Interest in psychology at the undergraduate level continues to grow. There have been over 70,000 bachelor's degrees awarded every year in psychology since 1994-1995 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). In 1979-1980, 42,093 psychology bachelor's degrees were awarded; just 20 years later, that number increased to 74,060, representing a 43.2% increase. This growth is also reflected in the interest in graduate programs of psychology. In the same 20-year time frame, master's degree awards increased by 31.3% and doctorates awarded increased by 21.2%. When growth at the undergraduate ranks accelerates past the growth at the graduate level, this is bound to cause some stress for undergraduate students intending to continue their education in psychology.
Eye on Psi Chi is a wonderful resource for undergraduate students thinking about graduate school. Psi Chi has a long tradition of providing tips on how to apply and to make the best of the opportunity, with a host of recent articles (Arnold & Horrigan, 2002; Buskist, 2001; Dirlam, 1998; Lammers, 2002; Strassle, 1998; Terre, 2002). Graduate admissions in psychology has its own literature as well, studying a range of issues including admissions criteria (Hines, 1986; Purdy, Reinehr, & Swartz, 1989). There is also a wealth of information available (in addition to Eye on Psi Chi materials) to help prospective graduate students contemplate the process (Bonifazi, Crespy, & Rieker, 1997; Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000; Kinder & Walfish, 2001; Norcross, Sayette, & Mayne, 2002; Ware, 1984). Even the odds of acceptance into graduate school is a topic that has been previously addressed (Hovancik, 1985).
This article does not attempt to duplicate the fine work of others. Instead, it is intended as an update for those undergraduate students interested in graduate school. While many students contemplate getting a master's degree or a PhD, it becomes obvious in the data presented here that the PsyD is becoming a popular option. For additional insights about the PsyD, see Norcross and Castle (2002). The primary benefit from this article rests in Table 1, where the number of applications, number of applicants presented, the percentage of applicants accepted, and the number of newly enrolled students is presented, organized by PhD/PsyD/Master's degree and by 23 specialty areas of psychology.
Notes on Reading the Table
The data presented in Table 1 were complied by the American Psychological Association (APA) Research Office. The data come from APA's Graduate Study in Psychology (2003), a compendium of American Departments of Psychology offering graduate education. The number of applications, number of applicants accepted, and number newly enrolled are reported verbatim from the APA Research Office; I have added the column "percentage of applicants accepted."
It is important to understand the nature of this data and its limitations. First, the data here reflect the Departments of Psychology that are represented in the Graduate Study in Psychology (2003) volume. If a particular department does not participate, then obviously its data are not included. Second, some departments related to psychology may be included, while others may not. At some institutions, a Department of Educational Psychology may be included in the book, while other, similar departments elsewhere may not be included. Third, I only present three degrees: PhD, PsyD, and MA/MS. The actual data from APA are more detailed and include other degree options.
Given those limitations, the data in Table 1 are quite valuable, because it is the best data available (to my knowledge) on the relative competitiveness and popularity of subspecialties in psychology. It is important, however, not to overreach with this data. For instance, in 2001-2002 there were 18,392 applications to PhD clinical programs. This does not mean 18,392 separate students. Many students apply to many schools; in more competitive programs, it is not uncommon for a student to apply to many schools, at both doctoral (PhD, PsyD) and master's levels.
The data in this table provide indirect measures for what I label competitiveness and popularity. Look again at the clinical specialty area under PhD.With 18,392 applications, 1,928 were accepted, for an acceptance rate of 10.5%. I believe that this can be considered an index of competitiveness. Only 10.5% of applicants to PhD clinical programs get accepted. However, of those acceptances, 1,230 actually enrolled. Of course, some students receive multiple acceptances as well, so 1,930 acceptances evolves into 1,230 students actually enrolling in 2001-2002.
I believe that that data in the "number newly enrolled" column can be seen as an index of the popularity of a specialty area. PhD clinical tends to be both competitive and popular, but not all specialty areas share those characteristics. For instance, a developmental PhD program is somewhat popular (343 newly enrolled), but not as competitive (24.8% accepted). These comparisons become more meaningful when looked at across degree programs. For instance, the master's degree in counseling (N = 2,370) is much more popular than the PhD in counseling (N = 412), but the PhD counseling programs are more competitive (14.7% accepted) than master's degree in counseling programs (60.7% accepted).
Most of the value of this article will come from students gaining knowledge about the graduate admissions process, and by examining the competitiveness and popularity of various specialty areas in psychology. However, there are some observations and surprises I would like to point out after examining the information in the table.
The popularity of clinical and counseling psychology reign supreme. With PhDs, clinical is ranked #1 in popularity (N = 1,230) and counseling is ranked #2 (N = 412). With PsyDs, clinical is ranked #1 (N = 1,218). With master's degrees, counseling is ranked #1 (N = 2,370) and clinical is ranked #2 (N = 1,413). Given these trends, undergraduate departments of psychology must take into consideration the interests of students in these areas, particularly as it applies to curriculum matters and internship opportunities.
I was surprised at the popularity of PsyD clinical programs. While the clinical PhD is more competitive (10.5% accepted) than the clinical PsyD (40.8% accepted), both types of programs enrolled approximately the same numbers of students (clinical PhD = 1,230 students; clinical PsyD = 1,218 students). I was also surprised at the variety of specialty areas in which one could earn a PsyD; while I knew about clinical, counseling, and school psychology, I must admit that the remaining specialty areas were unexpected.
The competitiveness for PhD programs was also a bit surprising. While faculty have long talked about "getting into a PhD clinical graduate program is tougher than getting into medical school," there are a number of PhD programs that are competitive. The thought remains true. Of the 33,625 applicants to American medical schools in 2002, 49% were accepted (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2003).
Using a 20% acceptance rate or lower as a "tough" program to get into, clinical remains the most difficult (10.5%), but some of the others are surprises: clinical neuropsychology (17.0%), counseling (14.8%), comparative (16.3%), industrial/organizational (15.2%), personality (17.1%), and social (18.0%). It's not just PhD clinical that is tough anymore! And, if you have an interest in comparative, physiological, psychobiology, or psycholinguistics, your only options are to pursue a PhD.
Do not be discouraged by this information. Undergraduate students desiring an advanced degree in psychology have many options. The master's degree can be used as a stepping stone to the doctorate. Also, for many specialty areas, the master's degree is the modal degree for professionals in that field (e.g., counseling, school, industrial/organizational). Examination of the "percentage of applicants accepted" for the master's degree specialty areas shows a different picture from the PhD. Acceptance into master's degree programs appears much more attainable in many cases.
What should students and faculty take from this information? I believe that knowledge is power, and that students should know their odds when considering their future. Faculty members have an obligation to deliver accurate information in a timely manner, and it has been previously noted that changes in graduate admissions can affect undergraduate instruction (Lunneborg, 1982). While the competitiveness or popularity should not entirely drive a student's decision to apply to graduate school (or even what specialty area to apply to), students may want to consider this information as one factor that influences their overall decision making. In the end, faculty should mentor and assist students in reaching their own goals, whatever those goals may be.
American Psychological Association. (2003). Applications, acceptances, and new enrollments in graduate departments of psychology, by degree and subfield area, 2001-2002 [Table]. Source: 2003 Graduate study in psychology. Washington, DC: Author.
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Association of American Medical Colleges. (2003). Facts: Applicants and matriculants by state of legal residence, 2002. Retrieved June 10, 2003 from http://www.aamc.org/data/facts/famg22002a.htm
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Strassle, C. (1998). Applying to graduate school: Maximizing your chances for success. Eye on Psi Chi, 3(1), 31.
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About the Author:
R. Eric Landrum, PhD, is currently a professor of psychology at Boise State University. He received his PhD in cognitive psychology (with an emphasis in quantitative methodology) from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in 1989. His research interests center around the study of and understanding of educational issues, identifying those conditions that best facilitate student learning. He has made over 180 professional presentations at conferences and published over 50 books, book chapters, or professional articles in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. He is the coeditor and author of two chapters in Protecting Human Subjects: Departmental Subject Pools and Institutional Review Boards (1999, APA Books) and lead author of The Psychology Major: Career Options and Strategies for Success (2nd ed., 2004, Prentice Hall). He is a member of the American Psychological Association (Division Two Fellow), the Midwestern Psychological Association, and the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association.
Spring 2004 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 20-21, 32, published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 2004, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.