Graduate Study in Psychology and Other Fields

Which Graduate Program is Right for Me?

Many psychology majors hope to become a mental health professional. Since there are so many different types of mental health professionals, it can be challenging to decide what type of program to attend, which determines what type one becomes.

Two quick questions can help most students determine what type of program to attend. By answering these two simple questions, you will greatly narrow the type of program to which you will apply. If you do not yet know the answer to these questions, don’t worry. With more experience and with some advising by Department of Psychology faculty, you will know by the time you will apply to a program.

First, are you interested in research or are you interested in practice? The vast majority of mental health professionals are practitioners, meaning they work directly with patients (individuals, groups or families in hospitals, schools or outpatient clinics). Thus the vast majority of mental health training programs train students to become practitioners.

Second, do you want to work with children and adolescents (and therefore families) or with adults? If you want to work with children and adolescents and their families, you should apply to programs that train in working with them (such as marriage and family therapy programs). If you want to work with older adults, then apply to programs that train in working with that population.

Most mental health professionals in a practice setting earned a master’s degree in a mental health field, including social work, counseling, or marriage and family therapy. These programs usually take two years to complete. Some hold a degree in medicine (i.e., psychiatry) or in nursing (e.g., advanced practice psychiatric nurse). Some have a doctorate in counseling or clinical psychology (either a Ph.D., Ed.D., or a Psy.D.). In most states, only mental health professionals with a doctoral degree in psychology are referred to as psychologists. Doctoral programs typically take at least five years to complete.

Keep in mind the difference between earning a degree, such as a master’s degree in social work (MSW), and earning a license as a mental health professional, such as a license in clinical social work (LCSW). Degrees are granted by graduate programs, and they are required to obtain the associated license. Licenses are granted by states, and they require both the associated degree but also, usually, additional practical experience under the supervision of a licensed practitioner.

In contrast, most mental health professionals who conduct research, such as at medical schools, colleges and universities, hold a doctoral degree. Most professors you have had have a Ph.D., which is the degree typically most closely associated with intensive research training. (Note that most Ph.D.s in clinical psychology are practitioners, however.)

For those non-majors visiting this page, bear in mind that a major in psychology is not necessary for admission to a graduate program to become a mental health professional. That said, most graduate programs require specific courses in psychology as a prerequisite (e.g., a course in abnormal psychology), and having taken advanced courses in psychology or a related field is definitely an advantage.

Further information about graduate study in psychology can be found at the American Psychological Association website.

Applying to Graduate School

Application to graduate school to obtain a master’s or doctorate is likely to require a personal statement, a CV, transcripts, test scores, and letters of recommendation, These are described below.

Personal Statement or “Statement of Purpose”

The personal statement is probably the most important aspect of an application. The personal statement is your opportunity to describe for the admissions committee (or the faculty member with whom you would like to work) your relevant extra-curricular experiences. Note that for many admissions committee members, high grades are less important than such factors as research and other relevant experiences, and the personal statement is where you can describe them.

The personal statement should explain to the program to which you are applying (1) who you are, (2) what you have done in your undergraduate career, (3) what you want to do for your professional career, (4) what experiences you have had that have led you to this career path, and (5) your reasons for applying to that particular program.

When preparing to write a statement, reflect on your experiences and how they have influenced your interests and your career goals. Choose programs carefully based on their fit with your interests and goals, so that you can write coherently about how attending that particular program will help you to meet your objectives. You need to explain why you and the school are a good “fit”; your philosophy, goals, and research interests should be compatible with those of faculty members in the department to which you are applying. Remember, it is those faculty members who will decide whether or not to accept you. Talk about your statement of purpose with faculty members here at Northwestern and with graduate students in our department. Be sure to have one or more faculty members read over your statement and give you feedback before you submit it.

Curriculum Vitae (CV)

Your curriculum vitae (CV) will be a summary of your “life of study.” Curricula vitae are simply a specific sort of resume.

Unlike a resume, CV’s almost never list an objective, and seldom have a long narrative profile. Unlike resumes, CV’s can run on for pages and pages. They should, however, be very neatly organized, with clear headings and distinct conceptual division, so that they can be skimmed as easily as a two-page resume. CV’s usually contain many categories of information (under headings), such as “Education,” “Research Experiences,” and “Volunteer Experiences.”

Various versions of CVs can be found on the internet, such as at: 


Applications will include your academic transcript, which will show courses taken and grades received. Admissions committees will want to see that you have challenged yourself by taking upper-level courses and that you have done well. That said, for many admissions committee members, high grades are less important than such factors as research experience and strong letters of recommendation. While a GPA of 2.8 may exclude you from consideration, it may not matter at all whether your GPA is 3.6 or 3.7. our coursework. For some areas of psychology, a strong background in math and science is important.

Test Scores

All doctoral programs and many (but not all) master’s-level programs require the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) general test. Some will also require the subject test in psychology, and a few require scores on the Miller Analogies Test. Doing well on the GRE is important for some programs, but other programs will emphasize more heavily research and practical experiences.

A good source of practice materials, as well as other information about both general and subject tests, is the GRE website. In deciding when to take these tests, keep in mind that application materials for many graduate programs are due during the fall preceding the year in which you plan to enter.

Letters of Recommendation

Students hoping to enter graduate or professional schools will typically need to submit letters of recommendation from three or more persons. These are most typically faculty members that know the student well, usually from extra-curricular experiences, such as lab experience or peer tutoring.

To obtain good LORs, send an email to the faculty member and ask for a meeting, wherein you will ask them if they would be willing and able to write you a good letter of recommendation. This meeting will give you and them to review the work you have done under them, to discuss your career goals, to discuss your reasons for applying to the programs to which you are applying, and generally to give them a chance to write a letter that is both accurate in its description of you and also supportive of your application.

To get a good letter, provide the faculty member with your CV. Include a description of what you have done with them (e.g., volunteered in lab, taken a course, etc.). Provide information about what your career goals are and how applying to those particular programs fits with those goals. Perhaps provide details regarding why you are applying to what programs (e.g., “Professor Smith at this college studies the eating disorders, which is a particular interest of mine” or “The program emphasizes children who have been through traumatic experiences, which is the population I wish to work with in the future”).

Provide a general description of when letters are due. Note that most programs nowadays use electronic portals for submission of all applications, including LORs, and tell them that they will receive notification of the letter request from the program after you begin the application process. Two final points. First, give the letter writer plenty of time to write the LOR. Second, ask the letter writer whether it would be okay to send a gentle reminder about the deadline if it is forthcoming and their LOR has not yet been received (which you will usually be able to tell at the application portal).