Clinical psychology can be a very rewarding and dynamic career. Because of the numerous roles that a clinical psychologist can engage in, there are many opportunities to cultivate a specific career that is interesting and meaningful to you.  

For example, clinical psychologists can engage in direct clinical work with patients, conduct research, provide consultations, teach, and mentor students. Depending on your future career, you can mix and match different activities you enjoy the most!

Despite the incredible opportunities that this path confers, a PhD in clinical psychology does require a fair amount of time and effort to pursue. For me, I enjoy graduate studies and the career is something I look forward to and find personally meaningful. However, the potential trials and tribulations of pursuing a graduate degree in this field may not be for everyone for any number of reasons.

Below, I discuss 5 things to consider before making a plunge to jump into the fascinating and arduous career of a clinical psychologist.

1. It’s a time commitment

A clinical psychology PhD degree takes time. At minimum, it is generally at least 5 years plus an additional year on residency. Moreover, there are hoops that you have jump over in terms of exams and supervised practice that may take an additional year before you are an autonomous practicing clinician.

That’s around 7 years of your life post-undergrad. And that’s not even taking into consideration that many students take a gap year between undergrad and grad school to obtain enough experience to be a competitive applicant and those that take a little longer to finish up their research/dissertation work.

During this time, the pay isn’t great (PhD programs are generally funded by the government and the university) and it can hard to get other things in life moving. For example, you may see friend and relatives start families, begin their career, and buy nice things.  

That being said, many people have started families despite being in graduate school during that time – so it’s definitely possible!

All that said, you kind of have to enjoy graduate school in some capacity or at least find the end result to be worthwhile.

2. PhD programs are very research intensive

Surprisingly, clinical work (e.g., assessments and therapy) is not the emphasis in PhD programs. There’s certainly a lot of clinical work, but the bigger focus is on research.

For example, the are major milestones such as Master’s thesis, doctoral dissertations, and comprehensive exams that all generally require independent research. Beyond this work, students will often work on projects with their supervisor (who are professors and conduct a lot of research work).

Not everyone loves research. In fact, some people hate it and do not want to engage in research for years before getting to do what they want – which is to work with patients.

Volunteering in research labs before during undergrad can be a great way to see whether research is something that you enjoy (or at least tolerate) before pursuing graduate studies in this field. If you hate research, grad school can be quite the miserable existence.

3. Dedication and commitment during undergraduate studies is important

Clinical psychology PhD programs are competitive. Consequently, it’s important to keep your academic standing strong and engage in significant research and volunteer experience in your undergraduate career.

See here for a more detailed guide on how to prepare for a career in clinical psychology as an undergraduate student and how to tell if you are competitive applicant.

4. Graduate programs can be tough

A past graduate student I knew once said: “Graduate school is like a gas. If you give it room, it will expand and take as much of it as possible”.

I think that’s an apt depiction of graduate school. There’s always more work to do, papers to grade, patients to see, manuscripts to write– dozens of different tasks that can pull for your time.

Therefore, it is important to consider what tasks are most important and how much time should be allocated to each task. For example, my supervisor loves to say that ‘good is good enough’. If you are striving for perfection, you’ll find yourself consumed by never-ending work.

For me, I personally enjoy the work that I do, and I especially like the flexible schedule that a graduate degree confers. For example, I may sometimes do work in the evenings and weekends, but it also means I can go to the gym at 11:00am on Tuesday or check out a new restaurant with my partner on a Thursday afternoon. Others prefer to keep to a strict work/life schedule.

If you do end up deciding to pursue this path, set limits to your work and focus on what is truly important to benefit you in your future career!

5. There are other options if you are solely interested in clinical work

Although I believe that a PhD in clinical psychology confers the most flexible career, there are many other careers that require less time commitment and research if you are solely interested in clinical work.

For example, counselling programs, social work programs, and PsyD programs are all more clinically focused. Dr. Mitch Prinstein has a great guide detailing different career options (and it’s also a great guide for applying to clinical psychology in general).

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Best wishes,