Should You Go to Graduate School?
(adapted from Tara Kuther, Ph.D., Your Guide to Graduate School and http://gradschool.about.com/cs/shouldyougo/a/should.htm)
Is graduate school right for you? Only you can answer that question. Don't take the decision lightly. Consider your interests, goals, dreams, and abilities. Assess your skills, competencies, and weaknesses with brutal honesty. In-depth soul-searching is unpleasant, but vital to making a choice you can live with for the next two to seven years.
What are my career goals? Will graduate school assist me in meeting my career goals?
Some careers in psychology (such as those in human factors, industrial-organizational, forensics, school psychology, etc.) require education beyond the bachelors degree. A job as a college professor, researcher, clinical or counseling psychologist also requires an advanced degree.
What will I specialize in? What are my interests?
Whereas an undergraduate major is a broad introduction to the field of psychology, graduate school is very narrow and specialized. For example, grad school in psychology requires choosing a specialization such as experimental, clinical, counseling, developmental, social, or biological psychology to name just a few. Decide early because your choice determines the programs to which you'll apply. Consider your interests. What courses did you especially like? On what topics have you written papers? Seek advice from professors about the differences among the various specialties in a given field. Inquire about existing employment opportunities for each specialization. (see the Graduate School Information page)
Do I have the motivation for another two to seven years of school?
Graduate school is different from college because it requires a higher level of academic commitment. You must enjoy and excel at reading, writing, and analyzing information. Speak with professors and graduate students to get a better idea of what's involved in graduate study. Most first-year graduate students are overwhelmed and remark that they had no idea of what they were getting into. Seek out a faculty member's perspective for a reality check.
Do I have the academic and personal qualities to succeed?
Generally, it is expected that students will maintain at least a 3.5 average during graduate school and for many, getting a Cin any class constitutes failing. Some programs deny funding to students with less than a 3.33 average. Can you juggle multiple tasks, projects, and papers at once? Can you manage time effectively?
Going to graduate school affects the rest of your life. There are both pros and cons to continuing your education. Seek information from multiple sources including the career-counseling center, your family, graduate students, and professors. Take your time with it. Most importantly, trust your judgment and have faith that you'll make the choice that's best for you.
If you would like a more empirical assessment of what it takes to succeed in graduate school take the self report test developed by Patricia Keith-Spiegel to see whether grad school is a good choice for you THE UNVALIDATED GRADUATE SCHOOL POTENTIAL TEST.
Am I qualified to go to graduate school?
Perhaps the best way to begin thinking about what you need to do is to consider what the graduate schools are looking for in prospective students. The four most important factors are:
1. Your Transcript. Grades are important, with nearly all programs requiring at least a 3.0 GPA, and some of the more competitive programs rarely take students with less than a 3.75 GPA. In addition to your GPA, the admissions committee is also interested in the types of courses that you have taken. Most programs look for a student with a broad knowledge-base in psychology. The major at SRU is structured (through the Core and Core Elective courses) to provide students with that broad-based knowledge of the major sub-fields in psychology. Be aware that admission committees will pay particular attention to your grades in Statistics and Experimental Psychology/Lab. If your grades in these courses are marginal then your chances for acceptance into a graduate program are grim.
2. Test Scores. Most graduate programs require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), a standardized test that is similar in many ways to the all-too-familiar SAT. A fair number of schools also require the advanced subject test in psychology, so you should probably take it just so you will not have to limit the schools to which you apply. A smaller number of programs require the Miller Analogies Test (The Miller Analogies Test is a test of general knowledge), so you should examine your list of possible schools carefully to determine if you need to take this exam. Should you study for these exams? Some students show improved scores after taking a preparation course for the basic GRE. It may be worth the time and money to take one of these courses, and at the very least, you should go through the practice booklets. The advanced GRE in psychology should be taken at a time when you are at your peak of remembering the details of psychology. It is probably worthwhile going through a good introductory psychology text and your class notes to familiarize yourself with the major names, theories, etc. Schedule this advanced test on a separate day so you do not have to sit through nine hours of testing! There are books and computer programs available to help you prepare for all of these.
Letters of Recommendation. Most graduate programs require three letters of recommendation. You may find this alarming if you have never talked to a faculty member at SRU! This is another reason why research courses, field work, seminars and other advanced courses are important—it puts you in an environment where you can become known. Often, faculty members know more about you than you may think! If you have done exceptionally well in a course, it may be worth stopping by to have a chat with the faculty member to see if a letter of recommendation might be arranged. Don’t go empty handed: Bring along a copy of your transcript, and if available, a list of programs to which you may be applying and a draft of your personal statement. You may also have a letter from a professor in another department who knows you well. Usually, one letter from outside the department is fine, as long as you have two psychology faculty members. Some students solicit a letter of recommendation from outside the university (e.g., from a long-term employer) in addition to the basic three letters of recommendation. For clinical programs, it is recommended that you include a fourth letter from a supervisor who has seen you work with people. Ideally this would be an internship supervisor, but it could be a supervisor from a volunteer placement. Bear in mind that writing a letter of recommendation and sending it out to a list of schools is a considerable amount of work for the professor and very important to your future. To make this process as easy and as positive as possible please look at some websites for information on this process ("How to Get Good Letters of Recommendation"). Most students have their letters of recommendation sent directly to the graduate admissions committees. However, if you are going to apply a year or two after graduation, faculty members may forget you, or faculty members may move. You may want to consider setting up a letter of recommendation file before you leave.
Personal Statement. Going to graduate school is a major decision, and the admissions committees want to be sure that you have a genuine interest in their program and a commitment to see it to completion. Your personal statement ("Preparing a Personal Statement") should reflect your enthusiasm, your capabilities, and your interest in the field. Ask a faculty member or two to read a draft of your personal statement.
Can I afford to go to graduate school?
Yes. Most good Ph.D. programs offer tuition remission to full-time students and provide teaching assistantships, research assistantships, or fellowships for nearly all students they admit. This will not be enough to make payments on that fancy sports car you had in mind, but it does allow you to devote full time to your studies and pay for your room and board (you won’t have time to drive the car anyway).
How long does graduate school last?
You should plan on five years to obtain the Ph.D., although some may finish in four and a fair number take six or more. Students who have a focused research/academic career in mind frequently seek out a post-doctoral fellowship and spend a year or two beyond the Ph.D. conducting research in the laboratory of some specialist in their research field.
This sounds like you are spending half your life in school! In some ways, you will be spending all your life in school, or at least the pursuit of knowledge. The thing to remember is that once you get beyond your bachelor’s degree, you are really already in the professional world and doing the work that you have chosen as a career. It is not a lot different than starting at the bottom and working your way up in the corporate world.