Not all academic psychology programs are created equally, and the graduate program you choose on your path to becoming a therapist can affect everything from your personal happiness to your future professional reputation. Do not jump into a graduate program without doing your research first.
With the advent of online education, dozens of online psychology programs have sprung up. These programs often promise quick graduation at a discounted rate, but they are not all accredited. No matter how promising a program sounds, if it is not accredited, you might have trouble getting licensed to become a therapist after you graduate. Schools that are accredited by a regional or national accrediting body, this information will be displayed on the institution's website or in the course catalog. In addition, accredited schools are listed on their respective regional accrediting body's website.
Choose a program that allows you to concentrate on the area in which you want to practice. A challenging, affordable graduate school might sound great. But if you want to be a child psychologist and there are no child psychology classes in the program, it is not the right choice for you. It is also wise to confirm that the faculty teaching classes have a strong history in the field and are recognized experts.
Asking questions about the learning environment will help you find a program that matches your needs. Before you take the plunge and enroll in a program, consider some key factors:
- How many students are accepted to the program? This number can provide you with information about how competitive it is to get in the program, as well as a sense of how many peers you would have in classes.
- What percentage of students graduate each year? The graduation rate can tell you how challenging the program is and is indicative of how much academic support is available.
- What is the teacher to student ratio? If you thrive with lots of personal attention from your instructors, choose a school with a low ratio.
- What is the educational environment like? Gather facts about the school, such as the location of the campus, the school culture, and student demographics. It can also be helpful to learn more about the larger, off-campus community.
- Does the program offer online classes or in-person classes? Be sure that you are comfortable with the format of the classes to ensure your academic success.
- Are there opportunities for externships and extracurricular activities? If an externship is a requirement of the program for graduation, determine if it organized by the school or if you will be responsible for securing your own externship experience.
- What type of research is the institution producing? Look for institutions that are conducting reputable studies, particularly in your chosen field.
You have two basic options for graduate school:
- A master's degree
- A doctoral degree
Either degree can prepare you to become licensed as a therapist. Within these programs, however, there are many sub-specialties, so choose a school that meets your needs. If you wish to become a psychologist then you must pursue a doctoral degree, and you will likely choose between a research-oriented PhD and a counseling-oriented PsyD program.
Each school and graduate program will have requirements for graduation. These may include:
- A minimum grade point average
- Specific number of credit hours
- Core classes
- Thesis paper, dissertation, or culminating project
Be sure that you are fully aware of all of the requirements needed to graduate before you enroll, and that you have a plan for fulfilling those requirements. An admissions officer, academic advisor, or program administrator can likely answer any questions you have about graduation.
Attending graduate school in the United States is expensive; as such, it requires financial planning and preparation. There are a variety of expenses associated with obtaining a graduate degree:
- Application fees and the cost of the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)
- Tuition and school fees
- Books and supplies
- Cost of attending therapy, which may be required by your program
- Living and travel expenses
If you do not have adequate funds to cover educational costs out-of-pocket, you may qualify for federal student loans or grants. In addition, you may be able to receive a personal loan to help cover your educational expenses. It can be helpful to meet with an academic advisor and/or financial planner who can help you budget for graduate school costs.
In some cases, you may be eligible for scholarship funds. Certain schools or programs offer scholarships, fellowships, or grants to students depending on a variety of factors. Also, there are a number of private organizations that offer scholarships for graduate students. You usually have to complete an application process including written essays to be considered for scholarship money.
You will also have to decide whether or not you will work while in graduate school. If you will not work, consider the financial impact this may have on other areas of your life. Some graduate students are able to work full-time while in school, others part-time, and others choose not to work while they focus on their academic program. Consider too that many graduate programs for psychology require an internship. This internship can last anywhere from a couple of months to a year depending on the school; this might interfere with your regular work schedule and the internship may or may not be paid.
Clearly, there are many limiting factors that will guide your decision to choose one graduate program over another. Choosing the right program to match your educational needs and interests can ensure you are well equipped to enter the field upon graduation. While cost can be the most prohibitive factor for many people, make sure you also evaluate the reputation of the school, the psychology department, and its faculty.