How to Take a Ph.D. Program in Psychology

Being accepted into a Ph.D. program is very competitive. Once accepted, the program itself requires intensive work and is typically a long road (perhaps, 8 - 12 years of training beyond high school). Be prepared to work hard, especially as a graduate student. To be successful, you really need to find an area of psychology that you feel passionate about.


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    Earn your high school diploma or GED. While in high school:
    • try to complete at least one course in psychology
    • try to attend at least one psychology convention such as the American Psychological Association (APA) or one of the regional psychological associations such as: Eastern Psychological Association (EPA), the Midwestern Psychological Association (MPA)
    • become familiar with the web site of the American Psychological Association.
    • visit the psychology department at a local college or university. Try to attend a few psychology classes and/or a meeting of their psychology club. Talk with some of the faculty, graduate students or advanced undergraduate students about their research and what it is like being an undergraduate and a graduate student.
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    Earn a college degree. While in college:
    • Complete basic courses in a variety of areas of psychology.
    • Complete introduction to psychology, basic statistics and basic research methods as early as possible in your undergraduate career.
    • Complete advanced psychology courses (including some graduate level courses if offered at your university) in areas related to your desired area of psychology. While you do not necessarily have to major in psychology to enter a graduate program in psychology, you most likely will need to demonstrate competency in your area of interest as well as in the field as a whole.
    • Become very involved in doing research with a faculty member, or a few faculty members in your area of interest. Aim to have completed several conference papers and/or refereed journal articles prior to graduation as the most competitive candidates will have done this.
    • Assume a leadership role in your school's psychology club and/or Psi Chi chapter. If your school does not have such an organization work with your adviser and department chair to establish one.
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    During your junior year of college begin to look for a graduate program that will meet your interests. The competent candidate will be familiar with the faculty at the school which they are applying to. The ideal candidate will also have developed a professional reputation so that the faculty are familiar with them also.
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    Remember, most graduate PhD and PsyD programs at leading universities are highly selective. There are often many applicants for each slot. To up your chances of being accepted you need to have established a reputation in the field as an undergraduate. You need the best possible recommendations from psychology faculty. Also, you need to apply to more than one program.
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    You will need a Curriculum Vitae (CV) , letters of recommendation, copies of your research publications (if applicable) statements of intent and, most likely, GRE scores. You can get help from most undergraduate college in drafting and revising the CV and letters of intent. Remember, the best letters of recommendation will go to the students who have been actively involved in faculty members research for one or more years.
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    Make sure all application materials arrive well before the deadlines.
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    Wait to hear back-- be prepared to do an interview, phone or in person. If they expect you to interview in person, many schools will reimburse your travel expenses.
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    If you hear back from more than one school, make a selection as quickly as possible amongst the schools you have been admitted to. If you have not already done so, visit your first choice school. Meet the faculty and other graduate students in your area of interest. Confirm that it is really where you want to be.
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    If you don't get accepted the first time around you can apply again. Look into other possible areas/schools that may not be as coveted and apply. In the mean time try to gain extra experience by getting a job that will increase your knowledge and experience in the field. Volunteer in research labs or crisis centers. Practice interviewing, polish your CV and don't let rejection stand in your way. There is always another chance!


  • While the opportunity may not be available to everyone, the truly exceptional high school student will have presented some of their original research at a professional conference as a high school student.
  • The competitive graduate school applicant will have been actively involved in research as a junior and senior in college. Some exceptional students will have commenced their involvement in research earlier in their college career.
  • The truly competitive applicant for graduate school will have published and/or presented their research at a professional conference as an undergraduate.
  • Truly competitive candidates to graduate school will receive either a university fellowship, a graduate research assistant or a graduate teaching associate appointment as part of their acceptance package. Compensation should cover all university expenses and provide sufficient income to support oneself through graduate school (assuming one is very careful about spending money).


  • Graduate school is a big commitment, especially a Ph.D. program. It is time and work intensive, so you must understand what the program you are interested in expects from you, what the timeline of taking courses, comprehensive examinations, writing your dissertation and graduating will be. Consider your finances and investigate the kinds of work opportunities available that will allow you to gain experience, reduce tuition costs and that pay a stipend. If you do not receive financial support from your graduate school you need to seriously reconsider whether or not you wish to attend and assume a great amount of debt.

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Categories: Psychology Studies