Tara L Mitchell
Lock Haven University
This page is designed to provide tips on how to succeed as an undergraduate psychology student and how to make it into graduate school and beyond. I will continually update it with new information and links. It is not, however, intended as a substitute for your faculty advisor. Your faculty advisor is one of the best resources you can have for successfully navigating the psychology major.
It is divided into the following sections:
1. Keep in contact with your advisor! Most universities will assign incoming students with an advisor from their major. Students who transfer or change majors may need to select an advisor. Your advisor should have the most up to date information on school and department requirements for graduation.
2. Check out your department's website. Psychology departments are becoming more technologically savvy and provide tons of resources to their majors online. The LHU Psychology Department provides a variety of information about its faculty, students, and psychology resources on its website.
3. Do not be afraid to take advantage of your professors' office hours - that is why they are there. If you are having problems in a course, go talk to the professor, sooner rather than later!
5. Find out about different majors and the jobs that they may lead to. Melissa Himelein has compiled a description of 15 different occupations that may interest psychology majors. She includes occupation outlooks, typical job duties, starting salaries, and necessary training. David Appleby has provided a list of over 100 occupations that psychology majors have filled, including links to their descriptions in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Make sure that psychology is the right major for you. There are several books and tests available for you which will describe majors and occupational outlooks. Most University Career Services office will have resources available for further exploring majors. For a more fun approach, check out the JobHuntersBible.com's page on Tests and Advice.
6. The rest of this page is dedicated to graduate training in psychology, simply because most jobs in psychology require an advanced degree. The University of Dayton Psychology Department site has some information on careers with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Psi Chi's journal has also published two good articles on Bachelor's degrees in Psychology - one on what can be done with a bachelor's degree and the other on career planning with a Bachelor's degree. Finally, Dr. Llyod has advice on entry-level jobs in psychology.
1. Do research! (No, not the scary research with statistics, although we will be talking about that later.) There are several recognized subfields in psychology, including clinical psychology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology, just to name a few. Although there are Master's degree programs in general psychology, most graduate programs train you in a particular subfield. Be sure to research the various subfields in psychology to find out which one best fits your interests and career goals. Frank Conner gives some information on the different subfields here. You also need to think about what type of degree you are interested in obtaining. There are four types of graduate level degrees in psychology, depending on the course requirements and the department the program is located in - Master's degree, Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education), Ph.D. (Doctorate of Philosophy), and Psy.D. (Doctorate of Psychology). More information on the various types of degrees can be found at Dr. Llyod's page on graduate school options. More information about the differences between the PhD and the PsyD can be found in this Psi Chi Journal article.
2. Do MORE research. Graduate programs in psychology are competitive. You can find information on the rates of application and acceptance in psychology graduate programs in Table 17 from the Graduate Study in Psychology Report. You can also find the test score and GPA requirements for graduate programs in Table 23. More information on graduate school and employment in psychology can be found here. On the right hand side, there is an box that will allow you to research information regarding degrees at the bachelors, masters, and doctoral level if you click on the "By Academic Level" tab. A recent book provides information on graduate application statistics from 1974 - 2004. You can find the citation for this book and various tables here. Your odds of making it into a graduate program increase if you can show that you somehow "fit" the direction the program is trying to go in. You can only show that by researching the direction of the program - what types of research are the faculty conducting, what is the mission of the department, etc.
3. Do EMPIRICAL research (yes, now it is time to talk about statistics). One of the best ways to prepare yourself for graduate school, and make yourself a more competitive applicant, is to get involved in research. Serve as a research assistant to a faculty member or design your own project as part of an Independent Study. The Bachelor of Science degree in psychology at LHU requires 2 - 4 hours of Independent Study credit. I can not begin to explain how valuable this will be in helping your graduate school application or helping you survive as a graduate student. Conducting research will give you hands-on experience with ethics, research design, statistical analyses, and APA-style writing, which will be invaluable in graduate school. If possible, present your research as a paper or poster at a conference. There are several local, regional, and national conferences open to undergraduate research. Psi Chi (the national honor society for psychology), for example, holds several national and regional conferences for student research.
4. If you are interested in clinical or counseling psychology, consider taking part in an Internship. Many universities have an Internship or Field Experience course for credit, including LHU. Students on the Clinical/Counseling track for a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology at LHU are strongly encouraged to take the Internship course.
5. Become involved in community organizations, psychology organizations, and/or volunteer work. Graduate programs often consider outside experiences in their applicants. Most psychology organizations have student memberships. The APA website provides information on student organizations. Some of these organizations may also have mentoring programs for student members. The American Psychology-Law Society, for example, has a mentoring committee, which helps pair up students with more established members of the field.
6. Prepare for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Most graduate programs in psychology require GRE scores as part of the application; some also require the GRE Subject Test in Psychology. Handouts on the GRE Information, Guides to the GRE, and the process of Scoring the GRE are available. The GRE website also offers free practice tests and tips, as well as providing information about the test and test registration. A practice test and booklet for the psychology subject test can be found by choosing "GRE Subject Test" and clicking on the psychology link.
1. Get to know your professors! Most graduate programs request at least 3 letters of recommendation from people who can speak about your intellectual, research, or clinical experience. That means that your professors will most likely be doing the letter writing. The best letters of recommendation come from people who know you well. Try to get to know at least one of your professors per semester. Stop in and talk about your goals and interests (and theirs!) during office hours, participate in class discussions, and find out about working on a research project together; all of these are ways to ensure that your professors know who you are and will be able to write a good letter of recommendation.
2. Do MORE Research (see number 2 above). You need to spend time looking into possible programs. It is particularly important that you apply to programs where you will be a "match." One way to think of this is that you are not necessarily applying to a particular school, you are applying to a particular program in psychology. Depending on your interests, you may not even be applying to a program, you may be applying to one particular person in that program who does the work you are interested in. You need to tailor your application materials to each program that you are interested in, being sure to mention the work of specific people in that program you are interested in working with. A presentation of the things most graduate schools tend to look for in applicants can be found here.
If you are interested in clinical psychology, you also need to research the accreditation status of the universities you are considering. The American Psychology Association has an accreditation process for programs that will result in licensure. For a list of links on the this process, visit APA Accreditation Information Online.
There are a growing number of websites that "profile" different universities and programs. If you are not sure where to begin looking for programs you are interested in, you can try some of them. BrainTrack advertises as the oldest and most comprehensive of these websites. GradSchools.com advertises as the most comprehensive online tool for graduate programs specifically. Both are free to use. However, another way to search for programs is to find out where the people doing research that you find interesting are working. One of the things you will be doing in graduate school is research; you need to find schools that have people doing research you find interesting (see point number 1).
3. Spend a lot of time on your personal statement. The personal statement, along with letters of recommendation, are the most unique aspects of your application. The personal statement especially is your moment to "shine," so to speak. You need to write a coherent, grammatically correct, brief description of yourself and why the program should take a chance on you. The program that accepts you is going to invest a lot of time and energy training you as a psychologist - the personal statement is how you show that you are worth that effort. Be prepared to write a personal statement for every program that you applying to. Most programs request that you provide an explanation for why you want to apply to their specific program in the personal statement. They mean that seriously; one letter sent out to every school will not work. This is where step 2 comes in handy - use the information that you discovered in your program search to tailor your personal statement for each program. Writing the personal statement is probably the most important aspect of putting together your application. Links to several web resources on writing effective personal statements are below:
Writing a Compelling Personal Statement (by Bette Bottoms and Kari Nysse)
Preparing a Personal Statement (by Marky Lloyd)
Writing the Personal Statement (from Purdue's "OWL")
The Personal Side of Personal Statements (by Randall Osbourne)
4. Once you have spent time working on your personal statement, have someone else read it. Take it to your faculty advisor, another trusted faculty member, a family member or friend, and/or a university Writing Center. Many times, we have trouble recognizing problems in our own work and miss small mistakes. Let someone else read it to make sure you have not missed anything.
5. Once you have done your research and gotten your application materials, it is time to decide about those people who will write your letter of recommendation. If you are interested in applying to clinical or counseling programs and have done an internship or related volunteer work, your internship/volunteer supervisor may be a good person to choose (assuming you did well at the internship or volunteer site). Most people, however, will need to get all of their letters from professors (see number 1). Think carefully about who you ask. You want to ask people who will write good letters for you; the better the person knows you, the better the letter of recommendation you will get (assuming you have made a good impression in your interactions). It is also helpful to ask people somehow related to your future studies - if you are going into a PhD program, the supervisor of your Independent Study project or your Applying Research Methods in Psychology (Experimental) class may be a good person to ask. If you are interested in clinical work, your Internship supervisor or your Counseling Skills professor may be a good person to ask.
It is important to remember that your professors meet hundreds of students each year. If you are asking a professor that you have not interacted with recently to write you a letter of recommendation, you may need to remind them of who you are and how you did in the course. Even if you interact with the professor on a regular basis, it is a good idea to prepare some information that will help the professor write a better letter of recommendation. Be prepared to give the professor a copy of your personal statement (even if it is a draft), a copy of your unofficial transcripts, and a copy of a resume. With all of that information, your professor will be able to write a much more detailed letter of recommendation.
When you approach the people you would like to write letters of recommendation for you, be sure you have all of your materials together. Some graduate programs like for recommenders to complete a special form as well as a letter. If that is the case, be sure you have that form with you when you meet with your potential recommender. Also, be sure that you have your application deadlines so the person knows when the letter must be submitted. Be sure to indicate whether the letter must be submitted with the rest of the application materials or if the recommender should mail the letter in separately (the program should state whether or not there is a preference in the application packet).
Be sure to give your letter writers plenty of time to write the letters - they have lives too! Many people recommend giving letter writers at least 3 weeks to complete the letters. Also, give yourself at least 2 weeks before the graduation deadline to get everything submitted. That means you should be talking to letter writers approximately 5 weeks before the application deadline. I would recommend filling out the Request Form for each of your letter writers and providing it, along with any special forms and a copy of your resume, personal statement, and unofficial transcripts, to the letter writer.The form will download in Microsoft Word, so you can type your answers.
6. If you have noticed, I have thrown the word resume around several times. Although schools may not specifically request a resume, it is still a good idea to put one together for your letter writers. Some schools may even ask for a resume or a curriculum vitae (CV). It is important to know the difference between the two.
A resume is a ONE-PAGE description of your qualifications that "sells" you as a good candidate for a job or admission to graduation school. Microsoft Word has several templates that can be used to create a resume. The Career Services departments at both Virginia Tech and LHU have good tips on creating a resume. If you are using the resume to get an internship or psychology related job, you may also need to provide a cover letter. A cover letter is used to introduce your resume and provide any important information not included in your resume (since it is so short). The Career Services department at Virginia Tech has several samples and tips for cover letters.
A curriculum vitae (CV) is much more extensive than a resume. It literally means course of one's life and can be several pages long. Starting out, yours will probably be about 2 pages, depending on the amount of experience you have developed. The CV is the preferred form for academic positions, while resumes are usually preferred in business. The Career Services department at Virginia Tech has good tips on creating a CV. For a sample CV, click here.
7. If you have not realized it yet, preparing a good application takes time. This is not something that is done overnight, or even over a week. A timeline for the graduate application process, based on the APA's (1997) Getting In: Graduate Study in Psychology, can be found here. Information on the entire process can be found here.
8. Breathe! Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to breathe. Do not get overwhelmed in the process. Write lists, take breaks, scream, do whatever helps you maintain your balance during this process. A printable handout that describes the application process and some of the degrees in psychology (borrowed from Rider University's Psychology Graduate Schools and Careers handout) can be found here. Print it out, so you can look things over, put it away, and then go back to it when you are feeling less overwhelmed.
There are several other resources available to you to prepare for a career in psychology, including graduate school., including books. The majority of these books are on reserve in the library under the names "Boland" and "Offutt" or in my office (Robinson 314).
For additional web resources, visit the Psychology Advising Internet Sources page.