Pathways to the Helping Professions: A Guide to Graduate Study
Graduate Study, Careers in Clinical and Counseling Fields
- Self-Examination: Finding My Pathway
- Where Do I Get the Money?
- Master’s or Doctorate?
- Licensure, Professions and Your Future
- Master’s-Level Mental Health Professions: Overview
- Master’s Programs and Careers in Clinical Social Work
- Master’s Programs and Careers in Professional Counseling
- Master’s Programs and Careers in Specialized Helping Fields
- Master’s Programs and Careers in School Counseling
- Programs and Careers in School Psychology
- Doctoral Programs and Careers in Clinical and Counseling Psychology
- What Courses Do I Take Now?
- Applying to Graduate Schools
- Timeline for Graduate School Planning and Applications
- Further Reading
In this document, we provide information designed to help psychology majors at Bloomsburg University learn more about graduate training and careers in fields often termed helping professions (many of these are also termed mental health professions). These professions require a master’s or doctoral degree.
After you have read this document and know about pathways to the helping professions in general, work with a Psychology Department faculty member for customized advice to fit your specific interests, strengths, limitations, and questions.
Among the helping professions, clinical psychology and counseling psychology are dictirak-level professions that began as separate specialties but have almost merged in their career pathways (see more on this below). School psychology is mainly concerns testing and identifying limitations and strengths among students in K-12 education.
Clinical social work, school counseling, mental health counseling, marital and family therapy), art therapy, and addictions counseling are examples of related fields outside psychology that offer training for helping professions. Many people who major in psychology as undergraduates go on to master’s degrees and then enter helping careers in these fields.
The field of psychiatry requires a medical (M.D.) degree and further training, principally in the biomedical aspects of psychological disorders and medical treatments. Psychiatric nursing requires a degree in nursing, usually at the bachelor’s or master’s level, and may be focused on clinical mental health care. Occupational therapists and physician’s assistants also hold some positions in mental health settings, especially inpatient treatment units in hospitals. Few psychology majors pursue these fields, and they are not our focus here, but if you are interested in them, we encourage you to seek advice from Psychology Department faculty and from faculty in the Nursing or Biology departments.
The field of psychoanalysis (practitioners of this field are termed psychoanalysts) requires a degree in one of the mental health professions, usually psychiatry, clinical psychology or clinical social work, plus advanced training in psychoanalytic treatment.
Forensic psychology is a developing field within the wider field of forensic science, but the true nature of this work is almost never the criminal profiling portrayed on TV. Most psychologists doing forensics work are trained in clinical or counseling psychology, and work in criminal justice (chiefly correctional) settings. Most of the work involves pre-trial or post-trial psychological testing and assessment, followed by testimony in court or consultation with staff in correctional settings. Correctional settings also hire clinical, counseling and school psychologists, social workers, mental health counselors, and addictions counselors, for treatment of incarcerated persons. There are very few graduate programs in forensic psychology, but you can be trained in forensic applications in some clinical or counseling psychology, and obtain internship or other training in criminal justice settings.
Career-Related Misconceptions Among Psychology Students
Many BU Psychology majors and minors have career plans that are clouded by one or more of misconceptions below. Read this section to avoid these, and talk with a Psychology Department faculty member if you have questions about these.
Misconception: “Psychology and counseling are the same thing”. Actually, “psychology” and “counseling” are not the same thing. To be licensed in psychology, you must hold a doctoral degree in psychology, usually in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, or school psychology. In most states, you can also become a Licensed Professional Counselor (L.P.C.) with a master’s degree in mental health counseling or a related counseling field (not necessarily from a psychology program). This is not the same as a psychology license, and has more limited job prospects. (Note that some master’s programs in clinical or counseling psychology prepare their graduates for the master’s-level L.P.C. license, not for the doctoral-level psychology license.)
Misconception: “Only psychologists provide psychotherapy to their clients.” In fact, clinical social workers, mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, and psychiatrists, as well as clinical and counseling psychologists, perform psychotherapy with clients. “Psychotherapist” and “psychotherapy” refer to what a mental health professional often does, not to how that professional was trained, and not to what degree or license that professional holds.
Misconception: “Psychology majors don’t go into social work, and social workers don’t do psychotherapy.” Actually, a master’s in social work (M.S.W.) degree can lead to the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (L.C.S.W.) license and to a career as a psychotherapist. Many graduates of M.S.W. programs perform psychotherapy as their principal professional role. This is an option that many psychology majors don’t know about. In fact, the profession of social work, with the L.C.S.W. license, has the best job prospects of any master’s-level helping profession, especially in mental health settings.
Misconception: “Clinical Psychology deals mainly with persons with diagnosed mental disorders or illnesses, while Counseling Psychology deals mainly with ‘normal’ persons who need help.” This statement was once largely true, but is outdated in today’s helping professions job market. At both the doctoral and master’s levels of training and licensure, “clinical” and “counseling” have almost become synonyms (except in school counseling).
Both clinical psychologists and counseling psychologists hold positions in hospitals, outpatient clinics, criminal justice settings, private practice, and college counseling centers. At the master’s level, mental health counselors (now often termed clinical mental health counselors) are trained in master’s programs in counseling, but most hold jobs in some part of the mental health system, where they provide “counseling” or “psychotherapy” to clients who have been diagnosed with some form of a mental or psychological disorder. Their work is very similar to that of clinical social workers.
Misconception: “I want to be a counselor, and work with “normal” people, not persons with mental disorders.” Almost anyone who works as a counselor or psychotherapist in any part of the mental health or criminal justice systems, including in a private practice as a therapist, will be working primarily with persons who have a diagnosable mental or psychological disorder. Most clients will pay for psychotherapy through their private or government health insurance, and those insurers will insist that a client have a diagnosed mental disorder before they will pay for treatment.
In part, this misconception is based on a misunderstanding of what a mental or psychological disorder involves. Many people, even some psychology majors, think of “mental disorders” as involving only the most serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and clinical depression. In fact, “mental disorders” also involve anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders, eating disorders, and other forms of distress and dysfunction. It is also true that the “normal-abnormal” distinction is often false: a substantial proportion of the population has shown multiple symptoms of a mental disorder at some point in life, and persons with diagnosed mental disorders have many positive qualities and strengths.
It is true that school counselors and counselors in college counseling centers do much of their work with persons who don’t have a diagnosed mental or psychological disorder. However, even these professionals must work often with children or adults who do have a diagnosed disorder, and counselors in college counseling centers need extensive training in diagnosing and treating mental disorders among students.
Self-Examination: Finding My Pathway
Have you ever wondered if you are really a good match for graduate school and a career in a helping profession?
If you haven’t, better do it now. Any helping profession requires a deep commitment to graduate study, and a continuing interest in other people’s problems. Most of these professions involve everyday frustrations with clients who fail (indeed, sometimes refuse) to change. They are not for those who like to see frequent, tangible results of their work. They require constantly being alert to emotions -- your own and those of others.
However, the helping professions also offer rewards. For those who enjoy working with others while exploring feelings and working on problems, every workday offers intense involvement and rewards. Clients who really turn their lives around, and those who honestly confront real problems, offer a sense of accomplishment to the therapist. For holders of graduate degrees, working conditions are generally good, and a middle-class income is likely (although high pay is unusual).
The following are some questions to ask yourself, and to reflect on throughout your education. Discuss them with friends and with at least one faculty member who knows you well.
1. How clear are my concepts of the various helping professions -- clinical and counseling psychology, clinical social work, school psychology, and the various forms of counseling?
Are my ideas accurate? Have I read about or talked with professionals in the professions I am considering?
2. What images come to mind when I think about psychotherapy? Counseling? Psychological testing? Clinical social work?
Are my images accurate? What is really involved? How can I find out about that?
3. What are my dreams about my future professional accomplishments and activities?
What values are most reflected in my dreams?
Are these aspirations really mine? Are my dreams limited or directed by the opinions of my peers, family or professors? Are my dreams based on my fears about the job market?
4. Do I prefer to work in a school? Community agency or clinic? Hospital? College/university? Private practice? Some other type of setting?
Why? How much do I really know about these settings? How flexible am I about this?
5. To what extent do I want to work directly with people as a counselor/helper, and to what extent do I want to work with schools, workplaces, community agencies, the criminal justice system, or other settings to improve the lives of individuals?
6. Do I prefer to work with children? Adolescents? Adults? Older adults?
A specific population, e.g., women, persons of a specific culture, victims of trauma, or some other population?
Why? How much do I really know about this population? How flexible am I about this?
7. If I want to work with persons experiencing the same problems that I have faced in the past, or face now, what can I offer those persons? How might this work be more emotionally draining for me than I imagine?
8. How well do I understand my own emotions? The emotions of others?
How much do I like to hear and think about the emotions of others?
How much do I like to discuss emotions (my own and those of others)?
How assertive am I in groups? With strangers? When I am expected to lead others?
How much do I enjoy working with others? By myself?
What might my answers to these questions tell me about a rewarding career for me?
9. Do I function best in a structured situation, where my role and expectations for my performance are clear?
Or do I prefer structuring my work with my own creativity and ideas?
How much tolerance do I have for dealing with ambiguity in what the problem really involves? With difficulties in finding suitable ways to deal with a problem?
At the end of a day, how much do I like to be able to point to tangible things I have accomplished that day?
(A strong preference for structure, strong discomfort with ambiguities in personal problems, or a strong preference for tangible daily accomplishments, often suggest that a career in teaching or research will be more satisfying for you than a career in psychotherapy or counseling.)
10. What courses have I enjoyed most in psychology? Outside psychology? What does that tell me about myself and my interests?
Do I enjoy art, music, theatre, or a skill or hobby that might somehow be incorporated into my psychological helping work?
11. What community service or volunteer experiences, jobs, or practicum placements have I enjoyed? What did I enjoy about them? What does that tell me about myself and my interests?
12. In any helping profession, I can expect to work with clients who are members of populations that have been (and often still are) mistreated in U.S. society. These include women, persons of color, immigrants, lesbians and gay men, bisexual persons, people living on low incomes, people with little education, persons with physical and mental disabilities, and other groups.
What are my experiences with these populations? How much do I know about their unique needs and strengths? How committed am I to learning how to work with persons in these populations in way that are truly helpful?
13. What are my strengths for graduate study? For a career in a helping profession?
14. What are my limitations for graduate study? For a career in a helping profession?
15. How well do I write?
How much do I enjoy reading and analyzing research articles? Conducting research? Do I like to solve the puzzles that research seeks to solve?
(The puzzle-solving that occurs in research also is a key element of clinical work. Even in a master’s or Psy.D. program in clinical or counseling psychology, you will be taking research courses, expected to evaluate research articles, and completing a scholarly thesis project. In many master’s programs, in all Ph.D. programs, and sometimes in Psy.D. programs, you will be conducting research.)
16. In what kind of setting do I want to pursue a graduate degree? Large or small university? In a setting more culturally diverse than Bloomsburg?
Geographic area? If I am in a serious personal relationship, is my significant other willing to relocate?
(In general, your education for professional psychology and as a person will be richer in an environment that is different from your experiences up to now, including your years at Bloomsburg University.)
17. How many years am I willing to spend in graduate school?
Keep these thoughts in mind as you read the rest of this document.
Discuss any of these issues, and any related questions that you have, with your advisor or other Psychology Department faculty member!
Where Do I Get The Money?
Many times we hear students say, “I can’t afford to go to graduate school, at least not now.” That assumption may be incorrect! Depending on the graduate degree and profession that you choose, financial aid may be available to you.
The financial aid environment for graduate students is completely different than for undergraduates. Assignment of financial aid to most graduate students is largely controlled by the department or program, and less by the university office of financial aid. There is much less concern with documentation of personal or family income, and much more concern with academic performance and potential, and with potential for assisting with research or teaching.
Most M.A. and Ph.D. psychology programs offer full or partial financial aid. This is usually an assistantship (part-time positions assisting a faculty member with research or teaching). It may be a scholarship, sometimes called a fellowship. Either an assistantship or fellowship may come with full or partial waiver of tuition; this means that all or part of your tuition cost is waived by the university. If you are accepted by one of these programs, the chances of financial aid (at least partial aid) are good. Almost all the B.U. students who have gone on to Ph.D. psychology programs, and most of those in master’s-level psychology programs, have been given financial aid.
Unfortunately, this is usually not true of Psy.D. programs in psychology, or of master’s programs in clinical social work or in counseling. These programs usually admit larger numbers of students in an entering class, but are less likely to offer financial aid, other than loans. If you hope to obtain a doctorate in psychology, this is one of the important differences between Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs in clinical psychology (more on that topic later in this document).
A recent American Psychological Association study of graduates from graduate psychology programs (master’s and doctoral level) showed that graduates of Psy.D. clinical programs had much greater debt levels than in other programs. Over 50% of Psy.D. graduates had debt levels over $100,000. Average debt levels were much lower among graduates of Ph.D. clinical and counseling programs, Ph.D. programs in other areas of psychology, and master’s level programs. Read a summary of this study at:
A related study of financial aid in graduate programs in these psychology programs found that 43% of students in master’s psychology programs, 80-100% of students in Ph.D. psychology programs, but only 14-40% of students in Psy.D. programs, received assistantships or scholarships. Most students in Ph.D. programs received full support (including full tuition waiver), while less than 10% of students in Psy.D. programs received full support. Read a summary of this study at:
These findings apply only to psychology programs, but support what we say in general about size of entering student classes and likelihood of funding for students.
We also often hear students say, “I hope to find a job with my B.A. degree, with a company that will pay for my graduate study.” Only some employers do this, and then only in specific circumstances that may not fit well with your plans. Employers who do this usually only pay for a master’s degree, not a doctorate. They usually reimburse tuition only for part-time graduate study, usually night classes after work. Thus finishing your degree takes extra years, and may interfere with family commitments if you have any. The employer reimbursement for graduate tuition may be only partial, not covering all your expenses. It may require that you stay with the company for a period of years after you finish the degree, thus making it difficult to leave a job you no longer like. And since the whole process can take years, the economic situation may worsen at any time, and the employer may stop offering the reimbursement, leaving you partly finished. However, we have known students who pursued this plan with employers who provided satisfying employment, and partial or full reimbursement for a master’s degree.
We recommend that you decide on your career interests and aspirations first, then worry about the money. Learn about the different helping professions, the length of time needed to earn the academic degree for that field, and the jobs and activities that each profession offers. Learn about the specific graduate programs that you are interested in, and what financial aid they usually offer. Apply for financial aid when you apply for admission to a specific program, assertively mention your need for aid if you get an interview, and follow up all possibilities. Then wait to see if you are admitted, and what financial aid you are offered.
However, if you think you may be interested in a Psy.D. program in clinical psychology, please understand this: you are likely to graduate with a very high level of student debt. Read about all the helping professions in this document. Consider alternatives to the Psy.D. that usually offer more financial aid or fewer years in graduate school: Ph.D. programs in clinical or counseling psychology, Ph.D. programs in other areas of psychology, or a master’s degree in clinical social work, which offers work similar to what Psy.D.’s do, and requires only two years of graduate school.
Master's or Doctorate?
For the helping professions, this choice is best made before finishing the bachelor’s degree. You can alter your career path later, but it may not be easy. See also our section in this document, “Where Do I Get the Money?”.
In general, master’s-level study takes two years, sometimes three, and doctoral study (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) five years or more, including internships or other clinical training experiences. In the helping professions, doctoral programs require part-time practicum experiences leading up to a one-year internship. Master’s-level programs usually involve a one-semester internship or equivalent time in field placements.
In school psychology programs (but not in other fields), there is a three-year option, the Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) degree, which involves a two-year master’s program plus an internship. The Ed.S. degree leads to a much stronger position in the school psychology job market than the master’s degree alone.
You can apply to doctoral psychology programs directly, or get a master’s degree first and then apply to doctoral programs. If you obtain a master’s degree first, then go on to a separate doctoral program, count on a total of six years or more of graduate study. We will discuss specific pathways involving separate master’s and then doctoral degrees later in this document.
Consider online programs only with extreme caution. Online doctoral programs in psychology are not accredited by the American Psychological Association, although programs that mix instruction and supervision on campus with some online components can be accredited. Other professional accrediting organizations may have similar requirements.
Master’s-Level Training and Careers
Don’t equate professional respect, self-respect, or job satisfaction with a doctorate in psychology. Many more B.U. Psychology graduates hold master’s degrees than doctorates. There are more positions open for persons with master’s degrees than for persons with doctorates. A master’s degree can be the educational ticket to a satisfying career providing psychotherapy, counseling, assessment, or other helping services, and making a positive impact on the lives of your clients. As a helping professional, you will have much more control over your own work, higher salary, more opportunities for advancement, and usually more job satisfaction, than in bachelor’s-level jobs in the human services.
Most master’s-level programs in the helping professions require applicants to have an undergraduate GPA of 3.0, overall and also in required psychology courses. (See also our section in this document, “What Courses Do I Take Now?”.) Many master’s programs require or strongly recommend a Practicum or similar volunteer or job experience in a human service setting (not necessarily the same type of setting as where you would eventually like to work, but one involving working in a helping role). Master’s programs differ in whether they require applicants to report scores on the Graduate Record Exam (G.R.E.). Most psychology and counseling programs, even at the master’s level, require the G.R.E. Many social work programs, for instance, don’t require the G.R.E.
Professions with master’s-level training include clinical social work, mental health counseling and related counseling fields, school counseling, and (usually with the additional Ed.S. degree) school psychology. You can become licensed as a clinical social worker or as a professional counselor, or certified as a school psychologist or school counselor. We give more details on duties and roles involved in each profession in later sections of this document.
Doctoral-Level Training and Careers
Salary, prestige, the range of employment options, opportunities for advancement, and the degree of control over your own work are greater with a doctorate. To be licensed as a psychologist, you must graduate from a doctoral program in psychology.
However, admissions criteria and graduate study in doctoral programs in clinical or counseling psychology are much more rigorous than master’s programs. Some school psychology doctoral programs are not quite so competitive. In general, a student needs a GPA greater than 3.75, overall and in required psychology courses, a strong background in upper-level psychology courses, Independent Study research experience, letters of recommendation from Psychology Department faculty who know your academic performance well, and very high scores on the Graduate Record Exam (G.R.E.), to be considered (not necessarily admitted, just considered) for Ph.D or Psy.D programs in clinical or counseling psychology. Practicum or related job/volunteer experience is essential for Psy.D. programs, less important for Ph.D. programs. See also the section “What Courses Do I Take Now?” in this document.
We have known a few exceptions to these generalizations, but we have known many more students who dreamed of a doctoral degree in clinical or counseling psychology, but whose grades and academic background simply wouldn’t gain admission to doctoral programs (in some cases, even after obtaining a master’s degree). Moreover, some Psy.D. programs with lower admissions standards don’t lead to satisfying clinical jobs. A doctoral degree is not the best pathway to a helping profession for everyone, and is not necessary for a satisfying career in the helping professions.
When Can I Go to Graduate School?
Many programs, especially master’s programs, will consider qualified students who are returning to school after having pursued work and/or family commitments, perhaps even for years, before applying to graduate programs. Some types of programs actually prefer applicants who have job experience after the B.A. degree, if it is related to a career plan that fits the program.
In deciding whether to work for a period after your B.A. degree, usually the most important factors are yourself and your life commitments. Are you likely to benefit form working, then returning to school? Or would you be more likely to finish a graduate program by going ahead now? Do you have personal or family commitments to consider?
Master’s programs are usually more willing than doctoral programs to consider part-time students. However, exceptions exist, and every program has its own policy on this issue.
Making This Decision: Seek Advice
In making this decision, consult with at least one Psychology Department faculty member, read up on program requirements, reflect on the Self-Examination questions that we posed above, and be realistic about your goals. See also our earlier section in this document, “Where Do I Get the Money?”, and the section below, “Licensure, Professions, and Your Future”.
Licensure, Professions and Your Future
Licensure is related to the master’s – doctoral decision. A professional license in a helping profession greatly enhances employment options and salary. Most psychotherapy and counseling clients pay for treatment through their health insurance, and insurance companies will only reimburse professionals with a license. A license is required for a private practice in any of the helping professions.
In any helping profession, a license requires an academic degree, additional supervised job experience, and passing a licensure test. Professional licenses are regulated by states, so requirements differ somewhat by state. In school psychology and school counseling, “certificate” and “certification” have much the same meaning and uses as “license” and “licensure”, but these certifications don’t allow you to open a private practice; that requires a license as a psychologist, clinical social worker, or professional counselor.
Understand that the term “psychotherapist” refers to someone who conducts psychotherapy, whether that person is trained as a psychologist, psychiatrist, clinical social worker, or counselor. “Psychotherapist” thus describes a job, not the jobholder’s training or license.
Licensure as a psychologist requires a doctoral degree in psychology. The person’s training may be in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, or school psychology. Professionals in all of these specialties are licensed simply as psychologists, not by specialty.
School psychologists may also be certified by the National Association for School Psychology. This certification requires at least a master’s degree plus an Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) degree. It enhances employment prospects as a school psychologist, but does not substitute for licensure as a psychologist, and does not allow the school psychologist to open a private practice.
State certification as a School Counselor requires a master’s degree in school counseling.
Licensure as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (L.C.S.W.) requires a master’s degree in social work (M.S.W.). This license allows a clinical social worker to conduct psychotherapy. The L.C.S.W is the most widely recognized master-level license in the master’s-level helping professions, and has the best prospects for employment and for being reimbursed by insurance companies.
Licensure as Licensed Professional Counselor (L.P.C.) requires a master’s degree in counseling or in clinical or counseling psychology, if the graduate program meets L.P.C. standards. Job prospects, and recognition of the L.P.C. by insurance companies, are growing, but still are less than for the L.C.S.W.
In Pennsylvania and some other states, you can obtain licensure as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (L.M.F.T.). This license requires master’s-degree training. This is a different license than the L.P.C., and is solely for the practice of marital and family therapy. Job prospects, and recognition by insurance companies, are less than for the L.C.S.W. and L.P.C. licenses.
With a master’s degree and supervised practice in art therapy, you are eligible for the national Art Therapist Registration (A.T.R.). This is not a state professional license, but it enhances your credibility as an art therapist. However, if you want to become an art therapist, the best pathway is to pursue training in both art therapy and another master’s-level helping profession such as social work or mental health counseling.
Some states license or certify applied behavior analysts for work with a variety of populations. Those states often require the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (B.C.B.A.) national certificate. The most direct pathway to that certificate is a master’s or doctoral degree in applied behavior analysis or a closely related field. Pennsylvania does not license applied behavioral analysts, but does license Behavioral Specialists for work with individuals on the autism spectrum. This license requires a master’s degree that includes training in applied behavioral analysis and in autism spectrum disorders.
In the field of treatment for addictions, many professionals hold a national Certificate in Addictions Counseling (C.A.C.). This is not in itself a state professional license, but it enhances your job prospects in this field. If you want to become a counselor or therapist for persons with addictions, the best pathway is to pursue training in a master’s-level helping profession such as social work or mental health counseling, and take specialized courses and field experiences in addictions treatment settings.
Later sections in this document cover each of these fields in more depth, including more information on licensure as well as links to websites for each field.
Cautionary Words About Private Practice
Some students come to us very sure that they want someday to run their own private practice of psychotherapy or counseling. Some of our graduates have indeed finished a master’s or doctorate, become licensed as psychologists, clinical social workers, or professional counselors, and now have their own practices.
However, private practice is not the only way to be a successful, happy psychotherapist. In the right circumstances, it has advantages: in one sense, you are your own boss, and have freedom to determine which and how many clients you will see. But there also disadvantages. You often are not your own boss. Most private practitioners today, and for the foreseeable future, basically work for the insurance companies that pay for their clients’ treatment. Those companies dictate the terms, length, and often even the methods of treatment, greatly limiting the freedom of the psychotherapist. Moreover, private practice does not necessarily offer a secure income, and it can be lonely work.
We know clinical psychologists and other helping professionals in full-time private practice, and we know others who work in clinics, hospitals, university counseling centers, and other settings. Some of the latter have a small private practice as a sideline. Any of these settings can offer well-paid, satisfying work. Private practice is only one of the options, and not necessarily the best one for you.
Master's-Level Mental Health Professions: An Overview
In this and the following three sections, we discuss master’s-level training and careers in a number of helping professions, for working in a variety of mental health and human service settings (other than schools). Clients there may include adults, children, adolescents, and families, and will include persons with diagnosed mental disorders and persons experiencing stressful personal difficulties. Professionals in this work are trained in one of several different fields. All of these master’s-level professionals conduct psychotherapy, family therapy, or counseling in some way, although their approaches differ due to their training and skills. Professionals in these careers can be licensed, obtaining a different license depending on their training.
Your options in these areas are complicated and confusing to the beginner. Carefully read all three of the three following sections, on the professions of Clinical Social Work, Professional Counseling, and Specialized Counseling Fields. The table below summarizes our recommended career paths for these professions.
Recommended Master’s-Level Pathways to Careers in Mental Health and Counseling Professions
Note: All these pathways begin with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Master’s in Social Work (M.S.W.)
License in Clinical Social Work (L.C.S.W.)
The best job prospects among the master’s-level fields, especially for working with children and families, in hospital departments of psychiatry or mental health, and in other mental health settings.
Master’s (M.A.) in Clinical or Counseling Psychology
License in Professional Counseling (L.P.C.)
Usually in a Psychology Department. The program must have a 60-credit program or track that leads to eligibility for the L.P.C. Employment prospects adequate, but not as strong as for an L.C.S.W.
Master’s (M.A. or M.Ed.) in Counseling
License in Professional Counseling (L.P.C.)
Usually in a school or department of education. The program must have a 60-credit program or track that leads to eligibility for the L.P.C., and should be accredited by C.A.C.R.E.P. (see details below). Employment prospects adequate, but not as strong as for an L.C.S.W.
Master’s (M.Ed., M.A.) in Applied Behavior Analysis
License as Behavior Specialist (Pennsylvania)
or Certification as Behavior Analyst (some other states)
In Pennsylvania, the best master’s-level option for working with persons with autism.
In some other states, can lead to providing behavioral treatments for other populations.
Master’s degree in Marital and Family Therapy, Art Therapy, or Addictions Counseling
The best path to careers in these areas is to obtain a degree and license in one of the fields above (e.g., L.C.S.W. or L.P.C.) as well as taking courses and obtaining field experiences in the specialized area of your interest. Sometimes obtaining two related master’s degrees (e.g., in clinical social work and art therapy) is the best path.
Note: Don’t rely on this summary alone for making your decision. Read the sections below to understand all the details.
Master's Programs and Careers in Clinical Social Work
Many Psychology majors don’t consider a master’s-level career in social work as an option. Psychology majors tend to think of social work in terms of the low pay and challenges of bachelor’s-level social casework. However, master’s (M.S.W.) programs in social work offer training in clinical social work, leading to what many psychology majors are looking for: a career as a psychotherapist with adults or children and families. Moreover, employment prospects for persons with the M.S.W. degree and L.C.S.W. (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) license are better than for the other master’s-level mental health professions.
Every year, several B.U. Psychology graduates go on to master’s programs in social work, and then to jobs doing psychotherapy and/or family treatment. Other psychology majors work for a year or two, then find that a master’s in social work is the best professional pathway for them.
Social workers with an M.S.W. degree and L.C.S.W. license work in many of the same settings as clinical psychologists - mental health clinics, child/family service clinics, hospitals and private practice. The L.C.S.W. license has greater acceptance than the L.P.C. license for counselors, especially in health care settings and hospital departments of psychiatry. In health care and hospital settings, licensed clinical social workers are often as competitive for hiring as Psy.D. clinical psychologists.
Training for therapy with children and families is offered in virtually every M.S.W. program, and is usually more extensive than in master’s-level counseling and clinical psychology programs. Also, M.S.W. training often involves more field experiences than in master’s programs in counseling or clinical psychology.
An M.S.W. program usually involves two years of classes on campus and extensive time in field settings. Part-time study, for a longer period is an option. There often is less emphasis on statistics and research methods (although there are required courses in these areas).
A disadvantage of social work is that compared to many Ph.D. and some master’s psychology programs, M.S.W. programs usually have fewer assistantships or scholarships available per student. (However, most Psy.D. programs also have this limitation. Also, when comparing the M.S.W. vs. the Psy.D., note that the job prospects for the two are often similar, but the Psy.D. is usually much more expensive and takes longer.)
M.S.W. programs prefer candidates with a GPA of about 3.0 overall and in the major. They also prefer candidates with extensive experience (internship or otherwise) in community service settings. Experience in culturally diverse communities and a genuine concern for disadvantaged populations are also preferred. GRE scores are often not required, and less importance is placed on specific courses in psychology. Some course work in social work or social welfare and a broad background in the social sciences are very helpful. A broad range of life experiences is helpful.
Clinical social workers usually go on to obtain the L.C.S.W. license. An advantage of clinical social work over the professional counseling careers covered in our next section is that the L.C.S.W. is widely recognized, and requirements are similar across different states.
We have known persons who obtained an M.S.W., practiced as a clinical social worker, then entered Psy.D. programs in clinical psychology. However, a master’s degree in psychology is the more common stepping stone to doctoral psychology programs. There is also a doctorate in social (D.S.W.), but this is usually a degree for university teaching of social work. Practitioners in clinical social work have the M.S.W degree.
For more information on clinical social work, including a listing of all M.S.W. programs, see the website for the Council on Social Work Education at http://www.cswe.org
Master's Programs and Careers in Professional Counseling
In this section, we discuss the diversity of master’s programs and careers involving counseling in a variety of mental health and human service settings other than schools. Clients are usually adults, sometime persons with diagnosed mental disorders and sometimes persons experiencing stressful personal difficulties. Graduate study in these areas usually leads to the Licensed Professional Counselor (L.P.C.) license. An additional certification that may be helpful for your career goals is the National Certified Counselor (N.C.C.) certification; this makes it easier to obtain the L.P.C license and enhances your career prospects.
This section is not about a single field, but a collection of related fields. Graduate programs that lead to the L.P.C. include programs in clinical mental health counseling, mental health counseling, community counseling, college student affairs, college counseling, career counseling, rehabilitation counseling, addictions counseling, marriage and family counseling (but see also our section later on marriage and family therapy as a separate field), counseling psychology (master’s level), and clinical psychology (master’s level). Job titles vary, but often include mental health counselor and psychotherapist. As you can tell, the names of graduate school programs and job titles in these areas are evolving over time, and can be confusing.
Note that some programs in this area train students for what they call community counseling, but community psychology is an entirely separate field. Community psychologists work with communities, especially in changing settings such as schools, nonprofit organizations, and agencies in the mental health or other systems, in order to promote individual and community well-being, and to prevent psychological problems. Thus their work does not involve individual or group psychotherapy or counseling, but does work for the well-being of community settings and their ability to serve or support individuals and families. Community psychologists work to increase respect for human diversity, promote social justice, strengthen sense of community, and implement community programs as well as evaluate their effectiveness. Community psychologists are trained at the master’s or doctoral levels.
In a later section of this document, we will discuss a set of careers and master’s-level programs in counseling fields that are more specialized: e.g., marriage and family therapy, art therapy, applied behavior analysis, addictions counseling. Some professionals in these areas hold the L.P.C. license or were trained in one of the master’s programs discussed here, so if you are interested in one of those areas, you should also read this section carefully.
We focus here on master’s-level counseling training leading to licensure in Pennsylvania; there are more differences among states in counseling fields than in psychology or social work.
Many professional counselors perform counseling in mental health and related settings: outpatient community mental health clinics, partial hospitalization programs, counseling services for families, women, or other populations, addictions treatment centers and outpatient services, university counseling centers, private counseling practices, and related settings. In those settings, they may be supervised by other professional counselors, clinical social workers, doctoral-level psychologists, psychiatrists, or other mental health professionals. Many of these master’s-level positions are also filled by clinical social workers, and both professions provide psychotherapy or counseling.
If you are interested in clinical work with children and families, consider your choices carefully. Re-read our earlier sections on “Licensure, Professions, and Your Future” and “Master’s Programs and Careers in Clinical Social Work”. One advantage of clinical social work training is that an accredited master’s program in social work (M.S.W.) always offers many opportunities for learning to work with children and families. In contrast, some graduate programs in professional counseling offer in-depth training for work with these groups, but others don’t, or they have a track for school counseling, but not other treatments for children and families. Similarly, a master’s program in marriage and family therapy always offers training in that form of therapy, leading to a specialized Marriage and Family Therapist license (we cover this in a later section). If you are interested in this working with these populations, and in applying to a master’s program in counseling, study the program carefully to see if it offers the training you want, in depth.
A second advantage of clinical social work in that in hospital and related health care settings, the M.S.W. degree and L.C.S.W. license are more recognized and more likely to lead to hiring than a master’s in counseling and an L.P.C. However, that leaves many community clinics and agencies, as well as college counseling centers and student life positions, that hire professional counselors.
An advantage of counseling training at the master’s level, compared to the M.S.W., is that counseling programs often offer more training in counseling theory and processes.
Graduate programs in professional counseling, like most master’s-level programs in the helping professions, require applicants to have an undergraduate GPA of about 3.0, overall and also in required psychology courses. A Practicum or similar volunteer or job experience is strongly recommended. GRE scores are required, but scores do not need to be as high as for doctoral programs.
If the program is in a psychology department, a strong background in statistics and research methods, and a broad background in psychology courses are needed. Courses in Psychological Disorders or Developmental Psychopathology are often strongly recommended. (See also our section in this document, “What Courses Do I Take Now?”.) If the graduate counseling program is in a school or department of education, these factors are usually less important, but still are advantages for an applicant.
Master’s-Level Counseling Programs in Schools or Departments of Education
Some master’s programs in fields related to professional counseling are located in schools or departments of education, where they often are connected with programs in school counseling. Many of these programs are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (C.A.C.R.E.P.). This accreditation often strengthens the graduate’s position for obtaining jobs, and for eventual licensure as a Licensed Professional Counselor (L.P.C.).
However, there are many pathways to the L.P.C. license; the key is graduating from a program that meets the L.P.C. requirements, whether C.A.C.R.E.P.-accredited or not. L.P.C. requirements include 60 credits of graduate coursework, including courses in specific areas relating to practice. (Note: C.A.C.R.E.P. only accredits programs in schools or departments of education, and doesn’t accredit programs in psychology.)
For graduate programs in counseling that are located in schools or departments of education, key questions you to ask about are:
- Does the program closely follow the training requirements for the Licensed Professional Counselors in Pennsylvania? Is it accredited by C.A.C.R.E.P.? How many program graduates hold the L.P.C. license in Pennsylvania, or hold a similar license in another state?
- What is the extent of training in this program for working with persons or populations whom you plan to serve, e.g., adults, children and families, persons with addictions, marital counseling, in correctional or other criminal justice settings, or other populations. How many of the faculty have training, experience, and current involvement in these services? Do program graduates hold positions in mental health counseling or the mental health system?
(Note: The “mental health system” includes community outpatient clinics, hospitals, residential treatment centers, partial hospitalization programs, counseling services for families or other populations, addictions treatment services, university counseling centers, helping professionals in private practice, and related settings.)
(Note: Most counseling programs in schools or departments of education historically grew out of programs to train school counselors. The key issue is whether their faculty now includes enough professionals with extensive experience and continuing involvement in mental health or related settings, not just the schools. A related issue is how many of their graduates hold the L.P.C. license.)
- How many opportunities for practicum and internship experiences does the program have, in the mental health system or related settings, other than schools? What positions, in what sorts of settings, that graduates of the program hold.
- For financial aid, what assistantships or scholarships are available? Do most students receive these? Do they include tuition remission? For assistantships, what duties are involved, and will they also help me gain clinical-counseling experience?
Answers to these questions are not always easy to find. Search program websites for faculty interests and training. Also examine the program’s required and elective courses, and the available practicum and internship experiences if these are listed. Find out what positions the program’s graduates hold, and in what settings. Also ask about these issues in interviews or other communication with program representatives, faculty or students. See members of the BU Psychology faculty for help.
Some counseling programs housed in departments or schools of education have developed extensive training in these areas. Others rely on concepts, faculty, and experiences that are primarily oriented to training school counselors. While the two fields have some commonalities, you want extensive training to prepare you well for the sort of counseling that you seek to do. Be assertive in finding out about that.
For information on accredited master’s level programs in counseling, usually in departments or schools of education, see the C.A.C.R.E.P. website: http://www.cacrep.org
Master’s Programs in Clinical or Counseling Psychology
Another pathway to the L.P.C. license and careers related to it involves graduating from a master’s-level program in clinical psychology or counseling psychology, usually in a psychology department. These master’s programs offer a “terminal” master’s degree, which means that they train students for master’s-level careers, and are entirely separate from doctoral-level psychology programs. They usually are in universities that don’t have doctoral programs in psychology.
For its graduates to be eligible for the L.P.C., the program must require 60 credits of graduate coursework in specified topic areas related to professional counseling. Some of these programs have a shorter, 48-credit track, and a longer 60-credit track; only graduates of the 60-credit track will be eligible for the L.P.C. license.
C.A.C.R.E.P. only accredits programs in schools or departments of education, and doesn’t accredit programs in psychology. But graduates of 60-credit psychology programs that meet L.P.C. standards are eligible for the L.P.C. license. Also, master’s-level programs are not accredited by the American Psychological Association (A.P.A.), which accredits only doctoral programs. Graduates of these programs cannot be licensed as psychologists, which requires a doctoral degree. The L.P.C. is the license for them.
Psychology programs that meet L.P.C. requirements offer an excellent pathway to master’s-level careers in mental health and related areas. The curriculum in these programs will be familiar to Psychology majors, involving master’s-level courses in psychological theory and research, as well as coursework and practicum/internship training in clinical-counseling skills. In some of these programs, some graduates may go on to doctoral programs in clinical or counseling psychology.
Compared to most social work programs, and to some counseling programs in schools of education, an advantage of master’s clinical psychology programs is that they often offer assistantships for financial aid. Compared to social work, a disadvantage is that they often involve less extensive field experiences than required in M.S.W programs.
Key questions to ask about master’s programs in clinical psychology or related fields, located in departments of psychology, are:
- Does the program closely follow the training requirements for the Licensed Professional Counselors in Pennsylvania? Do many program graduates hold the L.P.C. license in Pennsylvania, or hold a similar license in another state?
- What is the extent of training in this program for working with persons or populations whom you plan to serve, e.g., adults, children and families, persons with addictions, marital counseling, in correctional or other criminal justice settings, or other populations. How many of the faculty have training, experience, and current involvement in these services? Do program graduates hold positions in mental health counseling or the mental health system?
(Note: “mental health services” include community outpatient clinics, hospitals, residential treatment centers, partial hospitalization programs, counseling services for families or other populations, addictions treatment services, university counseling centers, helping professionals in private practice, and related settings.)
In addition, how many opportunities for practicum and internship experiences does the program have? Are there practicum experiences frequently available throughout the years of the program? Is there an internship, and is it required?
- If you are interested in going on to a doctoral program in clinical or counseling psychology, is there an option to do master’s thesis research? (A thesis will be essential for admission to Ph.D. programs.) How many program graduates go on to doctoral study in clinical or counseling psychology? More often in Ph.D. or Psy.D. programs?
- For financial aid, what assistantships or scholarships are available? Do most students receive these? Do they include tuition remission? For assistantships, what duties are involved, and will they also help me gain clinical-counseling experience?
Answers to these questions are not always easy to find. Search program websites for faculty interests and training. Also examine the program’s required and elective courses, and the available practicum and internship experiences if these are listed. Find out what positions the program’s graduates hold, and in what settings. Also ask about these issues in interviews or other communication with program representatives, faculty or students. See members of the B.U. Psychology faculty for help.
Some master’s-level programs in clinical or counseling psychology have developed their curriculum and training to lead to the L.P.C. license; others haven’t. Some will have training in a specialized area in which you may be interested, such as programs and treatments for children or applied behavior analysis; others won’t. Be assertive in finding out about these issues.
For information on master’s level programs in clinical or counseling psychology, see the APA Graduate Study in Psychology book. A copy is available in the Psychology Department office.
Master's Programs and Careers in Specialized Helping Fields
In this section, we discuss some specialized helping professions: marital and family therapy, art therapy, applied behavioral analysis, and treatment of addictions.
Marriage and Family Therapy
Practitioners in this field have a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, from a program accredited by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (A.A.M.F.T.). In Pennsylvania, they can be licensed with the L.M.F. T. license, which is separate from the L.C.S.W. and L.P.C. licenses. Only a person with the L.M.F.T. can advertise as a Marriage and Family Therapist.
Marriage and family therapists are trained in a family systems perspective, which considers individual problems within the context of the whole family, including extended family members if involved. This approach is especially useful for understanding children’s and adolescents’ issues in a family context, and for understanding marital problems and family dynamics. Marriage and family therapists also are trained in individual psychotherapy, and see individual clients. However, even with individuals, they look for ways that marital and family dynamics may be involved, often to a greater extent than other helping professionals.
Many clinical social workers, some counselors who are trained in marriage and family counseling programs, and some clinical or counseling psychologists are also trained in a family systems perspective. Clinical social work programs are the most likely to provide this training, especially for treatment of problems experienced by children and adolescents. However, the depth of training in marriage and family dynamics is much greater in a marriage and family therapy program.
Practitioners in marriage and family therapy have a distinctive expertise, but their degree and L.M.F.T. license are not as marketable or widely accepted as the licensure in psychology or the L.C.S.W. They are less likely to be hired in health care settings, hospitals, or school-related settings.
A psychology major interested in this field should take the Marriage and Family course in the Sociology Department, and further courses related to family sociology and interpersonal communication are helpful.
Graduate programs in marriage and family therapy are usually at the master’s level. There are not as many of these as M.S.W. programs. Listings and information on these programs is available at the A.A.M.F.T. website: http://www.aamft.org
Art therapy uses artistic expression and the creative process to foster emotional expression and personal well-being. Used with other forms of psychotherapy or counseling, it can be an excellent means of understanding difficult emotional issues and of promoting self-expression and personal change. Art therapy uses a variety of artistic forms and media. It can be used with adults and children, and is especially useful when clients find it difficult to express themselves verbally.
With a master’s degree and supervised practice in art therapy, you are eligible for the Art Therapist Registration (A.T.R.). However, the best professional pathway to becoming an art therapist is to obtain training in two areas: (a) a mainstream helping profession such as clinical social work or counseling, leading to a license in that field and (b) training in art therapy, leading to the A.T.R. registration. That is the approach taken by many helping professionals who use art therapy.
Students interested in master’s-level training in art therapy should have an extensive background in both psychology and art studio courses. A psychology major with an art studio minor, or vice versa, is ideal. Nationwide, there are a small number of art therapy programs, at the master’s level, accredited by the American Art Therapy Association. Information on those programs is available at: http://www.americanarttherapyassociation.org
Applied Behavior Analysis, Behavior Specialist
Applied behavior analysis uses the concepts of behaviorism to analyze and modify behaviors that create problems for a variety of individuals. You have studied behavioral approaches in several psychology courses; they are also commonly used in the fields of exceptionalities and special education. Many helping professionals use some behavior modification skills in their work; applied behavior analysts specialize in the application of these techniques. Client populations for this work include persons with autism spectrum disorders, attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders, cognitive disabilities, other mental disorders, educational challenges, and other behavioral problems. Applied behavior analysts analyze the behavioral aspects of a problem, write a behavioral intervention plan, and help implement that plan, working in the home and school environments.
Some states license or certify applied behavior analysts for work with a variety of populations. Those states often require the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (B.C.B.A.) national certificate. The most direct pathway to that certificate is a master’s or doctoral degree in applied behavior analysis or a closely related field. Information on the field of applied behavioral analysis, the B.C.B.A. certification, and approved training programs in applied behavioral analysis is available at the Behavior Analyst Certification Board website: http://www.bacb.com
Pennsylvania does not license applied behavioral analysts, but does license Behavioral Specialists for work with individuals on the autism spectrum. This license requires a master’s degree that includes training in applied behavioral analysis and in autism spectrum disorders. The master’s degree doesn’t have to be in applied behavioral analysis, but that is usually the most direct path to this license. Information on the Behavioral Specialist field and licensure in Pennsylvania is available at:
Treatment of persons with substance dependence requires specialized training experiences and supervision. Helping professionals working in addictions treatment work in hospitals, addictions treatment or rehabilitation centers, community clinics, and occasionally in private practice. In this field, the effectiveness of Twelve-Step programs means that professionals work alongside staff members who are experienced in their own recovery from an addiction. Most treatment facilities strive to have a mix of staff members who are well along in their own recovery from an addiction, and staff who have not personally experienced a substance addiction.
There are a few master’s-level programs specifically in addictions counseling. However, for work in addictions treatment, the best option for psychology majors is to obtain a master’s degree in a mainstream helping profession such as clinical social work or professional counseling, leading to a license in that field. Along the way, engage in supervised field experiences in facilities that treat addictions. Depending on your specific goals, it may be desirable to obtain the national Certified Addictions Counselor (C.A.C.) certification, in addition to licensure in a mainstream helping profession. Information on addictions counseling and on the C.A.C. certification is available at: http://www.naadac.org
Master's Programs and Careers in School Counseling
Many students think of school counseling in terms of high school guidance counselors. However, school counseling at the elementary and often middle school level is much more interesting to psychology majors, and for some that is very much what they want to do.
In elementary and intermediate schools, counselors work with students, parents, teachers, administrators, school psychologists, and school social workers. They conduct some individual counseling and may hold group counseling sessions. They are often involved in preparing for and administering standardized tests given to all students in the school. Elementary school counselors may also teach social and emotional skills in the classroom.
If a student shows signs of significant academic difficulties, the school counselor also administers some psycho-educational tests, and observes the student’s classroom behavior. These two assessments are the first steps for determining the exact nature of problems that a child may be experiencing, and special abilities that the child has. Further testing, if needed, is done by a school psychologist. Following that, a team of psychologist, counselor, and teachers will form an educational plan for the student, and meet with parents to discuss it. If the parents approve a plan, the guidance counselor is a key member of the team that implements that plan in school, following up regularly with teachers, student, parents, and others.
In addition, the counselor is a key member of the school crisis intervention team, and of school efforts to address ongoing problems of school climate such as bullying. So the role of elementary school counselor involves several parts: personal counselor, liaison between school and parents, tester and behavioral observer, teacher, professional team member, crisis intervention, and perhaps other duties.
In middle schools, counselors often have additional responsibilities for beginning education and guidance about careers. Middle school counseling also often involves urgent counseling and advice for students’ personal crises, and may include conducting groups for students who are going through stressful circumstances: bullying, family stress, or other issues. School counseling at the high school level mainly involves guidance for class scheduling, career and college planning, and standardized testing, crisis intervention, and sometimes involvement in discipline, with much less time for individual or group counseling.
Like classroom teachers, school counselors are members of the faculty, and must qualify for state certification as a school counselor. This requires a master’s degree in school counseling from an accredited program, and (in Pennsylvania) passing praxis tests. Graduate programs in school counseling, like most master’s-level programs in the helping professions, require applicants to have an undergraduate GPA of about 3.0, overall and also in required psychology courses. (See also our section in this document, “What Courses Do I Take Now?”.) A Practicum or similar volunteer or job experience in schools is strongly recommended. Working with the school psychologist, school counselor, or a special education teacher are the best places for this, but tutoring and classroom aide duties are also helpful. GRE scores are required, but scores do not need to be as high as for doctoral programs.
In the master’s program, you will need to choose whether you want to be trained and certified in Elementary or Secondary School Counseling. These two tracks overlap, but you will need to be certified in one or both of these. Middle school counselors usually can be certified n either, and some obtain certification in both.
Graduating from a graduate program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (C.A.C.R.E.P.), in addition to other accreditations, may place the graduate in a stronger position for obtaining jobs, but there are exceptions to this.
You can obtain a doctoral degree in counselor education, a field related to school counseling. However, almost all practicing school counselors are trained at the master’s level. Persons with doctorates in this area usually enter careers in administration or university teaching.
Information on many programs in school counseling, usually in departments or schools of education, and sometimes in departments of counselor education, can be found at: http://www.cacrep.org
However, the C.A.C.R.E.P. site does not include all programs in school counseling. Some programs offer school counseling training that is certified by their state, but not accredited by C.A.C.R.E.P. Information on whether a specific university has a school counseling program can be found at that university’s website.
Programs and Careers in School Psychology
If you would like to work with children, are intrigued by psychological tests, and are interested in assessing, treating, and preventing psychological and educational problems in schools, school psychology is the pathway for you. Graduate training is available at the master’s level, and the level of Educational Specialist (three years of graduate study, including a master’s degree and an internship), and at the doctoral (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) level. We strongly recommend the Ed.S. over the master’s degree only; this is more widely recognized and expands your career options.
School psychology is part of the wider field of educational psychology, which is the academic discipline concerned with psychological knowledge related to education, teaching and learning. School psychologists are chiefly practitioners, while educational psychologists are chiefly university teachers and researchers.
For practitioners with a master’s or Ed.S. degree, school psychology work will chiefly involves testing and assessing students to diagnose psychological and educational problems, and consulting with teachers, school counselors, administrators, and parents to determine an educational plan for the child. They administer, score and interpret psychological tests, interview children, and assess the child’s classroom behavior. In addition, the school psychologist is often the school leader in response to traumatic school incidents, policies and programs to prevent bullying and related school problems, and choosing and implementing programs to promote student social and emotional coping skills that influence academic success. Doctoral level school psychologists do all these things, and also may provide psychotherapy to children and families. School psychologists also work in correctional settings that have school programs, in clinical settings for children, and other settings.
Some school psychology programs are located in schools of education, others in departments of psychology, but many programs require coursework in both places.
Entrance requirements for an Ed.S. school psychology program are similar to those for other types of master’s programs: an undergraduate GPA of 3.0, sometimes higher, overall and also in required psychology courses. A course in tests and measurements is strongly recommended. (See also our section in this document, “What Courses Do I Take Now?”.) A Practicum or similar volunteer or job experience in schools is strongly recommended. Working with the school psychologist, school counselor, or a special education teacher are the best places for this, but even tutoring and classroom aide duties are very helpful. GRE scores are required, but scores do not need to be as high as for doctoral programs.
For a doctoral program in school psychology, entrance requirements are similar to other doctoral programs, including G.R.E. scores, but not as competitive as for doctoral programs in clinical and counseling psychology. Again, a course in tests and measurements, and a Practicum or volunteer experience with a school psychologist, are highly recommended.
With an Educational Specialist (Ed.S.) degree from a school psychology program approved by the National Association of School Psychologists, you are eligible for certification as a school psychologist. This requires three years of graduate study, including a 1200-hour internship (e.g., 30 weeks at 40 hours per week). With a doctorate in school psychology from a doctoral program approved by the American Psychological Association, you also qualify for licensure in psychology.
Information on school psychology, and training for it at the Ed.S. and doctoral level, can be found at the National Association of School Psychologists (N.A.S.P.): http://www.nasponline.org
Information on programs offering doctoral training in school psychology that is accredited by the American Psychological Association (A.P.A.) is available at: http://www.apa.org/ed/accreditation/programs
At the A.P.A. site, be sure to look at programs accredited in school psychology and in “combined professional-scientific psychology” (the latter often offer training in school and clinical or counseling psychology).
When applying to graduate schools in school psychology, consider only programs accredited by N.A.S.P. or A.P.A.
Also, much of the information on the A.P.A. webpage “Applying to Graduate School” applies to programs in school psychology at either master’s or doctoral levels:
Doctoral Programs in Clinical Psychology and Counseling Psychology
The American Psychological Association (A.P.A.) defines clinical and counseling psychology as professions at the doctoral level only. In this section, we will discuss doctoral-level programs and careers only. (However, there are master’s-level programs in clinical psychology and counseling psychology, whose graduates often practice with a master’s degree and an L.P.C. license. See our earlier sections on master’s-level training.)
Doctoral-level clinical and counseling psychologists work in clinics, hospitals, community mental health settings, university counseling centers, private practices, correctional settings, consulting firms, government and private research settings, and academic teaching and research.
Historically, clinical psychology and counseling psychology defined themselves as different specialties within psychology, and you may have learned about those differing definitions in your courses. Today, however, graduates of clinical and counseling psychology programs hold very similar positions and do very similar work, especially at the doctoral level. Also, among A.P.A-approved doctoral programs, there is more variation in graduate coursework and emphasis within each specialty than between them. So while a graduate program defines itself as either clinical psychology or counseling psychology, we will discuss the two specialties together here.
Admission to A.P.A.-approved doctoral programs is about as difficult in one specialty as the other. Some Ph.D. programs in counseling psychology may be less competitive than most Ph.D. clinical psychology programs, but other variables (Ph.D. vs. Psy.D.; prestige of university; geographic locale; size of entering first-year class) make more of a difference in the admissions process than whether the program is in clinical or counseling psychology.
If you seek a doctoral degree in clinical or counseling psychology, consider only A.P.A.-approved doctoral programs. In today’s highly competitive hiring environment, being from an A.P.A.-approved program is essential to obtaining satisfactory work as a clinical psychologist or counseling psychologist.
Ph.D. and Psy.D. Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology
Consider carefully the differences between Ph.D. and Psy.D. doctoral programs. A.P.A. reviews and accredits both Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs, but the training approaches are very different, and will affect your professional future.
Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) programs train students to become scientist-practitioners. Students are trained to become clinical practitioners and researchers, to advance both the practice and the science of clinical or counseling psychology. This does not mean that Ph.D. graduates work only in academic positions; many work in clinics, hospitals, counseling centers, and other clinical and counseling settings.
Training in a Ph.D. program in clinical or counseling psychology involves learning to conduct psychotherapy, psychological assessment, and research. Training for psychotherapy and assessment occurs in courses, part-time practicum placements, and a one-year, full-time internship. Students also ordinarily complete their own research projects for the master’s thesis (unless they entered with a master’s degree) and a doctoral dissertation. This research is usually focused on clinical or counseling topics, and is expected to be publishable in some form.
In clinical and counseling psychology, the Ph.D. is the more traditional degree. In general, the Ph.D. is more prestigious, and has broader employment prospects (although exceptions exist).
With a very few exceptions, you must hold a Ph.D. if you want to do university teaching as your principal employment. The B.U. psychology faculty who are trained in clinical psychology all hold Ph.D. degrees.
Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) programs emphasize the practitioner aspect of doctoral psychological training, learning to conduct psychotherapy and assessment. This training, like the Ph.D. programs, occurs in courses, part-time practicum placements, and a one-year, full-time internship. Psy.D. programs also train students to read, understand, critique, and apply psychological research, but not to produce it. They often re-allocate some of the time that goes into training for research in a Ph.D. program, to provide more training in psychotherapy and assessment.
However, students in A.P.A.-approved Psy.D. programs must take graduate statistics and research methods courses. They also must complete a doctoral dissertation or thesis, which may be a research project as in a Ph.D. program, or may be a project in equal depth, for instance, a series of related client case studies, or a review of the research literature on the effectiveness of a treatment method. The Psy.D. degree doesn’t avoid research; it just emphasizes the application of psychological research. Ph.D. programs emphasize both the production and application of psychological research.
Ph.D. programs are usually based in university psychology departments of psychology or in departments of school and counseling psychology, befitting their balance of scientist and practitioner training. A few Ph.D. programs are in medical schools.
Psy.D. programs may be based in traditional universities (the Rutgers University Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology is an example), or in independent schools of psychology.
Ph.D. or a Psy.D.? Which is Better for You?
1. Admission to either type of program is difficult. Psy.D. programs often have somewhat less restrictive admissions standards. However, exceptions exist, and Psy.D. programs based at nationally-recognized universities are often are as difficult to enter as Ph.D. programs.
2. In a Psy.D. program, you are much less likely to receive an assistantship, scholarship, or remission of tuition. You will need to rely more on loans, and graduate tuition is very expensive.
Recent A.P.A. studies found that students in Psy.D. clinical programs graduated with much greater student debt levels than in Ph.D. programs. Over 50% of Psy.D. graduates had debt levels over $100,000. This was related to levels of financial aid: 80-100% of students in Ph.D. programs received financial aid (not counting student loans), but only 14-40% of students in Psy.D. programs received such aid. Most students in Ph.D. programs (60-80%) received full support (including full tuition waiver), while less than 10% of students in Psy.D. programs received full support.
Read summaries of these studies at these weblinks:
(See also our earlier section on “Where Do I Get the Money?”)
3. Psy.D programs tend to admit more students than Ph.D. programs. A large entering class often means more students per faculty member, and less contact time with faculty. Individual and small-group contact with faculty is a major part of graduate education.
4. If you think you might want to become a college professor, full-time, apply to Ph.D. programs, or consider doing a master’s program while you figure out your later goals. Psy.D. programs train practitioners.
5. Psy.D. programs, in general, have lower rates of placing their students in A.P.A. approved settings for the required one-year clinical internship. This is a major obstacle for a student seeking to work in clinical practice. Having completed an A.P.A.-approved internship is almost as important as being trained in an A.P.A. approved graduate program.
Some Ph.D. programs also are seeing lowered placement rates. However, this is bigger problem for Psy.D. programs, especially those that admit large entering classes.
Note: Some Psy.D. and Ph.D. programs have developed their own internship sites, which are affiliated with the graduate program and agree to reserve internship positions for its students. Students in that program then don’t need to apply for outside internship sites.
6. A training program in an independent school of psychology, not affiliated with a university (a common situation for Psy.D. programs), may rely heavily on part-time faculty whose primary allegiance is to their own clinical work elsewhere. This is a serious disadvantage if students cannot easily contact and work with faculty. A program that relies on its own full-time faculty is much better for students.
7. Salary and employment prospects are better with the Ph.D. than the Psy.D. This difference is decreasing to some extent. Graduates of a widely recognized and respected, A.P.A.-approved Psy.D. program, who have completed an A.P.A.-approved internship or a comparable internship affiliated with their graduate program, and who are seeking clinical positions for which they are qualified, have good job prospects. However, this does not apply to graduates of other Psy.D. programs.
8. Overall, Ph.D. training is a better choice for some students, and Psy.D. training is a better choice for other students, especially if the Psy.D. program is in a university. However, as we discussed above, the risks of Psy.D. training are greater, and the financial cost is likely to be much higher.
9. Also, read our section below on “Related Fields to Consider”, and the later sections on master’s-level careers. For many students, these offer as many satisfactions, with less heartache about admissions standards than Ph.D. programs, less expense than Psy.D. programs, and (if at the master’s level) fewer years in graduate school.
Doctoral Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology: Things to Consider
Some key questions to investigate about any doctoral program in clinical or counseling psychology, especially related to the Ph.D. or Psy.D. choice, and to size of program, include:
- What is the extent of clinical or counseling training in this program, especially for treatments or populations in which you are interested? How many of the faculty have training, experience, and current involvement in these services?
- What are the requirements for research?
- How many faculty hold full-time teaching positions in this program?
- How any students are in the entering class each year?
- For financial aid, what assistantships or scholarships are available? Do most students receive these? Do they include tuition remission? For assistantships, what duties are involved?
- What proportion of students in the program are placed in A.P.A. approved internships? (This is often termed the “internship match rate”, and A.P.A. approved programs are required to provide this information in the A.P.A. book Graduate Study in Psychology.) A related question is: Are students in this program placed in internships affiliated with this program? Where?
- What sorts of positions do program graduates hold?
Answers to these questions are not always easy to find. Search program websites for faculty interests and training. Also examine the program’s required and elective courses, and the available practicum and internship experiences if these are listed. Find out what positions the program’s graduates hold, and in what settings. Also ask about these issues in interviews or other communication with program representatives, faculty or students. Be assertive in finding out about these issues. See members of the B.U. Psychology faculty for help.
An excellent resources for these and related questions are available at the A.P.A. website. Begin with the “Applying to Grad School” page, which many links to specific topics:
Blending Doctoral Clinical Psychology Training With Other Specialties
Doctoral clinical psychology programs may offer specialty tracks within their program. In these programs, students are trained as clinical psychologists, but specialize in a specific area and have opportunities for in-depth training there.
Clinical neuropsychology involves clinical assessment of how a patient with brain illness or injury will be affected in terms of cognitive or behavioral functioning. This specialty involves study in both neuroscience and clinical psychology, and its practitioners must be skilled in all forms of psychological assessment, and in clinical psychological treatments, as well as in neuropsychological testing.
Child-clinical psychology focuses on assessment of the problems and clinical disorders experienced by children (including adolescents), and treatment involving children and families. It offers enhanced opportunities for learning these skills, in clinics, hospitals, and schools. Its practitioners must be skilled in all forms of psychological assessment and treatment, but focus in depth on children and families.
Clinical-community psychology involves working at the community level as well as with individuals and families. It also involves programs in schools, workplaces, or communities to prevent psychological problems, not just treating persons who already have problems. Community psychology also involves learning skills for working with community members to help them change their communities, schools, or other settings, to foster individual and community well-being. A clinical-community psychologist works with individuals, families, small groups, settings, and communities, either in clinical treatment or in community collaboration and empowerment.
Information on programs offering doctoral training in clinical or counseling psychology that is accredited by the American Psychological Association is available at: http://www.apa.org/ed/accreditation/programs
Be sure to look at programs accredited in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, and in “combined professional-scientific psychology”. The latter usually offer training in clinical or counseling psychology and in school psychology, and are an excellent choice for students interested in working with children and families.
For information on specific doctoral programs in psychology, see the APA Graduate Study in Psychology book. A copy is available in the Psychology Department office. We give the reference in our “Further Reading” section below.
Related Fields To Consider
Perhaps you are a highly successful psychology student, with excellent grades in demanding psychology courses, have or will soon gain research experience and Practicum or related clinical experience, and have at least three Psychology faculty members who know your academic abilities well. Yet doctoral programs in clinical and counseling psychology are very competitive, and you may still find it difficult to be accepted. Consider related options.
School psychology, at the Ed.S. or Ph.D./Psy.D level, involves psychological and education assessment of problems and disorders among children, and consulting with other school professionals about treating and educating children with those problems. Some school psychology positions, especially at the doctoral level, also involve child and family treatment and planning and implementing prevention programs. For a student who is interested in children and families, and in schools, school psychology offers many of the satisfactions of clinical psychology. Admissions to doctoral programs is often less competitive, and training is also available at the three-year Ed.S. level. See our section “Programs and Careers in School Psychology” earlier in this document.
Why not consider entering teaching or research in psychology? If you are the kind of student who finds many areas of psychology interesting, this can be an especially good choice. Teaching in any area of psychology offers many ways to work with people, not in a clinical-counseling role, but in ways that offer satisfying personal contacts and have positive impacts on students’ lives. Research in psychology also can have many positive impacts. Teaching and research often provide daily rewards of having finished or accomplished something tangible. Tangible signs of progress don’t happen as often in clinical-counseling work. As another alternative, community psychology and industrial-organizational psychology offer ways to work with settings and with persons, not in clinical or counseling roles, but in ways that have many positive impacts and personal satisfactions. Admission to doctoral programs in most areas of psychology, while competitive, is often not as competitive as clinical and counseling programs, especially regarding GRE scores.
Community psychologists work with communities, especially in changing settings such as schools, nonprofit organizations, and agencies in the mental health or other systems, in order to promote individual and community well-being, and to prevent psychological problems. Thus their work does not involve individual or group psychotherapy or counseling, but does work for the well-being of community settings and their ability to serve or support individuals and families. Community psychologists work to increase respect for human diversity, promote social justice, strengthen sense of community, and implement community programs as well as evaluate their effectiveness. Community psychologists are trained at the master’s or doctoral levels.
Training in clinical social work requires only a master’s degree (M.S.W.), and leads to the L.C.S.W. license. That professional pathway involves much less time and expense than the Psy.D. Yet a person with the L.C.S.W. is just as employable (sometimes more employable) as a person with the Psy.D. So if you don’t qualify for Ph.D. programs, and want to work in the psychological fields related to health care, carefully consider M.S.W. training in clinical social work. See our section “Master’s Programs and Careers in Clinical Social Work” later in this document.
Finally, consider the various master’s-level training programs and careers we discussed earlier in this document.
Master’s Degree as a Stepping Stone to Doctoral Programs
For highly successful psychology students who find it difficult to be accepted in doctoral clinical or counseling psychology programs, a master’s degree in psychology may provide a stepping stone to doctoral programs. You have two options.
Surprisingly to many students, a master’s degree in General or Experimental psychology is usually the best stepping stone to a Ph.D. clinical or counseling psychology program. Ph.D. programs consider it highly important to prove your ability to do rigorous graduate course work and a research project, and that is what master’s-level general-experimental programs do best. This degree can also help you gain admission to a suitable Psy.D. program. This is a pathway, however, only for the student seriously committed to obtaining a doctorate. You will finish the master’s program with skills in research but not in clinical work.
The second option is to find a master’s program in clinical psychology that has a track record of sending a number of graduates on to doctoral programs in clinical or counseling psychology. This information may be on the program website, or may be knowable only through an interview. Seek advisement from Psychology Department faculty on programs that have a track record in this area. By attending this type of program, you are hedging your bets: gaining master’s level training in clinical skills, but in a program that offers rigorous enough training in psychology to place at least some of its graduates in doctoral programs. These programs tend to hold the scientist-practitioner approach to clinical psychology that meshes with Ph.D. programs, but also provide useful stepping stones to Psy.D. programs. To strengthen your application for doctoral programs, take as many courses as you can in experimental, developmental and social psychology, and in statistics and research methods.
In either of these two options, make sure that you complete a master thesis research project. This is optional in many master’s programs, but essential for going on to a doctorate in psychology.
Either of these two options can lessen a problem that is common among even the most successful B.U. Psychology majors: excellent grades, research and practicum experience, excellent faculty contacts for recommendation letters, but GRE scores that are not high enough for doctoral programs in clinical or counseling psychology. Graduate programs use GRE scores in part to predict how well students will succeed at the academic challenges of graduate coursework and research. Holding a master’s degree from a respected master’s program in psychology helps to establish your ability to meet those challenges, so when you are reviewed by doctoral programs, GRE scores, while still considered, will often be balanced by grades, research projects, and recommendation letters from faculty in the master’s program.
If you obtain a master’s degree first, then go on to doctoral clinical or counseling psychology programs, count on a total of six years or more of graduate study, since master’s and doctoral program requirements will differ to some extent. (However, the people we have known who finished this pathway considered the extra year well worth it.)
A note on terminology: master’s program that train graduates only for master’s-level careers, not as a stepping stone to doctoral programs, are often called “terminal master’s” programs.
For information on master’s-level programs in psychology, see the APA Graduate Study in Psychology book. A copy is available in the Psychology Department office. We give the reference in our “Further Reading” section below.
Also, much of the information on the A.P.A webpage “Applying to Graduate School” applies to master’s programs in psychology:
What Courses Do I Take Now?
Students are often surprised to learn that graduate schools prefer applicants with a broad, strong background in scientific psychology and in other disciplines, and take a less favorable view of applicants with a background too specialized in clinically-related courses.
In a fast-changing world, a capable professional practitioner needs four qualities: a broad, diverse education; self-awareness of one’s own strengths and areas for improvement; the ability to evaluate and apply new information; and the ability to communicate effectively. These are the goals of a liberal arts education in psychology and other fields. These goals also drive the course requirements of the psychology major, at B.U. and elsewhere.
Professional practice requires familiarity with biological, psychological, and social processes, and with the arts and humanities. If you desire admission to graduate study and to a helping profession, don’t settle for easy courses, challenge yourself in more difficult ones. Don’t specialize too narrowly, broaden your learning.
You may not be able to take courses in all of the areas we discuss below. However, the B.U. Psychology major requires many of the courses we mention below, and offers others as one choice in a required category of courses. By planning carefully and discussing your options with your advisor, you can take courses beyond the major requirements, and outside the major, that will help you toward your choice of graduate study and a helping profession.
In making recommendations in this section, we have relied on our own experiences in advisement, and on empirical studies of graduate school admissions policies in psychology. A recent empirical study is:
Lawson, T., Reisinger, L., & Jordan-Fleming, M. (2012). Undergraduate psychology courses preferred by graduate programs. Teaching of Psychology, 39, 181-184.
In the Lawson et al. survey, almost all graduate programs in psychology required courses in general psychology, statistics, and research methods (at B.U., the courses in General, Statistics, Experimental Methods and Experimental Applications). In addition, 60% of programs required at least one other psychology course. Those additional requirements varied by program, but in general they were covered by courses in the B.U. psychology major.
Master’s and doctoral programs in clinical and counseling psychology often require a course in an area of abnormal psychology (covered by the B.U. courses in Psychological Disorders or Developmental Psychopathology). This is especially true for Psy.D. programs. Some programs require a course in personality (covered by the B.U. course in Theories of Personality). A number of Psy.D. programs require courses in both of these areas.
Clinical disorders have biological aspects, and the most serious disorders require drug treatment as well as psychotherapy. Even counseling with relatively healthy populations requires an understanding of neuroscience. Likewise, a helping professional needs an understanding of the psychological processes of learning and cognition. Many graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology (including Psy.D. programs) require courses in these areas. Programs that do this are most likely to have a requirement covered by the B.U. course in Behavioral Neuroscience. However, the B.U. courses in Learning and Cognitive Psychology also have substantial neuroscience coverage; this can be mentioned in your application.
The helping professional also needs an understanding of developmental and social processes (covered by the B.U. courses in Early Child Development, Adolescent Development, or Adulthood and Aging, and by our Social Psychology course). Many graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology (including Psy.D. programs) require courses in these areas.
A number of graduate programs in school psychology, and Psy.D. clinical psychology programs, require a course in testing (covered by the B.U. course in Tests and Measurements).
In addition, the BU courses in Psychology of Gender, Introduction to Clinical Psychology, Community Psychology, Behavior Modification, and some Psychology Seminar topics are relevant to clinical/counseling concerns, and may bolster an application to a graduate program in a helping profession. Note that the undergraduate Clinical Psychology course can help you learn more abut that profession, but is not required by graduate programs in that field. Our course in History of Psychology offers an overview of psychology that strengthens an application. Our course in Advanced Experimental Design is helpful in performing a research project, and is helpful for a doctoral-program admission and for the first graduate statistics course. Our course in Theory and Practice of Academic Psychology (for teaching assistants in the General Psychology course) is an excellent overview of the entire discipline as well as helpful in obtaining a teaching assistantship in psychology graduate programs.
Master’s programs in counseling and social work consider a broad background in psychology a strong preparation for those fields as well. They are much less likely to require specific psychology courses, but they do often require a statistics course, a broad educational background, and a Practicum or related, extensive volunteer or job experience.
As you are choosing and taking psychology courses, think about a related issue: For graduate school, you usually will need three recommendation letters from Psychology Department faculty. Consider carefully whom you will eventually ask for these letters. A strong recommendation letter gives details based on personal knowledge of your academic skills, accomplishments and strengths, particularly in courses you had with this faculty member. The specialty area of the faculty member does not matter. Even in an application to a clinical psychology program, a strong, detailed letter from an experimental psychologist is better than a letter from a clinical psychologist who doesn’t know much about your academic performance or strengths.
Practicum and Research Experiences
In addition to the Psychology courses above, for graduate study in a helping profession you need to consider a Psychology Practicum and an Independent Study research project. Students seeking admission to doctoral clinical/counseling programs, Ph.D. or Psy.D, should do both. Those seeking a master’s degree for a helping profession should perform a Psychology Practicum or related clinical experience, and strongly consider an Independent Study.
An Independent Study research project is done in one semester, for three credits, with advance preparation and supervision by a faculty member. (If you are in the honors program, you are required to complete a year-long six-credit project.) Early in the semester preceding the term in which you want to do a research project, meet with a few faculty to find out about their research interests and to discuss yours. Then choose one faculty member and work with him or her to plan your independent research. Working with that faculty supervisor, you must submit a proposal to the Dean of Liberal Arts during the semester preceding your research project.
To test initially your interest in actual clinical/counseling work, and your actual tolerance for its challenges and difficulties, you should complete a Psychology Practicum for academic credit, or a non-credit clinical experience such as a summer job or volunteer commitment. The principal advantage of the Psychology Practicum is supervision: you have both a faculty supervisor and a supervisor in your Practicum setting to help you gain the best experience and to help you understand what you are learning. The length of this experience, and its depth in terms of responsibility undertaken and learning experienced, depends on your purposes and on constraints of time, other coursework, and related factors. However, we can make some generalizations.
A Practicum occurs during a fall or spring semester (there is no summer Practicum), and is best done for at least two full days per week. (This involves taking at least six credits of Psychology Practicum.) This is because the student must be oriented and trained before she or he can be trusted to have actual client contact. In addition to time spent in the practicum setting, Psychology Practicum includes reading and writing assignments and time in weekly Practicum class meetings. You must balance the benefits of credits and time in Psychology Practicum with the benefits of other classes or experiences. We don’t advise more than nine credits in Psychology Practicum if you want to go to graduate school.
There some good reasons to take a Practicum during the fall semester, if you can, but they don’t apply to everyone. If you seek to go directly on to graduate school in the fall following graduation in May from B.U., you will have completed your Practicum, and be able to give details about your Practicum experiences, as part of your applications. That is preferable to writing about your plans for a spring Practicum that you have not actually done yet. In addition, with a fall Practicum you could have your Practicum field supervisor and/or your Practicum faculty supervisor write a recommendation letter that can discuss your Practicum performance. Finally, there usually are fewer students seeking Practicum experiences in the fall than in the spring, and thus more variety of Practicum settings available.
For more information on gaining a practicum, see the document “Securing Your Practicum” at: http://www.departments.bloomu.edu/psych/securingyourpracticum.htm
Outside the Major
Undergraduate study is your best chance to take a course just because it is interesting to you -- a course in Shakespeare, an art studio course, a musical instrument or voice, anatomy and physiology, cultural anthropology, or whatever interests you. The Psychology major is designed to allow that; indeed, we encourage it. Graduate programs are not interested in training psychological technicians who have finished a predetermined list of courses and who know and care little about disciplines outside psychology. Broad interests foster better-educated individuals, a more civilized society, and better professional psychologists.
We have seen psychology majors shut out of their desired careers because of deficiencies in writing and quantitative skills. Seek out courses that emphasize and address these skills, and work hard on improving them. Take advantage of the services in the Writing Center.
We strongly recommend a minor and/or career concentration in addition to the psychology major. A minor can be in any field that you are interested in. A minor in philosophy, biology, anthropology, sociology, criminal justice, or communication studies bears a clear relationship to a helping career. However, a minor in music, art (studio or history), theatre arts, creative writing, history, geography, or another field provides a useful background for future helping professions. An interdisciplinary minor, such as Gender and Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies in the U.S., Latin American Studies, or Middle Eastern Studies equips you with a useful background for working with these populations.
Many psychology majors also choose a career concentration to complement the Psychology major, in Families, Children and Youth, or Gerontology, or Exceptionalities. Many psychology courses count toward the Families, Children and Youth and Gerontology concentrations.
However, understand that a minor is more widely recognized by graduate schools than a career concentration. Psychology majors who plan carefully can do both.
A psychology major interested in pursuing a master’s degree in clinical social work should take the Introduction to Social Work course. Speak with the instructor or another social work faculty member about your interests and questions about a master’s degree in social work and your interest in clinical social work. Courses in sociology are also a good background for clinical social work. Remember that sociology and social work are two separate fields with different perspectives. Marriage and Family, for instance, is a sociology course, although it provides very helpful background for social work. There is a minor in sociology at B.U., but not in social work.
Applying to Graduate School
Whatever your plans for applying to graduate school, work closely with at least one member of the Psychology Department faculty. All Psychology faculty members know a great deal about this process, and about graduate study. Some of us also know a great deal about careers in the helping professions – much more than we can summarize in this web document. After you have read this document and know about pathways to the helping professions in general, we can customize our advice to your specific interests, strengths, limitations, and questions. We have known a small number of students who tried to do this on their own, and almost all of them fell short of their potential. Be assertive about consulting us. This is often one of the most rewarding parts of our work.
Two faculty members may not always agree on what they believe is the best pathway for you. That’s good, actually; it can lead you to think in more depth about your hopes, strengths, and priorities.
Applying to graduate school has moments of intense hope, intense work, long periods of waiting, moments of disappointment, and almost always a conclusion that can fill you with hope and anticipation, even joy – although you may not end up where you expected to be. Your faculty mentors have been through this, and we want to support and guide you in this process. In turn, we need for you to be honest with us, discussing your hopes, goals, strengths, limitations, disappointments, and uplifts. Only then can we provide you with the best help.
Select psychology and other courses carefully, develop a plan to prepare for the Graduate Record Examinations (G.R.E.’s), and see psychology faculty early and often for advice. Consider carefully whom you will ask for recommendation letters. They should know your academic performance and strengths well, and preferably have had you as a student in more than one course.
Resources to Use
- If you plan to apply to master’s or doctoral programs in psychology, consult the A.P.A Graduate Study in Psychology book for information on specific programs, including statistics on admissions criteria not available elsewhere. Also consult website links given in this document, and specific graduate program websites. For other fields, begin with weblinks in sections on those fields earlier in this document.
- If you are applying to doctoral programs, we strongly recommend that you buy or share a guidebook on gaining admission to doctoral programs (not the A.P.A. book above; see our later section, “Further Reading”). These guidebooks provide program comparisons, tips on writing applications and preparing for interviews, and other information not available elsewhere.
- Most graduate programs accept new students only in the fall semester. You should begin early as the application process is lengthy and often expensive. (See our table later in this document, “Time Line for Graduate School Planning and Applications”.)
- For psychology programs, master’s and doctoral levels, read the faculty interests on the program website. Consider writing to an individual professor who has clinical or research interests similar to yours.
Remember there is no “best” school for training in a helping profession. You are searching for a set of programs that match your personal goals, interests, and strengths.
Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
GRE scores are an important and sometimes determining factor in graduate school admission. However, programs differ in whether they require the G.R.E. and how they use the scores. Check to see whether the schools in which you are interested require the G.R.E. General and/or Advanced Subject Test in Psychology. Master’s and doctoral programs in psychology usually require GRE scores for application. Master’s programs in counseling often do so, but not always. Master’s programs in social work seldom require G.R.E. scores (they look for Practicum and/or extensive volunteer or work experience).
Take the G.R.E. Preparation course (non-credit) offered by the Psychology Department, preferably during your junior year. Take the G.R.E. itself soon after your junior year or early in your senior year. (See our table later in this document, “Time Line for Graduate School Planning and Applications”.) Understand that your G.R.E. scores may determine which programs that you can apply to, so do this early. Also understand that G.R.E. scores needed for doctoral programs are higher than for master’s programs, and are often higher for psychology programs than for programs in related areas.
You will need to disclose your G.R.E. scores to the Psychology Department member(s) who are advising you about applying to graduate schools (unless you are applying only to programs that don’t require them). Only then can we give your our best advice. We don’t consider G.R.E. scores the true measure of your intelligence, or of how much you have learned in college. We don’t judge students’ worth by their G.R.E. scores. We do need to know your scores, for two reasons. First, we can help you decide which programs are worth the money and effort needed for an application, and which aren’t, depending on their required or recommended G.R.E. scores. Second, we may be willing to say in a recommendation letter, based on our experience with you as a student, that a specific G.R.E. scores underestimates your abilities in that area, and explain that judgment.
A good resource to read about this is on the A.P.A. website. Although it is written with doctoral programs in mind, some of what it says also applies to other programs:
After you have reviewed information from your desired programs and received your GRE scores you should decide on a final list of graduate schools to which to apply. Discuss with at least one advisor how many programs to which to apply. If you apply to doctoral programs, make sure that you also apply to several master’s programs as back-up choices. Realistically assess your chances for getting into a program based on your academic qualifications and the school’s admission requirements (speak to at least one Psychology Department advisor about choosing these. Don’t waste your money and time on applying to programs at which you have now chance of admission. Be tough about assessing your qualifications such as grades (especially in upper-level psychology courses) and GRE scores.
Apply to at least two levels of graduate programs. Discuss these with at least one Psychology Department faculty member. First, choose several programs that are competitive, but for which you have a realistic chance of admission. Second, apply to at least two programs that are less competitive, where you are very likely to be admitted, and that you would be willing to attend if necessary. Third, if you choose and can afford the time and money, consider applying to one or two programs that are highly desirable but where you have a small chance of being accepted.
Rank the programs in order of preference, and keep that list. It may help you make choices later. You can revise the list at any time.
Letters of Recommendation
Carefully choose three individuals you wish to write your letters of recommendation, and ask if they will do this for you. Consider which faculty members know your academic performance best, preferably by teaching you in at least two classes or in a Practicum or Independent Study. One recommender may be a person outside the Psychology Department: a faculty member in another field, or a Practicum supervisor. Contact each recommender at least one month ahead of your first deadline. If you have questions about choices, consult a faculty member.
When you ask a potential recommender to write letters for you, ask if they can write a strong recommendation letter for you. That’s what you want, and if a potential recommender has reservations about doing this, they will tell you that. Then consider asking someone else.
When you have a final list of programs for which you will need letters from a recommender, give that recommender a sheet that summarizes the name and degree of each program (e.g., Ph.D. in school psychology) and the deadline for the letter.
Most graduate programs will also require that the recommender complete a rating form about you. Depending on the graduate program, these forms, and recommendation letters, may be on paper or on a program’s secure website.
The program will ask if you wish to waive your right to see the recommendation letter and ratings; we recommend that you waive this right. Most programs, especially competitive ones, believe that this makes the letter more honest. If this is on a paper rating form that you give recommenders, indicate your choice and sign the form.
If your recommender is to mail the recommendation to the program, or in a sealed envelope to you, make sure to give the recommender the correct address. Always give each recommender your email address so that it is handy if they have questions.
An excellent resource on the A.P.A. website is: http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/features/2009/recommendation.aspx
Writing the Personal Statement; Preparing for an Interview
In your application, you likely will be asked to provide some sort of personal statement about your goals and reasons for choosing a particular program. Consult carefully with a faculty advisor about this, and ask that person to review a draft of one. If you are applying for doctoral programs, also consult the chapter on this in a guidebook for applying to graduate schools (see “Further Reading” at the end of this document).
Many programs, but not all, will choose a fairly small number of applicants to interview, in person or by phone, then make final admissions selections after that. If you are invited for an interview, consult with at least one faculty advisor about preparing for it. Research the program thoroughly; note carefully the faculty’s interests and specialties. Preparing for interviews is also covered comprehensively in guidebooks, but must be customized to the specific program.
Some likely questions for interviews at graduate programs in the helping professions concern: your career goals and how this graduate program fits them; the client populations with whom you are most interested in working; the clinical experiences and research topics that interest you in that graduate program; your research and Practicum experiences as an undergraduate at B.U.; the theoretical approaches to counseling or psychotherapy that interest you most.
In an interview, you will be asked if you have any questions, so have a list prepared before you go. Remember that the interview is also your chance to assess the suitability of the graduate program for your goals. Assertively ask questions and gather all possible information. Ask about financial aid, especially assistantships and scholarships. Talk with students currently attending that program.
It is a good idea to informally role-play questions and possible responses for the interview, with a friend or faculty member.
A good online introduction to personal statements and interviews is available at:
Making the Final Selection
This requires tedious waiting and then timely action. Not all programs will notify you at once. See an advisor to help throughout this process!
- Remember, you only need one good offer! (Dr. Dalton got into only one doctoral clinical psychology program, in late April. But that was all he needed.)
- If you receive an offer from a school that is not your top choice, let them know that you are very interested in their program and ask for a deadline for your reply. Then call the programs higher on your list and inquire about the status of your application.
- You may be placed on an alternate or waiting list, meaning that if the program’s top choices for students do not accept, they will offer admission to you. Do not take this as a rejection; it means they would be happy to have you as a student, but you are not in the top group. Call or email the program to ask how far down you are on the alternate list.
- Be sure to ask about financial aid when making the decision.
- If your choices are difficult, talk to at least one Psychology Department advisor, at least once.
- Do not accept an offer unless you are certain you will attend that program.
- When you have made your choice, inform all the other programs that accepted you.
- If you do not receive an acceptance from any of your schools, don’t despair. See a Psychology Department advisor. Explore your options with us.
Self-Care and Social Support
Applying to graduate school has moments of intense hope, intense work, long periods of waiting, moments of disappointment, and almost always a conclusion that can fill you with hope and anticipation, even joy – although you may not end up where you expected to be.
You need to plan carefully for taking care of yourself during this process. That includes your own coping techniques, and social support you will need from others. Applying to graduate school is too important and too demanding to do alone.
Your faculty members, in psychology or other departments, have been through this process. We remember its highs and lows for us. We want to support and guide you in this process; it’s one of the best parts of our job. In turn, we need for you to be honest with us, discussing your hopes, goals, strengths, limitations, disappointments, and uplifts. Only then can we provide you with the best help.
Plan your work to spread it out over time. Exploring professions and specific graduate programs, taking G.R.E’s, writing applications – all this takes time, careful thought, and seeking of advice. Set aside moderate amounts of time spread over days and weeks.
Working on anything about graduate school and your future raises your anxiety. That can block you from doing your work in a timely way. Focus on a small task, or several small tasks that you can do each day or week. Small wins pave the way to larger successes.
To help get you through all this, cultivate a daily practice of some activity that promotes your own peace of mind. There are many ways to do this, and taking the time for that is well worth it in the long run.
As much as you can, separate the process and outcome of graduate school applications from your overall self-esteem and self-respect. This is a competitive process, especially at the doctoral level. Many very qualified students, who will be very competent professionals in the future, will not be accepted by the graduate program(s) that they most want to attend. That is not about them, or you – it’s about the complexity of matching a large pool of applicants with a limited number of open seats in each graduate program. Deciding from among your second, third, or lower choices is a common experience – and in the long run, you will likely discover that the program where you ended up was a very good match for you after all.
Don’t assume that there is only one profession, one graduate school, one pathway for you. There are many pathways to satisfying, rewarding work in the helping professions. Consider the options. Seek advice from faculty members about specific programs where the BU Psychology major has sent students in the past. Apply to a range of programs in which you are interested, at different levels of difficulty in admissions.
Establish a relationship with a primary faculty advisor. Consult that mentor often during the process of planning, applying, waiting, interviewing, and choosing among acceptances. Don’t be shy about discussing (in general terms) personal commitments that may affect your decisions, such as a relationship that will affect your decisions about where to you would be willing to live. Finally, don’t be shy about asking that mentor to discuss some difficult aspect of the applicant process with you – personal statement, upcoming interview, final decision, or other steps.
Cultivate a relationship with a supportive peer or two – another psychology major who is applying to graduate programs. That may or may not be one of your closest friends; there are advantages to choosing someone who is not as emotionally close to you. Think carefully about this choice; you want this relationship to be supportive, not competitive. Then make time to talk with that person often about how things are going for each of you. This can help support you in getting the work done, balancing applications with coursework, sounding out your thoughts and decisions, and providing support when you are discouraged. Be willing to provide as much support to your peer as you expect to receive. (If your peer wants more time than you have to provide, find a way to talk about what is realistic for both of you.)
A faculty mentor and a peer provide different ideas and different forms of support, but you will need both.
Prepare to be rejected by some of the graduate programs where you applied. As much as you can, separate that outcome from your self-esteem. Some faculty have recommended finding your own ritual or method for handling the immediate sting of a rejection letter, something that both recognizes your disappointment and allows you put it behind you and move on. Focus on renewing your hope and resilience.
Finally, be hopeful, resilient, and optimistic. In our experience, students who plan and work carefully throughout the whole process, who seek and heed advice from one or more faculty members, and who cultivate supportive relationships with peers, are able to find graduate programs that are good matches for them, and that will enable them to pursue a rewarding professional future.
Graduate Study in the Helping Professions: Timeline for Graduate School Planning and Applications
Freshman and sophomore years
1. Take 100-200-level psychology courses, especially our Statistics and Experimental Methods and Applications courses.
2. Take a broad range of courses that will strengthen your writing and quantitative skills, and broaden your cultural perspective.
3. Consider a minor and/or career concentration.
4. See a Psychology Department member for advisement, at least once a semester.
3. Join the Psychology Association and consider volunteering to help in faculty research.
1. Take 300-level psychology courses.
2. Continue courses in other disciplines that will strengthen writing and quantitative skills.
3. Plan when to do a Practicum.
4. Plan when to do an independent research project.
5. Take the GRE Preparation course and practice exam, General Test and take practice exams, unless you are certain you will apply to programs that do not require it, e.g. many social work programs.
6. See Psychology Department advisor(s) for help with all this.
Summer before senior year
1. Take GRE General Test, if required by programs in which you are interested.
2. Begin choosing the types of programs to which you will apply (e.g., clinical psychology, school psychology, social work). Explore information about specific graduate programs.
3. If applying to doctoral programs, buy and read a guidebook on applying to graduate schools in psychology.
Early fall of senior year
1. Conduct an Independent Study research project. Plan for presentation at an undergraduate research conference or at the Eastern Psychological Association in the spring.
2. Take a Practicum in the fall, or plan one for the spring.
3. Take capstone psychology course(s).
4. Take GRE Subject Test in Psychology, if required by programs to which you will apply.
5. Choose programs to which you will apply. Include acceptable backup programs where you are likely to be admitted.
6. See Psychology Department advisor(s) for help with all this. Be honest, ask questions, listen carefully.
7. Find a friend with whom you can be honest about your hopes, fears, hassles, disappointments, and uplifts. Also, one you are willing to support in return. Perhaps one who is also applying for graduate schools, but with whom you can be honest and supportive, not competitive.
By Dec. 1 of senior year (doctoral level); By Feb. 1 of senior year (master’s level)
1. Write applications for graduate programs. Ask an advisor to review your plans and personal statements.
2. At least one month before the application deadline, ask three persons to write letters of recommendation. Discuss your goals and plans with each person. Provide each with all necessary forms, information, and addresses.
February-March of senior year
1. Conduct a Practicum or Independent Study research, if not done earlier.
2. If invited to an interview, discuss it with an advisor and practice ahead of time.
3. Practice your waiting skills; patience is a virtue.
April-May of senior year
1. See your advisor for advice about good news, bad news, choices, and questions.
2. For doctoral programs, commitments made on or after April 15 are to be final.
See also the timeline for doctoral programs on the A.P.A. website:
Remember: our students have had very good fortune in graduate admissions when they seek and use advisement early and often.
American Psychological Association. (Updated biyearly). Graduate study in psychology. Washington, DC: Author.
(Listings and descriptions of doctoral and master’s programs in psychology and some related fields. Use this in conjunctions with an advisor. A copy can be used in Psychology Department office; no need to buy this one. You can also purchase online access to this volume.)
(Note: the best way to use this guide is to choose whether you seek master’s or doctoral training, choose a specialty in which you seek training, and perhaps choose a geographic region, then review the programs that fit your choices.)
American Psychological Association. (2008). Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology (2nd edition). Washington, DC: Author.
Buy, read and use this guidebook if you intend to apply to doctoral programs in psychology. Consider it if you intend to apply to other programs.
Keith-Speigel, P., & Wiederman, M. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology and related fields. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates [E-book: Taylor & Francis e-Library].
A very useful guidebook with lots of specific advice not available in the A.P.A. Graduate Study book: e.g., writing applications and personal statements, doing well in interviews, other topics. This advice doesn’t need to be updated yearly. A copy can be read in the Psychology Department. E-book version available at:
Kracen, A., & Wallace, I. (Eds.) (2008). Applying to graduate school in psychology: Advice from successful students and prominent psychologists. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Many tips and suggestions, mostly with doctoral programs in mind. A useful addition to other sources on this list, but don’t rely on this alone.
Norcross, J., & Sayette, M. (published biyearly). Insider’s guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology. New York: Guilford Press.
Buy, read and use this guidebook if you intend to apply to doctoral programs in these areas of psychology. Essential inside tips and comparisons of these programs, with information not available in the A.P.A. Graduate Study book, such as whether programs emphasize research or clinical practice, and the dominant theoretical orientation(s) in a program.
American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org
Information on applying to graduate programs:
Information on careers and fields in psychology (requiring doctoral degrees):
Council on Social Work Education: http://www.cswe.org
Listing of accredited programs in social work:
Information on careers in social work:
Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs:
Listings of graduate programs accredited by C.A.C.R.E.P.:
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy: http://www.aamft.org
Graduate Record Examination: http://www.gre.org