Choosing a Psychology Graduate Program

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Psychology Graduate Program
Psychology Graduate Program

Pursuing a Masters or Doctoral degree in psychology involves a large investment of both time and money. Perhaps this is the way it should be. After all, you would not want to see a doctor who earned his degree cheaply and quickly. According to the APA’s 2010 information, (http://www.apa.org/workforce/publications/10-grad-study/table-27.pdf), 2008-2009 tuition at public institutions was about $7000, while private institutions cost about $27,000 per year. Add this to the opportunity cost of the time spent on graduate studies which could have been spent on economically gainful work, as well as the years of minimally paid practicums and internships, and we are talking about a very significant investment.

What are the factors one should weigh in choosing a program? Similar to choosing a house or car, there is no one right approach to this question. Some people have a need to be associated with a top brand name. In terms of graduate programs, this would translate into pursuing admission into a well-known institution with a corresponding price tag. While it can not be denied that prestigious colleges tend to lend a certain prestige to your resume, there a few things you need to consider before taking this approach:

  1.  Some well-known colleges emphasize professor’s publishing of research articles over their teaching skills or dedication to their students.
  2.  Some of the courses may be taught by professor’s assistants or adjuncts.

Allow me to share with you some of the considerations that I went through before deciding to pursue my doctoral degree in school psychology at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM), in the hope that this will be a helpful illustration of what the decision-making process may look like.

As a working school psychologist with a family, my first priority was to ensure that the graduate program I choose would be student friendly. In my mind, this meant that the program would respect the fact that I needed to balance my family and career obligations along with being a student. I spoke to several graduates of school psychology programs, and I discovered that PCOM’s school psychology program has a reputation for being very student friendly. As a Sabbath observer, it was also important to me that the graduate program would make accommodations for classes held on Saturday.

I called Dr. Rosemary Mennuti, the chair of the school psychology program to discuss my potential application to the program. I was impressed by how quickly she returned my call, as well as her friendly attitude. She also quickly allayed my fear that my religious observances would be a barrier, as she committed herself to make whatever accommodations were necessary. This translated into having a program assistant record a class held on Saturday and assigning me an independent study as a substitute for another Saturday course.

Beyond the consideration of that, the chosen program would be student-friendly, I was also concerned that the program’s theoretical orientation should be one that I could identify with. Many of the older psychology programs are aligned with the psychodynamic approach. This approach traditionally believed that the cause of present problems had to do with subconscious urges and conflicts as well as effects of early childhood upbringing. One of the goals of therapy was to make clients aware of these subconscious urges and conflicts so that they could then successfully resolve them. I had difficulty accepting this orientation, as it appeared to rely on speculation and was focused on the past rather than dealing directly with the presenting symptoms. By contrast, the cognitive-behavioral approach posits that negative behaviors and emotions are the results of cognitive distortions, which are incorrect perceptions of present events.

As an example, sixteen-year-old John asks a classmate, Linda, for a date and gets turned down. If John perceives the world as a rejecting him, he may attribute Linda’s rejection to his lack of redeeming virtues, such as looks or being witty. John may then avoid asking anyone else for a date due to his being convinced that no one would ever agree to date him. The CBT approach would indicate that successful treatment of John would involve teaching John the cognitive flexibility to explore many reasons for Linda’s rejection of his proposed date, such as Linda’s possibly already being involved with another boyfriend, or being too busy studying. This approach favorably impressed me as being realistic and being rooted in the present.

After being favorably impressed by the program director as well as the theoretical orientation of the program, I still was not yet ready to commit myself to the significant outlay of time and money without further research. I attended a conference lecture given by one of PCOM’s school psychology program’s key professors, Dr. George McCloskey, on the topic of executive functioning. I was impressed by both his obvious breadth of knowledge, his passion for his field, as well as his patience in fielding my questions. I also attended summer conference lectures given by PCOM’s professors and students. I was impressed not just by how much the students knew, but by the mutual respect that the students and professors showed each other. This proved to be a positive indication of things to come. As a student at PCOM, I felt that professors cared about me as a person and were committed to my individual success. I successfully obtained my PSY.D within the three years (post-master’s) that I had originally targeted.

To summarize, here are some of the steps you may want to take before committing yourself to a specific graduate program:

  1. Consider your priorities. Is it an affordable program, a brand name and what is the theoretical orientation?
  2. Ask around. Talk to people in the field to find out what the program’s reputation is, especially with regards to your chosen criteria. In my example, speaking to graduates of other psychology programs gave me the impression that PCOM’s school psychology program was student friendly.
  3. Make contact with your program’s director and faculty. Do you they impress you as people you are prepared to spend a large amount time with over the next few years?
  4. Try to meet with current students or graduates of the program. Are you favorably impressed with the quality of the students?

Hope you enjoyed reading & good luck in finding the right place for yourself!