How do you become a personality or social psychologist?

Although some personality and social psychologists go to graduate school to earn a terminal masters degree (M.S. or M.A.), most seek a doctoral degree (Ph.D.). For some careers, a masters degree may be sufficient. Generally, however, the doctorate is preferred by employers and is usually necessary for employment as a professor at a university or college. 

Most Ph.D. programs in personality and social psychology require 4-5 years of training and study. The goal of most programs is similar: To prepare each student to become an independent, professional researcher. As a result, most programs teach the conceptual foundations and knowledge of the discipline, develop the student’s ability to think theoretically, and train the student in research methodology, data analysis, and research writing and presentation. Programs differ, however, in the areas of research they focus on and in their emphasis on training students for academic versus nonacademic careers. Because graduate training revolves around research, it is important that students pay particular attention to the specific faculty members with whom they are likely to work. Prospective students should give full consideration not only to the perspectives and research activities of a potential graduate program on the whole, but also to those of their probable faculty mentors. 

Admission to graduate programs in personality and social psychology is very competitive; there are far more applicants than openings (most programs enroll just a few new students each year). As a result, entry qualifications are rigorous: Most admitted students have earned high undergraduate grades and a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college; many have been undergraduate psychology majors, although this isn’t a requirement in many programs; most have had experience doing psychology research; most have demonstrated strong quantitative, verbal, and analytical abilities, as revealed in their scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE); and most have been evaluated by their undergraduate teachers in confidential letters of recommendation as being smart, talented, creative, hard-working, and conscientious. Of course, different programs have different standards and criteria for admission, and the prospective student should explore those articulated by programs of interest. 

Most personality and social psychology programs provide financial assistance to their graduate students in the form of teaching or research assistantships, and many schools waive tuition and fees at the graduate level. This, too, varies from school to school.


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