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Clinical Psychology FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions About Clinical Psychology

Prepared by Keith Dobson, Ph.D., University of Calgary
Last edited August, 2007.

Without a doubt, clinical psychology is the most popular area of psychology in which students want to receive advanced training. Part of this popularity is due to the wide scope of activities that clinical training makes available (research, teaching, psychological practice, psychotherapy and assessment, psychological consulting, etc.), but also the wide range of settings that are potential work places (e.g. universities, hospitals, mental health clinics, jails, prisons, private practice, etc.). For many students, the popularity, coupled with the wide number of options for training, makes getting answers difficult. This page covers some of the most common questions I have been asked over the past few years. It contains what I believe to be good factual information, but is also liberally sprinkled with my own opinions, for which I take complete responsibility. Any reactions or feedback to the information contained herein is greatly appreciated.

1. How can I find out what Clinical Psychologists do?
2. What type of training do I need to be a Clinical Psychologist?
3. What is a doctoral program in Clinical Psychology like?
4. What's the difference between Clinical and Counselling Psychology?
5. What is the difference between a Clinical Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?
6. How do I get into a Clinical Psychology program?
7. Where are the good Clinical Psychology programs?
8. Where can I get more information?

1. How can I find out what Clinical Psychologists do?
Any good textbook in clinical psychology (I like Nietzel, Bernstein, Kramer and Milich, 2003) will give a sense of the types of activities conducted by clinical psychologists and settings in which these activities are conducted. Some of the typical specialized types of practice in clinical psychology include: adult clinical psychology, child clinical psychology, health psychology, forensic psychology and clinical neuropsychology. While many clinical psychologists work in private practice or hospitals, there are also many innovative practice areas that may well appeal to you if you do a bit of reading. If you are creative, you might also be able to create a new practice area, as the field is quickly growing.

Neitzel, M. T., Bernstein, D. A., Kramer, G. P. & Milich, R. (2003). Introduction to Clinical Psychology (6th Ed). Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

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2. What type of training do I need to be a Clinical Psychologist?
In many provinces in Canada (B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and P.E.I.), a doctoral degree plus one year of supervised experience is required to be a psychologist, regardless of the type of psychology practiced. Quebec has recently increased the standard of training, and is phasing in a doctoral requirement. The other provinces (Alberta, New Brunswick and Newfoundland) require only a masters degree for entry into the profession (in Nova Scotia, you can be a psychologist with a masters degree, plus 5 years of supervised experience). Almost every clinical psychology training program, however, is geared to train doctoral level psychologists, and if you apply to a program saying you want a terminal masters degree, most will not even consider you. Further, even though some provinces allow masters entry at present, these standards can only increase in the future. You should pursue doctoral training in clinical psychology.

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3. What is a doctoral program in Clinical Psychology like?
The typical doctoral training in clinical psychology is very intensive, and attempts to train the student to be both a researcher and a practitioner. The dominant model of training is called the Scientist-Practitioner model, reflecting these dual areas of training, and leads to a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. An alternative degree program, referred to as the Psy.D. is more practical in its orientation, and usually has reduced research requirements relative to the Ph.D. model. These programs have recently emerged in Canada in the province of Quebec, associated with the movement of that province to a doctoral standard and the quick phasing out of masters level training. Memorial University in Newfoundland has also recently created a Psy.D. program.

Training in clinical psychology takes a minimum of 5 years after the bachelor's degree, and sometimes more, depending upon the type of research undertaken. Training typically includes extensive course work, practicum training courses, comprehensive examinations in clinical psychology, masters and doctoral research, and a full-year internship at the end of training. If the program offers specialized training in one of the five areas mentioned above, you can anticipate that some of the courses and practical training will be geared to that area. Most programs, and certainly the better ones, offer funding to support students during their training.

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4. What's the difference between Clinical and Counselling Psychology?
Both clinical and counselling psychology focus on helping people in distress, and some of the interventions used by clinical and counselling psychologists are similar. A major difference, however, is that whereas clinical psychologists deal with individuals suffering from mental and physical disorders, where the focus is on assessing, diagnosing and alleviating the disorder and restoring normal functioning, counselling psychologists tend to work with less severe problems, including adjustment difficulties, marital disorders, and so on. Further, counselling psychologists are more likely than clinical psychologists to be involved in helping people, without any particular problem, achieve goals they have set (e.g. career counselling, human development). Whereas clinical psychology programs are typically found in departments of psychology, counselling psychology programs are typically offered through departments of educational psychology, and some have an educational or school focus. Please visit the Faculty of Education’s Applied Psychology website for more information on their graduate program in counselling psychology.

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5. What is the difference between a Clinical Psychologist and a Psychiatrist?
Clinical psychologists obtain their training in psychology, including the theory and practice of both normal and abnormal functioning. Clinical psychologists are trained as researchers, they know how to interpret the research literature, and many conduct research themselves. Clinical psychologists are experts in psychological theories, assessment, and treatments.

Psychiatrists are first trained as physicians. Following medical school, they then specialize in psychiatry, doing a 3 or 4 year psychiatric residency program. Psychiatrists are trained in the diagnosis and treatment of abnormal behavior, mostly from the perspective of biologically oriented models. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications for psychological problems, or do other medically oriented treatments, such as electro-convulsive therapy. For more information on Psychiatry, please contact UofC’s Faculty of Medicine.

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6. How do I get into a Clinical Psychology program?
Entry into clinical programs is very competitive, with a common acceptance ratio being around 5% (i.e. five students are successful for every 100 applications). Generally, the people who gain admittance have the following attributes:

  • A high grade point average. A G.P.A. of 3.6 (on a 4-point system) begins to be competitive (this would be about 83%). However, a 3.8 G.P.A. or higher is more typical. The last two years of study are most emphasized, but unusual academic records often get close scrutiny (for example, a 2.6 G.P.A. in economics that suddenly jumps to a 3.7 when the student changes to psychology; or a student who drops out of school for 8 years). Statistics grades are always looked at closely.
  • Graduate Record Examination scores. Most programs set internal GRE cut-offs, particularly on the Quantitative and Verbal parts of the test. You might want to ask programs you are applying to what their cut-offs are. If you have the time, it is probably worth studying for the GRE. I also strongly recommend taking the GRE well before you apply; if you wait until January, decisions about admissions will be made before your results are back, and this usually means your chances of being admitted are lower.
  • Work experience. Depending upon the type of program that is considering you, it may be better to have worked as a research assistant or in a community agency. You are well advised to have some research experience, whether it be in an honours thesis form, individual research course, or by simply volunteering a half-day a week in a professor's laboratory or community research project. Some relevant experience, however, is definitely better than none, as it shows your interest in the field. Don't forget that you can volunteer through your local community agencies. You should also cultivate letters of referral as you gain your work experience Letters from faculty are of importance in terms of entry into clinical programs, but strong letters from community agencies are much more to your advantage than a faculty letter which might say that you were one of 10 anonymous students in a class of 200 who received an "A".
  • Student-program matching. Most programs look for a match of interest between applying students' training goals and what the program offers. In general, matching occurs at two levels:
i. General orientation - most programs ask students to state their training and career goals, and will match these goals against their own orientation. For example, if you want psychoanalytic training and say so, non-analytic programs may drop you from consideration. If you say you want to be trained as a child clinical psychologist, but the program offers no such training, you will generally be excluded from further consideration. You should do some homework and make sure your interests match with what the programs you are applying to offer. Most programs now have World Wide Web sites, which can give good information.

ii. Faculty research - most programs assign students to do their research under the supervision of a particular faculty member, typically in the faculty member's area of interest (students can and do switch, but assignments to faculty are generally held to, since both the faculty member and the student become invested in each other). Usually, this means that a specific faculty member has to say they want to work with you in order for you to be admitted. A good idea is to write to faculty with whom you may be interested in working, to read about their work, and to demonstrate your interest in working with them. Remember that with the competition for positions, there may be four or five equally qualified students interested in working with a particular faculty member. You need to convince the faculty member that it is YOU they should select.

  • Funding - almost all programs (and all good ones) ensure that students are funded before admitting them. Funding typically consists of teaching assistantships or research assistantships. Another source of funds is scholarships. In the year before you apply you should go to your local scholarship office (usually in Graduate Studies) and determine appropriate local, provincial and national scholarships, and apply for everything that seems relevant. Bear in mind that if you hold a scholarship, you cost the program less in terms of support, and are therefore much more attractive as an applicant.

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7. Where are the good Clinical Psychology programs?
A major distinction is made in clinical psychology between accredited and non-accredited programs. The Canadian and American Psychological Associations (CPA and APA) have established criteria for high-quality training. Programs that believe they meet these criteria can apply to CPA and/or APA, and have their program reviewed. If they are judged to pass the criteria, the program is said to be "accredited". Most clinical psychology programs in Canada are either already accredited, or else are working very hard to be accredited, as students will naturally prefer an accredited over a non-accredited training. Generally, graduation from an accredited program will offer more career choices than from a non-accredited one. However, bear in mind that accreditation status does not affect whether or not you can be registered to practice as a psychologist; all accredited programs surpass registration requirements, and training in non-accredited programs also generally permits registration.

A list of APA accredited programs can be found in every December issue of the journal American Psychologist, as well as through the World Wide Web at http://www.apa.org/ed/accreditation/programs/index.aspx. The APA also publishes a book that lists graduate psychology programs in the USA (www.apa.org).
The journal Canadian Psychology also lists CPA accredited programs, although less regularly. The Canadian Psychological Association has a pamphlet for sale that lists all graduate psychology programs in Canada (write to Canadian Psychological Association, #205 -151 Slater St., Ottawa, Ontario, K1P 5H3; phone (613) 237-2144).

Almost all of the doctoral clinical psychology programs in Canada, with the exception of a number of the PsyD programs in the Universite de Quebec system, are accredited by the CPA. A complete list of all accredited programs in Canada can be found at the CPA web site: http://www.cpa.ca/.

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8. Where can I get more information?
Probably the best source I can cite is the Appendix in the book by Nietzel, et al (2003), entitled "Getting into graduate school in clinical psychology." It offers a number of good ideas, some of which you already know about if you have read this far. Almost every department of psychology in Canada has a graduate advisor who can help you with other questions, or else direct you to someone who can. At the University of Calgary call (403) 220-5659, or visit our Clinical web site.
Another source of information about advanced education in general (including, but not limited to, clinical psychology) is available on the world wide web. The graduate directory published by Petersons is found at http://www.petersons.com

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