By Kelsey Baller, HBC Lab Research Assistant
Tuesday, April 2, 2024

In the Voss lab, we have a diverse range of graduate students earning a PhD in either Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience, Neuroscience, or like our newest graduate student addition Liam, in Clinical Science. Applying to a PhD program can be incredibly confusing as the process varies depending on the program type and the specific school. For the sake of this post, I will be focusing on the application process to clinical psychology (aka clinical science) programs specifically. 

Kelsey Baller photo
Kelsey Baller

Clinical psychology PhD programs are unique as they can produce individuals who conduct research, practice as a clinician, or do a little bit of both in a multitude of settings. This is unlike a Master’s program where the training is much shorter and allows graduates to practice just as a clinician or requires additional training in a PhD program to be able to conduct research. Further, PsyD programs are similar to PhD programs, however they differ as their primary focus is on clinical practice and typically produce sole clinicians. The combination of training to reach expert levels in both clinical work and research conduction is specific to clinical psychology programs. 

Clinical psychology programs are rigorous and commonly last 6 years where 5 years are a combination of classes, clinical work, research, and working on and defending your dissertation. The 6th year is spent ‘on internship’ where an in-depth clinical training experience, typically at a different institution, takes place. It is common to find clinical psychologists in academic medical centers, hospitals, colleges, or universities, primary or secondary education schools, and private practices. Whether conducting research in a laboratory setting or working with patients in a clinical setting, clinical psychologists typically work in the realm of assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders in a range of individuals (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2023). 

Each program will provide students with clinical and research training, but each program has its own training model: some schools emphasize research relatively more than clinical training, clinical over research, or have an even split between the two. Deciding where to apply typically depends on one’s career goals. When applying, the applicant technically first must meet the requirements of the program although they are more so applying to a specific lab within the program. The options of where to apply can be limited depending on the application cycle as: 1) the school must have a clinical psychology training program, 2) the lab one is interested in needs to be accepting a student (labs do not take a student every year, typically due to funding), and 3) the lab should ideally fit with the applicant’s prior experiences and/or research interests. In my experience, I have seen clinical programs report receiving anywhere from 300-800 applications. The number of applications a program receives is the cumulative number of applications each lab at the school receives that year. On average, I have seen schools report taking cohort sizes of around 8-12 students. Typically, specific labs say that they receive at least 100 applications and usually have spots for only 1 or 2 students. Averaging these numbers makes a 1.8% chance of being accepted into a program and about a 1% chance of being accepted into a specific lab (this is the number that matters as you have to be accepted into a lab to be in the program). 

The application process can be expensive costing anywhere from $30 to more than $100 per application. In my experience, individuals apply to upwards of 8-12 schools but I have heard of individuals applying to as many as 20 schools in a given application cycle. Additionally, with the odds of being admitted into a program being so low, it is typical to not get accepted the first or even second time applying to programs, making repeat applicants common. To be as competitive as possible it is recommended (not required) to have postbaccalaureate research experience. Typically, you need to be in this position long enough to produce independent research projects to present as a poster or an oral presentation at national or international conferences. Additionally, it is common to see individuals with first author publications. Getting these experiences typically takes 2+ years with substantial time dedicated to research. 

Filling out applications is not a streamlined process. Each program has its own unique application form. In addition to asking for basic information such as your name, address, schools attended, classes taken, GPA, etc., it is standard for programs to ask for transcripts, 3 letters of recommendation (at least one is expected to be written by the supervisor of a lab you worked in or supervisors from clinical experience), a curriculum vitae, and perhaps the most important piece, the personal statement. 

The personal statement is typically 2-3 pages where you explain why you are interested in earning a PhD in clinical psychology, what area of research you’d like to pursue, why you are applying to this particular program and lab, and how your past experiences fit this narrative. This is perhaps the most important part of the application process, and it can take months to come up with a final draft. This statement typically has slightly different requirements per school and certainly needs to be unique to the lab you are applying to. This is an opportunity to convince the lab that you have experiences that relate to their work and offer a unique perspective that wins you an interview. For this reason, it is good to identify programs you are most interested in early, being the summer and the fall before you apply, so that you can reach out to the lab and the program. This ensures the lab you are interested in is taking a student this cycle and to assess your fit.

I personally found it impactful to email early, keep it short by briefly mentioning who I work with, my career goals, the broad scope of my projects, what I hope to do in graduate school in relation to their lab specifically, and find a way to include a fact that will help them remember me! For example, for one of the labs I ended up interviewing with, I mentioned how I am familiar with their work as the Voss Lab modified one of their cognitive computer tasks that I know well as I have administered and scored it. 

Typical due dates for clinical psychology applications are either November 15th or December 1st. Once materials are submitted, schools will reach out within a month or two. At this point, more and more labs are conducting ‘preliminary interviews’ where you ‘interview’ to get a spot for the official interview day, which can be virtual or in person. 

Given you are lucky enough to be offered a spot at one program or a few, it is time to decide if their stipend, program, research, location, etc. will be something you are happy with for at least 5 years. If you do not get any offers, it is time to decide if you want to go through this again and if so, start preparing for next year. 

As a multi-time applicant, I believe I made the biggest impact on my application in between the 2022 and 2023 application cycle (the most recent cycle). Everyone’s journey into a PhD program is unique and there is no one correct way to get in, which can be frustrating. In my personal experience the accomplishments that were most positively commented on by interviewers were: my diversified lab experiences, my submitted co-first author paper, giving a presentation at a high-profile conference in my field, submitting my first grant (National Science Foundation- Graduate Research Fellowship Program), and my plethora of experiences with research participants and clinical populations. Lastly, my network of individuals who are currently in PhD programs, are in the field of clinical psychology or related fields, or those who are just great at writing, has grown. Because of this, I was able to receive numerous different perspectives on how to best convey my experiences in a persuasive, clear, and professional way. I cannot thank all of the participants, patients, mentors, friends, and family enough who have supported me in my journey of applying to PhD programs!

Kelsey Baller has recently been accepted into the clinical psychology PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis. A graduate of the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and a minor in Spanish, she has worked as a post-baccalaureate research assistant at the Health, Brain, and Cognition Lab for the past three years.