First of all the sad truth is that it is now extremely difficult to get into university-based Clinical Psychology PhD programs. I have heard that these programs are more difficult to get into than medical school (another option for graduate training that is outside the scope of this discussion). Many, if not most, students wanting to get doctoral training in Clinical Psychology will by necessity have to go to a freestanding professional school.  Given this reality I have the following advice: 

  1. First, if you are a straight A student who aced the GREs by all means apply to as many good university-based programs as you can afford. Your chances of getting in will also be enhanced if you are interesting to the people who are on the admissions committee for the program. This might mean being familiar with faculty research, having a clear idea of what research you would like to pursue, being bi-lingual, having a multi-cultural background etc. there are many books and websites devoted to strategies to help you get in to graduate school. For psychology perhaps the best is from the APA: http://www.apa.org/education/grad/applying.aspx

  2. If you have a decent gpa and GRE scores you should at least apply to a few university clinical programs. You will increase your chances of getting into a program if you apply to programs in out of the way places. Rather than applying to UC Berkeley, University of Minnesota, Stanford, etc., think about state universities in Idaho, Montana, Alabama, Oklahoma, Iowa, etc. These are all excellent solid programs and you will get a great education. Many graduate school bound students will flock to either the East or West coasts, or major university towns. You may have less competition trying to get into lesser-known places.
     
  3. Only apply to APA-approved programs. I am no fan of the APA, but they have a stranglehold on the profession and hold the key to entering the psychology ‘guild’. Attending an APA program will help you, at least initially, with your psychology career. The only exception to this is if you are applying to a university with a stellar reputation – in the top ten for state universities, or an ivy-league campus. For a long time Stanford’s PhD in counseling Psychology was not APA approved (it is now) and no one cared. That said, most Clinical Psychology PhD programs at major universities are now APA approved. This exception also applies to foreign schools. If you go to Oxford University in the UK then not having an APA approved degree will be less of a hindrance.
     
  4. In addition to attending an APA-approved program, make sure the program participates in the internship match program and that students in the program have a good success rate for being matched to internships. The practice of psychology, like medicine, is largely learned by being apprenticed to experienced practitioners for a large chunk of time. Internships function like apprenticeships and you will only be as good as the experience you gain during this crucial aspect of your training.
     
  5. Many smaller universities have Clinical Psychology doctorate programs set up almost like professional school programs. However, those attending these programs will still be getting a university degree. Some of these programs are quite good and only have a small number of students in the program. This may be an opportunity to get intensive personal training. Some of these programs give the PhD but more and more are awarding the PsyD. These university based PsyD programs in general are better thought of than PsyDs from freestanding professional schools. Here is a list of some of the better PsyD programs (I am sure there are others out there I haven’t listed): 

    • Baylor University (Waco, TX)
    • Florida Institute of Technology (Melbourne, FL)
    • Hofstra University (Hempstead, NY)
    • Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Indiana, PA)
    • Indiana State University (Terre Haute, IN)
    • James Madison University (Harrisonburg, VA)
    • Loyola University (Baltimore, MD)
    • Pacific University (Forest Grove, OR)
    • Pepperdine University (Malibu, CA)
    • Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ)
    • Wright State University (Dayton, OH)
    • Xavier University (Cincinnati, OH)
    • (California Lutheran University also now has a PsyD program but they will have another 4 or so years before the APA can accredit them. However, if the program gains accreditation candidacy it is a safe bet that they will be fully accredited by the time you finish.) In general, I would worry less about the name of the degree and more about the status of the school.
       
  6. Next down the list should be the better freestanding professional schools. You should consider those that are APA accredited and participate in the internship match program. You may want to look here to find programs that fit these criterion: http://www.ncspp.info/schools.htm (note that there are some university-based programs here as well)
     
  7. I would be careful about going to a school where a particular religion drives the curriculum and culture, unless I was heavily involved in the specific religion of the school. A number of the programs on the above lists are at schools that are identified as being based in a particular religion or even sect of a religion. A degree from one of these schools, while possibly providing great training, will mark you as an adherent to a specific religion. This might cause others in the profession to wonder if your clinical reasoning is faith rather than scientifically based. You must look beyond the name of the school to tell how religious it is. For instance California Lutheran University does not have a curriculum driven by religion, while the Fuller Theological Seminary does. It is hard to tell in the case of some schools. Pepperdine University is a good case in point. The undergraduate program is strongly driven by religion, but supposedly the graduate programs are not. Caveat emptor!
     
  8. If you are not able to get into a decent freestanding professional doctoral program it must be the case that 

a.  Your gpa is 3.0 or below
b.  Very bad or non-existent GRE scores
c.  You cannot qualify for student loans and/or can’t otherwise pay for your tuition
d.  You have some personality issue that is being picked up by the people interviewing you for the programs. (In this case you might want to re-consider going into a clinical area until after you have completed some psychotherapy of your own).
e.  Lack of letters of recommendation or non-committal / poor letters of recommendation.

For a, b, and e the solution is to try and get into some kind of doctoral preparation masters program. Even still you might have difficulties. It might be worth your while to take some more undergraduate classes (you can take classes as a post baccalaureate student or do a double major) to bring your gpa up. Another good idea is to get some research experience working with one of your professors. It would be even better if you can get your name on something published. These activities should also help you get some decent letters of recommendation from your professors. 

You can always work on your GRE scores. I recommend that students take either the Kaplan (or Princeton Review (www.princetonreview.com/graduate-school.aspx) courses and to devote themselves exclusively to studying for the GRE for a specific period of time (at least a month). 

With regard to c applying to a masters program may not be the answer. Most masters programs are cash cows for their schools. It is rare (though not unheard of) for students to get support beyond loans for masters programs. If finances are the major issue for you then following the advice above and then applying for a doctoral program might be a better strategy. It is rare to not qualify for some kind of student loan.  Make sure to talk with a financial aid advisor about all the options available. 

Still, financial realities can prevent you from going to graduate school. I was accepted into the clinical psychology program at University of San Francisco after finishing my masters program. At the time I had absolutely no money or support from my family. I had been living and paying tuition from whatever school loans I could get. During this period the maximum in students loans available was $2500/year. When I found out that tuition to USF was $13000/year I realized that I had no way to obtain the additional 10,500 year for tuition, not to mention money I would need to live on. Sadly I was forced to turn down acceptance to a fine doctoral program. 

With regard to d it is beyond our scope here to delve deeply into whatever issues may plague you. However, if your issue is a disability you may want to talk to the disability officer at the school where you are applying. If you have some sort of personality disorder then you may not realize the part you play in alienating interviewing committees. This is where I will reiterate my advice on getting some professional psychological help. Many people want to go into psychology so they can either deal with their own issues, or, not deal with their own issues by dealing with other people’s problems. It would be highly worthwhile for you to sort through these issues before committing to a clinical career.

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