Because clinical psychology programs are known for being competitive, most students don’t care so much where they get in. They just care if they get in. It’s this attitude of “I’ll go anywhere that picks me” that can get students into trouble, according to Tara Kuther, Ph.D, professor at the Department of Psychology at Western Connecticut State University and About.com guide to graduate school.
Students get so excited about becoming psychologists that they “don’t take the time to look into programs,” said Carol Williams-Nickelson, Psy.D, former associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students and co-editor of Internships in Psychology: The APAGS Workbook for Writing Successful Applications and Finding the Right Fit.
Glossing over the specifics can happen when you’re deciding between a Psy.D (Doctor of Psychology) and Ph.D (Doctor of Philosophy). Many people assume that one is better than the other. But you might be surprised to learn that it isn’t a matter of superiority. Rather, it’s a matter of personal goals and being fully informed about each program, Williams-Nickelson said. Here’s more on making a wise and knowledgeable decision.
What are your career goals?
Both Kuther and Williams-Nickelson underscore the importance of thinking long-term. While it’s “hard to imagine what you’ll be doing six years from now, it’s critical because [Ph.D and Psy.D programs] offer different types of preparation,” she said.
As a whole, university-based Ph.D programs prepare students to conduct research and work in academia. Psy.D programs prepare students to practice psychology. But the lines seem to be “more blurred than in the earlier days,” Williams-Nickelson said.
For instance, many Psy.D programs do offer research opportunities. Ashley Solomon, Psy.D, a post-doctoral fellow at Insight Psychological Centers in Chicago and author of the blog Nourishing the Soul, chose to attend Xavier University because it “focused on clinical skills, but also placed a very heavy emphasis on research.” Their Psy.D program requires completion of an empirical dissertation. (Many Psy.Ds do, though usually this isn’t enough training if you want to pursue a research career.) “To me, that signified the value placed on not only appreciating, but doing research.”
So “it doesn’t matter whether it’s a university setting, distance learning program or a freestanding doctoral program, students need to think in advance why they want a doctoral degree and what work they envision doing down the road,” Williams-Nickelson said.
Interested in a tenure-track academic position, for example? Then Ph.D programs would be best. Put another way, “if you want to go into academia, you should be looking at programs that clearly prepare you for that,” because “Psy.D programs are designed to be a practical program.”
But what do you do if you’re unsure about your professional path? Solomon was in the same boat. “When I was applying to graduate school, I actually wasn’t certain whether my long-term career goals would include research, clinical work or both,” she said. Her solution? She applied to a variety of Psy.D and Ph.D programs. (She also applied to non-psychology programs.)
When it came time for the interview process, she focused on fit, which is key in picking a program. She said: “When I interviewed at Xavier, it immediately felt like the place that matched my interests and needs best.” As mentioned above, Solomon liked that the program focused on clinical skills and research.
Is the program APA-accredited?
It’s really important to select programs that are accredited by the American Psychological Association. “If you enter a program that’s not accredited, then you have a hard time getting an internship or depending on the state, you’ll have a hard time getting licensed,” Kuther said.
“Accreditation standards set a reasonable quality bar for graduate psychology education,” Williams-Nickelson said. If “a program isn’t accredited, a student should ask a lot of questions about why.” If the program is in the process of achieving accreditation, “find out where they are in that process.”
Visit APA’s website for more on accreditation.
What experiences does the program offer?
It’s not enough to know whether a program focuses more on research or practical work. Look specifically at the types of experiences each program offers. That gives you a better idea of whether it’ll prepare you for your future goals and be a good fit.
What are the program’s post-graduates doing?
Ask about the types of positions students who’ve graduated from the program occupy. Solomon used this as one of her criteria when choosing a school. “When I heard some of the things recent grads were doing, I was excited and felt like I would love to be doing those things too. That helped me feel like it was the right place for me.”
Williams-Nickelson sees a lot of Psy.Ds running organizations, consulting and working with systems and working on medical school faculties, which she believes is a good fit. She actually serves as the executive director of the American Medical Student Association.
What are your financial needs?
For many students, finances are an important factor in picking their program. “The data still show that Psy.D programs tend to be more expensive than Ph.D programs,” and Psy.D students tend to graduate with more loans, Williams-Nickelson said.
The reason? Some Psy.D programs are housed in freestanding for-profit institutions that charge tuition. Most Ph.D programs waive tuition and provide students with stipends. Faculty members in Ph.D programs receive grants to conduct their research, so they’re able to pay their students, who assist with the research. However, again, look at programs individually, because some Psy.D programs do offer funding. Solomon had an assistantship for three of her five years, which she said, “helped cover some of the costs of tuition and provided a modest stipend.”
Is the program a quality one?
Williams-Nickelson recommended focusing on the following questions to help you in determining a program’s quality:
- What is the class size? Pay particular attention to the student-faculty ratio. It’s telling when it comes to the quality of training and clinical supervision you’ll receive, the ability to get into an internship and performance on the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP), the national licensing test. (Individuals must pass the EPPP and have the required number of clinical hours to get licensed and practice independently.) Also, don’t assume that all Psy.D programs have large class sizes — a common misconception. While this may be the case with certain programs, there are many exceptions, Williams-Nickelson said. For instance, her doctoral Psy.D class only had seven students. Solomon’s had 14 students.
- What is the graduation rate?
- How many students successfully match for an internship? Research has shown that Psy.D students may not gain acceptance into their preferred internship site at the same rate as Ph.D students.
- How well do students do on exams such as the EPPP? On average, students with a Psy.D tend to score lower on the EPPP than students with a Ph.D.
- “What are the priorities of the faculty in terms of teaching and mentoring?”
- Are there a lot of part-time or adjunct faculty members? If so, there “might be less opportunities for individualized attention.”
- “What is the longevity of faculty members? If they tend to rotate, what is the turnover like?”
- How long has the program existed?
Also, when you’re interviewing at each program, ask their students for honest feedback, Williams-Nickelson said, including: What does the program look like? How happy are you with the program? What has surprised you the most about it? What has been disappointing?
Again, you can’t automatically assume the quality of a program just by considering Psy.D versus Ph.D. Consider your own career goals, do your homework into individual programs and ask many questions.
- Room for Us All in GradPSYCH magazine
- The Degree that Almost Wasn’t: The PsyD Comes of Age in Monitor on Psychology
- Graduate Study in Psychology, 2011 Edition
- Applying to Graduate School from the APA
- A variety of links from a university on preparing for and applying to grad programs