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Thinking about Careers in Psychology?

  1. Do I need a graduate degree in Psychology to get the job I want?
  2. Graduate School Information
  3. Careers in Clinical Psychology
  4. Careers in Cognitive Psychology
  5. Careers in Developmental Psychology
  6. Careers in Industrial and Organizational Psychology
  7. Careers in Social and Personality Psychology


Do I need a graduate degree in psychology to get the job I want?
Practicing clinical psychologists and research and academic psychologists in the other sub-fields typically have graduate degrees. A master's degree typically requires two-three years beyond the bachelor's degree, while a doctoral degree typically requires four-six years beyond the bachelor's degree. However, psychology graduates with bachelor's degrees can go on to work in mental health and business settings. Psychology graduates may work as research assistants, with chemical dependency patients, or in a human resources office. Research assistant positions provide an opportunity for bachelors-level graduates to be employed in the scientific academic sub-fields of psychology. For more information see the Career Development and Placement Services website.

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Graduate School Information

Applying to graduate school is a detailed process that requires a great deal of initiative and planning. Graduate school admission is more competitive than undergraduate admission. It is important to:

  • keep up your grade-point average
  • build your resume by showing leadership and involvement in campus groups
  • become a research assistant (perhaps most important, especially for Ph.D. programs)
  • volunteer at a community service agency
  • complete an internship (with or without receiving credit).

A master's degree typically involves completing research projects and may involve a competency exam. A doctoral degree involves additional research (for the dissertation) and a competency exam. A Ph.D. program will require you to conduct research, analyze data, and write many papers.

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Careers in Clinical Psychology
Clinical psychology is a branch of psychology devoted to understanding mental health problems in individuals and developing effective treatments for the full spectrum of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety disorders, interpersonal difficulties, psychotic disorders). Clinical psychologists are service providers, many of whom work in clinical settings while others choose academic careers or careers in consulting. Clinical psychologists are skilled in clinical practice as well as research on clinical problems and clinical interventions. Before committing yourself to pursuing a career in clinical psychology it is essential to consider the following:

  • Competitive Field: Due to its popularity, clinical psychology is quite a competitive field to enter. A doctoral degree is required for licensure for clinical practice in all states and entering a graduate school program to meet this goal is a significant commitment. Typically graduate school admission committees consider students' GPA, GRE scores, letters of recommendation from faculty members (three letters are usually required), and prior experiences in research and clinical work.
  • Alternatives: Clinical psychology is not the only professional field for those who want to help alleviate psychological problems. There are many programs for alternative careers in the helping professions, including social work (which also includes clinical social work), counseling psychology, guidance counseling, school psychology, student affairs, rehabilitation psychology. Related majors include Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS), Counselor Education (CNED), and Rehabilitation Science (REHAB).
  • Clinical Experience: Clinical psychologists treat and research many types of people and types of clients. If you can, you should seek some on-the-job experiences during your undergraduate years (e.g., related work experiences, full-or part-time internships). In many of these activities you will not be paid but you can earn credit in Psychology 495 (Practicum). You can find a listing of Human Service agencies in the Blue Pages of your telephone directory. Review the agencies and call the ones that serve the clients in whom you are interested. Tell them that you are interested in supervised experience. Talk with your advisor about Psy 495.
  • Research Experience: If a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology is your goal, then pre-graduate school research experience is a must. Most successful candidates for graduate clinical training programs have spent time as undergraduates assisting professors and graduate students in their labs doing various psychological research activities. Seeking out a research lab early will be highly valuable experience and will provide you with some appreciation of what will be required as a graduate student.
  • Master's degree: Many helping professions offer somewhat limited opportunities to those who do not have a doctoral degree. Other fields, such as social work, offer many opportunities to masters-level professionals (in the case of social work, the M.S.W.). One might choose to enter a masters-level program with the plan to transfer later to a doctoral program. Doctoral-level programs vary, however, in the extent to which they give credit for a masters degree earned elsewhere.
  • Ph.D. vs. Psy.D.: There are two doctorates in clinical psychology: the Ph.D. and the Psy.D. In addition to the requirements mentioned above, a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology will promote a balance of research and clinical training. The Psy.D. is a program that emphasizes preparation for applied work as a clinician. It is not a research-oriented degree. Psy.D. programs are often free-standing institutions known sometimes as Schools of Professional Psychology. They often (but not always) select students who already have several years of experience in clinical setting.

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Careers in Cognitive Psychology
Psychology is the science of behavior. Cognitive psychology is concerned with mental processes and their effects on human behavior and focuses on phenomena such as: sensation, perception, motor control, attention, memory, learning, language, reasoning, problem solving, and decision making. Cognitive psychology is an empirical science and depends on careful experimental procedures and paradigms to test theories about these mental processes.

See The Cognitive Science Society for more details.

Careers in Developmental Psychology
Developmental psychology is concerned with the behavioral, affective, and cognitive characteristics of human beings from conception to death. Major research issues in the field include categorization and concept formation, environmental influences on development, temperament, age changes in information processing, peer relationships, family relationships, social cognition, moral development, gender roles, memory development, and moral development. Researchers study infants, young children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly. Both experimental studies and studies in natural settings are conducted by developmental researchers.

Career Options
Developmental psychologists take professional positions in colleges, universities, research institutions, and other settings (e.g., medical centers). See APA Division 7, Developmental Psychology,  APA Division 20, Adult Development and Aging, and APA Division 53, Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology for more details.

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Careers in Industrial and Organizational Psychology
Industrial and organizational psychologists are dedicated to applying psychology to people in the workplace. Their field of psychology tries to understand and measure human behavior to improve employees' satisfaction in their work, employers' ability to select and promote the best people, and to generally make the workplace better for the men and women who work there. They do this by creating tests and by designing products such as training courses, selection procedures and surveys.

Career Options
Industrial and organizational psychologists direct consulting and executive search firms, work for leadership centers, corporations and companies as well as universities. And at this juncture in U.S. economic history, with highly qualified people--from the hourly wage earning ranks to executive boardrooms--being vital to business success, industrial and organizational psychologists are in position to play major roles in aiding corporations and companies manage their workforces.

Research Topics Explored by Industrial and Organizational Psychologists
I-O practitioners conduct a wide range of research and studies designed to provide information about all phases of the workplace. For example, stigmas in organizations (weight, physical attractiveness, sexual orientation, disability, religious beliefs, race); sexual harassment; the role of personality traits in the hiring process; barriers to successful employment of workers with disabilities; workplace culture, particularly when companies merge; selection of law enforcement officers; reducing absenteeism, workplace aggression; what attracts individuals to certain organizations, and the leadership behaviors of women as managers are just a few of the studies being done by I-O psychologists.

Becoming an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist
The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychologist publishes Graduate Training Programs in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and Related Fields (which is on the SIOP website). Each program listed has the name of a person you can contact to get more information. You must contact each program for up-to-date information.

Some Standard Criteria for Assessing Graduate Programs

  1. All graduate programs in I-O (distance learning or other) should conform to the "Guidelines for Education and Training at the Master's (Doctoral) Level in Industrial-Organizational Psychology" (available on the SIOP website). This includes requiring coursework in history/systems, biological bases of behavior, learned bases of behavior, social bases of behavior, individual differences, data collection and analysis skills, and core I-O domains.
  2. Look at the ratio of applicants to the number of applicants accepted; the number of applicants accepted to the number of applicants who actually enroll; and the number of faculty to the number of students.
  3. What percentage of students actually complete their degree (i.e., attrition rate)?
  4. What is the average time taken to complete a degree?
  5. What are the GPA and GRE scores of accepted applicants?
  6. What financial aid is available? This includes assistantships, scholarships, teaching opportunities, and so forth.
  7. Ask whether or not the curriculum supports national/state/local licensure requirements. This applies to (at least) three separate issues. First, most licensing boards require the license applicant to take certain specific courses during graduate school (i.e., biological psych, ethics, abnormal psych, etc.). Second, most licensing boards have other requirements about actually being in residence at a school. For example, in New Jersey licensure as a psychologist requires that "...the doctoral degree must be based on at least 40 doctoral credit hours earned...within a doctoral program requiring personal attendance at the degree-granting institution." Third, some licensing boards require applicants to have documented "practicum" experience ("hands-on real-world experience that has been closely supervised by a licensed psychologist").
  8. What is the breadth of the program? What is covered in terms of content in I-O focused courses? Does the coursework cover the entire spectrum of I-O? Is it just an "O" (or "I") program? What about the "scientist-practitioner" emphasis-is one favored more than the other?
  9. Is there a business school available where there are other courses to take (i.e., compensation, strategy, etc.) and other faculty and students to interact with? How much collaboration exists between the business school and the I-O program? How much collaboration exists not only within the psychology department, but among psychology faculty/students of different disciplines (e.g., social, personality, developmental, cognitive, experimental, etc.)?

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Careers in Social and Personality Psychology
Social psychology is a branch of psychology devoted to understanding the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to others. By exploring forces within the person (such as traits, attitudes, and goals) as well as forces within the situation (such as social norms and incentives), personality and social psychologists seek to unravel the mysteries of individual and social life in areas as wide-ranging as prejudice, romantic attraction, persuasion, friendship, helping, aggression, conformity, and group interaction. Although personality psychology has traditionally focused on aspects of the individual, and social psychology on aspects of the situation, the two perspectives are tightly interwoven in psychological explanations of human behavior.

A Scientific Approach
At some level, we are all personality and social psychologists, observing our social worlds and trying to understand why people behave, think, and feel as they do. But personality and social psychologists go beyond pondering such questions and their possible answers. If the lives of individuals and social groups are full of mystery, then personality and social psychologists are the detectives investigating these mysteries. Systematically observing and describing people's actions, measuring or manipulating aspects of social situations, these sleuths use the methods of science to reveal the answers to the kinds of puzzling questions we each encounter every day.

Basic and Applied Research
Scientists in all fields distinguish between basic and applied research. Basic research in personality and social psychology tends to focus on fundamental questions about people and their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Where does an individual's personality come from? What causes us to fall in love, hate our neighbor, or join with others to clean our neighborhoods? How are the psychologies of being male and female similar, how are they different, and why? How does culture shape who we become and how we interact with one another? Questions such as these aim at the very heart of human nature.

Applied research in personality and social psychology focuses on more narrow arenas of human life, such as health, business, and law. By employing the lessons learned from basic research, and by searching for insights specific to particular domains, applied research often seeks to enhance the quality of our everyday lives. Personality and social psychologists contribute to areas as diverse as health, business, law, the environment, education, and politics. For example, personality and social psychologists have designed, implemented, and evaluated programs to help employers hire and train better workers; to make it easier for people with cancer to cope successfully with their challenge; to increase the likelihood that people will reduce pollution by relying on public transportation; to reduce prejudices and intergroup conflict in the classroom and in international negotiations; to make computers and other technologies more user-friendly; and to make many other societal contributions as well.

Career Options
Because personality and social psychologists combine an understanding of human behavior with training in sophisticated research methods, they have many opportunities for employment. Many psychologists teach and do research in universities and colleges, housed mostly in departments of psychology but also in departments of business, education, political science, justice studies, law, health sciences, and medicine. The research of such individuals may be based in the laboratory, in the field, in the clinic, or in historical archives. Many personality and social psychologists are employed in the private sector as consultants, researchers, marketing directors, managers, political strategists, technology designers, and so on. Personality and social psychologists also work in government and nonprofit organizations, designing and evaluating policy and programs in education, conflict resolution, environmental protection, and the like.

Becoming a Social/Personality Psychologist
Although some personality and social psychologists go to graduate school to earn a terminal master's degree (M.S. or M.A.), most seek a doctoral degree (Ph.D.). For some careers, a master's degree may be sufficient. Generally, however, the doctorate is preferred by employers and is usually necessary for employment as a professor at a university or college.

Most Ph.D. programs in personality and social psychology require four-to-five years of training and study. The goal of most programs is similar: To prepare each student to become an independent, professional researcher. As a result, most programs teach the conceptual foundations and knowledge of the discipline, develop the student's ability to think theoretically, and train the student in research methodology, data analysis, and research writing and presentation. Programs differ, however, in the areas of research they focus on and in their emphasis on training students for academic versus nonacademic careers. Because graduate training revolves around research, it is important that students pay particular attention to the specific faculty members with whom they are likely to work. Prospective students should give full consideration not only to the perspectives and research activities of a potential graduate program on the whole, but also to those of their probable faculty mentors.

Admission to graduate programs in personality and social psychology is very competitive; there are far more applicants than openings (most programs enroll just a few new students each year). As a result, entry qualifications are rigorous: Most admitted students have earned high undergraduate grades and a bachelor's degree from an accredited university or college; many have been undergraduate psychology majors, although this isn't a requirement in many programs; most have had experience doing psychology research; most have demonstrated strong quantitative, verbal, and analytical abilities, as revealed in their scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE); and most have been evaluated by their undergraduate teachers in confidential letters of recommendation as being smart, talented, creative, hard-working, and conscientious. Of course, different programs have different standards and criteria for admission, and the prospective student should explore those articulated by programs of interest.

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