Clinical or Experimental Psychology PhD?

I thought I was the only one who applied to both clinical and experimental psychology PhD programs. I know it seems like an indecisive move on my part — by now, I should know whether I want to be able to practice as a clinician or not. I will admit it is indecisive to apply to both (and makes your work that much more cut out for you in terms of researching and narrowing schools of interest and tailoring statements to specific programs). I actually had a situation where I was interested in both the clinical and experimental programs at one school and only after emailing potential mentors and writing both statements did I realize that the portal would not allow for applications to multiple programs.

This makes sense since by the time you are ready to pursue a PhD, you should know what your ultimate career trajectory will look like. And I did: I wanted to do research that satisfied my intellectual curiosity and had a direct positive impact on patients’ lives. For the longest time, I had come to terms with that meaning I must pursue a clinical degree. But when it came time to look into clinical programs that had faculty conducting the kind of research I saw myself doing, the pickings became very very slim. Most clinical psychology programs have faculty that are researching traditional psychopathology, which makes sense since most clinical training revolves around treating mental illness. When you think of a psychologist, depression and schizophrenia come to mind, not cancer and chronic disease.

This is where you need to make a choice: what do I prioritize, research fit or program fit? I struggled with this for some time, I didn’t want to give up the prospect of clinical training but at the same time I didn’t want to pretend to be passionate about research that frankly does not interest me. Allowing research fit to dictate which programs I ultimately applied to helped me in two respects:

1. It naturally narrowed my program selection down to 5 schools (which is an absurdly low number of programs to apply to).

2. Revealed to me that choosing an experimental program over clinical would not be a deal-breaker: I was going to graduate school to do research and I viewed clinical training as an added bonus, but it wasn’t my primary purpose.

Ultimately, I applied to 4 clinical programs and 1 experimental. These 5 programs were very different from one another in various respects: some had dedicated behavioral medicine/health psychology tracks, some included biological training, one was within a developmental program (pediatrics), and they were spread out all over the country. Applying to only 5 schools was definitely a statistical risk — these programs have around a 2-5% acceptance rate and limiting myself to only 5 programs made my chances that much slimmer. But I think strategically it made sense for me given my niche research interests. Only having 5 applications allowed me to take my time learning about each program in detail and tailor my statements in depth.

To my surprise I received 4 interview invites out of the 5 programs I applied to. Focusing my efforts on a few great fits worked to my advantage. It also helped me prepare for interviews in a focused and targeted manner. I was secretly hoping that I would only get one or two interviews so that I wouldn’t have to choose between clinical or experimental but this was not how my situation turned out and I think it was for the best. Going into interviews having to identify which would position me the best in terms of my career goals helped me formulate my questions and evaluate the programs in a personally critical way.

I actually asked students and professors their opinions on the clinical vs. experimental dilemma and believe it or not, a couple of the current students had been in my predicament! Hearing that I was not the only one entertaining both paths was reassuring — I wasn’t indecisive or ignorant on the manner, I was just trying to determine which existing program would fit best with my niche and alternative career trajectory. In the end, I felt most at home within the experimental program that I applied to: my interviews with all of the faculty and students felt like conversations rather than interrogations. I also realized that clinical training would take a significant amount of time away from my research productivity and I decided that this was not the best setup for me.

In the end, I felt that choosing an experimental program dedicated to Health Psychology was the perfect fit for me: I would be able to do the research that interests me while having direct clinical application to patient populations that I am passionate about helping. While I won’t be the one delivering the clinical interventions, I will be designing them and that is what I want to do. If I hadn’t given myself the opportunity to explore all options, both clinical and experimental, during my application process I wouldn’t be as clear about this as I am now.

So apply to both. If you have any question at all, apply to both.

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