For people interested in pursuing a degree in clinical psychology, they may be interested in learning about the typical activities that a graduate student gets up to on a day to day.
As a clinical psychology student myself, I find the daily life of a clinical psychology student to be exciting and varied. No two days look exactly the same and days are formed by a mishmash of different tasks and activities that are personally enjoyable and meaningful.
Moreover, the flexibility of schedule can bring you out of the city for interesting research/learning events or allow you to enjoy activities that a normal 9 to 5 may not permit. For example, going to the gym on a Thursday morning or checking out a new restaurant on a Friday afternoon.
As long as you stay on top of your work, this schedule can be quite freeing (though you might have to do some occasional work in the evenings/weekends). Personally, I am willing to make that trade-off, though I am aware it is not for everyone.
In this article, I provide an example of some of the activities you might engage in as a PhD student in clinical psychology and provide a couple examples of a daily schedule as a student in this profession.
Coursework and continued education
Unsurprisingly, classwork is a significant part of graduate education. However, the amount is less than what you might expect of a full courseload in undergraduate studies.
Typically, PhD students take around 2 courses per semester with some academic semesters being less intensive in terms of coursework to focus more on research or clinical work. For example, I took 3 courses in my first couple semesters of my Master’s, but there have been semesters in my PhD where I did not take coursework because there were no electives that were of interest, and I wanted to focus on other areas of my degree like my dissertation.
Courses are centered around research methods/statistics, ethics, assessment and treatment of psychological disorders, along with other psychology electives (e.g., developmental, neuroscience, forensic psychology, etc.). Typically, students have classes a couple days of the week with lectures being 3-hours long.
Beyond coursework, there are many opportunities to further your education through clinical rounds, invited speaker talks, and workshops that a student may attend.
Many students provide assessment and treatment to patients in different clinical contexts: clinical practica, clinical research, and/or private practice. These training opportunities are built-in to the program degree.
Depending on the time of year, students may see 4 to 5 patients a week for assessment, individual therapy, or group therapy. Students are trained in conducting structured interviews, providing evidence-based therapies (for example, cognitive behavioural therapy), and receive supervision from licensed psychologists.
Consequently, studying up on clinical techniques, preparing for patients, seeing patients, and writing clinical/assessment notes play a significant role in terms of daily activities.
Research is an integral part of a PhD clinical psychology program. Examples include: conducting literature reviews; collecting and analyzing data; working with participants; writing manuscripts; grant writing; and presenting results. These tasks may be as part of on-going research projects in the lab or your own thesis/dissertation work.
In our lab, clinical work and research is often combined because we run clinical trials evaluating treatments of insomnia. Therefore, a day may include providing therapy for participants with insomnia and evaluating changes in their insomnia severity scores.
Many PhD students are employed in the university as a teaching assistant or course instructor. Therefore, days may also include some form of teaching work – marking exams, conducting lectures, holding office hours, etc.
Holding these positions are also a good way to supplement your income.
One great way to travel on a limited budget is by attending conferences in other cities and countries. Presenting a poster or speaking at a conference can be a great way to obtain tangible evidence of research productivity, develop connections, and obtain grants to travel.
I typically go to 2 to 3 conferences per years and have visited unfamiliar cities in Canada and the States. Some students also get to travel internationally to other continents, which can be a fantastic experience to do some sightseeing along with learning more about cutting-edge research in your area of interest!
University affairs and other work
Beyond the activities listed above, there are many ways to engage in further work or volunteer opportunities especially at the university. For example, I am working in a consulting position for undergraduate writing and take on several positions at the university – the research ethics board, academic integrity council, and mentorship programs. The specific choice of which and how much involvement you wish to engage in at the university is completely up to your discretion!
An example of a busy day as a PhD student in clinical psychology
You certainly do not do everything every single day – there would never be a moment to relax if you did! Some days can be busier and some days can be a bit lighter depending on your schedule. Here’s an example of a typical (busier) day:
7:00am – Get up, hygiene, and get dressed to go out
8:00am – Respond to daily emails and do some pre-readings prior to class
9:00am – Attend psychopathology class
12:00pm – Lunch and review case files for incoming patient
1:00pm – See patient for intake assessment
2:30pm – Write up patient notes
3:00pm – Meeting with supervisor to discuss dissertation ideas
3:30pm – Work on a critical reflection essay for a course
4:00pm – Hold office hours for students to review exam
5:00pm – Go home, get some R&R, eat
6:30pm – Continue literature review for dissertation and conduct analysis to submit an abstract to a conference
8:30pm – Dinner
9:00pm – Makes notes in preparation for treatment patients the next day
10:00pm – Relax and get ready for bed
**Note. This is a sample of a busier day. Moreover, some students prefer to stick to a strict 9:00am to 5:00pm schedule to ensure a proper work-life balance – so this certainly doesn’t have to look like your schedule if it made you anxious. Personally, I don’t mind a longer day (or a weekend workday) because of the flexibility that less busy days confer.
An example of a less busy work day as a PhD student in clinical psychology
8:00am – Wake up and get ready for the day
9:00am – Go to the gym
10:30am – Attend lab meeting
11:30am – Respond to emails and work on short reflection paper
1:00pm – Go to lunch at a new restaurant
2:30pm – Do some light reading and work at a coffee shop
4:00pm – Supervise an assessment session for a junior colleague
6:00pm – Spend time with a friend and watch a movie
8:30pm – Have dinner
9:00pm – Brainstorm a few ideas for a manuscript
9:30pm – Chill out, watch a Netflix show, and do some light yoga before bed
As you can see, work is still being done but the workload is significantly less and there is substantial flexibility in when you do work and when you want to do things for your own development (gym), enjoyment (checking out a new restaurant or watching a movie with a friend), and personal time (chilling out). Moreover, you are able to engage in these activities at ‘odd-hours’, which can feel quite freeing. There won’t be as many people in the gym during these hours and you likely won’t need a reservation to try out a popular restaurant at 1:00pm on a Wednesday.
The life of a PhD student in clinical psychology can be varied, dynamic, and freeing depending on how you approach the day.
For some people, it can be quite stressful because they feel like they have to do work all the time – grad school consumes their entire life.
I personally approach graduate school from a more positive and balanced framework – tough, work-filled days feel productive, meaningful, and dynamic; lax days feel freeing and enjoyable (though I try to still do a little work every day to keep ahead of the work curve).
In doing so, I have found a perfect balance that works for me. However, what works for you may not be the same as what works for me. I would encourage you to consider the types of days and specific activities you want to do and curate your schedule based on that!
I hope this post was helpful to learn a little more about what the daily life of a PhD student in clinical psychology looks like!
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