Clinical Impact Statement: This manuscript provides essential information to potential clinical and counseling psychology PhD program applicants to assist them in making themselves stronger candidates for acceptance. Specific guidance is provided to aid applicants coming from smaller undergraduate institutions or universities lacking clinical programs and research opportunities.
This article details the authors’ experiences pertaining to applying to counseling and clinical PhD programs, and offers advice for students, particularly those coming from smaller undergraduate institutions or institutions lacking clinical psychology programs, who may be considering a similar training path.
Heather Muir graduated with a BA in psychology from the University of New Hampshire in 2014. She then worked as a research coordinator in a social psychology lab. Subsequently, she worked as a behavior technician and program manager for children with diagnoses on the Autism Spectrum before applying and accepting admittance to a clinical psychology PhD program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Alyssa Clements-Hickman graduated with a BS in psychology from Augusta University (formerly Augusta State University). Immediately after earning her bachelor's degree, she enrolled in the Clinical Psychology Master’s Program at Augusta University. She worked at the university counseling center and as a research assistant after earning her master’s degree. She worked for two years with her master’s degree before applying for and accepting admittance into the Counseling Psychology PhD Program at the University of Kentucky.
As students pursue their undergraduate educations, there are a number of steps they can take to help position themselves on a career trajectory that includes doctoral-level training in counseling or clinical psychology. A few suggestions are outlined below.
Join psychology clubs/organizations.
Heather: Getting involved in psychology clubs or organizations is something students can do early in their undergraduate careers to determine pathways for success. Clubs such as Psi Chi Honor Society, a psychology club, Active Minds, and other psychology related organizations on campus are helpful in learning about psychology careers and making connections with more experienced students. These student mentors can guide newer students to specific research labs and classes, as well as offer suggestions on topics ranging from how to do an honors thesis to how to apply to graduate school. Making connections with other students is valuable in orienting yourself to a specific program.
Heather: Getting involved in research is one of the best things you can do to increase your chances of getting into a doctoral program (Littleford, Buxton, Bucher, Simon-Dack, & Yang, 2018). However, locating research opportunities at a smaller university is a challenge we both experienced. We recommend being open to opportunities that may be outside of your area of interest. For example, to gain research experience I worked in a social psychology lab studying celebrity worship throughout my undergraduate program. While the research was clearly not clinical in nature, working in this lab helped me learn how to plan and execute a study. Working in this lab also helped me obtain my first poster presentation for a professional conference, where I was able to meet several clinical and counseling psychologists.
Find a good mentor.
Alyssa: It is also important to form close relationships with professors and professionals in the field. Mentors can have a strong impact on our future career paths. Mentors serve several psychosocial functions, including role modeling, acceptance, and guidance. I was fortunate to have several great mentors who guided me through the process of applying to doctoral programs. The best mentors with whom I have worked provided me with unwavering support and encouragement to help me reach my goals. They also provided me with honest feedback about my standing, which helped me make informed decisions throughout the process. This honesty should be bi-directional in nature. That is, it is important to find a mentor with whom you feel comfortable being open and honest. Additionally, I have found that a good mentor is available and dedicated to helping students achieve their goals. One of the mentors I appreciate the most met with me weekly, and helped me make crucial decisions about my career options, such as whether to pursue a master’s degree.
Some students may matriculate directly into doctoral programs; for those who do not, there are a variety of options available to make good use of the time in between earning a baccalaureate degree and applying to a doctoral program. We will each share our own experiences with this process below.
Obtain a master’s degree.
Alyssa: After completing my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I was unsure whether or not I wanted to pursue doctoral training. I also knew that I had not yet acquired the credentials to be a competitive candidate for doctoral programs and felt unsure regarding the best path to take. I ultimately decided to enroll in a clinical psychology master’s program. In my experience, taking the master’s route has the potential to strengthen an application, but the time and energy spent earning the degree must be used wisely.
Master’s degrees are generally viewed positively by doctoral programs (Littleford, et al., 2018). Nevertheless, it seems important to mention that obtaining a master’s degree is more likely to increase the chances of being admitted into a counseling PhD program compared to a clinical program (Littleford et al., 2018). Yet, both clinical and counseling PhD programs value research experience (Pashak, Handal, & Ubinger, 2012). Attending a master’s program that cultivates positive attitudes toward research has the potential to increase confidence and future research activity. Thus, I recommend that prospective applicants look for a master’s programs that will provide plenty of opportunities to obtain formal research experience. My master’s program offered a research sequence, which focused on helping students learn to plan and execute an empirical study. We were also encouraged to assist with faculty research projects and attend research conferences. These experiences during my master’s program allowed me to narrow down my research interest, which was helpful for applying to doctoral programs.
On the other hand, acquiring additional debt prior to starting a doctoral program can be a hindrance to future plans. Thus, a potential downside to earning a master’s degree is the additional cost. Some master’s programs offer funding, which I believe should be an important factor for people considering this path. The program I attended offered various research and teaching assistantships that covered tuition and included a stipend. I was able to work as a teaching assistant for assessment courses, which allowed me to gain additional professional experience.
I was also able to transfer several of my courses from my master’s program, which has saved me time and money throughout my doctoral training. Importantly, not all doctoral programs are willing to transfer credits; thus, I recommend that prospective students keep this in mind when considering this route.
Taking time “off” to get research experience.
Heather: Taking time to work after completion of one’s bachelor’s degree, if utilized with intention, can serve as one way to make oneself a stronger applicant for clinical or counseling doctoral programs. I took three years to work before going on to my PhD. The first year I worked as a research coordinator in a social psychology lab researching relationships. This was the same lab in which I had volunteered during my undergraduate career. Although it was not a clinical lab, I earned a few co-authorships on publications and learned much more about psychology research. Ideally, before applying to a clinical program, one would have clinical research experience. If this is not a possibility, psychology research of any kind can only strengthen your application. Research experience is vital to getting into a clinical or counseling PhD program.
After working as a research coordinator, I felt satisfied with my research experience and wanted to switch my focus to gaining more clinical experience before applying to a clinical program. I spent two years working with children with Autism Spectrum diagnoses. First, as a lead behavior technician working one-on-one with children providing applied behavior analysis therapy, then as a program manager in the same clinic utilizing more clinical oversight skills. Working with a clinical population can help you determine if you are still interested in clinical psychology and will add to your application.
Taking time “off” to get clinical experience.
Heather: Although, it has been found that PhD programs place less importance on prior clinical experience than PsyD programs, attaining some background in clinical work prior to applying to doctoral programs in clinical or counseling psychology can help make for stronger applications (Pashak et al., 2012). “Clinical experience” is a broad term. This can range from working as a secretary in a psychological services center, to working in a research lab using a clinical population as participants (e.g. an ADHD lab), to working as a behavior technician, to working with a clinical homeless population as an assistant case manager. Although it may seem daunting to find one of these positions without a master’s degree, it is possible. Any formal interaction you have with a clinical population, including volunteer work, may strengthen your application, if you are able to highlight the skills and insights you gained. Sometimes such positions are not listed on job sites and it is wise to reach out to directors to ask if any jobs or volunteer positions are available. It is possible that a volunteer position could be created for you; it never hurts to ask! Be proactive.
When the time comes to apply to a doctoral program, it is important to keep a few useful strategies in mind.
Heather & Alyssa: Counseling and clinical psychology PhD programs are extremely popular. This makes them more difficult, statistically, to get accepted into than other psychology programs (Norcross, Ellis, & Sayette, 2010). It was important for us to remain optimistic yet realistic about our chances of getting in directly after graduation from our respective undergraduate institutions. Many who apply to these programs will have high GPAs, relatively good GRE scores, ample clinical research experience, outstanding letters of recommendation, and clinical experience of some sort. Being strategic while considering when to submit applications is important, because completing testing, applications, and interviews can be emotionally and cognitively taxing and financially burdensome. Both of us spent a few years between our undergraduate careers and our PhD programs ensuring that we met these standards before applying. It is definitely possible to get accepted right out of your undergraduate program, if you have a competitive application. Coming from a smaller undergraduate institution or a research institution without a clinical program meant it took a bit longer to “check these boxes” for us. There are various routes one could take to achieve the needed credentials and competencies, including pursuit of a master’s degree or obtaining research and clinical experiences other ways.
Prior to applying, we also recommend doing some research about the programs in which you are interested to be informed about your likelihood of being accepted. The Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology (Norcross, Mayne, & Sayette, 2018), which provides in-depth profiles on hundreds of programs, is a good resource.
Prepare for the GRE.
Alyssa: The Graduate Records Exam (GRE) is a requirement across most clinician and counseling doctoral programs (Littleford et al., 2018). Unfortunately, it is also a frequently cited barrier to being admitted into a doctoral program (Littleford et al., 2018). Programs typically post average GRE scores of successful applicants, which can be useful for knowing what scores for which to aim. I took the GRE numerous times before earning a score that would make me competitive for doctoral programs. It was difficult for me to find a study method that worked for me. I found Magoosh’s GRE prep course and Manhattan Prep’s GRE flash cards to be the most helpful resources. It seems important to mention that these materials will likely not work for everyone, and I recommend researching the numerous test materials that are currently available. Additionally, test prep programs such as Magoosh should not be a substitute for working through actual Educational Testing Service problems. Finally, some schools require or recommend that applicants take the GRE psychology test. Unlike the general GRE, which is offered regularly, GRE subject tests are only offered three times a year (i.e., September, October, and April). Thus, it is important to plan ahead for this test.
Connect your experiences.
Heather: When I applied to clinical psychology doctoral programs, I had no clinical research experience due to the opportunities I had been given during my undergraduate career and after graduation. I was aware that this would be a negative aspect of my application when applying, especially when many of the other applicants had these credentials. With this in mind, I was strategic with my essays and in selecting the professors to which I applied for mentorship. I had ample research experience in the romantic relationships realm of social psychology. I was interested in relationships in general and interpersonal factors in clinical psychology. I applied to programs that housed faculty whose research examines the therapeutic relationship. My experiences in romantic relationships research had some overlapping features with the work these labs were pursuing. It was important for me to highlight these overlaps and explain why the skills I had would add to the research these faculty were already doing. Fitting my social psychology background with a specific clinical psychology lab is likely one aspect of my application that counteracted the fact that I had only social psychology research experience. Homing in on specific faculty, reading up on their research, and writing your cover letters in ways that tailor your experiences to fit their particular interests, are important ways to stand out to clinical and counseling psychology PhD programs.
However a student gets there, the path to a successful clinical or counseling psychology admission is a long and challenging one. By thinking strategically about the process, students at each stage of their educational journey can set themselves up for future success. Our hope is that these suggestions will help students pursuing graduate clinical training in achieving their career goals.
Cite This Article
Muir, H. & Clements-Hickman, A. (2018). The uphill climb: A student’s guide to gaining relevant skills for acceptance to clinical/counseling psychology doctoral programs. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 53(2), 33-35.
Littleford, L. N., Buxton, K., Bucher, M. A., Simon-Dack, S. L., & Yang, K. L. (2018). Psychology doctoral program admissions: What master’s and undergraduate-level students need to know. Teaching of Psychology, 45(1), 75-83. doi:10.1177/0098628317745453
Norcross, J. C., Ellis, J. L., & Sayette, M. A. (2010). Getting in and getting money: A comparative analysis of admission standards, acceptance rates, and financial assistance across the research practice continuum in clinical psychology programs. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 4(2), 99-104. doi:10.1037/a0014880
Norcross, J. C., Mayne, T. J., & Sayette, M. A. (2018). Insider’s guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology (2018 ⁄ 2019 ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Pashak, T. J., Handal, P. J., & Ubinger, M. (2012). Practicing what we preach: How are admissions decisions made for clinical psychology graduate programs, and what do students need to know? Psychology, 3(1), 1-6. doi:10.4236/psych.2012.31001