Once you have chosen to enter a particular counseling or mental health profession, you will need to find a graduate program that is right for you. I am assuming here that you have already decided which counseling profession you wish to enter. If you have not yet done so, see the discussion on the previous page, which may be helpful. In the current discussion I will additionally assume, for purposes of illustration, that you have decided on the field of clinical psychology (my own professional affiliation). While other graduate programs differ from clinical psychology programs in a variety of ways, much of what I say here about clinical psychology also holds true for graduate programs in other mental health and counseling disciplines. However, it is important that you check carefully into the specific requirements and practices of any program you are considering.
One question that students often ponder is whether they should go directly into graduate school after getting a bachelor's degree, or take some time off first. There is no simple answer to this question. Some people argue that once you stop going to school it is difficult to go back again (and that it gets more and more difficult as time passes). While this is true for many people, there are many other people who do take time off and later go back to grad school without a problem. I personally took four years off before I entered a graduate program, and was able to do so without any significant problems. During the time I was not in school, I acquired valuable experience in several positions in the mental health field, and this "real world" experience greatly broadened and deepened my learning when I did go back to school. However, I was not married at the time, had no family obligations, and looked forward to returning to academic work, which I generally enjoy. So you have to decide what will work best for you.
Another question students often wrestle with is whether to apply to a master's or a doctoral program. This is another complicated decision. Much depends on the particular discipline you have chosen, the kind of counseling you wish to do, the kinds of settings you would like to work in, and the professional options you wish to keep open in the future. Again, see the previous page, which address some of these issues. There are also a variety of practical considerations. One of these is the fact that doctoral programs are very competitive, and you will need strong grades and good GRE scores to get in. Another consideration is time. While master's programs are usually two years in duration, doctoral programs typically take at least five years, and seven years or longer is not unusual. I realize that five to seven years may sound downright horrifying! But keep this in mind: after the first year or two you will be spending most of your time working in internships and/or doing your research; thus, the graduate experience becomes less like "being in school" and more like being a professional working in your chosen career. A final consideration is money. Graduate school is expensive. However, you should also keep in mind that there are often financial resources available to graduate students. If you are lucky enough to get into a good doctor program, there may be a variety of different kinds of financial aid available, including grants, scholarships and loans. Furthermore, graduate students in counseling and psychotherapy programs are often eligible for paid internships and/or other paid work in supervised clinical settings.
Sometimes students consider going into a master's program with the idea of moving from there into a doctoral program. Generally, this is not a particularly good plan if the master's program is a terminal one (where it is assumed and planned that you will get the master's and then go out and work in the field) and if you already have the grades to apply directly to a doctoral program. The reason is that PhD programs don't generally give you much credit for masters work, even when it was very high quality and they really "should" give you credit for it. So, from an "official" point of view it is likely to be "time wasted." Furthermore, if you decide you do not want to continue in a PhD program to the very end, many PhD programs will permit you to stop at the masters level and graduate with a master's degree. (However, you need to check this out, carefully and diplomatically, because doctoral programs generally do not want people to do this, except as a last resort.) So, if you are thinking seriously about a PhD, it its probably best to go ahead and try for the PhD if you realistically can. Having said that, I should add that I myself went into a terminal masters program in Psych, and although I ended up going from there directly to a PhD program and only got credit for about half my masters work (and was lucky to get that), I never regretted taking the particular path I took because I got great training in my master's program that I would never have gotten in the PhD program and that complemented my PhD work in very useful ways.
If you do decide to go into a doctoral program in clinical psychology, another question that may arise for you is whether to go into a PhD or a PsyD program. As I noted on the previous page, PhD programs in clinical psychology emphasize learning to do research at least as much as (and often more than) they emphasize actual clinical practice. You can get good training in applied clinical work in a PhD program. However, if this is your primary goal in applying you may not be accepted; PhD programs want people who are serious about research, and likely as not, they have already had their fill of would-be practitioners trying to use their program as a route to a primarily applied career. On the other hand if you truly want to do both research and practice they will consider you seriously. PsyD programs also give some training in doing research, but usually not as much as PhD programs. If you graduate with a PsyD, it is unlikely you will be seriously considered for an academic position in a college or university department of psychology, where the faculty are usually PhDs who not only teach but also do their own research. You may, though, be eligible to teach in a PsyD program. Because of their association with academics and research, PhD programs have an edge-up in status and prestige. They admit fewer (and academically stronger) students, and they generally get more grants, federal funding and aid for their students. The "prestige gap" also sometimes carries over into applied clinical settings. Or more correctly, it carries over to some PhD clinicians in these settings. However, in my experience few clinicians in applied settings, including PhD clinical psychologists, pay much attention to the PhD/PsyD distinction. They are much more interested in what kind of person you are and whether you are a competent clinician.
The issue of prestige also comes up in relation to specific graduate programs . In considering which programs to apply to, many people look at the rankings of these programs. There are a number of organizations that rank doctoral programs in various fields, and they use a variety of different kinds of criteria, including such things as test scores of students, number and importance of publications of faculty, ratings by professionals in the same field, etc. While high rankings carry a lot of weight with many people, their usefulness is actually somewhat limited. A high ranking usually does reflect a graduate department that is well-known and respected for its academic atmosphere and for the research and publications of its faculty. Thus, if you are academically oriented and highly interested in being involved in cutting-edge research and theory in your field, a high ranking is a good index of how likely you are to have these needs met in a particular program. If these are your goals, being immersed in a high-powered academic environment can be a wonderful experience. It also increases the likelihood that you will be seriously considered for future jobs in academic settings. On the other hand, high-powered academic activities do not always carry over into high quality teaching and these two factors are sometimes inversely related. This can be a particularly important consideration if your primary interest is in doing applied clinical work. Faculty members who are nationally known for their research often have little time to spend with students and may not be particularly good clinicians; in fact, certain kinds of academic brilliance can actually be inconsistent (or even incompatible) with certain important clinical skills. Finally and most importantly, a simple ranking does not do justice to the actual differences between graduate programs. Programs differ from each other in many rich and complicated ways, and, in my opinion, it is generally more important for you to find a program that is a good match for your own particular goals and interests than one that is highly ranked.
So how do you find a graduate program that is a good fit? Of course, you will want to visit the web sites of as many programs as possible and read through as much information as you can. The first thing I would suggest you do is to look at the web pages for the individual faculty members, and look particularly at their research and other academic interests (even if you are not especially interested in research and academics). This will give you a great "snapshot" of the graduate department you are considering. Keep in mind that you may end up working with one or more of these faculty members as your mentor(s), so if you find someone whose activities and interests closely match your own this could be an important consideration in deciding whether or not to apply. However, I would also strongly recommend that you look for a department with more than one, and preferably several, faculty members who share your interests, since it can be quite difficult to predict at this stage just whom you will end up working with. You should keep in mind that your interests and goals may (and probably will) change as you learn more about the field.
Another important source of information is way the web site and the individual faculty members use language. You can often get a good feel for a department's perspective and orientation by the terminology it uses. Course titles and descriptions are particularly good for this. They frequently use special terms and jargon that indicate faculty members' commitments to specific clinical theories and points of view. When looking a the general descriptions of the department and program, you may also get a good feel for the department, but you should also keep in mind that these parts of a web site are often created primarily by one person and may not be entirely reflective of everyone there.
Of course, there are other ways of learning about graduate programs. The American Psychological Association (APA) publishes a guide to graduate programs in psychology, as do other groups and organizations. If you use such a guide, or a web site with such information, I suggest you try to find one that is geared to students interested specifically in clinical psychology (as opposed to psychology in general) because there are certain issues and concerns in clinical psychology that may not receive enough attention in a book on psychology programs in general (such as the quality of psychotherapy training and the theoretical orientation of the faculty). Some things to look for in a graduate program in clinical psychology include amount of training, availability of financial aid, availability of internships (especially paid internships), and APA accreditation of both the graduate program and of any internships that are available. (Lack of APA accreditation can make licensing more difficult later on.)
Once you have selected the program(s) you want to apply to, you will typically find detailed information on the web site(s) about how to apply. Follow these instructions very carefully. Remember, your application is your first contact with the personnel of that program and it is important to make a good impression by showing them that you take their concerns seriously! One of the things most programs will ask for is recommendations from people who know your work, especially faculty members in your undergraduate program. Therefore, you will need to contact these potential recommenders. Be sure that you contact them well ahead of the time (preferably several weeks or more). Recommenders often consider it to be seriously discourteous and annoying to be contacted without warning about a recommendation with an impending deadline; also, if you don't give your recommender enough time he or she may simply be unable, for practical reasons, to provide a recommendation. On the next page I will give you some tips about how to help your recommender write you a good recommendation.