Thinking about a graduate degree in Clinical Psychology?

The FAQ below should help!


Q: I'm thinking of going to grad school. Is a Clinical Ph.D. right for me?

A: Maybe! A Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology involves training in three main areas: (1) Research (conducting psychological experiments); (2) Clinical (conducting therapy and assessments); and (3) Teaching (being a college or university professor). Different graduate programs vary in the amount of emphasis they place on the clinical and research domains, but research is a key component of any clinical Ph.D. program. If you are open to doing research and have a strong academic record, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology is worth considering. However, if you are pretty sure you don't want to do research, then this is probably not the best program for you.


Q. What kind of degrees (besides a clinical psychology Ph.D.) will train me to do psychotherapy and allow me to have a psychotherapy practice?

A: There are many different graduate degrees that train psychotherapists. The main ones are described below.

A Counseling Psych Ph.D. is very similar to a Clinical Psych Ph.D., but there are a few notable differences. (1) Counseling programs tend to focus less on severe psychopathology and more on problems of living. On the other hand, they also train students to do career counseling, which Clinical Ph.D. programs do not; (2) Counseling Ph.D. programs are housed in the College of Education (rather than the "regular" psychology department, which is usually in the College of Arts and Sciences). This generally means that there is less funding to support graduate students (because there are fewer teaching assistantships) and that there are fewer resources in general; (3) University Counseling Centers tend to prefer to hire counseling psychologists, but most other employers tend to prefer the Clinical Psychology Ph.D., so job prospects are probably somewhat more limited for a Counseling Ph.D. compared to a clinical Ph.D.; (4) Clinical programs have definitely improved over the years, but counseling psychology programs have historically done a much better job of integrating diversity issues into their training.; (5) Counseling Ph.D. programs are less competitive than Clinical Ph.D. programs; (6) Last but not least, please note that like the Clinical Ph.D., the Counseling Ph.D. is also a research degree. If you are not interested in doing research in graduate school, you should probably look at other types of programs.

A Psy.D. [Psychology Doctorate] is a doctoral level degree that focuses almost exclusively on clinical training (as opposed to research training), although students are expected to be able to know how to consume research. Unlike other graduate degrees, PsyDs are granted by stand-alone institutions (e.g., the Illinois School of Professional Psychology) that are not affiliated with Universities. This means that they are tuition driven with little financial aid available. On the upside, they are much less competitive than either Counseling or Clinical Psych Ph.D. programs.

Ph.D.'s in other areas of Psychology (e.g., Developmental, Social, Industrial-Organizational, Community, Cognitive-Behavioral) involve training in Research and Teaching only. Thus, these degrees will not allow careers that incorporate psychotherapy work).

The M.S.W. [Masters in Social Work] is a two-year degree that teaches therapy skills and allows graduates to qualify for a limited license. Licensure laws vary state to state, but generally a limited license allows a person to fully function as an independent therapist (including a private practice), under some sort of supervision arrangement with a doctoral level person. This supervision is not difficult to obtain and does not (please check state laws) need to be time-consuming. On the other hand, this degree does not provide any training in teaching or research, so it eliminates the possibility of an academic job (unless one pursues a Ph.D. in Social Work)

Other degrees: In addition to the above, there are graduate programs that specialize in training marriage and/or family therapists. There are also special programs for dance, music, and art therapy, as well as Divinical Counseling. There are lots of excellent therapists in each of these areas. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about these programs to offer useful advice.


Q: I still have a few years before I graduate. Do I really need to do anything right now?


One of the most important things you can do right now is become involved in RESEARCH. Graduate programs will look for this kind of experience and commitment on your application. In addition, this is the best way to get a recommendation letter from someone who knows your potential as a researcher - something that also carries a lot of weight in graduate school applications. Also, work on those GRADES. Your G.P.A. matters a lot when you apply to graduate school.


Q: I know it's important to get "research experience" before I apply. But where do I start?

A: There are numerous ways in which you can get research experience before you apply to graduate programs. The best place to start is to talk with professors in the Psychology Department whose research topics interest you and see if you can assist them in work they are currently conducting. Information about current research opportunities for undergraduate students is available here. If you are ready for more responsibility, think about doing an independent study or honors project where you design your own experiment under the guidance of a professor. For members of traditionally underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the McNair Scholars Program provides an excellent opportunity to work closely with a member of the faculty. (see Look into summer internships at research institutions or large universities near where you live - many of these may be open to "free assistance" from a bright and motivated college student. Finally, some students may want to take one or two years off and work on a research project full time before applying to graduate school.


Q: Should I also try to get "clinical" experience if I plan to pursue a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology?

A. That depends.

The kind of clinical experience you would typically get as an undergraduate (e.g., crisis phone line, domestic violence shelter, psychiatric intern) may not significantly improve your chances of acceptance into a Ph.D. program. However, these are very valuable experiences that will not only contribute to your community, but help you decide the kind of work you may both value and want to avoid. Thus, while these kinds of experiences are not as vital as doing research, they can contribute to your overall professional profile.


Q: How important are the GREs (Graduate Record Examinations)?

A. Very!

Because the number of applicants to Clinical Programs far exceeds the number of spots, GRE scores become an important "filtering" mechanism for programs.  At the same time, the GRE does have many limitations in terms of predicting who is likely to become a strong scholar, and in light of a new debate about its merits, some graduate programs in various disciplines have dropped it in favor of more holistic and individualized evaluation of applicants.. For more info on the GREs, go to:

Note: Your SAT. scores are a good indication of how you will do on the GRE. Thus, if you struggle with standardized tests, it may be worth your time and investment to prepare ahead of time by enrolling in a test-prep program or practicing on your own by purchasing preparatory books.


Q: Is it better to apply to grad school straight from college or take a few years off?

A: It depends.

This is a very individual decision and depends on how prepared you are, both academically and emotionally, to apply to graduate school. Programs in Clinical Psychology are VERY competitive and are a big commitment of time and energy. Ask yourself whether your grades, GRE scores, and research experience make you a viable candidate straight out of college. Talk to professors and graduate students you trust to get a feel for how competitive you are. Ask yourself whether you are ready to go to school for another 5 years and work hard. If you are feeling academically "burnt out", are not sure what degree you want to pursue, or need to "beef up" your application a bit, taking time off to work in a research setting for a year or two might be your best bet. In contrast, if you know what you want and have a strong application (including research experience), you have a good chance of getting in straight from college. Remember, what is most important to graduate programs is that you are a serious candidate who is well prepared, whether or not you have taken time off to work or do research.


Q: I'd like to read more about some of these topics. What's a good place to start?

A: The best place to start is the list of resources I put together for students interested in graduate study in clinical or counseling psychology. There are, of course, lots of other good resources on the web. But don't rely on these exclusively. Use your connections! Talk to professors, graduate students, and other undergraduates. Let others read your application essays before you send them out. E-mail students and faculty at places you are particularly interested in and ask specific questions (after you research the program a little). Visit a site if you really have your eye set on it.  Be creative and persistent and keep asking questions. Good luck!

Back to the Psychology Careers Page