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Finding and Choosing Graduate Programs of Interestchoosing grad programs

On more than one occasion we have had students approach us and ask for a list of graduate programs to apply to.  However, although there are program rankings and other lists, there is no one correct answer or universal list of programs that all applicants should use.  Rather, choosing graduate programs of interest is a personal decision that depends on the applicant and the criteria that the applicant considers important.  Strategically, one should also choose programs of interest that best suit one’s qualifications; that is, the programs of interest should be ones that there is at least a reasonable chance of being accepted. 

To help with this process, here we outline different ways to find programs of interest as well as the different types of considerations that may factor into one’s choice of programs to apply to.  Note: for timelines of the graduate school application process, please visit this page; if you have already been accepted into graduate programs, and are in the process of deciding which to choose, please consider visiting this page

Searching for Graduate Programs

The most convenient and often most effective method of obtaining up-to-date information about graduate programs is through internet searches.  However, there are also specific online databases and books, including several sources produced by the American Psychological Association (APA), that may be of use.  Here we provide a list of different methods.1,2  Note: External URLs are current as of this writing, but are subject to change at any time.

Online databases and lists

Published directories and guides

Professional societies and divisions

Other search methods

  • You may also wish to use the GRE Search Service. The service attempts to match your qualifications and interests with potentially suitable programs.
  • Asking faculty and mentors for information about graduate programs may also yield some insights.
    • One advantage about this method is that you might be able to learn insider details about specific programs, or even be put in touch with potential mentors at other institutions.
  • In most cases, all the necessary information about a program is available on their website.
    • However, it may also be helpful to contact programs of interest and request information.
  • If it is convenient/possible, you might consider visiting programs/departments of interest.

Criteria for Choosing Graduate Programs of Interest 

There are a wide range of possible considerations that may factor into one’s choice of programs to apply to.  Here we summarize five main areas of consideration that may factor into that decision.2,3,4   As you research graduate programs to apply to, you should collect as much information you can on the factors that you consider most important.  These factors may include:

Type of program

  • There are a variety of types, including:
  • Experimental or clinical – primarily research-based or with a patient/client focus.
  • Type of research – cognitive, developmental, industrial-organizational, social, etc.
  • Training model – there are three main types. The research-scientist (PhD) model is focused on academic research; the scientist-practitioner (Boulder Model, PhD) model has a simultaneous academic/scientific and clinical/professional emphasis, and the practitioner-scholar (Vail Model, PsyD) model is more exclusively focused on clinical practice.
  • Accreditation – whether the program accredited by the APA or other organizations.

Faculty/mentor match

  • Arguably the most critical factor is whether there are potential mentors that you wish to work with at the programs of interest. Some key factors are:
  • Research topics and methods – often faculty/lab websites will have information, papers, and so on to give you an idea of what types of work the faculty member does. You may also wish to contact the faculty member to discuss further.
  • Accepting students? – it is critical to find out whether the faculty member is accepting graduate students that year. A polite email to the faculty member, or a check of their website, may help determine that information.  Please note that websites are sometimes not updated.

Financial considerations

  • The financial circumstances of the graduate program of interest are also critically important. Two main factors are:
    • Cost of applying – you can expect to pay an application fee for each program that you apply to. There may be additional costs, such as that for ordering transcripts.
    • Cost of living how expensive is housing, daily living costs, and so on.
    • Tuition and fees – how expensive is it to attend the program.
    • Financial support – is the program funded, and if so, what is the mechanism of support? Are graduate students given a monthly stipend, teaching assistantships or graduate student researcher salary, etc.?  Are there other funding opportunities?
    • Insurance coverage – whether medical and dental insurance is provided.

Program life

  • Attending graduate school typically involves an investment of two years (for a Master’s degree) or around five-six years (for a PhD). Thus, given that length of time, important factors may include:
    • Geographical location – programs can be in major metropolitan or more rural areas, with attendant differences in climate, scenery, population, and so on.
    • Program culture and student life – what is the climate in the department; how well students get along; are there social events, etc. It is often difficult to gauge this information without visiting and speaking to a variety of students (interviews are an excellent opportunity for this). 
    • Diversity considerations – whether minority students or minority student concerns are represented in the program, department, university, or community; related considerations.

Program metrics

  • You may be able to obtain data about the likelihood of getting accepted, how long it takes to finish the program, and more. Some of these include:
    • Acceptance rate – what are your odds of being accepted?
    • Accepted student profile – what are the characteristics (GPA, research experience, etc.) of successful applicants, and do they match mine?
    • Years to complete program – on average, how long does it take?
    • Attrition/dropout rate – how many students do not complete the program?

The Process of Choosing Graduate Programs of Interest

Here we offer suggestions for how you might go about choosing graduate programs of interest.  Note: for timelines of the graduate school application process, please visit this page.

Four steps for choosing graduate programs of interest

The process of developing a list of programs to apply to varies by individual, available time, and areas of interest and focus.  However, some common steps/strategies include:

  1. Identify your criteria for choosing programs.
  2. Conduct detailed searches for programs (using online, book, or other sources).
  3. Contact potential faculty members (determine whether they are accepting students that year)
  4. Finalize your list of programs that you intend to apply to.
  5. Apply to those programs

Organizing the search for programs of interest

When you are researching and comparing programs of interest, it is critically important to collect all necessary information in a careful and organized fashion.  Some strategies to do so successfully include:

  1. Create a worksheet template or spreadsheet that you will use to record necessary information for each program of interest. These should include such details as the application fee, website URLs, application requirements, and – a very critical detail – the application due date.
  2. Keep all your program research in a centrally located, easily accessible place. Organization here is crucial.  A single folder, a multi-page worksheet, and other methods can be useful.

Contacting potential faculty mentors

When contacting potential faculty mentors of interest, it is important to consider the impression you are making and the information that you hope to obtain.  Some tips for successful results include:

  1. Keep your emails brief and to the point. Many faculty receive numerous emails from potential students of interest and do not have time to read a lengthy message.
  2. Be polite and tailor your message to the faculty member. If you send a generic email to all faculty of interest, this shows that you are not necessarily interested in their research.
  3. Contacting relatively early. If you contact faculty shortly before the application deadline, they may not respond in time.

How many programs should I apply to?

The number of programs on your list will vary by individual.  The guide to graduate applications prepared for the APA recommends at least 4 or 5 for master’s programs, at least 8 for PhD programs, and 10-12 for Clinical PhD programs.1  Other sources recommend up to 15 programs for those with average academic records, and also dividing up the list into programs with a high, medium, and low chance of acceptance.2  Some considerations for the number of programs that you ultimately choose to apply to include:

  1. Cost of applying. The more programs you apply to, the costlier the process becomes.
  2. Odds of being accepted. The more programs you apply to, all other factors being equal (such as, if you are able to do a good job on your applications for each), the more chances you have to be accepted by at least one or more programs. 
  3. Similarity of applications across programs. Many programs request similar application materials (such as, statements of purpose, transcripts, recommendation letters), which means that you can modify your application materials to suit different programs with relative ease. 

Workshops and Downloadable Resources


  • For in-person discussion of the process of applying to graduate programs in psychology, neuroscience, and related fields, please consider attending this department’s “Paths to PhDs” workshop and other related events (for dates and times, please check the undergraduate workshops calendar).


  • Tips for Applying to Graduate Programs in Psychology (a brief summary) [PDF]

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

APA Videos on Graduate Applications

Further Resources


Norcross, J. C., & Hogan, T. P. (2016).  Preparing and applying for graduate school in psychology: 12 modules. American Psychological Association [video workshop].
Keith-Spiegel, P., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: psychology, counseling, and related professions. Psychology Press.
Klement, K. R. (2011).  Choosing a graduate program.  Association for Psychological Science.
American Psychological Association (2016).  Doctoral program smart shopping – overview.
Prepared by S. C. Pan for UCSD Psychology