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What high school and community college classes or extracurriculars should I do to prepare for a Psychology PhD and gap year?

Hi there! I am a high school junior starting August 2024 and I intend on getting my Psychology undergrad, taking a gap year to travel, then returning to get my Psychology PhD. The career path I have chosen is a post-secondary Psychology teacher (a psychology professor). What classes or extracurriculars would you recommend in high school to prepare me? I am a little lost on what classes will be helpful in the long run.

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Annah’s Answer

Ava, I am going to take a different approach to your question. While psychology is a science, you do not necessarily need to excel in science. In high school you might study biology and chemistry- but psychology is the study of the brain and of human behavior. It is always helpful to do well academically in high school; if you qualify for accelerated classes then do so. But I have met many a high achiever in life who did not take all AP courses. It is a myth that you must do things one way only. Do your best- however this looks for you! Being good at math and statistics may help you in doing quantitative research, but you may choose to work qualitatively instead. As for extracurricular, sports will set you up for being a team player and bouncing back from constructive advice from your peers and coach. If you are not athletically inclined, try a humanitarian or service-oriented club. People who study psychology typically find helping others to be gratifying; it is a chance to give back to the community. Professors are leaders so perhaps start your own after-school club, join debate or public speaking, or run for class president. As for courses to take in college (community or BA program), you will likely start with psychology 101. Each school will have its own recommended trajectory, but you will always start with the foundational classes- 101, 102, Developmental psychology, Abnormal psychology, etc. A psychologist must be very self-aware (which you will learn in time). As strange as this may sound, get to know yourself! Test the limits of your comfort zone, try new things, and take some risks. Be bold, brave, and unique. Follow your heart. As an art therapist, my fine arts background contributed to my graduate learning. You might have a special interest in nutrition, dance, theater, or music. All of these can be incorporated into a clinical career! You can begin teaching with an MA degree, though it is becoming more common for instructors to have a doctorate as well, FYI. I wish you the very best!
Thank you comment icon Thank you so much for the advice! Ava
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Dr’s Answer

I would say biology is not that relevant as the other suggestions. Psychology is a social/soft science, much different than biology. Sure there's a slight overlap but not enough to warrant your time since there are many, many other pursuits that would be more fruitful. Additionally, I would say if you have the extra time, don't take another class. The career path you laid out has PLENTY of class time lined up. You're going to be up to your eyeballs in classes...syllabus, exams, study material, ....yadda yadda. You need balance! There is only so much you can learn from class. And it's only academic learning. Broaden your perspective and experiences by, as James mentioned, out-of-class "real world" involvement, like internships and travel and learning a language/culture, etc. In retrospect, you will probably find that your gap year was one of the most valuable things you did -- not that you took an extra biology class. Too much academia, without other diverse experiences, will turn you into just another Ph.D. student that blends into the crowd of similar students. Be different. Gain something that most won't so you'll stand out and have something more valuable to contribute later on. I say, why just a gap "year". Make it years! What I mean by this is NOT a consecutive run of a few years but instead take off every summer to go travel to a new land, explore, read psychology-laden novels (not just textbooks) and seek out the human experience is whatever way you can (in a safe and healthy way, of course!). That will not only prepare you to have a deeper visceral and intuitive understanding of the human mind but will also make you an interesting and sought-after professor later in life.
Thank you comment icon This was super helpful, thank you! Ava
Thank you comment icon This is really good advice! I totally agree with not overwhelming yourself with too many extra classes. Personally, I took two AP classes senior year of high school and even that was a bit much, because you will be a bit busier with your social life, extra curriculars, etc. Junior year you can definitely take one AP class, but I definitely would not overdo it because you would want to focus on the ACT and/or SAT too. Kara Schultz
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James Constantine’s Answer

Hello Ava,

High School Classes

To prepare for a Psychology PhD, you should focus on classes that strengthen your analytical and critical thinking skills, as well as your understanding of research methods and statistics.

Advanced Placement (AP) Courses:
AP Psychology: This course provides a strong foundation in the fundamentals of psychology, covering topics like research methods, biological bases of behavior, sensation and perception, learning and memory, cognition, motivation and emotion, developmental psychology, social psychology, personality, and psychological disorders.
AP Statistics: This course teaches you the principles of statistical analysis, which is essential for understanding and conducting psychological research.
AP English Language and Composition: This course helps you develop strong writing and communication skills, which are crucial for academic success and research writing.
AP English Literature and Composition: This course enhances your critical thinking and analytical skills, which are essential for interpreting and analyzing psychological research.
AP Biology: This course provides a foundation in biological processes, which is relevant to understanding the biological bases of behavior in psychology.
AP Government and Politics: This course introduces you to political systems and social structures, which can be helpful for understanding social psychology and the impact of culture on behavior.
Other Relevant Courses:
Research Methods: If your high school offers a research methods course, it can provide valuable hands-on experience in designing and conducting research.
Sociology: This course explores social structures, groups, and interactions, which can be relevant to social psychology and understanding human behavior in social contexts.
Ethics: This course examines ethical principles and decision-making, which is essential for conducting research ethically and responsibly.
Foreign Language: Learning a foreign language can enhance your cognitive flexibility and understanding of different cultures, which can be beneficial for studying psychology.
Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular activities that demonstrate your interest in psychology, research, and community engagement can strengthen your application for a PhD program.

Research Opportunities:
Science Fair: Participating in a science fair project related to psychology can provide you with valuable research experience.
Mentorship Programs: Seek out mentorship opportunities with psychology professionals or researchers in your community.
Volunteer Research: Look for opportunities to volunteer in a psychology lab or research setting to gain hands-on experience.
Community Engagement:
Volunteer Work: Volunteering at a mental health organization, community center, or school can provide you with insights into human behavior and social issues.
Leadership Roles: Taking on leadership roles in clubs or organizations demonstrates your initiative, teamwork, and communication skills.
Other Activities:
Debate Club: Participating in debate can enhance your critical thinking, argumentation, and communication skills.
Writing Club: Joining a writing club can help you develop your writing skills and explore different forms of expression.
Psychology Club: If your school has a psychology club, joining can provide you with opportunities to learn more about psychology, network with other students, and participate in activities related to the field.
Gap Year

A gap year can be a valuable opportunity to gain life experience, explore your interests, and develop your personal and professional skills.

Travel: Traveling to different cultures can broaden your perspective, enhance your understanding of human diversity, and provide you with valuable life experiences.
Volunteer Work: Volunteering abroad or in your local community can provide you with opportunities to make a difference, gain new skills, and learn about different cultures.
Internships: Seeking out internships in psychology-related fields can provide you with practical experience and valuable connections.
Personal Development: Use your gap year to pursue personal interests, learn new skills, or explore different career paths.

Remember, your high school experience is just the beginning of your journey towards a PhD in Psychology. Focus on developing your academic skills, exploring your interests, and gaining valuable experiences that will prepare you for the challenges and rewards of a career in psychology.

Top 3 Authoritative Sources Used in Answering this Question

1. The American Psychological Association (APA)

* A professional organization for psychologists that provides resources and guidance on careers in psychology, including PhD programs.

2. The Association for Psychological Science (APS)

* A scientific organization that promotes the advancement of psychology through research and education.

3. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

* A federal agency that funds and conducts research on mental health and mental illness.

God Bless You,
Thank you comment icon Thanks so much this was really helpful! Ava
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Karissa’s Answer

AP Psychology and AP Biology. If you are getting a PhD you will need to know the basics of how human bodies work. In the past AP Anatomy and Physiology was offered but it will not in the 24/25 school year.
Thank you comment icon Thanks for the advice! Ava