Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Grad School Guru

Applying to Graduate School For Career Changers Part 2

More considerations for those who are shifting careers to psychology

Posted Oct 01, 2013

Your new career

Volunteer Clinical Experience

Those who aim to change to careers in therapy must seek out volunteer clinical experience in the community before applying to graduate programs. This demonstrates a commitment to the field and first-hand knowledge of what you’re signing up for, so-to-speak. There are many organizations that can be a good environment for this type of work. Places to look for clinical experience include suicide hotlines, elderly housing facilities, hospitals, clinics, shelters, tutoring/mentoring organizations, such as Boys and Girl Club, and many others.

If you are starting from scratch, perhaps the best way to go about finding a clinical opportunity is this: think about which populations you would like to gain first-hand experience working with. It could be women with a history of domestic violence, an LGQBT group, children from impoverished backgrounds, or many others. Search the Internet to find local organizations that specialize in providing assistance to this group. Often there will be a “Volunteer” or “How to Get Involved” link on their website. This is a good place to initiate contact. Alternatively, you can call the organization directly to ask about volunteer opportunities. Career changers can also check with their current employers to see if community outreach support is offered to employees and, if it is, I recommend getting in touch with a service organization through that office.

Career changers may need to be persistent and patient when it comes to landing a clinically-relevant volunteer position. This is because organizations may get many inquiries and cannot reply to them all. They also want to be sure their volunteers are committed and conscientious before spending time and resources training them. Be aware that you might need to contact a service organization a few times or in multiple ways (i.e., email, phone, in person) before getting a response. You may also need to contact multiple organizations.  

Another important factor to be aware of is that gaining experience in a volunteer capacity may well provide a very rich clinical experience, but it might not. Compare the depth of your volunteer experience with that of undergraduates who complete formal internships for course credit in similar settings. Will they have better training and material to talk about in application essays? Candidates who already work in the field of mental health will also certainly have a lot of clinical experience to describe. This is just one reason why it is important to start gaining clinical experience long before (at least a full year before) applying to graduate school. There will likely be a time lapse before you get in touch with an organization, attend a formal orientation for volunteers, and actually get to work with individuals. Ideally, you also want to spend a long enough stretch of time volunteering with the organization so that you can meaningfully discuss your experience in application essays and develop a deep enough relationship with a supervisor who can write you a strong letter of recommendation. Furthermore, you might find that you need to change organizations to get more in-depth experience. Working with more than one will also look great in applications.

Research Experience

Deciding to pursue a research degree in psychology means you have a burning desire to do research. It also means that you will need research experience prior to applying to graduate programs.  Career changers might have been involved with research or have written a thesis during their undergraduate years. That experience will be helpful, but relying on it solely to demonstrate that you are committed to research will not be very convincing to admissions committees. Instead, it is important to show that you have stayed involved with research or that your scientific curiosity has led you to reintroduce research into your life.

Finding volunteer research opportunities once you have left the university campus can be challenging because they are more rare than clinical practice opportunities. The best places to find volunteer positions in research are colleges, universities, hospitals, and research centers. I suggest starting off by contacting professors and graduate students at local colleges or universities whose area of research interests you.  You can find out what type of research is being conducted by looking at the “Faculty” link on the department’s website. Email faculty or graduate students directly. Explain that you are preparing to apply to graduate school in their field and that the projects you have read about on their website are interesting and exciting to you. Say that although you are not currently a student, you are looking for an opportunity to volunteer your time in exchange for gaining research experience. Keep the email to the point  – short and sweet – and see if you get a response. Someone might reply with a way for you to become involved in the lab. On the other hand, some faculty will already have enough undergraduate research assistants to meet their needs and will either say so or not reply at all.  Because of these obstacles, cast a wide net and convince the researchers that you will be a volunteer who they can count on.

Hospitals' or research centers’ websites may also be a good place to look for research experience if you do not live near a university or an opportunity does not pan out at one. Check for a “Volunteer” link and then see whether or not positions related to research are available. If there are no research opportunities listed, you can also call the organizations directly and speak with a volunteer coordinator. Again, explain that you’d like to gain some research experience before applying to graduate school and ask if there are studies presently in need of volunteer research assistants.

Final remarks

In this discussion (and the previous post) of special considerations for career changers, I do not intend to discourage career changers from pursuing graduate education in psychology. If psychology is your passion, and you have sufficient pertinent experience to know that you really love it, then I wholeheartedly encourage you to move towards shifting careers. This discussion does intend to prepare career changers for what lies ahead because they do face certain challenges that those with Bachelors in psychology or those who already work in the field do not contend with in the admissions process.

Moreover, this post is intended to explain that your career merits outside the field of psychology will not be at the forefront of admissions decisions. That is to say, it is unlikely that you will be admitted because you have years of experience, promotions, and strong recommendations in your current field. Instead, the experience you have sought out that directly relates to what you would like to study in graduate school, be it in research, practice or both, (plus your GRE scores and GPA) will factor more predominately in admissions decisions.

Finally, while one’s professional accomplishments that do not directly related to psychology play only a supporting role in the first few rounds of applicant filtering, the particular skills you bring to the table from your former career might actually, in the end, set you apart from other applicants. Allow me to explain. Take, for example, the case of a web designer who has decided to pursue a second career as a research psychologist. This individual’s research experience, letters of recommendation, publications and/or conference presentations, GPA, and GRE scores will be scrutinized much more extensively and carefully in the first few rounds of application review than his or her programming skills. As will his/her specific research interests and how they fit with those of the program. If these aspects of his or her application are top-notch, and competitive with others in the applicant pool, however, the issue of web programming skills might potentially become important. What if the admissions committee knows that there is a research project on the horizon for which data will be collected online? In that situation, selecting a new graduate student with top-notch experience both in research and in web programming might be very appealing.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in psychology and related fields. Visit www.gradadmissionsconsulting.com to learn more about working with Laura to improve your application. Follow her on Twitter for current grad school admissions news.