Applying to graduate school in psychology can seem like a daunting process. Given the extremely low acceptance rates (approximately 32% for PsyD programs and 7% for PhD programs), it is not surprising that many prospective applicants have questions regarding the application process generally, as well as specific queries regarding ways to make themselves more appealing and successful candidates (Kohout & Wicherski, 2010). In an effort to help guide prospective applicants, we conducted an interview series with Annette M. La Greca, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Miami, and an expert in the fields of peer victimization, youth internalizing problems, youth trauma exposure, and pediatric diabetes. Dr. La Greca graciously provided her opinion regarding the psychology graduate program application process, as well as specific tips for interested students.
Part I of this series focuses on how to find the programs and mentorship that best match your needs, and the benefits of pursuing a career in the field of psychology. Part II of this series will focus on the application process specifically, wherein Dr. La Greca describes her ideal prospective graduate student and discusses the key elements of a strong application (including GPA, GRE, CV and personal statement).
When choosing a psychology graduate program, what criteria should an applicant consider?
La Greca: I think there are many issues you could consider. It is important to ask yourself what you want to do in the future, because that will narrow down the types of programs that you consider. For example, if you want to do predominantly clinical work, you might consider a graduate program such as a PsyD program, which is a doctorate in psychology—this is a very practice-oriented degree. If you see yourself engaged in research, you should consider a PhD program. You should also consider a PhD program if you want to do a combination of research and clinical work.
Once you’ve taken into account your future goals, the next thing to consider is your specific area(s) of interest. Are you interested in children, adults, or health populations? Are you more interested in psychopathology research within the clinical area, or are you more interested in intervention research? Identifying those specific areas of interest will also help to narrow the programs to consider and identify the more appropriate matches.
Beyond that, you need to look for programs that have people who are actively doing research in the area in which you are interested. For example, if you have interests in the area of child psychopathology, you should look for programs that have people doing research in the child psychopathology area, as well as course work and practica that are related to that area. If you are interested in health oriented research, then you should look at programs that have affiliations with medical schools or with medical settings.
Additionally, if you are interested in clinical work, you should check the accreditation status of the program, because it will be much easier to become licensed as a psychologist if you attend a program that is accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). Some states require APA accreditation of graduate training for licensure; some employers also require that. Further, completing a non-APA accredited internship (which is more likely to occur if you do not attend an APA accredited graduate program) may be limiting in terms of job choice (e.g., working at a Veteran’s Administration Medical Center). Beyond that, other issues become important for selecting a graduate program, like program location.
How closely aligned should a prospective applicant’s and professor’s research interests be?
La Greca: I would say, generally speaking, the closer the fit the better. That’s because faculty are better able to train someone in an area where they already have expertise. That being said, interests that are strongly related to a faculty member’s expertise, but differ a bit, could also be good. Two former students of mine are good examples of that; neither student’s interests overlapped 100% with my own. However, they were able to expand some of their focal areas, which brought us to common ground. So I don’t think it has to be an exact match, but it has to be something at least compatible or complementary. Otherwise, you’re selecting the wrong mentor or the wrong program. If your research interests don’t seem compatible with your professor(s) of interest, then go back to the previous question and reconsider if this the right program for you, and if this is the right mentor for you.
Is there anything you wish you had known when applying to psychology graduate programs?
La Greca: One thing that I would reemphasize is the importance of the match between the applicant and the program, and how it’s up to the applicant to make clear how and why that match exists. It’s much better if applicants can be very specific about their interests than if they write something general, like "you have an excellent clinical child program, and I want to be a part of that clinical child program.” It would be better if they could describe something about that graduate program’s experiences or the mentors who are there as being important for furthering what that person wants to do in his or her career.
Once you are in the field of psychology, what sustains you?
La Greca: Well, being a professional psychologist is definitely not a nine-to-five job, so if you’re looking for that type of environment, you probably don’t want to consider graduate training in psychology. But, there are a number of things that sustain me [and others]. I’ve always been someone who’s really curious and eager to learn; I like learning new things, so it’s probably great that I’m a professor. Being within an academic environment, you’re always learning something new!
Another thing that sustains me is having a diversity of interests. I enjoy doing a lot of things, which is feasible in psychology, because it’s such a diverse field. If you get tired of studying child health, for example, you can move on to study child psychopathology. There are many different things you can look at.
Another thing I value highly is my independence. It really is up to me to determine what I want to work on. I could totally change my interests tomorrow and it would be perfectly fine. You don’t feel like you’re "stuck in a rut,” the way you can at a job where you have very specific duties that don’t change over time. I have a lot of freedom to choose what I want to work on and how I spend my time.
Yet another thing that’s sustaining is the ability to interact with others who have similar interests and goals. I find that people in psychology are very like-minded. They’re enthusiastic about similar things. People in psychology—whether they’re researchers, clinicians, or in administrative roles—often have a genuine caring for people or desire to make people’s lives better. People within psychology also value diversity, and it’s nice to be in a profession where many people hold similar perspectives and values. I have friends who are in careers outside of psychology, and, after a while, a number of them feel like they’re stuck or stagnant. I’ve never felt that way in psychology; there’s always something interesting and always some new development. And the people in the field are great. So, all those things sustain me. Plus, I get to attend meetings that are sometimes in great locations, and that helps since I like to travel.