Social Psychology Network

Maintained by Scott Plous, Wesleyan University

Frequently Asked Career Questions

The Road Ahead     This page contains answers to frequently asked questions about career options in psychology -- just click on a question to see its answer. Although the emphasis is on social psychology, much of the information applies to psychology in general (students interested in personality psychology may also wish to visit the Personality Project).

If you have a question that does not appear below, you might also consult the bibliography of student career resources.

Social Psychology:

Graduate School:

Financial Aid:

Career Opportunities:

Further Resources:

Q: What is social psychology?

A: Social psychology is the scientific study of how people think about, influence, and relate to one another. For a concise overview of the field, see What Is Social/Personality Psychology? Or, for a more detailed introduction to social psychology, read the first chapter of any popular social psychology textbook.

Q: How does social psychology differ from other disciplines?

A: Social psychology is closely related to three other disciplines: personality psychology, organizational psychology, and sociology (social work is sometimes confused with social psychology, but it is really more similar to counseling psychology and clinical practice). In general, social psychology differs from personality psychology in that it focuses more on the situational influences of behavior than on individual differences between people; it differs from organizational psychology in that it does not focus specifically on behavior within organizations; and it differs from sociology in that it focuses on the behavior of individuals and small groups more than the behavior of large social systems and societies.

Q: Do social psychologists need to have a PhD?

A: Most social psychologists pursue a PhD rather than a masters degree, and a PhD is usually needed to become a professor at a college or university. In some cases, however, an employer will accept a masters degree as sufficient. Thus, the answer to this question depends on the specific job and employer involved.

Q: Can social psychologists study multicultural/minority issues?

A: Yes. Many social psychologists are interested in topics such as culture and human diversity, intergroup relations, prejudice and discrimination, stereotyping, attitude formation, and other topics relevant to multiculturalism and minority issues. These topics are also studied in other branches of psychology. For example, personality psychologists have examined the role of race and ethnicity in the development of personal identity; clinical psychologists have studied the stress that minority members experience as a result of racial discrimination, industrial-organizational psychologists have assessed the results of diversity programs in workplace settings, and developmental psychologists have tracked the formation of stereotypes and prejudice in children.

Q: What is required for admission to graduate school?

A: Although requirements vary, most graduate programs look for students who have:
  • Earned high grades while completing their bachelors degree at an accredited college or university (typically, though not necessarily, as an undergraduate psychology major)
  • Demonstrated strong quantitative, verbal, and analytic abilities, as reflected in their scores on the Graduate Record Exam
  • Been evaluated positively in three confidential letters of recommendation written by undergraduate teachers, advisors, or research supervisors
  • Had experience doing psychological research

In addition, graduate applicants are usually asked to write a short essay describing their career aspirations, research interests, or other related topics. When writing this essay, applicants should know enough about the program they are applying to that they can discuss the fit between their interests and the program's specific features (e.g., the research that is being done at that school). The easiest way to learn about particular programs in social psychology is by visiting this interactive map of graduate programs as well as faculty member pages on the web.

Q: How difficult is it to get into graduate school?

A: Graduate schools vary widely in how selective they are. At some leading schools the admission rate is less than 5% of applicants, whereas at other schools the chances of admission are considerably higher. In general, PsyD programs at professional psychology schools are easier to enter than PhD programs at universities. For example, a December 2005 study published in the American Psychologist found that the mean admission rate for APA-accredited PsyD programs was 40%, compared with 10% for APA-accredited PhD programs.

Q: How long does it take to finish graduate school?

A: In most cases, a masters degree in psychology takes approximately 2 years to complete, and a doctorate takes 4-6 years (that is, 2-4 years longer than a masters degree). For a doctorate in clinical psychology, another year is typically added because students must complete an internship in which they complete a certain number of hours of supervised clinical practice. These averages vary quite a bit, however, so students should check with any programs they are applying to and see what the average degree completion time has been during the past few years.

Q: What is the difference between a PsyD and a PhD?

A: PsyD stands for "Doctor of Psychology," and PhD stands for "Doctor of Philosophy." Traditionally, psychologists have earned a PhD in psychology, but in recent years, the PsyD has become a popular alternative for individuals who want clinical training and have relatively little interest in research. Because social psychology is grounded heavily in research, there is no PsyD that pertains to social psychology.

Q: Should I apply for a masters degree before a PhD?

A: A terminal masters degree (in which an M.A. or M.S. is the end result of training) used to be quite common in psychology and is still the norm in Canada, but increasingly, the trend in the United States has been for students to go directly from a bachelors degree to a doctorate. In social psychology, for example, masters degrees are far less common than PhDs. In cases when a student is unsure about pursuing a doctorate or would like to receive additional training before doctoral studies, it may make sense to enter a masters program first. This decision is best made in consultation with faculty advisors.

Q: How many graduate schools should I apply to?

A: In general, students should apply to a variety of schools rather than only one or two favorites, especially if there is any doubt over whether they will be admitted to the programs they hope to enter. A typical strategy would be to apply to 4-6 top choices and another 4-6 second choices, making sure that the schools vary in selectivity of admissions.

Q: What are the best graduate programs in psychology?

A: What is best for a given student depends upon a variety of factors, including geographic location, affordability, faculty research interests, and so forth. In terms of the quality of graduate training and research, several program rankings have been published during the past ten years. In 1995, the National Research Council issued a report that ranked U.S. PhD programs in psychology, and there is a similar ranking for psychology departments in the United Kingdom. In addition, a ranking of U.S. and Canadian clinical PsyD and PhD programs was published in 1997. No such ranking exists specifically for social psychology programs, though there is a list of social psychology PhD programs that can be searched by keywords of interest.

Q: How expensive is graduate school?

A: Unlike undergraduate programs, PhD programs often waive tuition and fees, and some schools even offer modest stipends to their graduate students. Consequently, a school that is quite expensive at the undergraduate level may be very affordable at the graduate level. In some cases masters degree programs also offer tuition waivers or graduate stipends, though such arrangements are less common than in PhD programs. In general, the most expensive graduate degrees tend to be PsyDs from professional schools of psychology.

Q: Are there sources of financial aid for graduate students?

A: There are many sources of financial aid for graduate school, and a great deal of information can be found by visiting financial aid web sites. In addition, schools often have internal sources of funding, and most psychology departments will help newly admitted students locate whatever funding is necessary. Students should discuss their financial needs with psychology faculty after being admitted to a program.

Q: What can you do with a degree in social psychology?

A: Because social psychology concerns the study of human behavior, there are job opportunities for social psychologists in virtually every type of employment setting, including educational institutions, non profit organizations, corporations, government, and hospitals. For some specific examples, see What is a Personality/Social Psychologist?

Q: How difficult is it to get a job in social psychology?

A: For the most part, it is more difficult to find jobs inside academia than outside it. In any given year there are relatively few academic positions in social psychology, and tenure-track openings at universities tend to be highly competitive (according to one job market analysis, 553 social psychology advertisements appeared in the APS Observer Employment Bulletin between 1991 and 1996, or fewer than 100 per year). Because social psychology applies to so many employment domains beyond academia, however, most people with a PhD in social psychology are able to find a job related to their interests.

Q: How can I locate job openings in psychology?

A: A wide variety of openings can be located through the psychology job listings maintained by the Association for Psychological Science, the American Psychological Association, and other organizations. Social Psychology Network also offers a Job Posting Forum in which prospective applicants can search for jobs by keyword.

Q: Are there any good books with psychology career information?

A: There are a number of excellent books on career development in psychology, including books on how to gain admission to graduate school. For an extensive list, see the bibliography of student career resources.

Q: What resources are available for ethnic minority students?

A: Several diversity-related resources exist for students in psychology, both nationally and locally. In addition to these general resources, students interested specifically in personality or social psychology can participate in the SPN Mentorship Program. This program allows students to email career-related questions about personality or social psychology to a mentor of their choice.

Q: Where can I turn if I have additional questions?

A: The best place to turn is to local faculty members or graduate students who are knowledgeable about the area of psychology that interests you. Undergraduate psychology clubs or Psi Chi Honors Society chapters are another useful place to network with other people and share information. Finally, if these resources are unavailable and the Online Psychology Career Center does not address your question, you might try contacting one of these groups:

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