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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2001
Making the Transition
to Graduate School

Lisa Terre, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Having successfully survived the application process, some of you are now preparing for your first year of graduate study in psychology. As you gear up for this new phase of your life, you may be experiencing mixed emotions. On the one hand, you probably are very excited that you were accepted by the program of your choice and are looking forward to your first step toward professional development. On the other hand, you may be feeling a bit anxious. Although you probably visited the school, interviewed with faculty, and met some students during the application process, you may be wondering what it will be like to actually study there and how you will cope with the new challenges.

Depending on your specific life situation, you may have somewhat different concerns. For instance, if you followed the "traditional" sequence of attending high school, then immediately completing your undergraduate degree, followed directly by accepting admission to a graduate school program, you may be focused on issues such as moving to a new city by yourself, making new friends, and, perhaps, being away from family and other significant relationships for the first time. Yet, this is not the situation for an increasing number of students, who have followed a different path. Indeed, a growing segment of the university population now includes students who are returning to university life after working or starting families of their own. Concerns for those of you in this situation may center on issues such as how you will balance multiple responsibilities (e.g., family and school), adjust to financial changes (e.g., student stipend vs. income from full-time employment) and fit in with other students, who may be in a different phase of life. In short, the act of accepting admission to a graduate program engenders a cascade of life changes (e.g., shifting roles, reorganization of social supports and family relationships, financial changes) that interact with your own individual background and expectations. Is there anything entering graduate students can do to smooth this transition?

Take advantage of opportunities to learn about your new program.
Be sure to attend all the new student orientation sessions offered to you. Although students sometimes anticipate that these will be unimportant, boring events, orientation sessions actually represent an opportunity for you to meet other new students, more advanced continuing students, faculty, and administrators. Moreover, orientation is a venue for people associated with the program to meet and get a first impression of you. You may feel overwhelmed by the number of new names and faces with which you'll be confronted as well as the amount of new information to which you'll be exposed. But don't worry. The important information presented at the initial orientation will be reinforced elsewhere in the program. For instance, most programs have very detailed student handbooks that clearly articulate the expectations, requirements, and deadlines students will face. You may not remember all the basics when they are first introduced at the orientation, but you should follow up by reading the handbook (and any other materials distributed) carefully at home. Becoming aware of program policies and procedures not only increases the predictability of the demands you will encounter but also helps you avoid making a faux pas early in your program of study.

After you have carefully examined the handbook and other program materials, feel free to seek out faculty to discuss questions and request help with any concerns that arise. The program director or director of clinical training (DCT) is the person responsible for administering the program and, as such, represents one important resource. Other faculty also are available. In some programs, such as clinical health psychology at the University of Missouri - Kansas City (UMKC), students are matched with faculty mentors from the outset. In other programs where students choose mentors later, a faculty person (sometimes the DCT) typically serves as interim advisor until someone is formally named. Because your faculty mentor/advisor will be an importance source of guidance throughout the program, try to get acquainted with him/her as soon as possible.

More advanced students also can be a good source of information, particularly if you would like a personal view of the program from a student perspective. Some graduate programs have formalized the process a bit by instituting a peer mentoring system. For instance at UMKC, third-year clinical health psychology students are matched with incoming, first-year students. In this way, each new student has an immediate link to a peer who has already crossed the hurdles that new students will face and is in a position to provide informal support and information.

Recognize that the graduate and undergraduate school
experiences are qualitatively different.

Many students who "breeze through" undergraduate school often are surprised by the demands of graduate training. Graduate study involves not just more work than undergraduate study, but, in addition, the training objectives and competencies expected for graduate students differ substantially from those for undergraduates. Clearly, a combination of many factors contributes to the qualitative difference between the graduate and undergraduate experience. Nevertheless, the following three considerations may be particularly helpful to keep in mind. First, students accepted for graduate study generally are at the top of their undergraduate classes. This means that even though you may have been one of the best psychology students at your undergraduate university (perhaps without studying very hard), the same is true for your graduate school classmates. Because the graduate selection process admits only the top applicants, your graduate school counterparts will be highly motivated, high-achieving individuals. Consequently, the graduate school climate is likely to be more challenging and stimulating than that in undergraduate school. Second, in graduate school, you will be presented with much more complex material that must be mastered, not by simple rote memory, but by integrating various kinds of information into your thinking and behavior. New graduate students often comment, for example, on the amount and complexity of required graduate reading relative to that assigned during undergraduate school. If you were used to completing your undergraduate assignments an hour before class while watching television and were not concerned about retaining information beyond the final course examination, you probably will find yourself changing study habits for graduate study. Finally, by contrast to undergraduate school where the aim is to provide an introductory exposure to the general field of psychology, graduate school seeks to train students for a professional specialty which requires different standards of performance and criteria for success. Accordingly, graduate school involves more than regular class attendance and good course examination scores. To be sure, mastery of the basic information covered in classes is important. However, by contrast to undergraduate school, graduate study also involves a process of professional socialization and development. This means that you learn to be a professional, in part, based on working side by side with faculty and other more advanced students on research teams and under close supervision in clinical or other real-world situations (e.g., practica). For instance at UMKC, clinical health psychology students begin participating on research teams soon after they arrive. These responsibilities require that students spend substantial time on campus, not only in classes but also working on projects with faculty and peers. Because our program emphasizes clinical health psychology, some students have lab space with their faculty mentors in medical settings, which requires professional behavior very different from the norms considered acceptable at the undergraduate level. In essence, graduate study in psychology is very different from majoring in psychology as an undergraduate. To the extent that you are able to anticipate this difference, your transition will be easier.

Make good use of available social support resources
and build additional support networks.

Given the numerous changes inherent in the transition to graduate school, the experience can be exhilarating. From time to time, it also can be somewhat stressful. As many of you know, an extensive literature suggests that social support is an important resource for dealing with stress. Although some support resources are built into most graduate programs, they are only beneficial if you make use of them. Before you arrive on campus, ask continuing students about the city, the best student housing, and other relocation concerns. Even if the program you are joining does not have a formal peer mentoring system in place, current students usually are available to share what they have learned in this regard if you ask for the help.

Once you have secured housing, plan to relocate well before your first semester officially begins. In this way, you will have time to get unpacked and sufficiently organized to take full advantage of the welcome-new-student festivities held on most campuses in advance of the formal start of classes. Some of these gatherings will be initiated by continuing students while others are faculty or program sponsored. Occasionally, a new student will arrive on campus at the latest possible minute only to find that many of the welcome-new-student events have been missed and all the other new students already have been socializing with each other for some time. Although being the last person to arrive is not a catastrophe, it does put the late arrival in a position of initially feeling more like an "outsider" than might otherwise be the case.

Many additional sources of support exist just beyond the immediate borders of your program. This is particularly true in psychology departments that have more than one graduate program. For instance, the UMKC Department of Psychology has a master's program, two interdisciplinary doctoral disciplines (health psychology and general psychology), and a community psychology program. Furthermore, UMKC houses a variety of graduate programs in many different disciplines outside of the Psychology Department (e.g., counseling psychology, social work, nursing, medicine, law). If you are joining a program in a setting that offers a similar diversity of professionals-in-training, make an effort to meet fellow students in other specialties. Some universities facilitate interdisciplinary interaction more than others. For instance, the graduate school may sponsor opportunities for students in different disciplines to meet each other. Even if these opportunities are not officially coordinated by the university, you can attend events where diverse multidisciplinary graduate students gather. Most universities have some sort of graduate student association that provides a venue for exchanging ideas with peers outside of psychology. If you are attending a small graduate program that accepts only a handful of students each year, increasing your social support beyond your program's boundaries will be especially helpful. Program size notwithstanding, meeting a broad range of people both within and outside psychology can make life more interesting and enjoyable.

Above all, be sure to ask for help if you are experiencing difficulties adjusting to your first few months on campus. Develop an appropriate professional relationship with your faculty advisor and let her/him know if you are having problems in the program. In addition to providing guidance about program matters, your advisor will be aware of broader university resources, such as writing labs and tutoring services. The program director also is generally available to consult with students as needed. Don't hesitate to access these important program resources at your disposal. If you believe your concern is more personal than professional, do arrange for a confidential appointment with the university counseling center. At many universities, a limited number of counseling sessions are available to students at a reduced fee, often in the context of a broader university health and/or wellness center.

Graduate school is the beginning of an exciting life adventure. Make the most of it.

Lisa Terre, PhD, earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Auburn University in 1987. She has served as a faculty member in the Department of Psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) since 1989. Currently, she is an associate professor of psychology and of medicine and the director of clinical health psychology at UMKC. Dr. Terre's research and clinical interests include health promotion, prevention and treatment of health risk behaviors, illness behavior and health care decision making, psychological factors affecting medical conditions, as well as the relationship between health behaviors and broader psychosocial adjustment.

Address correspondence to: Lisa Terre, PhD, Director, Clinical Health Psychology, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 5319 Holmes St., Kansas City, MO 64110-2499. E-mail:

For information about the Interdisciplinary PhD Program in Clinical Health Psychology, visit the UMKC website at or contact Dr. Terre.

Copyright 2001 (Volume 6, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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