Preparation for Graduate School

Career Opportunities

Career opportunities for working in the field of psychology are generally proportional to the amount of graduate education you have completed. Jobs requiring psychological skills are available in large corporations; public agencies at the federal, state, county, and city levels; private consulting; private practice; and at the community college level for those with only a Master's degree level of higher of education.

This page is designed to help students prepare for graduate study in Psychology, whether it be here at Sacramento State or at another university.

Sacramento State Coursework to Help Prepare for Graduate Study

The courses listed below are Sacramento State courses that provide a strong background in psychology and prepare students for tests like the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which is required for admission to many graduate programs. Many of these also meet area requirements for the major. The list includes many more courses than the minimum number of required upper division units for the major. Students should meet with one or more faculty advisors when planning their psychology major; there is sufficient flexibility in the major for you to choose courses tailored to your unique set of interests.
  • PSYC 102 Foundations of Psychological Research: II (4 units)
  • PSYC 103 Perception (3 units)
  • PSYC 110 Cognitive Psychology (3 units)
  • PSYC 111 Introduction to Physiological Psychology (3 units), or
  • PSYC 115 Introduction to Neuroscience (4 units)
  • PSYC 120 Psychological Testing (3 units)
  • PSYC 130 Personality Theories (3 units)
  • PSYC 145 Social Psychology (3 units)
  • PSYC 148 Child Psychology (3 units)
  • PSYC 168 Abnormal Psychology (3 units)
  • PSYC 190 History and Systems of Psychology (3 units)
  • PSYC 194 Cooperative Research (1-6 units), and/or
  • PSYC 199 Special Problems (1-6 units)

NOTE:  Psych 102 is required for admission to the Sacramento State Psychology M.A. program.

Any Major Advisor in the Psychology Department can advise students planning to pursue graduate study.

Types of Graduate Programs in Psychology

Students who want to pursue a career in psychology can apply to either a master's or a doctoral program. It is not necessary to obtain a Master's degree in order to enter a doctoral program, although some students can increase their chances for acceptance into a doctoral program by completing a preparatory master's degree. Sacramento State offers only the Master's degree.

Master's Degree Programs: Master's degree programs can provide career-oriented training in such fields as counseling, industrial, and quantitative psychology. Master's programs can also prepare students for doctoral programs if the appropriate courses are chosen. Students whose academic records are not quite strong enough for immediate admission into a doctoral program, or who currently have limited geographic mobility but intend to pursue doctoral studies later, should benefit from a master's program with a doctoral preparation emphasis.

Doctoral Programs: The Ph.D. is the traditional professional degree for psychologists. Ph.D. programs provide specialty training for many different areas within psychology, such as:

  • Clinical
  • Counseling (often housed in Colleges of Education)
  • Developmental
  • Cognitive
  • Industrial/Organizational
  • Neuroscience
  • Social
  • Personality

Students apply to a Ph.D. program for study in a specific specialty area. Many professional schools and some universities offer a Psy.D. program for students whose interests are limited to the practice of counseling and psychotherapy or to the applied aspects of industrial/organizational psychology.

Identifying Possible Graduate Programs

You should consider applying to a large variety of schools in a number of different locations if you have geographic mobility. These schools should be selected according to the type of graduate program they offer, the strengths of their faculty, and their admission requirements. Graduate programs can be found by:

  1. Reading Graduate Study in Psychology and Related Fields, published by the American Psychological Association (this is available in the Sacramento State Library)
  2. Speaking with Psychology faculty members
  3. Writing to prospective departments for brochures
  4. Most U.S. Universities publish information about their graduate programs online.

Cost of the Application Process

Most universities charge a processing fee of about $15 to $50. Applying to a dozen schools might cost about $500. While this may seem expensive, it is a worthwhile investment if you can gain admission to a program which matches your interests well. You should not let the cost of the application process deter you from applying to a suitable variety of programs.

Cost of Attending Graduate School

Financial support for doctoral students (other than student loans) usually comes either as an assistantship or as a fellowship (the name for a graduate scholarship). Research or teaching assistantships are much more common than fellowships. Almost all research and teaching assistantships also include a tuition waiver for both in-state and out-of-state students. While you may need to support yourself for the first year of doctoral studies, the chances are generally very good that some financial assistance will be available for the second year and beyond. Professional schools offering the Psy.D. degree are generally more expensive than universities offering the Ph.D. degree, although student loans are also widely available for those programs.

For more information about graduate study in psychology, visit

Suggestions for Applying to Graduate Schools

The following suggestions are based on our experiences at Sacramento State and an article written by two psychologists at the University of Nevada, Reno [For undergraduate students: How to apply to graduate school. (1989, September). APS Observer, pp. 17-19. ]. You should discuss these suggestions with your faculty advisor.

Grade point average (GPA):  Admissions committees will be looking at the GPA for your entire academic history as well as for your recent coursework (e.g., the last 60 units). If your GPA is lower than it should be, you may want to consider:

  • Retaking some courses in which you have performed poorly
  • The new grade can be substituted for the older one in the calculation of your GPA.
  • For some students, it could even be worthwhile to postpone graduation for a semester or two to retake some courses.

GRE:  Most universities require applicants to take the GRE or a similar exam, and it is wise to prepare very carefully for it.

  • Review books that suggest good test-taking strategies and provide samples of the exams.
  • Remediate weaknesses in specific content areas (e.g., quantitative skills) by enrolling in additional courses or engaging in self-education.

Visit the Sacramento State Testing Center for GRE application forms and a list of test dates. The Testing Center is located in Lassen Hall, Rm 2302. For more information about the GRE, visit

Letters of Recommendation:  Letters should supplement the information from transcripts and GRE scores; they should come from faculty members who can assess characteristics which are likely to be predictive of success in graduate school (e.g., initiative, responsibility, and thoroughness). It is especially good to have letters written by professors with whom you have worked as a research assistant or on an individual project; it would be a good idea to seek out such experience if you have not already done so. Other letters might come from instructors in laboratory or seminar courses where there is often more faculty-student interaction than in other courses. Try to avoid asking for letters from professors who know you only as a name on a class roster and can say no more about you than what grade you received in their class.

Personal statement:  Almost all programs ask you to write some sort of narrative describing yourself. Regardless of what this statement is called (e.g., autobiography, statement of purpose, personal statement), the admissions committee does not want a birth-to-the-present trip through your life, a stream-of-consciousness introspection, a personal confession, or a heart-wrenching account of why you feel impelled to "help people." The committee would like to know about:

  • Your current interests in psychology (recognizing that these may change)
  • How those interests developed
  • Your present professional goals
  • How the graduate program will help you to achieve those goals.

You should also keep in mind that this narrative is a sample of your writing, and it will be evaluated as such by the committee. It should be carefully organized, smoothly written, neatly typed, and free from errors of spelling or grammar.

Supplementary materials: It might be helpful to include a one- or two-page vita summarizing your accomplishments and professional activities; a faculty advisor can help you prepare one. It might also be helpful to include brief reports on your research studies or case materials documenting certain fieldwork experiences. However, this should not be done to excess, and long term papers should not be submitted.

Interview trips: Some universities will encourage, or even require, that you visit their campus for an interview during the admissions process. This can be a good opportunity to learn more about the faculty and the students there, but such trips also require careful preparation. You should know enough about their program when you arrive to explain convincingly why you want to go there. You should also expect that even casual conversations (with students as well as with faculty) may in some way be summarized and used in the admissions process.

Timing the Application Process

Doctoral programs usually accept students only once each year, with classes starting in the fall. Your preparations for the application process should begin about 3 semesters earlier. Using the resources suggested above, you should develop a list of the programs which look interesting to you by late spring or early summer. By the middle of the summer, you should request program descriptions and application materials from those places.

At the end of the summer or early in the fall, you should discuss those programs with your faculty advisor and choose the ones to which you will apply. You should also make arrangements to take the GRE and to obtain letters of recommendation. (You may prefer to take the morning and afternoon portions of the GRE on different test dates.) During the remainder of the fall semester, you should complete the application forms and write your personal statement.

Selection Criteria

Doctoral programs usually select a rather small number of new students from a large number of applicants each year, so the admissions process can be very competitive. Grade point average, scores on the GRE, and letters of recommendation comprise the core of the information used by most admissions committees. A personal statement describing your academic and professional goals is also usually required.

Other aspects of your academic record will also be considered by most admissions committees. These might include

  1. The types of courses you have taken, with a more rigorous curriculum evaluated more favorably than a less rigorous one
  2. The presence of research experience, which is usually highly desired by Ph.D. admissions committees
  3. The presence of teaching assistant experience, which is considered an asset
  4. Evidence suggesting that you have acquired certain technical skills, such as knowing how to use major statistical packages (e.g., SPSS).

Letters of Acceptance

Although some universities follow other policies, it’s common for doctoral programs to send letters of acceptance between March 15 and April 15. You should be able to select the program you prefer knowing your status at the other programs to which you applied.