Where do I have a chance? Clinical Psych PhD applicant

Hi all. I am a current undergraduate at Smith College and I’ll be applying to grad schools next year. I want to know where I have a good shot at getting in, and what I can do to improve my application within the next year.

My stats are:

GPA: 3.96

Major: Psychology

Minor: Applied Statistics

Research Experience: at the time I apply, I should have 1 year as a paid research fellow working on shared data, and 1 year collecting original data for my own study. I work under a world-renowned leader in trauma as my advisor and mentor.

I engaged in volunteering as a youth mentor
I work as a paid assistant to a journal editor for one of the highest impact psychology journals in the world, 10-15 hours a week
I TA intro stats courses at Smith
I work with human trafficking victims and help run a social group for survivors
I am a marathon cycler and rower

I am interested in researching trauma, particularly Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy and sex trafficking. I am also 29 and had a career in law enforcement prior to starting college. I also have an associates degree in government.

I have been looking at Harvard University, UNC Chapel Hill, Stanford University, and University of Michigan, but I know these are some extremely competitive programs. So, to wrap up, do I have a shot at these programs? What can I do to improve my chances? Also, does anyone have other suggestions of other programs to look into?

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To me you look very competitive for any grad program out there. You have great academics, lab experience, stats experience (really important for a psych major), editing experience, and likely an excellent LoR from a top name in your field.

Of your ECs, the ones which are actually important are the editing, TAing, and work with trauma victims (since that is the focus in which you are interested).

Graduates of liberal arts colleges tend to be very strong applicants for PhD programs, so you have that going for you as well.

However, you need to go about this differently than you did when applying for an undergrad. Your application is reviewed at the level of the department, and by a committee of faculty and grad students. They will be evaluating how successful you will be at research in your chosen field. Moreover, you will be not be taking courses after the first year or two, but engaging in your own research, and doing that as part of the research team (AKA “lab”) of your PhD advisor.

So aside from keeping on in your research activities, you should start reaching out to potential PhD advisors. In many PhD programs, if a faculty member is interested n a particular applicant, that applicant will likely be accepted, no matter what their GPA happens to be.

You may want to look at this particular list. While I am not big on ranking, a ranked list of programs, created by the professionals within that field, is highly useful:

However, you may even want to focus even more narrowly on programs which specialize in the topics which interest you.


Thank you so much for the response! I will definitely start reaching out!

paging @juillet!

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You have strong stats for a clinical psych program. Make sure you have a sense of whether you want to go a strictly clinical/therapist route versus a research route (and yes there are people who blend the two). The schools that you mention are heavily research-oriented. Also, Stanford doesn’t have a clinical psych program in the psychology department. There are faculty in the Affective Science area that have clinical psychology degrees but it is not a clinical psych program. Grad school is very different than undergrad so when you are looking for a program focus more on your advisor/mentor and the clinical psych area rather than the name brand of the school. For example, Harvard psych is fantastic for cognitive, developmental, and social areas, but the clinical area is on the small side.

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Also look in your backyard, at U Mass Amherst

Do you have a specific interest in mind?

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Thank you, but I definitely want to move out of the Western Massachusetts area for now. I would love to study Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy and the psychology of complex trauma, like why re-victimization is so common and the most effective method at stopping it.

Hmm, I can’t think of many professors working solely on Munchausens. PTSD a bigger topic. My advice is to look up the authors or speakers on these topics, and see where they teach. They send an e- mail. In my day, I’d go to a conference and try to meet the people.

I agree that you are a very competitive candidate for clinical psychology PhD programs! The only thing you may want to think about is clinical volunteering hours - most clinical psychology doctoral hopefuls volunteer with a clinical psychologist at a hospital, clinic, or other inpatient or outpatient mental health setting. However, you volunteer with human trafficking victims and help run a social group for survivors; given that your application is so otherwise strong, that may be considered a good/acceptable substitute for that especially since you have a clear interest in research specifically.

Factitious disorder imposed on others (previously known as Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy; this was renamed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V) is very rare, and is thus usually not a main focus area for researchers because of the lack of people with the disorder with which to conduct research. My suspicion is that most researchers who study this disorder study it along with other similar syndromes. It also seems like an odd thing to study alongside sex trafficking; the two seem completely orthogonal to each other.

One way to find researchers doing such work in your field is to read recently published literature (I’d say within the last 5-7 years or so) in the field and see who is publishing consistently in that area, then look up their university profile pages and perhaps other publications. I did this with Google Scholar. First thing to note is that, again because of the rarity of the disease, most of the articles I found covering factitious disorder (imposed on self or others) were case studies of one or just a few cases. Clinical psychology has a rich history of case study work, but in the modern scientific climate it’s not as…respected? Another thing I noticed - more importantly - is that the majority of people publishing these studies are practicing clinical psychologists and psychiatrists at hospitals and medical centers, the kinds of people who are more likely to see factitious disorder pass through their institution. I mean, it’s not like you can go on MTurk and do a general call for people with factitious disorder, since people who have it usually go to great lengths to hide it. Most were actually outside of the U.S. as well. I couldn’t find a single person who seemed like they’d be a viable PI in the U.S.

Given your background, I’d say you’d be more competitive focusing on sex trafficking and its psychological impact on survivors, and perhaps therapeutic or other techniques important to their recovery. Your advisor doesn’t have to be working on exactly what you want to work on (and in fact, you don’t want that, as that means your area is already covered), but the closer your alignment the easier it may be to do certain kinds of work.