Graduate & Professional Programs for Psychology Students

Grad School

What exactly is "grad school?"
"Grad school" in psychology refers to graduate programs where students can pursue specialized education and advanced degrees in psychology, typically with the goal of becoming an academic (i.e., a professor) or a clinician (a clinical psychologist). We call students in these programs "grad students;" students who are still completing their BA or BSc are called "undergrads."

Undergrads usually apply to grad school in their 4th (or final) year of their undergraduate studies; these applications are due in the late fall/early winter for entrance in the following year. Grad students in psychology typically complete a Master's degree (an MA, "Master of Arts" or an MSc, "Master of Science") and then a PhD ("Doctor of Philosophy" or more simply, a "doctoral degree"). These programs don't typically recruit students who only wish to complete a Master's degree (sometimes called a "terminal Master's"), as a PhD is the necessary degree for an academic career or a career as a clinical psychologist in Ontario.

Graduate school in psychology is grouped into two main categories: Experimental psychology and clinical psychology. These programs are offered by psychology departments. Two other programs, Educational psychology and school and applied child psychology, are offered by faculties of education.

Experimental psychology
  • This type of program trains students to be researchers, creating new knowledge through their work. Students in these programs typically have the goal of becoming an academic (professor!). Increasingly, graduates of these programs are finding new and unique ways to apply their skills and talents in a variety of employment areas, including business, industry and government. 
  • Experimental programs encompass areas like social, developmental, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral neuroscience, cognition, sensation & perception, animal cognition, personality, measurement/quantitative, industrial/organizational, forensic, and health psychology. (Areas like industrial/organizational, health, forensic, community, and school/applied are only offered at some universities.)
  • Canadian universities use a mentorship model in their graduate training. This means that the grad student works closely with one professor who trains and supervises the student's research. Doctoral programs in experimental psychology typically have only limited coursework, as most of the grad student's time is devoted to developing their research skills. 

Clinical psychology
PhD programs:
  • Most clinical PhD programs in Canada follow scientist-practitioner approach: Students are trained both as researchers and clinicians, informed by evidence-based practice (i.e. using research to provide the best treatment for patients).
  • A PhD in clinical psychology usually leads to a career as a clinical psychologist (i.e., a clinician who works in hospitals, private practice, schools, prisons, etc.), professor, or researcher. 
  • Students usually specialize their training, to focus on adults, children, or neuropsychology. 
  • Similar to experimental programs, most schools use a mentorship model, where students work closely with one professor who trains and supervises the student's research. 
  • Clinical students typically have a heavier course load in their early years in graduate school, to serve as a foundation for their clinical training.
  • It's a great idea to have gained some experience volunteering in a helping field before applying to clinical psychology to (a) ensure you enjoy this kind of work, and (b) to improve the quality of your application.
  • Following completion of the PhD, trainees complete a 1-year residency (typically in a hospital) and then write board certification exams. Trainees who are successful then complete 1-year of supervised practice.
PsyD programs

Some schools offer other specialized areas in psychology: Forensic psychology, school and applied child psychology, and community psychology are offered at a handful of schools in Canada:

Forensic psychology
  • Forensic psychology (also: Law-Forensic, or Psychology-Law) programs may be based in experimental psychology or clinical psychology.
  • In Canada, specialized programs in forensic psychology are at three universities: Carleton University, Simon Fraser University, and Ontario Tech (UOIT).
  • There are also individual academics who do research in forensic psychology at many other schools, including Ryerson, Wilfrid Laurier, UBC Okanagan, Memorial, Windsor, Saskatchewan, Regina, Brock, OISE (U of T), McGill, and others.
  • Forensic clinical psychologists focus their clinical practice on offender populations. At last check, Correctional Service Canada was the country's largest employer of forensic psychologists, with some 300 on the payroll.
  • Forensic experimental psychologists conduct research that addresses applied questions at the intersection of psychology and law; this includes things like eyewitness memory, jury decision-making, and investigative interviewing.

School and Applied Child Psychology
Western's Faculty of Education has an MA/PhD program in school and applied child psychology. Completion of the PhD program prepares grads to work as school psychologists and to register with the College of Psychologists of Ontario.

Educational Psychology

Educational Psychology departments offer MA (Master of Arts) and PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) programs that are typically housed within a faculty of education rather than a faculty of psychology.

Like more traditional psychology graduate programs, these M.A. programs tend to be 2 years in duration and PhD programs are generally 4-6 years in duration. Educational Psychology programs serve to provide graduate students with in-depth training in different types of program areas such as human development, learning, and culture; school psychology/applied child psychology; measurement, evaluation, and research methods; learning sciences; and special education. Students who pursue graduate training in these types of programs may work as registered school psychologists within a school district, statisticians who work for government or in the private sector, and academics within universities. Some graduate students who enter training in Educational Psychology may also be classroom teachers and have returned to school to enhance their knowledge and training.

Like traditional Psychology grad programs, grades, experience working with different ages of children and adults, and outstanding references are critical for gaining access to these types of programs. We've had King's Honors Psychology grads successfully enter in graduate programs like this at Western, University of British Columbia (Vancouver), McGill University (Montreal), and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (aka OISE; pronounced "oy-zee") at the University of Toronto.

You can read about some of these Educational Psychology programs:

Community psychology
This is a unique MA program offered at Wilfrid Laurier University. Their MA in Community Psychology program includes "a practicum (field work) placement in a community, organizational, and/or government setting."

Uh, how long will I be in school?!
All told, grad school, from Master's to Doctoral degree, is usually about 6-8 years.

It typically takes 2 years to complete a Master's degree, and 4 years to complete a PhD degree.

Clinical students also complete a 1-year residency (typically in a hospital) after they finish their PhD; then, they write board certification exams (to register with the College of Psychologists of Ontario) and those who are successful complete 1-year of supervised practice.

Students who wish to pursue an academic position (i.e. to be a professor) almost always complete a post-doc; this is typically a 2 to 3 year trainee position in a lab where the recently-minted PhD further develops their academic research program with more autonomy than a graduate student.

Note, however, that graduate school isn't a whole lot like undergrad; it's really like the first step in your professional career, and feel much more like a job, with normal 9-5-type working hours in the lab. Grad students in psychology are typically well-funded during their studies; they receive funding packages in the form of a combination of scholarships (tax-free income!) and/or teaching-assistantships. This means that grad students in psychology don't typically incur loans and debt or need to work part-time jobs.

It's worth pointing out that most graduate programs in psychology primarily accept students who plan to complete their doctoral degree, since the doctoral degree is typically required for a research career (e.g., a professor, research scientist) or to be licensed as a clinical psychologist (except in Quebec).

Next:  Applying to grad school

Related:  Overview of post-BA programs  |  Professional programs  Applying to grad school  |  Funding Gaining experience 

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updated nov 2023