on graduate school

I had a meeting yesterday morning with my supervisor.

The minute I sat down in the chair, I felt what biologists might refer to as a shitload of physiological arousal. My breathing became more shallow — my palms, sweaty — my chest, constricted. The mere thought of discussing graduate school nearly induced a panic attack.

It’s not that I don’t feel prepared. I do want to work in mental health. I would love to become a clinical psychologist. The process, however, is far from simple. A seemingly innocuous inquiry (Where would you want to school?) fractures into a dizzying array of complicated questions.

What would you be researching?

Who would be your mentor?

Will the school saddle you with crippling debt?

How credible is the program?

Where would you be living for the next 6-8 years of your life?

Are you sure you really want to do this?

Even when you select a few schools, the schools may not select you. Incredibly, clinical psychology PhD programs commonly have an acceptance rate of two to five percent — even less than that of law and medical schools. Any given program may receive hundreds of applications, out of which they choose only a handful for admittance. The consolation, however, is that the academy is typically a meritocracy; it is not luck, but excellence, that gets you in. Rest assured, however, that there are countless stellar students across the nation with whom you’d have to compete.

It’s no wonder that I’m intimidated, nervous, overwhelmed. Although I feel I make a strong candidate, my curriculum vitae does have an Achilles’ heel: I don’t have any publications to my name. If academia is an economy, published articles are its currency and I’m dirt poor. It makes me wonder if I should wait until next year, or if I should continue applying this year, or if I should just break all my plans, pack my bags, and travel the world for the rest of my life. That last point is sounding mighty attractive at this point.

I suppose, however, that this grueling process is necessary. It weeds out the weak-willed and wobbly. Graduate school is not a decision to be taken lightly — it consumes your youth, molds your adult identity, and sets the tone for the rest of your life.

Of course, it’s not enough to want to do it either. You’ve got to have the foresight to look at long-term considerations. For one, job security for clinical psychology PhDs isn’t guaranteed, especially considering the rapidly-changing academic and healthcare landscapes. Some may also find that average pay (and I truly mean “average,” in that it doesn’t even come close to matching an MD’s salary) doesn’t justify the tremendous investment of time and money involved. It’s, as my supervisor said, truly an issue of quality of life. What will your life be like during and after graduate school?

One must be totally prepared, committed, and informed should they decide to embark on this path.

Am I?

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