Grad School Timeline (Clinical Psychology)
While in a doctoral program, there is a question that we are asked time and time again: "Soo...how much longer are you going to be in school?" It can seem like students are in a doctoral program for a really long time (and we typically are), which is confusing for families and can leave undergraduate students uncertain about making the commitment to grad school. But the grad school timeline isn't as bad as it may sound at first, in part because we're not taking classes the entire time. Here, I want to summarize the timeline for a clinical psychology doctoral program, so families can have a better understanding of what is involved and so students considering going into a doctoral program can know more about what to expect.
Disclaimer: All doctoral programs vary, so the summary I provide may not be 100% accurate for all programs. I will discuss the timeline based on my knowledge of my own program and those of my colleagues, but it's up to applying students to find out more about the timeline for a specific program.
The Beginning (Year 1)
When first starting out in a doctoral program, the feeling should be pretty comparable to being an undergrad. The experience is heavy on classes, there is research involved (which, if you are now in grad school, you should have experience with already). Overall, the main difference at first is the level of demand that is involved. The classes are more difficult because professors have higher expectations, and the overall demands for time across classes and research are higher.
There are several challenges that students experience during this beginning phase. Productivity systems that worked well during undergrad may not scale well to the demands of a graduate program (which is why I aim to share some tips about productivity on this site). But perhaps the most difficult (and often easy to overlook) is the transition that will need to occur with relationships. Family and friends who have not been in a doctoral program often have difficulty understanding just how busy doctoral students are, and significant others may struggle with having to compete for your time. Everyone typically gets through these transitions just fine, but it does take some effort on the part of students to help make sure they happen smoothly (which is difficult to do when you're so busy you don't have time to give it much thought).
For clinical psychology, this beginning phase typically spans the first year. It's understood to be a year of transition, when students are adapting to the realities of graduate school.
During the first year, the main goal (along with adjusting) is to complete the proposal for a thesis project. Many people get "thesis" and "dissertation" confused, but they are different. Both are research studies, undertaken by the student under supervision of faculty, but the thesis is on a smaller scale. Students need to identify a study of interest, review with their adviser to determine if it's realistic or not, do the literature review, write up the introduction and methods, and defend the study in front of their committee (often the main adviser, and one other faculty member). The actual defense will likely be during the second year, but working on the proposal is a major focus for year 1.
The Transition (Years 2-3)
There is some variation between programs in regards to when exactly clinical experience starts, and how it is balanced with coursework. For my program, there is only a small decrease in the number of courses being taken during second year (though we did just decrease it a little more starting this year). But the main difference is the addition of clinical work, which for us starts during the summer between years 1 and 2.
Clinical work can be really difficult for students when they first start. It's a completely new experience, whereas classes are familiar from...well, all of the years of school since pre-K. Again, students find their way to work through it, but it does take time to learn how to balance preparing for sessions, being flexible during sessions, writing clinical notes, and so forth. Students also often struggle with feeling unprepared to start clinical work, though they'll eventually realize they're more prepared than they thought.
After about 2 years of hard work (or 3...more for a few, if life events delay things), it's time to defend the thesis! The defense occurs after the entire thesis study has been conducted, everything is written up and read by at least the "chair" of the committee (typically the primary adviser). For us, the defense includes giving a presentation summarizing the entire study (similar to what is seen at conferences, but more in-depth). Afterwards, the student receives questions from their committee (similar to questions/critiques that would be received at a conference), and the student needs to demonstrate an ability to respond appropriately. If the defense is successful, the student may have some final revisions to make on the document, but then they can turn everything in and confer their Master's degree! If students are following the ideal timeline for most programs, this occurs around the end of the second year.
After defending the thesis and receiving a Master's degree, the next hurdle for students is the comprehensive exam (comps for short, and sometimes called qualifying exams or quals). Comps can't be completed until the thesis has been defended, and it's also not possible to move on to the dissertation and internship stages until comps have been passed. If students are following the "standard" 5 year timeline, then comps happens during third year, but it often happens fourth year as well.
The exams differ significantly between programs. Some have a research paper, some have an oral component, and others require responding to unknown questions during a specified time (which is the case for my program). Overall, the focus is to test students on everything they've learned thus far from classes and clinical experience. By the time students take comps, they are typically done with all (or at least nearly all) classes, transitioning to more time focused on research and clinical work.
During third year, students are also typically on an externship (which is different from an internship; that comes later). Although second year is likely a mandated practicum (i.e., clinical experience placement) at the university, beginning third year students often have an option to go outside the university for their practicum. These externships are for one year at a time, and require about 20 hours/week (though there is some variation between practicum sites). Students typically have an externship every year from third year until they go onto internship. If it seems like students are constantly working at different sites, it's probably because they have a different externship each year.
The benefit of an externship is that students can typically work with their specific population of interest (for example, youth in a hospital setting), which is not always possible at the university. However, some students may opt to continue doing their clinical work at the university, if it's appropriate for them and the university allows for that.
The Ongoing Experience (Year 4+)
By now, "students" are done with classes (making them not typical students, in the sense of what people think when we say we're students). The focus is almost exclusively on research and clinical work, and students begin to prepare for the last steps of the program. Depending on the program, students often say that fourth year and beyond are some of the "easier" years. However, what classifies as "easier" varies from person to person. From my experience talking to fellow doctoral students, many seem to see the increased flexibility in scheduling and more time spent with research topics and clinical populations of interest as making things more enjoyable and motivating. Unfortunately, it doesn't really get "easier" in terms of time working per week (and if anything, always seems to increase, unless students are careful to monitor themselves).
This one depends entirely on the program. Doctoral students in clinical psychology receive a stipend and tuition waivers (almost always), which effectively means they are paid while in the program. This payment is in return for hours that students are assigned to work (which is still part of the student's training). However, these payments typically do not last for the entire duration of a student's enrollment in the program. Funding can range from the first three years to the first five (which may be the end of the program for those really on top of things). For those of us only funded through third year (which is the case for my program, though there is work being done to hopefully extend it to fifth year), then students are responsible for finding an alternative income. This can admittedly be difficult, as I learned, because we're in the middle of training by this point in the timeline (so we're over qualified for entry-level positions, but not yet licensed or doctorate-level).
Once comps are finished, the next step is to finish the dissertation proposal (which is where I am in my program at the time of writing). The dissertation proposal needs to be fully defended before students can apply to internship (at least in my program, not sure if others are different). Dissertations are different from theses in that they are: a) much more detailed and in-depth, and b) need to be an original contribution to the field (whereas a thesis can be a replication of a previous study). There are also more people on the committee (2 for thesis, 5 for dissertation in my program), but otherwise the overall process is similar to the thesis.
After students successfully defend their dissertation proposal (again, this is true for my program but I can't promise it's the same for others), they are then allowed to apply for internship. If students are really on-top of everything throughout the program, it's possible for this to occur during fourth year. However, it's also common for students to have various delays that may push it into fifth year. Some of it comes down to timing, with internship applications due around this time of year (November), so if students aren't ready for it then they need to wait until the following year.
Internship is different from externship in that it is much more in-depth and has a more rigorous application process. In some ways, the internship application process is reminiscent of the application process to get into grad school. Students need to identify the programs they are interested in, prepare materials, apply, and go to interviews they are invited to attend. This is all done through a central organization, which handles the process, because there is a match system involved. Similar to residency for physicians, doctoral students rank the sites they are most interested in (after going on interviews), the sites rank the students they are most interested in, and then the match process tells students where they are going (if they match). The site they get is where they are committed to going to.
It's a very stressful process, but it has some benefits once students are on internship, which I'll talk about below.
The Wrap Up (Year 5?)
Again, similar to the thesis defense but with a larger committee. More work is involved in completing the dissertation, and this is often where people get stuck in programs. In fact, there is a classification for students who have completed everything except their final dissertation defense: ABD (All But Dissertation). Delays are fairly common because it is very difficult to complete a large research project while on internship, which is why some people try to finish a lot of the work prior to going on internship, or some end up finishing it after internship. Fully defending the dissertation is only one of the two requirements for the Ph.D., the other being completion of internship.
While externships are typically 20 hours/week and unpaid, internships are more like proper jobs. They are full time, come with pay (and often benefits), and require the student to commit the vast majority of the week to their work at the site. The actual work involved depends on where the student is, but suffice it to say that it's a lot of work, which is why it's difficult to complete the dissertation during this time. But, it's often the first time students begin to make more money and have greater benefits for their clinical work, which can be very satisfying and motivating. Like externships, they last for one year.
So, dissertation is defended and internship is complete. Congrats! You can confer your Ph.D. But is that the end? Well, yes and no. It's the end of the Ph.D. process, and allows moving towards getting a long-term career position. However, our work will always involve clinical work, research, and so forth, so the overall work won't be too much different. Plus, there are still a few requirements before licensure, but I think that's enough for this post!
In summary, here is the timeline for a doctoral program in clinical psychology:
Adjust to program
Begin Clinical Work
Apply to Internship
Last Year (or More)
Have any questions about the timeline for a doctoral program in clinical psychology? Does this not match with the timeline for your program? Let me know your questions/thoughts in the comments!