Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Grad School Guru

Applying to Graduate School For Career Changers, Part 1

Special considerations for those who are shifting career paths to psychology

Posted Apr 12, 2013

Coming from a background different than psychology and having some years of experience out of college can enhance your application, but it also presents hurdles that those with Bachelors degrees in psychology (or work experience in the field) might not contend with. Success for career changing applicants requires extra effort to convince admissions committees that they are prepared for graduate school in psychology. In this post and in an upcoming post, I will discuss five important aspects of applications that career changers should think about well in advance of submitting materials to graduate schools.

Prerequisite Courses

Graduate programs vary greatly in the minimum undergraduate psychology coursework that is required for admission. Some programs (usually Masters level programs) require a certain number of credit hours of psychology coursework; others require more specifically that certain courses were completed (e.g., statistics, methods, developmental psychology). Still other programs, keep the issue of undergraduate coursework loose. They might indicate that applicants are required to have a “strong background in psychology,” but do not set specific amounts of required previous credit hours. This is often the case with Ph.D. programs. An applicant’s psychology background and whether or not it is strong enough for admission is considered on a case-by-case basis. Finally, there are also some programs that do not have any required undergraduate coursework. To find out what the requirements are for the programs to which you are applying (or thinking of applying), check the “admissions requirements” section of the department or program website.

Career changers face the challenge of determining whether or not credits they previously completed fit the grad program’s requirement (e.g, does the statistics I took for my finance degree meet the statistics prerequisite for a masters in psychology?). This can be particularly hard for those who completed their undergraduate education in a different country. Communicating directly with the graduate coordinators of the programs you will be applying to about the courses you’ve completed and whether or not they meet the programs’ prerequisites is often the only way to get solid answers to this type of question. 

For those who need to fulfill prerequisite course requirements before applying to graduate programs, enrolling in non-degree credits at your local college or university will likely do the trick, provided that you perform well in the courses. For those seeking a foundation in psychology, I recommend considering a certificate program. Certificate programs can be good solution for career changers coming from backgrounds that are very different from psychology. In a certificate program, you will not only learn about the most important theories and form foundational knowledge of psychological science, but you will also have the chance to build relationships with psychology faculty (i.e., potential letter of recommendation authors), learn about current trends in the field, and have greater opportunities to gain hands-on experience in research.

The GRE

PhD and PsyD programs require applicants to submit GRE scores; many Masters programs do as well. If you have taken the GRE within the last 5 years and are happy with the scores you achieved, good for you! This is one part of the application process that is complete (aside from the paperwork of actually sending official score reports). If you have never taken the GRE, your scores are over 5 years old, or you want to re-take the exam to try for higher scores, this is a hurdle. For career changers, it can be a more significant one than for those who are applying to graduate school just out of college. Studying should be a major part of preparing for the GRE. Those who are career changers may face one or more of the following challenges associated with adequately preparing for the GRE: (1) current career and family time demands, (2) being out of practice with testing taking in general, and (3) having lost expertise with the content being tested.

This means that career changers should expect to spend more time preparing for the GRE and make the appropriate adjustments to and allowances in their study schedule and general application timeline. While I usually recommend that applicants who are still undergraduates (or a year out of school) spend a summer preparing for the GRE, those who are further afield from academic life might want to schedule at least six months of preparation time.

Framing Your Previous Experience

If you have years of stellar experience and many accomplishments in another field, you are probably, understandably proud of this! You will be inclined to highlight it in your graduate school applications. It is important to understand though that pointing out your experience in a different field will probably not convince admissions committees that you are prepared for a career and graduate study in psychology, unless you frame it that way.

Make it clear for the committee that the experience you’ve garnered is actually applicable and helpful for your future career in psychology. For example, stating that you were the sole person at your company who was responsible for conducting first-round interviews with job candidates will not jump out as being applicable to your ability to be a successful psychologist. Describing how this experience helped you hone your skills at building rapport and seeking pertinent information in an interpersonal setting, however, and explaining that you believe this will be important in future interactions with clients will help you appear prepared for the training the graduate program provides.

Career changers should consider what skills they have developed in their current careers that will be applicable to graduate school when preparing application essays and CVs/resumes. For example, if you are applying to a counseling-based graduate program (e.g., MSW, MFT, Counseling Psychology, Clinical Psychology), have you been involved with team-building exercises, facilitating group interactions, one-on-one mentoring, or other interpersonal tasks? In your application essay, explain what you did and how it will help you build counseling skills.

Similarly, if you are applying to a research-based degree program, what types of data collection and/or analysis were you exposed to in your past career? Have you evaluated programs, presented results, or interpreted others’ studies? If so, include this in your application materials. In both the case of clinically- and research-oriented experience developed outside of the field of psychology, always remember to add a disclaimer that reflects that you are aware of differences between the fields. Include something along the lines of this statement: “Although these skills were used in a different context, I am confident that they will be applicable to and useful in my graduate training.” 

IMPORTANT: Even if you take this advice about optimally framing your skills built in prior careers, and do it well, convincing an admissions committee that the experiences you’ve had in another field have prepared you for psychology will probably not be enough to grant you admission. Rather, you also need to show your commitment to psychology by seeking volunteer experiences that relate to your desired career. Stay tuned because this will be covered in the next post.

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