Q: What is clinical psychology?
A: Clinical psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on the study, prevention, and treatment of mental health disorders. Clinical psychologists work as psychotherapists, researchers, professors, supervisors, consultants, and more. They work in a variety of places, such as hospitals, universities, academic medical centers, college counseling centers, private practices, and within branches of the military. You can learn more about clinical psychology from the American Psychological Association here and here.
Q: Is graduate school right for me?
A: Graduate school is a time-consuming endeavor that requires patience, organization, self-motivation, and flexibility. Typically, graduate psychology programs last between 4-6 years, plus a 1-year predoctoral internship. Some states also require an additional 1-2 years of postdoctoral work. Successful graduate students demonstrate high levels of self-awareness, self-care, and emotional maturity. They maintain professional, kind relationships and work well with others. Graduate students are expected to attend classes, conduct lab research, maintain a caseload of psychotherapy clients, present research at academic conferences, and work closely with a research advisor. A typical graduate student may work anywhere between 60-80 hours a week, including weekends.
Questions to ask yourself if you are considering graduate school:
Why do you want to go to graduate school?
What experience do you have in the field of psychology? (Such as undergraduate coursework, work in a research lab, presentations at academic conferences, etc.)
Are you interested in providing psychotherapy, conducting research, teaching, or mentoring?
Do you want to work with adults, adolescents, or children?
What are your (honest) strengths and weaknesses?
Q: What is the difference between a Ph.D. and a Psy.D.?
A: Both Ph.D.’s and Psy.D.’s are doctoral degrees in psychology that take approximately the same amount of time to complete. The abbreviation Ph.D. stands for Doctor of Philosophy. Ph.D. programs are located within universities. Generally, Ph.D. programs place more emphasis on training graduate students to conduct psychological research. The abbreviation Psy.D. stands Doctor of Psychology. Some Psy.D. programs are located within universities, but others exist within for-profit institutions called “Professional Schools of Psychology.” Psy.D. programs generally place more emphasis on training graduate students to deliver psychotherapy and are practice-oriented programs. Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology offer training in delivering evidence-base therapies, conducting research, examining existing research to determine the rigor (and therefore the degree to which you can draw firm conclusions from the studies), and teaching. Many people who earn a Ph.D. go on to conduct clinical work or to conduct clinical work and research. Thus, a Ph.D. is not simply for training researchers—it provides opportunities to have a career in research, clinical work, and/or teaching and therefore provides a lot of flexibility. Those with a Psy.D. generally are not trained in research and therefore typically only provide clinical services after they earn their degree. There are also important differences in the cost of a Psy.D. versus a Ph.D. that you may want to consider. You can get more information on Ph.D. vs Psy.D. degrees here.
Q: What do I need to apply to graduate school?
A: To apply to graduate school, you will need to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), create an academic curriculum vitae (CV), get strong recommendation letters, and complete the online graduate application. The online graduate application usually requires you to submit a personal statement, a diversity statement, undergraduate academic transcripts, GRE scores, CV, recommendation letters, and possibly an academic writing sample. You may also need to pay an application fee. Before you can begin graduate school, you will need to have completed a bachelor’s degree. If you want to apply to a Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program, extensive research experience (often including presenting at national conferences and having publications in preparation or submission) is essential. In fact, research experience is often the most heavily weighted consideration when faculty review applications for Clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs. Many times, successful applicants to Clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs have completed a post-baccalaureate research assistant position for a year or more before they apply to Clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs.
Q: What is the graduate application timeline?
A: Typically, prospective students take the GRE in the spring or summer before applying. By late summer, students begin writing their personal and diversity statements and compiling the graduate application materials. In early fall, they kindly request letters of recommendation from trusted mentors or supervisors. The deadline for graduate school applications varies based on the type of program (masters, Ph.D. PsyD). For Ph.D. programs, the deadline is usually December 1, or December 15. You can find more information on the application timeline here. It can be helpful to create a central file with school names, potential advisors, application materials, and due dates to stay organized!
Q: How competitive are Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Programs?
A: Clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs are generally quite competitive. You can review the statistics for programs to see how many applications the program receives and how many applicants are admitted each year. Our program often receives over 200 applications and only 5-6 applicants are admitted each year.
Q: Do the large numbers of applications and small numbers of admitted students mean that applying is hopeless?
A: No! If you know what faculty are considering when reviewing applications, you can get the necessary experience and prepare your application most effectively. When applying, it can help to have mentorship by a faculty member or research advisor with whom you are very familiar. Ask mentors to review your essays and CV and provide feedback and to do practice interviews with you. Many times applicants apply several times before gaining admittance so don’t get discouraged if it takes you several years before you are admitted to a program.
Q: How do I get research experience?
A: If you are still an undergraduate, look at the psychology website for your institution and find the page that lists faculty members’ interests. Send emails to any faculty member whose research interests match yours and express interest in volunteering in their lab. Usually faculty are interested in seeing your unofficial transcript and CV or resume if you have one. They may also want to conduct an interview with you to determine if you are a good match. This research experience can be helpful in being competitive for part time or full time paid post-baccalaureate research assistant positions. It is often the case that the research experience that you get as an undergraduate is not sufficient for you to gain admittance into a clinical psychology Ph.D. program unless you devoted many hours to the lab and/or started in the lab early on in your undergraduate career.
Q: Do I need to be a psychology major in order to gain admittance to a Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program?
A: Demonstrating background knowledge in psychology is important but this can be accomplished in numerous ways—being an undergraduate major in psychology, extensive psychology research experience, a master’s degree in psychology, or post-baccalaureate courses in psychology that were not used to pursue a specific degree. Though the GRE subject test is not typically required, it can also demonstrate a proficiency in psychological knowledge.
Q: Should I apply for a master’s degree in psychology?
A: Usually students in terminal master’s programs in psychology (programs where you earn a master’s degree and then graduate rather than moving on to pursue a Ph.D.) are paying tuition to attend the program. That means that many terminal master’s programs come at a substantial cost to the student. Master’s programs can be helpful in getting into a Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program if they provide you with significant research experience, including publications and presentations at national conferences. They can also be helpful if your undergraduate GPA is not as high as you would like. Often very few courses from a master’s program will transfer over to a Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program so these programs generally do not give you the ability to significantly decrease the duration of time that it takes you to earn a Ph.D. later on.
Q: What do faculty in Clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs generally consider when reviewing applications?
A: Faculty generally consider the match between your research interests and their own, your research experience to date (usually based on your CV), letters of recommendation, clinical experience (if any), undergraduate or master’s degree GPA, and sometimes GRE scores. In order to be a competitive applicant to most Clinical Psychology Ph.D. programs, applicants generally need significant research experience (many times including national conference presentations and publications in preparation or submission) and very strong letters of recommendation. Research experience and research match are often the most heavily weighted factors.
Q: What are other degree and career options in mental health?
A: There are many degree options if you wish to pursue a career in mental health. If you are primarily interested in working as a therapist or with people, you might consider a 2-year master’s degree program in counseling psychology, marriage and family counseling, social work, or school counseling. If you are primarily interested in conducting psychological research, you might consider doctoral degrees in developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, or social psychology. Psychiatry is a medical specialization in mental health that requires a medical degree (M.D.) and focuses on the use of psychotropic medication for the treatment of mental health symptoms. You can learn more about different degrees and careers in mental health here.