Undergrad research for Clinical Psych Phd
July 28, 2009 5:25 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to apply to a research oriented clinical psychology doctoral program. I am finishing up my undergraduate in psychology at the University of Maryland University College. It is an accredited ONLINE university which doesn’t offer any undergrad research opportunities. I want to apply to programs this coming December. I feel I can adequately prepare for my GRE’s and my GPA is 3.65 (major GPA 4.0). The only problems I am facing are 1.) Finding undergrad research opportunities, there are many universities around me in Chicago but won’t they prefer undergrad students from their own institutions? 2.) Provided I find an undergrad research opportunity will only a few months of research experience be suffice to apply to grad school with? 3.) I am worried schools will frown at my undergrad from an online university.
posted by Genco_Olive_Oil to Education (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Clinical psyc programs are INCREDIBLY hard to get into, even with research experience (we're talking 3-5 students admitted out of 300 applicants). I was in a similar situation, in that my undergrad school was a teaching institute and there just weren't research opportunities available. I found Master's program in research/experimental psych to prepare myself to apply to PhD programs, and have found the experience invaluable. I have been able to hone my research interests and learn just exactly what it is about academia that I like (and what I don't like). Looking back, I can't even imagine starting a PhD program without knowing what I know now. Memail me if you'd like to know more.
posted by moojoose at 5:43 PM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a grad student in cognitive psychology (so, also a research-based PhD program). My understanding is that when you are applying to a research-based program, your past research experience and your recommendation letters (especially those from people in the field) are weighted much more heavily than grades or GRE scores. Usually these letters come from research advisors or professors you've taken a class with. I don't know how much contact you have with professors in your online courses, but you might want to take this into consideration.

As far as trying to do research at a university in which you are not enrolled, I am not sure if there is any actual rule against this on the books, but I have personally never seen it done in any of the labs that I worked in, nor have I heard of anyone who has done this. I suspect (though I'm not sure) that it might have something to do with all of the regulations involved with running human subjects. The university might not allow someone who isn't affiliated with the university to interact with subjects because they are liable if something happens.

Also, most of the professors that I know are hesitant to take volunteers, even if they are students at the school, because volunteers tend to quit showing up after a while. What usually happens is that undergrads have to register for a "course" where they get credit for doing lab work. The fact that the students are receiving a grade makes them more likely to honor their commitments.

I hate to sound like such a downer, but I think your best bet would be to delay applying to grad school for at least a year and try to find a position as a lab manager at a university. That way, you would be a staff member and thus affiliated with the university and able to interact with subjects. It is also a great opportunity to meet and work with multiple faculty members (AKA your future recommenders) and gain the lab experience and skills that you need. You don't mention a specific reason why you want to start grad school next year, but lots of people take time off between undergrad and grad school specifically to gain more research experience and earn some money. Keep in mind that when you apply to grad school, you will be up against people who have several years of research experience. So you might have a better chance at getting accepted (or be able to get into a higher caliber of school) if you take a couple of years off to build your research experience.

I hope this is of some help to you. Please feel free to MeMail me if you have any other questions! And good luck, whatever you choose to do!
posted by rebel_rebel at 5:50 PM on July 28, 2009

I'm also a grad student in cog psych but I worked in a lab that was primarily a funnel for people trying to get into clinical programs. They are (at least in the US) RIDICULOUSLY competitive. You will have serious trouble trying to get in from an online school, especially without research experience. And I know many frown on people who get a master's first as moojoose did because the assumption is that you couldn't get into a PhD program to begin with, plus you almost always have to pay for the MA yourself and at least in the US, they are generally worthless (I know several people with them and the only jobs they could get were the same you could get with a BA/BS but fewer people wanted to hire them because the MA made them have to pay more).

Sorry to be a downer as well, but your best bet is to find a research position in a clinical lab first, often these require 2 year commitments (mine did). Even then, it can be really hard, many people I worked with did not get into any schools even with a "normal" college, great grades, and 2 years of research experience in an prominent hospital's research department. Just be prepared and do everything you can before applying and try not to get too down on yourself if you don't get in, keep trying.
posted by katers890 at 6:07 PM on July 28, 2009

katers890 - My program was entirely funded, and the majority of the graduates go on to PhD programs (although most are research, not clinical). It's not an unthinkable option...Masters programs exist for a reason.
posted by moojoose at 6:19 PM on July 28, 2009

katers890 - my SO got her MA first, now she's in a Ph.D. program, and there are a few others like her in her program.
posted by billysumday at 6:34 PM on July 28, 2009

also, i always thought the assumption was that a student who came right from undergrad might decide they don't want to get a PhD halfway through the program whereas a person who already has an MA knows exactly what they're getting into and is much less likely to drop out, which ultimately is looked at as a benefit.
posted by billysumday at 6:36 PM on July 28, 2009

Go work as a research assistant position at a psych lab. You will be making money, gaining experience, making contacts in the field and maybe even get your name on a published paper or at least a conference poster. Additionally, you will know a lot more about how academia and research really works than if you went directly into a PhD program, as well as what particular area you are interested in.
posted by sophist at 9:10 PM on July 28, 2009

Your online degree is a liability.

I work for a large psychiatry study, and we had over 200 applicants for the last full time research assistant position that opened (even though the pay was very low). That meant we had the luxury of choosing someone who already had some research experience as an undergrad. If you applied, your application would have gone straight to the no pile, because there were plenty of people with degrees from "good schools" to pick from, including my institution and others nearby.

You need to understand that academia has its own culture and you've never been exposed to it. Relationships between colleagues are key; that's how you would get recommendations and how you hear about others doing good work that you might be able to collaborate with. Even if you managed to get hired in a lab now, that's still only one recommendation, and probably not the strongest one. Who is going to write the other two?

If I were on an admissions committee, I would be concerned about more than your lack of research experience. I would be worried your high GPA isn't an indication of your real skill because your degree wasn't rigorous (and believe me, I would have at least 50 people to pick from with GPAs better than yours and research at big name schools). I would be worried you've never worked on a big team project. I would be worried you don't have the faintest idea what the difference is between a good studier and a good researcher.

If you're still dead set on clinical psych, sit down and clearly spell out your research interests and career goals, and use that as a starting point for applying to a master's program.
posted by slow graffiti at 9:35 PM on July 28, 2009

As far as trying to do research at a university in which you are not enrolled, I am not sure if there is any actual rule against this on the books, but I have personally never seen it done in any of the labs that I worked in, nor have I heard of anyone who has done this.

Please ignore this. Lots of people do research at universities at which they're not enrolled. That's how I got the research experience I needed to get into a doctoral program in psychology. You can definitely get experience at a university by sending emails to professors whose work you're interested in and asking if you can volunteer in their labs. Don't get discouraged if the first few people don't reply.

Go work as a research assistant position at a psych lab. You will be making money, gaining experience, making contacts in the field and maybe even get your name on a published paper or at least a conference poster. Additionally, you will know a lot more about how academia and research really works than if you went directly into a PhD program, as well as what particular area you are interested in.

This is great advice, but is a lot harder than it sounds. Getting a paid research position with any undergraduate degree is tough, and an online degree might make it even tougher. I applied for almost 50 paid research positions after I finished my undergraduate degree, and I didn't even hear back from most of them. Those that did reply offered a curt "no."

However, this doesn't mean it's impossible. The best way to get your foot in the door so as to gain research experience is to volunteer, and then work as much and as hard as you can. I waited tables at night for two years so that I could volunteer in a lab during the day. As the PI started to recognize that I was serious about it, she gradually gave me more responsibilities and began to pay me for some of my work (though I definitely worked more hours than I was paid for up until the very end). Over time, I was able to turn my volunteer gig into a full time, paid position as a lab manager. It wasn't easy, and working in a lab for science cred whilst working a different job to pay the bills is a major grind, but it's totally doable.

I was in your exact situation two years ago. I started volunteering in a lab in early August of 2007. I realized that I was not going to get enough research experience to get the kind of strong recommendation I would need to apply in December 2007, so I bit the bullet and decided to stick it out an extra year. I'm glad that I did. When I applied in December 2008 (though I actually started the first part of the application process, contacting potential mentors, in June), I had a good bit of research experience, a strong letter of recommendation from my PI, and additional letters from other professors I had gotten to know and work with over my eighteen months or so in the lab. I had the opportunity to pick various grad students' brains, and was lucky to have several different folks look over my applications.

While I didn't really want to take another year before applying to grad school, I realized that it's not worth the time and money (and when you tally up application fees, GRE score reports, and transcripts, it ain't cheap) to apply underprepared. I used the extra year to get familiar with the sort of research I wanted to pursue (and university journal access is a HUGE perk of volunteering in a lab), so that I was ready to start sending my initial inquiries to desired mentors as soon as they were done with their spring semesters.

You can also consider Master's programs as an alternative, but it's much harder to get funding as a Master's student (though again, it's not impossible).

I would recommend as strongly as possible that you not rush into applying to PhD programs. A year might seem like a long time now, but it's worth it in the long haul to bide your time and craft a strong application. A close friend applied at the same time as I did, but without the extra year of preparation and experience. She spent almost $1000 and countless hours only to get rejected from every program she applied to. I didn't apply to clinical programs, which are even more competitive than non-clinical ones, but I did get offers from several top notch programs. Now I'm working in the lab with which I'll be affiliated for the next several years, gearing up to start my PhD in the fall.

Feel free to contact me directly via MeFi mail or email if you like.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:39 AM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I want to clear this up--there are two kinds of clinical doctorates; one is research-heavy (the PhD) and the other is not (PsyD). The PhD is what the original poster is talking about, not the PsyD.

There is a definite difference between clinical and non-clinical programs, so others' experiences with, say, Master's programs in cognitive psych may not apply to clinical psych.
posted by kathrineg at 10:43 AM on July 29, 2009

I think solipsophistocracy's advice is spot on. In addition, have you asked this question at online degree forums like http://www.degreeinfo.com/?

Those forums have quite a few people who are very knowledgeable, have advanced degrees, and better yet, know additional resources that might be able to help you with your specific concern (how to get research experience).
posted by Danila at 7:49 PM on July 29, 2009

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