How to Join the American Psychological Association

Family psychologist: Do you find yourself sitting down with friends and picking their brains, analysing their behaviours, and helping them sort through their not-so-conscious problems? Perhaps the brains of children, the elderly, couples, or entire corporations rev your intellectual engines. Either way, becoming a psychologist may be your calling.

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Get good grades in high school. This has less to do with becoming a psychologist and more to do with how to become successful in life. If you want a good job (and to be good at your job), you need to work hard and go to a good university. In order to go to a good university, you need to get good grades in high school. See the logic?

  • If your school offers psychology courses, take them! That includes AP Psych, too. The earlier you feel out this topic, the better. Sociology and other like courses certainly won’t hurt, either.

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Start working or volunteering. If you’re in high school now, odds are your interests will shift as you age. However, if you feel like you have a good grasp on where you want to go in life, the best time to start is now. Wherever you see yourself working and whoever you see yourself working with, try to gain experience working with them.

  • This could be in the form of volunteering at your local hospital, women’s shelter, or with a business that has a large team. Not only will this make applying to colleges easier, but the more people you know now, the more people you can ask for favours later!
  • Try to excel at 2 or 3 extracurricular activities rather than spreading yourself thin trying to do all of them. It will look better on an application if a school sees you take leadership roles in a few activities.

Talk to your guidance counsellor. He can tell you about the different routes to the degree you want and the different possible work environments ahead of you. The counsellor can tell you what route leads to the job outcome you have in mind.

  • What’s more, they’ll be able to get you information on prospective study programs. They’ll know which schools have the best programs for the type of psychology you’re interested in. And they’ll get you started on scholarships and financial aid when the time comes.

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Learn as much as you can about the entire field of psychology. There are many sub-specialties to consider. When people say “I want to be psychologist,” general they’re thinking of clinical psychology — where you sit down with one or two people and hack away at the subconscious. However, there are a bunch of different branches and all are worth exploring early on:

  • Organizational and industrial psychology: the study of human psychology in industrial work environments and large organizations.
  • Clinical psychology: the study of human psychology in clinical settings like hospitals and mental heath facilities, including psychotherapy.
  • Cognitive psychology: the study of internal thought processes such as problem-solving, memory, perception, and speech.
  • Neuropsychology: the study of the brain and larger nervous system and how they contribute to human psychology and behaviour.

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Research different degree programs. The easiest path is to find a college that has a decent program for obtaining a bachelor’s in psychology. Check to see that they offer the branch you’re interested in (if you’ve narrowed it down) and what kind of work they require toward the end — some may offer programs that are more akin to grad programs (theses and whatnot) while others may be a little less intensive.

  • It is technically possible to jump into a Master’s program, if your school offers it, too. However, this requires being super certain of what you’re getting into. Getting a BA in psychology allows you to tackle education 4 years at a time — a Master’s is all that work and more, with a couple more years tacked on.

Attend a four-year university. Working as a psychologist requires an advanced degree, but first you need a bachelor’s degree. You don’t have to major in psychology, but it should be a degree that is at least associated with the field of psychology. Here are a few relevant alternatives:

  • Human development. This studies the path from infancy to adulthood.
  • Sociology. This field studies how the human subject behaves in social groups.
  • Anatomy/physiology. This is a good bachelor’s degree to get if you are interested primarily in cognitive psychology and how the brain functions.
  • Chemistry. This kind of study is more appropriate for cognitive psychology than clinical psychology, as it focuses on the science behind human behaviour and not the behaviour itself.

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Get involved in research. Many college psychology departments engage in their own psychological research. Students participate as research subjects and as assistant researchers. Research experience is vital for being accepted into a graduate program.

  • This step is more for your junior or senior year in college. In your courses, it won’t be uncommon for your TA or professor to announce that so-and-so is looking for a research assistant. If you have a 3.5 or higher and blah blah blah, you can apply with Professor Zimbardo during her office hours at…you get it. When the time rolls around, jump on it. You’ll need it later.

Find a focus, minor, or double major. If you started out your freshman year with your psych major, you may find that you have extra time to dedicate to your focus or even a second major. What’s more, it makes good sense, too.

  • With a focus or minor you can start thinking about the rest of your career. A minor in gender studies could lead to a research project on women, solidifying your experiences and making the application process for grad school that much easier.
  • A double major is a great idea — especially if it’s a bit more…practical than psychology. The cruelties of the liberal arts world are many and you may find that having a second major in business or marketing will better serve your wallet in the future!

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Work on a research project. Many undergrad degrees will let you get away with a BA in psychology without affiliating yourself with any research. If you can avoid this, do so. You by no means have to spit out tomes of experimental glory, but do try to rub noses with a professor or two that lets you churn the data or punch some numbers.

  • That’s what summers are for, folks. When that three months of nothing to do rolls around, stay on campus. Talk to a couple of your TAs or professors, show them how eager you are, and see what they can come up with. Odds are they’ll love seeing a new kid as thrilled about psychology as you.

Know that this isn’t the end. Here’s something that school you’re paying $30,000 a year to go to won’t tell you: a BA in psychology is code for skimming the foam off picky latte drinkers’ orders. While Starbucks does have a pretty good employee package, it’s probably not exactly what you had in mind. To grad school you go!

  • Let’s get even more real: to be a straight up, legit psychologist like the one you probably have in your head, that means a PhD. While a master’s is all well and good and will open a few doors, a PhD will open the doors down the entire hallway. A master’s may entitle you to use the adjective (“psychological assistant”), while a PhD lets you use the noun (“group psychologist”).

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Consider medical school. A lot of people aren’t crystal clear on the differences between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. A psychologist does not attend medical school and therefore cannot disburse medication. If you want to be a psychiatrist (someone who can prescribe), you’ll need to train to be a physician.

  • If this is the path you want to take, instead of the GRE, you’ll need to take the MCAT. Going to med school is a completely different path than going to grad school. Which speaks to you?

Take the GRE. To go to grad school, you’ll need to take the GRE. It’s best to take it in the fall before the application deadlines in the winter/spring. And the better you do, the more (and better) schools you’ll be accepted into. Start studying months before you take the test!

  • Your GRE scores may help you determine between an MA and a PhD. If you don’t get stellar GRE scores, try again. Most PhD programs are looking for a good score (master’s programs may be less intense).
  • Your GRE scores are good for up to 5 years. If you’re not sure what life will throw at you next year, you can still take it and apply to schools in the coming years.

Determine what kind of work you want to do. In general, you’ll find four types of programs at the grad level: I/O, Clinical, Counselling, and Experimental. Knowing which type you want to focus on and pursue will determine what college you go to and the path you take.

  • I/O stands for Industrial/Organizational. This involves working with corporations or organizations; in the end, you’ll work for a business and focus on morale and HR-like activities.
  • Clinical is what most people picture when they hear “psychologist.” Your therapist/shrink studied clinical psychology.
  • Counselling is similar to clinical, but you’ll probably end up working in a school or government setting (like prison!). This is not the way to go if you want to end up with a private practice.
  • Experimental psychology is more research-based and focuses on — you guessed it — experiments. Though it can involve different branches, it concentrates on applying theories and methods, working out kinks and discovering new ideas.

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Determine your focus. Psychology is a huge field — even after you’ve chosen a branch (Clinical, for example), you need to zero in on a focus within that branch. Focusing on one sub-category will determine where and how you will work as a psychologist after graduation.

  • There are so many options (educational psychology, rehabilitation psychology, environmental psychology, psychology and the law, trauma psychology, forensic psychology, criminal psychology, cross-cultural psychology, etc.) that if we listed them all, you’d be here all day. Hopefully your undergrad program exposed you to a bunch of them — which one fascinated you most?

Decide if you want a Master’s, a PhD, or a PsyD. A Master’s takes much less time and money, but it may result in a smaller paycheck and fewer job possibilities. You may also find that it’s difficult to jump schools from a Master’s to a PhD if you decide to pursue further education in the future. Sit down for yourself for a minute and consider the following:

  • Master’s programs take two-three years to complete, with the last year being an internship where you accumulate hours in the field. A Master’s program generally will prepare you to work as a marriage and family counsellor, as an industrial psychologist or as a school psychologist.
  • Doctoral programs take six to seven years (depending on how you do it, it could also take much longer), including a year-long internship. A doctoral program prepares you for working as a psychologist in a hospital, clinic, or some other kind of institutional setting.
    • Realize that there are several different doctoral degrees, including the PsyD program (less common, less research-based; 5 years to complete) . Also realize that many doctoral programs provide financial support to students, who, typically, do work for the university as teaching assistants and research assistants. Master’s programs typically do not provide this kind of financial support.
    • Let your interests determine this. If you want to have a private practice, go the PhD route. If you want to be a school psychologist, get your Master’s.

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Find the right school. It’s pretty clear that there are a variety of options when it comes to your future as a psychologist. Because of this, every school varies and has its strengths and weaknesses. If you want to work as an Industrial psychologist with an emphasis on cross-cultural work environments and diversity, make sure your school has a good program on that specific aspect of psychology!

  • Most schools will have a focus themselves — one will be a good clinical school while another will be a good experimental school. Make sure this matches with your aspirations!
  • It’s also very important that your school matches your philosophical orientation. If you are a fierce proponent of Psychoanalysis, you may not be happy attending a school that’s highly Humanistic. What school of thought do you fall into?

Research scholarships, assistantships, and grants. Going to grad school for years on end will rack up a hefty fee when all is said and done. Before you find yourself staring at piles and piles of loans, look for grants and scholarships. The less you have to pay to make money, the better!

  • Hopefully your school will offer you some type of reduced tuition assistance either in the form of being a TA or working at an associated hospital or other organization. This will lessen your budgeting woes, but also makes it hard to keep down another job while studying. It’s best to have all your financial ducks in a row before you get in too deep.

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Become involved in Psi Chi or your school’s psychology club. While you’re wiling away the hours studying, it’ll be helpful to have sympathy nearby. The Psi Chi club will offer you a plethora of resources in addition to moral support. This may help you land a job after you have graduated, too.

  • Basically, the more people you know, the better you’ll be off. Odds are the Psi Chi club is in good with a handful of professors and right now that’s your bread and butter.

Get an internship. Your school will probably help you out with this as it may be required for graduation (at least for the PhD candidates). Full-time, supervised training will be the best experience you get before you go on the job yourself!

  • Generally this will be the last year of your academic work. It’s really a job — you’ll be doing it full-time and getting paid (or at least getting tuition free!). You’re almost there!
  • For PsyD candidates, this is pretty much the end of the line!

Complete your dissertation. If your program requires it, completing your dissertation is the last step to becoming a full-fledged psychiatrist (well, apart from licensure). This can be done before, during, or after your internship, depending on your program.

  • If you complete all the coursework but have yet to do your dissertation, you are what they call ABD — “all but dissertation.” Clearly if there’s an acronym for it, it’s a common thing.

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Consider more education. Believe it or not, there is still more to learn even after graduating with your PhD. A one-year post-doctoral appointment at a university can help you land a prestigious job. However, plenty of grads do not go this route. It’s there if you want to become world-renowned, though!

  • Some grads won’t need a post-doc. However, if you do one, it can count as credit for your licensure. Just know your state requirements so you can structure it around them!

Start out supervised. In many states, you need a year or two of supervised practice to get your license (if you need it at all). You’ll be doing work at a hospital or university under the guidance of a seasoned pro. Many states require hundreds or even thousands of hours of work to become licensed.

  • Luckily, the past few years have set you up for this moment. You should be familiar with an organization or two that has a role you can fill — or utilize one of the many professors you’ve worked with to get your foot in the door somewhere!

Get licensed. And you thought the paperwork was over after grad school! Nope! You’ll need to take the EPPP (Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology), create a dossier of all your work, and nail down all your supervised work hours. The requirements vary by state, so do the research on yours. It can vary widely, too — California only requires 3,000 hours while Michigan requires 6,000.

  • You’re probably looking at $1,000 or so in fees when it comes to getting licensed. You’ll be buying study books, applying, and covering exam fees.
  • Some states have an oral test, too, while others only have a jurisprudence exam.
    • Many countries have their own licensing protocols that you might not have learned about in graduate school.

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Work on your own. Now that you have all the credentials behind you, it’s time to work on your own! Congratulations. You can work unaided pretty much anywhere and for anyone. Your only limit is where you’re willing to commute!

  • Many psychologists end up opening their own private practice, at least once they’ve established a niche in their chosen community. This means you’ll become self-employed. If this is a dream of yours, start the networking now!

Join the American Psychological Association. You can then attend national and regional conferences and have access to all their online resources. That’s way better than being a gold member at Starbucks.

  • The APA boasts over 15,000 early-career psychologists. They’re all networking and learning with and through each other. If you need your next job, you know who to ask!

Be willing to relocate. Once you have your degree, the best way to get the job you want is to be willing to move to the area where the jobs are. Psychologists are needed everywhere, but in today’s economy, the best job may not be where you are. Especially in your early years, it will be very beneficial if you’re willing to move.

  • Make sure your license is good for the state you’re moving to! Lord knows you don’t want to take the EPPP again!
  • The amount psychologists get paid varies greatly by area. If you live in a small town full of blue collar workers you won’t be able to charge as much as you would if you lived in an upper-class suburb. Though the living expense should also be taken into account, where you set yourself up may be a large factor in your overall income.

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Stay up-to-date. Once you’re a verified psychologist, you’ll need to keep practicing and attend the occasional seminar to satisfy the powers that be and keep your license (in addition to reapplying every so often). Each state is different, so make sure you familiarize yourself with the laws in yours.

  • It’s also important to stay on the cutting edge of the field. You don’t want to be telling everyone and their brother about hypotheses that have been recently outdated. Keep reading, attending lectures, and educating yourself!

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More tips

  • Be aware of the difference between being a “psychologist” and a “psychiatrist.” To be a psychiatrist, you must go to medical school and get a medical degree (MD). Then, you specialize in Psychiatry. Psychologists do not have medical degrees, and, therefore, cannot prescribe medication.

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