Preparing for a
Career in Clinical
This handout is intended as general information.
Each program has its own requirements and its own orientation. It is your
responsibility to find out what the requirements are. Programs vary in
the extent to which they emphasize research or clinical practice. They
also vary in their clinical orientation. Some are heavily psychodynamic
whereas others are heavily biological or cognitive-behavioral. Some programs
provide a good mixture of theoretical perspectives. Programs also vary
in their emphasis on child or adult psychopathology. You can get some
idea of the varying perspectives in a course on Abnormal Behavior. However,
you need to do your own research on the various programs to determine
whether their orientation is a good fit with your interests.
Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
Differences between Ph.D., Psy.D., and Counselling Psychology
The minimum requirements are:
--- the basic courses meeting the requirements for a major in psychology
in this department (i.e., introductory psychology, statistics, research
design, a course each in (a) cognitive, (b) social/personality/developmental/abnormal,
and (c) physiological psychology). It is a good idea to take the abnormal
--- advanced seminars especially in the social/personality/developmental/abnormal
These courses meet the basic requirements for most clinical programs. However,
some programs have idiosyncratic requirements. Your need to contact individual
programs to determine their requirements.
It is not important to take courses on clinical orientations as such courses
are provided by the Ph.D. programs.
Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology typically require students to conduct
independent research for their Master's Thesis and their Dissertation. Therefore,
the typical program is interested in recruiting students with some experience
in research. To get experience in research, students should (a) find out
what research faculty in this department are doing from the brochure available
in the psychology office (406 Schermerhorn Hall), and (b) make appointments
to talk with individual professors to find out more about their research
and the opportunities that are available for student participation. Clinical
programs are interested in the quality of the research experience not in
the population on which the research is conducted. For purposes of admission
to clinical Ph.D. programs, you need not be concerned about whether your
research experience is with a clinical population.
Because professors get to know their research assistants better than the
students in their classes, they are in a stronger position to write references
for them. This is an important bonus of becoming involved in research. Most
clinical programs require at least two academic references.
Clinical programs vary in their interest in students' clinical experience.
As with research experience, it is important to get some experience with
clinical or high-risk populations because clinical work is an important
part of what you will be doing in a clinical Ph.D. program. There are no
formal ways at Columbia in which preclinical students can get this experience.
Professor Sandra Stingle (877 - 5346), Barnard College, offers a course
called "Field work and seminar in psychological services and counseling"
(BC3473y). Information about the course, including the supervised placements, can be found here. Interested students
should contact Prof. Stingle or the Barnard Psychology Department for further
Many relevant informal volunteer opportunities exist at Columbia,
including the following: Community Impact (4-1492); Double Discovery (4-3897); the
New York State Psychiatric Institute (Matt Gold, 960-2500). Information about the Rape
Crisis/Anti-Violence Support Center (4-4366), the Office of
Sexual Violence Prevention and Response, the Men's
Peer Education Program (4-2136), and Nightline (Ariel Fein or Grace Laidlaw) can be found on the following web page: Intership and Volunteer Positions.
Some students get experience with clinical populations through summer work
or through research. Most clinical programs do not require you to have developed
a high level of expertize in clinical work. They will teach you that. They
want to know that you have some idea of what is involved in working with
clinical or high-risk populations. Relevant clinical experiences include
working with homeless people, tutoring children-at-risk, as well as working
on psychiatric wards.
Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
Ph.D. programs require applicants' scores on both the General GRE and the
Advanced Subject Test in Psychology. High GRE scores, especially on the
general part of the test, are particularly important. Because programs often
have hundreds of applications for fewer than 5 slots, they typically do
not consider applicants with GRE scores falling below a certain program-determined
GRE. To get some idea of the GRE scores needed to get into a particular
program consult the APA Guide to Graduate Degrees in Psychology. It is essential
that you take the GREs by the October administration of the year you are
applying. You must apply for the test several weeks before the test date.
Booklets with applications are available at the CC Dean's Office, Hamilton
A few programs still require the Miller's analogy test (consult the APA
Guide). These tests are administered at 657 Thorndike Hall, Teacher's College.
The phone number is 678-3262.
People who know you well (e.g., professors with whom you are doing research)
are in a better position to write references than people who know you less
well (e.g., professors of large classes in which you were a student). So,
find people who know you well and think favorably of you to write your recommendations.
Professors usually like to see a copy of your transcript and your personal
statement. Ask professors what information you can give them that would
be helpful in writing the reference. Do not bug them about getting the reference
in on time. Professors typically have a policy about whether they show the
letters they write to students. If seeing the letter is important to you,
it is important to tell the professor when you request the reference. The
professor can let you know his or her policy.
Professors need plenty of notice about writing references. Because professors
get requests from many students, each of whom is applying to multiple places,
it is a good idea to ask professors to complete your reference on the Columbia
College Graduate and Professional School Reference Form. This is available
from 202 Hamilton Hall. The Dean's office then sends out a copy of the reference
to all the schools to which you are applying along with a letter from the
dean, which explains this procedure. A similar mechanism exists for General
Studies students. Most clinical programs will accept this instead of their
own reference form.
The first step in the application process is to decide which progams to
apply to. Because Clinical Programs are highly competitive. Your chances
of getting in are increased if (a) you do not restrict yourself geographically
and (b) you apply to a range of programs that vary in degree of competitiveness.
Programs also vary in the extent to which they emphasize training researchers
or clinicians. They vary in their clinical perspective. In deciding what
schools to apply to, read the material the school provides and, if possible,
to talk with people who know something about the different schools.
The majority of school in the New York area are psychodynamically-oriented.
However, they do provide training in other clinical-treatment modalities.
Because each program gets a huge number of applicants for a few places,
they are extremely selective. Each year, people with good GREs and GPAs,
strong recommendations and great research experience end up being disappointed.
Programs vary in the deadline for applications. Some are due in early December.
Others are due in January.
You get applications directly from the programs. The APA Guide gives you
Completing applications is time consuming, so start way ahead of deadlines.
Each institution has a different form and has different requirements. However,
all require you to complete a personal statement (or two). In this statement
you make your case for being accepted into their program. Next to GRE scores
and course grades, it is the most important part of your application. Put
time and effort into it. It provides the program with a sense of who you
are and what you are interested in. It also provides a sample of your writing
ability and your ability to put interesting thoughts coherently on paper.
The Applicant Selection Process
The first stage in the process is to exclude applicants with GRE's below
a certain cut-off. Some programs bypass the interview process and select
candidates based on their application. However, many programs conduct interviews.
Between 20 and 40 applicants are invited for interviews at the institution.
In selecting applications for interview, all of their application materials
Once a student makes it to the interview, the impression they make at
the interview is critical to the final decision on their application. Applicants
are invited for interviews between February and early April.
Some programs bring all interviewees in for the same week-end (e.g., University
of Rochester). Interviewees interact with faculty and students and each
other at social occasions as well as having individual interviews with faculty
and students. Remember your behavior on the social occasions is also a source
of information to the Clinical Program.
Some programs conduct group interviews with candidates (e.g., Adelphi University).
Several candidates are put into a room together and their conversations
and interactions are observed by faculty.
Other programs rely on individual meetings between the candidate and one
or two faculty and students (e.g., NYU).
It is important to remember that programs are looking for (a) indicators
that you will be a good clinical psychologist, (b) whether you will make
a good Ph.D. candidate, and (c) whether you are a good fit to that particular
program. It is important that you come across well in the interview. The
content of the interview will depend on the program and on who is interviewing
you. Psychodynamically-oriented faculty are often interested in your psychological
"awareness" and your personal history as it pertains to your choice
of clinical psychology as a career. So, be prepared to talk insightfully
and coherently about personal stuff. Research oriented programs are interested
in your research and in establishing whether there is a good research fit
between you and the program. I do not want to suggest that there is a dichotomy
between psychodynamically-oriented people and research oriented people,
but simply that interviews you need to be prepared to discuss a variety
It's more difficult to tell people what to do in preparation for interviews
than to do in preparation for the GRE, but here are suggestions:
1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK ABOUT PROGRAMS THAT INVITE YOU TO AN INTERVIEW. The
interviewers are looking for a good fit between students and faculty as
much as for whether you will make a good Ph.D. candidate. This means that
if you are interested in doing research on the genetics of schizophrenia
and none of the faculty are interested in either schizophrenia or genetics,
the chances of you getting into that program are limited.
2. MAKE EYE - CONTACT AND SOUND ENTHUSIATIC (BUT NOT GUSHY). BE PREPARED
TO TALK IN A NON-DEFENSIVE AND COHERENT WAY ABOUT TOPICS THAT ARISE. SOME
INTERVIEWERS WANT TO SEE HOW PEOPLE BEHAVE UNDER STRESS. UNLIKE THE GRE,
THE INTERVIEWER IS NOT GIVING YOU MARKS FOR THE RIGHT ANSWER, BUT FOR HOW
YOU HANDLE THE QUESTIONS.
If you don't know how you come across in interviews (based on experience
not supposition), it might be a good idea to get someone to do a mock interview
with you, which you videotape and review.
Following the interviews, programs make offers to a minority of interview
candidates. This will occur prior to April 15th. Successful applicants are
required to let the schools from which they have offers know whether they
will accept the offer by April 15th. Accepting an offer and then changing
your mind is considered bad form and can harm subsequent applicants from
Some candidates are wait-listed and may not know their final status until
after April 15th.
If you don't get in.
If you don't get in, it is always possible to try again next year. Use the
time to shore up weaknesses and bolster existing strengths.
You may also want to consider other aspects of psychology or aspects of
human services. Think about what attracted you to being a clinical psychologist
and decide whether you can end up doing the same work through some other
Differences between Ph.D., Psy.D., and Counselling Psychology
Ph.D. programs are housed in psychology departments and emphasize both research
training and clinical training. They require that students conduct independent
empirical research to complete the degree requirements. People with Ph.D's
in clinical psychology are eligible to apply for jobs in research, teaching,
and clinical practice. As such, their employment opportunities are broader
than those of Psy.Ds. In Psy.D. programs the emphasis is on training clinical
practitioners. Such programs are usually less competitive than Ph.D. programs
and place less emphasis on the scientific basis of clinical psychology.
They also provide much less financial assistance to students and, cost-wise,
can be comparable to law or medical school. Counselling programs are typically
housed in Education departments. They developed to train professionals to
deal with "normal" people who are going through transitions in
their lives or otherwise need counselling with difficulties. These programs
are geared toward students interested in working with people at the less
abnormal end of the abnormal spectrum. Because they are Ph.D. programs they
require students to complete independent empirical work. They are less competitive
than Clinical Ph.D. programs. Psy.D and Counselling programs are more likely
to require applicants to have post-B.A. experience in the work-place than
are clinical Ph.D. programs. However, taking a year or two off to work after
your B.A. will not hurt (and, depending on what you do, may help) your application
to a Ph.D. Clinical program. It is also possible to become a therapist by
pursuing a Master's degree in Social Work and doing additional post-graduate
training in therapy.
Differences between Psychiatry and Cinical Psychology.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors who acquire specialized training in the
field of psyciatry. Preparation for being a psychiatrist involves (a) completing
undergraduate pre-med courses, (b) completing medical school (4 years) and
a one-year medical internship, and (c) a residency in psychiatry. The main
difference between what psychiatrists and psychologists can do is that psychiatrists
can prescribe drugs. The majority of psychiatric residencies emphasize the
biological basis of mental illness and psychiatrists tend to focus on drug-related
treatments of mental illness. Psychologists engage in a variety of kinds
of talk therapy. Often psychiatrists and psychologists work together to
treat people with a mental illness.
Completing a Ph.D./Psy.D. Program
Most Clinical Ph.D. programs take 5 to 6 years to complete. An additional
year is spent doing a clinical internship. This is usually in a hospital
or mental health center and is intended to provide experience with a range
of clinical work. After internship, additional supervised clinical work
is needed to become licensed as a clinical psychologist. Psy.D. and counselling
psychologists who also complete an internships and the other requirements
of licensing can get a license. In addition to the degree and the clinical
experience, candidates for a license must pass an exam.