Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Grad School Guru

Knowing Is Half the Battle (Part 2)

What Type of Graduate Program Should You Apply To?

Posted Nov 17, 2010

PhD Tam

In this two-part post, my goal is to help you decide which degree is the right degree for you to pursue. To do this, I have categorized and described graduate degree programs in psychology. The degrees are arranged in three categories: the practical degrees, the research degrees, and the hybrid degrees. This categorization is based on the type of career for which those who have earned the degree are eligible. In this post, I will focus on the research and hybrid degrees. Please see the previous post for a discussion of the practical degrees.

The Research Degrees
If you earn a research degree, you will be qualified to become a teacher or researcher (or a combination of both). You will not be eligible to practice in a clinical setting unless you continue on to complete additional training. The research degrees are generally the route to take if your goal is to become a university professor or college instructor. The research degrees include:

PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy) in Cognitive, Developmental, Social, Personality Psychology, or Neuroscience
PhD programs are designed to train researchers. If you are interested in conducting research in a specialized area of psychology for the long term, this might be the appropriate degree for you. PhD students in basic (as opposed to applied) research areas are expected to spend a good deal of time in a laboratory setting and conduct multiple research projects. At first, you will be expected to assist with your faculty advisor´s research program. By the time you are nearing graduation, you will be expected to have begun developing your own research program. Although research takes priority, PhD students must also complete coursework. Applicants should be aware that PhD coursework usually involves a series of classes in statistics. Dissertations are required, as are written and oral comprehensive exams in most programs. PhD programs generally take 4-6 years to complete.

MA/MS in General Psychology
A Masters degree in General Psychology provides students with more in-depth knowledge of psychology theories and research skills (including some courses in statistics) than an undergraduate program. This degree can be an excellent bridge between a Bachelor´s Degree and admission to a PhD program. It gives those who aren´t ready to commit to a PhD program a chance to learn more about the field and get more research experience. About 2 years of coursework is required and students are usually given the option to complete a thesis.

The Hybrid (Scientist-Practitioner) Degrees
There are two degrees that will train you to be either a practitioner or a researcher/teacher. While both of these degrees strongly emphasize research, they will also prepare students for practical careers if they choose that path. The hybrid degrees include:

PhD in Clinical Psychology
A PhD in Clinical Psychology can be thought of as a mixture of a PhD in basic research and a PsyD with training in diagnostic and therapeutic practice. Thus, students must dedicate themselves to both multiple research projects and supervised clinical practice, both in the area of diagnosing and treating mental disorders. Like PhD programs in basic research, coursework, mastery of some statistical skills, comprehensive exams, and a dissertation are required. Like PsyD programs, a year-long clinical internship is also required. Therefore, those who have PhDs in Clinical Psychology can begin careers as either a researcher/teacher at a University or hospital or as a practitioner. A PhD in Clinical Psychology on average takes 5 or 6 years to complete. Upon graduation, additional requirements must be met (i.e., supervised hours, exams) to become a Licensed Psychologist.

PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology
A PhD in I/O Psychology prepares students to either do basic research as a faculty member at a University or applied research as a professional in an organization. In graduate school, I/O students concentrate on research that addresses a wide variety of issues related to the workplace and organizations in general. Since I/O psychologists are often regarded as experts in measurement, the coursework required for a PhD in I/O Psychology tends to be particularly heavy in statistics in comparison to other curricula. Like the basic research PhD programs, comprehensive exams and a dissertation are required. An internship in an organizational setting is also required. Those who have PhDs in I/O Psychology can begin careers as either a researcher/teacher at a University, as a professional within a corporation or government organization, or as an independent consultant.

One other important difference between the practice and research degrees: Money
As a rule-of-thumb, you can expect to pay tuition for practical degree programs. This makes admission to them somewhat less competitive. Conversely, the research and hybrid degrees are generally assistantship-based. That is to say, if you are admitted, you are usually awarded an assistantship (most commonly in research or teaching). When you have an assistantship, you are expected to dedicate a certain number of hours per week towards a task, such as grading undergraduate exams, managing a large study, maintaining research equipment, or teaching a course. In return, the University will pay you a modest stipend and, in some cases, pay for or defray the cost of your health insurance. If you have an assistantship, your tuition will also usually be waived for the most part (you may need to pay a token amount - for example, I think I paid $25 per semester in tuition). While this is, overall, a good system for both students (who get at least some pay and good experience) and universities (who get good, cheap help), the downside is that it makes admission to programs that offer assistantships highly competitive.


Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: www.gradadmissionsconsulting.com to learn more about improving your graduate school application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.