Categorized | Psychology

What is psychology graduate school like?

Updated: Nov 9, 2009

StudentHow can you know what graduate school will be like as a psychology major? For prospective students, like myself, this is a difficult question to answer even with the whole world wide web at our finger tips. The good news is that the great folks at Jonathan Haidt’s lab at the University of Virginia’s social psychology program have given an example of what such an answer should look like.

They have put together a five-page document,  How to be a Grad Student in Social Psych, outlining what it means to be a graduate student in their program. This isn’t one of those rattled down to-do-lists of all your official requirements such as courses, exams, and deadlines needed for a successful graduation. They go beyond these general and rather bland facts by painting a mental picture of what you’ll be doing, when you’ll be doing it, and why. The emphasis is more about the gradual steps in the process, while official requirements are merely used as landmarks. In other words, it is told as a story of what to expect and what your years in their grad school program will be like. Granted the specifics will vary greatly from one program to another, nevertheless, having such a blueprint to work from has been very helpful to me and hopefully will be to you as well. It has given me a better understanding of what to expect and look for in graduate programs as well as how to ask more relevant questions.

Questions I asked myself after reading the article:

  1. In the big picture, what will the program offer me? What will & won’t I be trained for? What is my perspective; what are my goals; and how do they align with those of the overall program and the relevant professors?
  2. What are the career choices with the training I will have received?
  3. What would a year by year outline of my studies encompass? What should I expect to be doing and when? What is the process from entering as a newly accepted student to graduating successfully and finding a job? Include official requirements such as courses, exams, dissertation, and deadlines as well as more elusive but important aspects such as the department’s attitudes, atmosphere, workload distribution, unofficial expectations, faculty-student and student-student interactions/collaborations.

For me this has become an important addition of finding programs that may be potentially a good fit for me. You should give it a try, if you haven’t already, and hopefully you’ll share what has been helpful in your search for grad school programs.

Some additional advice I have been giving myself:

  • It all takes time: Don’t think of all the requirements for graduating from grad school as happening simultaneously. Stretch them out into a timeline. Be aware of how you will learn and grow throughout the years and develop the skills needed to face tasks that seem daunting at the moment. In hindsight, you would have probably given yourself the same advice when you started your undergraduate degree. So don’t forget to do it now.
  • Listen to others’ experiences: It is easy to paint a distorted picture of what particular grad school programs are like. Getting as much information as possible by talking to professors and students will help to create a more representative and hopefully accurate image.
  • Focus on the ordinary: Try to keep the big picture in your mind. Wherever and whatever you’ll be studying, what you will be doing on a daily basis will determine how much you will like your graduate student life and program. As any prolonged experience, graduate school will be filled with a diversity of challenges, while largely made up by “ordinary” routines. With the input of current students, you can know what their routines are like and possibly infer what yours might be like as well.
  • Assume as little as possible: We can be quick to assume we know something already or infer too much. It might be better to double-check facts or ask more than one student/professor. It can only help you in the long run.


Haidt, J. (2003, August 26). How to be a grad student in social psych. [free full text Document]


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9 Responses to “What is psychology graduate school like?”

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