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So, you want to be a Clinical Psychologist?

Updated on July 2, 2017

Guide to Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology

There's not a lot of information out there about the ins and outs of applying to graduate school in Clinical Psychology. More importantly, often people do not know the alternative options for meeting their ultimate career goals. These options may be less time intensive and more cost-effective. If you are considering a degree in Clinical Psychology, Counseling Psychology, or Social Work, but haven't started the process of applying for programs, read on! If you are still finding your place in the Psychology world, check out this lens for more info.

(photo copyright Hit Toon)

Which Program is Best for Me?

Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology- This degree is most well-suited for individuals who want to research the development or treatment of psychological disorders, supervise therapists, or develop mental health programs. Often, this degree takes 5-7 years to complete. In many programs, you earn a Master's degree on the way to your doctoral degree. In other words, you can apply to Ph.D. programs with a Bachelor's degree. There is also a one-year internship focused on enhancing therapy skills, which is often at a different location than your doctoral program. This requires an additional application process, but is required to earn your degree.

With this degree, you can open your own private therapy practice, teach at a university, conduct research, and conduct psychological assessments. There are a number of different types of graduate programs that prepare you for different career tracks. For example, the Practitioner-Scholar Model is focused more heavily on preparing students to be a practicing psychologist. The Clinical Science Model focuses on preparing students for a faculty job at a research institution. Finally, the Scientist-Practitioner Model (which most programs adhere to) claims to be approximately 50% research and 50% therapy. However, it is important to note that many Scientist-Practitioner Programs are just as research-focused as some Clinical Science programs.

Pros: Provides many career options, Stipends are often available to students in these programs (e.g., teaching or research assistantships)

Cons: Time to completion, If interested in providing therapy-this degree isn't necessary

Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology- Although individuals with this degree can secure any of the positions described above for those with Ph.D., this type of program often attracts applicants that are more clinically oriented (meaning that they would like engage in therapy practice). Because there are often less stringent research requirements, this program may take slightly less time to completion (approximately 4-6 years). However, a one-year internship is still required and the application process is the same regardless of which degree program you are in. This program is often a great alternative for individuals who have little research interest. However, it is important to be selective when choosing a Psy.D. program, as some programs are extremely costly and admit 100s of students per year. This means you get less individualized training and supervision and you leave the program with inordinate amounts of debt. With that being said, there are several programs that function very similarly to Ph.D. programs and offer stipends for the students and have small incoming classes. Check out programs such as Baylor, Rutgers, and the Virginia Consortium.

Pros: Provides many career options, Slightly shorter average time to completion than Ph.D.

Cons: Many large, for-profit programs that are costly and provide less quality training

Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology- This degree is most well-suited for individuals who want to provide treatment and conduct research at university-based counseling centers, career counseling centers, or wish to work in private practice treating common psychological problems. This program requires the same one-year internship described above and can take 4-7 years to complete. Like the Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, people who hold this degree can teach at a university, conduct research, work in private practice, develop interventions, and engage in a number of different activities. Often, people will describe Counseling Psychology as primarily focused on clinical work and everyday problems (e.g., work stress, divorce, grief), whereas Clinical Psychology is more focused on severe mental health concerns. However, it is difficult to make a general statement about the differences between Clinical and Counseling Psychology, as there are many exceptions. Clinical and Counseling Psychologists can (and, often do) work in the same settings. Many Counseling Psychologists have research positions and many treat severe psychological problems. A primary difference is that Counseling Psychology is often housed in Education departments in universities. Clinical Psychology is often housed in Arts and Sciences or Liberal Arts departments. This may impact the focus of courses and training.

Pros: Provides many career options, Stipends are often available to students in these programs (e.g., teaching or clinical assistantships)

Cons: Time to completion, If interested in providing therapy-this degree isn't necessary

Master's in Clinical Psychology- Very few universities offer a terminal Master's degree in Clinical Psychology. This is because you are not license eligible to become a therapist with this degree. Of course, a Master's degree often pays more than a Bachelor's degree in most settings. However, most people enter the Clinical Psychology profession with the idea of becoming a researcher or a therapist. This degree is primarily a stepping stone to a doctoral degree in these instances. Of course, this is not a bad option for individuals who do not yet want to commit to a lengthy doctoral program and are still trying to figure out their career goals. However, you will often find that this degree does not save time once you are in a doctoral program (especially in Clinical Psychology). Often, you are required to earn a new Master's degree anyway.

Pros: Short time to completion (~2 years)

Cons: Does not offer many career opportunities

Master's in Counseling Psychology- Unlike a Master's in Clinical Psychology, you are eligible for licensure with a Master's in Counseling. If your goal is to be a therapist, this is a great option. However, be sure to select a program that is familiar with the requirements for licensure so that after graduation, you have minimal "extras" that need to be completed. Ideally, after you've completed this degree, you will be eligible to take an exam to become a Provisional Licensed Professional Counselor (PLPC). Your license is no longer provisional after you've completed a certain number of supervised client contact hours. Before selecting a program, talk to current students to find out if the degree requirements correspond with licensure requirements.

Pros: Short time to completion (2-3 year), License-eligible

Cons: Cannot supervise other therapists, Lower insurance reimbursement rates than Ph.D. or Psy.D.

Master's in Social Work- This is a Master's degree that is also license-eligible. Upon completion of the degree, you can complete additional requirements to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Given that Social Workers do not have the same regulating boards as Psychologists, it is preferred that social work students are supervised by LCSWs, rather than Psychologists. Thus, you can supervise others with this degree. And, if you have a Bachelor's in Social Work that you've completed in the recent past (5-7 years) , many Master's programs do not require Social Work foundation courses, which shortens time to completion of the degree.

Pros: Shorter time to completion (1-3 years), License-eligible, Can Supervise

Cons: Lower insurance reimbursement rates than Ph.D. or Psy.D., Cannot conduct psychological evaluations

Clinical Psychology (PSY 334 Introduction to Clinical Psychology)
Clinical Psychology (PSY 334 Introduction to Clinical Psychology)

This book is often used as a textbook for Introduction to Clinical Psychology courses. It is a great reference and I highly recommend it!

Graduate Study in Psychology, 2012
Graduate Study in Psychology, 2012

This book is written by the current organizing body that is responsible for accrediting programs (American Psychological Association; APA). Thus, they are an extremely reliable resource. Also, check out APA's website for additional information.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR)
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR)

Unless you have money growing on trees, you may not want to buy this just yet. Currently, a DSM-5 is in the works and is scheduled to come out in 2013. For now, find one you can reference, or check out the DSM-5 website, as they talk about proposed changes and how that differs from the DSM-IV-TR.

Interview Guide for Evaluating Dsm-IV Psychiatric Disorders and the Mental Status Examination
Interview Guide for Evaluating Dsm-IV Psychiatric Disorders and the Mental Status Examination

Now, this is a great resource for DSM-criteria and questions to ask when assessing for particular disorders. Since this is affordable, I'd say get this now!


I've decided I want a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology... - Now What?

Where are you at in the process of applying to grad school?

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IMAGE SOURCE: Truth Matters
IMAGE SOURCE: Truth Matters

Tips for College Freshmen, Sophomores, and First Semester Juniors

1) Take a course in Clinical Psychology. Ask a lot of questions. Get to know the professor. (Maybe a good letter writer or mentor?)

2) Join a research lab. Research experience is a must. If you are at a small school without many research opportunities, line up something for the summer at a different institution. You will need a research advisor to write a recommendation letter for graduate school. It's best if you can find a position where you work directly with the faculty member. However, you will often end up working with graduate students, which is still a great experience. Plus, graduate students are super helpful in the application process--they were just there themselves! If you can present a research poster at a local conference or contribute to a publication, this will make your application (and CV) much stronger.

3) Explore your interests. Why do you like psychology? Is it social behavior you are most interested in? Depression? Anxiety? Children? Trauma? Eventually, you'll be applying to work directly with a research advisor who studies what you want to study. Therefore, you have to have at least a general idea of what you would enjoy researching. If you know what you want to study in graduate school, try to find a lab that studies something similar. For example, if you are interested in PTSD, if there is a research lab that studies it, sign up! If not, try and find a lab that studies anxiety disorders, sexual abuse, or military issues.

4) Keep your grades up! GPA is very important!

5) If you can, take an extra biology or statistics course. Take a multicultural psychology course.

6) Start saving money for grad school applications and interviews!

7) If you are the type that likes to get things done early, consider taking the Psychology GRE in October or November of your Junior year. This way, you can have a bit of a break in between studying for the Psychology GRE and the regular GREs. Keep in mind, however, that for many programs this test is optional.

8) Purchase Norcross & Sayette's Insiders Guide and read it!

9) Clinical experience prior to graduate school is not as essential as research experience. However, if you have time, it's good to have some experience working with the population you'll be treating in therapy in the near future! One possibility is to work on the psychiatric unit at a local inpatient hospital. (Plus, you'll get some cash!)

GRE Prep

I know, I know. This is everyone's least favorite part of the application process. I often have undergrads ask me lots of questions about the GRE. "Should I take a prep course?" "How long should I study?" "When do I need to start studying?" There is no one right answer. By the time you are applying to graduate school, you know yourself and your study habits. Do you need someone to make you study? If so, maybe you should enroll in a class. Do you do better with an instructor? Consider a class or a tutor. Are you able to pick up a book and soak up the information? Then, buy a book and get started. It is my personal opinion that it is easier to predict the types of math questions that you will get on the GRE and learn how to solve those problems than it is to greatly increase your vocabulary in a short amount of time. So, don't neglect studying for the math section! Also, I highly recommend Kaplan's Quiz Bank as an affordable option for test preparation. It's great, because you can assess your strengths and weaknesses and prepare with those in mind.

Tips for Second Semester College Juniors

1) If you haven't done the things mentioned above, get started! If it is not possible to fit all that in at this point, consider taking a year off to examine your particular interests and increase your research experience.

2) Identify programs you would be interested in applying to. Be as open as humanly possible (with family and personal considerations in mind) to different locations. The most successful applicants apply to 10-15 programs and do not limit themselves to a certain geographic location. If you have a particularly strong application, you may be able to get away with fewer programs or restricted areas. Apply to programs that fit your interests (e.g., research mentor matches what you want; Clinical Science model if you are more research-focused).

3) Do any of your programs require the Psychology GRE? If so, prepare to take it in late April.

4) Get a date and a plan together for taking the Regular GRE. Be aware that some applications are due as early as October. Make sure you take the test early enough that if you would like to re-take it, you have time to do so.

5) Identify 3-4 potential letter writers. Ideally, these people would be able to write more about you than to mention you got an "A" in their classes.

Image Source:
Image Source:

Summer Before You Apply

1) Take the GREs.

2) Create a Curriculum Vitae (CV). Ask a graduate student for an example. See Purdue's Online Writing Lab for tips.

3) Draft a Personal Statement. This part of the application is super important, so make sure you have several people in the field review your drafts. (This is why it is good to start early.) Remember, the personal statement does not have to be too personal. Avoid saying that you want to go into Clinical Psychology because of your own experiences with mental health concerns, even if that is true. Use the personal statement to describe how your professional interests evolved to the point that you are applying to this particular program with this particular research area.

4) Contact letter writers 1-2 months prior to your earliest deadline. Have back up letter writers in mind. Have a list of all programs you are applying to, the research advisor at that program you wish to work with, the deadlines for the application, and any specific components or forms they need to fill out. You want to make the process as easy as possible for your letter writers. If they should submit their letters via mail, give them a pre-addressed and stamped envelope to send the letter in. Print out extra forms in advance. Waive your right to see any letters. If they are submitting online, send them the exact link and check for confirmation that their letters have been received by the school.

Fall-Submission Time!

1) Submit GRE scores to all of your schools that need them.

2) Write a cover letter for any applications.

3) Fill out applications for programs online.

4) Make final edits to personal statement and CV. Tailor your personal statement to the specific program.

5) Pay any application fees and SUBMIT!

6) Verify that your recommendation letters have been received and that your application is complete.

7) Send thank you letters to your letter writers.

Note: All of this can be hard to do when you are still enrolled in classes full-time. If you decide to take time off, you will have more time to prepare your application. However, make sure to keep contact with your potential letter writers!

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    • profile image

      Success_At_School 5 years ago

      Anyone going into this career field will appreciate your tips.

    • AlwaysCurious LM profile image

      Ashley 5 years ago from St. Louis

      @kimmanleyort: thank you : )

    • profile image

      kimmanleyort 5 years ago

      What an extremely helpful and well written lens. Blessed by a Squid Angel.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing! ;-)

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Great information.

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 5 years ago from Topeka, KS

      Very well done article! At one time I wanted a degree in psychology but don't think that is who I am anymore. You have given so much useful and helpful information here. I'm sure it will help many people trying to decide which path in psychology to follow. :)

    • SheilaSchnauzies profile image

      Sheila 5 years ago from Omaha, NE

      I just wanted to welcome you to Squidoo! If you ever need any free advice, just let me know! This is a very interesting lens you've created, and I'm immediately forwarding it to my daughter! She is in the Masters program for her degree in Clinical Psychology. I'm sure she'll find this interesting too. Again, welcome!

    • MartieG profile image

      MartieG aka 'survivoryea' 5 years ago from Jersey Shore

      Very informative - my daughter just got her MBA in International Business and I know the work she put into her studies - nice lens :>)

    • profile image

      pawpaw911 5 years ago

      Great information for those wanting to go into the field.

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 5 years ago

      Very informative and methodical Thanks

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 5 years ago from Arkansas USA

      What a lot of information and a great presentation! Nicely done!

    • AlwaysCurious LM profile image

      Ashley 5 years ago from St. Louis

      @sherioz: This is great information, Sherioz! Do you know off hand what degrees are recognized in Israel?

    • profile image

      sherioz 5 years ago

      This has very important information for the prospective clinical psychologist. As a therapist in Israel, I would like to add for international students that they check with their home countries which degrees are recognized at home and which not. This will avoid unpleasantness when they return home and begin looking for a job.