The ABCs of Ph.D.’s

Many students complain that they have difficulty deciding whether to go to graduate school or not. The biggest complaint is that there are now easy ways to acquire information about graduate school in the first place. As a result, they run around acquiring information in a haphazard fashion, prolonging the process and adding to their anxiety level. The ensuing confusion doesn’t lend itself to making good decisions. This handout is designed to give undergraduates a place to start. Hopefully, after reading this, you will have a better understanding of what graduate school is and is not. This information will be presented in a simplified form which should help to control your anxiety as well. Let’s start with where you are right now. As an undergrad you are probably working on your B.A. degree. A Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree signifies that you have completed a (nominally) four-year program of study designed to provide a grounding in the basics of psychology. Students granted Bachelor degrees have typically been required to take classes in many different areas of psychology (Social, Clinical, Developmental, etc.). Even though you might be interested in one area more than others and have taken all of the classes offered in that area, your degree is considered a general one. One of the reasons you were forced to take all of those different psych classes was to expose you to the different areas and give you a chance to see which one(s) you liked. For this reason, students are encouraged to explore as many different areas as possible. Once you find something that interests you, by all means, take additional classes in that area, but don’t shut yourself off from new encounters with the unknown. Just because your friends didn’t like a class doesn’t mean that you won’t like it. Also, make sure that you take research methods as early as possible. If you start to think about going to grad school be sure to take advanced statistics as well as advanced methodology classes.

Graduate School: What is it?

Graduate School is a generic term denoting some type of post-baccalaureate work leading to an advanced degree, usually either a Master’s degree (M.A. of M.S) or a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. Most master’s programs are designed to last two years. Most Ph.D. programs are (nominally) four-year programs. However, you should realize that the actual time it may take to get your degree will vary greatly. In fact, the average time to get a Ph.D. is about seven years.

The major difference between a master’s degree and a doctoral degree is that the latter is needed if you plan to enter the exciting, lucrative field of being a professor at a university. If you plan to go into business or want to be a therapist, the master’s can suffice. You may not have the same mobility or rigorous scientific training, but you may not need it. The best strategy is to find out what you want to do, and what degree you need to do it. Generally speaking, you won’t be hurt if you are over-qualified for a job, but why invest time and effort in something that you won’t need or use.

What about the Psy.D. degree? There are certain schools that award a Doctor of Psychology degree. This is a relatively new degree designed for therapists, and generally indicates an emphasis on the therapeutic instead of scientific technique. This does not imply that you will automatically get better clinical training in such a program. There may Clinical Ph.D. programs that provide better clinical training, but understand that they do so in the context of creating a “research/practitioner.” Are the Psy.D. and Ph.D. interchangeable? Not exactly. In fact, in academic circles, a Psy.D. is usually considered “not as good as” a Ph.D. mainly because of the lack of emphasis on scientific training.

Should I go to grad school?

When attempting to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life, talk to as many people as you possibly can. Determine what topics interest you and what degree you need for the career you want. Also, find out what the future of that field looks like. Training for a job that won’t exist when you get out isn’t good. Ask faculty about their graduate experiences. Be prepared to hear some pretty awful stuff. Many faculty have horror stories to tell. Don’t take it personally. The reason for telling you this stuff is to alert you to the fact that such things are possible and, in some cases, probable. They aren’t trying to scare you out of going, they just want to go armed with the knowledge that bad things can and do happen.

Now that you know that, realize that grad school can be one of the most stimulating situations you’ll ever encounter. If you look upon your undergraduate experience as a four-year root canal, don’t even THINK of going to grad school. However, if you enjoy learning and want to expand your knowledge of psychology, grad school could be extremely fulfilling and rewarding. If you like to conduct research as an undergrad, you’ll probably love it as a grad. This could be the best time of your life!


One of the biggest obstacles to obtaining a doctorate is the scarcity of funding for grad students. Many of the people who get into programs find that they have to take outside jobs toward the end of their graduate careers in order to stay alive. There are many different philosophies on how to support graduate students. Some schools accept a small number of grad students and support them with teaching assistantships and/or research assistantships for almost all of their stay in grad school. Other programs admit more students and support them for a limited period of time, perhaps for their first two or three years. If you are applying to grad schools be absolutely certain to ask about their philosophy on funding grad students. In some situations, being able to pay for your graduate education might make you a more attractive candidate for admission. Realistically, though, many students are not in such favorable circumstances. However, don’t let the funding situation keep you from applying. If a department wants you badly enough, they will find the money to support you for at least part of the time. The important thing is to KNOW what you are getting into before you commit to a particular program. Finally, Graduate Student Loans (GSLs) are available. You begin repaying your GSLs upon graduation. They have long-term repayment plans which keep your monthly payments low, and they can be paid off early without penalty.

How Do I Get Into Grad School?

First of all, PLAN! Plan as early as possible. Realize that you don’t necessarily have to go into a Ph.d. program as soon as you leave school. If you don’t get in right away, you can still get in later, especially if you have remained active in the field. What does this mean? It means going back and working with your previous profs on research projects or getting some clinical experience. This will show that you are dedicated to the field. Also, earning money for the lean times ahead is a very useful thing to do.

Here is a brief summary of what you should do once you decide to go.

  • Check the information in the APA listings of grad schools to find out which schools offer a program that satisfies your needs.
  • Check the research journals to find out where the researchers who are doing “your” research are located.
  • Send for catalogs from those schools you’re interested in. When you receive them, be sure to look at the listings in the back to see who is actively researching your area of interest. What you are looking for is a “good match” between your interests and the research activities of the faculty. When they consider your application, they will be looking for this, too. If you find such a match don’t be afraid to call the departments and ask to speak with a) the prof you want to work with and b) some of his/her grad students. When you call the prof, inquire further about their research and future needs for good graduate students (like yourself). Make absolutely certain that you come across as a competent, professional, mature person. Be polite and respectful. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t whine, badger, or harass. Ask if it is possible to speak with some of their grad students. Volunteer to call them on your time. By doing this, you also avoid having the grad student call you from the prof’s office (with the prof listening to every word). What you need is honest information, not a sales pitch. NOTE: this is your one chance to avoid making a BIG mistake! Now is the time to be a wise consumer. Don’t be afraid to ask these profs anything related to grad school–personal philosophy regarding their role as mentor, availability of research and office space, availability of financial support in the form of teaching assistantships (TAs) and research assistantships (RAs), departmental philosophy regarding TA and RA support and work-load, the prof’s history of publication with grads, how long it took their last grad student to get out, history of job placement of their grads, where did they get jobs, etc.
  • Ask your current faculty members if they know anything about these profs and/or their departments.
  • Work on your long-term plans to arrange for three letters of recommendation. If you find a faculty member you like during your undergraduate career, try to take more classes with them. Go talk to them. Get to know them and give them enough information about yourself to enable them to write a good letter for you. Realize that it will not help you very much to have letters written only by teachers. The most influential letters come from faculty with who you have done research of had other professional contact. Work on those contacts ASAP! In most cases waiving your right to see the letters written for you will be looked upon with favor by the writers. (Some may even demand that you waive your right to review as a pre-condition to writing letters for you). Don’t take this personally. In the back of their minds they are remembering all of the horror stories they’ve heard about lawsuits resulting form “unflattering” but “true” letters.
  • Plan to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) after you have taken the history of Psych. class. Because you will usually begin applying to grad schools in the fall, plan to take the GRE’s before or during that semester. Also, it probably will be very beneficial to take a prep course for the GRE (in spite of what the good folks at ETS say).
  • Work on your statement of purpose (sometimes called the biographical statement). When writing this, remember the three main rules- rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite. This is the grad department’s way of assessing your writing skills and intellect. Put a lot of effort into your statement. Revise, rewrite, and edit profusely. Get the opinions of others. When discussing your undergraduate career, highlight the positives and ignore the negatives, if you can. Most departments consider everything about you. They really do look at the whole package. Thus, if you are weak in one area, don’t panic. As long as you have something that can offset the weakness, you still have a chance. Feel free to discuss this fact (without whining). Above all, be sure that you are giving explanations for weaknesses; not excuses. Remember, admitting responsibility for things shows maturity.
  • Apply to as many schools as possible BUT…be realistic. As you will discover, applying isn’t cheap. The only other time you will encounter this many people with their hands out asking for money will be when you make arrangements for your daughter’s wedding! Apply to a few “just-in-case” schools, just in case you don’t get into your preferred programs. Also, apply to a few schools that you think you might not have a good chance to get into. You never know!
  • Mail your applications early and check that they have arrived intact.
  • When you check with people writing letters of recommendation for you, usually in December or January, be polite. Ask if they have sent the letters and if they haven’t, ask if there is anything you can do to help. This will serve as a reminder to them. If you can’t find them around, writing a note to them will be effective, too. Try to control your anxiety and don’t over-do it, however. Nobody likes a nag.
  • Contact your departments a few days before the deadline for acceptance and find out where you stand. This information will be of value when you are trying to decide whether to accept the first offer you get or wait for an offer from a more desirable school. If you are waiting, remember that most places have a list of alternates. The longer you delay in making your decision, the greater the difficulty of notifying alternates of positions available. Because you may be on an alternate list yourself, it should be easy to see the problem. Think about where you want to go BEFORE the phone calls begin. Rank your selections ahead of time and engage in some cognitive rehearsal about what you will do in case strange combinations of offers arrive.

Above all, try to keep yourself sane during all of this. Many students apply to the finite number of grad schools in this country. Keep this in mind when you see the numbers on how many people apply and how many are accepted. Often, many of the same people apply to all of these schools! Obviously, they only go to one place. The odds may not be as bad as you think after all! And when you receive your Ph.D., be sure to come back and give us the secret handshake!