So you want to be a clinical psychologist – well, I think that’s an excellent choice! (ahem, I may be somewhat biased here). Following up on Atif and Amanda’s posts, here’s the third post in this series. I’ve tried to cover all the bases, but please feel free to ask any questions or to email me personally if you wish!
Also, I feel compelled to add a disclaimer: Clinical psychology has advanced significantly since the days of Freud. Queen’s mostly employs a Cognitive-Behavioural approach to treatment (along with some other orientations) and much of the treatment we do is informed by research. And, FYI, our clients/patients do not recline on couches.
Getting to Grad School
Like any grad program, getting into clinical psych requires good marks (and often, GREs), but it also usually requires that you have some clinical experience (typically volunteer experience with vulnerable or mental health populations), and some general research experience (i.e., an undergrad thesis, typically). You also need to do a bit of soul searching – are you an empathetic person? Are you someone who feels that they can work with vulnerable or mentally ill populations on a daily basis? (Bonus, but not necessary: do your friends frequently come to you with their problems?)
Unlike other streams in psychology (Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science; Developmental Psychology; Social and Personality Psychology), those entering a clinical psych program (at Queen’s at least) are generally expected to stay for both the masters and PhD program. Although you can practice as a Psychological Associate with an MSc, this requires several years of additional supervised training, so most people elect to continue onto the PhD.
I won’t lie. The MSc-PhD1-2 portion of the program is course-heavy. We have to take 12 courses (3 electives) over the course of 3-4 years in addition to practicum placements and thesis work. The courses include stats, therapy classes, psychological assessment classes, child and adult psychology courses, and program evaluation. The upside is that this gives you ample opportunity to bond with your classmates.
One unique aspect of the clinical program is, of course, the practicum placements. Students can choose from a range of placements offered in Kingston and at least one elsewhere (I did a placement at Baycrest in Toronto). Placements are all over Kingston and range from correctional settings, to on-campus counselling services, hospitals, private clinics, etc. All students do a placement at the Queen’s Psychology Clinic during their first placement year (it’s also a great place for other clinical opportunities). Students do 6 placements (2 placements a year) starting in MSc 2, and each placement typically takes up 1.5 – 2 days a week for 120 hours per term/placement. For me, this has been one of the best parts of the program, as you get the chance to apply skills you’ve learned in class to real-world settings, and I also really appreciate the ability to work outside of the lab a couple of days a week.
Every area of psychology has a different procedure for comps. In clinical we are given the choice of writing a review paper or an empirical paper using a colleague’s data set, both in an area unrelated to your thesis during the summer of Phd 2. I elected to do a review paper and really enjoyed the opportunity to research and write on a topic of personal interest. During this summer, we also do an oral exam consisting of case conceptualization – we are given a case with half an hour to prepare: possible diagnoses, factors to consider in diagnosis (usually pertaining the client’s personal experiences), assessment plan, and hypothetical treatment plan. This requires a bit of brushing up on the diagnostic criteria for various mental health disorders since there is a time constraint!
Project and Research Requirements
Now we get to the actual research portion of the degree! It varies between supervisors, but generally we’re expected to finish one publishable project for our masters, and between 1-3 projects for the PhD, depending on how ambitious the study is. For example, if you’re working with clinical patients, recruitment is time-consuming and so you might do 1 or 2 projects). In my case, my research doesn’t use clinical subjects (I tend to do more experimental psychology/ neuroscience research), so I am aiming for 2-3 projects.
Yes, clinical students are very busy with practicum and classes, but fortunately, supervisors are generally understanding when it comes to research timelines and allow us to work around our schedules (or at least mine has).
Teaching and Supervising
Graduate students in the psychology department are required to work as TAs in order to receive their full stipend (you can waive this if you choose to – as in the case of external funding). This means that most students will complete a full TAship each year. Limited teaching opportunities are also available and are usually reserved for those having completed comps. Students may also have the opportunity to co-supervise undergraduate projects in the lab.
So you’ve finished your courses, you’ve finished your placements, and you’re wrapping up your thesis – there’s still one additional requirement. In order to receive a PhD in clinical psych, you must do a one-year internship at an accredited site (even if you plan to pursue academia). This usually happens in PhD 4, and in some cases, in PhD 3. As the matching process (which is similar to the process for medical residents) is Canada-US-wide, we have the option of choosing from a lengthy list of sites across Canada and the US. Most students elect to stay within Canada, from what I hear. Internship sites typically prefer you to have defended prior to starting, but in reality, this doesn’t always happen. Note that to become a registered clinical psychologist, you generally have to do additional supervised training following your PhD.
Work-Life Balance (And the Bigger Picture)
An important note (for anyone embarking on a graduate program, really), is the importance of self-care and work-life balance. As clinical students have to juggle courses, placements, research, TA requirements (and many also take part-time jobs at the PhD level to accrue more hours and experiences), it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The most important thing I’ve learned is how to maintain a work-life balance. Although I’ve written on this before, it bears repeating: set workplace boundaries (i.e., set time aside for yourself everyday), keep your friends and family within reach, and stay involved with activities you enjoy (like exercise or reading).
Certainly, there are times in your degree where I’ve felt less balanced (e.g., in the midst of a hurricane of impending deadlines), and some years are more stressful than others (namely, MSc 2, with practicum, courses, and thesis, and PhD 2 with comps and practicum). However, there is nothing like the satisfaction of the feeling of having made a difference in somebody’s life to remind me why I do what I do.
For more info, please see the Queen’s Clinical Psychology Website: http://www.queensu.ca/psychology/Graduate/Graduate-Programs/Clinical/GraduateProgram.html