Congratulations! Deciding that you want to apply to graduate school is a pretty big deal. Now comes the scary part of deciding which schools to apply to and actually applying. My thought process for deciding to apply for Counseling Psychology PhD programs was long and sometimes felt circular. I landed on Counseling Psychology after eliminating most other program types. I considered all of the following options:
- Masters in Public Health
- Masters in Social Work
- Masters in Counseling
- PhD in Community Psychology
- PhD in Clinical Psychology
- PsyD in Clinical Psychology
- PhD in Counseling Psychology
None of them felt right. I had an amazing experience at the University of Michigan Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) focused on public health (shameless plug: this program is amazing and life-changing). I loved learning about the social determinants of health, but I missed the emphasis of individual psychology. I thought that a Masters of Social Work could potentially help fulfill the individual-level psychological interest, but I was worried about what my job prospects might be. I did not want to feel like my options were limited to a classic social work setting since I could see myself quickly burning out in that type of environment.
I liked the idea of a Masters in Counseling, but then you run into the issues of how the degree might transfer to different states and the cost of programs. For example, with a Masters in Counseling you have a lot of flexibility in Kentucky, but you might not have the same flexibility elsewhere. I don’t know the ins and outs of these differences, but I know enough to know that I did not want to have to figure it out! I also had a lingering worry that maybe I wouldn’t like just seeing clients and I felt like I might miss working my brain in other ways (like data analysis, research, etc.).
So at this point I realized that a Ph.D. program was the right fit for me. I love school, I love learning, I enjoy research, and I wanted to leave my options open career-wise. I’m also relatively young and had a few years to save money after graduating with my BA, so I felt like I had the time and financial resources to pursue a Ph.D. I looked into Community Psychology PhD programs and felt like there were not any programs that were a great fit for me and didn’t feel like the right option if I wanted to pursue clinical practice.
Next, I looked into Clinical Psychology programs. I was all too familiar with the process of applying to clinical programs after seeing numerous friends and acquaintances go through the process during my senior year as an undergraduate student. After seeing this process, and hearing about how competitive and cutthroat the programs seemed (well, some of them), I was pretty turned off. In doing my own research, I also was a bit shocked by how few programs mentioned social justice or health disparities in their mission or as an area of focus. As someone who is passionate about social determinants of health and health disparities, I wanted to join a program that prioritized social justice (or at least mentioned it). Clinical programs are also generally much more focused on research and clinical practice is often seen as secondary. For example, I interviewed with one combined Clinical-Counseling program and as soon as I mentioned that I was interested in a career combining research and clinical practice, the interview was over. I’m sure this is not every clinical program, but research is often the primary focus. The fourth, and final, nail in the coffin for my interest in Clinical Psychology programs was the focus on psychopathology; it is largely focused on diagnosing mental disorders with little discussion of considering individual strengths and the role of an individual’s environment.
I also did some research into PsyD programs. PsyD programs are focused on clinical practice with less of an emphasis on research. Importantly, you typically have to pay tuition for PsyD programs. With the typical PsyD student leaving school with $100k+ in debt as a result of paying tuition and typical cost of living for 4-6 years…this option was crossed off my list pretty fast!
That led me to investigate Counseling Psychology Ph.D. programs! It almost felt like coming home; I finally found the type of program that emphasized social justice, interpersonal relationships, research, and clinical practice. Unfortunately, there are not too many Counseling Psychology programs, which can make it hard to find programs and faculty that align perfectly with your interests. In the next post I will walk through the process of looking for the right programs and finding faculty who match up with your research interests!