Want To Be

So, you want to become a clinical psychologist...

A considerable number of undergraduate Penn State psychology majors would, if asked, indicate that they hope to become clinical psychologists. If you are interested in a career in clinical psychology then here are some suggestions and pointers that you should find helpful.

Clinical psychology is a branch of psychology devoted to understanding mental health problems in individuals and developing effective treatments for the full spectrum of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders one may experience; depression, anxiety disorders, interpersonal difficulties, and psychotic disorders are but a few. Clinical psychologists are service providers, many of whom work in clinical settings while others choose academic careers or careers in consulting. As a group, clinical psychologists are skilled in clinical practice as well as research on clinical problems and clinical interventions.

Before committing yourself to pursuing a career in clinical psychology it is essential to consider a number of important points which should help as you think about graduate training and help you to better plan for a career in clinical psychology.

Important Points

1. A Competitive Field

A career in clinical psychology is a popular choice for many students across the country and clinical psychology is quite a competitive field to enter. A doctoral degree is required for licensure for clinical practice in all states and entering a graduate school program to meet this goal is a significant commitment.

2. Consider the Alternatives

If you are a senior and find yourself not having adequately met the criteria to successfully get into a graduate clinical training program, you may want to consider increasing your research or clinical experience after graduating. Another option is to explore similar fields; clinical psychology is not the only professional field for those who want to help alleviate psychological problems. There are, in fact, many training programs for alternative careers in the helping professions, e.g., social work (which also includes clinical social work), counseling psychology, school psychology, rehabilitation psychology. Because they are less popular than clinical psychology, admission to graduate programs other than clinical is generally easier.

3. Clinical Experience

If you are still certain that clinical psychology is for you, then be aware that there are many categories of people and types of clients you may be interested in working with or conducting research on such as a particular age group, those with physical disabilities, and those with various problems of living. If you can arrange it, you should seek some on-the-job experiences during your undergraduate years, whether in part-time activities during the school year or in summer full-or part-time internships. In many of these activities you will not be paid but you can earn credit in Psychology 495 (Practicum). You can find a listing of Human Service agencies in the Blue Pages of your telephone directory. Review the agencies and call the ones that serve the clients in whom you are interested. Tell them that you are interested in supervised experience. Talk with your advisor about PSYCH 495. For more information see the Internships in Psychology page.

More Important Points

4. Research Experience

If a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology is your goal, then pre-graduate school research experience is a must. More successful candidates for graduate clinical training programs have spent time as undergraduates assisting professors and graduate students in their labs doing various psychological research activities. Seeking out a research lab early will be highly valuable experience and will provide you with some appreciation of what will be required as a graduate student. At Penn State there are many faculty who would be interested in having you assist them in their work. To learn more about their work see the Faculty Research Interests page. You might ask a faculty member whose course you enjoy, or your advisor, or someone whose research interests match your own, if they have any opportunities for you to get involved in research. You can get PSYCH 296 and PSYCH 496 Independent Study credits at the same time. (See the Research Experiences in Psychology page.) Planning ahead, as much as a semester or more, is important because faculty members usually have a series of studies underway. They often want you to make some preparation such as reading background papers or taking certain courses. They may also offer the best experience to those who are able to commit more than a semester to the research.

The value of each person’s research experiences varies greatly. A student will gain most if he or she completes the experiences by writing a paper, such as some would for an undergraduate thesis. Many graduate program require a sample of writing from applicants. The report of a completed research project is far more impressive than a simple course term paper. The best research reports are those which have gone through several revisions, with feedback by the research mentor at each phase.

5. Book Resources

There is a large annual volume published by the American Psychological association (or APA), Graduate Study in Psychology. Copies are available for viewing at the East Pattee desk, the Psychology Records Office (Room 130 Moore), and the Main Psychology Office (417-B Moore). This book gives basic information on all graduate programs in psychology at both the masters and the doctoral levels. An additional recommended text, Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical Psychology, by Sayette, Mayne, and Norcross has more specific information about clinical graduate programs around the country. Both the psychology Records Office and the undergraduate honor society in psychology, Psi Chi also usually have a collection of material about graduate programs that you may review.

6. Internet Resources

There is a variety of information (including links to the various programs) that may be accessed under US Psychology Ph.D. Programs.

More Important Resources

7. About Doctoral and Masters Resources

One might choose to enter a masters level program with the plan to transfer later to a doctoral program. Doctoral level programs vary, however, in the extent to which they give credit for a masters degree earned elsewhere.

On the topic of masters degrees, it should be pointed out that many helping professions offer somewhat limited opportunities to those who do not have a doctoral degree. Pennsylvania does not license psychologists at the masters level, but does license other mental health providers at the masters level. The nature of the license dictates how practitioners in private practice may present themselves (e.g., as “Psychologist” or “Therapist”). For more information on licensing criteria and how they vary from state to state, visit the Mental Health License Resources Web Site.  There is a variety of opportunities throughout Pennsylvania and in other states for Master’s level therapists in community mental health agencies and residential treatment facilities.  Other fields, such as social work, also offer many opportunities to masters level professionals (in the case of social work, the M.S.W.).

There are two doctorates in psychology: the Ph.D. and the Psy.D. The Ph.D. is the traditional advanced degree in clinical psychology and typically involves completing research projects for at least a master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation. A quality Ph.D. program will promote a balance of research and clinical training. The Psy.D. is a program that emphasizes preparation for applied work as a clinician. It is not a research-oriented degree. Psy.D. programs are often free-standing institutions known sometimes as Schools of Professional Psychology. They often (but not always) select students who already have several years of experience in clinical setting.

8. Course Selection

The undergraduate course selections made by a future clinical psychologist should be made thoughtfully. As you apply to Ph.D. programs you will find that the optimal undergraduate preparation will include some courses in research methods in psychology, mathematics through calculus, and multivariate statistics.

Plan your program to include elective courses that will be attractive to clinical graduate programs. Whether a B.A. or B.S. degree will be to your advantage depends on the emphasis of the individual graduate programs you apply to. The requirements of the B.A., and B.S. programs leave considerable latitude for choices by the student. With the help of an advisor, develop a general outline of the kind of program you want and make your selections within that framework. For example, you might wish to develop an emphasis on health, cultural issues, marriage and family, community issues, etc. Choose some courses that relate to that goal. Talk to people who are doing the kind of work you would like to do and get their suggestions about steps you should take. At the same time, try to build the broad foundation for learning. If you are unsure about the specific setting in which you wish to work, that is okay-just concentrate on building a solid foundation in course work and getting useful experience outside the classroom.

A Final Few Words

A final few words on selecting a graduate school for training in clinical psychology. You will most likely apply to several programs perhaps with some variation in terms of how selective they are. But, in general, apply to those which you have some reasonable chance of admission. Several steps can help you decide on where to apply. You can make use of the Psi Chi materials and books such as those mentioned earlier. Request application materials, outlines of programs, and lists of faculty with statements of their interests from schools. Take time to look at journals, or track down references in textbooks to see what programs have people doing work in the areas you are interested in. Check the Source Index of the Social Science Index to see what has been published recently by faculty at the institutions to which you are applying. You can write to faculty members for reprints, or check out books they have written from the library. Ask your advisor and other Penn State faculty about the places you are considering. Consider the question: Would this be a good place for me to study, if I am offered admission? Again, applying to graduate training in clinical psychology is a long-term commitment and this kind of planning takes time. Start your search as soon as possible. It can be fun as well as informative.