Graduate School in Psychology

Misconceptions About Graduate School

in Psychology


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Article contributed by Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D.  

image courtesy of KROMKRATHOG /


Misconceptions and Clarifications About Graduate School in Psychology

Those who are immersed in psychology are often surprised by the misconceptions others have about their field. In the past 10 years or so, as a Ph.D. student, a post-doc, and as a grad school admissions consultant, I too have noticed that the public commonly holds some misunderstandings about what psychologists do and what graduate school training in psychology is like. In this article, I will point out some of the most widespread misconceptions and work to clarify them. For those interested in pursuing a career and graduate education in psychology, recognizing these misconceptions and heeding the clarifications is vital to preparing for grad school. Thus, with each clarification, I will also include a “take away message” for the benefit of those who are thinking about applying to graduate programs in psychology.

Misconception #1: All psychologists are therapists.

There is a common perception that all psychologists are therapists – professionals who listen to others’ “problems” and “give advice.” While some psychologists do meet with clients in a therapeutic setting, psychology is actually a large, and very diverse area of study and many psychologists will never meet with a client at any point during their careers.

Psychologists are often trained in areas that are not closely – or even at all – related to therapy and psychological disorders. Within the field of psychology there is a lot of variety and this results in psychologists following many different career paths. For example, psychologists have degrees in Cognitive, Developmental, Industrial/Organizational, Social, Sports Psychology, and Neuroscience. In these areas, psychologists have such varied specialties as animal cognition, human sensations, neuroimaging, race and discrimination, consumer behavior and marketing, statistical methods, workplace productivity, and many, many others. Professionals with non-clinical backgrounds have careers as professors, entrepreneurs, or researchers for government agencies, corporations, or non-profit organizations. They are not usually licensed to counsel individuals, families, or groups.

Take away message is to start by reading an extended discussion about the different areas of psychology and types of degree programs available in my two part blog post.

One of the best ways to get initial experience with the various branches of psychology is to take introductory level courses. For example, enrolling in “Social Psychology” will expose students to the broad array of topics that social psychologists study. If you enjoy the class, then take extra steps to learn more about the field. Talk to your professors, teaching assistants, and other professionals. Consider attending a conference in the area or interviewing a current grad student in the field.

When determining which area of psychology is the one for you, also think about what naturally interests and engages you. Is it children and babies? Then perhaps gaining experience in developmental psychology is a good path to explore. If you are excited by business, discover more about what it’s like to be an Industrial/Organizational psychologist or Consumer Behavior specialist. If you’ve always been drawn to the idea of working with a specific group, for example, teenage moms, consider a degree in Social Work. Get as much information as possible about what it’s actually like to be a professional in these areas on a day-to-day basis before you make a final decision about what you will pursue in graduate school.

Misconception #2: To be a professional in psychology, you need a doctorate

Many psychology career goals simply do not require doctoral degrees, but others do. The professions in psychology that do require doctoral degrees involve either (a) teaching at the college or university level, (b) conducting research at a university, organization, or corporation or (c) working in therapy and/or research with clinical populations.

If your goal is to become a professor or have a career focused in research, it is very likely that you will need a Ph.D. (and, in addition, you will also need to be very successful and productive during graduate school). Ph.D. programs in the “basic” or “non-applied” areas of psychology are known for being research-intensive. These include Cognitive/Experimental, Developmental, Industrial/Organizational, Neuroscience, Social, and others. Thus, you should be highly motivated to conduct research if you are planning to complete a Ph.D. in one of these areas. If your goal is to identify, counsel or conduct research about individuals who will be or have been diagnosed with a clinical disorder (e.g., anxiety disorder, histrionic personality, Schizophrenia, etc.), it is also likely that you will need a doctorate. Professionals with Doctorates of Psychology (PsyD’s), for example, are trained and work primarily in therapy with clinical populations. Typically, they do not focus much on research. The training of Clinical Psychologists with Ph.D.’s is equally divided into doing research and working with clients. They can later choose careers that focus either on working directly with clients in therapeutic settings, doing research on clinical disorders, teaching and supervising clinical psychology students, or a combination of these professional activities.

If, however, you want to work in an “applied” area of psychology in which you meet with non-clinical clients – that is to say, individuals who feel they need assistance with particular relationships or issues, but are high-functioning and lead relatively normal day-to-day lives – then often only a Masters degree is required. For example, becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a School Counselor, or one of many other types of practitioners does not require a doctorate. Rather, such careers require Masters degrees in Family and Marriage Therapy, Social Work, or Counseling Psychology and then licensure, which usually includes passing an exam(s) and completing supervised clinical hours. If this career path interests you, there are numerous options where you can obtain a masters degree in counseling online, as well as many other related fields. Keep in mind that while the distinction between those with doctoral degrees working with clinical clients and those without doctoral degrees working with non-clinical clients may be informative, it is only a rule of thumb. The line often blurs in reality.

Remember that it is vitally important to discover your career goals. Do you want to teach, do research, or practice psychology? If you want to become a therapist, do you prefer working with clinical or non-clinical populations? Determining what you want to do, as best you can before entering graduate school, will help you find programs that will prepare you to meet your goals.

To help you determine what type of psychologist you want to be, I highly recommend getting hands-on experience in a variety of areas. Become involved with research on campus, do an internship, or volunteer work that is related to psychology. For more ideas and information about the value of relevant experience, check out this article on how relevant experience can increase grad school prospects

When determining if a Masters or doctoral degree is the right one for you, it is also extremely important to realistically consider your lifestyle constraints. Do you want to/are you able to commit 4-6 years of time, a considerable amount of money, and effort to complete a doctorate? Masters programs are also demanding in terms of time, finances, and work, but they are often designed for people who also hold jobs and they take just 2 years to complete. Learn more about Masters versus Ph.D. programs here.

Misconception #3: Good grades alone will get you into grad school in psychology.

When applying to graduate school in psychology, candidates must include a number of documents in application packets. The following are usually required: (1) Undergraduate transcripts, (2) GRE scores, (3) At least three letters of recommendation, (4) A personal statement or application essay, and (5) A resume or curriculum vitae.

GPA is consistently the most critical factor in admissions decisions, but it is far from the only factor that admissions committees look at. Undergraduate GPA is the first criterion considered in admissions because performance in college is the best predictor of performance in grad school. Stellar undergraduate students are likely to become stellar graduate students. Following GPA, GRE scores are a close second. GRE scores and other standardized tests are meant to provide admissions committees with an objective measurement of cognitive – or thinking – ability and are, therefore, considered an important part of a psychology graduate student application packet.

After GPA and GRE scores, letters of recommendation and the applicant’s personal statement also mean a lot. Strong letters of recommendation are written by professors, or supervisors, who know the applicant well and can comment positively on his/her performance in contexts that are similar to those in which he/she will work during grad school.

Personal statements that stand out demonstrate that the applicant has a genuine interest in the field to which he/she is applying. They also clearly show that the applicant has been thoughtfully preparing for graduate school for a while (i.e., it is not a last minute decision).

Finally, performance during an interview will often be the final deciding factor on whether or not an applicant is offered admission. For more information on preparing for grad school interviews in psychology read this blog post as well as this article from

The best advice it to start preparing to apply to graduate programs early. By starting early, I don’t necessarily mean start early on the application paperwork itself. Instead, start early to establish important qualifications that will be reflected in your applications. For example, improve and maintain a high GPA as early as possible. Study and prepare for the GRE well before you will take the exam. Start gaining valuable internship and volunteer experience in areas that are related to psychology and try to get involved with some research. It will be impossible to do all of these things in a short amount of time. Start early and you will not only have a stronger application, but you will also make a better decision about what you want to pursue in graduate school.

There are some misunderstandings about graduate school in psychology. In this article, three of the most common have been identified and clarified. Grad school candidates who understand these misconceptions will have an advantage in the admissions process and are likely to make better decisions about which degree program best suits their goals.  

Graduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting InFind lots more expert advice on getting into grad school in the newly released book: Graduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting In, 2nd edition, by Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D. It is the most comprehensive advisement handbook for College and University students who are considering graduate school. Whether you are still deciding if grad school is right for you, or are looking for ways to maximize your application, this book is for you. Paperback version available at Amazon & Barnes & Noble. eBook available on Kindle and for Apple iPad/iBooks, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, and most e-reading apps. Get your copy now.



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