Do you know what to expect as you transition from college to graduate school in psychology?

Being an Undergrad Isn’t Like Being a Grad Student

Do you know what to expect as you  transition from college to graduate school in psychology?

Do you know what to expect as you transition from college to graduate school in psychology? (Source: “Graduate School of Social Service Diploma Ceremony” by Bruce Gilbert on Flickr. Some rights reserved. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

There is a lot of advice out there about the transition from high school to college. What I have rarely seen is any discussion about the many changes students face when they transition from college to a Master’s or Doctoral program in psychology. Here, I provide some personal reflections on some of those changes.

Commuter life
Living on campus as an undergrad, I had the opportunity to become involved in many extracurricular activities, stay out late around campus, get out of bed just in time for classes — and with luck, still be an “A” student. As a graduate commuter, there seemed to be less of an opportunity to feel as connected to individuals and even the college as a whole. I had to really put in effort to get to know people outside of class. It was easier then to just grab a cup of coffee with someone after class or possibly run into them in the residence hall. While my graduate school cohort made a conscious effort to get together throughout the year, it many times took a lot of planning!

Program Size
As a graduate student, there was also a feeling of being such a small presence on campus. In college, I attended a large state school with over 20,000 students. Later, I had to get used to only about 60 people total in my program or only 7 in my cohort. I was no longer one of thousands of undergraduate students. I’m not saying that one is better or worse but it was definitely a shift!

My undergrad schedule consisted of mostly large classes where we completed many readings, took multiple choice exams, wrote 2-3 page papers, and had the very rare group project. Conversely, I like to think of most of my graduate school classes consisting of the 3 P’s: papers, projects, and presentations. I have had greater opportunity to collaborate with others which can be hard to coordinate due to vastly different schedules. In terms of papers, if your writing skills aren’t up to par before you start graduate school, they will definitely be developed by the end! Writing a 10-15 page paper doesn’t feel like such a daunting task as it once did. Graduate school isn’t about being able to memorize rote facts towards an exam anymore. Being in graduate school is one step closer to being in the profession: So much of what is learned in the classroom is directly applicable to the future.

Being in graduate school is one step closer to being in the profession: So much of what is learned in the classroom is directly applicable to the future.

Work-Life Balance
In grad school, I’ve struggled the most with work-life balance and maintaining relationships. Trying to juggle 2-3 days of externship, working part-time as an adjunct at a local college, taking 4-5 classes per semester, and conducting research really made it difficult to even begin to have any type of social life! When I was in the earlier years of my program, my friends would always invite me out and most of the times I had to decline. As the years progressed, the invitations came less frequently, which was a bit disheartening. Having social support is really important and I’ve come to learn other ways to keep in touch with friends while also getting my work done.

As a minority student
One of the interesting aspects I’ve gotten used to is being more of a racial and ethnic minority in school. Although in my head I knew the statistics about the representation of students of color within graduate psychology programs, it still felt surprising to me how salient my minority status has become to me. Being a Black graduate student, it has become more important for me to get involved with issues of diversity than it did as an undergrad. While I had been involved in diverse student groups, I felt more compelled to become active in groups such as the Association of Black Psychologists and APA Division 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity and Race) in order to receive support, network, and develop both personally and professionally.

Overall Advice
My suggestion is to put in the effort to maintain your relationships, hobbies, spirituality, and your sense of self in graduate school. While getting into a program is a great achievement and deserves your best, you can only give your best when you feel at your best so it’s important to do whatever needs to be done to stay on top of your game!

Allyson Regis

Editor’s note: Allyson Regis is a fifth-year counseling psychology doctoral student at Fordham University.  For more on the leap from undergraduate and graduate training, read this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. To participate in a November 6, 2014 webinar with APAGS on finding and evaluating the right graduate program for you, sign up here

22 thoughts on “Being an Undergrad Isn’t Like Being a Grad Student

  1. tonya

    Remarkable and amazing young lady…I’m proud to have had the opportunity to read this article. But, I was already proud of Allyson, since she is one of my son’s best friends.

      1. Pete

        Thank you for a wonderful and well-written article. The thing that I took away from grad school was the applicability of what was being taught. When I was an undergrad, the information was all general and basic. In grad school, I walked away from every class feeling like I learned something that I needed to know to do this work. That was my experience, anyway.

  2. Johanna

    great article Allyson! I think you really did a good job of capturing the initial shock of a transition from living on an undergraduate campus to commuting as a graduate student. I loved the 3 P’s! I think we could even add GP for group presentation as it’s own category. i loved the tone of the article and thought it was very well written. Thanks for sharing

  3. Pingback: Being a Grad Student Isn't Like Being an Undergrad - Psych2goPsych2go

  4. Todd H

    Well written. The biggest change I observed was the increased expectation professors had of me as an individual. Mistakes were noticed more readily and if it was a “stupid” mistake, the impact was more significant.

    1. Allyson Regis Post author

      I definitely agree about mistakes being noticed more! In my larger undergrad, it was easier to hide behind others and not really get a lot of individual feedback (which inevitably led to comments about mistakes). Thankfully my professors have been supportive and I found that I was being harder on myself about a “stupid” mistake than they were being on me.

  5. Andy

    I am glad that there is a platform for such a discussion to even occur, as doing your postgraduate studies is an uphill battle, which we sometimes perceive as being a lonely journey.
    I personally found that I struggled to establish confidence and autonomy in my work, as it was constantly monitored and scrutinized. With that came a lot of insecurity in my academic ability and level of intellect. But the biggest lesson I have learned and keep relearning, is to make the distinction between my supervisor’s feedback on my work and what that may mean as to their opinion of me is. In the past, I have found it very difficult to make that disconnect and to have the latter have less value on my self-concept.
    Through it all, I have learned some very hard lessons and am grateful that these lessons are allowing me to grow an individual and an academic.

    1. Allyson Regis Post author

      What you said is so true! I think that this whole experience can be viewed as a lonely journey but I think in order to successfully (and most enjoyably) go through grad school, you really need to have the support of those around you.

      I also think it’s great that you were able to make the distinction between your self concept, the feedback you received from supervisors/professors, and their opinion of you. I can really relate to that struggle. I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself through this grad school journey — particularly not needing to be a perfectionist at all times. I’ve also learned that sometimes I’m harder on myself than others are on me. While I’ve found grad school to be harder than undergrad, I’ve really found that I’ve grown so much as a person over the past 4+ years.


    Excelente artìculo Allison!!!, refleja los cambios y preocupaciones, iseguridades de los estudiantes universitarios..

  7. Jessi G

    I really appreciate this! I am also an African American doctoral student studying Clinical Psychology. Although I am only in my send year, I can completely understand! Congrats to you for continuing in your program and I wish you all of the success!

    1. Allyson Regis Post author

      I really wanted to make sure to include something about being a student of color in my post since that status can really change a person’s experience in grad school — particularly depending on the racial climate of the college/program. Thanks for the well wishes and best of luck to you in your program!

  8. Peter g.

    I graduated from the same program at Fordham, allyson. I was able to identify with a lot of what you wrote. it was a well-written article.

    brace yourself for the stresses of applying for internship.

    good luck.

    1. Allyson Regis Post author

      Thanks very much for your comment! I’m glad you were able to connect with some of what I wrote. I’m actually in the middle of internship applications right now (T-minus 13 days) so I’m definitely feeling the stress of application season!!

  9. Tom

    The real issue is The adjustment made from undergrad to grad school is a very important issue but the strongest point to keep in mind. Are you able to establish a rapport with your patients and deal with your counter transference? Many therapists can from the start but over the years of practice in the counseling field compassion burnout sets in. Plus can you identify co-occurring disorders, which hinder your client’s success in treatment

    Retired Counselor

    JT Doucet,CCDP

  10. Janine Cambangay

    I’m not even a psychology student (I’m a food technology major), but I was planning to go to graduate school. Thanks for telling me what to expect in a grad school! Very helpful!

  11. Miryam Vento

    Soy amiga de tu mami cuando estudiábamos juntas en el liceo. Ella fue excelente alumna y luego de muchos años nos volvimos a encontrar, admiro la capacidad que tuvo para lograr ser lo que es hoy día. Menos podría esperarse de su adorada hija. Te auguro un futuro muy próspero pues tu capacidad de análisis y razonamiento es admirable Allyson.

  12. Janice Roach

    From Someone who has watched you from Birth, it is not surprising to see this article! Your profound thirst for knowledge and it’s usage has always been infectious on those around you. I feel very PROUD for having you as part of my life and know that the smile, that you have place there, would continue on till the end of my time!

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