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Applying to PhD Programs in Clinical Psychology--A Sobering Discussion

[Editor's note: The following discussion took place on TIPS, the Teaching In Psychology discussion list on the internet. It raises some important issues for undergraduates who intend to apply to PhD programs in clinical psychology and the faculty who advise them. Permission to use this discussion was granted by all participants. --Russ Dewey]

[See also "Reactions to the Sobering Discussion" for some followup comments.]

From: egilden@LINFIELD.EDU

(Eugene Gilden, Linfield State University)

I have a student who will graduate this may with about a 3.99 GPA. She has A's in everything from Spanish to Calculus to Psychology. On the GRE her scores were 800 on the verbal (this is not a typo), 690 quant., and 720 on the analytic. On the subject test she scored 790. During her time on this campus she founded and obtained funding for a student-run, student-staffed peer counseling center. Working with the professional staff she developed a training program for the peer counselors. Outside of campus she lead a successful campaign to build a new elementary school, and ran for and was elected to the local school board. This woman is 20 years old!

In addition to all of this she is in the midst of completing an empirical investigation of memory in preschool children. She applied to about 8 high quality Ph.D. programs in clinical and was turned down by all of them. The reason for being turned down was uniformly the same, she did not have any publications. My problem is that I have a very difficult time believing that there are very many undergraduates who have really done the work to merit authorship on publications. I know that there are labs where everyone who contributes at all from running subjects to making appointments gets included as an author. I am not necessarily opposed to such a process but I believe that as a discipline we must begin to look at authorship with a bit more of a jaundiced eye. Think about your own best undergraduates and your own experience as a graduate and undergraduate student. Sorry to go on so long. Ideas, comments are welcomed. --Eugene

From (Unknown)

Re: getting students into Ph.D. programs

Eugene -- an injustice has been done. Will someone offer this woman a position? Or does she have to take the back door approach, like so many fine students have to do? By that I mean get into a research-oriented degree and then switch into clinical in your first or second year? This is fairly common I am told, and the end results are two-fold (IMHO): first, it is unfair to the student because they end up spending a couple years in an area that they are not totally interested in; secondly, it is unfair to the "research-oriented" discipline because it loses another student. In other words, the discipline loses in both cases.

From: STEELEKM@CONRAD.APPSTATE.EDU

(Ken Steele, Appalachian State University)

NO! NO! NO! Do NOT advise students to try a backdoor route. The PhD programs I am familiar with have explicit rules in place to prevent such a maneuver because it was so popular at one time.

Clearly this woman seems objectively qualified. Either she applied to the wrong program (e.g., applying to programs that are preparing individuals for an academic career when she wants to be a practitioner) or she failed to do something else. Did she have interviews at these schools? Ask her what was discussed during the interview. I would bet that there is a good clue there.

The "no research" phraseology sounds like she was applying to the wrong type of clinical program. It is often a bad strategy to apply to a program because it is "famous." One should always ask "famous for what?" and determine if that is what you want to do. --Ken Steele

From: Delia.M.Cioffi@Dartmouth.EDU

(Delia M. Cioffi, Dartmouth College)

There is yet another pernicious consequence to the practice of applying to/enrolling in one program track and then switching to clinical; the suspicion the practice has created among admissions committees. Some years ago I was wait-listed at a good program (I had applied to social) simply because they were "worried" that my "real" interests were clinical, and that I was trying to get into that program through the back door. In fact, I had zero interest in clinical, and there was nothing in my record, statement, or admissions materials that should have activated their suspicion. As it turns out I was eventually admitted---but only after I received an NSF Fellowship, which cannot be used to support clinical training (I turned them down).

My 2-cents worth about the bright, accomplished student who didn't get admitted this year; for better or for worse, extensive "outside" activities and life accomplishments (community service, etc) is not necessarily seen as a plus by some committees, perhaps especially those at "competitive" schools. The prototypic "successful" applicant will have done nothing but research psychology, thereby demonstrating their single-minded commitment that most places like to see. Unfortunately, a well-rounded, broad, and balanced roster of undergraduate activities is sometimes seen as a "red flag" rather than as a plus: "if she had stopped futzing around will all that community activism and good citizenship stuff, she'd have some pubs by now". It is not fair, but I have seen it happen. --delia cioffi

From: WSCOTT@acs.wooster.edu

(Bill Scott, College of Wooster)

None of our students who applied succeeded in gaining entrance to clinical Ph.D. programs this year. One received 800 on one of her GRE subtests. In a discussion at a local area undergraduate conference recently, it turned out that no one knew of a single successful entry directly from the B.A. into a clinical psych Ph.D. program this year. Our top students did receive a few somewhat apologetic letters from a few programs. The leading reason for the rejections seemed to be that students were being admitted from research positions that they had acquired subsequent to receiving their B.A.'s one, two, or more years ago. It seems to have been a very tough year for undergraduates applying to clinical programs. The M.A. programs are still admitting, though. --Bill Scott

From: PKBRANDON@MSUS1.MSUS.EDU

(Paul K. Brandon, Monkato State University)

More than 90% of our MA students get accepted by APA-approved clinical programs Many (but not all) have publications. Some of our undergraduates also get into clinical PhD programs. First question is: did the student apply to only the 'top' clinical programs (no insurance schools)?...

...Look at letters of recommendation. Was any faculty member able to say they had enjoyed working with this student? If not, that might explain the lack of acceptance into elite PhD clinical programs. --Paul K Brandon

From: PCABE@pembvax1.pembroke.edu

(Pat Cabe, Pembroke State University)

A friend of mine described the competition to get into a good graduate program in clinical psych this way: All the applicants have perfect grades and GREs over 1400 and wonderful letters from famous people. After that, he says, it's a crap-shoot.

Everyone who advises undergraduates who have any illusions (or delusions) about going to graduate school ought to INSIST that such students buy (first sign of true commitment), study, and follow the guidelines that Patricia Keith-Spiegel offers in her book, The complete guide to graduate school admission (Erlbaum). Particularly interesting and enlightening, I think, is the summary of her survey of faculty members who are actively involved in screening graduate applications. Research activity and productivity occurs so frequently in the top couple of dozen elements that it simply can't be ignored. So...word to the wise is get involved in some kind of serious-minded research project that has the potential to yield some kind of presentation/publication (or more than one) EARLY in one's undergrad career. The more so if you have kids at a less well-known school, as I do. --Pat Cabe

"Reactions to the Sobering Discussion" [E-mail from students, and responses...]

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