Is it possible to get into a good PhD program if you quit one 10 years ago and did nothing since?

Oct 18, 2014
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Good day everyone.

I studied psychology in undergrads, and was accepted to a respectable and highly research oriented APA-accredited PhD program in clinical psychology. Then I quit in the middle of the program, never completing even my masters. That was 8-9 years ago.

The reason I quit was "health reason" but the real reason that kept me from going back was a family emergency that turned into something pretty chronic and the whole thing traumatized me. Literally. Funny how studying about such things in school is quite different from facing them in a very personal way in your own life. Eventually when all settled, I ended up going for therapy myself for several years and I think I'm 90% of my old self now, so to speak. In my late 30s now and needing to start over, I have looked at various options but my therapist, one of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, really urged me to not give up on my dream of pursuing academic and professional training in clinical psychology.

In terms of clinical psychology as an area of study and also future career, I have been considering various factors, such as stress (possibility of vicarious traumatization and more generally, burnout), the heavy workload (academic AND clinical work), uncertain future in terms of turf wars, finances, etc. However, even more important is knowing my chances of getting in. Naturally I will need to spend some time taking some undergrad courses, do some research, and get back in the game, and to show the admitting committee that I do have at least the minimum intelligence and work ethic required to succeed in this field. But I also do recall from ten year ago, about how competitive clinical programs were. My classmates would not believe it when had I told them it would be easier to get into medical school!

For those of you who are currently in a graduate program or recently graduated, I imagine some of you have had some involvement with the admission committee and their process (I never did get the chance to do so in my PhD program but this was something we were supposed to slowly get involved with). I'm hoping you can give me some suggestion and guidance. As a "mature" student, what are my chances? How bad is it that I quit a clinical program, and how bad is it that I have not been doing anything academic in the last ten years and now a big hole remains in the middle of my CV? Can good GRE or grades, assuming I obtain them, make up for any of this or should I just give up and pursue a non-PhD degree, perhaps a graduate degree from a professional psychology school, given that those accredited PhD programs that offer free tuition are presumably less likely to take a chance on someone like me, and instead invest in people with essentially flawless academic records?

Thank you for your help, I appreciate your feedback, and constructive advice.
 

AcronymAllergy

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If you're able to appropriately discuss why you left the program, and perhaps even end up putting some type of positive spin on it, having previously attended and left a program (particularly given that it was 9 years ago) shouldn't be a deal breaker for many programs. I also don't know that you'd need to take much in the way of classes, assuming your undergrad degree is in psychology. Could vary by program, though.

You will need to re-take the GRE, and more than anything else, it'd probably be helpful to have a year or two of research experience prior to applying. Regardless of what you've done for the past 10 years, if you have 1-2 years of research experience, that should help substantially.
 

WisNeuro

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If you're able to appropriately discuss why you left the program, and perhaps even end up putting some type of positive spin on it, having previously attended and left a program (particularly given that it was 9 years ago) shouldn't be a deal breaker for many programs. I also don't know that you'd need to take much in the way of classes, assuming your undergrad degree is in psychology. Could vary by program, though.
Yeah, you need to check with the program. I forgot what the number was, but my program didn't accept certain class credits if they were x years old. I think it was science-related classwork, things that could have conceivably changed significantly in a relatively short period of time, and not something like statistics, which is fairly static.
 
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Ollie123

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Important clarification:

Did NOTHING since? (i.e. was in treatment/unemployed for a decade)?

Or did nothing RELEVANT since?

Its not the most common path, but its far from unheard for people to enter the field a bit later coming from a different field. A 10 year gap in your CV will be harder to explain and a much more significant barrier to getting into a program.
 

AcronymAllergy

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Important clarification:

Did NOTHING since? (i.e. was in treatment/unemployed for a decade)?

Or did nothing RELEVANT since?

Its not the most common path, but its far from unheard for people to enter the field a bit later coming from a different field. A 10 year gap in your CV will be harder to explain and a much more significant barrier to getting into a program.
Agreed. My post was made with the assumption that you (the original poster) had been working in an unrelated field for the past 8-10 years. If, in fact, you actually haven't been working at all in those 10 years, that would indeed be much more difficult to explain.
 
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Oct 18, 2014
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Wisneuro, AcronymAllergy, and Ollie, thank you very much for your posts and taking the time to read and make suggestions, I appreciate it.

Sadly, it is the latter: I have not studied or done paid work of any kind in the last ten years. I left the college because of a medical illness which took time to diagnose and treat. In the meantime the family crisis had developed (triggered by behavior of severely mentally ill sibling, who required multiple hospitalizations and involvement of police...and it took several years for that to resolve, and not exactly in a good way). In the meantime I developed PTSD because of this crisis, so I had to go on several medications and try different kinds of therapy. This was the worst period of my life. I don't want to provide more medical details so I'll leave it at that.

During that time I was applying to a few different jobs in the mental health field, went for a few interviews, and considered various grad programs, but sadly non amounted to anything. Ten years ago I was a driven solution focused idealistic and in many ways distant and self-centered young man but now I find I have gained more in maturity and compassion and realism, and know firsthand about client side of receiving mental health services (both from my therapy but also my sibling and later others in my family). Unfortunately, nothing of that I can put on CV in terms of accomplishment. I know how if during those times I was able to still hold down a job, it could have shown evidence of my resilience.

Regardless, past is past and my biggest challenge is to find the right balance of being hopeful and also realistic at present. I think it is better I face the reality of what is possible now, which is why I made this thread. Then I can direct my efforts towards gaining acceptance to programs that are more likely to admit person in my circumstances.

And it makes sense, when somebody has a big gap in their CV, I would be curious too, what have they been doing? Many people face tough challenges in their personal lives but still find a way to hold down a job or go to school, and at least they won't be unemployed for ten years!
 

Ollie123

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That definitely makes things more challenging.

I'd encourage you to keep your options open at this point. There are many degrees and paths that can lead to jobs that generally fall within the scope of what you seem to want. Psychology is arguably the most competitive. Think carefully about whether you could achieve your goals pursuing counseling, social work, nursing (on the more clinical side) or epidemiology, public health, neuroscience (on the research side). None of this is to say a clinical degree is completely out of the question, but competition is stiff enough I'd encourage someone in your situation to have a backup plan.
 
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OneNeuroDoctor

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I would check back with the program you were in and see if they would let you return. I knew of a friend who had a similar situation and he was able to return and complete the program a number of years later. I believe he had Leukemia and it took him a number of years before he was able to return. I believe they had another student who dropped out and he filled that spot for the cohort.
 
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SpartanWolverine

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That definitely makes things more challenging.

I'd encourage you to keep your options open at this point. There are many degrees and paths that can lead to jobs that generally fall within the scope of what you seem to want. Psychology is arguably the most competitive. Think carefully about whether you could achieve your goals pursuing counseling, social work, nursing (on the more clinical side) or epidemiology, public health, neuroscience (on the research side). None of this is to say a clinical degree is completely out of the question, but competition is stiff enough I'd encourage someone in your situation to have a backup plan.
I agree with Ollie.

With the details you have provided, administration at the program I worked for would would be reluctant to admit you. They have plenty of recently-published, productive, and eager young undergrads/post-grads who know the field well and would arguably flourish, and someone with a blank slate for ten years would be a big question mark. I think it is good advice for you to reach out to the program where you were originally enrolled, and perhaps think about taking steps towards A) working for a while in your field of interest or B) having a backup plan ready to go.
 
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Oct 18, 2014
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OneNeuroDoctor, Ollie, and johnamo, thanks for the guidance. I doubt my previous program will accept me. For one, my mentor was planning to move to Australia in a few years, when I was accepted to the program, and since about three years ago he has moved out there permanently.

Another question: I'm interested in clinical neuropsychology, Both my undergrad research and also the PhD program that I enrolled in, were focused in that area. And I know clinical neuropsychology PhD programs are exceptionally competitive (at the time, one of the programs I had applied to had a 3% admission rate the previous year!) I don't think there are any terminal masters degrees in clinical neuropsych. So what are some alternative paths I can follow, ones that would allow me to work with clinical neuropsychologists and do research and clinical work in that area?

Just to brainstorm: Can I, say, do a masters in social work and then do some sort of specialization in that area? Or do a terminal masters in cognitive psych and then get involved with the clinical side of things in some capacity? Etc.
 

OneNeuroDoctor

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A number of PhD/PsyD School Psychology programs have intensive clinical neuropsychology specialization such as TAMU, TWU, PCOM, UMemphis, and their graduates are in Hospital and University settings. They most likely would accept your credits and you would finish quicker and most accept older students with evening classes. I know a person who did not finish his PhD at one university due to situational variable and he was accepted to the PhD School Psychology program at TWU and they accepted most of his credits. He finished up at TWU and did an APA internship in a school district that had intensive neuropsychology rotation with Cook Children's Medical Center and he now is licensed as a clinical Psychologist and working at a children's Hospital. He had a similar situation as his wife had a serious medical disorder and he returned in his 30's after she passed away and he was remarried.
 
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AcronymAllergy

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RE: Masters and neuropsych, you could look into certification and employment as a psychometrist. I think a psychology rather than SW masters would prepare you better for that path, as I've personally never heard of any social work-trained individuals having anything to do with neuropsych.
 
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Ollie123

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Neuro is trickier - you happen to have the one specialty that is probably the hardest to find outside psychology! I agree that training as a psychometrist might be a good option for a more clinical path. Its a far cry from true neuropsychology (administering tests is really the easiest part of their job) but would get you some clinical contact.

Honestly though, I think a lot depends on what you like about clinical work and want out of it. If you are just interested in direct contact with patients...this can be obtained in lots of ways. There are plenty of folks with zero clinical training who spend hours every day doing research with patient populations.
 
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cara susanna

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You don't have to attend a program with a neuropsych specialty to become a neuropsychologist. You just need a program that has neuropsych research and practica opportunities.
 
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AcronymAllergy

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You don't have to attend a program with a neuropsych specialty to become a neuropsychologist. You just need a program that has neuropsych research and practica opportunities.
Agreed on this as well. You don't need to go to UH, UF, etc., to go on to a career in neuropsychology. As cara mentioned, you mainly just need to have the opportunity to work with neuropsychologists and take neuropsych coursework. My program, for example, didn't have anything beyond adult and child clinical "tracks;" I just had a neuropsychologist as my mentor.
 
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Thanks for all the suggestions guys, man I'm glad I signed up here.