Am I making the right decisions for my career goals? (Clinical psych PhD vs. Masters)

Aug 28, 2020
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Hi everyone! I'm new here and hoping to get some guidance as I begin to apply to PhD and Masters Programs.

Before I begin, some relevant background info:
- Senior in college, graduating early in December (was originally c/o 2021)
- Psychology major, biology and neuroscience minors
- 3.93 Overall GPA / 4.0 Major GPA
- ~1 year of research experience (participated in a full-year research project on medical bias (with poster), worked in a neuroscience lab last semester (and hopefully this semester, COVID-willing). Had landed a pretty awesome summer research internship w/ publication at a medical school but it was cancelled due to COVID, so no current pubs.
- 120+ hours of volunteer work on an inpatient psychiatric unit @ a Top 5 Hospital
- Various leadership positions and internships over the past 3 years
- Student subject tutor for 2+years (basically like being a TA for various psych and bio classes)

My eventual goal has always been to work in a clinical setting and/or research. I have loved working one-on-one with patients at the hospital, but I also really enjoy the research process and could see myself involved in research to some extent. My research interests are mainly anxiety disorders, OCD and health-related psych, which line up extremely well with the faculty of 3/8 programs I'm applying to (the rest can be connected in some way, but aren't necessarily a direct matchup). If I could choose any ideal profession, I think that I would love to work either in a psychiatric hospital with adolescents, with veterans, or in some kind of anxiety/OCD treatment center. Private practice would be great as well.

I'm feeling a bit lost on the best path to take to reach my goals. I am applying to 8 Clinical Psych PhD programs this fall (think major universities such as UNC and Duke... I know the odds are very much stacked against me), and my original plan had been to solely apply to PhD programs. However, I know that it is relatively unlikely that I am admitted and have added around 5 Masters programs to my list. For Masters programs, I'm looking at Harvard Extension School's ALM in Psych, Columbia TC's MA in Clinical Psych (and/or counseling as well), Wake Forest's MA in Psych, and a couple of others. I am located in the northeast so I am trying to stick to this area for my masters- I'd love to be able to live at home or make a short commute (NYC for me). I had initially considered just looking for postbacc research experiences for a "gap" year or two, but decided I'd rather get an actual degree in that timeframe that could allow me to work if I decide not to pursue my PhD immediately (or at all, but I don't see that happening).

HES' ALM in Psych is a very attractive option to me as I could begin almost immediately in January after I finish my undergrad degree, however I realize this program does not really provide clinical training or prepare me for licensure in a way that would allow me to receive my degree and begin working right away. In other words, I feel like I would be "forced" to pursue a PhD if I wanted to do serious clinical work. (As a side note, does anyone know how many hoops I would have to jump through for counseling licensure with solely an ALM? Where would I find this information?) Is there a way that I could make the ALM degree "work" for me if I choose specific courses (when possible) and immerse myself in research/make connections at Harvard? What if I were to pursue the ALM while working or volunteering in a research lab simultaneously?

Other programs (like Columbia TC's MA in Counseling) would prep me much better for real work with patients upon receiving my degree, however it is much less flexible and considerably more expensive. I really like Columbia TC's MA in Clinical Psych, but the website states that it does not prepare students for licensure upon degree completion... in this case, would I need to pursue a PhD as well to do clinical work (just as I would for HES)? Would the MA in Clinical Psych be more attractive to PhD programs than the MA in Counseling?

Essentially, assuming that I don't get into any of the PhD programs, I am looking for a Masters degree that will enable me to do some form of direct patient work (and/or research) upon completion. Do such programs exist?

I've tried my very best to do as much research as I can on this career path yet I still feel like I'm missing a lot. I just want to make sure I'm making decisions that are a) practical and b) flexible (so to say if I finish my Masters and just want to do counseling work for a couple years, rather than pursuing my PhD right away or not at all).

I'd really appreciate any guidance here! I am very open to program suggestions as well. Thanks so much in advance. :)
 
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Aug 28, 2020
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Why not apply to more PhD programs? I'm not even in your research area, and I can think of more than 8 faculty who would be good fits for your interests.

Maybe this is silly of me to do, but I'm mainly just applying to programs in areas that I would feel comfortable living in for 5+ years. The prospect of moving away to live on my own is slightly daunting to me so I picked out schools in areas that I either have family in or that I'm comfortable with. I was also bit worried about spending a ton of money applying to schools that I'm not necessarily crazy about/may not even get into! But I can definitely expand my search a bit.
 
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R. Matey

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I am looking for a Masters degree that will enable me to do some form of direct patient work (and/or research) upon completion. Do such programs exist?

Yes, they exist and are also generally a bad path to a clinical Ph.D. The licensable master's degrees that offer an option for direct service upon completion are distinctly separate from the clinical training you receive at the doctoral level. You're better off shoring up your research experience more than you already have as a research assistant/coordinator on a grant somewhere.

I'm mainly just applying to programs in areas that I would feel comfortable living in for 5+ years.

You will need to be geographically flexible to be successful in this field.
 
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futureapppsy2

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Maybe this is silly of me to do, but I'm mainly just applying to programs in areas that I would feel comfortable living in for 5+ years. The prospect of moving away to live on my own is daily daunting to me so I picked out schools in areas that I either have family in or that I'm comfortable with. I was also bit worried about spending a ton of money applying to schools that I'm not necessarily crazy about/may not even get into! But I can definitely expand my search a bit.
Like @R. Matey said, geographic flexibility is a must for training in this field (grad school, internship, postdoc).
 
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Yes, they exist and are also generally a bad path to a clinical Ph.D. The licensable master's degrees that offer an option for direct service upon completion are distinctly separate from the clinical training you receive at the doctoral level. You're better off shoring up your research experience more than you already have as a research assistant/coordinator on a grant somewhere.



You will need to be geographically flexible to be successful in this field.

That makes sense, thank you! Do you think there'd be any value in choosing the HES degree + simultaneously working in a research lab? I'm just trying to scope out my options.
 

PsyDr

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Maybe this is silly of me to do, but I'm mainly just applying to programs in areas that I would feel comfortable living in for 5+ years. The prospect of moving away to live on my own is daily daunting to me so I picked out schools in areas that I either have family in or that I'm comfortable with. I was also bit worried about spending a ton of money applying to schools that I'm not necessarily crazy about/may not even get into! But I can definitely expand my search a bit.

Would you really want to trust your mental health to someone who is afraid of moving away from home?
 
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R. Matey

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That makes sense, thank you! Do you think there'd be any value in choosing the HES degree + simultaneously working in a research lab? I'm just trying to scope out my options.

I personally don't see much value in pursuing a master's degree if you want a clinical Ph.D. These are largely B.A. admit programs. It doesn't really get you anything extra by going this way.
 
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Would you really want to trust your mental health to someone who is afraid of moving away from home?

I'm not afraid of moving away from home. I'm 21 years old and live 5 hours away from home for undergrad, but I apologize for having a geographical preference- was your comment at all necessary? I worked with a psychologist at my hospital who had severe anxiety in her younger years (learned to manage it extremely well, obviously) and I would absolutely trust her with my mental health. Do you mean to suggest that if you work in the mental health field, you must have absolutely no fears yourself? I think that's awfully unrealistic and reeks of stigma, but that's just me.
 
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summerbabe

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It sounds like you're anticipating a primarily clinically-focused career so if you're open to considering other geographical locations/programs beyond your initial list, I'd encourage you to look at university-based and APA accredited Counseling Psychology PhD programs that offer funding.

Some Counseling Psych programs are more university counseling center-oriented in terms of clinical training and where future grads end up while others are more aligned with 'typical' clinical psych programs.

If you see a lot of faculty who are focused on career/vocational stuff, multicultural/identity development issues, help seeking attitudes, etc, that's probably not a good fit but you might be surprised to find other faculty who are more closely aligned to you current interests. Good luck!
 
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It sounds like you're anticipating a primarily clinically-focused career so if you're open to considering other geographical locations/programs beyond your initial list, I'd encourage you to look at university-based and APA accredited Counseling Psychology PhD programs that offer funding.

Some Counseling Psych programs are more university counseling center-oriented in terms of clinical training and where future grads end up while others are more aligned with 'typical' clinical psych programs.

If you see a lot of faculty who are focused on career/vocational stuff, multicultural/identity development issues, help seeking attitudes, etc, that's probably not a good fit but you might be surprised to find other faculty who are more closely aligned to you current interests. Good luck!
I'm definitely open to expanding my list a bit! That is all really helpful information, thank you so much! Counseling psych would definitely be an option for me as well (and would allow me to expand my list beyond 8 schools). I think I'm going to end up applying to a pretty good mix of programs (both masters and doctoral) and hope I'm accepted to one that is a good fit!
 

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I'm not afraid of moving away from home. I'm 21 years old and live 5 hours away from home for undergrad, but I apologize for having a geographical preference- was your comment at all necessary? I worked with a psychologist at my hospital who had severe anxiety in her younger years (learned to manage it extremely well, obviously) and I would absolutely trust her with my mental health. Do you mean to suggest that if you work in the mental health field, you must have absolutely no fears yourself? I think that's awfully unrealistic and reeks of stigma, but that's just me.

You can be mad, call me a jerk, and discount anything I say.

Or you can notice that at least one psychologist, similar to those on admissions committees, has a significant concern about that matter. Maybe you could use that information to your advantage.
 
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ClinicalABA

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Would you really want to trust your mental health to someone who is afraid of moving away from home?
Red herring. If they are well trained and competent in addressing my specific needs, I could care less about their feelings about moving away. Not wanting to move limits your training options, but is most likely unrelated to future competence as a clinician.
 
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You can be mad, call me a jerk, and discount anything I say.

Or you can notice that at least one psychologist, similar to those on admissions committees, has a significant concern about that matter. Maybe you could use that information to your advantage.

I'm not mad nor would I call an internet stranger a jerk, however I believe concern can be expressed without posing an (essentially belittling) question to someone who is just getting started on their career path. Maybe I'd understand if I were extremely afraid of moving anywhere but my home state, but I have options on my list that are 15+ hours away, so I clearly have no reservations about distance, but rather preferences as a very young (not even done with undergrad yet) student. As others have stated, I recognize that these preferences may limit me in some capacity, however there are circumstances I have not stated here that are important to where I choose to end up within the states. I do not think any of this has ties to my future competence.
 
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Maybe this is silly of me to do, but I'm mainly just applying to programs in areas that I would feel comfortable living in for 5+ years. The prospect of moving away to live on my own is slightly daunting to me so I picked out schools in areas that I either have family in or that I'm comfortable with. I was also bit worried about spending a ton of money applying to schools that I'm not necessarily crazy about/may not even get into! But I can definitely expand my search a bit.
I'm surprised to see that some folks might be concerned about an applicant's geographic preference... Personally, I had a very strong geographic preference when I was applying 2 years ago and it worked out just fine. I go to a school close enough that I could live with my parents (thereby saving my stipend and avoiding the accumulation of debt). I think there's quite a number of benefits to living with family during a PhD and those benefits should not be overlooked :)
 
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PsyDr

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I'm not mad nor would I call an internet stranger a jerk, however I believe concern can be expressed without posing an (essentially belittling) question to someone who is just getting started on their career path. Maybe I'd understand if I were extremely afraid of moving anywhere but my home state, but I have options on my list that are 15+ hours away, so I clearly have no reservations about distance, but rather preferences as a very young (not even done with undergrad yet) student. As others have stated, I recognize that these preferences may limit me in some capacity, however there are circumstances I have not stated here that are important to where I choose to end up within the states. I do not think any of this has ties to my future competence.

Whether you like the information or not, it is information that you could use to make a plan. Maybe you could add something to your essays or create a stock phrase to counter that type of concern. Instead you’re choosing to attack the merit of the information. How is that gonna do anything for you? Even if I am wrong, you could use the information to your own advantage.

And if you have information that contradicts the literature base about self assessment of competence, please publish it. (Hint: maybe you could read that literature base and reference it in interviews to look inquisitive and willing to receive feedback).
 

futureapppsy2

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That makes sense, thank you! Do you think there'd be any value in choosing the HES degree + simultaneously working in a research lab? I'm just trying to scope out my options.
Non-licensable masters degrees (pre-PhD) are generally most helpful if a) you have a low undergraduate GPA and need to instill confidence in your academic abilities and b) (sometimes) if you are coming from unrelated field and need to build a background or credibility in the field.
 
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PsychPhDone

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My research interests are mainly anxiety disorders, OCD and health-related psych, which line up extremely well with the faculty of 3/8 programs I'm applying to (the rest can be connected in some way, but aren't necessarily a direct matchup).

That sentence should be 8/8. Do not waste your time, money, and effort on applying to programs where the mentor isn't a good fit.

If you don't get in, get a post-bacc research coordinator job. No need for a masters. You have a psych degree already and a great gpa.
 
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