How can an older student without a psychology background get into a psychology PhD program?
September 27, 2008 8:38 AM   Subscribe

As a (somewhat) older student, how can I best prepare to get into a clinical psychology PhD program?

Say I want to be a therapist. Say I've had several good therapists in the past, one of whom I worked with closely for a couple of years. Say I have a pretty decent idea of what being a therapist is all about, and that I want to take my previous therapists as professional role models.

These therapists I've liked have all had PhDs, and I want to get a PhD, too, and eventually go into private practice.

I'm nearing 30, and though I have a great academic record, it's not in psychology. I have good grades from good schools, a master's degree in English from a top university, teaching experience, and some work experience that involves people-management (and helped convince me I could be a good therapist), but is of course not psychology per se.

Can I apply to doctoral programs as I am? I hear they're crazy-competitive. Do I need to take a bunch of undergraduate science and psychology courses, and/or do a master's in psychology first?

Assume my GRE general test scores are good. Will I definitely need to take the psychology subject test as well?

I am not 100% against getting an MSW instead, as I understand that it can also qualify one to be a talk therapist, but I'm leaning towards a doctorate because (1) I want the added prestige and earning power of this degree; (2) I want to write about psychology and I imagine a PhD would give me extra authority; (3) it seems to me that social work school attracts people who are more interested in working with seriously structurally downtrodden populations, which I think is super noble, but not exactly where I want to go; (4) I am not sure, but I might like to be able to teach it someday.

I also thought about PsyD's, but heard that they continue to be less well-regarded than PhDs, and also that you have to pay your own way completely.
posted by sobriquet to Education (7 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
My girlfriend is a third year in a clinical psych PhD program right now, so I went through this process with her not too long ago. I would start off by ordering this book, if you haven't already.

First off, the good news: your age is totally irrelevant. At 24, my girlfriend was the youngest person in her first year classes by at least a year; most of her classmates are in their late 20s and early 30s. However, unfortunately for you, the reason for this is that almost all admissions boards are looking for some significant experience in the field prior to your application, so most of her classmates had spent years in research jobs before grad school. My girlfriend spent the 2 years prior to her matriculation working as a clinical research assistant for a prominent research psychologist. In addition to the experience she gained, the letters of recommendation that she was given were invaluable components of her application. It sounds to me like you lack both experience in the field and a relevant professional recommendation, both of which are major liabilities. If you're serious about pursuing this degree (and you'd better be, because it is nightmarishly difficult once you're in), then you need to consider getting a job in the field for a couple of years before trying to apply.

Truth be told, I'm really not sure how your undergraduate background will affect your application. A lot of undergraduate psychology programs are sort of a joke, so it's possible that your lack of previous experience there won't be such a big deal. But given how competitive these programs are, I doubt that taking some post-bacc classes would do anything but help you.

Once that's out of the way and you're actually ready to put applications together, you're going to need to get a very good GRE score, and a very good psychology subject GRE score as well.

The application process itself is brutal, but if you've got any concerns about that, perhaps we can tackle them in another AskMe question.

I'm sure that all sounds very discouraging, but it's not meant to be. Sobering yes, discouraging no. If you're serious about pursuing this path, recognize that you have a hell of a lot of work to do before you're even at the point that you could realistically consider applying. If you've got any questions regarding anything I've written, or questions for my girlfriend, my email address is in my profile.

Oh, and one final note: "I want the added... earning power of this degree" made me laugh out loud. Methinks you should probably do some googling concerning that very subject as soon as possible.
posted by saladin at 10:10 AM on September 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

FWIW, I'm looking into a master's program in psychology and the school I'm investigating is very, very clear about the requirements for applicants who don't have an academic background in psych. It looks as though I'm going to have to take a number of undergrad courses in order to be considered for the program. Which, really, is fine with me because I wouldn't want to go into a field of advanced study without knowing the basics first, no matter how much practical experience I have at the moment.

Do you have specific schools in mind? Try checking out their psychology departments' pages online and see if they address questions like yours. If they don't, someone in the department probably handles inquiries of this nature all the time.
posted by corey flood at 10:27 AM on September 27, 2008

The above advice is good. You definitely need the GRE, both the general and the Psych test, and you want to have absolutely top-notch scores on all components of it. Some places are more flexible about non-psych undergrad degrees than others, and it's worth explicitly asking the graduate coordinator whether there are hard and fast rules. Either way you want to have at least some psych undergrad courses, in particular statistics, so you can make the argument that you have the equivalent of what someone with a bachelors in psych would have.

The other thing to be sensitive to here is that most programs admit people on the basis of being able to find an advisor for the applicant, and so you want to identify potential advisors early on and make a case in your application materials for why your interests mesh with theirs. You might want to contact potential advisors just to ask whether they are looking for new students and whether there are areas of research in particular that they are interested in supervising. If you have any research experience, you'll have a leg up on other students. Otherwise, I suggest you find a lab where you can at least volunteer so you have at least gotten your feet wet if this is the path you want to follow.

On the other hand, some schools have no research program to speak of. If that's the case then admission will be grades and GRE based and the above paragraph won't apply. It's worth figuring out in advance which type of program you are applying to and tailor your application accordingly.

Finally: find and read a paper called "Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process". It outlines stuff you should not include in your application under any circumstances, and also gives you an idea of how to answer the invetiable "why do you want to be a clinical psychologist". (The correct answer is not "I want to figure out what's wrong with me" or "my grandfather was a psychopath.")
posted by drmarcj at 10:30 AM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend livejournal's applytograd community - lots of people doing clinical psych there.
posted by k8t at 10:44 AM on September 27, 2008

Hey there,

I'm a grad student in clinical psych at a major university. My undergraduate background is in neurobiology, but I would say the rest of my 9 person class came from psychology. If you have no research, this is going to be a difficult feat for you unless you're willing to apply to expensive professional schools. If you insist on a research PhD program where you'll receive funding, etc., you may want to look into Masters programs first - a few friends of mine took that route. Columbia Teacher's College, etc. Contact me if you have any questions!
posted by namesarehard at 12:50 PM on September 27, 2008

Psychology is a science as well as a helping profession. A master's degree in English will not avail you in getting through, for example, the classes in experiment design, and intro, intermediate and advanced statistics that you will need to complete and understand before you can be in a position to start to read the literature, and, eventually, make an original contribution to the field. If you do not want to make an original contribution to the field, you must not try to obtain a Ph.D.., as that is what a Ph.D. is for.

Here are the goals you have stated:
  • your previous therapists as role models
  • Added prestige
  • added earning power
  • extra authority
  • "no interest in working with seriously structurally downtrodden populations"
  • to teach someday, although you do not yet know anything about what you would like to teach
None of your goals involve advancing the science of psychology, which makes applying to a Ph.D program a pretty dicey proposition. None of them involve helping people, except for the very first, which involves helping only a narrow category of people who, presumaby, are a lot like yourself. The rest of these goals are about your ego and your importance - even the one about helping only people like you is pretty narcissistic.

You should take a good hard look at your motivations before you proceed - maybe even more in-depth than my two-sentence foray just above - because they will be examined even more closely at every subsequent step in the course you are contemplating. To me, from what you've posted, it looks like you had an experience with authority and now a bit of reaction formation is going on, leading you to want to assume the mantle of that authority over others. A lot of people get their start in the helping professions that way, but it is not sufficient basis for an entire career. There have to be other reasons to sustain the commitment.

In my experience, psychology doesn't need people like you, at least as you express yourself right now. It has enough already - "practitioners" who don't practice, Ph.D's who contribute nothing, therapists who are happy to take money from the worried well, while the seriously mentally ill suffer untreated. Especially toxic is the idea that now you have had a couple years of therapy, you already "have a good idea of what therapists do" and are now an expert. If you want to impose yourself on the field anyway, go ahead - everyone else does - but don't expect a free ride; the bus you're trying to take is crowded and no one on the other end needs you to be there.

And for goodness' sake, if I can give you some free advice, stop talking about the "structurally downtrodded" as objects you intend to ignore. Just don't mention it. If you do, you will be blacklisted even by professionals who feel the same way, because it is generally understood that although this viewpoint is essentially shared by 90% of the psychiatric and psychologic community, it is nonetheless something shameful. The most common acceptable cop-out is to frame it in terms of what the American health care system allows versus what it needs. As a helping profession psychology generally tends toward the politically liberal; it is not considered politic to point out that you can't stand hearing about the problems of the poor and the racial minorities and the underclass, even though very few people really enjoy those things.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:31 PM on September 27, 2008 [10 favorites]

In general, PsyD programs are competitive and PhD programs are even more so because they accept a much smaller number of people. I am currently in a PsyD program and there are a few people in my program who didn't have a background in psych, but the majority did. Since you don't, you will most likely be asked why you want to pursue this degree or be a clinical psychologist. And seconding ikkyu2 that for the prestige and money is not a good answer to that question. So, I would recommend taking some time to think about it and come up with something better. Oh, and the answer "I want to help people" is also considered a no-no because the programs already assume this.

There are also some other things you might want to think about:
1. You will have to consider moving. Based on where you live, the programs near you may not interest you or be even more competitve than others. For example, I moved from FL to VA.

2. This will likely be at least a 5 year commitment. Some schools are better at working with people who work full-time (offering evening classes, etc.) but others aren't. Also, at least in my program, doing the coursework part-time is not looked upon favorably, and it will take you forever to finish the degree.

3. A master's degree in clinical psych won't get you very far (unfortunately, I've found this out very recently). You can't get licensed because you don't have the right qualifications, which really restricts which jobs you can get.

Finally, I'd like to tell you, don't listen to people who tell you PsyDs aren't as good as PhDs. Yes, the degree is newer, but we get just as good training regarding clinical work as PhDs. Sure, we don't put as much emphasis on research like many PhD programs do. But, that's the whole point. There are those of us who don't care about doing research. We would much rather be working in the field with the people who need our help.
posted by Nolechick11 at 1:43 PM on September 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

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