As a first-generation student, I had little guidance to prepare me for a doctoral program in Clinical Psychology. To bridge that gap, I devoured the “Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology1” to distinguish between pursuing a Ph.D. and a Psy.D., to compare and contrast APA-accredited programs, and to identify areas of interest for clinical and research experience. This resource gave me a great start; however, I wanted to share what else I wish I had known in advance.
This is an expensive endeavor. You will pay for moving costs, tuition, living expenses, books, application fees, licensing exams, extra courses, and licensure fees, to name a few. Make every attempt possible to eliminate existing debt and have some savings before starting your program.
Minimize your loan debt. The weight of student loan debt is heavy, even with the possibility of loan forgiveness (if that pans out). Consider smaller programs. Although they are typically more competitive, they may provide stipends that can help cover tuition or expenses. Look for paid opportunities wherever you can. I applied for grants and scholarships, found a paid research position, worked part-time for a local psychologist (which afforded me insider knowledge of how to successfully run a private practice), and only applied for paid pre-internship, internship, and post-doctoral positions. Be sure to balance opportunities with the quality of their experience.
Privacy is important. Patients are curious about their therapists. They will Google you. Consider your social media presence and making it private. Think about the proximity of where you live to where you work. Although it still happens, I try to reduce chances of encountering patients in my personal time whether it is at the gym, doctor appointments, the grocery store picking up personal items, or a night out.
Do not be shy. Get to know your professors, advisors, deans, supervisors, and training directors. This is a relatively small field. Knowing them will likely improve your current collaboration and may help connect you with future opportunities.
Try not to freak out during Legal and Ethics class. We enter this field to help people. Course content described all the ways in which things could go wrong to lose your future license. Pay attention, but keep the paranoia at bay. You will be faced with unusual circumstances at some point, and you will have access to resources—such as consultation with The Trust—to navigate any complicated or unusual issues that arise.
Embrace efficiency. It will appear as though you have lots of time. However, you will be assigned more work than seems possible to complete. Be as efficient as possible. As you read, write summary statements, responses, questions, and cite the page numbers together in a document. This will help as you write your paper later or review for the final examination. Alternate personal tasks with chunks of reading or assignments to give your brain time to synthesize information as well as stay on top of your life responsibilities.
Celebrate all your victories, large and small. The pace is fast; the work can be grueling and draining. Stamina is needed to jump through hoop after flaming hoop to finally become a licensed clinician. Take time to celebrate your accomplishments and feel proud of how far you have come before you need to regroup and start the next milestone.
Take advantage of breaks. Between courses and clinical work, graduate school was all-encompassing. There was rarely time for a personal life. I learned to take advantage of any time off. This included taking a 5-week road trip across the country to visit friends and family after summer intensives and tacking on a week of vacation to a study abroad intensive in Italy. Totally worth it!
Your dissertation may not be your life’s work! If you do not love your research topic and/or results, it is okay. It can be disappointing to not meet your optimistic expectations. Just finish it! You can pursue other areas of interest after licensure.
It is sad to terminate with patients. Every year, it was difficult to prematurely end treatment due to switching practicum sites. I imagined, optimistically, that we would meet until we mutually felt they had reached their treatment goals. In reality, therapy can be interrupted by moving sites, session limits, client drop-out, limited time or financial resources, or because they need more specialized care. I have come to be much more present as a therapist, realize that each session is a gift, and utilize it as fully as possible.
I hope these pearls of wisdom will be helpful for those of you considering a similar career path. Although I highlight several challenges one can encounter, I also wanted to share how grateful I am for being a part of this field and for my experiences with clients and patients every day. I am humbled and honored to walk alongside people through their deepest pain and assist them with emotional healing and personal growth. May your journey be more enlightened as a result of my shared experiences.
About the Arthur
Stephanie Salo, Psy.D., is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in California. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota and her Doctor of Psychology from Fuller Graduate School of Psychology. Dr. Salo is a Behavioral Health Consultant in a medical setting full-time, while teaching as an adjunct professor. She also maintains a small private practice and consultation business on the side. Dr. Salo is Vice Chair for The Trust’s Student and Early Career Psychologist Advisory Committee. In her leisure time, Stephanie enjoys traveling, hiking, running, cooking/baking, game nights, and hosting fabulous dinner parties.
1. Sayette, M. A., Norcross, J. C. (2018) Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology. The Guilford Press, Revised Ed.