Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD

Careers in Psych

Careers in Experimental Psychology: A College to Do List

A career in experimental psychology requires several important steps.

Posted Feb 15, 2017

So you want to get an MA/MS or PhD in Experimental Psychology. Do you know what things you need to do in order to achieve your goals? You may know some things, but we want to be a bit more detailed about the kinds of things—what we call “steps”—that lead to a career as an Experimental Psychologist. Most important in this regard is that your planning for a career should start as soon as possible. Some of these steps are accomplished by using your college connections and resources. Others, you need to venture into the community to accomplish. This post will consider steps you fulfill during your time in college and a later post will look at steps you can complete in the community or independently from college. 

1. Take the right courses.

In addition to your typical Psychology courses (Intro, Research Methods, Stats), you should take Psychology courses related to your specific area of interest. That is, if you are interested in memory make sure you take a course in Cognition, a lab course in Cognition, and even a seminar that covers a specific area of memory research. In addition to your Psychology courses, you will probably help yourself with graduate selection committees by taking challenging courses (e.g., math and science course).

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2. It is critical to do well in your courses.

It is not just taking the right courses you need to do well in these courses. Graduate schools will look at various grades: your overall GPA, Psychology GPA, minor (if you have one) GPA, last two years in college GPA, and year-to-year GPA. Also, if you did not get an A or B in a course you should probably repeat the course, especially if it was a Psychology course. Check out my blog post on repeating courses. 

3. Get involved in research.

There are a number of ways you can get research experience. You can get involved in research as a volunteer or as part of Independent study course. The latter will earn you credit hours and possibly increase your GPA if it counts as a graded course. Get even more involved in research by doing a Senior Honors thesis or some other research where you can get your name on a conference presentation or journal publication. Authorship is rare (especially for an undergraduate) and will really boost your standing when you apply to graduate school. Another advantage to working in a lab is that you get to know a faculty member who can write you a strong letter of recommendation when you are ready to apply to graduate school. Given you need more than one letter of recommendation it is probably best to work in two different labs as an undergraduate.

4. Be active in Psychology organizations.

In my world, I am always on the look out for students who are committed to Psychology. One way to show this is by becoming a member of Psi Chi (the National Honor Society In Psychology) or any Psychology club on campus.

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5. Interact with your Professors. 

It is very important that you start to interact with Professors right away. This can occur by making contributions in class or just going up to your Professors and having a conversation about issues in the field. These interactions can lead to being able to work in a Professor’s research lab, hearing about job opening that may be available in the Psychology department, and receiving letters of recommendations for graduate school. Remember, if a faculty member does not really know you or had you in only one class, there is a lower likelihood that the Professor will agree to write a letter for you or even knows you well enough to write a letter.

There are two important things to keep in mind with regard to letters of recommendation. First, a short letter of recommendation from a faculty member who does not know you well can sometimes be worse than no letter at all. Second, It is almost always better to have a letter of recommendation from a full-time Professor than an Instructor. For better or worse, the former simply has higher status than the latter.

6. Understand the importance of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). 

We have three Psychology Today blog posts about the GRE that you are free to read (e.g.,, but we will still go into some depth on this exam. To begin, if you are not clear about the GRE, you must understand that this is the standardized exam that almost everyone who applies to graduate school must take. It can be viewed as the “graduate SAT or ACT”. Because it is a standardized exam that means almost everyone across the country and even in the world takes the same exam in the same way on the computer. Also, be aware that most schools will want you to take the “regular” GRE that includes a verbal component, a quantitative component, and an analytical component. Some schools may want you to take a subject GRE exam in Psychology. Because of this, it is probably a good idea to keep your textbooks from your Psychology courses to help with your studying.

Your GRE scores are extremely important. Because the GREs are a standardized test, the argument is that this score allows each graduate school selection committee to compare your score in an equal fashion against all other applicants. This gets even more important if you are going to a college that is perceived as less strong academically. For example, if you go to the University of Kentucky (U.S. News and World Report college ranking of 129) and get a GRE score of 2200 and a student going to Harvard (U.S. News and World Report college ranking of 2) gets a GRE score of 2000 your application will likely be viewed as quite strong. Another way GRE scores can work for you is if you have only mediocre grades (e.g., a 3.20 overall GPA), but you score really high on the GRE this high score can, in effect, offset those modest grades.

As far as preparing for the GRE, some argue that you should begin preparing for the GRE by your sophomore year. This would involve using GRE practice books and software on a regular basis. One reason to use GRE software is that, because the GRE is only given on computer, you should familiarize yourself with this type of exam format.

As far as the three specific parts of the GRE, let’s talk about each. First, there is math. If you are pretty good in math and plan on taking at least some Math courses in college, you are putting yourself in a good position as you begin to study. However, if you do not feel you are good in math and have no plans to take a Math course in college beyond a freshman Algebra course you probably need to rethink your plans, and think about either taking more Math courses or get someone to tutor you on the math that will be covered in the GRE. Next, there is the analytical component. The same issues here apply as with math. There are courses you can take that will help you out with this section, like Logic. Finally, the verbal component of the GRE requires you to have a strong background in English. You may think you know the language well, but the GRE asks some pretty tough questions ranging from word definitions to comprehension of stories. One piece of advice is to Read, Read, Read. Over the years we have seen many bright students suffer on their verbal GRE scores because they just are not exposed enough to verbal information. For example, one of the best ways you can learn new words is by reading these words in a news article or novel.

We hope this information helps you think about planning for a career as an Experimental Psychologist. Good luck!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding, Dr. Lippert and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

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