Exploring and Contacting Graduate Programs

As you begin to explore the many graduate programs that exist, the sheer number of options can seem daunting. Although there are many programs to choose from, keep in mind that your graduate education is above all else an investment in your future and the program that you ultimately choose will be your first opportunity to build your curriculum vita and gain necessary work experience. This guide is designed to help you narrow your options and hopefully find a “perfect” program that fits your long-term career goals.

Your decision on where to apply should be guided some of the following questions:

  1. What level of education do your career goals require?
  2. How much are debt are you willing to acquire to obtain an advanced degree?
  3. What are your geographical preferences or limitations?
  4. How reputable is the program?
  5. Are you likely to be accepted?

Choosing appropriate programs 

You may know (or be) someone who started working toward an undergraduate psychology degree, with the erroneous belief that a world of counseling positions would be waiting at the end of the 4-year investment to a bachelor’s degree.  The truth is, in order to work above “entry level” in the field of research or clinical psychology, an advanced degree is most likely the first step. If you haven’t figured out by now what type of degree you would like to seek, you can begin exploring the career options from the “Careers in Psychology”(link) section. The “Applied Psychology” (link) page also includes degree requirements for common careers.

Weighing the investment

A graduate education can be a very costly investment. It is important that you fully consider not only the costs of attendance, but your projected earnings after graduation before you begin the application process. This will require that you carefully consider how marketable the degree you earn will be in the field that you wish to work in, and how many years of tuition it will cost to acquire the degree you seek.

For some programs, financial aid funding will be limited.  Therefore it is especially beneficial to know what type of funding is available for the specific program and degree that you want. “Funding Your Graduate Education” (link) page for more information on the options that are available in general. Funding opportunities vary from program-to-program and can ultimately be a deciding factor in the university that you decide to attend. With this in mind, the admissions process is rigorous and highly selective, and the most qualified students will be first in line to receive the highest amount of funding.

Considering geography

For students who are not geographically tied to one location, this question may be simpler to answer.  Others may need to apply to graduate programs that do not require relocation to another state, or other part of the country.  It is important to note, that the more geographically limited you are, the more challenging it may be for you to gain acceptance to a program that meets all of your expectations. Although there are many highly esteemed programs located in the Philadelphia tri-state area, the likelihood that you will be accepted into a “local” program is less than it is for those who are able to apply to a broad range of programs around the country.  If you are geographically limited, one option to consider is the dual-degree program at Rutgers-Camden.     

Dual-degree programs

Many universities have a dual-degree program, or an accelerated degree option to reduce the time and cost that it takes to get your master’s degree.  These programs allow students to take graduate level courses while studying to get a bachelor’s degree.  It is a selective program, and all students have to be sponsored by a professor.  Usually, the professor is someone with whom you have worked closely with, as a research assistant in their lab.  Rutgers-Camden’s dual-degree program in Psychology allows students to apply graduate credits to both undergraduate and graduate degrees (up to 3 classes).  In order to do this, a separate application to the Master’s degree has to be approved.  

There are some really great advantages to the dual-degree program, or an accelerated degree option.  It reduces the time and cost that it takes to get your master’s degree, for one.  Another advantage is that you are already familiar with the professors, so you have a good idea what courses you would like to take and with whom.  You can continue to do research that you have started as an undergraduate, and you will not have to relocate to attend another university.

The downside to consider is that if you are interested in a specialized master’s degree program (e.g. school psychology, drug and alcohol counseling, etc.), you may need to receive additional certification or work experience in that field before you can find suitable work.

Although you will save money by essentially eliminating an entire semester of your coursework, all master’s degree programs are expensive.  There is typically little to no funding available, and most students have to take on student loans to further their education within this type of program. 

Master’s degree programs

Master’s degree programs are great for students who need to boost their GPA, and gain more research or clinical experience before applying to a doctoral program.  They are also great for students who wish to further their education to get an advantage in the workforce, but do not necessarily wish to spend 5-8 additional years to get a doctorate degree.  Master’s degree programs are typically 2-year programs.  There are two main types of master’s degree programs in psychology to consider: specialized master’s degree programs or general master’s degree programs.

1.   Specialized master’s degree programs will give you experience in a specific discipline in psychology.

These types of programs are beneficial to look into if you know exactly what it is that you wish to study.  For example, if you know that your long-term goal is to get into a clinical psychology PhD program, then attending a clinical master’s degree program might provide a wealth of expertise specific to clinical psychology.  Specialized degree programs generally have course requirements that are directly related to your specific discipline of study.   That is not to say that it gives you an advantage over students who study with clinical psychologists in more general programs, but it eliminates the general requirements to take psychology courses that you are not interested in (e.g. cognitive psychology for health psychology majors; personality psychology for neuropsychology majors).

2.  General psychology master’s degree programs will introduce students to a variety of disciplines in psychology. 

These types of programs are great if you aren’t sure what your interests are, or you want to get a more well-rounded education about psychology as a whole.  This can be very beneficial and will allow for you to become experienced in a lot of different theories and concepts in psychology.  All of the different disciplines seem to intercept at some point, so this type of program allows students to make those connections.  The experience that you obtain in the research lab that you work in is what really matters in any master’s degree program, so if you are working with a professor who is an expert in a specific discipline, you are able to get similar experience as someone who is in a specialized degree program.  The coursework that is required is the difference.  Note:  If you choose a general psychology master’s program, you need to make sure that the program offers courses, and has professors who perform the kind of work that you are interested in doing in your own career.  For instance, Rutgers-Camden does not have a school psychology program, so if you attend the general psychology program here, you may not get the experience that you need to work in that field.  Once you graduate, you would have to seek additional certification to work in that area.  In addition, applying to psychology programs outside the areas for which you have experience working in can be very challenging.

Accruing debt in a Master’s degree program

Master’s degree programs are generally unfunded.  This means that you are paying for your education out-of-pocket and/or accruing substantial student loans.  It is difficult to work full-time and keep up with your studies, so it is important to make sure that you can afford the tuition, and living expenses at the university that you are exploring.  Be prepared to be poor, especially if you are not living at home with your parents! 

The most important thing to consider is that this is something you really are committed to.  Graduate school is much more advanced and challenging than bachelor’s degree programs.  If you do not keep up your grades, or drop out of the program, you are still required to pay back the loans that you accrued.  In addition, you will not be able to use your degree to obtain the salary to be able to cover the loan repayments!  Be conscious of the fact that a failing grade in graduate school is a “C,” and students are expected to have a 4.0 every semester.

Doctoral programs

On average, PhD and PsyD programs take about 5-7 years to complete.  Please see our chart on degree comparisons located here [insert link] for more information about the differences between PhD and PsyD programs.

Doctoral programs are often funded, unless you pursue a PsyD, and can allow more time for your studies and your research.   As stated many times on this site, psychology doctoral degree programs are very competitive, and difficult to get into.  When exploring your options for these programs, it is important to take into account the programs themselves, the professors that you are interested in working with, funding opportunities, and the location of the university itself.

To facilitate the application process, it is helpful to create documents to keep track of all of the information that you find while researching.  You will need 2 files to do this.

1.  Doctoral programs of interest – Your first file should contain all pertinent information about the university that you are interested in applying to.  Make a table with the name of the university, the address that the applications are mailed to, a link to the website and what degrees and areas of specialty they offer.  In addition, find out the date that applications are due, so that you can keep it all in one place.  It is also extremely important to include whether or not they have funding available for doctoral students (i.e. tuition waivers, teaching and/or research assistantships), and how many years it takes the average doctoral student to graduate.

2.  Professors of interest – The second file that you should have should list all of the professors that you would like to work with, the name of the university that they are affiliated with, and what type of discipline/program they belong.  Include contact information, such as email and university mailing address.  You will want to email the professors with whom you have common interests with prior to completing an application to that specific program, to ensure that they are accepting graduate students and to express your interest in working specifically with that person.

Contacting universities and professors

If you would like to know more about the university itself, you can contact the psychology department at that university and request materials.  You can also look on their websites, which will contain most of the information that you need to know about the program.  You can find out what the course requirements are, the grading policy, tuition rates, and other relevant information to help guide you in your decision. 

If you are interested in the work of a specific professor, you can find a lot of information on the faculty webpages.  Your prospective advisor will most likely have a biography or profile, which should include their curriculum vitae.  You will want to look at the professor’s most recent work, not at work they have done in the past. 

Once you have narrowed down your options, and you have identified who you are interested in working with, you may want to consider sending a professional email to that professor stating your interest in working with her/him specifically and why.  Include relevant information about your own experience, and why you think you would be a “good fit” for that person.  Most importantly, ask if s/he is accepting any graduate students for the following fall.  (If the professor does not have any positions available, there is no sense in wasting the money to submit the application.  If the program itself is of high interest to you, it might be wise to contact another professor from that program before applying.)

Often times, on the graduate school webpage for a university, you can locate biographies of current graduate students.  If  you would like more information about a psychology program, a research lab or a professor, you can always send an email to a graduate student affiliated with the professor that you are interested in.  Graduate students often can provide you with the most realistic perspective.  However, every person’s graduate school experience is different, so I would not place too much merit on the student’s personal opinion.  Ask questions like, “What are general duties expected from students?” or “what is Professor So-and-so like to work with?” 

When contacting professors, or graduate students, it is important to realize that they are very busy people.  It is possible that your email will go unanswered.  Do not let this discourage you, as they may be bombarded with emails from other prospective graduate students like yourself.  Some professors have a policy that they do not answer emails from prospective graduate students, but most will respond.  If you do not hear back from a professor after a few weeks, it would be appropriate to send one more email to show your interest.  The goal is to boost your chances by letting the professor know a little about yourself and that you are very interested in attending their program.  If the professor is not responsive, sending multiple emails could very well have the opposite effect.  Just remember, be professional and be courteous! 

Best of luck!