vanderbilt psychology graduate program

Last Updated on August 28, 2023

Psychological Sciences at Vanderbilt offers a doctoral program for students admitted to work toward the Ph.D. degree in the following core areas:

  • Clinical Science
  • Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cognitive in Context
  • Developmental Science
  • Neuroscience
  • Quantitative Methods

The main goal of the PhD is to train high-level researchers in the field of Psychological Sciences, and to enable them to increase the body of scientific knowledge upon which the discipline of psychology rests. The program is designed to prepare psychologists to work effectively as researchers, college and university instructors, and professional research psychologists. The program is centered on providing general skills that can be applied across diverse fields of research with particular emphasis on: Clinical and experimental psychology – Human life-span development – Neuropsychology and cognitive psychology – Cognition – Social, cultural and group psychology – Behavioural neuroscience – Neuroimaging and computational neuroscience – Evolution of mind and cognitive functions – Language and psycholinguistics – Consumer choice, behavioural economics, marketing

Interdisciplinary between the different domains and approaches in psychological research is strongly supported. The limited number of candidates and the large number of academic scholars involved in the program ensures that each student can receive a continuous and focused attention to the development of an individualized curriculum in which more than one supervisor is usually involved.

Applicant Qualifications, Admissions Criteria, and Acceptance Rates

What are the characteristics of successful applicants?  Each program has its own set of requirements and standards; some are publicly stated, some are not.  For instance, this department’s graduate program in experimental psychology provides a list of eligibility requirements, plus provides a FAQ with the average GPA and GRE scores of successful applicants.  On this page we provide a general idea of what graduate programs may be seeking, plus admissions statistics by area of specialization in psychology. 

Note: for the most definitive information on the characteristics of successful applicants, we recommend that you directly check with program websites, the programs themselves, and individuals at those programs (such as graduate coordinators, graduate program officers, graduate students, or faculty).

Graduate Programs Are Highly Competitive

Most mid- to top-tier graduate programs, and particularly those programs that provide funding to their graduate students, are highly selective.  For example, this department’s graduate program typically receives around 300-400 applicants annually, of which admission offers are commonly extended to around 20 (around half accept, depending on the year).  Successful applicants not only meet the eligibility requirements; they exceed those requirements in key ways.  These may include research experience, academic achievements, and more. 

Consequently, it is helpful for students to carefully research the characteristics of successful applicants, to work toward achieving similar qualifications at the baccalaureate or post baccalaureate level, and to clearly emphasize their strengths in their applications. 

It is important to emphasize that graduate admissions criteria substantially differ from those used at undergraduate and other levels.  It is not necessarily the case that applicants with the highest GPA and highest test scores have the greatest chance of being accepted.  Instead, more idiosyncratic factors such as “program fit” and compatible research interests may play a greater role.  Thus, students who are accustomed to judging their progress solely on grades need to adjust their thinking; this is a different playing field and the rules are different.

Basic Qualifications of Successful Applicants 

To score an interview – in other words, to be seriously considered – applicants are typically expected to have a record which includes the following characteristics:1,2

Prerequisite undergraduate coursework completed

The courses that you are expected to have taken vary according to the graduate program you are applying to.  Some may have very specific requirements, others do not.  Some may prefer that the applicant have a well-rounded record including a diversity of rigorous courses both within and outside of psychology. 

High GPA

The mean of successful applicants to PhD programs in psychology, on the 4.0 scale, is 3.6 overall and 3.7 in psychology courses; for Master’s programs it is 3.4 overall and 3.5 in psychology courses.1  The GPA should be, at minimum, typically 3.0 or higher.

Good GRE scores

Minimum requirements (also known as “cutoffs”) vary depending on program.  Some programs, such as the one in this department, have dropped minimum scores.  However, GRE scores can be used to choose between two closely matched applicants.  The mean GRE scores of first-year graduate students in psychology, using the scale begun in late 2011, is 158 verbal and 149 quantitative for psychology PhD programs; it is 153 verbal and 146 quantitative for Master’s programs.  For the GRE Psychology subject test, the mean is 633 for PhD programs and 577 for Master’s programs. Please note that some programs, such as the one in this department, do not require the subject test.

Research experience

Research experience is a must.  This can take a variety of different forms, but publications and presentations are typically the most valued evidence of research experience.  For further information about gaining research experience as an undergraduate, please visit our research opportunities page.

Practical or clinical experience

This may be important for those applying to programs with a clinical or public service component.  For example, the number of hours you have volunteered at an outpatient clinic could be valuable for a clinical psychology graduate application.  However, it should be noted that guides to clinical psychology programs typically emphasize research experience as even more important.

Extracurricular activities

Optional and varies; should be relevant to the graduate program.  May include membership in psychological organizations, any leadership activities you have participated in, science communication, or charitable works.

How Applicant Qualifications Are Weighted

Each of the aforementioned qualifications, plus other components of the application materials, can make or break an applicant’s chances of being invited for an interview and ultimately receiving an offer of admission.  There typically are at least two stages of review.  The first involves choosing applicants that will be invited to interview.  At that stage, selection criteria may include (please note that each program may weigh each aspect differently):1,2

  1. GPA and GRE scores – many programs only interview those that are above a certain threshold.
  2. Letters of recommendation – many programs solicit three letters of recommendation. Although letters are subjective, in many programs these are given as much weight as GPA and GRE scores.
  3. Research experience – there needs to be evidence that the applicant has the potential to succeed in the primary occupation of graduate school, which is conducting research.
  4. Statement of purpose – this is taken as evidence of the applicant’s writing ability, their own stated research interests, their thoughts about program fit, and more.
  5. Coursework completed – transcripts are examined to determine whether the applicant has taken the necessary courses to qualify for the program, that they have the relevant background knowledge, and that they can handle academically rigorous coursework. 

After the interviews, the final selection criteria often includes the following (in order of importance).1,2 It should be noted that the applicant’s interview performance, statement of purpose, and recommendation letters can heavily inform these criteria and ultimately final selection decisions.

  1. Publications or paper presentations – resulting from the applicant’s existing research activities
  2. Applicant’s skills and interests match the program – as indicated in the application essays and as revealed in interviews
  3. Match with faculty member that is interested in working with the applicant – particularly as evidenced by the faculty member’s interview with the applicant and shared research interests; moreover, the faculty member has to be accepting students that year
  4. Statement of purpose – how clear and focused was the applicant able to write the essay; writing skills as evident in the essay
  5. Prior research experience – more generally, how much prior research experience the applicant had, and what that experience was, etc.

Other criteria may also be considered depending on the program.  Finally, it should be noted that among the least important criteria for selection typically include: multilingual fluency, contribution to geographic diversity, and whether the applicant is related to another student that was or is in the program.

Admissions Statistics

Acceptance rates at graduate programs in psychology range between 32-78% for Master’s programs and 12-48% for PhD programs (non-clinical); for clinical programs generally, acceptance rates vary from 7-50%.1  Data on the mean acceptance rates in different areas of psychology, compiled by the APA in 2010, are as follows:1

Cognitive Psychology40%16%
Community Psychology61%24%
Counseling Psychology63%12%
Developmental Psychology44%20%
Educational Psychology57%48%
Experimental Psychology39%15%
Health Psychology41%16%
I-O Psychology52%27%
Quantitative Psychology78%36%
School Psychology34%31%
Social/Personality Psychology39%12%

What You Should Know About Earning a Master’s Degree in Psychology

Are you thinking about earning a master’s degree in psychology? A master’s degree can open up a whole new world of career opportunities. Start by exploring what’s involved in order to determine if it’s the right educational choice for you: how long it will take, your career options after graduation, and alternative degrees that you might want to consider.

A master’s degree in psychology is a graduate-level degree that generally involves two to three years of study after you complete your undergraduate (bachelor’s) degree. The two most common types of psychology master’s degrees are the Master of Arts (M.A.) and the Master of Science (M.S.).

An M.A. degree may indicate a stronger liberal arts focus, while an M.S. usually means there’s a stronger concentration on research and the sciences. The type of degree offered depends on the school and program, however, since the academic requirements are often very similar.

Some master’s programs in psychology offer what is known as a terminal degree. This type of degree is designed to prepare graduates for professional practice in their specialty area. In other cases, a master’s degree may serve as preparation for further study at the doctoral level.1

Specific requirements can vary considerably, so take a careful look at the course outline of any program you are considering. You may also choose between a thesis and non-thesis option. Completing a thesis is a good choice if you’re interested in further graduate study, while the non-thesis alternative might be ideal if you are more interested in entering the workforce immediately after graduation.

Master’s Program Types

While there are generalist programs available, many students elect to focus on a particular specialty area. Some of the different types of master’s programs available include:

  • M.A. or M.S. in experimental psychology
  • M.A. or M.S. in industrial-organizational psychology
  • M.A. or M.S. in forensic psychology
  • M.A. or M.S. in clinical psychology
  • M.A. or M.S. in social psychology
  • M.A. or M.S. in child development

In addition to traditional master’s programs, there are a variety of online master’s degrees in psychology available.

Master’s Degree Before a Doctorate

One of the biggest questions facing students interested in earning a graduate degree in psychology is whether or not they should earn a master’s degree before applying to a doctoral program. Many Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs do not require a master’s degree, and students are able to begin these doctoral programs immediately after completing their bachelor’s degrees.

If you’re unsure if doctoral study is right for you, a master’s degree can be a good option. Spend some time talking to your college advisor and faculty members to determine which option is the best choice based on your educational interests and career goals.

Job Opportunities

While having a master’s degree means you’ll find more job opportunities than you will at the bachelor’s level, job options are still limited if you’re interested in entering the field of professional psychology. A terminal master’s program, however, does open the door to entry-level jobs in fields such as mental health, industrial-organizational psychology, and forensic psychology. Other potential sectors of employment include colleges, universities, private businesses, and government.

Preparing for a Master’s Program

If you’re interested in pursuing a master’s degree in psychology, it pays to start planning early. Check the requirements of a few programs you’re considering, and then be sure to schedule all of the prerequisite courses during your years of undergraduate study. Statistics, experimental methods, and developmental psychology are just a few of the common courses required by psychology graduate programs.

Before you apply to a master’s program, you may also be required to take the Graduate Record Examination or GRE. In addition to taking the main test, you might also need to take the GRE psychology subject test.

Once you’ve been admitted to a master’s program, take note of the required courses, and check out your school’s class offering schedule. Some classes are only offered every other semester or every other year, so plan carefully to ensure that you are able to take all the classes you need during your two- to three-year program.

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