The field of psychology has several specializations, including clinical psychology, which is the largest of all specialty areas of practice. In short, clinical psychologists diagnose, assess, and treat a range of emotional, behavioral, and mental disorders in individuals.
Problems might vary from short-term stress issues at work to long-term chronic conditions such as addiction or depression. Clinical psychologists may work with specific populations, such as families, elderly, couples, children or specific ethnic groups.
To legally practice as a clinical psychologist, a graduate degree and licensure is required. For prospective students, the journey to licensure begins with completing an undergraduate degree program in psychology.
Undergraduate studies prepare students to study clinical psychology in graduate school through broad and cohesive curricula. There are two options—the associate degree and bachelor’s degree. Future clinical psychologists must complete a bachelor’s degree to gain admission to graduate clinical psychology degree programs. Undergraduate programs in clinical psychology hardly exist, so students traditionally complete a comprehensive education in general psychology and related fields to prepare for the rigors of studying clinical psychology in graduate school.
Community colleges are the entry point for thousands of college students and for prospective clinical psychologists, attending a community college can be the first step in the long journey of completing graduate school and becoming a clinical psychologist. As noted above, no clinical psychology programs exist at the associate degree level. Instead, students traditionally earn a broader degree in psychology to develop foundational knowledge of the science and practice.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 270 colleges across the United States that offer associate level programs in psychology.
There are numerous advantages for students considering an associate degree in psychology, including greater course scheduling flexibility and lower per-class tuition rates. Many students go the community college route to complete their general education coursework prior to transferring to a four-year institution. Associate programs can be beneficial to students who need to work full-time in order to complete a psychology course of study.
Associate programs in psychology take approximately two years of full-time study to complete. Coursework is divided between 60 to 65 credit hours of study, across core courses; general education courses; and elective courses.
The central goal of associate degree programs is to prepare students for further study in psychology as a transfer student at a four-year institution. Curriculum varies by program, but students should be mindful to take courses that are specific to their target transfer institution to ensure they meet major and general degree requirements. In short, students should seek out programs that do the following:
In most 60 credit hour programs, curriculum is divided between major coursework in psychology, general education classes, and electives. Psychology specific coursework is introductory in nature and students generally only complete between 9 and 15 credit hours of study, selecting classes from a roster of topics. Common areas of study include the following:
Students using the associate program as a stepping stone to the bachelor’s should take as many psychology classes as possible. Developing an understanding of the theories, history and various concentration areas can position the student for success in a four-year program.
Available at more than 1,400 universities, the bachelor’s degree in psychology is one of the most popular undergraduate majors. The most recent graduation data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that 113,000 students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2013. Yet, few four-year psychology programs include a specialization or concentration in clinical psychology.
Students can choose a general psychology curriculum that sets the foundation for future graduate studies in clinical psychology. Students should seek out programs that offer a diverse course sequence, one that includes training in research methods and design, data analysis, field experiences, statistics, and experimental psychology. Good bachelor’s degree programs help students develop and enhance their skills not only in research, but communication and understanding human behavior.
Any individual desiring to practice as a clinical psychologist must complete a bachelor’s program in psychology prior to enrolling in a graduate (master’s and doctoral) program in clinical psychology.
Many universities allow students to select between a Bachelor of Science (BS) and Bachelor of Arts (BA). The BA is designed for students seeking a broader, humanities-based education and wish to combine their studies with other majors at the institution. The BS is intended for students desiring a greater focus on science and mathematics. The BS is generally recommended, because preparation in science and mathematics is a solid primer for future graduate studies in clinical psychology. However, earning one or the other does not influence potential acceptance to a graduate program of study.
The American Psychology Association does not regulate education at the undergraduate level. However, they have established a series of learning objective domains for students studying at the baccalaureate level. These domains are important because they outline skills, knowledge and competencies the APA deems important for future graduate-level and career success. Prospective students can use these domains to evaluate the curriculum and instruction delivery format of their targeted programs of study.
Through their programs of study, undergraduate students should learn about the fundamental concepts, theoretical perspectives, and historical trends of psychology. They should know how to apply those principles to behavioral problems.
Students should develop an understanding of problem solving, research methods, and scientific reasoning. In their undergraduate studies, they should learn about the concepts of how to study research, how to design and execute a research plan, and engage in integrative thinking and drawing sound scientific conclusions.
Undergraduate students should learn about the social and ethical responsibilities of clinical psychologists. They should become familiar with professional regulations and the values of serving as a trusted advisor. Their undergraduate program should introduce them to opportunities to apply their professional values in real-world settings and experiences.
Communication is fundamental to working as a clinical psychologist. Undergraduate students should develop solid writing, oral and interpersonal communication skills. Their programs should provide instruction in writing scientific arguments, how to discuss psychological concepts, and clearly express their own scientific thinking. These programs should also require students to complete a research study or related psychological project and explain their results.
Undergraduate programs should present students with career preparation opportunities, helping them develop project management skills and improving work habits prior to graduate school. In addition, students should be exposed to teamwork building projects and networking involvement with career professionals.
Students with an associate degree generally complete their course requirements for a bachelor’s in psychology in two to three years, depending on the field experience/internship requirement. Undergraduate students at four-year institutions usually complete their degree in four to five years of full-time study, depending on the specific curriculum of their institution.
Students majoring in psychology use coursework in their bachelor’s program to prepare for graduate school. However, curriculum varies by specific department, institution, and program of study. It is recommended that students take preparatory coursework that exposes them to a broad range of subject areas, including the following:
|General Education||Psychology Subjects|
|Anatomy and Physiology||Abnormal Psychology|
|Communications||History of Psychology|
|Mathematics||Introduction to Clinical Practice|
In bachelor’s programs in psychology, curriculum is divided between a series of lower-division and upper-division courses.
Areas of study include natural sciences, such as anthropology or biology, mathematics, physical sciences, and liberal arts, which include history, philosophy and sociology.
The table below outlines example courses at the lower and upper division in a bachelor’s of science program in psychology.
|Lower-Division Courses||Upper-Division Courses|
|Introduction to Psychology||Clinical Psychology|
|Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology||Cognitive Neuroscience|
|Social Psychology||Advanced Research Methods|
|Developmental Psychology||Laboratory in Clinical Psychology Research|
|Introduction to Statistics||Laboratory in Cognitive Psychology|
|Psychology Research Methods||Clinical Assessment and Treatment|
As discussed, students in bachelor’s programs are required to complete laboratory research and—in most cases—an internship or field experience class. Although specifics vary by institution, research and field experiences are supervised and directed experiential learning courses designed to help students develop professional skills and apply the theories and principles they’ve studied in the classroom. These components generally require between 120 and 150 hours to complete and take two forms: volunteer internships and research projects.
Students volunteer at an approved location in their local community, such as a mental health clinic, and participate in learning opportunities.
Students are placed with faculty members, working directly with them on a research project in a major area of study.
For students preparing for graduate school, research methods and statistics are extremely important to take. According to the American Psychology Association, graduate programs in psychology seek students that have a broad undergraduate education, one that prepares them for the future pursuit of a specialty area of practice in graduate school. The APA does not recommend undergraduate students specialize their education to great lengths. However, taking undergraduate classes in abnormal psychology, childhood psychology, social psychology, and clinical psychology can be helpful when preparing for graduate studies in clinical psychology degree programs.
As a psychology major, numerous opportunities exist to gain practical experience and develop career-specific knowledge outside of the classroom. Examples include internships, volunteering, student associations, and lab research. Below is a list of beyond the classroom learning that can set the stage for attending graduate school and embarking on a successful career.
As an undergraduate, working in a research lab alongside faculty members provides students with real training and research. This type of experience can be an extremely vital asset when applying to graduate school or for future professional positions. Students may be able to secure a research position as part of their work study financial aid package, through a faculty-sponsored internship, or volunteer opportunities on campus.
Field experiences are a major cornerstone of undergraduate preparation in psychology. Nearly all psychology departments require students to complete coursework in fieldwork, which is generally only open to students in junior or senior standing. Field experiences allow for students to gain supervised exposure to clinical practice in a variety of health care settings. Remember, undergraduate students are not allowed to provide direct patient or client services and these experiences are designed to help students decide if the day-to-day workings in clinical psychology are right for them.
Undergraduate students may also want to join their university’s psychology club. The form and function of psychology clubs vary by campus, but allow students to interact with other psychology students, network with faculty and psychology professionals, and participate in psychology-related events and training opportunities.
Volunteering at a mental health or other health care clinic can be a fantastic way of gaining insight into the world of clinical practice. Volunteering allows students to work with a range of clients; gain access to professional training; participate in group consultation; and make contacts with professionals in the mental health profession.
There are numerous resources, ranging from scholarships to networking opportunities, available to undergraduate students interested in studying psychology. Most major psychology associations and organizations, such as the American Psychology Association, allow for student membership—a major benefit for students seeking networking and funding opportunities. Below is a list of example resources and scholarships open to undergraduate psychology students.
Undergraduate students may become student affiliates of the APA, receiving access to a lengthy list of services and benefits, such as special conference registration rates, journal subscriptions, discounts on APA materials, internship assistance, and scholarships.
The APS offers a free funding database with more than 130 potential funding sources for students studying psychology at either the undergraduate or graduate level.
Undergraduate and student affiliates of the APS become members of the student caucus, which represents psychology students. Members receive access to networking opportunities, journal publications and research, conferences, and award events.
PSI CHI is a member-based honors society with chapters throughout the country. It is largely comprised of undergraduate student members, provides funding awards, networking opportunities, and professional development opportunities to its members.
Student members may join the society and receive opportunities to network with other students and professionals, receive online newsletters, participate in student committees, and apply for scholarships.