How To: Choose a Graduate Program in (Clinical) Psychology
When undergraduate students first decide that they want to aim for a graduate degree, many have the same question: which one? PhD tends to be the first thing that pops into the minds of these students, but a PhD isn't always the best degree for what they want to do. Here's a brief explanation of the different degrees available within the psychology (specifically clinical) area:
As I mentioned, the PhD is the first graduate degree that many students think to aim for. However, many of these students are interested primarily in clinical work, and a PhD is generally not the best route for those with no research interests. Professionals with a PhD are generally expected to be involved in producing research alongside possibly doing clinical work. Researcher and clinician are just two of the roles professionals with a PhD are expected to fill, though. To get a better sense of what's required in a PhD program (and really, what's expected throughout the career of someone with a PhD), take a look at my recent post on what doctoral programs entail.
Historically, the PsyD degree has been considered a doctoral-level degree for those interested primarily in clinical work (with little to no interest in producing research). In many ways, PsyD programs are still focused in this way, but they now include more training in research. The goal is to train students to be smart consumers of clinical research, but ultimately it means that PsyD programs are beginning to look more like PhD programs. Something to note is that some settings (e.g., some hospitals) will generally prefer PhD candidates over PsyD candidates for a position, even if the role doesn't require research. This isn't always the case, and there is arguably a change occurring in favor of accepting more PsyD candidates. But, to be safe, you may want to talk to established professionals in your specific area of interest to get a sense of whether a PsyD will be a good pathway to get into that career.
A master's degree is becoming an increasingly popular and viable option for those interested in doing clinical work. However, what field you get your master's degree in definitely matters. A master's degree in general psychology, for the most part, will limit the job opportunities that you have (especially for clinical work). Most people I have worked with who have gone into a master's of psychology program did so with the intent of getting a doctorate degree afterwards. If you know that you only want a master's-level degree, and you're interested in doing clinical work, then a master's of social work (MSW) is probably a better route to go. MSW's get a lot of different options for careers, and the therapy they do is similar to what a PhD or PsyD clinician will do. (A major difference is MSW's aren't involved in the in-depth assessments that doctorate-level clinicians can do). However, there is one exception to an MSW being better than a master's in psychology: school psychology. As far as I know, school psychology still only requires a master's degree rather than a doctorate, and is the only position in which a person can legally have the title of "psychologist" without a doctorate degree.
So, you've decided what type of degree you want. The next question is, how do you identify a program? There are many different materials you can look at. First, there are books made available every year (by groups like Kaplan) that detail different accredited programs in the country and give some general information about them (e.g., location, concentrations, research vs. clinical focus). These can be very useful for narrowing down a list of potential programs, but they aren't great for initially identifying the programs.
To get an initial list of programs, I recommend looking at the different APA divisions. Many divisions have a list of programs that they consider suitable for preparing a student to go into that division's area of specialization. For example, my interests are in pediatric psychology and division 54 (Society of Pediatric Psychology) has a list of programs available that they consider good for students interested in going into pediatric psych.
Advice from faculty in your area of interest is also beneficial. If you have a faculty member at your current university that is doing the work you want to do eventually, talk to them about other programs they know about. Faculty generally have many colleagues in programs within their own fields, and they can give tips on some good sites for what you're interested in pursuing.
Ultimately deciding which programs to apply to is difficult. My recommendation is to identify an initial list of sites, then go through their websites and a book that summarizes programs. Cross out the ones that have programs that you feel wouldn't be a great fit (e.g., too research or clinically focused, no faculty doing active research in the specialty you're interested in). Then, if you need to reduce it further, consider some things like location, cost of living, and so on. Ideally, you'll get a list of about 8-16 schools that you consider worth applying to. The exact number varies from person to person, but I consider that to be a reasonable range.
When it actually comes to the application phase, there is something to keep in mind: you most likely won't get interviews at most programs you apply to, and that's not necessarily a reflection of your eligibility. Programs take many things into account, one of the key ones being fit with the program, and it may simply be that they didn't think you would be a good fit. Usually faculty are a good judge of fit, so if they don't think the fit would be good then chances are you'll be happy that you aren't going there! (The program itself may be fine, you just may not enjoy the experience they offer). In addition, there are a lot of applicants every year, and it could be that there just happened to be a lot of equally qualified applicants applying to the same program to work with the same person. In that case, you may be eligible and just had some bad luck, in which case applying again after getting some additional experience for you CV may be a good idea. Clinical psychology programs are among the hardest to get into (up there with law and veterinarian school), so rejection from some programs you apply to is pretty much inevitable even for the top candidates.
Which brings up the final question I want to address: "if I don't get into the doctoral program I'm interested in, should I just go for a master's?" There are differing opinions on this. From my perspective, if you know that you want a PhD or PsyD then you should go for that program. Getting a master's degree first generally adds at least one year to your overall timeline (and doctoral programs already take most people 6-7 years), so I suggest getting some additional experience and trying again next year. That also saves you money, because you have to pay for a master's program!
If you ultimately get offers from multiple schools and can't decide which (if any) to accept, well...that's something that you have to work through on your own, as there are a lot of things to take into consideration.
Have questions about how to choose a program? Are you debating between different programs and want a better understanding of the differences between them? Let me know in the comments!