My experience on this topic

At the time of writing this post, I am currently a PhD Student in an accredited Clinical Psychology Program. I did my undergrad in Psychology, and I also happened to have written a guide to applying to clinical psychology elsewhere.

This article provides information on what you can do to best prepare yourself during your undergraduate degree if you wish to pursue a graduate degree in clinical psychology.

I’m hoping this article helps some keen students out there who are wondering how to best use their time to maximize chances of getting into a competitive program in clinical psychology. I was fortunate enough to have amazing supervisors and peers who helped me navigate this nebulous process, and I hope to it pay it forward to those in the midst of it right now.

#1 Obtain research experience by joining research labs

Perhaps surprisingly, the most important experience that a student can get to become competitive for a traditional path in clinical psychology (PhD) is research experience.

Competitive PhD programs are more interested in your capacity to conduct independent research compared to your clinical ability. Therefore, it’s important to be heavily involved in research during your undergraduate degree if you are interested in pursuing graduate school in clinical psychology.

The obvious next question is “how do I get research experience?”.

In the psychology program, there may be calls in emails and bulletin boards to recruit volunteers for research labs. I would encourage those that are interested to get a sense of what type of research the lab is doing and apply if interested.

Alternatively, you can also go onto the school’s website and do investigate what type of research labs there are in the university (or even at other universities/research hospitals) and reach out to the lab email or directly to the professor to see if the lab is recruiting.

Beyond volunteering, research experience is also built-in to certain programs or courses. For example, joining the honour’s program or taking independent research courses can be a great way to formally obtain research experience.

Research book

Benefits of joining research labs

There are numerous benefits to obtaining research experience:

1) You will look great to admission committees and showcase to them that you are capable of conducting research as an independent scientist. Committees are primarily interested in your ability to conduct graduate level research.

Therefore, as you spend more time in the lab, I would encourage you to take on more ‘graduate level’ work (e.g., analyzing data, presenting results at a conference, helping with manuscript preparation).

2) You’ll have strong letters of recommendations from professors who know you well and can speak to capacities in handling the work required in a graduate program.

3) you’ll get a sense of whether research is something you truly enjoy (and if so, what topics you are passionate about). If you do not enjoy research, tackling a PhD program in clinical psychology can be tough in terms of stress and overall quality of life. In this case, it may be helpful to evaluate other avenues that get you to the clinical experience without the trials and tribulations of research.

There are certain programs, such as PsyD and counselling programs, that have less emphasis on research and require more clinical experience. In this case, some research background can still look great on an application.

#2 Develop a strong academic record

PhD programs in clinical psychology are competitive with most programs accepting between 5-10% of applications. This isn’t a boast about my own success (personally I only received one formal acceptance out of seven applications); it’s simply to keep you aware of the fact that applying requires commitment and dedication.

Generally speaking, programs require an A- average (3.67 GPA) in the last two years to be reasonably competitive.

The last two years clause can be a bit of saving grace if you are like me and did relatively poorly early on in your undergraduate degree. In this case, it’s important to showcase a positive trajectory by performing well in your final two years.

Getting a good grade on an essay

#3 Take relevant coursework (and do well on them)

Taking certain courses can showcase an appropriate knowledge base for a career in clinical psychology. Most foundational courses will already be part of the degree outline if you are majoring in psychology.

I would also recommend that students take relevant statistic and research methods courses (introductory/advanced) in addition to courses on psychological disorders (abnormal psychology) and history of psychology.

#4 Clinical experience is less important but can be helpful

Clinical experience is generally a less important factor in application reviews compared to research experience. The train of thought is that the program can teach you to be a strong clinician, but want you to already have a strong research background ensure that you can handle the research requirements.

That being said, having clinical experience can still look good and give you a sense of whether you enjoy working with patients. Common clinical experiences that you can obtain as an undergraduate include working as a support worker or as a volunteer in a distress call centre.

Some clinical labs also provide unique clinical assessment experience. For example, research assistants in our lab conduct screenings and assessments for patients with chronic insomnia.

Frequently asked questions

Q1. Do I need an honour’s degree to get into a PhD program?

You do not need an honour’s degree to get into a PhD program (I didn’t). Generally, programs will require an honour’s degree or equivalent. This means that you have received experience and done coursework that is comparable to an honour’s degree. In this case, taking relevant advanced coursework (e.g., research methods/statistics) and engaging in independent research as part of a lab.

That being said, I would recommend that you join the honour’s program if you can. The honour’s program allows you to work in an intensive and supportive environment filled with bright students that also have similar goals. Moreover, high quality research experience, such as developing your own research project and presenting studies at conferences, are naturally built-in to the program. These aspects certainly make it easier to develop yourself as a scientist.

Q2. Can I apply without a psychology degree or do I have to obtain one before applying?

You do not need a psychology degree to apply. However, it is important to showcase a strong understanding of psychological foundations by taking relevant courses. Therefore, I would recommend that you take electives in psychology courses (and have a Minor if possible).

A second way to showcase strong understanding of psychological principles is by taking the subject Graduate Record Examination in psychology and performing well on this exam.

Q3. What if I have already graduated?

It’s certainly still possible to obtain research experience and prepare for graduate school even if you have already graduated.

For some, they may take a year off to focus on getting research experience (or continue to work and get experience on the side). To alleviate some fears of ‘being behind’, most students do not immediately go into graduate school after graduating. It’s more the norm than the exception to take a gap year or two to ensure they feel prepared for PhD training.

If you found this post helpful, please consider subscribing to the mailing list!

Best wishes,