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Getting Into Graduate School in Clinical Psychology

By Lynn Friedman, Ph.D.
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 25, 2004; 10:17 AM

Do you want to become a clinical psychologist, but are concerned about what it takes to become one? What does a clinical psychologist do? How are they trained and how might one go about making a successful application for a coveted graduate school slot? You should immediately begin to familiarize yourself with what being a clinical psychologist entails.

What Does a Clinical Psychologist Do?

Clinical psychologists are trained to provide psychotherapy and assessment, to conduct clinical research and to teach. Clinical psychologists work in a wide range of settings and can be most commonly found in psychology departments within university's, departments of psychiatry, psychiatric hospitals, community mental health centers, pediatric hospitals and private practice. During training, clinical psychologists are exposed to a wide array of therapeutic frameworks and intervention strategies.

How are Clinical Psychologists Trained?

After earning a bachelor's degree, clinical psychologists devote an average of six and a half years to earning their doctorates. Typically, this training entails coursework, clinical practice and internships, the conduct of actual, original clinical research and often, though not always, teaching experience. Extensive coursework is devoted to learning about theories of psychotherapy, statistics, data analysis, research methodology and clinical assessment. During graduate school, students evaluate and treat patients, in psychotherapy, under close supervision of experienced faculty. With patient consent, students present video or audio tapes of their work to experienced faculty. In order to earn a Ph.D., each student must complete a year-long clinical internship in which they provide direct patient care. Students also participate in ongoing research with a team. All students must design and implement a significant, original research project for their dissertations. Solid writing skills are critical to this kind of training. Beyond research, many programs require students to teach a course at the university level.

How Do You Apply for a Competitive Graduate School Slot?

Doctoral programs in clinical psychology are among the most competitive in the country. In order to gain admittance to these programs, students need high grades, relevant coursework, high GRE's, clinical experience, and most importantly, research experience. It is also important to participate in pre-professional activities such as the Psychology Honor Society.

What Kinds of Course Work Do You Need to Take?

Abnormal psychology and personality theory allow students to test out their interests in clinical psychology. In order to compete for the slots at a graduate school, course work in experimental psychology is essential. Psychobiology and neuroscience, cognitive psychology, sensation and perception, experimental design, research methodology, statistics and data analysis are requisites to entering graduate school. Also, taking additional coursework in statistics, science and math can prove useful both in gaining admission and staying ahead of the game once one gets into graduate school. Earning high grades are important. In fact, most clinical psychology graduate students have a 3.4 grade point average or higher.

What GRE Scores are Required to Get into Graduate School?

Most entering graduate students have a GRE score of at least 1200. Many of the more competitive programs have GRE cut-offs at 1300. Since doing well on the boards is important, students should seriously consider take a preparatory course at a reputable test-prep company such as Kaplan.

Do You Need Clinical Experience?

Although not required for every school, clinical experience can be useful to determine whether or not you are serious about a career in clinical psychology. If you don't enjoy clinical work, this may be a sign that you should consider a clinical research program in psychology or in an adjacent field such as epidemiology or experimental psychology. Clinical experience also serves as testimony of the seriousness of your intent to pursue and complete graduate study. The most important determinant as to whether you will be accepted into graduate school is the quality of your research experience. Ideally, students should participate in research throughout most of their undergraduate experience and they should be able to talk intelligently about their research hypotheses. They can acquire clinical research experience in an array of ways, including internships and summer opportunities through places like the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Also, writing a senior honors thesis can be a valuable learning experience. If your undergraduate institution offers undergraduate research grants and/or holds undergraduate research conferences, you can learn a great deal by participating in them.

How Do You Learn More About Psychology?

To learn more about the field, participate in pre-professional activities such as your university psychology club, the Psychology Honor Society (Psi Chi) and consider joining the American Psychological Association as a student member.

Editor's note: This article by Lynn Friedman, Ph.D., was acquired by washingtonpost.com on April 21, 2003.

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