In the Fall of 2018, I (Parky) will have begun my clinical psychology program at Toronto Metropolitan University. From this experience, I thought it would be worthwhile to write up this short guide for those who are, or will be, embarking on this arduous process.
This manuscript serves as a structured account of applying to clinical psychology programs in Canada. In this text, I attempt to demystify the enigmatic process of applying to Canadian graduate studies in clinical psychology, as well as impart insight into their evaluation criteria. In doing so, I hope to make this journey a little less daunting for prospective students.
A secondary goal of this guide is to provide concrete examples of activities that potential applicants can engage in during their undergraduate (or post-baccalaureate) studies to strengthen their application and increase their odds of gaining admission into some of the most competitive graduate programs in the world.
A special thanks and gratitude to Joey Rootman and Jill Robinson for their incredible insights and help in writing this guide.
Clinical psychology can be viewed as the closest representation of the prototypical idea laymen have of psychologists: A therapist sitting perpendicular to a client lying on a couch and asking, “How does that make you feel?”.
And in some ways, this is true. As a practitioner, clinical psychologists often conduct assessments and provide therapy to a variety of individuals that exhibit some form of psychopathology.
Clinical psychologists are also trained as scientists and can be seen working in research or educational settings such as academia and research centers, as well as clinical settings, such as hospitals and private practice clinics. It is not uncommon for clinical psychologists to divide their time among clinical practice, academia, and research. As such, a vocation in clinical psychology can be rather versatile, making the degree and associated training programs highly-sought after.
Clinical MA/PhD Programs in Canada
Clinical psychology MA/PhD programs adhere to the scientist-practitioner (Boulder) model, which underscores the importance of the relationship between empirically validated research and associated applications to clinical populations. As such, students are trained to be researchers as well as clinicians.
Canadian graduate programs in clinical psychology generally offer a combined Masters (MA) and Doctoral (PhD) program, as opposed to just the PhD. The MA program lasts approximately 2 years, and the PhD program extends this by another 4-5 years (including a year of predoctoral internship).
Although the MA and PhD are usually distinct programs, it is often strongly recommended that those applying to the MA program continue into the PhD. Many programs will not accept students who plan to terminate their studies after completing the MA. Most provinces, with the exception of Saskatchewan and Alberta, require that students hold a PhD in order to gain registration as a clinical psychologist with the provincial College of Psychologists.
When preparing your applications, two crucial aspects to consider are the number of institutions you intend on applying to and the quality of these institutions. With respect to the first point, acceptance rates are low; typically, 4-7% of applicants receive an offer of admission. Therefore, it is the norm for prospective students to apply to multiple programs to increase their odds of acceptance.
A former professor of mine recommended that if a prospective student wanted to maximize their chance of gaining admission, they should apply to at least 12 to 15 programs. That being said, this recommendation is not a hard rule (I applied to 7 myself). Applications are expensive and time-consuming so it is generally advised to avoid applying to programs which you have no or very little intention of attending.
Second, it is strongly recommended that you apply to institutions whose doctoral and internship training program are (or in the process of being) accredited by the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA). Institutions accredited by the CPA are proven to demonstrate the necessary rigour to develop highly trained clinical psychologists. Oftentimes, graduating from a CPA accredited institution confers professional benefits and are necessary for obtaining internships through the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC) as well as facilitating the search for employment after graduation. It is much less likely that a student exiting a non-accredited program will secure a CPA-accredited internship relative to those who exit CPA accredited programs. Many prospective research and clinical positions require that the applicant attended a CPA-accredited internship.
Finally, although an in-depth examination of other degrees, such as the PsyD or counselling psychology are beyond the scope of this paper, it is worthwhile to mention these alternatives. These programs may be of interest to those whose passion is oriented towards clinical practice or for those who wish to work with populations that exhibit less extreme mental health concerns. For a further examination of the PsyD, counselling psychology, and other related fields of studies – as well as being an excellent resource in general – I would recommend Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology by Dr. Mitchell Prinstein.
The Application Process
Applying to Canadian MA/PhD graduate studies in clinical psychology is often a long, difficult, and confusing process, and can take several months to adequately prepare. Generally, the list of materials you will need to assemble for programs include: 1) Graduate Record Examination (GRE); 2) a list of institutions and associated supervisors you would like to apply to; 3) three (or more) letters of recommendations (LORs); 4) official transcripts; 5) an updated curriculum vitae (CV); and 6) a statement of intent (personal statement). For Tri-Council funding applications, the materials you will need are: 1) Canadian Common CV (CCV); 2) two letters of recommendation; 3) a hypothetical research proposal. Often, programs will ask if you have applied for external funding, such as Tri-Council funding or the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS).
Preparing for the GRE is probably the most time-consuming and difficult aspect of the application process and applicants should allocate at least 2 months to studying for this exam. The exam should be taken as early as possible. Realistically, the suggested timeline includes studying for the exam over the summer before you begin applications and completing the examination prior to the beginning of fall semester. That way you will have sufficient time to report your scores as well as retake the test if necessary. Note that while the General Test can be taken throughout the year, the Psychology Subject test is only offered a few times annually (April, September, and October). It often takes up to 4 to 5 weeks to receive your scores – so plan accordingly! If the application deadline occurs before you obtain your scores, you may be rejected based on your incomplete application. Remember to check application deadlines when choosing a test date, and if possible, leave time to write the test at least once again if necessary. ***That being said, the GRE has been removed from the program requirements for some institutions in Canada. Therefore, please check to see if sites you are interested in sending an application still requires the GRE.
By late summer or early fall, you will also want to begin considering which institutions you would like to apply to. There are several factors you might want to consider: the quality of the program and richness of the training, practicum placements, potential funding opportunities, length of time typically spent in the program before internship, geographical location and feasibility of moving, the culture and atmosphere of the university and, perhaps most importantly of all, the “fit” between student and mentor. Each institution typically provides information on their university webpage about faculty and their individual research interests. It is important to determine if the faculty you are interested in working with is accepting new students for the upcoming round of admissions. Faculty may not accept students one year for a variety of reasons (e.g., sabbatical leaves, administration duties) and you would not want to waste your time or money applying to a supervisor who was not accepting students! You may want to contact potential supervisors to confirm that they are taking applications for new graduate students as well as to express your interest in their research. Although not a necessary component in applications, faculty members may appreciate your effort to contact them, especially if you demonstrate keen insight and enthusiasm into their work. If you decide to contact prospective supervisors, it is important to be polite and professional in your correspondence. Proofread your emails before sending them and be sure to demonstrate that you have done research into their current work. Be understanding if you receive a terse response. It is likely because faculty members often lead busy lifestyles and receive a large volume of similar emails during the application period. In addition to the match between research interests, it is important to think about the kind of research supervision and general mentorship you are interested in receiving. For example, some individuals work well with mentors who have a “hands-off” style of supervision, who do not set deadlines, and who expect students to be self-driven in most endeavours. In contrast, some students prefer a more direct style of supervision and mentorship.
At a similar time, you will want to reach out to your current supervisors and/or professors for letters of recommendations. Most programs will require 2 to 3 academic references. For some schools, but not all, a professional reference may be submitted as substitution for an academic letter. Importantly, make sure that your referees are willing to provide a strong positive testament to your abilities and can speak to your potential success in a primarily research-based graduate program; reference letters that offer faint praise or are outright critical of the applicant can be incredibly damaging to an application (for other so-called ‘Kisses of Death’, see Appleby & Appleby, 2006). Your goal is to facilitate the process for referees. Make writing and submitting the reference letters as simple as possible and ensure that you give plenty of notice (4 to 8 weeks in advance of the application deadline) that you will require a letter in the future. I would recommend drafting a list of all the schools you wish to apply to and providing a step-by-step guide on how to submit the LOR to each school (electronically and/or by physical mail) for your referees’ convenience. This also would be a good time to provide these referees with some direction by identifying examples of times where you have proven yourself worthy for acceptance to clinical programs. Further, you should also send your references an updated CV, set of transcripts, and background information about the program you are applying to. The more information the reference has, the easier it is to write a strong letter.
Official transcripts, CVs, and the personal statement can be completed and submitted electronically any time before the application deadline (usually December 1st). However, gathering feedback from your peers and supervisors can be incredibly useful so you will want to complete an initial draft a few months before to make necessary revisions. You should spend ample time editing and revising your personal statement, ensure no typos, spelling or grammar mistakes are present. It is strongly recommended that you have at least one other person read your letter to ensure you have not glossed over anything. In the following sections, I will provide additional content and stylistic information regarding the personal statement.
Finally, an oft-neglected but necessary part of Canadian applications is applying for external funding, which is typically from the three federal granting agencies (Tri-Council): CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC. Applications are due December 1st for those applying to MA programs and mid-September for those applying to PhD programs. These applications require two academic references as well as a short research proposal (1 page for MA and 2 pages for PhD). Each funding agency requires different information. CIHR is often touted as the heftiest application. Appropriately, you will want to give yourself time for referees to submit their LoRs as well as familiarize yourself with the literature to write a strong research proposal. Note that you do not have to carry out the study proposed; this is simply an exercise of your ability to clearly communicate a potential research idea in a scientific manner. It is important to understand that this information reflects the current funding status in Canada in September 2018. Information and government funding opportunities may change in the future.
For a more comprehensive and detailed timeline for suggestions as to when these components should be completed, as well as information on interviews after the application period, please refer to Dr. Sophia Choukas-Bradley Tips for Applying to Graduate School in (Clinical) Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide.
Although the admission criteria are fairly standardized among institutions (e.g., at least an A- average, research experience), there is a fair bit of ambiguity as to what makes a successful applicant aside from the quantitative scores observed in GPA and GRE scores. In the following text, I break down the general evaluation criteria into three subsections: 1) Academic Background 2) Skills and Professional Development and 3) Supplementary Materials and Evaluations.
Academic background includes the quality of the institution and the program you attended previously, GPA, and GRE scores for the General and Subject tests. The quality of your institution and respective program is likely set in stone; however, for more keen students beginning their undergraduate education, it is advisable to pursue a 4-year honours degree in psychology at a respected university. Although an honours degree is not necessary (programs will also take students with an equivalence in terms of coursework and research experience), honours programs tend to confer many academic and professional benefits for students, such as testing a unique research hypothesis by designing a research study, presenting at conferences, writing a thesis, and being surrounded by like-minded individuals that can support and inspire one another to succeed. While it is not the norm to enter a clinical psychology program without an honours degree, it is possible though not recommended. The vast majority of students will hold an honours degree before entering graduate school. If you are too late in your program to enroll in the honours program before graduation, you may want to explore the possibility of pursuing a postgraduate honours, in which you attend for one year after graduating to obtain an honours degree. Not all institutions will provide students with this opportunity so it is imperative that you speak with your academic advisor early in your program.
With respect to GPA, undergraduate institutions generally require an A- cumulative GPA or GPA over the last two years. Successful applicants, however, typically have a substantially higher GPA. Although having a lower GPA does not necessarily preclude you from admission, especially if you have strong credentials in other areas (the same applies with GRE scores), it is important to note that certain institutions may use this as a benchmark to cull applicants if there is a large volume of applications. Do not be discouraged by the 60% you received in your first-year economics class but be aware that several failing or low grades, especially in psychology-related courses, will not bode well for your application.
GRE scores on the general test are broken into three sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. Although a scaled score is calculated, what is most important is your standing relative to other individuals (i.e., your percentile). Applicants should attempt to aim for at least the 80th percentile in each section to be competitive (although looking up the statistics of admitted students in programs is also helpful and may be more useful than a specific percentile demarcation). If you have lower scores, remember that the GRE is only one part of your application and is unlikely to be the deciding factor in admissions. The Psychology Subject GRE is less important and is unlikely to be the deciding factor in gaining admission, and in most schools, is an optional (but recommended) part of your application. If you do well, it may offset a less than desirable academic record by demonstrating your proficiency in the foundations in psychology and its associated sub-disciplines.
Overcoming this beast of a test will be different for every student. There are plenty of test preparation courses available (Kaplan, Magoosh, Princeton review) to help you make your way through the exam. That being said, it is worth noting that the material covered in the general GRE is not inherently difficult to grasp; rather, the variation in test scores comes from speed and accuracy which can only be attained through practice. With this in mind, I recommend you think deeply about whether an expensive test preparation course is right for you. An alternative option is using the available free online courses (e.g., Greenlighttestprep) or purchasing used preparation materials from students who have taken the test in the recent past. If you reach a topic that you have trouble understanding, try contacting a local GRE tutor. Practice tests (e.g. Princeton, Manhattan, Magoosh, ETS), on the other hand, are relatively good value and crucial to assess your progress and get as much practice as possible. Additionally, saving some time and money to retake the GRE if need be is a good way to overcome test anxiety, get a feel for the environment, and improve your scores. Finally, if you have received your scores and are unsure if they are sufficient for acceptance into your desired institution (because they are lower than the scores listed in their program statistic pages) contact your potential supervisor and ask if they would recommend retaking the test before putting down your deposit for another date. Recommended study resources for both the subject and general GRE are listed in the appendix.
Skills and Professional Development
In this section, I discuss the necessary skills and qualifications desired by MA/PhD graduate programs in clinical psychology. Although clinical psychology programs adhere to the scientist-practitioner model, first and foremost students are trained as researchers. Consequently, your capacity as an independent scientist is the most important quality to cultivate during your undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Research experience can be obtained in many ways: volunteering in psychology or related research laboratories, completing directed studies (i.e., working in labs or undertaking small research projects for course credit), or completing an honours thesis. Importantly, I would embolden you to join labs that you have a budding interest in and take copious initiative to demonstrate to your professor and the graduate students your capacity as a researcher. Research assistants often feel grateful for their position and typically perform a variety of tasks such as data cleaning and entry, transcription, and running studies. However, you should feel comfortable asking for more responsibilities and opportunities for professional development should you want to broaden your experiences. By involving yourself in a research lab, you put yourself in a position to take on more responsibility, which could cascade into paid/leadership positions and tangible evidence of your contributions (e.g., co-authorships on presentations and scholarly publications). Arguably, the best way to gain admittance into graduate school is to demonstrate that you are capable of doing graduate level work. The gold standard here would be a publication or first author presentation (poster or symposium), but any evidence that you can think like a scientist (study development, hypothesis generation, etc.) would also lend well to an application.
Given the emphasis on research potential, applicants should demonstrate their proficiency to conduct research, namely understanding and applying research methodology and statistical analysis. One form of evidence comes from a strong educational background. You should strive to do well in courses involving research methods and statistics and do not be afraid to take additional advanced courses to place yourself a cut above the rest. In conjunction, you can also take the initiative to help your supervisor or graduate students design research materials and ask to assist in analysis. A letter of recommendation that speaks about how a student helped design a study or present research at a conference will go a long way in furthering your application.
One possible inquiry you may have is whether you should focus delving into a single stream of research in one lab or volunteer at multiple labs to gain experience – the age old question of breadth or depth. The answer, albeit arduous, is that a mix of both would be ideal. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive and both can lend well to an application. The benefits of gaining depth into a field of research will inform an appreciation for the work being conducted and allow you to think like a scientist, helping you to consider hypotheses and limitations within one research area. This experience will increase your confidence towards individual pursuits in developing your own research questions and designs and later present your research at conferences. Notably, your professor will be able to write a much stronger letter of recommendation (or if you are applying to them, they will know that you are capable of graduate level work). Your extensive training and research may also look very inviting to potential supervisors who study a similar field during application periods.
Although depth in your training is invaluable, you should not neglect obtaining a breadth of research experience as well. Research labs often operationalize and examine variables and hypotheses in different ways, and subsequently, train their research assistants to do a variety of unique tasks. Consequently, you will be able to develop a large range of marketable skills that may make you stand out as an applicant. Working in multiple labs can confer a more nuanced understanding of research. For example, if you worked in a research lab studying sexual health and a second lab studying depression, you might start to consider the relationship between depression and romantic dyads, and what factors in a romantic relationship protect against or exacerbate depressive symptomatology. A final benefit of volunteering in a variety of labs is that it simply allows you to discover what you like. If you do decide to pursue graduate studies, you will likely study a similar topic for a number of years. As such, you will want to make sure that the topic you are studying is something you are passionate about.
In summary, it is recommended that you attempt to work in at least a couple different labs. Assuming that the work is interesting and your supervisor seems to be invested in your education and success, you should volunteer for at least two years to gain a deeper understanding of the research, how it is conducted, and what areas have yet to be fully explored.
Supplementary Materials and Evaluations
The personal statement is perhaps the most time intensive portion of your application outside of the GREs. With that in mind, I recommend starting drafts in September. While each school requires a unique personal statement tailored to that program, they all tend to ask variations of the same question (be sure to double-check this) which means that some aspects of your statement can be recycled. Typically, a program will ask something along the lines of “What makes you a good fit for program XXX?” Responses to this question will, of course, vary from person to person but there are a number of areas that I highly recommend you cover. Specifically, your primary goal is to prove that you can think and act like a clinical scientist as evidenced by your wealth of research experience, coursework, GPA, GRE, and any other experiences and skills you have obtained. You will also want to outline your goals for the future and how this specific program will help you attain those goals. Show that you have researched the school and are dedicated to your application with them.
Structurally you have many options. First, many people start with a personal anecdote about why they want to pursue clinical psychology. Beware however, this is the least important and most unnecessary part of the statement so do not get carried away. Launching into a personal montage may be regrettable. Use these introductory statements to quickly lead your reader to the reasons why clinical psychology is appealing to you. There are many things that could be discussed at this point, but some are better than others. Importantly, be conscious of how much information you disclose: do not say that you are interested in Clinical Psychology because of your own (or a loved one’s) past experience with depression or any other disorder (refer to the “Kisses of Death” mentioned previously in the article). Rather, express your passion for a specific area of research or focus on the innate desire you have to reach into the unknown and return with knowledge that will benefit specific populations. While your end goal may be to focus on clinical practice, these MA/PhD programs are interested in applicants that are passionate about research as well. It is important that you present a balanced picture of yourself. If you have no affinity or interest in research, it might be advisable to pursue other career options.
Following this, the bulk of your statement should highlight how your past experiences have prepared you to enter a rigorous clinical psychology graduate program. Here, you should point to your overall GPA (if it is less than excellent, highlight your psychology GPA) and any awards or scholarships you hold. More important than your GPA, which speaks for itself, is your past research experience. Avoid simply restating your CV. Instead, expand on what you learned from these research experiences and link them to your fit in the MA/PhD program. Avoid recycling old ideas. If one research experience taught you how to run proper analyses, make sure that the next experience you speak to expands on and provides you with new knowledge or opportunity. Here are some ideas of what ground you should aim to cover: time management, self-motivation, experience working with clinical populations, writing and communication skills, professionalism, and statistics training and experience with study designs. Use concrete examples to prove that you have the background to manage the rigor of a clinical research-oriented program.
Finally, you will have to close your statement with a section which refers to the reasons why this program is the best fit for you. Here, you will primarily be discussing the fit with your ideal supervisor(s) and their research program. It is also good to briefly point out other unique portions of the program (refer to their clinical handbook) that are of interest to you and your career. Hopefully, at this point you have been in contact with proposed supervisors and this is a fantastic time to remind them who you are with a statement, such as “I have been in touch with Dr. Bill B. Likert and I discussed how XXX might mediate…”. Before signing off, it can be helpful to prove, on the spot, that you can develop research questions by placing yourself, and your past experience, in the context of your potential supervisor’s lab in the form of a research question. For example, something along the lines of “My experience researching X has made me curious if perhaps X may be a mediating variable in the relationship between Z and Y that Dr. Likert emphasized in his recent paper. Specifically, because the literature shows that…” would be an excellent way to demonstrate your ability to form novel hypothesis and think like a scientist-practitioner.
Most programs request a statement of approximately 2 pages single spaced in length. Use all the space you are given. At first this may seem like too much room for your previous experience to fill but you will soon find that, after the umpteenth-thousandth edit, your mind may change. Send this statement out to as many people as possible, and incorporate useful feedback. When you are done, upload or mail it in!
Tri-Council C-GSM or Doctoral Funding Application
The Tri-Council funding application is relatively straightforward. First, you need to decide which funding agency will best fit your research proposal (i.e., NSERC, SSHRC, or CIHR). For clinical students, this will be CIHR (clinical research) but SSHRC (social research) is also common as proposals given that SSHRC tend distribute more funding awards if you are looking to increase your odds of receiving one of these prestigious awards. Look into the types of projects these agencies fund and their respective mandates and pick what best suits your interests. You may send a summary of your proposal to each research agency to determine exactly who you should submit your application to. Remember, if you submit it to the wrong agency, you lose the opportunity at tens of thousands of dollars. Be sure before you submit. The application requires two academic recommendations, a Canadian Common CV (CCV) and a hypothetical research proposal. The doctoral award also requires relative research contributions, an online application, and recommendation from your department head. Creating a CCV requires you to input your current CV into the format required on the government website.
Your hypothetical research proposal will be a maximum of 1 or 2 pages in length (not including references) and should include the following sections: background, objective and hypothesis, methods, and significance. When considering a potential project, the most important factor is feasibility. Pick a research project that is manageable and can be completed throughout your masters. Moreover, keep in mind that no one will hold you to this project; rather, this proposal is a means of assessing your ability to formally write and think like a scientist. I would be shocked if you did not feel suffocated by the word limit, so get your concision pants on because it will be tight in there. Add your references to the following page and ensure that they are in proper APA format. Few resources are available to guide you through writing this proposal, but seek out professors in your program for guidance. Your scholarly writing centre, college of graduate studies, or library may also host Tri-Council writing workshops as these grants often span several disciplines. Contact your local librarian or graduate student advisor in psychology to explore these options.
I would like to leave a few miscellaneous pieces of advice for making your way through this process. First, do not be discouraged if you do not get in on the first round. Take the time in between application years to bolster your experiences. Some people may take a year or two off to work as a research assistant. If you need, write the GRE again or volunteer with different populations. I all know some incredible, qualified applicants that have been rejected multiple times. To some extent it is luck of the draw: perhaps the professor you apply to is not taking students or you are competing with their lab manager of five years. On a similar note, some people feel that they are too old to pursue graduate level education and want to get on with having a job before their knees give in. While that is your decision to make, these programs should be viewed more as a training sequence than a basic education. You are paid (pittance) along the way through a combination of external (tri-council/OGS) and internal (research/teaching assistantships) funding but you gain hands on (often world class) training, and formal classes are minimized as your degree progresses. It is never too late to gain further education. The time will pass anyway!
One of the last important pieces of advice I hope to impart is to reach out for help. Graduate students and your supervisors have been through the process and are often willing to help in more ways than you might expect. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help – people love to feel useful!
Finally, you may wonder if you should take a year off or apply to these programs. While, in theory, applying in your final year of undergrad “can’t hurt”, I are sure you now recognize that this application process is no small or inexpensive feat. With that in mind, I would like to point out that juggling this application process with your coursework might negatively impact your ability to excel in your commitments, or even lead you towards a minor mental breakdown. If you are struggling to balance 5 courses, study for the GRE, complete an honours thesis, and volunteer in a research lab(s), your applications may suffer. You do not want to waste time or money putting out sub-par applications because you will most likely receive sub-par (or worse) results. Many people take a year or more off after completing their undergraduate degree. This gives you the opportunity to work in a psychology-related field, beef up your CV, and have a few days on the beach in between.
I hope this guide has helped you get a better picture regarding the application process to Canadian clinical psychology programs. While clinical psychology programs can certainly be competitive, people just like yourself have managed to succeed in these endeavours. After all, somebody has to get in – it might as well be you.