lots of questions about undergrad volunteer experience, getting into phd program

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theyellowfog

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I hope I'm posting in the right forum!

I'm probably thinking way too far ahead in terms of career goals, given my age and experience, but once I set my mind to something, I become really passionate and driven about it. So, I'm looking for advice.

I'm currently 22 years old, attended college for two years, and have taken 2 and a half years off from undergrad so far. I had to leave school because I was taking out private student loans that my aunt was cosigning for me, and she stopped helping me halfway through my second year. I had no way to go back to school until now. Everything is finally falling into place and it looks like I can go back in the fall of 2012.

I was previously attending the Rhode Island School of design for illustration. For those of you who don't know, it's pretty much the top art school. I was so set on going into art, but other passions have become more prominent than art in the last few years.

Because of a few life changing experiences I've had in my time off, I've decided that I want to go back to undergrad for psych, and eventually get a Ph.D in clinical psychology. My first question is, will it look bad to masters programs that I majored in art first, and then changed my mind and switched to pscyh?

Also, I met with the volunteer coordinator today at a local mental hospital, and will start volunteering there working with patients in the second week of December. Will that look good in the future to Ph.D programs? How much does volunteer experience count? Keep in mind that I am not doing this just to "look good"; I want to help these patients anyway I can, and figure out before I go back to school if I really want to work in a clinical setting with patients.

I'm worried that I'm not smart enough to get into psych Ph.D program because it's so competitive. I have lots of reasons to think I'm smart enough, including teachers and professors telling me that I was either the top or one of the top students they've had in their career. Still, I'm worried about the GRE's because I don't test well; I only got a 1690 on the SAT's (650 writing/ 10 essay, 590 verbal, 440 math... bad, I know). I'm hoping, given my teacher's opinions, that I could do well in classes in grad school; however, GRE's are so important that I'm worried I won't even make the basic cut and my application would be tossed out. In my time off until I start school again, I plan to get a GRE test book and prepare for it far in advance. Will I be able to offset the requirements for scores on the GRE if I have a high enough GPA? I want to get into a funded program, because I can't afford any more debt than my undergrad.

Another thing I'm worried about, and this is a big one, is that I'm not sure if I'll be mentally stable enough to handle grad school in the future. By sophomore year of undergrad, I was becoming ill with psychotic depression/ possible bipolar disorder, so I had to take incompletes in two classes and withdraw from another. How bad will that look? I've come a long way since then, but I'm always worried that I'll become ill again. It's SO frustrating because my functioning went way downhill when I got sick (had a psychotic break, spent a week in the psych ward in December 09), but I think I'm slowly returning to my pre-illness functioning. Do any of you know fellow students who have mental illness themselves and are successfully completing a Ph.D? I know there are some outstanding cases, such as Kay Redfield Jamison and Elyn Saks, but it probably isn't the norm, right? It's a big reason for me to want to go into psychology, but I'm not sure if the stigma attached to mental illness makes it a bad idea to disclose this to the programs that I'm applying to. By the time I go back to undergrad, I hope to have this under control and have the coping skills necessary to be successful in school. Still, it worries me.

Would it be more feasible for me, to say, become a psychiatric nurse, LMHC, or MSW? I'd much rather work as a psychologist in a hospital rather than private practice, and be able to work on assessments of patients, if I could. But I'm not going to rule those out, either.

Sorry for the length and all the questions. Like I said, once I get my mind set on something, I become passionate about it... really, obsessed. Thank you for any help you can give me.
 

LivingOffLoans

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My first question is, will it look bad to masters programs that I majored in art first, and then changed my mind and switched to pscyh?

No, it will not look bad. However, you will need to take certain electives in psychology before you can enter into a master's degree program.

Also, I met with the volunteer coordinator today at a local mental hospital, and will start volunteering there working with patients in the second week of December. Will that look good in the future to Ph.D programs?

When it comes to PhD programs, it's more about research experience than anything else. I say get into a master's program, get some research experience while you're in there (like, as much as you can handle), and then apply to a PhD program when you graduate.


How much does volunteer experience count?
It definitely counts! For a master's program applicant, it looks good!

Will I be able to offset the requirements for scores on the GRE if I have a high enough GPA?

It definitely looks better having a high GPA than a low GPA in these instances. However, GRE scores are still very important in getting into a PhD program. Keep testing until you get your score up there! Between that, the completion of a master's program, and some research experience, you will at least have a fair shot.


I want to get into a funded program, because I can't afford any more debt than my undergrad.

If you want to get funded for a master's program, check out the master's in clinical psychology program at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Some students receive a full tuition waiver + stipend in exchange for a teaching or research assistant position.

Another thing I'm worried about, and this is a big one, is that I'm not sure if I'll be mentally stable enough to handle grad school in the future. By sophomore year of undergrad, I was becoming ill with psychotic depression/ possible bipolar disorder, so I had to take incompletes in two classes and withdraw from another. How bad will that look?

Many people joke that people go into psychology to figure themselves out, and in many cases, that is true. You would be surprised to know just how many problems people in the field experience in their personal lives. The question is whether or not you can do your job and function.


Do any of you know fellow students who have mental illness themselves and are successfully completing a Ph.D?

YES!!!


Would it be more feasible for me, to say, become a psychiatric nurse, LMHC, or MSW? I'd much rather work as a psychologist in a hospital rather than private practice, and be able to work on assessments of patients, if I could.

I would get your master's degree before anything else. At least that way, if you don't get accepted into a PhD program, you will still be eligible to become an LMHC. Assessment is definitely a doctoral level career, so if that was your primary objective, then yes, you will eventually need a doctorate.


Like I said, once I get my mind set on something, I become passionate about it... really, obsessed.

Me too! I totally understand.

You might also be interested to know that although PhD programs are competitive, you could still get a doctorate (probably much more easily) by getting a PsyD instead. A PsyD is not as heavy on research, and has easier admissions. However, most of those programs are not funded, and you would be paying up the ass for a degree.

My sincerest advice: Contact UMass Dartmouth and see what psych electives you need, then take those somewhere while you do your volunteer stuff, then apply to a master's program, and once you're in, you can reassess whether or not you want a PhD and at the very least get your counseling license.

Good luck.
 

theyellowfog

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However, you will need to take certain electives in psychology before you can enter into a master's degree program.
Yup, I'm only two years into college, and seeing as how it was art school, probably only my 7 liberal arts credits will transfer over... I might even have to start at freshman year when I go back to undergrad for my BS psych degree.

When it comes to PhD programs, it's more about research experience than anything else. I say get into a master's program, get some research experience while you're in there (like, as much as you can handle), and then apply to a PhD program when you graduate.
Thank you for the advice. The undergrad school I'll be going to (because it's the cheapest option), offers a senior year research honors program. Do you think that will be enough, or should I try getting more research experience before then? I want to take an undergrad psych research class/ statistics class ASAP, and want to start research right after that. Maybe I could get a prof to write me a recommendation for doing something like that outside of school in an internship before my senior year of college. I'll email the school to see if it's possible.

Are you suggesting the master's program in case I don't get into the Ph.D program right away? Do a lot of people do that?

It definitely looks better having a high GPA than a low GPA in these instances. However, GRE scores are still very important in getting into a PhD program. Keep testing until you get your score up there! Between that, the completion of a master's program, and some research experience, you will at least have a fair shot.
Gotcha. I'm going to get a GRE practice book and start re-learning algebra and geometry; it's been 6 years since I've taken a math class and 9 years since I've taken algebra, so I'm pretty rusty. I think once I go back to college, I'll also use their tutoring service to help me study math. I think, in a way, math is easier than English because it has set answers that are either right or wrong. Maybe if I get tutoring I can then understand math enough for the GRE's. It's a shame that I gave up on math once I got to high school; I used to love it.

Not as worried about the verbal, once I study it. Generally, when I study for something, I know why I got the problems wrong and can correct myself, so I end up learning from that. Hopefully that happens with the GRE practice book. I have lots of other reasons to believe I'm intelligent enough to get into grad school. I work really hard, and my teachers had high opinions of me. My english prof called me one of her top 5 students, other english prof who went to Harvard gave me A's and loved my work, my junior year of high school english teacher called me the best student she's ever had, I got 100's in my senior year of high school psych class, and my senior year anatomy/physiology teacher told me I was one of the best students she'd ever had. My art teacher said I was one of the top 3 students in his 40 year career, but I guess that doesn't matter anymore for this.

Edit: Uh oh. I read that the GRE verbal is much, much harder than the SAT verbal. I'm concerned now. :(

Still, I definitely need to improve my testing. I'm determined to make it happen, so I'm going to start studying asap. I think I'll also start reading academic journals to help improve my reading comprehension. That couldn't hurt.

If you want to get funded for a master's program, check out the master's in clinical psychology program at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Some students receive a full tuition waiver + stipend in exchange for a teaching or research assistant position.
That program looks amazing. Thank you for telling me about it. It would be perfect if I didn't have to take out more loans and could get a stipend.

Honestly, though, I worry about having to do an MA/MS program in addition to getting a Ph.D later. Even if I could get it funded, that's two+ years of my life that will delay me getting married and having children, which are also pretty important to me. I imagine that's a popular issue for grad students. Can that sort of thing be done while you're in school, or is it too stressful?

I want to get into a funded program right away; I know it's harder, but I'm determined to make it happen. I'm not sure if it will. But, if I don't get into a Ph.D program right away, I think I'd rather get a job (hopefully in psych) that funds masters programs, get some clinical experience and outside research experience, take that time to have kids and get married, and then go back to school for my Ph.D. Would that also be a possibility?

Maybe you're just being realistic about not getting into a Ph.D program right away. I guess I can't plan for the future, and there's tons of stuff that could prevent me from getting into a Ph.D program. I might even find out I'd prefer being a therapist more. I guess I can't say for certain right now, as much as I'd love to plan it out. So, thank you very much for your informed advice. You have really helped me to think about my options and what I would like to do towards getting a Ph.D, and I'm going to keep your advice in mind. I will look into going there.

Am I being unrealistic by thinking I could get into a Ph.D program right away? I guess you can't say without my stats on the GREs and GPA...

Many people joke that people go into psychology to figure themselves out, and in many cases, that is true. You would be surprised to know just how many problems people in the field experience in their personal lives. The question is whether or not you can do your job and function.
Haha! Yeah, that makes sense. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one with a mental illness who has these goals. You've made me feel so much better about that. I will talk to my pdoc when I next see him and ask him if he thinks I'll be stable enough by then. I think if I can handle undergrad, then I can handle grad school.

I would get your master's degree before anything else. At least that way, if you don't get accepted into a PhD program, you will still be eligible to become an LMHC. Assessment is definitely a doctoral level career, so if that was your primary objective, then yes, you will eventually need a doctorate.
Ah! Okay, that makes sense. Yes, it would be nice to work as an LMHC so that I would have clinical experience, a stable income, and able to gain experience needed to get into a Ph.D/Psy.D program. That's a definite possibility. I would still enjoy being a therapist if I can't get a Ph.D. I'd just rather be a psychologist because of the assesment part.

You might also be interested to know that although PhD programs are competitive, you could still get a doctorate (probably much more easily) by getting a PsyD instead. A PsyD is not as heavy on research, and has easier admissions. However, most of those programs are not funded, and you would be paying up the ass for a degree.
Thanks for the advice. I looked into the MA School of Professional Psychology for a Psy.D, but yeah, it's around $33,000 a year. I don't have the means to take out that much in debt; I already have a lot.

My sincerest advice: Contact UMass Dartmouth and see what psych electives you need, then take those somewhere while you do your volunteer stuff, then apply to a master's program, and once you're in, you can reassess whether or not you want a PhD and at the very least get your counseling license.

Good luck.
Good idea. I will do that right now. I do want to make sure I take the right courses in undergrad.

Thanks so much for your advice!
 
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LivingOffLoans

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Getting married and having kids before you go into a PhD program is not a good idea, in my opinion. While a bachelor and master degree can be pursued on the part-time track, PhD's are full-time and take a minimum of five years to complete (though seven years is about the average). Good luck trying to juggle a family while being a broke doctorate student with zero free time.

I suggest getting as much research and clinical experience as possible while in undergrad, and then going into an accredited master's program so you can get your LMHC. You could shoot straight for a PhD spot after undergrad, but I think you have a better shot with getting your masters first. Also, based on your life goals, I think it makes the most sense.

Good luck!
 
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