Types of Psychology Graduate Programs

And how to decide to apply to the program that’s right for you

by Tanya Tavassolie

If you are thinking of applying to graduate school in psychology, you’ve come to the right place. Many students who major in psychology go on to pursue a graduate degree in the field. However, there are many different types of programs, so it can be overwhelming to decide which one is the best fit for you. First and foremost, applying to graduate school is nothing like applying to undergraduate programs – It takes serious reflection and introspection to figure out which program is right for you. Here is a brief overview of the different types of programs in the psychological and social sciences fields.

Psychology-related graduate programs can largely be divided into two categories: clinically-oriented programs, and research-based programs. A good first step in deciding which program is right for you is to figure out which of these categories best fits your career goals.

Clinical programs

Clinical programs will provide training in working with both psychological and academic diagnostic assessment, providing therapy for individuals, couples, families, or groups, and some programs have an additional clinical research component. If this sounds like the kind of training you would be interested in, then maybe a graduate degree in a clinical field would be best for you. There are many different types of degrees within the clinical path, and one of the benefits of clinical training is that there are also many career paths you can take after graduation. For example, getting a PhD in Clinical Psychology can help you prepare for a career as a therapist who sees clients in a private practice or medical setting, or as a professor who might see some clients, but also does clinical research and teaches at the university level.

A unique aspect of a PhD in Clinical Psychology is that it holds a similar value for research as non-clinical research-based programs, so students will be required to complete research projects along with developing clinical skills and theory. But, let’s say you have decided you don’t want to pursue research in your future career and you just want to provide clinical services. There are still other clinical options for you. For example, you could get a PsyD – a five-year doctoral program that often exclusively focuses on clinical work – or you could get a Masters in Marriage and Family Counseling – which is a two-year degree, and in many cases, you can work alongside other doctorate level counselors in the same offices. There are also several other related degrees one could get as well. For example, Licensed Clinical Social Workers provide similar types of therapy and develop client relationships in assisting with and coordinating mental health care needs.

When thinking through these options, it will be important to reflect on your career goals, including your interest in research, the amount of time you’re willing to spend towards a degree, your financial ability to pay for graduate education (for example, often only PhD program provides tuition remission and stipend), and your goals for career earning potential (i.e. the average salary for PhDs and PsyDs is often higher than Masters-level clinicians). There are so many options for working with clients in a clinical capacity. If you are interested in working directly with clients and in the mental health fields, my biggest recommendation is to find individuals who are working in jobs that interest you, and talk with them about their jobs. Ask questions and hopefully, you can narrow down which career path is right for you.

Research-based programs

Research-based programs in psychology look largely different from clinical programs. This is the kind of program I am currently in. I receive no clinical training, I never see clients, and I don’t do research in mental health. My graduate program is training me for a career as a university professor, or an applied researcher. I have heavy quantitative methods and statistical training, several research responsibilities, and I even get some practice teaching at the college-level. Research programs like these are subdivided into topic areas. For example, I am in a Developmental Psychology program, but within my department, we have several other programs like: Human Factors and Applied Cognition, Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. These are all subfields within psychology, and there are many more. If you are interested in pursuing a degree that will train you for a research career, then looking into one of the subfields in the psychology departments at different universities might be a good place to start.

Most research-based programs offer both Masters and PhD level degrees. The difference between them is usually based on how much research you want to pursue during graduate school, and what specific careers you want to be prepared for when you graduate. Career options after graduation are as diverse as the graduate programs themselves. More applied fields include working at think tanks or research agencies (e.g. Westat, Mathematica, Urban Institute, AIR) or working in consulting. The work in these organizations are heavily research-based, but they have an applied focus. This means the projects you would work on may be are relevant for state or federal programs, or social or science policies. Another possible career path is to remain in academia and become a professor at a university where you are responsible for creating an academic research program, as well as teaching and advising.

If any of this sounds interesting to you, the best place to start is to think about your favorite class in college. Which class made you the most excited? Or which topics covered in your classes intrigued you the most? This might help you jumpstart your graduate program search, and help you find a program that is right for you. You can also browse through university websites and look at programs in social sciences and see which ones stand out to you, then contact the department/program coordinator and set up a meeting to talk about the program and ask questions.

How and why I chose my program

I grew up with a very limited understanding of the diversity of careers available to me. When I started college, I was on the pre-med track, and my plan was to become a pediatrician. I knew I wanted to work with children in some capacity, but I knew little about other options besides becoming a physician. For the first three years of college, I took all my pre-med requirements. As I was nearing the end of my degree in Neuroscience, something just didn’t feel right. I didn’t think I was on the right track, I didn’t enjoy my classes, but I didn’t know where else I could go or what else I could do. As an elective course for my major, I decided to branch out into Psychology. I took Developmental Psychology, and I immediately fell in love with it. I loved learning about child development, and began talking with all my professors about possible career options in this field. I learned that you can get a graduate degree in developmental psychology and do research with children and learn about how they experience their world. I instantly knew this was the right path for me. From there, I decided to take a two-year research assistant job in a Child Development Lab and that helped jumpstart my journey toward my PhD in Applied Developmental Psychology.

In addition, I started a blog as a way to help other students who might be going through a similar time of questioning their future career path, and hopefully help guide them toward the right graduate program. I hope you find this blog helpful, and I wish you the very best of luck in finding the right program for you!




Tanya is a 5th year doctoral candidate in Applied Developmental Psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, where she also earned her Masters degree. She studies the academic achievement of low-income, ethnically, and linguistically diverse children. She hopes to work at an applied research firm after graduation. Her blog is designed to help guide students through the graduate school application process, and the first few years of graduate school.