Applying to Graduate Programs in Clinical Psychology: A Guide for Prospective Students, Advisors, and Faculty Part I
Posted September 5, 2019
By Parky Lau, Joseph Rootman, Jill Robinson, & Lesley Lutes
Clinical Psychology: An IntroductionAs a practitioner, clinical psychologists often conduct assessments and provide evidence-based therapy to a variety of individuals that exhibit some form of psychopathology. Clinical psychologists are also trained as scientists and can be found working in research or educational settings such as academia and research centers, as well as clinical settings, including hospitals and private practice clinics. It is not uncommon for clinical psychologists to divide their time among clinical practice, academia, and research. As such, a vocation in clinical psychology can be rather versatile, making the degree and associated training programs highly-sought after. Clinical psychologists have undertaken extensive coursework, research, and clinical training in their field, have completed one year of internship/residency prior to completing their graduate degree, and have formally underwent the registration process with the licensure body (e.g., The College of Psychologists of British Columbia) in their province/territory or state (e.g., North Carolina Psychology Board).
Clinical MA/Ph.D. Programs in the USA and Canada
Clinical psychology MA/Ph.D. programs adhere to the scientist-practitioner (Boulder) model, which underscores the importance of the relationship between empirically validated research and delivery of evidence-based treatment to clinical populations. As such, students are trained to be scientific researchers as well as clinicians. Canadian graduate programs in clinical psychology typically offer a combined Masters (MA) and Doctoral (Ph.D.) program, as opposed to just the Ph.D. The MA program lasts approximately 2 years, and the Ph.D. program extends this by another 4-5 years (including a year of predoctoral internship). Although the clinical MA and Ph.D. are usually distinct programs, it is common that those applying to the MA program continue into the Ph.D. Many programs will not accept students who plan to terminate their studies after completing the MA, although most clinical programs will accept students at the Ph.D. level if they have completed an MA in other relevant fields (e.g., counselling psychology). Indeed, students who believe they will not be accepted to a clinical program directly from undergrad (due to low GPA, lack of research or other factors), may benefit from obtaining an MA in one of these other fields and applying to clinical programs at the Ph.D. level (or at the master’s level with sometimes an ability to “fast track” to the Ph.D. after the first year with good performance and a paper/review/comprehensive). All states and most provinces, with the exception of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nova Scotia, require that students hold a Ph.D. in order to gain licensure as a clinical psychologist with the regulatory body of that state or province. On the other hand, US programs typically only include the Ph.D. program, where students obtain an MA on route. For example, in North Carolina, students only enter the Ph.D. program, where they get an MA as a part of their Ph.D. Their timing is usually four years of assistantship funding, and they are usually on an internship in their fifth year.When preparing applications, two crucial aspects students should consider include the number of institutions they wish to apply to and the quality of these institutions. With respect to the first point, acceptance rates are low. Typically, 5-8% of applicants receive an offer of admission. Therefore, it is the norm for prospective students to apply to multiple programs to increase their odds of acceptance. Some experts recommend applying to between 12 and 15 programs to maximize the chance of gaining admission. However, applications can be expensive and time-consuming, so it is generally advised that students avoid applying to programs that they have no intentions to attend or cannot spend the time needed to submit a high quality, tailored application. On the other hand, given the low acceptance rates, applying to multiple programs can be seen as a short-term investment for long-term gain as a professional. Applicants that are considering the number of schools they should apply to can take this as an opportunity to flex their researcher muscles by looking at school statistics, journal articles on acceptance rates and talk to experts in the area. Using these types of information to make informed decisions is a central tenet of clinical psychology, so it makes sense to apply that skill to admission processes as well!
Second, it is strongly recommended that applicants prioritize institutions whose doctoral program are (or in the process of being) accredited by the American or Canadian Psychological Association (APA/CPA). Students going to/graduating from unaccredited programs will experience at best, a more detailed, drawn out, and delayed process of registration/licensure. At worst, there is the slight possibility of being unable to register as a clinical psychologist upon completion of their program if their program does not meet the registration guidelines set forth by the state/province/territory. The APA/CPA sets out strict standards for which clinical programs must obtain to ensure that students are competent to practice independently. Generally, licensure bodies will examine the quality of the applicant’s education, internship, and experience to determine their fitness to register as a clinical psychologist in that territory.
For applicants interested in crossing borders it is worthwhile to know that, since the First Street Accord was signed in 2012, the APA Commission of Accreditation (CoA) recognizes the standards established via CPA accreditation are equivalent to those set by the APA (and vice-versa). As such, crossing borders to train as a clinical psychologist is certainly a viable option. That being said, there are some important differences between Canadian and American institutions. First, while CPA accredited clinical Ph.D. programs typically provide funding through a combination of Teaching Assistantships (TA), Research Assistantships (RA), or remitted tuition to cover tuition and some cost of living, the same is not true of all American institutions. Specifically, tuition at some American institutions far outweighs funding income, so for Canadian students looking at American programs, this is worth considering.Likewise, government funding opportunities can be limited for international students in both countries. For more information, see the book Graduate Study in Psychology, 2019 Edition by the American Psychological Association for specific differences between institutions in their funding package. This book also provides excellent information from application to acceptance among a variety of other useful information regarding applications.
The consequence of these funding differences is that American students may feel pressured to complete their program with haste to avoid going too deeply into debt. This is made more difficult by the fact that the number of face-to-face clinical hours required by internship programs is lower in Canada than the US. Institutions accredited by the APA or CPA have demonstrated the necessary rigor to develop highly trained clinical psychologists. Graduating from an APA/CPA accredited institution confers professional benefits and is necessary for obtaining an internship/residency through the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centres (APPIC) as well as facilitating the search for employment after graduation (some prominent employers, such as Veterans Administration, also require graduation from an APA/CPA accredited institution). It is also much less likely that a student exiting a non-accredited program will secure an accredited internship relative to those who exit accredited programs.
Finally, although an in-depth examination of other degrees, such as the Psy.D. or counselling psychology is beyond the scope of this guide, it is worthwhile to mention these alternatives. These programs may be of interest to those whose passion is oriented towards clinicalpractice or for those who wish to work with populations that exhibit less extreme or pervasive mental health concerns (e.g., relationship issues, stress management). For a further look at the Psy.D., counselling psychology, and other related fields of studies, please consult Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology by Dr. Mitchell Prinstein. Similarly, this guide is intended for those who are interested in applying to clinical psychology programs which differs from those who have completed a clinical program and are applying to internship. Applicants applying to internship are directed to resources beyond the scope of this guide (e.g., Match Made on Earth for Canadian Students, the Internships in Psychology APAGS workbook for both Canadian and US programs).
The Application ProcessApplying to MA/Ph.D. graduate programs in clinical psychology is often a difficult and confusing process and can take several months to adequately prepare. Generally, the list of materials applicants will need to assemble for programs include: 1) Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores;2) the Psychology subject test (if required); 3) a list of institutions and associated supervisors of which to apply; 4) three (or more) letters of recommendation (LOR); 5) official transcripts; 6) an updated curriculum vitae (CV); 7) a statement of intent (personal statement); 8) completion of the general application; and 9) paying of the fee to apply to the program.
In addition, although rarely explicitly stated on institution websites, most CPA accredited institutions expect Canadian students to apply for external government funding from one of the Tri-Council agencies (CIHR, SSHRC, or NSERC). With the competitive nature of these admissions, skipping this step may be considered a “kiss of death” as some institutions will be forced to disregard applicants that have not applied for any external funding. For Tri-Council funding applications, the materials applicants will need are: 1) the Canadian Common CV (CCV); 2) two LORs; and 3) a hypothetical research proposal. Often, programs will ask applicants outright if they have applied for external funding, such as Tri-Council funding or the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS). While American students are not eligible for Tri-Council funding, applying for international funding opportunities (often listed on institutional websites) instead may benefit American applications to Canadian institutions.
Preparing for the GRE (and the Psychology subject test if required) is a time-consuming aspect of the application process and applicants should allocate at least 2 to 4 months to studying for this exam. The exam should be taken as early as possible to ensure that there is sufficient time to report scores as well as retake the test if necessary. Note that while the General Test can be taken throughout the year, the Psychology Subject test is offered only a few times per year. It can take several weeks to receive official scores, so applicants must plan accordingly. If the application deadline occurs before scores are obtained, applicants may be rejected. By late summer or early fall, applicants will also want to consider which institutions they would like to apply to. Several factors worth consideration include the quality of the program, the match of the research supervisor, richness of the training offered, practicum placements, potential funding opportunities (which may be more limited if you are crossing borders), length of time typically spent in the program, geographical location and feasibility of moving, the culture and atmosphere of the university and, perhaps most importantly, the “fit” between student and mentor. Truthfully, this truly is the most important fact. Based on research data, this the #1 predictor of satisfaction in graduate school. Each institution typically provides information on their university webpage about faculty and their research interests. Applicants should note that it is important to determine if the faculty of interest is accepting new students for the upcoming round of admissions. Faculty may not accept students one year for a variety of reasons (e.g., sabbatical leaves, administration duties, maternity leave, current size of the lab) and applicants must be wary of wasting their time or money applying to a supervisor who is not accepting students. As such, applicants should confirm that their faculty of interest is taking applications for new graduate students by examining their website or sending them a direct email. Although not a necessary component in some programs, faculty members may appreciate an effort to contact them, especially if keen insight and enthusiasm into their work is demonstrated. However, for other programs it is a requirement. For example, at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan Campus), students are required to contact potential mentors to ensure that there is a good potential match as a necessary first step to determining a good fit for the overall program. The initial contact with potential supervisors should include a brief introduction of who the student is, their research interests, and why they are interested in working with the supervisor. It is advisable that the student attach their CV to the email as well. When contacting prospective supervisors, it is important that applicants represent themselves as polite and professional in their correspondence. Accordingly, e-mails must be proofread before being sent and should demonstrate that the sender has inquired into the faculty’s research. However, while you should be open to a meeting, it is not recommended that you ask/require to meet talk with the supervisor before applying. While some supervisors will want to talk with each student before, others have 10-20 students applying to work with them each year and really do not spend a lot of time at this level, on in depth interviewing of candidates. Until the full application is in and reviewed by them and the graduate admissions committee, it is impossible to know if a student will meet the requirements to proceed to an interview.
Applicants will also want to reach out to their current supervisors and/or professors for letters of recommendations. Most programs will require 3 academic references. For some schools, but not all, a professional reference may be submitted in substitution for an academic letter. It is essential that referees are willing to provide a strong positive testament to the applicant’s abilities and can speak to their potential success in a primarily research-based graduate program. Reference letters that offer faint praise or that are critical of the applicant can be damaging to an application (for other so-called ‘Kisses of Death’ see Appleby & Appleby, 2006). Applicants should aim to facilitate the process for referees by ensuring that referees have plenty of notice (4 to 8 weeks in advance of the application deadline) that they will require a letter in the future. Applicants may draft a list of the schools they will apply to and provide a step-by-step guide on how to submit the LOR to each school (electronically and/or by physical mail) for referees’ convenience. Applicants should also provide referees with direction by identifying examples where they have proved their capacity to succeed in a clinical research program. Further, applicants should also send references, an updated CV, a set of transcripts, and background information about the program to which they are applying. The more information the reference has, the easier it is to write a strong letter. And, appreciate that while this is critical and paramount for you, faculty likely have 5, 10, -20 others letters they are writing for students for various programs and scholarships with different deadlines. Therefore, ask them when they would like the gentle reminders for submission (i.e., 2 weeks, 1 week, 3 days before). Also, make sure to tell them the actual deadline, not when you like the materials in. While this may cause you anxiety, a faculty typically has numerous deadlines at once and they are just doing the best they can. Remain calm and professional as you provide those gentle reminders – consider this your first test of handling clinical stress!
Official transcripts, CVs, and the personal statement can be completed and submitted electronically any time before the application deadline – and should be done well ahead of schedule. This will help to mitigate unforeseen circumstances such as the 2018 postal strike in Canada - which delayed regular mail by several weeks. However, gathering feedback from peers and supervisors on the written portions of the application is imperative. Do not hesitate to start this process early. Applicants will want to complete an initial draft of written portions several months prior to the deadline to ensure enough time to make necessary revisions. Applicants should spend ample time editing and revising their personal statement to ensure no typos, spelling or grammar mistakes are present. It is strongly recommended that applicants have at least one other person read the letter of intent. In the following sections, we will provide additional content and stylistic information regarding the personal statement.
As noted earlier, an oft-neglected but necessary part of graduate applications, specifically in Canada, is applying for external funding from the three federal granting agencies (Tri-Council): CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC. Applications are due December 1st for those applying to MA programs and mid-September for those applying to Ph.D. programs. These applications require two academic references as well as a short research proposal. Each funding agency may require different information. Applicants will want to give themselves an appropriate amount of time to become familiar with the literature required to write a strong research proposal. And make sure to adhere to the guidelines – to the t! For example, at one institution, programs will not forward applications for full review if they exceed the page/word limit. This would disadvantage the candidates that had met the word limit which could be cause for a grievance. Consider this another test of your clinical acumen, just like a therapy session. Can you find a way to say what you need to in the most eloquent and parsimonious way within the time confines allowed? Note that your proposed study does not have to be carried out; this is simply an exercise of the ability to clearly communicate a potential research idea in a scientific manner. It is important to understand that this information reflects the current funding status in Canada in January 2019. Information and government funding opportunities may change in the future.
For a more comprehensive and detailed timeline for suggestions as to when these components should be completed, as well as information on interviews after the application period, please refer to Dr. Sophia Choukas-Bradley’s Tips for Applying to Graduate School in (Clinical) Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide.
American Psychological Association. (2019). Graduate Study in Psychology, 2019 Edition. American Psychological Association.
Appleby, D. C., & Appleby, K. M. (2006). Kisses of Death in the Graduate School Application Process. Teaching of Psychology,33(1), 19-24. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3301_5
Canada Graduate Scholarships – Master’s Program Resources. http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/Students-Etudiants/CGSHarmonization-HarmonizationBESC_eng.asp
Choukas-Bradley, S. (2011, October). A Student’s Perspective on Applying to Graduate School in (Clinical) Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide Sophie Choukas-Bradley, M.A. Retrieved September 25, 2018, from https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/psychology/_files/PDF/diversitypdfs/A%20Students%20Perspective%20on%20Applying%20to%20Graduate%20School%20in%20Clinical%20Psychology.pdf
CIHR Doctoral Research Award. https://www.researchnet-recherchenet.ca/rnr16/LoginServlet?language=E
Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program Doctoral Scholarships and SSHRC Doctoral Fellowships. http://www.sshrc-crsh.gc.ca/funding-financement/programs-programmes/fellowships/doctoral-doctorat-eng.aspx
Prinstein, M. (2017). Mitch’s Uncensored Advice for Applying to Graduate School in Clinical Psychology. Retrieved September 25, 2018, from http://mitch.web.unc.edu/files/2017/02/MitchGradSchoolAdvice.pdf
GRE e-rater (to be used in order to get a sense of GRE score)
Crash Course Psychology (used as Joey’s primary resource for subject GRE studying with great success)
Jill M. Robinson, M.A. is currently a graduate student in the Clinical Psychology program at the University of British Columbia | Okanagan. Her research interests include cognitive models of substance use as well as prevention and intervention of adolescent substance use. Jill currently works with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and substance use disorders.
Parky Lau is a Master’s student in the clinical psychology program at Ryerson University. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, Parky obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He currently works in the Sleep and Depression Laboratory under Dr. Colleen Carney examining cognitive factors related to the development and maintenance of insomnia. His professional interests include mentoring undergraduate students, attending research conferences, and playing an active part in shaping organizations within Ryerson University. Parky can be reached by email at [email protected]
Joseph Rootman is a Master’s student in the clinical psychology program at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan Campus. He moved to the Okanagan after completing his undergraduate education in Psychology at the University of British Columbia – Vancouver campus. He is currently a researcher in the Therapeutic, Recreational & Problematic Substance Use Lab under the supervision of Dr. Zach Walsh. Joseph’s primary research interest surrounds the use of Cannabis as a substitute for other, more harmful, drugs. Beyond research, Joseph is the Chair of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy – Okanagan Chapter. Joseph can be reached by email at [email protected]
Dr. Lutes is a Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at the University of British Columbia - Okanagan Campus. Dr. Lutes is a clinical health and registered psychologist whose area of research is in developing innovative cognitive and behavioral treatment interventions focused on lifestyle change and chronic disease management for conditions such as obesity and diabetes and their co-morbid psychological correlates including distress, depression and well-being. She also does research/advocacy/policy change in the area of integrated primary care and training the next generation of psychologists for healthcare delivery in the 21st century. She has secured over $7 million dollars in grant funding, published over 60-peer-reviewed publications, and had over 100 oral presentations to date. She is on the national executive of the Canadian Council for Professional Psychology Programs (CCPPP) and is on the editorial board for the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. She is the director of the healthy weight clinic and the Centre for Obesity and Well-Being Research Excellence (CORE) at the UBC. Dr. Lutes can be reached at [email protected]