How to Pursue a Career in Clinical Psychology
On my office bookshelf, jammed between textbooks and manuals, is a dog-eared paperback that I read in a psychopathology course during the spring semester of my freshman year. It’s by a psychiatrist who worked with violent offenders in prison and (one might argue) has little to do with my day-to-day work as a clinical psychologist in the VA Boston Healthcare System. I keep it around for the ridiculous marginalia (I must have written “wow!” on nearly every page) but also because it remains one of the most interesting things I’ve ever read. It taught me to empathize with a group of people I’d never realized could be understood, much less helped. Over the years, I’ve re-read it periodically, reminding myself of the fascination that led me to this career and applying the book’s lessons to my work as a therapist.
I spend my days meeting with patients for group and individual therapy, conducting diagnostic assessments, and supervising trainees in their clinical work. I also spend several hours each week engaged in research and program evaluation. My path to this career began at Hamilton where I majored in psychology and led me to Boston University, where I earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. If you’re interested in this field, it’s important to know that it requires years of education and training after college, including a:
- Doctorate in clinical or counseling psychology which includes coursework, research experience, and clinical training. In my workplace, most people have Ph.D.s, but you could also pursue this career with a Psy.D. which is a less research-focused doctoral degree.
- Clinical internship. This usually occurs in the final year of a doctoral degree, and involves a separate application process, similar to residencies in medical fields.
- Postdoctoral fellowship involving intensive research and/or clinical training (postdocs are not required in all states, but allow people to gain the experience necessary to make them more competitive job applicants).
- Licensing exam.
How to Prepare While You’re at Hamilton
- Major in psychology. Most psychologists I know majored in psychology or a closely related field (e.g., neuroscience), but some took post-baccalaureate classes after college. You’ll need a strong foundation in the basics—research methods, statistics, brain-behavior relationships—before entering graduate school. One of my favorite courses at Hamilton was a survey of counseling theories taught by Bob Kazin, Ph.D., former director of the Counseling Center. I think of that class all the time now that I’m supervising psychology trainees and psychiatry residents. It was such a great introduction to the practice of therapy.
- Study hard. Ph.D. programs are very competitive, and seem to get more so every year. Most programs offer students tuition remission and a stipend in exchange for work as a research or teaching assistant, only admitting as many students as they can fund. Successful applicants often have a stellar transcript and recommendation letters.
- Get research experience. Volunteer as a research assistant in a professor’s lab, present your work at student conferences, and attend national conferences if you have the opportunity. I don’t think many undergraduates realize how much of graduate training in clinical psychology involves collecting and analyzing data. It’s important to know whether these activities interest you enough to devote years of your life to them.
- Become a student member of a professional organization, like the American Psychological Association or the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. Involvement in these groups can help you familiarize yourself with the field and give you access to potential mentors and employers.
- Plan to work before going to graduate school. Most applicants to Ph.D. programs have worked for one or two years after college as research assistants on grant-funded studies. These jobs allow you to co-author posters and presentations, see what clinical psychology research actually looks like day-to-day, and interact with research participants. Large research universities and academic medical centers, including VA Boston, are great places to look for these types of positions.
- Be an empathic, compassionate person. Our patients often come from backgrounds very different from our own, and it’s critical to be able to develop a relationship and work together toward their goals. As an undergraduate at Hamilton, volunteer with a population that interests you and needs your assistance, whether it be kids, older adults, refugees, or veterans.
What Can You Do with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology?
Clinical psychologists are trained in both research and clinical work, so they can work in many different settings:
- Some psychologists pursue careers primarily in research, often in medical centers/hospitals or university psychology departments. Others seek faculty positions at smaller, liberal arts colleges like Hamilton, where greater value may be placed on teaching.
- Many jobs in the field are focused on direct clinical work. You’ll find these positions in private practices, community health centers, schools, prisons, and hospitals.
- Some careers, including mine, involve a variety of activities, including clinical care, teaching, supervision, and research.
- One final piece of advice: don’t hesitate to reach out to Hamilton alumni in the field. Many of us who work in training settings are accustomed to answering emails from curious students, meeting with people for informational interviews, and helping guide people through various stages of their clinical psychology careers. We’ve benefited from the education and mentorship we received at Hamilton and are happy to share our experiences with the next generation.
Amy Lawrence graduated Hamilton College in 2001. She is a clinical psychologist in Boston. She currently works in the VA Boston Healthcare System.