Reflections and Advice for Future Clinical Psychology Graduate School Applicants From a 2018-19 Cycle Applicant
This post was written by Shruti Shankar Ram, who is the EAT lab’s outgoing lab manager and will be starting her PhD program in Fall 2019 under the mentorship of Dr. April Smith at Miami University. Shruti also applied during the 2016-2017 cycle and then again during this past cycle (2018-2019). Miami University was her top choice program. Persistence pays off!
While my time at the EAT lab may soon be coming to an end, it marks the beginning of my graduate school career, and the culmination of a successful round of clinical psychology doctoral applications and interviews. Potential applicants for psychology graduate school programs often need to seek out a lot of information on the application process on their own.
Luckily, I had the support and advice from graduate student mentors and professors who helped me on my journey, and I have been able to reflect on some of the things other potential graduate school applicants should know before undertaking the process of applying. Please keep in mind that it is important to consider several factors when deciding which programs to apply for, whether it be doctoral or master’s level programs, but the advice given here will primarily pertain to clinical psychology PhD programs:
1. Research your potential mentor(s) thoroughly, and have as solid of an understanding of your research interest as possible. Especially for PhD programs, it is important to consider your potential mentor more so than the program or university itself, as the work you do in their lab will define your career and PhD training. Spend time thinking about your specific research interests and which mentors will align best. This will also make writing your statement of purpose much easier, and faculty are pretty good at telling when you have a genuine interest in the work and a good fit with their lab. The places I interviewed were the places where my research interests fit best with the research interests of the mentor, regardless of my current skillset or what I'd need to learn after arriving at the program. I think partly this is just because it makes it a lot easier to talk with the mentors about follow-up studies and you're more interested in papers they've probably read as well, so it's just easier to interview. Also be up front with POIs about your research interests, and don't try to change your interests to fit with the lab in the hopes it gets you an acceptance. You're going to be spending several years in this program, so you want to make sure you're doing work you enjoy. Also, they can tell a student who is truly passionate about what they do from one who isn't.
2. Make sure you REALLY want it before you apply. The application process for PhD programs is way too stressful to just do it without extensive thought and planning. Despite the common misconception, you do not necessarily need a PhD to treat patients and be a therapist. As I want to pursue a career in research and academia, I only applied to PhD programs in Clinical Psychology. However, if I wanted to primarily be a practitioner, I would have considered a master’s degree such as a Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) or Master’s in Counseling Psychology (M.S. or M.Ed.). A PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) is another alternative to a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) for those oriented more towards therapy, and offers more opportunities for higher level practice administration and supervision, but does typically involve more debt. Another important consideration is that PhD programs are typically fully funded, but PsyD and Master’s programs are not, but they also accept far fewer applicants because of this. Think carefully about what your long-term goals are and what degree might make more sense for you, your interests, and finances. If being a clinician is your primary interest, opt for a psychotherapy program that's literally half the amount of time and effort. So while you may have more financial debt, you will have less of a time debt.
3. Talk with anyone in your current department who will advise you. Talk to graduate students, faculty you've worked with, faculty you haven't worked with, etc. Be respectful of their time because everyone is busy, but I asked for as many opinions as I could get. Current graduate students can help you identify potential mentors, assist with personal statements, mock interview you, and potentially even go over offer letters with you. It can be really helpful and insightful to get the assistance of someone who has been through the same process.
4. START EARLY. Everyone that applies to graduate school will tell you to start early, but seriously, start early! Writing statements of purpose and studying for and taking the GRE can be time consuming, so work ahead so that you have everything ready far in advance of your deadline.
5. DO sweat the small stuff. Psychology PhD programs have an acceptance rate of around 7%. Before I applied, I had no idea it was more difficult to be accepted into a PhD program than it was to be accepted into medical school. Because most PhD programs only accept about 5-8 students per year, and each lab typically accepts one student, even little things can make a big difference in your application. Think realistically to make sure your GPA, GRE scores, strong letters of recommendation, research experience in your CV, and number of posters/publications are up to the standard of the graduate schools you are applying to before you apply. PhD programs are getting more and more competitive, so it is becoming more common for people to take years off to work and get research experiences before applying and entering PhD programs.
6. Apply to as many schools and POIs as you can without sacrificing too much of your research interests. As PhD programs are so competitive, it is a good idea to maximize your chances by applying to as many programs as possible. I was advised to apply to at least around 11-15, and I ultimately applied to 13. That may seem like a lot, but with the amount of luck that goes into this process, you need to maximize your chances. It's pretty common to apply to many and then only get 3-5 interviews. There are many individuals with strong applications, but who only apply to 2-3 programs, which considerably lowers their chances. If you have a niche interest, it is a good idea to apply to programs of both your primary and secondary research interest, as long as the labs will allow you to study both.
7. There's a lot of luck and connections that go into this process. Because PhD programs are so competitive, small things like connections can make a big difference. Potential mentors talk to several students, and sometimes they might want to take all of them but just can't. Network as much as possible by attending conferences and making a note of all talks and poster presentations given by the labs you are applying to – attend them and introduce yourself and your intention to apply to both the P.I. AND their graduate students. Everyone in the lab typically has some say in the application and interview process, so make a good impression and network with all lab members you see from those labs!
8. BE RESILIENT. When I interviewed at doctoral programs, a common answer I received when asking potential mentors about what they were looking for in applicants is resilience. The whole process of applying to psychology doctoral programs can be disheartening, and rejection is inevitable – it may take several rounds to be accepted to a program. Not everyone is ready at the same time to start graduate school, so do not be afraid to take time off to get more research experience if needed. I first applied to doctoral programs my senior year in college, and did not get accepted until I applied again two years after graduating and working at the EAT lab during that time. Working at the EAT lab allowed me to develop and refine my research interests and has set me up for success in graduate school, and I have no regrets, no matter how much the initial rejection stung. Initial rejections will pay off in the long-run, as long as you keep working and trusting in the process.
If you are planning to undertake the process of applying to psychology doctoral programs – good luck! Remember to not only work hard, but show yourself self-compassion during this process. It is impressive to even apply for these programs! No matter how difficult it may seem to get into a doctoral program, if clinical psychology and research are truly your career goals, keep working towards those goals and you will get there. Hard work and persistence pay off!