Becoming a psychologist at 27
June 20, 2005 3:17 PM   Subscribe

Over a year ago, I was struck with the desire to become a psychologist (preferably a mix of research and clinical) and haven't been able to shake it. I will be 27 in a few months, have a BA in Film Studies, and currently work as a developer at a web startup. Mefi psychologists: What should I consider to determine if this is something I'm truly cut out for? If I am, what sort of programs should I consider applying for and how can I gather the necessary stuff (letters of recommendation, prerequisites, test scores) to get off the ground? I haven't been in college for over 5 years now.
posted by 4easypayments to Work & Money (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Hey 4easy, this is pretty easy. Have you tried any volunteer work? That should help you a great deal in deciding. I have some background and education in the field and I find it to be incredibly rewarding. Go for it.
posted by snsranch at 4:37 PM on June 20, 2005

Not a psychologist but I do run two large community mental health centers and I am a licensed independent social worker.
1) If you want to practice as a psychologist you need a Ph.D.. No if ands or buts--a short cut will not work in the real world--only if you were grandfathered.
2) Private practice is extremely competitive and increasingly less lucrative--you will be competing with psychiatrists, masters level nurse practitioners--both have more professional flexibility than psychologists unless you live in a state which has prescribing privileges for psychologists--and independently licensed social workers
3) Psychologists have priced/educated themselves out of the community mental health field and do not bring any real added value over other professionals--very few employed
4) I do not know about the education and MR/DD fields--my guess is there a few more opportunities because of testing
5) Can not speak to academic environments
Bottom line--think long and hard and be clear about what you really want to do and why--if your primary interest is in doing therapy I would encourage you to think about a Masters in either Nursing (psych specialty) or Social Work (MSW)--both are considered terminal degrees based on nationally accepted standards and offer considerable flexibility--nursing offers the most compensation and professional flexibility/mobility per time and dollar spent in preparation--Good Luck
posted by rmhsinc at 5:41 PM on June 20, 2005

While agreeing somewhat with rmhsince, if you go for the doctorate, you will be able to engage in other aspects of the field, such as research and/or teaching. The important part of any of any of these degrees is what license you get, and what the employment possibilities are for a person with that license. For example - if you live in a rural area of an unpopulated state - you will have no problem being employed in all types of ways - academic - government - private practice and so on. If you live in a populated urban center or on the east or west coast - it is a bit more cut throat. Check out the state license for the degree you are looking at - that is the key to employment. And I didn't start my psych degree until I was about 32. You are in no way "too old."
posted by trii at 6:25 PM on June 20, 2005

I am finishing my my doctorate in Psychology now. (I have defended my dissertation and will be done with internship in 2 months!). I'm in School Psych, which is one of the three applied areas of Psychology (Clinical and Counseling being the other two). If you're primarily interested in therapy with adults, then nowadays, the Counseling doctorate is the one you want. When you say you're interested in Clinical, I presume you mean you're interested in doing therapy. Consider what you mean when you say you are interested in doing research. The PhD is a long, hard road, and if you're not interested in a teaching career or in doing research in an academic environment, there are many other ways to reach the goal of doing therapy with adults.

I decided I was interested in doing Psychology after graduating from college. I took 10 psych classes at a local university while at the same time doing paid and volunteer work both in research labs at the university and more applied positions in schools and in treatmnet facilities. Getting to the point where I was competitive enough to get into grad school took a long while. I initially thought I wanted to be in Clinical psych, but after working in a lab in a Clinical Psych department at a Research 1 university, I learned that was definitely not the best match for me.

In School Psych, there was a strong focus on children, a strong focus on environmental and contextual factors, and I had much more direct client contact than I would have had if I'd stayed and done a degree in the Clinical program.

What is most interesting about the field of Psych is how insanely different departments are at different universities. Keep that in mind when you are applying. What I would recommend is that you do quite a bit of volunteer work and hourly work in several different types of placements before deciding what programs you think you want. I think you need to know a lot to be able to decipher the true differences. New people to the field are often gung ho about things before really understanding what is entailed. Do your research, take your time. It's absolutely not too late, but it's going to take a long time.

I'm in my 7th and final year right now. I might have done it in 6 had I not gotten divorced in the middle. That (i.e. life) slowed me down a bit. 7 years is the average for my program. In the Counseling program, most people came in with a Master's degree, then were on campus doing coursework for 3 years, then then had the 1 yr internship (like what I'm doing now). Many people do Counseling degrees at two different universities. My program was Master's and PhD all in one continuous program.

But again, if you're thinking Clinical, know that at most Research 1 institutions, clinical degrees are now really reserch degrees (I know it doesn't sound right, but trust me... it's true).

One secret: When I worked in the Clinical department, I can't tell you how many current PhD students told me that they really wanted to do therapy, but they weren't allowed to say that in front of their professors. What?!!

For more about what life as a psych doc student is really like and the issues you will face, check out the Grad Psych mag put out by APA.
posted by abbyladybug at 8:44 PM on June 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

I must disagree with the volunteer work suggestions above, if only because you won't get any real volunteer work unless you're in a Masters or Masters/PhD program (due to confidentiality considerations). Otherwise, you'll be left with the kind of volunteer work I did: a mixture of social work and law which is interesting but not the work of a typical psychologist.

The clinical vs. research decision is a big one, but keep in mind that clinical programs are very competitive.

Not sure about the States, but in Canada, there's no way to enter a Masters or Masters/PhD program in psych without an honours bachelor in psych, or do some additional classwork to make up the difference (which will be larger in your case, unless you had this in mind when you chose your electives).

In addition to doing all the normal stuff you'd think to do: talk to some people in the field, do what volunteer work you can, see if you can find a mentor, etc, realize that you're going to have to do some coursework before you even set out. If you can afford it, do it. This will expose you to some actual classwork, including stats and other unpleasantness that you may not have come to terms with yet. You do well and want to move on to the Masters at that point, do so.
posted by dreamsign at 9:20 PM on June 20, 2005

This fully accredited British University does distance learning Psychology Masters degrees, perhaps you could consider one of them. The University was specifically created to cater to people from non-traditional backgrounds and they will consider a whole range of factors in deciding whether to accept you.
posted by biffa at 3:48 AM on June 21, 2005

I'm a psychologist, and I do both clinical and research work. I got my doctorate in 1989, and was licensed in 1991. I was almost 30 when I started.

To find out if you want to do clinical work, I agree with the volunteering idea. I personally volunteered at a suicide prevention hotline. Make sure the place you volunteer at has a good training program, as you don't want to just get thrown into a position. You want to experience training in techniques like empathic listening, which is a lot of what you need to be able to do to be a good clinician.

Another way would be to get in therapy yourself. Talk about your goals and the decisions you have to make, and the therapy may help you clarify what you want, as well as exposing you to what a psychologist/therapist type person actually does.

There's a book that the APA publishes, called Graduate Study in Psychology that lists all the programs in the US and Canada as well as their entry requirements. Stop by your local university psychology department library and thumb through it to get an idea of what's out there in terms of programs, costs, financial aid, etc. Some programs are quite competitive, and others are not. There's also the option of professional schools, which are generally free-standing institutions, and are more costly and less competitive than regular universities.

If you want to just do clinical work, you could get a PsyD. (or just go with the Master's route as it's faster). If you want to do both clinical and research, you need to shoot for a PhD, and be prepared to take on a research project as a dissertation.

You might need to take some general ed psyc 101 type courses before you apply - these are easy to find at your local community college. Get to know any teachers you like and see if you can volunteer or try to get work as a research assistant for them. This is actually a good strategy to help you with admission to a program too - This way, you can ask lots of questions and, if you do good work, you'll have an advocate and a good letter for your admission packet.

I think rmhsinc has some good points, but exaggerates the employment issue. There are plenty of psychologists working out there, though it's certainly true that Master's level practitioners have taken a lot of the jobs doctorate level folks used to do. This is just part of the trend of industrialization of health care. My sense is that, as with MDs, the scene is very competitive in highly desirable urban areas, and that there are probably lots of opportunities in other areas.

Good luck - feel free to email if you have other questions.
posted by jasper411 at 11:58 AM on June 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much to everyone. You've been a big help! (I checked into volunteering for the Samaritans suicide prevention line today and will probably start training soon.)
posted by 4easypayments at 7:57 PM on June 21, 2005

If you are still reading--please, please do not pursue a non traditional degree unless you are doing it solely for the love of the field--
posted by rmhsinc at 6:31 PM on June 22, 2005

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