Are you considering applying to PhD programs in clinical psychology? The field of clinical psychology can be stimulating, rewarding, and might be exactly where you belong. However, it is important to understand the realities of this profession before ending up in a program or career that is not what you bargained for. Read on to learn some of the factors you might want to consider when making a decision.
What are the realities of a PhD?
The biggest challenge with pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology is the competitiveness of admissions to clinical psychology PhD programs. Many programs receive hundreds of applications and accept only 2-10 percent of applicants. Additionally, applicants may not realize exactly what to expect from such a program. For example, PhD programs in clinical psychology are almost always research-focused. They usually espouse a philosophy known as the “scientist-practitioner” model, meaning that they put science (research) first, and practice (training in providing therapy) second. Applicants are most often expected to have research experience.
Examine your motivations.
Despite its challenges, there are situations when pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology may be the best next step in your professional and academic pursuits. It may be worth your time to consider your motivations for pursuing a PhD, just to make sure that it really is the option that will make you the most fulfilled overall.
In an article on psychology graduate school, a writer for the American Psychological Association lists several “bad reasons” one might be drawn to a PhD – in other words, reasons that might not make you the happiest in a PhD program long-term. Some of these reasons are:
- Just wanting to help people (there are many ways to help people that require much less training)
- Wanting to be rich and/or be able to say you have a PhD (clinical psychologists don’t always make as much money now as they used to, and teaching positions are difficult to get)
- Wanting to understand yourself (a degree in psychology will not solve all of your personal issues, and is not the same as going to therapy yourself)
The APA article also mentions “good reasons” to get a PhD – reasons that hopefully mean you will ultimately be happier in a PhD program than on another path. These reasons include having a passion for psychological research, and having specific areas within psychology that you want to learn more about.
What are some alternatives?
Many people interested in psychology or therapy think of a PhD as their only option. However, depending on your area of interest, there are many related programs that may allow you to pursue exactly the career you want without some of the difficulties of a PhD. Here are some graduate programs to consider:
- Masters in Counseling (MA/MS)
If you want to provide therapy to clients, a masters in counseling is a great option. A masters typically takes 2-3 years to complete, and includes an internship year prior to licensing. Masters programs typically focus primarily on training for working with clients, and the research component is often minimal. Following the program and internship, you would be eligible for licensure as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), or other similar designation depending on the program and state.
The field of counseling has a distinct history from the field of clinical psychology, but in practice the fields are very similar today. However, be aware that while it is common to become a licensed provider with a masters in counseling, a masters in clinical psychology is usually only a step on the way to a PhD or PsyD, and would not qualify you for licensure.
American Counseling Association
American Mental Health Counselors Association
Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
- Masters in Social Work (MSW)
A masters in social work is another great option for those interested in providing therapy to clients. A MSW may also fit well if you would like to work with agencies and in communities, working more holistically with clients, families, and organizations. Doctoral-level social work programs are also available for those interested in social work research.
Organization: National Association of Social Workers
- PsyD in Clinical or Counseling Psychology
If you like the idea of a doctoral-level program but aren’t especially interested in research, consider looking into PsyD programs. These are doctoral-level programs that take around the same amount of time as PhD programs, but emphasize clinical practice training over research. Rather than the “scientist-practitioner” model, PsyDs usually espouse a “practitioner-scholar” model, putting practice training first, and scholarly and research work second. They are often slightly less competitive than PhD programs, and the license designation is the same as that of a PhD: Clinical Psychologist. However, note that PsyD programs are usually NOT funded, and offer minimal scholarships. Thus, the cost can be quite high. If a PsyD sounds like a good fit, however, look into scholarship and assistantship opportunities, as they do exist.
Organization: American Psychological Association (APA) (for both PhD and PsyD)
- Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT)
MFT programs are masters-level programs similar to MSW and counseling programs. As the name suggests, they tend to focus more on training for relationship and family issues in therapy, but MFTs are licensed to provide individual therapy as well, just like LPCs, LMHCs, and MSWs. There are doctoral programs in marriage and family therapy as well, though one is not required for licensure.
Organization: American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
- School Psychology
Would you like to provide services in schools? School psychologists do just that. They typically work with youth on mental health, learning, and behavior, and often collaborate closely with parents and other members of a school team. There are both masters and doctoral programs in school psychology, and both involve a year-long internship similar to other psychology-related programs. School psychologists are usually credentialed at the state level, although the National Association of School Psychologists also has a national certification process.
Organization: National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
- PhD in Counseling Psychology
PhD programs in counseling psychology are quite similar to PhDs in clinical psychology. However, while clinical psychology programs lean toward the study of more severe psychopathologies, counseling psychology PhDs often focus more on life transitions, relationships, vocational guidance, etc. Additionally, while still highly competitive, PhD programs in counseling psychology tend to be slightly easier to get into than those in clinical psychology.
Organization: Society of Counseling Psychology (APA Division 17)
As you make your decision and consider your options, keep in mind that psychology and related fields are incredibly diverse and flexible. Try to notice if you are placing value judgments on any of these options. If you are, just notice that and maybe ask yourself if those judgments are accurate. It would be a shame to close off options for yourself just because of misinformation, incorrect assumptions, or insufficient awareness of your own interests. As you consider, ask yourself what path will bring you the most happiness, fulfillment, and peace.