1. Education

Which is Right for Me? One Student's Choice of a PhD or PsyD

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Many applicants to graduate school are fortunate enough to face a big decision: Choosing a graduate program among multiple acceptances. This week I spoke with one of my former students who has graduated from my university, is finishing a master's degree in a related field, and has just been accepted to 3 doctoral programs in psychology. Identifying details have been changed, but this students' decision process -- and our conversation - may aid you in making decisions about which graduate program to attend.

What Factors Came into Play?
First was the question of what degree the student should seek. She applied to and was accepted by both PhD and PsyD programs. She was aware of the difference in the two types of training but wasn't sure which was right for her.

I asked, "What do you want to do?" "Therapy," she replied. "Maybe also teach a little." I asked, "Do you plan to spend the majority of your career in practice, perhaps also supervising psychologists?" "I'm not sure," she replied, "I might want to do research some day. I don't know."

Think Ahead
In making any decision about graduate study it is critical that you think ahead. Ultimately, what do you want to do? Will the training that you seek offer the preparation for the career you desire? In this case, the student wanted a graduate degree in clinical psychology. Both types of programs meet that basic criterion. She also wanted to practice. Again, both PhD and PsyD degrees train graduates to conduct therapy. Think ahead. Is there a possibility that your interests might change? In this case I asked whether the student was certain that she wanted to be a therapist throughout her career. Is there a possibility that she might want to teach at a college? Become a researcher? The student wasn't sure, but these questions made her realize that she wanted career flexibility. After considering the difference between the two types of doctoral degrees in psychology, PhD and PsyD, she decided that she wanted the flexibility that comes with a PhD, even if it means that she spends more time in graduate school or must seek advanced training in therapy later on.

Which Program is Right?
The next step was deciding which PhD program to attend. She was accepted at two programs, one on east coast and another in the south west. She was awarded funding at both programs, but the programs differed substantially:

The south west program offered additional training with a population she'd like to work with. It was a less well known school. In fact, most people she knows had never heard of it. She was offered full funding plus a stipend.

The east coast program offered more training in research. Although there was no specialized training with the population she was interested in, the program was located in an urban area that would offer many opportunities to work with her desired population. This program offered full funding and a stipend in the form of a research assistantship. Finally, this program is located in an urban area and is close to public transportation. The student is disabled and cannot drive, so availability of public transportation is an important quality of life issue. The south west program is located in a quiet suburban town that is not near public transportation.

Her Confusion
It might seem like an obvious choice, but the student found it difficult because there were pluses and minuses to each program. In addition, she felt obligated to both because they had offered her funding. It was very hard to turn one down when she was so clearly desired.

What Did I Advise?
Well, I can't make the decision for her, but this is what I explained. First, it's important to make a decision reasonably quickly because other students are waiting to learn if they are accepted or get funding. By holding on to an offer and funds you're keeping another student from getting the letter of acceptance that he or she desires. Second, academics is important as is seeking the preparation for what you ultimately want to do with your career. Both programs are adequate in this regard. Third, and most important, is to consider the next 5 or more years. Is the graduate program located in a place that you will find comfortable and that will meet your needs? Academics matters, without a doubt, but you need to feel comfortable and happy. Graduate school promises a heavy workload and many challenges -- you need to be up to the task. Feeling out of place, worrying about basics like transportation and how to meet basic needs will require effort that is better focused on your work. Quality of life matters - and it's something we don't often mention when it comes to making decisions about graduate study.

What Did the Student Decide?
She decided to enroll in the east coast program because it offered excellent training, but also because it kept her near her family and friends, and offered the resources, like public transportation, that she needed.

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