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.”
7. Be aware of the financial commitment.
Students spend endless hours researching programs, completing applications and preparing for interviews. But they may not give enough attention to financial matters. Solomon, who considers her education “100 percent worth the investment,” still said that “I could have helped myself be better informed about what to expect when it comes to the financial obligations of graduate school, and thus budgeted better during it.”
Turner, who tweets about psychology topics, said he wasn’t prepared for the financial hardships either. “I guess it comes with the territory but I didn’t expect to have difficulties with buying books, and supporting myself on student loans.”
Short didn’t realize the amount of time her three-semester internship would take, leaving her no room for another job. “I might have chosen to wait and save up money instead of going into debt with student loans during this time.”
8. Get involved in research.
Solomon wished that she would’ve participated in research earlier in college. “Any and all experience doing research enhances your competence, and perhaps more importantly, your comfort in doing this work,” she said. She added that many students are intimidated by research, “but this is where we have the ability to effect incredibly widespread change in people’s lives.”
9. Consider going to therapy.
While most grad programs don’t require their students to see a therapist, it can be very beneficial. Thieda said that therapy “gives you a better perspective of what it is like for clients who are sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings with a stranger.” Morrison agreed: “The only way to truly understand the therapy process and do it well is to sit in the other chair.” She added that therapy helps you learn your “blind and hot spots.”
Also, you might “find that certain topics and discussions in class may trigger unpleasant thoughts, feelings or memories,” and therapy is the best place to process this, Thieda said.
Short, who works “to apply every theory, technique and question to myself so that I can better understand my clients,” underscored the significance of growth for mental health professionals: “It is a constant challenge to continue to grow in insight and awareness of myself, but, in my opinion, of utmost importance in this field. We need to constantly be aware of our own needs and areas for growth.”
10. Think about the type of advisor you want to have.
“Having a good relationship with your advisor has such a strong bearing” on your grad school career, Morrison said. During interviews, try to get a good feeling for how they are interpersonally. See if the two of you match in personality style and how you get things done, she said. Ask potential advisors about how they prefer to mentor students and what it’s like to be a student in their lab. Also, Morrison suggested talking to other students to get the scoop.
11. Learn to set your own short-term goals.
Even though grad school is very structured in some ways, it’s also flexible in regards to smaller deadlines and goals. “It’s easy to let things pile up,” Morrison said. For her dissertation, Morrison and a close friend from her cohort kept each other accountable and on task by sending weekly or biweekly emails with what they worked on. Your advisor also can help with this, Morrison said. She’d tell her advisor her deadlines and ask him to keep her accountable.
12. Make sure you’re passionate about this work.
“I really believe that to make it through grad school in any of the mental health professions, there needs to be a passion for the field. I have seen many peers drop out along the way because they just weren’t that interested — and it’s too much of a commitment for someone who doesn’t love it,” Short said.
You certainly don’t want to rack up debt for something you aren’t sure about. As Solomon said, “Student loan payments could be twice as much as your mortgage, so you’d better be doing what you totally love.”
One of the best ways to know if a clinical or counseling program is for you is to research, research, research. According to Short, “Before beginning grad school, spend some time researching, visiting or interviewing those already practicing to see if it is something you really want to do.”
13. Think about the future.
“Before deciding what area of psychology you would like to study, consider your long-term career goals (i.e., what type of job would be ideal),” Turner said. “That will allow you to choose an area of interest that is highly motivating and keep you on track to completing your program.”
Also, there are many different directions you can take, such as teaching, research or conducting therapy, all of which have lots of options within them, Morrison said. It’s important to get enough experience in each area to keep your options open, while at the same time tailoring “your experiences to where you want to go career wise.”
14. Research your state’s licensure requirements.
Before picking a program, research “the licensing requirements and options in your state,” because they vary, Thieda said. She added:
“If you think you’ll be moving to a state that’s different from where your program will be, know what classes you will need to take in order to fulfill the licensing requirements in the new state. For example, in North Carolina, a Master’s-level licensed professional counselor (LPC) is not required to take a substance abuse counseling class, but many other states do require one for licensure.”
15. “Use your practicum and internship opportunities wisely,” Thieda said.
“They are your time to explore areas of interest, try new things, hone your skills, and, most importantly, make professional contacts,” which is also critical considering that “the helping professions are not immune to downturns in the economy,” she said.
Talk with as many professionals as possible, Thieda said, who also recommended sending thank-you notes and keeping contacts informed on your progress throughout the program. “Come job-hunting time (and after you land a job as well), they will be invaluable resources for information, other contacts and opportunities.”
Also, liking your surroundings isn’t the only location-specific thing to consider with an internship. Several people advised Morrison to do her internship in the place she wanted to end up living, if possible. Doing so can help with networking and learning about the mental health resources in the community, she said. However, most students end up moving elsewhere after internship.
16. Don’t lose your sense of humor!
While grad school is a serious endeavor, it’s also important to lighten up. (Humor can be healing.) For Morrison, reading the comic strip Piled Higher and Deeper (Ph.D) helped her keep a sense of humor about grad school hardships. (It’s absolutely hilarious!)