Graduate school is both an incredibly challenging and rewarding time in a person’s life. As with any challenge you take on, it’s wise to be prepared. Oftentimes, some of the best people to help you along the way are the ones who’ve already been through the process.
That’s why we spoke with current and former students from different types of clinical and counseling psychology programs to get their tips for graduate school success. Below, they discuss everything from self-care and finances to internship and future goals.
1. Explore all your options.
There are many types of psychology grad programs. “Learn the differences among PhD and Master’s-level helping professions, and talk to people who hold those licenses to figure out what will be the best fit for you and your professional interests,” said Kate Thieda, a counseling student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who’s graduating with her Masters of Science in May, and writes the blog Partners in Wellness on Psych Central.
2. Grad school is less like college and more like a full-time job.
Grad school is very different from college. Even the most diligent students have a lot to adjust to — namely the time commitment and academic rigor. For instance, gone are the days of cramming for exams the night before. Most tests in grad school require days or even weeks of studying.
This is compounded by the constant juggling grad school requires. Elizabeth Short, a counseling student at the University of New Orleans, who’s graduating with her Masters of Education in August, found it especially difficult to juggle studying for the comprehensive exam while on internship:
“Had I been aware of how stressful it would be to try and study while in a full time internship, I would have started much earlier and studied all along the way. The first three months of this year were spent studying in all of my spare time (which there wasn’t very much of). I was exhausted.”
According to Ashley Solomon, who received her Psy.D from Xavier University and is a post-doctoral fellow at Insight Psychological Centers in Chicago and writes the blog Nourishing the Soul:
“While I considered myself responsible and took undergraduate studies seriously, doing clinical work as a trainee required a whole new level of preparedness and maturity. I needed to make a huge mental shift from being a college student to being a graduate student. For me this meant treating graduate school like a full-time job, being prepared to work greater than a 40-hour work week, even if classes and practicum required less than this.”
Erlanger “Earl” Turner, Ph.D, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, was surprised by the amount of writing that grad courses required. “I wish I had known that it required so much writing. I expected to read a lot for classes and seminars but the extent of papers (sometimes) weekly was very unexpected,” said Turner, who graduated from Texas A&M University’s clinical psychology program.
Similarly, “Realize that your time will not be your own,” Thieda said. She explained:
“Other people decide what you will do when during daytime (and sometimes evening) hours, such as going to class, doing practicums and internships and fulfilling other duties, like assistantships. Your weekends will be spent on studying, reading, assignments and projects. Expect lots of group work as well, which will be challenging to coordinate with classmates who have similarly packed schedules.”
This also requires being highly organized. Thieda recommended such applications as Google Docs and Skype, along with a good ol’ planner.
3. Let go of perfectionism.
Because grad school requires so much juggling, students need to learn to prioritize their work and relinquish perfectionistic tendencies, said Kristen Morrison, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist at The Colorado Center for Clinical Excellence, who also graduated from A&M’s clinical psychology program. Not only is there little time to create flawless work, but you’ll also run yourself ragged.
If you’re having a tough time with this, talk to students who are further along in the program to see how they’re able to keep up.
4. Focus on perseverance.
One of Morrison’s supervisors told her that a dissertation is “nothing more than a test of perseverance,” which she believes applies to grad school as a whole. It isn’t that you need to be a megastar scholar. The key to success is “the willingness to keep going and not give up;” to “keep working to do well in grad school.”
5. Make time for self-care.
“Self-care is paramount to success” in grad school, Thieda said. “It is easy to get overburdened with assignments and responsibilities, but taking time to connect with friends who are not associated with the program and family is important.” She also suggested journaling (or other ways to self-reflect), exercising, eating well and getting enough sleep.
In college, you might’ve been able to swing an insufficient sleep schedule, but in grad school, this can have a negative impact on the quality of your work. Solomon realized the need for a better routine when “I could no longer function well for my academic and clinical work on five hours of sleep.”
But, of course, fitting in self-care isn’t easy. Morrison suggested picking several activities that you can’t do without. Her main source of self-care is exercise. So she created her own tricks for working exercise into her days. Her first year, she participated in intramural sports, which became “a fun way to meet grad students who were not in our program [and] to have a bigger network of acquaintances.” She’d also combine “social events with self-care,” running or going to the gym with friends. (“Support and building relationships with your peers is the saving grace in grad school,” she said.) In addition, she signed up for yoga classes at the gym, a commitment that motivated her to go more often. She also brought her gym clothes to school because she knew that after she got home, she’d too exhausted to go back.
For other grad students, nonnegotiable activities might be reading, writing, painting or participating in marathons.
6. You might feel like a fake, but remember that you aren’t.
When starting grad school (and even years into the program), many students experience what psychologists have termed the “impostor phenomenon,” a deep sense of insecurity about their capabilities and intelligence.
For example, Solomon shared:
“I spent the first couple of years of graduate school convinced that I was a complete fake. I thought that there was no way that I could be as smart or talented as everyone else, and so I had to work three times as hard to accomplish the same results.
“Even when I was doing well, I worried that it was a matter of time until I was ‘discovered’ and had fantasies of being thrown out! This was obviously ridiculous, but it was just like hating my belly — my insecurity was more about deeper fears and less about actually being able to pass a class.
“I wish I had been able to accept the evidence of my intelligence earlier so that I could spend more mental energy learning and absorbing than worrying that I would be found out.”