Academic advisors frequently struggle with the question of which undergraduate psychology courses their students should take when preparing for graduate school. In a world of finite credits and time, the chorus of "Which course, which course?" from both inquiring students and curriculum committees demands crisp answers. Although graduate programs will differ slightly in the courses they prefer students to have taken prior to admission, aren't there some "core" courses that nearly all require?
This article responds to this pressing question by summarizing the answers provided by 559 departments and 2,023 graduate psychology programs in the United States and Canada. Our study analyzed all the numerical data in the 1994 edition of the Graduate Study in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 1994), which reports information from the 1992-93 academic year. Details and limitations of the study are presented in our lengthy American Psychologist article (Norcross, Hanych, & Terranova, 1996). The aim of this brief article, and the other two in this series, is to highlight information from our study that will enhance informed and data-based decisions on the part of graduate applicants and their academic advisors.
Directors of graduate programs reported their psychology admission prerequisites by specifying a minimum number of psychology credits, specific psychology courses, an undergraduate psychology major, or some combination thereof. Ninety-one percent of the programs (1,854 of 2,023) contributed such information; we were unable to determine whether the remaining nine percent of graduate programs had no prerequisites or simply failed to provide the requested information.
Table 1 presents the frequency and percentage of the 1,854 graduate programs that specified each type of psychology prerequisite. Overall, master's programs and doctoral programs required very similar types of undergraduate preparation. The sole exception was that doctoral programs were more likely to require an undergraduate psychology major than were master's programs (16% versus 11%). Approximately one half of the graduate programs required specific psychology courses, and approximately one third required specific psychology courses plus a minimum number of credits in psychology. The minimum number of psychology credits averaged 16 for both master's and doctoral programs (median and mode = 15).
Table 2 presents the psychology courses most frequently required (first column of numbers), preferred (second column), and required or preferred (third column) for graduate admission into those programs listing all such courses. (Introduction to Psychology was presumed to be a prerequisite for these advanced psychology courses and was therefore omitted from the analyses.) As seen in this table, statistics and research methods/experimental design courses were the most common. In descending order of frequency, other commonly required courses were abnormal, personality, developmental, testing, learning, lab course, physiological, history and systems, social, cognitive, and sensation and perception. Bear in mind that these figures underestimate the true percentage of programs requiring these courses since they do not include those graduate programs requiring a psychology major as a prerequisite and thus probably requiring most of the courses listed in Table 2. No other psychology course was required or preferred for graduate admission by even 1% of the programs.
In sum: Graduate admission will typically require, at a minimum, the equivalent of a rigorous minor in psychology, one that certainly includes courses in statistics and experimental/research methods and one that probably includes a smattering of courses from abnormal, developmental, personality, learning, physiological, and social psychology.
Completing these courses to satisfy graduate admission requirements is only the first step. If at all possible, you should complete more than the minimum required courses both to meet admissions criteria and to improve your GRE Psychology Test score. Doctoral programs typically require more courses on average than do master's programs (Smith, 1985). The safest plan, of course, is to complete a rigorous undergraduate major in psychology to satisfy all these courses, but a well-planned minor in psychology may suffice.
Beyond these psychology classes, what other undergraduate courses might an academic advisor recommend for graduate school preparation? Our literature review (Norcross, Sayette, & Mayne, 1996) identified the following consensual tips:
Computer science courses. Not only will these courses accustom you to the workings of computers, which are standard research fare, but they will also serve as a springboard for learning the upper level languages used for data analysis. Computer proficiency is rated a moderately important admission variable by doctoral programs (Eddy, Lloyd, & Lubin, 1987).
A broad undergraduate background in the arts and sciences. Biological sciences, math competency, and verbal skills are highly valued (Keith-Spiegel, 1991).
Public speaking courses. If you are anxious or phobic regarding oral presentations, then by all means complete a public speaking course.
Composition and writing courses. You may well face three or four major papers each semester in graduate school. Get ready now!
Advanced or graduate statistics course. Statistical acumen is highly regarded, especially in research-oriented programs, and advanced knowledge may pave the way for funding as a graduate assistant or research assistant. A related suggestion would be to take a course specifically focused on one of the data analysis programs. Learning one of the major statistical packages--Statistical Analysis System (SAS), Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS), or BioMedical Data Package (BMDP), for example--is a definite advantage.
Learning about psychology and achieving good grades are important components of your undergraduate career. But courses are also important in that they provide you with the opportunity to become acquainted with and form relationships with faculty.
Why meet faculty in terms of the graduate school application process? There are at least three compelling reasons. First, having a mentor to advise you in your growth as a future psychologist is invaluable. When you apply to graduate school, having a professor to guide you through the process is one of the biggest advantages you can have. Second, you will eventually need faculty to write letters of recommendation on your behalf. Whether you are applying to graduate school or for employment, everyone wants a few references regarding your performance and responsibility. Occasionally faculty members are asked to write a letter for a pupil who has taken a lecture course with 100 or more students--the professor may not even know the student until the time the student requests a letter! It makes a huge difference if you have spent some office hours or time after class with a faculty member, and he or she knows you more personally. And third, once you get to know professors, you may have the opportunity to work for them on a research project or as part of clinical activities. You will be working closely with your major professor in graduate school, and you might as well begin as soon as possible as a colleague-in-training.
All this is to say that, beyond completing and excelling in your undergraduate courses expected by graduate schools, simultaneously consider the coursework as an unparalleled opportunity to cultivate a warm and working relationship with your professor-mentor.
American Psychological Association. (1994). Graduate study in psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Eddy, B., Lloyd, P. J., & Lubin, B. (1987). Enhancing application to doctoral programs: Suggestions from a national survey. Teaching of Psychology, 14, 160-163.
Keith-Spiegel, P. (1991). The complete guide to graduate school admission. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Norcross, J. C., Hanych, J. M., & Terranova, R. D. (1996). Graduate study in psychology: 1992-1993. American Psychologist, 51, 631-643.
Norcross, J. C., Mayne, T. J., & Sayette, M. A. (1996). Insider's guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology. New York: Guilford Press.
Smith, R. A. (1985). Advising beginning psychology majors for graduate school. Teaching of Psychology, 12, 194-198.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John C. Norcross, PhD, is professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, where he has served as Psi Chi faculty advisor for the past 10 years. The following feature article (the second in a series of three) is based on his recent American Psychologist article, "Graduate Study in Psychology: 1992-1993." Dr. Norcross also is the senior author of Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology (1996).
Spring 1997 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 16-18), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1997, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.