Finding a Quality Program

When it comes to education, there is no such thing as one size fits all. This is especially true when it comes to undergraduate and graduate psychology programs. As undergraduate and graduate programs are quite different, the things you should consider when picking the right psychology program vary.

The quality of an undergraduate psychology program is especially important for students who wish to continue their psychology education on the graduate level. Students need to make sure they choose an undergraduate psychology program that will adequately prepare them for the challenges of a graduate program, which have very competitive admissions processes. Graduate programs are more intense and specialized than undergraduate programs. It is of utmost importance to choose a program that is of good quality and will help you meet your professional goals.

While undergraduate and graduate programs differ by institution according to regional, state, and local needs, certain factors are indicative of high quality psychology programs that will provide students with a comprehensive psychology education as well as prepare them for admission into graduate psychology programs and occupations in professional psychology.

Pick an undergraduate program that…

Is consistent with APA guidelines

While the American Psychological Association does not accredit undergraduate programs, it does provide the APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major, which outlines goals and suggested learning outcomes that programs should strive for. According to the guidelines, an undergraduate psychology program should provide students with the knowledge, skills, and values consistent with the science and application of psychology, and a liberal arts education that is further developed in psychology.

The first category emphasizes that undergraduate psychology curriculum should fulfill learning goals regarding a knowledge base of psychology, research methods in psychology, critical thinking skills in psychology, application of psychology, and values in psychology. In the second category, the APA emphasizes that undergraduate programs should further develop the knowledge, skills, and values consistent with liberal arts education, including information and technological literacy, communication skills, sociocultural and international awareness, and career planning and development. In other words, the psychology curriculum should be designed in such a way that helps students develop skills in these areas.

Has undergraduate research opportunities

As psychology is a research-based field, it can prove beneficial to enroll in a program that emphasizes and provides undergraduate research opportunities. Participating in research projects at the undergraduate level is especially important if one intends on applying for grad school, as most graduate admissions will strongly consider an applicant’s research experience. Undergraduate research opportunities may include lab research projects, summer undergraduate research programs, independent study, field work, and research assistantships. In these types of experiences, students get to observe scientific processes first hand and apply psychological principles as they assist with data collection, management, and analysis. They may also help recruit study participants, attend lab meetings, conduct library or online research, and help analyze data and code experimental data.

When researching psychology programs, look for schools where students have access to faculty and opportunities for research. Larger public universities with doctoral programs may be more likely to give undergraduate students the opportunity to participate in research projects conducted by graduate students and faculty members. Not only will these qualities prove beneficial by helping you obtain hands-on experience but also by allowing you to become familiar and work closely with faculty who can become mentors and provide letters of recommendation for your grad school application.

Offers relevant courses

When it comes to graduate admissions, it doesn’t matter whether you earned a B.A. or a B.S. so much as the courses that you completed within a bachelor’s degree program. In other words, you want to enroll in an undergraduate program offering courses that will prepare you for the type of graduate program you want to enter. If you think you may want to work in clinical psychology, than you want to make sure you can take courses that focus on relevant topics, such as research methods, professional psychology, clinical research, ethical issues, psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatments.

Students who want to focus on a subfield of psychology in grad school or in their professional career, should pick an undergraduate program that allows them to customize their courses in a particular area. Say, for instance, your career goal is to become a counselor who works with adolescent clients. Then you should take a look at the degree requirements and course offerings to identify relevant classes you could take. For example, courses in adolescent psychology, close relationships, drugs, alcohol, and addiction, abnormal psychology, personality, or developmental psychology could help you to become more familiar with that specific age group and the issues they are dealing with.

Above all, you need to research the graduate admissions requirements of the schools you are interested in applying to and see what courses applicants are required to have completed before enrollment. These types of courses often include statistics, research methods, general psychology, developmental psychology, cognition, social psychology, abnormal psychology, and developmental psychology.

Is accredited

Formal accreditation for undergraduate psychology programs is not practiced in the United States, as the APA only accredits doctoral programs. Even though specialized accreditation may not be available, you should always make sure that any institution of higher education offering associate or bachelor’s degree level programs in psychology possesses institutional accreditation. This type of accreditation can be granted by regional and national institutional accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

The majority of graduate schools will only consider applicants who have graduated from a college or university accredited by a recognized organization. In addition, reputable psychology departments will strive to ensure their undergraduate curriculum meets the guidelines, goals, and principles outlined by the APA when it comes to adequate preparation of undergraduate students in psychology.

Pick a graduate program that…

Is statistically significant

Doctoral programs accredited by the APA are required to post specific data online, including the number of students admitted into the program each year, the percentage that successfully obtain internship placement, their pass rates for the national licensing examination, and how much they pay in tuition each year.

In particular, you should take a look at the number of students accepted into the program each year. This is important because it can help you get an idea of your odds for admission as well as an idea of the quality of education provided. Even though it may seem promising, high enrollment numbers can result in more students than faculty can adequately pay attention to. In other words, even though it may increase your odds of acceptance, it can decrease your odds of obtaining an internship and lower your performance on the national licensing examination as quality of training is compromised. You might also want to strongly consider the percentage of students who obtain internship placement, as a one-year pre-doctoral internship must be completed to earn a doctoral degree. With more applicants than available internships, low internship placement can affect future employment opportunities and result in delayed graduation and an increased debt load.

Matches your educational background

While you don’t necessarily have to have a bachelor’s degree in psychology to apply for a grad program, most will require you to have completed certain courses prior to enrollment. Common prerequisites include statistics, research methods, and general psychology courses. Programs greatly differ from school to school when it comes to curriculum, requirements, projects, and opportunities. Some programs have heavier course loads requiring a larger number of classes in challenging subjects like statistics and research design. Other programs may be more flexible and not have as many required courses, freeing students up to concentrate their studies in other areas. Before applying, you should take a good look at the curriculum and determine whether or not course requirements complement your educational background, academic strengths, and professional interests.

For example, if you focused on a certain area of psychology in undergrad, you may want to continue that specialization at an advanced level, delving more into research and clinical practice. Identifying a program that will allow you to do so will prove extremely beneficial in the long run. Considering the level of academic difficulty and amount of time a graduate program involves, you don’t want to end up in a program that doesn’t closely match your preferences.

One more thing to consider when deciding to apply to a master’s or doctoral program is your research background. Doctoral programs want to see applicants who have a good deal of research experience, as a research assistant or in independent research, because grad students will likely find themselves conducting research in a lab or clinic. Those who have little to no research experience, may want to consider applying to a master’s program first, where they can gain an adequate amount of experience before continuing their education in a doctoral program.

Meets your professional goals

You want to identify a program that will help you meet your occupational goals and provide the right education and proper training to qualify for your desired position. This means if you have an interest in a particular subfield of psychology, you want to find a degree program that offers a concentration or specialization in that area.

For example, if your goal is to be a licensed professional counselor, then you need apply to a master’s or doctoral program in counseling that requires the completion of an internship and consists of courses in core knowledge areas such as human behavior and development, effective counseling strategies, and ethical practice. You will want to make sure the program will prepare you to sit for a state-recognized exam, such as the National Counselor Examination, and provide opportunities for post master’s degree supervised clinical experience. If you are interested in human development and would rather spend your time studying people than talking to them, then you would be best served applying to a clinical psychology program that offers a concentration in developmental psychology and emphasizes research training.

Is accredited

When it comes to master’s-level degrees, academic programs in psychology and counseling can be accredited by the Master’s in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council. This council works to ensure master’s level programs meet certain academic standards when it comes to the training and scientific practice of professional psychology. Some other organizations that accredit these types of programs include the National Association of School Psychologists, Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Program, and the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education.

The gold standard in psychology education, the American Psychological Association, Commission on Accreditation only accredits doctoral programs in clinical, counseling, school, and professional-scientific psychology. These types of programs are examined in regard to their training goals, program policies and procedures, student competencies, outcome data, and student, faculty, and financial resources. You can check out whether or not the doctoral program you are interested in is currently accredited by visiting APA-Accredited Programs. The APA also accredits pre-doctoral internship and postdoctoral residency programs in professional psychology. So when it comes time to put your knowledge and training to action, make sure you choose a program that is APA approved.