What is psychology?

Psychology is the scientific discipline of the mind, brain and behavior. Some individuals pursue graduate study in psychology because they are interested in contributing new knowledge to the discipline — such as answering questions about how the brain works. Others pursue graduate study in psychology because they want to provide services to individuals or groups based upon psychological science — such as being a clinical psychologist or a consultant to help improve teamwork in business settings. Thus, graduate study in psychology prepares individuals as both members of a scientific discipline and professional practice.

What will I learn at the graduate level?
Psychology as a Discipline

Psychology is a broad discipline spanning the science of the mind, brain and behavior, and is intricately linked to other social sciences including sociology and anthropology, as well as the natural and physical sciences.

Individuals interested in answering questions about the brain and behavior pursue graduate study in psychology to engage in research that advances the discipline. During graduate school these individuals will learn core scientific principles of psychology, often including statistics and experimental procedures. This training often results in a research doctorate (PhD) or a master’s (MS) degree. These individuals usually continue a career in academic or basic research, often as a professor at a college or university (usually with a PhD). Some individuals with MS degrees work for business, or teach psychology at the community college level.

Psychology as a Profession

Those interested in careers devoted to providing direct psychological services to individuals and groups will also study basic scientific principles of psychology, but also learn skills and experience to serve clients and patients. This training often results in a PhD, a doctoral degree of psychology (PsyD) or a master's degree. Those wishing to serve patients in a health service or educational settings usually require a license from the state to practice. Most states require a doctoral degree from an APA-accredited (or a Canadian Psychological Association accredited program in Canada) and additional supervised training experiences (internship and/or postdoctoral residency) to be a licensed psychologist. Because licensure requirements vary by state/territory, we recommend that you research these for the state(s) in which you plan to practice before deciding on which programs to apply. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) is a good source for this information. Applied psychology career opportunities are available for master’s-level individuals from subfields such as industrial/organizational and consulting psychology in organizational and business settings not requiring licensure.

Some individuals combine both research and providing psychological services, often at a university or medical research institution.

How do I determine which program is best suited for me?

Selecting the graduate program in psychology that is best for you requires thoughtful consideration. First, think carefully about your career goals and training interests. And then apply to programs with graduates that succeed in the type of job and training that you want. In addition, make sure your previous education and training prepare you for success in the program. As you review graduate programs, ask these questions:

  • What is the profile of recently admitted students in terms of academic background, standardized test scores, research experience, work experience and demographic characteristics? Your profile should be similar to help ensure your acceptance to and success within the program.
  • What is the program's success rate in terms of the percentage of admitted students who graduate, and what is the average number of years required to do so?
  • What are the goals and objectives of the program? Do they match your interests and academic preparation as a prospective graduate student?
  • For programs with an emphasis on academic and research careers, what is the record of graduates' success in obtaining postdoctoral research fellowships, academic appointments or applied research positions outside a college or university setting?
  • For programs that require an internship or practicum, what is the success rate of placement for students attending the program? What level of assistance is provided to students in obtaining practicum and internship placements?
  • For programs with an emphasis on professional practice, what is the program's accreditation status (only applicable to clinical, counseling and school doctoral programs), the record of its graduates' success in obtaining licensure, its graduates' selection rates for advanced practice residencies, and in getting jobs in after they finish training?
  • What types of financial assistance does each program offer?
What types of employment opportunities are available to me with a degree in psychology?

Graduate study in psychology prepares individuals for multiple career paths. Many individuals pursue graduate study in order to provide psychological services to patients and clients. These individuals often find employment as business and human resource consultants or as licensed therapists. Individuals who wish to work as therapists must obtain and maintain a state license. While some states will license individuals with master’s degrees, the majority of states require a doctoral degree for licensure. Other students pursue graduate study to become scientists that study the mind, brain and behavior. These individuals often find employment as researchers in government agencies or businesses, or as professors in colleges and universities.

Many departments and programs track the postgraduate activities and employment of their students. You should contact your programs of interest and ask for more information on employment outcomes. Most graduates of doctoral programs enter postdoctoral training — a period of mentored training in either research or providing health services — before being employed in their first job or starting private practice. Most graduates of master’s programs continue in graduate study, entering a doctoral program in psychology or a related discipline.

Employment setting of graduates of master’s and doctoral study in psychology


Postdoctoral or graduate training

Mental health services

Business or government


School system

Doctoral programs






Master’s programs






Source : “Graduate Study in Psychology,” 2014-15.

Should I apply to a master's or doctoral degree program?

Master’s degrees are earned as either a stand-alone degree (often called the terminal master’s), or in some doctoral programs you earn a master’s degree as part of your work on your thesis. Here we will discuss the terminal master’s degree. Individuals entering terminal master’s programs usually have one of two goals:

  • To gain extra training and credentials to enter a doctoral program.
  • To acquire skills and knowledge to advance further in a specific career or work environment.

Individuals with master’s degrees find employment in a wide variety of settings — private business or government, schools, hospitals or mental health settings. When considering a master’s degree, you should ask each program what career path its graduates pursue and how the program prepares them for that path. If you are interested in providing health services, you should be aware that most state licensing boards of psychology require a doctoral degree to be a licensed therapist.

Doctoral programs engage students in greater depth of knowledge and skills in a specialized subfield of psychology. Students interested in the production of new knowledge through scientific research — setting up experiments, collecting data, comparing experimental groups and learning statistical and analytical techniques — usually apply to PhD programs. Some PhD programs, however, offer both training in providing psychological services and the production of new knowledge. Programs conferring the PsyD degree focus heavily on the application of psychological science to provide a service to individuals or groups. When gathering information about particular programs, it is important you understand what training and education the program provides so you understand what skills and abilities you will acquire and how that will prepare you for a career after you get your doctorate.

What is the difference between a PhD and a PsyD?

Doctoral programs differ in the type of doctoral degree awarded. The two most common doctoral degrees are the PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) and the PsyD (Doctor of Psychology). Programs in colleges of education may offer the EdD (Doctor of Education) degree.

The PhD is generally regarded as a research degree. Although many professional psychology programs award the PhD degree — especially those in university academic departments — these programs typically have a greater emphasis on producing new knowledge and engaging in research.

The PsyD is a professional degree in psychology (similar to the MD in medicine or a JD in law). Programs conferring the PsyD degree focus heavily on the application of psychological science to provide a service to individuals or groups.

What are the admissions requirements for graduate programs in psychology?

Requirements for admission vary from program to program, so you will need to research what each program requires before submitting an application. Most, but not all, psychology programs prefer or require significant undergraduate coursework in psychology, often the equivalent of a major or minor. In addition, many graduate programs prefer students with substantial research experience, beyond laboratory classwork. Having completed an undergraduate honors thesis or served as a research assistant in a research lab usually meets this requirement.

Other requirements programs may have include one or more of the following:

  • Previous work experience.
  • Clinically related public service.
  • Extracurricular activity.
  • An interview.
  • Additional information about you, such as research or volunteer experience.

When providing additional information about yourself, such as research or volunteer experience, be sure to accurately represent the responsibilities you had and explain how they relate to the graduate program.

What does a typical application include?

A typical application usually requires personal data such as your name, contact information and degrees you have earned. It also usually includes some type of personal statement, test scores and letters of recommendation. Some programs will also require a writing sample, such as a completed research paper or an undergraduate thesis.

Essay or personal statement

A personal statement is your opportunity to thoroughly explain who you are, what degree you are pursuing, and why. Be clear and concise; demonstrate why you are a good fit for this particular program, and how your previous academic accomplishments, research or employment prepares you for their program. Be aware that different schools may have different requirements in their personal statements.

Test scores

Many graduate departments require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and some also require the GRE Subject Test (i.e., Psychology). If the programs in which you are interested require these standardized tests, you should make sure to take these tests in time for the scores to be included with your application materials.

Visit the GRE website to learn more about the tests and how to prepare. You should also visit your college or university’s career center.

Letters of Recommendation

To obtain the best possible letter of recommendation:

  • Ask professors and other individuals familiar with your academic and research achievements. This means, a psychology professor, lab instructor or your research advisor. These individuals can write about your strengths and research achievements, and your potential for success in graduate school. Do not believe the misconception that a “big name” (such as a famous professor) will enhance your chances of getting into a graduate program. Programs prefer letters from individuals that can comment objectively on your academic achievements, research experience and potential for success. Unless this person is intimately aware of your achievements, character and future goals, a letter from a close professor is better.
  • Do not ask family members or personal therapists, as programs will not consider their evaluations objectively.
  • Make the process easy. Let your letter-writers know how to send in their recommendations, since some schools require electronic submissions while others want hard copies. Give your writers a list of requirements and due dates for each program to help them stay organized. Also, give them a summary of your achievements, research and other accomplishments so that they may refer back to them throughout the recommendation writing process. Finally, contact your letter-writers within a week of the due dates to ensure that your letters are sent by the deadlines. Follow up with the institutions to make sure they received your documents.
  • Say thank you. Emails are easy, but a handwritten note is usually the best way to thank letter-writers. This increases the chances that they will write you more recommendations in the future.

Summarized from “Rockin’ recommendations.”

What is accreditation?

Many students ask about a program's accreditation. The American Psychological Association accredits doctoral programs in clinical, counseling and school psychology, or a combination of two or more of these areas. APA does not accredit programs in other areas of professional practice (e.g., industrial/organizational psychology). It does not accredit master's degree programs.

Accreditation applies to educational programs (i.e., doctoral programs in professional psychology) and institutions (i.e., colleges, universities, and independent schools of professional psychology) — not to individuals. Accreditation is a system for recognizing educational quality as defined by the profession or other accrediting bodies. Graduation from an accredited institution or program does not guarantee employment or licensure for individuals, although being a graduate of an accredited program may facilitate such achievement. For more information on programs accredited by APA, visit the APA accreditation website.

Do I need a license to practice psychology?

To practice psychology in a state, province or territory of the U.S., an individual must be licensed as a psychologist according to the laws and regulations outlined by that particular governmental entity. Requirements for license to practice in psychology are not standardized across states; some will license individuals with master’s degrees, but the majority requires a doctoral degree. Many states require successful completion of an APA-accredited program (or a CPA accredited program in Canada). In addition, licensure for the professional practice of psychology may require additional years of supervised training experiences, such as an internship or postdoctoral residency.

You will need to research and contact the board of psychology in the state in which you are interested in practicing for information on the supervised experience required. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) provides information about state psychology boards, in addition to general information about education and examination requirements.

How much does graduate school cost and how can I pay for it?

The cost of graduate school is determined by many factors. Individuals attending graduate school must pay tuition, fees and the costs of books and related supplies. Most individuals attending graduate school live in apartments off campus and must pay for rent, food and transportation to and from classes. Some schools require that graduate students also have health insurance. Thus, the cost of graduate school can be more than just yearly tuition. Many programs provide information on the cost of living, or will put you in touch with current students willing to answer questions about rent, transportation and other costs.

Many graduate programs offer assistance to help cover the costs of graduate school. These usually come in the form of teaching assistantships (TAs) and research assistantships (RAs). TAs provide funds in return for teaching services. RAs provide funds for working on a research project, usually in the lab of one of the program’s faculty. Finally, TAs and RAs often come with tuition remission — which means the department or programs pays for your tuition. When researching programs, you should ask about the types of assistance available to graduate students, how much funding they provide, and whether there is tuition remission.

How much debt did past graduate students have? In 2016 the APA conducted a survey of individuals that had completed master’s or doctoral degrees in psychology in the past 10 years. APA found that 76% of individuals reported debt from their graduate training, and the mean debt was $99,000. However, when we look closer at the data, we see very different trends for different degree types and subfields of psychology.

The debt associated with getting a master’s degree in psychology was $60,000. This is less than the debt that individuals pursuing doctoral degrees accrued. Those who received PhDs had, on average, $78,000 in debt, and those who received PsyD had $146,000 in debt. This difference in debt for PhD and PsyD degrees could be attributed to the differences in financial assistance offered by these programs. Nearly all PsyD recipients reported they did not have access to Fellowships or RAs as students.

This is consistent with the data in the APA's Graduate Study in Psychology that show many PhD programs do not offer tuition remission, research assistanceships, or fellowships to their students.

There are also significant differences in debt depending upon the subfield of psychology. Those individuals that pursued degrees in health services, such as clinical or counseling psychology, had on average $100,000.


Those that got degrees in basic research or non-health service subfields, such as Developmental, Industrial/Organizational or basic neuroscience had $70,000 in debt.


Learn more about graduate study in psychology

APA Books® publishes "Graduate Study in Psychology," which provides information related to graduate programs in psychology in the U.S. and Canada. It contains information about departments and programs, including the number of applications for programs, number of individuals accepted in each program, dates for applications and admission, in-state and out-of-state tuition costs, availability of internships and scholarships, orientation and emphasis of departments and programs, plus other relevant information.

Most university libraries and psychology offices have the publication available for you to borrow, or you may purchase access to the listings using APA’s Graduate Study Online.

Use these other tools from APA to help you understand and plan for graduate school in psychology: