Choosing a Graduate Program in Clinical Psychology

How to avoid going into excessive debt for a questionable degree

Posted Jun 07, 2014

Before I was asked to blog for Psychology Today, I hadn’t visited the magazine’s website, but lately I’ve been checking in on it pretty frequently.  Based on the number of advertisements for graduate programs in clinical psychology that I’ve seen, it seems clear that a not insubstantial number of visitors to the PT website are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in psychology.  While I will refrain from naming any particular programs, I hope that this entry will help make prospective applicants more informed consumers.

People interested in careers in mental health have lots of options, including many outside of or peripheral to psychology (e.g., social worker, licensed professional counselor, psychiatric nurse, psychiatrist) and most mental health workers have master’s-level degrees and not doctorates.  So if your primary career goal is to counsel people and work with individuals with mental illness, it may not be necessary to pursue a doctoral degree.  If you do wish to pursue a doctoral degree in an area of health psychology there are both different subfields (clinical, counseling, and school psychology) and different terminal degrees (Ph.D. and PsyD).  In order to keep this entry from becoming a tome, I am not going to get into the distinction between these areas or even the distinction between the Ph.D. and the PsyD (see here for a good discussion of the similarities and differences between clinical and counseling psychology).  Instead I want to focus on one vitally important factor to consider when choosing a graduate program in clinical psychology:  Is the program accredited by the American Psychological Association? 

There is considerable variation among APA-accredited programs.  Some only accept small cohorts of students and provide those students with funding (usually in the form of tuition remission and a paid assistantship), while others may accept large classes and charge significant tuition.  Some are located in psychology departments in large universities, while others may be housed in free-standing professional schools.  Programs also vary in the ratio of time and effort devoted to training in research and clinical skills.  However, all APA-accredited programs meet a minimal standard of quality and all have agreed to make public essential statistics about their admissions process and student outcomes on their program websites (for an example, see our outcome data at Washington State University here).  Although it varies by state, it is generally much easier to secure licensure as a psychologist if you graduated from an APA-accredited doctoral program.  Also, some employers, including federal agencies (e.g., the VA) will only hire psychologists who graduated from APA-accredited programs.  If you are thinking about graduate study in clinical psychology I strongly encourage you to visit the APA accreditation homepage here.

Some non-APA accredited programs have tried to confuse the issue by saying that they are accredited.  There are many types of accreditation and accrediting agencies which can be confusing for people who do not work in higher education (and even some of us who do).  APA-accreditation is a type of professional accreditation, which is different from institutional accreditation.  An institution can often be accredited, without a specific program within that institution being accredited.  The APA-accreditation homepage links to a list of all APA-accredited programs, so you can easily find out which programs have APA-accreditation.  If a clinical psychology program says that it is accredited, but not APA-accredited, watch-out!

If you are considering applying to a non-APA accredited doctoral program in clinical psychology (maybe because you are geographically limited, you could not get into an APA-accredited program), you may be wiser to look into master’s-level programs in other mental health fields.  However, if you still decide to go forward with a non-APA-accredited program (someone is keeping these programs in business), I strongly encourage you to ask the program director the following questions:

1.  What % of students who start your program complete it with a doctoral degree?

2.  How many of your students secure an accredited internship?

3.  What % of your students pass the psychology licensing exam?  You can see the pass rates on this exam by doctoral program at here.

4.  What % of your graduates are licensed as psychologists?

5.  What % of your graduates are employed as psychologists?

6.  What is the average amount of debt accrued by your graduates?

7.  Why isn’t your program APA-accredited?  New programs may not yet be eligible for accreditation and may be pursuing it.  Other programs might never meet the necessary standards.

If the answers that you get to any of these question are vague, evasive or defensive, please think twice.  Apparently, there is a lot of money to be made by charging hefty tuitions to students who end up deep in debt with degrees that have limited value.

The Council of University of Director of Clinical Psychology (CUDCP) has an excellent fact sheet that provides more information and resources to help inform people interested in clinical psychology grad school here