By Shannon Johnson, Tanya Cornett, and Katie Edwards
So You Didn’t Get In
Doctoral programs in clinical psychology are among the most competitive graduate programs in the nation. In fact, thousands of students apply to clinical doctoral psychology programs every year, but the acceptance rates are daunting. On average, only 10% of applicants applying to clinical psychology doctoral programs accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) are accepted (American Psychological Association, 2005). This year was no exception. Although official data specific to clinical psychology programs is not yet available, it has been noted by numerous universities that, with the dwindling economy, more undergraduate are applying to graduate school rather than entering the workforce (Cliatt, 2009; Gabrovsky, 2009; Kern, 2009). Rejection rates will rise proportionately. These rejections can be very distressing, especially after the hours put into preparing your applications, not to mention the years of dedication to research and coursework.
You are not alone! Many well-qualified students are rejected every year. Following rejection, it is common to have thoughts such as, “I’m no good,” “I will never get in,” and “My future is hopeless.” Okay, future clinical psychologists, it is time to do a little positive self-talk and utilize effective problem solving strategies! So what do you do?
What to Do
There are many options available to students who were rejected from graduate school. If you have not already done so, consider asking the application reviewers about the weaknesses in your application. This will help you determine the strategy you will take to strengthen your application. Also, keep in mind that a little over half of all students take a year or more off between graduating from undergrad and entering graduate school (Zimak, Edwards, Johnson, & Suhr, under review). Data from this same study suggested that individuals who took a year off were generally satisfied with their decision and their current graduate school experience.
One of the most important factors for admittance into a doctoral program in clinical psychology is your research experience. It is important that you have a solid foundation in research methodology and specific research interests. A funded research position is one of the best ways for you to spend your year out of school. This can be done by searching positions on job websites (such as Monster.com), joining listservs where positions are often announced, inquiring with your undergraduate advisor, and pursuing job postings on university websites and mental health agency websites. These jobs most often require a cover letter and curriculum vitae (CV), so having these prepared before applying is important. If you can find a job that is well-matched to your specific research interests, that is even better. However, the most important thing is to build your set of research skills. If you are unable to locate a paid research assistant job, you can still be involved in research as a volunteer. If you are remaining in your college town, continue to assist in the research at your university. If you are moving home, find a university nearby and contact a faculty member whose research interests are related to your interests. Most psychology laboratories are glad to have a well-qualified research assistant join their lab. Be sure to seek these positions in a professional manner, complete with a cover letter and CV.
Gaining relevant clinical experience can also help you strengthen your application. There are many opportunities for bachelor-level psychology majors to work in mental health settings as a paid employee or as a volunteer. Some of these different options include working for a community mental health center, an inpatient hospital, or a school for students with special needs. If possible, work or volunteer at an agency that is related to your larger professional interests. For example, if you are interested in interpersonal trauma, working or volunteering at a domestic violence shelter would be a good fit.
Boost Your GPA and GRE Scores
Perhaps you have a great deal of research and volunteer experience, but your GPA is lacking. In this case, it may be in your best interest to retake classes to boost your GPA. This is especially important if you received poor grades in classes such as research methods or statistics. It may also be helpful to consider re-taking the GRE. Many times, students have trouble finding enough time to study while also in their last year of college. Come up with a plan that works for you, which may include practice tests, study books, or classes.
During your year off, stay connected to the field of psychology by networking. You can do this in a number of ways, such as joining professional psychology organizations (e.g., Association for Psychological Science, American Psychological Association), signing up for listservs and discussion groups, and attending psychology conferences and workshops. There are opportunities for networking at the local, state, regional, and national level.
Explore Alternate Career Paths
During your year off, it is important to be flexible and consider alternatives to doctoral programs in clinical psychology. One option might be to begin with pursuing a master’s degree, after which you could reconsider doctoral programs. Other options include applying to masters or doctoral programs in social work or counseling. You may even decide that you want to continue working in a bachelor-level employment position.
Practice Good Self-Care
When working to strengthen your application or considering alternative career paths, it is important that you take care of yourself. You will be most successful if you are well-rested and well-fed. It is also important to make time to exercise and be with family and friends. Bottom line: Take care of yourself!
Rejection is hard, but keep everything in perspective. Take time to relax and regroup; graduate school is a long process and applying is only the first step. You have just undergone a great learning experience. Remember Confucius once said, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.?
American Psychological Association. (2005). Graduate Study in Psychology. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.
Cliatt, C. (2009). Graduate school applications rise 10 percent. Princeton Weekly Bulletin, 98. Retrieved June 15, 2009, from http://www.princeton.edu/pr/pwb/volume98/issue27/graduate/.
Gabrosky, J. (2009). As economy declines, graduate schools see more applications. The Daily Bruin. Retrieved June 15, 2009 from http://dailybruin.com/stories/2008/dec/1/economy-declines-graduate-schools-see-more-applica/.
Kern, E. (2009). UNC graduate school applications on the rise: 8 percent increase for fewer spots. Daily Tar Heel. Retrieved June 13, 2009 from http://www.dailytarheel.com/news/university/unc-graduate-school-applications-on-therise-1.1629361.
Zimak, E. H., Edwards, K. E., Johnson, S. J., & Suhr, J. (Under review). Now or later? Deciding when to pursue a Ph D. in clinical psychology. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Shannon Johnson recently graduated from Ohio University with honors in psychology. Ultimately, Shannon plans to obtain her Ph D. in clinical psychology. Her professional interests include eating disorders, body image, and violence against women.
Tanya Cornett recently graduated from Ohio University with a B.A. in psychology and plans to pursue a career in clinical psychology.
Katie Edwards is a graduate student in the clinical psychology doctoral program at Ohio University. Her professional interests include the causes, consequences, and prevention of intimate partner violence in addition to the ethical considerations of trauma research and therapy with women currently in abusive relationships.