For many students, applying to graduate school in clinical psychology can be a daunting task. As a member of the clinical faculty of a PhD-granting program, I often meet with students who ask for advice on how to enhance their applications and increase their chances of being accepted by doctoral programs in clinical psychology. Each student's case is unique, but having had the opportunity to sit on the admissions committees of PsyD and PhD programs in clinical psychology, and having read countless applications, I believe I have some useful general pointers to offer. The suggestions that follow are structured around a set of eight questions that are intended to help guide you through the application process.
1. Do I need to obtain graduate training in clinical psychology to achieve my career goals?
Before you spend a lot of time, money, and "anxiety" on the graduate school application process, it is essential that you clarify your career goals and determine whether completing graduate work in clinical psychology will help you achieve those goals. Without a careful examination of this issue you might find yourself spending many years obtaining a doctoral degree in clinical, when you don't need such a doctorate for your selected profession. For example, for those of you who want to become therapists, a master's degree in social work or another mental health specialty such as rehabilitation counseling may offer a shorter path to this career goal. For some students, first completing a master's degree program and then going on for doctoral training is also a very good option. If you do get a master's first, you must be prepared to accept the fact that you may not be able to transfer all your master's degree credits when you are admitted to a doctoral program.
For those of you who "want to work with children" there are several graduate education options within the field of psychology to consider. To help narrow your choice of programs, it is essential that you ask yourself whether you are interested in working with children with or without mental health problems. If you are most interested in working with children who have mental health problems, then graduate work in clinical psychology will prepare you well for such a career. For students who wish to work with children at the interface of academic and mental health problems, then master's or doctoral studies in school psychology might be of interest. Alternatively, if you are interested in normative developmental processes, you might consider exploring doctoral programs in developmental psychology.
Take the time to explore the linkages between graduate education and career options by talking to your academic advisors and reviewing the published information on careers in psychology. The American Psychological Association (APA) publishes two resources that can help you in the decision-making process, Career Paths in Psychology: Where Your Degree Can Take You (Sternberg, 1997) and Graduate Study in Psychology (APA, 2001).
2. Should I apply to PhD or PsyD programs in clinical psychology?
Once you have decided you want to obtain doctoral-level training in clinical psychology, you must decide on whether to apply to PhD- or PsyD-granting programs. The extent to which you plan to engage in clinical practice versus research is highly salient for selecting the type of doctoral program to which you will apply. For students who have strong interests in clinical practice, the PsyD degree is a real option. Alternatively, if you may want to teach at a college or university, or want a research career, then the training you receive in a PhD-granting program is likely to better prepare you for such activities. According to the APA Research Office in 1999-2000, 13% of applications to doctoral programs were for PsyD training as compared to 86% for PhD programs. Although far fewer doctoral degree applications are made to programs granting PsyD degrees, it is erroneous to assume that it is easier to gain admittance to PsyD graduate programs in clinical psychology than to PhD programs. There is as great a variability in the quality of PsyD programs as there is in PhD programs, and the competition is stiff at the most competitive programs. After a closer scrutiny of PsyD programs, you may find that some programs have training requirements that are highly comparable to those in PhD programs. The key distinction between the two types of doctoral programs may be in the importance placed on graduate students attaining clinical practice versus research experiences. In selecting any doctoral program and evaluating its quality, it is important to investigate issues such as average class size, student-faculty ratio, the amount and types of supervised clinical experiences that are available, the program's success rate in placing students in clinical internships, and the availability of graduate student funding.
3. What theoretical orientation and program training goals will best suit my interests?
The answers to this two-part question should help you reduce the list of schools to which you plan to apply. First, clinical programs will sometimes identify themselves as leaning toward one theoretical approach to training, such as psychodynamic or cognitive-behavioral. Going to a program that identifies itself as primarily emphasizing one theoretical approach does not necessarily imply that you will be exposed to only one orientation to clinical psychology, but it will be the approach that is most emphasized in course work and clinical training. In many instances, however, programs describe themselves as eclectic in orientation, which usually means there is considerable diversity of theoretical orientation of the clinical faculty.
Second, most PhD programs adhere to the scientist-practitioner model of clinical psychology, which highlights the importance of research for informing clinical practice; however, doctoral programs vary in the degree to which they place a premium on research versus clinical skills training. Mayne, Norcross, and Sayette's (2000) guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology is very useful in helping students discover more about a program's theoretical orientation and its training emphasis on research versus clinical skills. You are likely to find that most programs claim to offer a balanced approach to graduate education.
4. In what area of clinical psychology do I want to specialize?
Some students enter graduate school with well-honed interests, whereas others are less certain about the areas within clinical psychology that interest them. If you know that you want training in specific areas of clinical psychology (e.g., in anxiety disorders or in addiction problems), then you need to determine if there are clinical faculty with those interests at the program to which you are applying. For some graduate programs the degree to which there is a fit between a student's interests and faculty interests plays an important role in the student selection process. It is useful to try to determine the extent to which a program "matches" incoming students with faculty advisors. Even if there is no specific matching process that is practiced, at the very least apply to programs in which someone on the clinical faculty studies a topic that interests you.
5. What factors play an important role in the admission process?
Because of the large number of students applying for graduate training in clinical psychology and the limited number of slots available in most programs, admission committees usually rely on students' GPA and GRE scores to make the first cut for admissions. The recommended quantitative indices for doctoral programs may be obtained in APA's published reference book on Graduate Study in Psychology (2001), but those data usually reflect departmentwide criteria and not those specific to the clinical area. The Mayne et al. (2000) book is more useful in this regard as it provides data specific to clinical and counseling programs. You should take the reported averages seriously when selecting programs, and keep in mind that most students who are admitted have GRE scores that exceed the minimum recommended indices. The degree to which your GPA or GRE scores deviate from a program's values must be balanced by other strengths in your application. Once you have made it through the screening process, faculty letters become a more important factor for student selection.
In addition to the basic quantitative indices and letters, the amount of research or mental health service experience you have is also examined. For research-oriented programs, the extent to which you have gained research experience is critical. It is good to show some diversity in research experience, but this should be balanced with staying in a lab long enough to gain useful research skills, and for the research advisor to be able to write a letter of recommendation that comments clearly on your skills. Presenting research at conferences and having manuscript-writing experience will also enhance your application for research-oriented programs.
For most programs it is also important for applicants to have some human service experience. If your undergraduate school does not offer practicum options, it is important for you to seek out human service experiences on your own. These experiences can be either paid or voluntary. The amount of direct client contact you acquire prior to going to graduate school will be more salient for admission to graduate programs with a stronger emphasis on clinical practice.
6. What are some common errors students make that diminish their chances of admission?
There are several not-so-uncommon gaffes that I have seen "sink" the admission chances of even highly qualified students. First, be sure that the professional goals you describe in your personal statement fit the training goals of the program to which you are applying. For example, do not apply to a research-oriented clinical program and claim in your personal statement that you want a career as a therapist. Second, do not apply to a clinical program that has a clearly stated theoretical orientation and suggest in your personal statement that you hope to learn a different orientation to clinical psychology than is offered at that program. Finally, if you decide to identify faculty in your personal statement with whom you hope to work, be sure they are members of the clinical faculty unless the program materials clearly state that students may be mentored by anyone in the psychology department.
7. If invited, do I need to go to the interview?
Not all graduate programs conduct student interviews, but for those that do invite you for an interview, make every effort to attend. If you are fortunate enough to be asked to visit several programs, you may have to make some difficult choices if the interview dates conflict. Many programs have set interview dates, but if you cannot attend the preestablished date(s), a special trip to meet with the faculty with whom you hope to work is important. The willingness of faculty members to meet with you at a time other than the program's preset interview date(s) will vary from program to program and from person to person. Under some conditions a phone interview will also be acceptable. Student interviews are not completed in a uniform fashion across programs; you might meet individually with several faculty, meet with more than one faculty member at a time, or participate in a group interview with several students. You will often have a chance to meet with current graduate students, but if this is not arranged for you, request to do so. Some programs have students involved in a day's worth of activities, including formal interviews, meals, and social gatherings with faculty and current graduate students. A key point to remember is that you are being evaluated during the formal and informal events, and current graduate students may be involved in the evaluation process. It is important to prepare for the interview before you go. Preparation may involve going though a mock interview with friends or advisors who can give you constructive criticism regarding your social skills and how well you express your ideas orally. Also, some students perform great in an intimate interview context but have trouble in unstructured group settings such as cocktail parties, or vice versa. If you know you have interviewing weaknesses, you need to work on them and prepare as you would for a written exam.
8. What can I do if I don't get into the graduate programs to which I applied?
If you did not get accepted to a graduate program and you have the required courses, GPA, and GRE scores, and you believe you have strong letters of support and you interviewed well, it may be that you had less research and/or mental health service experience than your competitors. In some cases what can help is securing either a research position in a lab or a more formal mental health job after graduating. The choice of which type of position to pursue depends on whether you intend to apply to a more research-oriented or a practice-oriented clinical program. If you are interested in competitive research programs and you cannot get a paid research position, try to volunteer some time on a project. Common places to seek out paid and volunteer research assistant positions include departments of psychology and counseling at research universities, and departments of psychiatry and psychology at medical school-affiliated hospitals. Entry-level mental health jobs are often available at psychiatric hospitals, departments of psychiatry in general hospitals, and residential treatment centers for youth.
In sum, applying to doctoral programs in clinical psychology is a competitive process that you must carefully plan and thoughtfully execute. Your answers to the questions in this article should help guide you in your quest for graduate studies.
American Psychological Association. (2001). Graduate study in psychology (2000 ed. with 2001 addendum). Washington, DC: Author.
Mayne, T. J., Norcross, J. G., & Sayette, M. A. (2000). Insider's guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology (2000-2001 ed.). New York: Guilford.
Sternberg, R. J. (1997). Career paths in psychology: Where your degree can take you. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.