Engineer to psychologist--how to prepare for applying to programs?

Jul 21, 2020
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Hi all - this is more of a dipping in of the toe than a true WAMC, since I'm fairly sure I have some work to do before I'll be competitive for a PhD program. My case seems unusual so I'd love some perspective and advice on getting there. I'm 40, I have a few degrees and have had a few careers. The next (and maybe last?) one I'd like to have is as a practicing psychologist, and doing more research along the way would be a bonus. I can afford the opportunity cost of not working while I get a PhD, but paying tuition is out of the question. If getting into a program proves impossible, I may consider an MS but that would be hard to justify financially and I would regret missing out on the research component and depth of training of a PhD.

My stats, such as they are:

GPA: All > 3.9. I have an old psychology BS (2001), a masters in Natural Resource Management (2006), and a BS/MS in Environmental Engineering (2014)
GRE: old (2013), but: verbal =169(99%), quant = 159(75%), AW = 5(93%).
Research Experience: none in the social sciences. My engineering masters thesis was related to chemistry and air quality. But, I spent 2 years in the lab, the research design was my own, and it resulted in a pretty good thesis. I think at least some of those skills are transferable.
Publications: no first author work. Contributing author on a couple of non-psychology-related papers. I unfortunately didn't publish my MS work (not because they weren't publishable findings, but because I and my PI both got side-tracked).
Conferences: two first-author platform presentations at national conferences (again, not psychology-related)
Work Experience: Environmental consulting engineer for the past four years. Prior to that I worked for environmental non-profits doing research, education, outreach, and program coordination. Three years in a biology lab as a technician. A couple other things but you get the gist - not much especially relevant to clinical psychology.
Personal Statement: If I can get past an initial screening I hope this will convince the committee that I'm a serious student and that this step makes sense for me. I want to focus my research on ecopsychology and/or conservation psychology - it's something I've been circling around for years and I'm diving into the literature in a serious way right now.
LORs: Probably good ones from my MS advisor and one from a PhD that I have worked very closely with in my current job, but not sure about the 3rd. Again, no psychologists on this list.

My questions are:
1.) If I give myself a "refresher" on the psych coursework and somehow (?) demonstrate that, will it make up for the fact that my BS is 20 years old?
2.) how much credit do you think I will get for solid independent research experience in another field, and any advice on how to supplement that as a non-current-student?
3.) Is my lack of clinical experience a big problem?
4.) should I re-take the GRE since it's so old? I would hope my quant score would go up if I did, having been working as an engineer since I last took it!

I am not looking to get into just any PhD program since I'm pretty set on my field of focus, so there is a lot riding on each application attempt I make. (If I were younger, I would certainly apply broader, but at this stage in my life I'm a lot better at knowing what I want to do and who I want to work with than I used to be).

Thanks so much if you've even skimmed this far. Any and all advice is appreciated.
 
Last edited:

Dazen

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Nov 14, 2018
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Hi! A few quick thoughts based on what you wrote above:

1. You'll definitely need to retake the GRE. Scores are only good for 5 years. You can also take the Psych GRE as proof of your current psychology knowledge.
2. Independent research experience in another area can still be valuable. My undergrad is in engineering and basically all of my research is in applied math and statistics. I've gotten very positive responses when reaching out to potential advisors even though none of my research experience is specifically psych-related. Having clear quantitative experience is beneficial, as well as actual independent research design. It helps when this is in psychology, but many research skills are transferable, especially if you are able to explain how your past work will set you up well in your desired work.
3. My perception is that clinical experience isn't a huge deal, since whatever you are doing will be very different from what you'd be trained to do in grad school. If you don't have a psychology research/work background, it can be helpful to show interest in and understanding of the field, but this should count much less than research experience.

Good luck!
 
Jul 21, 2020
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Hi! A few quick thoughts based on what you wrote above:

1. You'll definitely need to retake the GRE. Scores are only good for 5 years. You can also take the Psych GRE as proof of your current psychology knowledge.
2. Independent research experience in another area can still be valuable. My undergrad is in engineering and basically all of my research is in applied math and statistics. I've gotten very positive responses when reaching out to potential advisors even though none of my research experience is specifically psych-related. Having clear quantitative experience is beneficial, as well as actual independent research design. It helps when this is in psychology, but many research skills are transferable, especially if you are able to explain how your past work will set you up well in your desired work.
3. My perception is that clinical experience isn't a huge deal, since whatever you are doing will be very different from what you'd be trained to do in grad school. If you don't have a psychology research/work background, it can be helpful to show interest in and understanding of the field, but this should count much less than research experience.

Good luck!

Hi Mastermind, thanks so much for for the reply! Are you applying to PhD programs this year?

I was thinking of applying to some programs for 2021 but don't know if I'll be able to pull off a decent score on the Psych GRE in the next couple of months.

It's heartening to hear that PIs have been receptive to your math/stats research so I may do some reaching out of my own to test the waters. Given the COVID situation, even a volunteer research job might be out of reach in the near future.

I'm looking into volunteer work for crisis lines, hospice care, etc... it's not counseling experience but it may help demonstrate that I have some aptitude for caring/helping roles. Even if it doesn't help my application, at least it's good karma.
 
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MAClinician

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Hi all - this is more of a dipping in of the toe than a true WAMC, since I'm fairly sure I have some work to do before I'll be competitive for a PhD program. My case seems unusual so I'd love some perspective and advice on getting there. I'm 40, I have a few degrees and have had a few careers. The next (and maybe last?) one I'd like to have is as a practicing psychologist, and doing more research along the way would be a bonus. I can afford the opportunity cost of not working while I get a PhD, but paying tuition is out of the question. If getting into a program proves impossible, I may consider an MS but that would be hard to justify financially and I would regret missing out on the research component and depth of training of a PhD.

My stats, such as they are:

GPA: All > 3.9. I have an old psychology BS (2001), a masters in Natural Resource Management (2006), and a BS/MS in Environmental Engineering (2014)
GRE: old (2013), but: verbal =169(99%), quant = 159(75%), AW = 5(93%).
Research Experience: none in the social sciences. My engineering masters thesis was related to chemistry and air quality. But, I spent 2 years in the lab, the research design was my own, and it resulted in a pretty good thesis. I think at least some of those skills are transferable.
Publications: no first author work. Contributing author on a couple of non-psychology-related papers. I unfortunately didn't publish my MS work (not because they weren't publishable findings, but because I and my PI both got side-tracked).
Conferences: two first-author platform presentations at national conferences (again, not psychology-related)
Work Experience: Environmental consulting engineer for the past four years. Prior to that I worked for environmental non-profits doing research, education, outreach, and program coordination. Three years in a biology lab as a technician. A couple other things but you get the gist - not much especially relevant to clinical psychology.
Personal Statement: If I can get past an initial screening I hope this will convince the committee that I'm a serious student and that this step makes sense for me. I want to focus my research on ecopsychology and/or conservation psychology - it's something I've been circling around for years and I'm diving into the literature in a serious way right now.
LORs: Probably good ones from my MS advisor and one from a PhD that I have worked very closely with in my current job, but not sure about the 3rd. Again, no psychologists on this list.

My questions are:
1.) If I give myself a "refresher" on the psych coursework and somehow (?) demonstrate that, will it make up for the fact that my BS is 20 years old?
2.) how much credit do you think I will get for solid independent research experience in another field, and any advice on how to supplement that as a non-current-student?
3.) Is my lack of clinical experience a big problem?
4.) should I re-take the GRE since it's so old? I would hope my quant score would go up if I did, having been working as an engineer since I last took it!

I am not looking to get into just any PhD program since I'm pretty set on my field of focus, so there is a lot riding on each application attempt I make. (If I were younger, I would certainly apply broader, but at this stage in my life I'm a lot better at knowing what I want to do and who I want to work with than I used to be).

Thanks so much if you've even skimmed this far. Any and all advice is appreciated.
I didn’t even know ecopsychology was a thing. Guess you learn something new every day lol. But I am confused at if you are looking for acceptance into a clinical or counseling PhD or a PhD program focused on ecopsychology? Division 34 of APA lists graduate programs for the latter and those are mostly masters level OR PhD in social or experimental psych. You say you want to be a practicing psychologist which typically means getting your doctorate in clinical or counseling (or school). What are you hoping the PhD will help you accomplish? What is your ideal career given your interests?
 
Jul 21, 2020
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I didn’t even know ecopsychology was a thing. Guess you learn something new every day lol. But I am confused at if you are looking for acceptance into a clinical or counseling PhD or a PhD program focused on ecopsychology? Division 34 of APA lists graduate programs for the latter and those are mostly masters level OR PhD in social or experimental psych. You say you want to be a practicing psychologist which typically means getting your doctorate in clinical or counseling (or school). What are you hoping the PhD will help you accomplish? What is your ideal career given your interests?

Thanks, I see your point. My end goal is to be a clinical psychologist and treat patients - I think I need the 5-7 years of study to learn to do that. I probably confused the issue by referencing ecopsychology as a discipline. My thought was that I might be able to find a clinical research lab that explores the connection between the natural environment and mental health outcomes. But... maybe that's not the case and I'll need to revise. I'm in the earliest stages of hatching this possibly hare-brained plan - just hoping to get some early advice to set me on the right path for getting the application together once I've done some more research.
 

MAClinician

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Thanks, I see your point. My end goal is to be a clinical psychologist and treat patients - I think I need the 5-7 years of study to learn to do that. I probably confused the issue by referencing ecopsychology as a discipline. My thought was that I might be able to find a clinical research lab that explores the connection between the natural environment and mental health outcomes. But... maybe that's not the case and I'll need to revise. I'm in the earliest stages of hatching this possibly hare-brained plan - just hoping to get some early advice to set me on the right path for getting the application together once I've done some more research.
You are correct that you will need 5-7 years of study to complete a clinical or counseling PhD. Typically people apply to programs/labs with matching (or closely matching) research interests. It might be helpful to look up recent research articles on your topic of interest (connection between nature and MH outcomes) and see who is actively researching that. What university/department/program are they affiliated with? If you don’t find any within a clinical or counseling program then your plan will need to be revised. There are people who look at outcomes of MH in general I am sure so maybe that is another option. I am no expert in ecopsychology so it is possible a lab in clinical or counseling exists but it sounds like a very niche topic. Division 34 has a list of grad programs and resources that might help you.

Your research skills, although not in psychology, are certainly transferable so that is a positive for you. But you may need to think more clearly about your research AND clinical interests and how a PhD degree will meet your needs. Good luck.
 
Jul 21, 2020
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You are correct that you will need 5-7 years of study to complete a clinical or counseling PhD. Typically people apply to programs/labs with matching (or closely matching) research interests. It might be helpful to look up recent research articles on your topic of interest (connection between nature and MH outcomes) and see who is actively researching that. What university/department/program are they affiliated with? If you don’t find any within a clinical or counseling program then your plan will need to be revised. There are people who look at outcomes of MH in general I am sure so maybe that is another option. I am no expert in ecopsychology so it is possible a lab in clinical or counseling exists but it sounds like a very niche topic. Division 34 has a list of grad programs and resources that might help you.

Your research skills, although not in psychology, are certainly transferable so that is a positive for you. But you may need to think more clearly about your research AND clinical interests and how a PhD degree will meet your needs. Good luck.

Thanks for the response Mac - I'm working on all of the steps you advise. My post was mostly to find out if folks thought I had a chance at getting into a program, eventually. All of the prep (researching programs, studying for GREs, volunteering) will be a big investment of time & effort. As a non-student, I figured my chances of getting an assistant's job in a psych lab are pretty slim, so if my research experience in engineering wasn't enough to make me competitive in that respect I'm not sure it'd be worth trying - no matter how much I want to do it.

Really appreciate your taking the time to respond!
 

WisNeuro

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Thanks for the response Mac - I'm working on all of the steps you advise. My post was mostly to find out if folks thought I had a chance at getting into a program, eventually. All of the prep (researching programs, studying for GREs, volunteering) will be a big investment of time & effort. As a non-student, I figured my chances of getting an assistant's job in a psych lab are pretty slim, so if my research experience in engineering wasn't enough to make me competitive in that respect I'm not sure it'd be worth trying - no matter how much I want to do it.

Really appreciate your taking the time to respond!

Not as slim as some think. Labs will take non-students as volunteers. AMCs may be even more willing to take non-students, also more likely to have paid research positions.
 

MamaPhD

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1.) If I give myself a "refresher" on the psych coursework and somehow (?) demonstrate that, will it make up for the fact that my BS is 20 years old?
2.) how much credit do you think I will get for solid independent research experience in another field, and any advice on how to supplement that as a non-current-student?
3.) Is my lack of clinical experience a big problem?
4.) should I re-take the GRE since it's so old? I would hope my quant score would go up if I did, having been working as an engineer since I last took it!

1. I agree with others that a strong showing on the psychology GRE might help demonstrate that your knowledge is up to speed
2. It's not nothing, for sure! Especially if you have good quant skills. I would pursue a research position (volunteer or paid) in a psychology or psychology-adjacent field.
3. No, clinical experience is not a big deal, but if you can get some research experience working directly with human subjects (ie, doing interviews, running participants through experiments, etc.) that would be helpful.
4. You'll have to re-take the GRE, though be aware that there is a small but growing trend of programs dropping the GRE as a requirement, and some are doing so temporarily because of the pandemic
 
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UConn has an excellent ecopsychology program and an excellent clinical psychology program, if you can finagle joint advisorship from both divisions...
 

Spydra

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I have a few thoughts about this. No its not hare-brained to want to pursue this, you'll always regret it if you don't. If your goal is to incorporate ecopsychology into a clinical or counseling degree it may help to expand your program search to include 'sustainability.' My limited understanding is that sustainability is adjacent to ecopsychology so finding a lab that looks at that may give you a foot in the door.

Hospice experience absolutely counts as clinical experience even though it is not therapy. That was the pathway I took and my interviews were filled with questions about that because it isn't something everyone does. If you happen to like working with older adults there is more demand for people wanting to work with that population and I imagine ecopsychology would fit quite nicely there.

In terms of getting current research experience, you are not limited to psych labs. That's the assumed pathway, but it is not the only pathway. I got into my program as an older student with no psych lab experience. Instead I got experience in an interdisciplinary social science lab. Not all labs will want to take on someone outside the students they're responsible for, so being flexible will give you an advantage. You really just need to demonstrate that you're interested in research, got to do a few things, have some understanding of research methods, and are ready to learn more.
 
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