So you want to be a Clinical Psychologist

Shu-wen Wang

So you want to be a clinical psychologist! It's understandable – there are a lot of things that are appealing about getting a Ph.D. in clinical psychology – you get trained for jobs in research, academia, industry, and also professional psychology. So it comes as no surprise then that clinical psychology Ph.D. programs are becoming increasingly selective, and many qualified applicants are not getting accepted to programs of their choice or any programs at all. The application process can be incredibly stressful and is often what undergraduates prioritize in their plans for graduate school. However, it is as (if not more) important to give careful consideration and thought to whether or not a clinical psychology Ph.D. program is the best fit for you. After all, although the application process is no walk in the park, six-plus years in a program that you don't find fulfilling and is not preparing you the best for the kind of career you want is an even less desirable situation.

For many people, the phrase “clinical psychology” brings with it the image of a psychotherapist working with clients. However, what many undergraduates don’t realize is the range of degrees that allow you to practice as a therapist. These programs can be much less competitive to get into (meaning you have a better chance of getting accepted into a program that you like, or a school that is in a preferred location), and often take fewer years to complete. If you primarily want to be a psychotherapist, then consider getting an M.S.W. (Masters in Social Work), MFT (Marriage and Family Therapy) license, M.A. in counseling psychology, or a Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology). If the idea of working with children in a school setting appeals to you, there are masters and doctoral level options in school psychology that allow you to work with children with behavioral, emotional, and learning issues. There are many options outside of the clinical psychology Ph.D. that can lead to fruitful careers as psychotherapists.

However, if you are excited by research and want to spend a good bit of your career asking scientific questions of clinical relevance and designing studies to help answer them, then a Ph.D. is really your best option. Clinical psychology Ph.D. programs, no matter how clinically-oriented they claim to be, will always have a not unsubstantial research component (if you want a doctorate where there is little to no research involved, consider getting a Psy.D.). So if research does not get your juices going, you will most definitely not enjoy a good portion of graduate school. Emerging from your Ph.D. program, you will have several options that involve research, whether it is the traditional professor appointment in an academic institution, or researcher positions in medical hospital settings, community health centers, government organizations, industry, and so forth.

Having said that, it is no surprise then that research experience is going to be one of the most important parts of the application. One mistake that undergraduates may make is believing that simply being in a lab where they were a Research Assistant (RA) is enough research experience to make them a competitive applicant for a Ph.D. program. Data entry, data coding, running subjects through experiments, and related RA experiences are extremely valuable – they are your initial introduction to research. However, Ph.D. programs are really looking to see if you have taken the initiative to complete independent research; that is, after all, what you will be spending most of your time doing in graduate school. Senior honors theses are excellent examples of independent research where, under the guidance of a professor or graduate student mentor, you get to develop a research question, perhaps help design a study and collect the data to answer that question, conduct statistical analyses, interpret the results, and write up an APA-style manuscript. Having an honors thesis or any other type of independent research experience on your curriculum vita – and being able to talk knowledgeably about your research project at the interview – can set you apart as someone who has the motivation and beginning experience to succeed as an independent researcher in graduate school. Plus, think about going a step beyond the actual research project. You can easily find opportunities to present your research, whether at an undergraduate psychology conference or a professional scientific convention (like the APS Annual Convention – this year in San Francisco!). Presentation opportunities are excellent occasions to learn how to speak knowledgeably about your research with a wide cross-section of people in psychology, plus going to conventions really gives you a taste of what you will be doing a lot of in your future research career. Giving a poster presentation is often much more in the grasp of undergraduate researchers than publishing study findings, although if you are in a position of submitting your research for publication, then by all means go for it!

Which leads me to another point to consider. A couple of years in a post-baccalaureate research position can really be vital to your application. Of course, undergraduates often feel the pressure to apply as soon as possible, feeling as though “taking time off” is not a good thing. I would like to present another view. No matter how successful you were as an undergraduate, there is only so much you can learn during your years of college. In a post-bac job, you can gain even more valuable research experience, often times in an entirely different lab which can really broaden your horizons and expose you to different methods and research areas (as well as adding another letter of reference to your application). You have more time to think about your reasons for pursuing a clinical psychology Ph.D., and make sure that this is really what you want to do. And you have more time to develop as a researcher and to pursue independent research projects. Simply for the sake of time, having some more years before applying to graduate programs means that you have more time for any publications in the pipeline to actually be in press by the time you apply for programs, and for any burgeoning research projects to get to a point where you have data and preliminary findings to talk about. While it is very easy to focus simply on getting accepted to a program, remember that you also want to be the most successful graduate student that you can be once you have actually gotten accepted. In my opinion, it is much better to get some years of post-bac experience and not only have a better shot of getting accepted to a program of your choice, but also be better equipped for success in graduate school, than to apply prematurely as an undergraduate. Of course, if you feel you are already at this point as an undergraduate senior, then there is nothing to stop you from applying now.

I have concentrated a lot on research experience (for good reason) because I feel that is really the main way in which you can set yourself apart from other applicants. Of course, your undergraduate transcript and GRE scores will be very important as well, but I think it would be fair to assume that most students are aware of that, and there are many more resources in place to help navigate those aspects of the application. Clinical experience will be important as well, but remember that even your interpersonal work in non-clinical settings (e.g., camp counselor, resident advisor, peer counselor) can say a lot about your ability and commitment to work with people.

Applying to graduate school is tough, but do not lose sight of the reasons why you want to apply. Keep your options open, and remember that you are also in a position of evaluating the programs to which you apply. Do not apply to programs that you would never really consider going to. Most importantly, find something that you love to research and make sure you apply to programs that will allow you to pursue that. I have absolutely loved graduate school in clinical psychology and I wish you the best of luck in your pursuits!

Author Note

Shu-wen Wang is a third year graduate student in the clinical psychology Ph.D. program at UCLA. She served as the 2007-2008 APSSC RiSE-UP Coordinator, and has been involved with the APSSC since 2005. Shu-wen’s research interests are in the area of stress and coping, family health and well-being, social support, and Asian American mental health.