Do I have any chance getting into a clinical psych PhD program? Am I dreaming too big and being unrealistic?

I’m currently a rising junior undergrad at Northwestern University, but I’m thinking of applying to Psych PhD programs this fall because I’m graduating a year early, so I’m graduating Spring 2024. I’m interested in clinical child psych because I am intrigued by the research in the clinical field, but I’m not interested in doing practice, so I’m trying to look for some top 50 programs that will allow me to have a more research/academia focus on child clinical psychology without being a clinical psych PhD.

I just have a lot of questions about this entire process, though. I used to be a biology/psychology double major pre-med up until the end of sophomore fall quarter, so my GPA up until then is not that great because of chem and orgo. However, starting sophomore winter, my GPA increased a lot, and I went from a 3.207 to a 3.454 in three quarters. I know this still isn’t that high for a psych PhD, so that’s what I’m most nervous about. My strong suit is my research experience – in freshman year I have my name on a publication with an oncology clinical lab, and then starting sophomore fall, I started working at two different psych labs. One of them is a developmental psych lab working with infants that I’ve worked at for about 8-10 hours a week, and I won two grants for the lab, have a poster presentation coming soon, have my own independent project I’m working on, and am working on my senior thesis for said project with my PI (which unfortunately will probably not be published before the time that I am applying to programs, let alone be finished for submission). My PI is also very established in the psychology field with lots of prestigious awards for their research, so I’m confident in their LOC. My other lab is online at a big children’s hospital in Chicago for adolescent clinical/health psychology, where I work about 6-8 hours a week. This one is a bit less hands on/independent studying than the baby lab, so I don’t have any independent projects I’m working on right now, but I am getting exposure to and experience for working in a clinical setting, and I’m working with two clinical psychologist PIs, so all in all, I have 3 professors for LOCs.

I’m not sure if I should make the time investment to take the GREs or not. My quant scores are pretty high pre-studying (162), so I’m not that worried for it if I do study for 1-2 months before taking it, but my verbal score is fairly low (150). My reasoning for taking the GREs even though none of the programs I’m applying to require it is because I thought it could make up for my lower GPA.

I know that I probably don’t have that amazing of a chance of admission into top programs for clinical psych PhDs straight out of undergrad, but I was originally planning to take a gap year or two working as a research coordinator first and then apply, but then thought to myself about the very small and slight possibility of getting in this round, and just decided to take this chance to avoid falling into the trap of thinking about ‘what ifs’ later on. I’m definitely going to try really hard this round, but if i don’t get in this round, I won’t be too disappointed and will just gain more research experience the next 1-2 years and then apply again next cycle as originally planned.

I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this, but I guess I wanted to ask four things:

  1. Do you think it’s worth the time and monetary investment in studying for the GREs and submitting scores?
  2. I’m genuinely not really sure where exactly I stand with my chances. I’m not asking for a chance-me, but I really want some harsh reality checks on how everything looks from an unbiased perspective, because when I talk about this to close friends or family or even my mentors, they say they think I have a pretty fair chance, but I cannot tell if I actually do but it’s my imposter syndrome playing with my head and making me lose motivation, or if I really don’t have a chance at all but they’re just being nice. I just want to know if people think this is worth the time and monetary investment to take this chance.
  3. Although I believe my research experience to be my strong suit, I’m worried that when I’m applying this round, my thesis will definitely not have been submitted, and the one publication I do have, I am practically author # 7 and it’s in a clinical oncology lab instead of anything psychology related… Will this affect things greatly?
  4. If I’m not interested in doing practice, but i really want to do research and teach in the future about child clinical psychology/child psychopathology, do I really have to go the clinical psych PhD route when it’s so much harder to get accepted into? Are there any other fields of psych PhDs that anyone knows of that I can do this kind of research without having to do practice, or does anyone have any recommendations or resources?

*not sure how to correct my post but I meant LORs not LOCs

Why graduate early? Give yourself enough time to do what you need to do to launch post-grad. That includes taking the GREs, getting your research published, exploring other grad programs (doctorate in neuroscience?), And most important… sitting down with your advisor to map out a senior year which gets you where you want to go. There are so many open questions here…take senior year to figure it out!!!


Not all top Unis have a Clinical Psych program, but Northwestern does. Speak with yoru advisor; make an appt with the Chair of the Clinical program. In the meantime, continue to get A’s, lotsa of 'em. In addition to your cumulative undergrad GPA, some programs will also request your major GPA. And of course, by graduating early, you miss a 4th year of mostly A’s to boost your cumulative. Not recommended.

RA sounds like a good idea. And/or look for a lab manager job for a couple of years. The more research you have, the less they will focus on GPA.


This is what I would do in your position. I suspect you will invest a LOT of time, effort and money for nothing if you apply too soon. Your grades are possibly going to be a big stumbling block and relevant research experience will help offset that.

For context, my D worked for a year doing research before she applied to PhD programs. She had a very high GPA in undergrad, a graded thesis, excellent summer research as an undergrad, and research work experience in a highly regarded institution by the time she applied, all of which were directly relevant to the program she applied to.

She applied to 4 universities that offered a program very similar to what you describe. 2 of them were HYP, 1 was a public, and the other was a famous foreign university. She got an interview at 1 Ivy and the other two schools. She got into one program. I mention these schools because the applications were VERY intensive, as you can imagine, as was preparing for interviews. Her thesis was discussed in all three of her interviews. She had an excellent resume, and a 25% success rate, overall. IOW, I am not sure you are going to be competitive enough to apply at this stage.

I think the GRE is much less important now. If you have the time and money, I see no harm though. It might give universities another reference point apart from grades. I seem to recall that my D wasn’t able to submit hers at most of the schools she applied to because they didn’t consider it, but I could be wrong.

The biggest reason for waiting is that your questions in #4 indicate that you are still uncertain about what exactly you want to do and what you want to study for a PhD. You are young, clearly, and I don’t think that is a benefit in your situation. There is no rush. And if you apply and get rejected, which seems a strong possibility, it seems unlikely you’d be successful on a second attempt.


Does this mean that schools would view my application in a negative light if I get rejected this year but apply again next year? Like a ‘oh we already rejected her, why did she apply again’ kind of thing?

I guess it’s possible, but is it likely? They will certainly know you applied the previous cycle. If you are unsuccessful, yes, they will of course know that. Being rejected the first time will not benefit your app.

What is your rush?

You want the strongest application possible. Give yourself time to present one. It’s VERY difficult to be accepted to ANY clinical psych PhD program. All fully funded PhD’s are very competitive.


My daughter just left her job in clinical research, and her friend at work is applying to PhD psych programs for the second time. From what she says about him, he seems to be a very strong candidate. He is taking the year (or more) to gain additional relevant experience. I hope he achieves success, but I do believe he has a backup plan in the event he does not.

There is no rush. Take the time that you need to be the best you can. These programs are very competitive.


There are a lot of things that go into making a superb researcher.

One of them is a fact-based approach to decision-making. You can demonstrate that skill in your application strategy by understanding the “what counts” factors and maximizing the strength of your presentation.

Having faculty who really know you and can compare you to the dozens of other students they’ve mentored and supervised over the years makes for a strong application- so I question the decision to cut your undergrad experience by 25%! No, the GRE is nowhere as important as it used to be- but a strong score can only help you and preparing for it can be as low maintenance as getting a used book off Ebay and focusing on “4-6 pm Sunday is when I study”. And most important- having a really granular understanding of which programs will get you where you want to go- which suggests more time to research, kick the tires, decide “this lab isn’t for me but this one would be fantastic”.


100%. The primary reason my D only applied to four programs is that those four were doing work she was interested in. She researched many, many more than those four before applying. She knew exactly what her goal was and exactly what work the professors were doing.

So would these apps be for Fall 2024 start? I honestly don’t think you even have enough time at this point to prepare very strong applications. I want to say that D had already done a big chunk of work by spring in terms of where she was going to apply. By summer, writing was well under way. Aren’t apps due in October?

You’re still not sure what you want to study or where you want to apply, by the sounds of it. All the more reason to wait.


This is what my niece did. She worked for a year or more after undergrad and then went on to her clinical psych PhD program. I agree with the others that this is the way to go, but I’m no expert. Talk to your professors!!!


You have gotten a lot of good advise. I would echo that the GRE’s are not worth time, unless for some reason you really enjoy test prep. Your time is valuable - use it to your advantage. Spend time learning about programs and labs, and notice what the environments are like and what charges and motivates you. Visit school and labs when you can, and talk to as many professors and students as possible. There is really no race now, there are lots of ways to learn, to grow and to build your career. Applying early, even if you get in early, will not necessarily get you anywhere faster. If you spend time in a lab, you will learn things that will help you to find the best program for you - and you might end up actually “ahead” because as the saying goes “we don’t know what we don’t know”. You do not know who you are when you are not a student, because you have not experienced that - taking time to find that out will be valuable, and will give you perspective when completing those applications.


It’s a little different than college admissions. Reapplying to the same college a year later will not have changed your HS stats.

For grad school, it could depend on their original reasons.
If you were already a good candidate, but currently lacked depth/breadth of research, or they didn’t think you’d shown sufficient length of commitment to the field (after all, you are asking them to make a major, multi-year and financial commitment to you), then you may not be accepted one year because essentially it was too early, but they could be open to you re-applying during another cycle after those specific items were addressed.

However, I agree that based on your situation and uncertainties, graduating college early would likely rather be a distraction than an advantage.


I’ll add my voice to those who recommend that you take a year or two to work. To begin with, there is a high likelihood of burnout otherwise. My kid, who just graduated with a great resume, decided that she wants to have a year or two during which she just works. She is working in a lab at a university, and strengthening her technical skills.

While GPA is not the most important part of an application for any PhD program, and few programs have a hard cutoff, most of the “top” programs want to see a GPA of at least 3.5, preferably over 3.75.

You now have a 3.45, and you can have a GPA of over 3.7 by graduation. That is another reason for you to take a year off. If you are doing better as a Junior and Senior, your final GPA will likely be higher than your GPA after the first quarter of you Senior year, which is what you will submit if you want to start your PhD immediately after your undergrad.

Taking a year off will also allow you to get your publications out.

Another thing that you should think of is looking for the potential labs at which you would like to do your PhD, and see if they are accepting interns.

Admissions to PhD programs not only depend on what you resume looks like, but also whether there is a faculty member who is interested in you personally. If there is a faculty member who would like to see you in the program, that will have a huge positive effect. Of course, have a strong resume will help them as well. Working as an intern in their lab and making a good impression is one way to do this.

A good GRE wil not really “compensate” for a low GPA, especially since the reason that programs are dropping GREs is because research has demonstrated that GRE scores do not predict success in PhD programs.

Again, if you push your GPA above 3.7, you’ll be fine, especially if you have a strong resume otherwise. Even a 3.6 from NWU would be OK, if you have really strong research experience, publications, and good LoRs. You may not be as strong an applicant as somebody with that much experience AND a high GPA, but most programs will prefer an applicant who has strong research credentials but a lowish GPA over an applicant with little research experience with a stellar GPA.

As for what you will do during your gap year/s - there are many university labs which hire new graduates for what is sometimes called a “post-bacc”. If you have been doing well in the labs in which you are working now, that will be extremely helpful for you in getting one of these post-baccs. The PI generally are looking for somebody who will be a good worker, and don’t actually care about your undergraduate GPA. So strong LoRs from the PIs with who you are working will go a long way in getting you a post-bacc.

In short, I see a large number of advantages for you in taking a year or two off after you graduate, and no downsides.

Oh, and you should keep this for when you start applying. It is from 2006, but it really hasn’t changed:

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I agree with taking another year to put together a solid application. Either stay at NW longer to bring up your GPA and maybe see if you can work with a different professor in a lab in which you or interested. Or, as suggested above, look for a post-bacc research position for a year.
If you don’t want to do clinical work or get licensed as a practicing psychologist, that opens up many other types of programs, but it sounds like cognitive/developmental psych programs might fit you best.

Talk with your professors and tell them your research interests. See if they have colleagues at other universities doing research that might interest you, and look into the programs at those schools. Maybe make contact with those faculty members and see what opportunities they might have for additional research experience. Keep in mind that many of the “best” psychology Ph.D. programs are not necessarily at the universities that others would consider prestigious (e.g. Minnesota and Wisconsin).

One other thing to note and to research. If you are interested in academic work and teaching at a university, please be aware that the academic job market in a number of fields, especially psychology, has been abysmal for many years. There may be other types of research positions you could find, but before embarking on at least 6 years of graduate school, you’ll want to be prepared for what’s waiting for you at the end. Ask for honest feedback about this from a variety of professors.


Another year in undergrad also gives you an opportunity to explore- with your advisor and professors- the question “did your clinical work help your research and if so, how?”

There are many researchers who base much of their success on insights and issues they observed in their practice. So while many have not seen patients in years… they were motivated to explore when a “tangential” issue other researchers had noticed turned out to be a significant problem across a larger population.

You may not want a career in counseling with a full patient load, but that doesn’t mean that the traditional Clinical to Research path won’t work for you.

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Thank you everyone for your advice and insight. I should have clarified earlier in my post more, but I have a pretty specific research direction I want to go in – I’m most interested in how personality and overall well-being are affected by differences in childhood and adolescent development, and I would like to especially dive deeper and more specifically into how meditation can impact childhood/adolescent development along with the longitudinal benefits of meditation practices on mental health. The latter is more niche so I was looking at programs in personality, developmental, and clinical psych for the former (except I didn’t want to do counseling/practice which is why I’m heavily debating on whether or not to apply through this route especially if it’s much more difficult and competitive to get into, but looking at what blossom commented helped me think about this more reflectively, too). I have specific programs and professors in mind that I want to work with whose research aligns with my interests, as well. I chose to graduate in 3 years instead of 4 because I have some intense health issues so I’m not confident that I’ll live very long, I predict maybe 10 or so more years based on what doctors have hinted, so I wanted to get undergrad out of the way quickly so that I have at least an opportunity to do the things I’m really interested in and know for a fact that I enjoy and am passionate about as soon as possible (which is also why I wanted to take to an anonymous forum to ask about my realistic chances because when I ask friends/family/even my professors and PI, I feel that they give me nicer answers they think I would like to hear because they feel bad). Realistically, I’m probably still going to end up going the 3 yr grad – research coordinator for 1-2 years – PhD route, but just in case there is the small chance of acceptance, I’m applying this cycle to give myself closure so that I don’t look back continuously thinking ‘but what if I got in.’ I think the comments definitely helped me clarify in my own head what exactly I’m looking for and gave me more of a reality check on my chances of acceptance, along with more information about the application process and to take or not take the GREs. Thank you all so much for your feedback!