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What is Graduate School Like?

Graduate school in clinical psychology consists of three broad activities: class work, clinical work, and research. There are classes on such topics as statistics, psychopathology, psychotherapy, and research methods. Course work is typically complete by the end of the third year of graduate school. Clinical work consists of a series of practica. These usually require about 10 hours per week, during which students work with clients under the supervision of practicing clinical psychologists.

Practicum sites may range from a student counseling center to a forensic unit at a state hospital (i.e., a facility for treating mentally ill criminals). In addition, students (particularly students in a clinical psychology program that is accredited by the American Psychological Association, APA) must do a yearlong internship, typically during or following completion of the dissertation. Students must apply for internships during the fall of the preceding year, and most internships begin during the summer or the following fall. Typically, internships pay relatively low salaries (less than $20,000). Most clinical psychology programs require at least two research projects: a master’s thesis and a dissertation. These usually take one to two years each. The dissertation is usually a much larger project, and is supposed to be primarily the student's idea. Some students spend years as ABDs (All But Dissertation). This is especially a danger for those who are working on something they find uninteresting, unimportant, or overwhelming. That is another reason why students should choose their schools and advisors carefully.

Not surprisingly, clinical graduate students are among the busiest of graduate students in psychology. It is difficult to balance the competing demands of three major activities—research, coursework, and clinical training. In addition, those in PhD programs are frequently engaged in teaching undergraduates students, either as teaching assistants for regular faculty members or on their own. These competing demands sometimes create strains even among clinical faculty, who are often divided between those who emphasize clinical training and those who emphasize research. Students can sometimes feel caught in the middle.

While many programs are nominally intended to last 4 years (in addition to the internship, which requires an additional year), only a minority of students complete their degrees within that time frame. Indeed, it is more common for such programs to require 5 years, and some students take more than 6 years (including an internship year) to obtain their PhD. Time to obtain a PhD is largely (though not completely) under a student's control. The harder a student works, the more rapidly s/he will complete the requirements for a dissertation. Having a very active social life or low motivation can slow one down. Many students, however, are in no rush to leave. Being a graduate student is not usually a bad existence.