FAQ for Applicants

Please check out our PRO-TiP (PhD Resources and Online Tips Page)! 
PRO-TiP provides easy and open access to resources that help demystify the process of applying to graduate programs in Psychology.

What kind of program does Harvard offer?

The Harvard Psychology Department offers a research-oriented Ph.D. program in four areas: Experimental Psychopathology & Clinical Science, Developmental, Social, and Cognition, Brain, and Behavior (CBB). The Department does not offer a terminal master’s degree in psychology, though students admitted to the Ph.D. program can earn a master’s along the way. Some graduates of the program seek positions as research psychologists in an academic setting. Other graduates get positions in government, consulting firms, tech startups or larger tech companies, hospitals or social service agencies, and other network or private clinical settings. 
The Department offers two tracks, Clinical Science and a Common Curriculum. The common curriculum is composed of three sub-fields: Social Psychology, Developmental Psychology, and Cognition, Brain, and Behavior (CBB). The Common Curriculum, described in the program section of the graduate program website, is taken by all students except those in Clinical Science. Though these area boundaries exist, collaboration is an important aspect of our academic community. As such, faculty and students collaborate within and across these area boundaries.

How do I get information about Harvard doctoral program admissions?

The GSAS Admissions website includes information about how to apply, required application materials, test score requirements, deadlines, and FAQs. The application process is onlineThis link connects you to the Psychology Program of Study page on the GSAS Admissions website. You can refer to our PRO-TiP page to find faculty answers to frequently asked questions.

Prospective applicants will want to read carefully about departmental faculty research interests to decide whether this department is a good match. "Fit" of interests is an important criterion when the Department makes admissions decisions.

This list of theses and dissertations completed by current and previous students in the doctoral program may be useful in figuring out if this department would provide a good fit for your research goals. 

Do I need an undergraduate degree in Psychology to be eligible for the PhD program?

A psychology major is not required, but it is recommended that applicants take some basic psychology courses and obtain research experience. Admitted applicants have excellent grades, test scores, letters of recommendation, research experience and are a good match in terms of research interests with one or more members of the faculty, who serve as advisors.

Do I need to submit GRE scores, and how do I submit them?

*The submission of GRE scores is optional for Fall 2023 admission.* GRE scores are valid for five years from the test date. If you have personal score reports available from tests taken within the last five years, you can upload them to your online application for consideration by the admissions committee. However, you will still need to ensure that Educational Testing Service (ETS) sends an official score report. Be sure to register for the tests well before administration dates and request that your scores be sent to Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences using code 3451 (department code is not required).

Does the Psychology Department offer a master's degree?

No, we do not offer a terminal master’s degree in psychology, though students admitted to the PhD program can earn a master’s along the way.   

How long does the program take?

Some students find four years is sufficient to complete the program, although most take five and a few take six years. Financial aid is generally offered for up to six years. 

Who may act as a PhD advisor?

Only tenure-track faculty members in the Department of Psychology may serve as primary advisors to PhD students in Psychology. Affiliated faculty cannot serve as primary mentors for PhD students. Students are welcome to form collaborations with affiliated faculty, but these individuals do not participate in our PhD program admissions.

Can I get training in clinical psychology at Harvard?

The Department offers a research-oriented program in Clinical Science. Our program was designed and is perhaps best suited for individuals who aspire toward careers in clinical scientific research and teaching. As compared with some more clinically oriented programs, we place relatively more emphasis on research training and experience in our program admissions and our training program for admitted graduate students. That said, the clinical training opportunities afforded by the program provide excellent training in clinical intervention and assessment as well.

The Clinical Program is accredited by the American Psychological Association and by the Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System (PCSAS).

Is there a part-time or distance learning option?

This is a full-time, in-person program. In unusual circumstances, the Department may grant permission for an enrolled student to temporarily register for a part-time schedule. It is required that students be in residence for at least two years in the program, and almost all students are in residence for the entire program. It is possible to receive permission to be a "traveling scholar" and do research or writing away from Cambridge, but this is most typical for students at an advanced stage of the program who have finished data collection. There is no online or distance-learning program.

Can I apply if I already have a master's degree?

Yes. Students that have completed prior graduate work can petition, after a semester of satisfactory work in the Department, to receive credit for up to eight relevant half-courses, the equivalent of a year's worth of work. However, many students in the program don't bother to apply for this credit since it is rare for a student to be exempted from any courses required by the department. In addition, the bulk of time in the doctoral program is spent on research projects, and the department very rarely exempts students from these. Even students coming in with a master's degree take between 4-6 years to complete the program, though an incoming student with more education may naturally be more focused at an earlier point in their program. By the time a student has finished all requirements for the doctorate, including research requirements, they will have many more than the required minimum number of credits.

Is there financial aid available?

Funding is in the form of grants in the early years and teaching or research fellowships in later years. Typically all admitted students are offered a funding package consisting of up to six years of full tuition, three years of living stipend, and two years of guaranteed teaching fellowships (which would provide a similar level of living support). Additional teaching is usually available in the fifth year. Both international and U.S. applicants are eligible for this financial package.
Because funds are limited, applicants are urged to apply for any outside fellowships they may be eligible for. NSF graduate fellowships and those from the Department of Defense are examples of national fellowship competitions open to U.S. citizens. There are also the Ford Foundation Fellowships, available specifically for URM scholars. Receiving an outside fellowship may allow you to have a higher stipend, to decrease your teaching commitment or to have an additional year to complete your degree. Receiving an outside fellowship is also a professional honor that will help you in applying for jobs after graduate school.

How can I maximize my chances of being admitted?

We use a holistic approach in evaluating applicants and admitting graduate students to the program. Among the factors considered are grades from undergraduate coursework, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, application essays, prior research experience, and focused research interests, with an emphasis on those that are compatible with those of faculty members. The department is also actively committing to building an inclusive field. Part of that commitment is prioritizing diversity and support for diverse individuals within our own department.

While we do not require an undergraduate concentration in psychology, some social science coursework is recommended. Because the program is heavily quantitatively oriented, college-level math and statistics are also advised. Research experience is extremely helpful: successful applicants have often worked for professors, done research projects as part of college courses, written an undergraduate thesis, or volunteered in a psychology research lab.

Candidates’ research interests and compatibility with the program are determined in large part by the candidate's application essay, the Statement of Purpose. Here is some advice from a professor for writing a good application essay:

Over the past 12 years, I have been reading graduate school admissions’ essays. These include essays from students applying to work with me as well as those from my own students who are preparing to apply to other graduate programs. When my own students apply to graduate school, I give them very specific advice about the nature of the essay, what I think most candidate schools and advisors are looking for. I have always had a particular view about what makes for a good read, of course from a personal perspective. I have been struck by the fact that many of the incoming essays lack the kind of content that I am looking for, having the appearance of an undergraduate application essay. This seems unfortunate because I often use the essay more than almost anything else to get a sense of the applicant’s intellectual potential and passion. Many students that apply have stellar GPAs and GREs, but only a few present carefully reasoned essays that really motivate the reasons for going to graduate school. In essence, essays that capture my attention are ones that develop ideas, propose experiments, point to holes in the literature, and do these things with passion and excitement. These very general comments, which will certainly not capture every advisor’s perspective, or even the majority, can be distilled to a few essential ingredients, presented below as questions:

  • Why continue on with your education? Why do you need to learn more? What skills, theories, and knowledge do you lack?
  • What are the kinds of discoveries and theories that sparked your interest in the chosen discipline?
  • In graduate school, what kinds of questions do you hope to address? Why do you think that these questions are important? Given the set of questions that you will focus on, what kinds of methods do you hope to apply? What skills do you bring forward as you enter graduate school and which skills do you hope to acquire?
  • What holes do you see in the current discipline [big picture stuff]? In what ways do you think that they can be addressed during your graduate career?
  • What kind of graduate environment are you looking for? Are you particularly keen on working with one faculty advisor, and if so, why this particular person? If you are leaning more toward a cluster of advisors, as well as the department more generally, why? Hint: faculty are engaged by students who have read some of their work, have thought critically about it, and wish to develop some of the issues addressed. Further, it helps with admissions to have one or more faculty championing your case.

Essays that have the above ingredients are truly informative. They tell each faculty member why the candidate wants to go to graduate school, what problems they hope to tackle, what skills they bring, and which skills they hope to acquire. Following this format is, of course, not a ticket of admission, but it will certainly make your application more interesting and informative.

More information from faculty in this program can be found on our PRO-TiP page.


Can I take courses without being admitted to the degree program?

The only way to take Harvard FAS courses, unless you are enrolled in another Harvard graduate program or MIT, is to be admitted as a Special Student, which allows you to take between one and four courses a semester. Foreign national students have to take a full-time load in order to get a student visa. Students are issued a transcript, but no degree or certificate, for their work in the Special Student program.

Admitted Special Student applicants should be aware that the Department does not have the resources to provide the same support, academic and otherwise, to Special Students as it does to PhD students. Special Students are not assigned advisors, office space, research space, research funds, financial aid, library keys, or computer lab accounts. They are restricted from taking the Department's proseminar (PSY 2010), and other courses at the discretion of the instructor. 

Many Special Students hope eventually to enroll in a psychology graduate program; some plan to apply to Harvard's Ph.D. program. However, applicants should consider the Special Student year an opportunity to take courses, rather than a way to get an early start on the PhD program. While Special Students are certainly eligible to apply, potential applicants should be aware that admission as a Special Student does not guarantee admission to the PhD program. Special Students who are later admitted to the doctoral program receive credit for appropriate graduate-level courses taken during the Special Student term(s).