How to Get a Doctorate in Psychology for Free

If you are thinking about a career in psychology, read this before applying to grad school. Knowing which types of programs offer tuition waivers and stipends, and how to get into these programs, can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars! Some people can get a doctorate in psychology for free!

This post is part of a weekly series on lowering higher education costs. Last week’s topic was about what I wish my parents taught me about money before I applied for college. Today’s topic is about saving money on graduate tuition.

There are a number of specialties within psychology, and different types of doctorates (e.g., PhD, PsyD). The type of degree does matter in that those who obtain a PsyD accrue significantly more student loan debt (like $100,000 more) than those who earn a PhD. However, PsyDs do not earn higher salaries than PhDs (see How Much Money Do Psychologists Make).

The reason PhDs can have significantly less debt is that many programs offer tuition wavers (i.e., you don’t have to pay tuition) and stipends (i.e., a small amount of money for living expenses).

So how do you get into a program with tuition waivers?

Before applying for graduate school read these 12 tips:

1. Aim for straight A’s in your psychology courses.

Did you know that you can list your major GPA separate from your overall GPA on your CV?

Even if your overall GPA is not that strong, a good major GPA can help make up for that.

2. Build your C.V.

Do this by volunteering as an undergrad Research Assistant (RA) in faculty members’ labs. Ask professors whether they are looking for volunteers. If they are not, ask whether any of the graduate students need help on their theses or dissertations.

If your university does not have a graduate program in Psychology or openings in their labs, look at other Universities in your area, or other departments. Getting research experience is important for making you competitive for graduate programs.

3. If your University has a Psychology Honors Program, apply for it!

Before applying, most programs require that you have a faculty member who agrees to mentor you. Your Psychology GPA and research experience will make you competitive for the Psychology Honors Program, and will assist you with finding a mentor.

Faculty members are very busy. Taking on an inexperienced undergraduate mentee can be a lot of work. Demonstrating your commitment to the field (and the value you add to their lab) will increase your chances that they will be willing to mentor you.

4. Find opportunities for presentations.

Take every opportunity you get to co-author posters. This will be an invaluable learning experience, and will also be what graduate programs will be looking for on your CV.

5. Publish your undergraduate thesis.

If you are able to accomplish this, your grad school application will definitely stand out. Even if you have a paper “under review” or “in progress,” it can still strengthen you application.

6. If you are unable to obtain research experience or do an Honors thesis, look for other opportunities for experience in the field.

For example, work as a tech for someone who does assessments. Volunteer at a crisis center.

7. Get high scores on your GRE.

Some programs have been known to use GRE scores as a first-line weed out. For people with scores below a certain cut-off, their applications won’t even make it to the reviewers’ desks.

Consider taking test-prep courses. This will definitely be an investment, as it could save you hundreds of dollars in having to re-take the test, or thousands of dollars if it results in getting in a program with financial assistance.

8. If you still need more experience to be competitive, don’t rush it.

If you need to, you can take a year or two off and devote it to strengthening your CV. Work (or volunteer) as a study coordinator for a research lab, psychology test development center, and/or crisis center.

If you have strong GRE scores and a combination of research, assessment, and clinical experience, you will be in a great position to get into a top program.

9. If you are planning to pursue a Doctorate, do not waste your time or money applying to Master’s Programs.

You do not need a terminal Master’s degree to apply to a Doctoral program.

If you’ve followed the steps above, you will be a great candidate for a doctoral program with an undergraduate degree in psychology.

10. Only apply to programs that offer financial assistance.

Apply to programs that offer BOTH a tuition waiver AND a stipend. Stipends are typically awarded in exchange for your work as either a Research Assistance (RA) or a Teaching Assistant (TA).

If you go to a program without financial assistance, be aware that you will possibly be taking on over $100,000 in student loans only to find yourself on internship, post-doc, and staff position with peers who have substantially less student loan debt – and you will be earning the same in salary as they are!

11. Find a mentor.

PhD programs are so competitive because they only offer the number of positions for which they can fund students. This is largely dependent on the faculty mentor’s grant funding. These days, not only will you be applying to a program, but applying to work under a particular mentor.

When you see a program and faculty mentor you’d like to work with, email him/her your CV, express you interest, and inquire whether he/she will be accepting graduate students the next year.

12. During interviews, remember that you are being interviewed the entire time you are there!

Do not let your guard down with the current students. Assume that everything you say/do in their presence will get back to the faculty.

Come to interviews prepared having read about the program, and having read the work of the people with whom you will be meeting. (And wear a suit!)

Follow up your interview with a Thank You letter.


For more tips on applying to graduate programs in psychology, check out:

Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology: 2018/2019 edition (this book is a must-read for anyone applying to grad school in clinical/counseling psych)

American Psychological Association website on applying to graduate school

Final Thoughts

Many people who receive tuition waivers and stipends taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans for living expenses. I am guilty of this and want you to learn from my mistakes.

For more from this series on saving money on higher education costs, see

Applying for College: What my parents didn’t teach me about money

Fewer than 1% Received Loan Forgiveness

How to Save Money in Grad School

Budgeting for Post-doc and Early Career

Student Loan Repayment


What tips do you have for making one more competitive for a position with tuition waivers and stipends?

One thought on “How to Get a Doctorate in Psychology for Free”

  1. The majority of PsyDs work in either a group or private practice, for a government employer or for a non-profit and loan repayment could look different on each path. The wrong path could cost them tens of thousands (and even hundreds of thousands) of dollars more than they have to spend paying back their student loans.

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