Congratulations! You've been accepted into graduate school. But now what do you do? One of the dilemmas faced by graduate students is how to prepare for life outside of school. Do you want to be a professor? A licensed psychologist? Both? This article will describe some of the issues faced by graduate students and postgraduate students in clinical psychology. Preparation to practice as a clinical psychologist involves several stages. First, you must be accepted into a graduate program; next you must complete your course-work, practicum (supervised testing and therapy experiences), internship, and research requirements. You will then need a job, even before you can become licensed. Preparation for your first job should actually begin when you enter graduate school, if not before, although few students know exactly what they want to do with their degree when they first enter graduate school. I thought I would primarily see patients and conduct research in the process, but would never teach. I was shy and didn't like giving presentations. I am currently an associate professor of psychology at La Salle University, teach in their PsyD program in clinical psychology, and give several presentations at conferences every year. Needless to say, it is a good idea to keep all of your options open.
Once in graduate school, it is important to get good grades, get to know your professors, find a subject for which you have a passion, and publish as much as you can. My own advisor emphasized research experience and told me that grades are not important in graduate school. In the long run, in terms of academic reputation and tenure, he was right. In the beginning of one's career, however, grades are important. Internship selection committees review graduate transcripts, and so do university search committees. It is also important to get to know your professors. The more contact you have with them, the more you may learn and the better they will know you and your accomplishments. This information helps them write a more substantive letter of recommendation.
You should also be exploring areas of psychology to find some for which you have a passion, if not for your thesis and/or dissertation, then for your long-term professional development. It is good to have at least one area of particular expertise when you enter the job market, whether you decide to be a practitioner, an academic, or both. Having a passion for a topic gives you more energy to invest in it and allows you to enjoy reading and writing about it more. If your true passion is a bit off the beaten trail, you may want to supplement it with a more mainstream area of inquiry to increase your employment opportunities.
You should also find some opportunities for presentation and publication. Students are presenting and publishing earlier and earlier in their careers, so it is critical to present and publish early and often if you want an academic job, especially if you are a woman. If you are in a PsyD program or plan to apply to one, it is still possible to pursue an academic (teaching) career. PsyD programs look for faculty applicants with PsyDs to provide models of professional psychologists for their students. Even if you plan to go into clinical practice, having some publications on your resume or vita makes you appear to be more of an expert in the area. Publications are impressive to clinical and academic search committees alike. Find faculty who have helped other students publish and enlist their help. Try to publish your thesis and/or dissertation. My advisor at Ohio State University even had us publish our "first-year project."
Writing up research is not the only way to publish. Some of my graduate students have written excellent literature reviews with original perspectives on an issue and papers on controversial clinical issues that have been accepted for presentation and may be accepted for publication. Psychologists in clinical practice are most likely to engage in this kind of scholarship. Such scholarship can establish your reputation as an expert, increase your visibility to other professionals, and, from a practical perspective, increase referrals.
In my experience on academic search committees for clinical psychologists, we have tended to look for three things. We look for evidence on their resume or in letters that the applicants will publish (and consider past behavior to be the best predictor of future behavior) and that they can teach (so they have some idea of whether they will enjoy it and we know they can relate to students). We also want them to have clinical experience. Sometimes we also look for a particular area of scholarship and practice. Finally, they should have licensure potential. When we recruit people to teach in a doctoral program, they must be immediately licensable so that they can supervise doctoral students' clinical work. Some other states require a few years of licensed experience before psychologists are eligible to serve as supervisors. When I have served on internship selection committees, we have, of course, emphasized clinical experience, but have been intrigued by clinically relevant presentations and publications.
In many cases, people enter clinical psychology because it offers more options than some areas of psychology. As a clinical psychologist, one can do research, teach, consult, practice (test, diagnose, treat, etc.), and/or become an administrator. When students receive their doctorates, they still must complete a postdoctoral year before they can sit for licensing exams in most states. I will now describe some options for students regarding how they spend the post-doctoral year. I hope that this will help you to evaluate your options and decide which one is right for you. The options include working in a supervised clinical position (e.g., as a psychologist in a clinic or hospital), in a postdoctoral position (which can entail research or practice), or in an academic position (teaching or doing research at a college or university). I'm going to review them from the perspective of someone who might want to "do it all" (become an academician and a practitioner) since that is often the challenge that new clinicians face. Be sure to speak with your supervisors and professors about these options to obtain other perspectives and opinions, of course.
Many of you chose clinical psychology because you wanted to see patients and do therapy. If you take a supervised clinical position when you graduate, you may enhance your clinical repertoire and develop an area of expertise. It is very important to choose a job in which you will have a supervisor that meets licensing and professional membership criteria, since otherwise you may have to repeat that year with a qualified supervisor. Check with the state licensing board(s) for all states in which you are even remotely interested, as well as the National Register, insurance companies, etc., before taking the job. Some states will even preapprove a postdoctoral supervision plan.
It is sometimes difficult to move from a clinical position to an academic job. To increase your chances for a job in academe it is important to get some teaching experience, but it is at least as important to publish, which can be difficult to do in a purely clinical setting. You can usually find work as an adjunct professor at a local college or university to get some teaching experience. Regarding scholarship, try to meet and join those who are doing research at your work site (many hospitals have ongoing research) and get permission to publish a piece of the work. Try to publish any research that you did in graduate school, or develop a relevant research project where you work (outcome research may be welcomed by administrators). As mentioned previously, you can also read and write about an interesting clinical issue and submit the manuscript to a clinically focused journal. It is helpful to get together with others with similar career goals for collaboration, guidance, or support. Join local organizations and develop a collegial network of kindred spirits.
Taking a postdoctoral position is another way to start one's career. Exercise great caution in selecting a postdoctoral position, however. Some are merely extremely poorly paid clinical positions. If the postdoc doesn't pay well, it should offer you something in addition to money: access to supervision with a nationally known psychologist, specialized training at a prestigious institution, opportunities to publish, or some other form of prestigious credential for your vita. Once again, be sure that you will have a clinical supervisor who meets licensing and professional membership criteria.
A research postdoc that meets licensure criteria can facilitate your transition into clinical and academic work. It provides a good environment for writing and research because you will be surrounded by psychologists doing similar work and there is the potential for publication. Be sure that you will be listed as an author on manuscripts resulting from your projects. Postdoctoral positions may also provide access to mentors and networks and can help you get the knack of professional writing before you get swamped with other academic duties (e.g., preparing courses, advising, serving on committees). It is typically possible to do some adjunct teaching in addition to your postdoc, especially since those who hire people to teach may be impressed by your work at your postdoctoral institution.
Finally, some of you will get an academic position immediately after graduate school. The good news is that if your goal was to get an academic position, you've now met that goal, and now have 5-6 years to achieve tenure and promotion. The challenge will be developing a research or scholarship program while simultaneously preparing and teaching classes, advising, serving on committees, and, oh yes, having a life. In addition, unlike your nonclinical colleagues, you will need to start to log clinical hours for licensure. This is a lot to take on all at once. Try to get another faculty member to agree to supervise your clinical work and/or find a part-time "clinical research" position in which you can simultaneously meet licensure and publication requirements. You should also spend enough time on campus to become involved in university life, to get to know your colleagues, and to allow a balance between meeting time and social time on campus.
This decision about what to do during your postdoctoral year isn't necessarily an either/or decision. In my case, I first took a clinical job and expanded my clinical experience base, then took a postdoctoral position to further expand my clinical repertoire as well as facilitate my transition into my first academic job. I simultaneously worked as an adjunct professor at local universities. No matter what path or paths you decide to pursue, it is extremely important to develop a collegial network outside of your institution for the purposes of collaboration, inspiration, mentoring, enlightenment, support, and, last but not least, enjoyment. If you have not done so already, contact your local, state, and national psychological organizations and join some of them. That is the best way to develop a network of colleagues who will facilitate your progress toward achieving all of the goals discussed in this article. They will have even more ideas about how you can successfully develop your career as a clinical psychologist!