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What to Look for in a (Graduate) Program

While the following discussion refers primarily to a graduate program in Psychology, you can use the same dimensions to evaluate any professional or graduate program that you might choose.

Area of Specialization
In graduate school, application is made to study in a particular area of specialization within psychology, such as clinical, counseling, social, cognitive and biological, industrial/organizational or others. Each graduate school offers programs in some specialties but not in others. In selecting a graduate school, it is important to select schools that offer the specific area you desire. The book Career Paths in Psychology: Where your degree can take you and pamphlet Psychology Careers for the Twenty-First Century: Scientific Problem-Solvers can help you explore prospective areas of specialization.

Degree Program
Another major consideration is whether the school offers the level and type of degree desired. Specialist certificates, Psy.D. degrees, and other less common degree options are only available at a few schools. Some schools admit students directly into a Ph.D. program; others admit students into the Master's program only and require another application for those who wish to go on for the Ph.D. degree.

Within Psychology, various graduate schools have different general theoretical orientations: some are humanistically oriented, others are behavioral, psychodynamic, research or applied in orientation. Many offer internship settings in hospitals, student counseling centers, community mental health centers, or schools. Each school has a slightly different emphasis which is reflected in course offerings, training settings, and faculty research interests. In selecting a school, the orientation as well as the program area should be considered.

Note: Consideration of the department's orientation should be approached cautiously. Within any graduate department, there are often a variety of ideas and orientations among the faculty members and orientations may vary from program to program within the same department.

The American Psychological Association accredits applied doctoral programs (clinical, counseling, and school psychology) through the meeting of minimum standards of appropriate course work, qualified faculty, and adequate field experience training settings. Accreditation is an assurance of a quality training program. A non-accredited program is not necessarily poor or inadequate; many such schools provide good training for applied work. Accreditation does not apply to specializations other than clinical, counseling, and school psychology, or to degree options other than the doctorate. Aside from the APA, additional accrediting bodies may exist for specific professional degrees, such as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (

The faculty members are important factors in determining the quality of the graduate experience. A periodic search of psychological journals will reveal which psychologists are exploring particular research topics at different schools. Some students apply to a particular school with the intent of working with a specific professor.

The prestige of a graduate school often is the major attraction for potential graduate students. Although the departmental rating is some indication of the quality of the program, it is not the only factor to consider. Highly rated departments are likely to be more competitive. Because the ratings reflect the overall graduate department, there are often differences in quality between various programs in the same department. Your main concern should be how well the specific program meets your goals, regardless of overall departmental prestige.

Criteria for Admission
Admission requirements and criteria vary from school to school, and from program to program within the same department. Some requirements, such as particular course work or a minimum number of psychology credits, must be met in order to be considered for admission. Schools also often suggest specific supporting course work, such as a background in the biological sciences, mathematics, or social sciences, for students wishing to enter their programs. Most schools have required or suggested minimum grade point averages and/or minimum test scores. If these are stated as required (not suggested), they should be taken as such. Because the minimum standards apply only to the initial screening of applicants, the average grades of those actually accepted are usually much higher than the stated minimum.

Financial Aid
Graduate education is often expensive, with few opportunities for work while in school. The availability of funding may be a determining factor in selecting schools for application, and in the ultimate decision as to which school to attend. Different schools have different sources of funding for students. Schools offer loans, scholarships, fellowships or traineeships (grants with limited or no work requirements), and paid positions such as research or teaching assistantships. Funding cutbacks have limited financial support severely; many new graduate students no longer receive offers of financial assistance with their admission. In general, there is typically more funding available in Ph.D. programs than in Master’s degree or Psy.D. programs.

Provided by the University of Minnesota Department of Psychology

Source: Psychology: Graduate School in Psychology