Is a clinical program particularly difficult to get into?
Clinical programs are very popular and admission is highly competitive. It is now more difficult to get admitted to a top clinical program than to most medical schools. The better clinical programs are American Psychological Association (APA) approved and listed in the APA book Graduate Study in Psychology . Doctoral programs in professional psychology (typically Psy.D. or Ph.D. in clinical) which are not affiliated with universities may be easier to get into. Check if these non-affiliated programs have a favorable student/faculty ratio and have at least regional accreditation. In many states you cannot be licensed as a clinical psychologist if your program is not APA approved.
If many of these programs accept only one in ten applicants, what chance do I have?
The better known programs do get many applicants for each opening. But each of these applicants applies to a dozen or so programs. Think of 10 students, each applies to ten schools, and each school accepts only one of the ten applicants. The outcome will be that each of the 10 students will be admitted in one program or another. Each program is still very selective though.
Do I really want a clinical program?
It is important to be clear in you own mind on this point. The choices for graduate programs in psychology are not limited to picking between clinical psychology and rat-running experimental programs. If you are sure that you want a clinical degree, and have checked what the program involves, then go ahead. Even if admissions are difficult, people do succeed and your chances may be good.
A good test of whether you want a clinical program is to visualize yourself working as a professional psychologist. Who are the people benefiting from your services? Are they disturbed older adults? Teenagers with social and family problems? Small children acting up in school? These groups are not all prime candidates for the services of a clinical psychologist.
What nonclinical programs should I consider?
Many students who try to get into clinical programs are not primarily interested in standard forms of psychotherapy. There are several nonclinical programs that overlap the clinical area and might be a better match. If you are interested in children with problems, consider Child, Developmental, or Counseling.
Problems with children and teenagers often become painfully evident in the classroom. Consequently, education departments offer graduate programs in School Psychology, Counseling, Special Education, Learning Disabilities, and more. Psychology majors who apply to graduate programs in education generally do well because they are capable and their psychology background is highly relevant.
Dealing with older children and families would involve Counseling or Social Work, while Community Psychology covers the broader area of community mental health. These programs emphasize prevention as well as treatment.
In more medical settings are programs in Health Psychology or Behavioral Medicine. At a somewhat less therapeutic level would be psychology programs in Social or Personality. Some practical experience in a clinic, school or hospital is very helpful in giving you a better feel of these areas and of your interests.
Non-clinical programs within psychology cover a wide range of areas including experimental, physiological, cognitive, social, and personality. These graduate programs and the non-psychology ones mentioned above are generally easier to get into than top clinical programs (but not easy). Students sometimes change their concentration after a year or so of graduate work. However, they usually cannot change from nonclinical to clinical, so you cannot use a non-clinical program as a þbackdoorþ to a clinical one.
How does counseling differ from clinical psychology?
The two fields overlap considerably, but the emphasis is slightly different. Counseling focuses on short-term help and therapy while clinical covers both short-term and longer therapies. Counseling is comparable to emergency room and outpatient medical services that deal with the early stages of a problem and can obtain good results quickly. Treating a problem early (like removing a splinter before the infection sets in) can be very important in avoiding later, much larger, problems. School settings, from grade school through college, are prime sites for counseling. College counseling centers usually have both clinical and counseling Ph.D.s on the staff. Counseling programs at a given university might be either in the psychology or in the education department.
What about Psychiatry? Is that a good alternative to a clinical Ph.D.?
Being a psychiatrist has many advantages that follow from having a medical (MD) degree. The main ones are the right to prescribe medication and the strong probability of earning more money than a mere Ph.D.
There are disadvantages for someone very interested in helping people with psychological problems. Medical school involves four years of setting bones and lancing abscesses, but very little psychology until you specialize. A clinical Ph.D. program is four years of studying psychology followed by an internship. Medical school is also likely to be a much greater financial burden than a doctoral program in psychology.
What do clinical programs look for in an applicant?
The obvious and easily measured factors are grades and test scores. However, nearly all applicants have good grades and scores, so applicants must be sorted out on other factors. More difficult to determine but very important are the applicant's motivation and the ability to work with people in a clinical setting. Letters of recommendation and relevant practical experience are the main sources of information about these more complex factors.
Why is practical experience so important?
Consider being on an admissions committee evaluating an applicant who claims to be very interested in a career in clinical psychology. What if that applicant has no experience in a clinical setting? What would this say about the applicant's interest and motivation? Without relevant experience to check on your interests and abilities, how confident could you be that you are suited to a clinical career? Think of how much easier it will be to write the cover letter (the letter of intent) for an application when you can describe what you gained from volunteer work in a clinical setting. In addition, your application will benefit from recommendations from work supervisors shed light on your performance outside the classroom and your ability to work with people.