Graduate School Competition in Psychology

Reader’s Question

I am currently a junior in college as a psychology major with my goal being to go to graduate school for a PhD in Clinical Psychology. As most people know who have chosen this path, the competitive nature of these programs requires only premium performance in multiple facets of one’s college experience.

I’ve seen schools where over 500 people will apply yet only 5 of those people will be selected for the program; that is 1% of applicants! I know this is an extreme example but the competition is still very real. My question revolves around my relationships with my fellow Psychology majors, particularly those who have chosen to pursue the same goal as mine. Is it natural to feel so competitive with your fellow Psychology majors that you feel slightly hostile toward them? By hostile I don’t mean physically harming them or verbally harassing them, but feeling negatively toward them because they are competing for something that I want so badly. I know that these feelings of animosity are specific to Psychology majors and no other type of college. What should I do? I don’t like feeling this way toward them but feel compelled to considering what is at stake.

Psychologist’s Reply

When you comment that feelings of animosity are specific to psychology majors and no other type of college, that is incorrect. All graduate programs are competitive in many areas. There is competition to:

  1. gain admission to the program,
  2. obtain funding/stipends/assistanceships,
  3. obtain teaching positions,
  4. obtain practicum/internship placements,
  5. obtain specific faculty to participate in your program, and
  6. obtain scholarship programs.

In my experience, each university Psychology Program has a unique personality. Some departments are highly competitive while others are more cooperative if not almost “family” oriented. Despite the personality of these departments, the emphasis on top performance in grades, ethics, and professional behavior is the same.

You’ll also find a variety of programs in excellent universities. There are schools where 500 apply and only 5 percent are accepted. There are other schools that don’t have that selection ratio. Some thoughts:

  • Recognize that many excellent psychology programs can be found all over the country. Select a few high, medium, and low ratio (applicant/acceptance ratio) programs. Check out their websites, and email their students and ask about the program. Also ask about the “mood” and personality of the program.
  • Highly competitive and “mean” programs often create mean students — not always better psychologists. Look for a department and a program that is a “good fit” for your personality. Some programs are inappropriately if not aggressively competitive for no specific reason that serves psychology as a profession.
  • Recognize that your license to practice psychology doesn’t list your graduate school. A psychologist license obtained via Harvard and the University of Kentucky are identical.
  • You are already stressing too much…and you’re still an undergrad. I would recommend counseling, perhaps through your university psychology department, to obtain a better picture of graduate school and psychology as a career. There’s a lot at stake here, but it’s not psychology — it’s your personality and emotional health. If you find yourself to be rather “high strung” and unable to depersonalize graduate school, I would recommend seeking a lower-stress, less-competitive graduate program. There are hundreds of them available. The high-stress and low-stress programs are both good and both provide the requirements for licensure as a psychologist — the ultimate goal. Rather than focus on your fellow students as competition, strive to make yourself the best psychologist possible by managing your threats, apprehensions, and course requirements.
  • You can also reduce the sense of competition by effectively managing and preparing for issues that often create the competition. Bringing an external scholarship to the program eliminates the internal competition for department scholarships. The same holds true for outside funding regarding assistanceships and teaching positions.

I hope these observations and comments are helpful. Psychology is a great career!

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