It is possible to go straight from a bachelor’s degree to a doctorate degree, without completing a master’s degree first. This is dependent on the program itself as well as the applicant’s experience, GPA, and other factors.

A doctorate degree in psychology could be a PhD, which is a Doctorate in Philosophy, or a PsyD, which is a Doctorate in Psychology. The PhD is the more traditional degree, which emphasizes the importance of empirical research along with clinical skills (if it is a clinical program). On the other hand, the PsyD is a newer degree, developed in the 1960s, and focuses more heavily on clinical work and the strategies needed to be an effective clinician. Course requirements vary across the different programs, but all PhD programs, and most PsyD programs, require a dissertation.

With a doctorate degree in psychology, you could become a researcher, university professor (tenured), or licensed psychologist. In order to practice psychology as a psychologist, you will need to earn a license through your state licensing board. Each state has its own specific licensing requirements, including taking various educational courses, taking licensing exams, and accruing supervised clinical hours. Programs will vary in how well they prepare their graduate students for state licensure; there may be additional requirements that are not met even after earning the proper degree.