Want to Become a Psychologist? Have a Plan!
By Hugh McCall, MA Clinical Psychology
Toward the end of my second year of university, I decided that I was going to become a psychologist. Reasoning that a psych degree would be a good place to start, I took my first psychology course that summer and signed up for as many as I could pack into my schedule over the following two years. I felt confident that I was on the right track. I had good grades, plenty of time, and no idea what I was getting myself into.
Psychology is a fascinating field and, unsurprisingly, one of the most popular majors at most Canadian universities. Indeed, thousands of students from universities across the country earn BAs and BScs in psychology each year. Many of these students want to be psychologists, but graduate-level psychology programs have extremely limited seats. The inevitable result is that getting into grad school in psychology is hard.
It wasn’t until the end of my third year that I began planning my career after undergrad, and it was difficult to plan effectively, because I didn’t know where to look for information. Eventually, I figured out that I wanted to study clinical psychology, and I gathered that I would need to get some research experience first, so I began working as a research assistant in two psych labs.
At the beginning of my fourth year, I still thought I had lots of time. I didn’t know that applications for most clinical psychology programs are due in mid-December and that I would have to write the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) before applying. Against my better judgement, I went for it, writing the GRE three weeks after learning of its existence—which I wouldn’t recommend—and winging the rest of the application process. I managed to cobble together several applications, and I got one interview, which went poorly. Overall, the process felt rushed, confusing, and stressful because I was unprepared.
Although my first round of applications was a flop, it was a helpful flop, because I knew what to expect when I applied again the following year. After graduating, I found a job in a group home for disadvantaged youth and kept conducting research on the side. I rewrote the GRE, contacted potential supervisors early, and took my time writing my application essays. My second round of applications turned out better than my first, and it was a much less stressful experience too. I interviewed at a few universities and, ultimately, accepted an offer at U of R.
Looking back, I’m surprised that I didn’t start planning my career earlier in my undergraduate studies, but then, I didn’t know where to start, and I had no idea that admissions were as competitive as they are. Through a combination of hard work and good luck, I got into a clinical psych program, but I could just as easily have failed to do so. If I had more information earlier, it would have given me a significant edge and saved me a lot of unnecessary stress. I’d therefore encourage anyone considering becoming a psychologist to plan early (it’s never too early!), and fortunately, there are several good places to start.
First, do some googling. There are plenty of great resources out there on how to get into grad school in psychology and what to expect when you’re there, many of which are specific to Canada. Of course, not everything you read on the internet is true, but you’ll find there are common threads among the resources you find, and those common threads will point you in the right direction. I’d also recommend learning about psychology’s subfields (for example, clinical vs. experimental vs. counselling psychology) and how they differ from one another, so you can figure out what kind of psychologist you want to be. Then, look at the different kinds of graduate programs various universities offer and what their admissions requirements are. You can also get free career advice from grad students through the U of R’s Psychology Undergraduate Mentorship Program or the Canadian Psychological Association’s Student Mentorship Program. Apply for the Honours program too. It will look great on your grad school applications, it will give you some hands-on research experience, and it’s a great way to meet likeminded people with similar career goals. Keep an eye out for workshops and information sessions on grad school applications or careers in psychology. Faculty and grad students at U of R generally host at least a few of these each year.
Lastly, try to make sure that in addition to having a good plan, you have good reasons to become a psychologist. Applying to grad school in psychology takes a lot of work, and I can assure you that the work hardly stops once you’re there, so do some soul searching and make sure you’re in it for the long haul and you’ve got the motivation you’ll need to get through. Good luck!