The University of Washington Clinical Psychology Program: A Guide to Admissions
The University of Washington Clinical Psychology Program celebrates diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have a commitment to anti-racism, and seek to admit students who share this ethos. We recognize that each applicant has a unique lived experience and hope that the information in this guide will help you, and other prospective applicants, determine whether our program is a good fit for your goals and objectives. We receive hundreds of applications each year, and can only admit a small fraction of those that apply. As such, we want to be as transparent as possible regarding the application process and our decision-making. Here, we present advice from our faculty and students on what makes a successful applicant to the UW.
There are lots of ways to become a mental health professional. In fact, the vast majority of the mental health workforce has a Master's degree (in social work, counseling, or marriage and family therapy) rather than a doctoral degree. The Psychology department at UW offers our own Applied Child & Adolescent Psychology Master's degree program that is aimed at teaching evidence-based mental health treatments for children and adolescents.
Our Ph.D. program is research oriented, which means that we focus on training doctoral students to be outstanding researchers and clinical practitioners, rather than clinicians only. If you have no interest in research, our program will not be a good fit for you. Our students spend a lot of time on research training and activities such as designing studies, collecting data, analyzing data using advanced statistics, and writing up findings for publication.
We are interested in admitting students from all backgrounds who are excited about joining us in the research we do.
Our program adheres to a clinical science model, which trains clinical psychologists to use empirical data to advance scientific knowledge regarding assessment, intervention, and prevention strategies.
We admit students on an apprenticeship model. That is, you would apply to work in a lab led by a specific faculty member. We encourage you to review the interests of all of our faculty on their websites, as well as read some of their most recent research publications to understand their interests and current activities. You can also search the NIH Reporter to see whether they have active grants that they are working on right now. On your application you will be asked to list the faculty member(s) with whom you are most interested in working.
It's also important to check the general admissions information, in addition to the specific faculty websites (for the adult area faculty and child area faculty) to determine whether they will be admitting a student in the year you plan to apply.
Our faculty will examine your application materials to understand your level of academic preparation, research experiences, and clinical experiences. We typically use several sources of information to evaluate each student's application: curriculum vitae (CVs), undergraduate transcripts, research and personal statements, and letters of recommendation. For admissions in 2021, we are not requiring or reviewing GRE scores. In order to get a sense of the person behind the application, we review applications holistically and rarely use strict cutoffs. We look for applicants who have strong academic records, who can articulate long-range goals, who can discuss scientific material with clarity and enthusiasm, and who demonstrate experience and motivation for conducting research. We also seek students who understand and are knowledgeable about diversity either from personal or educational experiences and are committed to advancing the interests of marginalized and/or underrepresented groups. In addition, faculty members who are admitting students in a given year also evaluate the potential "match" between their current research activities and the prior experiences of the applicant.
We look for students who have a strong academic record of coursework in psychology or a related area of social science. Coursework in math, computer science, or statistics can also be helpful. This type of background will help get you ready for the focused graduate-level training you will receive in the etiology, assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of psychological and neurobehavioral disorders, as well as the methods required to conduct research in these domains. Students without this background are not automatically excluded, but may be less competitive for admission.
Most often, successful applicants to our program have obtained some type of independent research experience, either during college or after college (or both). This experience may come from completing an undergraduate honors thesis and/or working as a research assistant in a lab conducting psychological research. It's even better if your research experience leads to a tangible product, such as a presentation (poster or oral) at a research conference or a publication in a peer-reviewed journal, as these activities provide evidence of the applicant's potential for graduate study
We're not saying that you have to do research entirely on your own before graduate school. But we believe that the best preparation for a graduate school application is spending time in a research-focused environment, where you can be part of a team and experience as many aspects of the scientific process as you can, from the initial spark of an idea, to the details of research design and study implementation, to the process of analyzing data and preparing manuscripts for publication.
Prior research experience is important for several reasons. First, it can help you discern whether a research career is right for you. Conducting research is difficult and time consuming. A doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology can take 5 to 7 years, so it is quite a time investment! Second, this background will help you identify research areas, ideas, and questions that are most exciting to you (as well as those you care less for), which can help you target specific graduate programs that best match these interests. Third, these experiences help prepare you for the rigors of graduate-level research training, which is a main focus of our program. The majority of our graduates engage in some form of research activity throughout their careers, whether through formal academic positions, careers in scientific writing, or research-informed activities within clinical practice in medical center settings. Thus, gaining research experiences prior to admission is critical. Students who do not have substantial research experiences tend to be less competitive for admission.
We expect that applicants to our program will have had some type of experience working with clinical populations, either directly or indirectly. However, we do not require any specific type of experience to be considered a viable candidate. While some applicants may have earned credentials such as a licensed social workers (LCSWs), marriage and family counselors (LMFTs), or substance abuse counselors, this level of experience is not necessary for applying to our doctoral program and is not common. There are many ways to demonstrate your interest and aptitude for clinical work, such as volunteering in community agencies (e.g., crisis help lines or shelters for people who are houseless), hospitals, or clinics. Other ways could be serving as a peer counselor, mental health advocate, and/or a student leader of a campus organization such as a sexual assault prevention program. These types of clinically-focused experiences are invaluable for assessing whether this is the right career path for you - that in addition to passion for this type of work, it is a good fit for your skills. Ultimately, we are looking for evidence that you have 'tested the waters' a bit in the clinical arena and have some understanding of the roles and activities that constitute the career of an academic clinical psychologist.
The simple answer is that your letter-writers should be people who know you well, and who can attest to your readiness for graduate-level coursework and research. It's good to start cultivating relationships with your professors during college and/or during any post-baccalaureate research you may pursue. This often means seeking out opportunities to become more involved in the research of a favorite professor or two, or with a community organization, or even working for a year in a psychology lab. Ideally, your letters of recommendation should come from professors in psychology (especially clinical psychology); however, we recognize that it can be challenging to have all three letters come from within our field, as the availability of coursework and classes differs across colleges. In this case, it makes sense to consider asking for letters from faculty or professionals in other related fields, such as psychiatry, social work, or developmental psychology.
It is best if the letters come from individuals who can speak to your research experiences and potential. Supporting letters could also come from professors or instructors who can comment on your critical thinking, contributions to a class and/or writing ability. If you have been out of school and involved in non-academic settings, you may want to consider seeking employment (or even volunteering) within a research lab. That said, we recognize that not everyone has the time or ability to volunteer. If this is the case, think carefully about who knows you well and can comment on your research potential. A professor who gave you a good grade in a class but doesn't know you well is not going to be able to write a strong letter; though they may be a good choice for a third letter writer.
When talking with a potential letter writer, it is good to ask whether they feel like they can write you a "strong letter" of recommendation. Also, make sure you ask the person well before the program deadlines so they have enough time to write it, and give them an organized listing of the programs you are applying to, application deadlines, and an updated copy of your CV. For letter-writers who are outside the academic arena, you may want to give them guidance about the type of personal qualities and scholastic aptitude that top clinical programs look for in applicants. Finally, remember to send a thank you note to your letter-writers, as they are choosing to help you launch your career!
Who will be reading my statement(s)?
We recommend that you write your statement(s) with your specific reader in mind. Applications submitted to the UW clinical psychology program will be reviewed most closely by the clinical faculty mentors you have expressed interest in working with (i.e., those listed on your application). Other members of your potential mentor's research lab (e.g., current graduate students and postdocs) and other clinical area faculty may also review your application. Final decisions are discussed among our entire faculty, but each mentor is responsible for who they admit. Consequently, your application should appeal most to the mentors you list on your application, rather than other administrators or reviewers in the department.
Clinical faculty at UW have some important similarities and differences in what they look for in the research statement. Most potential mentors are generally excited about applicants who can clearly and enthusiastically discuss scientific material, who can articulate long-range goals and research questions, who can explain connections between their academic or research experiences and their research goals, and who are motivated to conduct research. Mentors can also differ in the factors they consider most important in a graduate applicant statement – this can even differ from year-to-year, based on needs and time-limited training opportunities available in their labs (e.g., timeline of grant for funding graduate research assistantships). While some faculty mentors find statements that express research enthusiasm and experience most compelling, others may read your statement to assess your academic ability or the fit between the experience and interests you describe and the future directions for their research lab.
What should I write about?
As our program emphasizes research training, the content of your statement should primarily focus on conveying your experiences, accomplishments, and interests with research. Discussion of additional clinical work experiences and responsibilities -- especially in a research context -- is encouraged but should not be the only focus of the statement.
As a graduate student, your training will focus on supporting your progress toward a career as an independent scholar. For that reason, potential faculty mentors will use your statements to determine: (1) how ready you are for participating in lab activities and trainings (i.e., what skills, experiences, and knowledge you already have) and (2) how likely you might be to develop an independent career from the training opportunities they can provide in their lab (i.e., whether and how you develop and grow from training opportunities). Therefore, it is important to highlight your readiness for advanced training and your aptitude for independent scholarship in the statements you write. To do this, we recommend that you:
- Clearly describe not only your past research experiences, responsibilities, and accomplishments but also briefly explain what you learned from each. For example, after describing the tasks you completed in support of a past research project, you might explain how the research hypotheses or results shaped your specific research interests or your desire to get more training in a specific area. It should not be a restatement of activities you have done on your curriculum vitae but rather how these experiences have shaped your trajectory.
- Explain the "match" between your research and training interests and the research expertise and training opportunities available in your potential mentor's research lab. It can be difficult to know exactly what your prospective mentor is looking for in a student. The best place to start is to read their research closely (i.e., read more about their work than just their bio on the UW website) to gain insight into their perspective and approach to studying the broader research topic listed on their website. In your research statement, describe how your research interests are connected to their work and what training they could provide to help you pursue your long-term career goals in this area.
If possible, have others read through your statement to help you catch errors, improve clarity, and help you understand what messages your writing conveys to the reader about you (e.g., your enthusiasm, experience, skills and ability, goals, and potential for independence).
Diversity Steering Committee
We have an active Diversity Steering Committee, comprising both graduate students and faculty members, that oversees events and diversity-related initiatives within the Psychology Department. We hold quarterly meetings and maintain a listserv.
We consider human diversity as referring to groups of people who experience themselves as differing on one or more of a variety of dimensions including, but not limited to, race, culture, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, and disability status.
Our overall goal is to encourage and foster the growth and maintenance of a diverse academic community by:
1. Encouraging and supporting research on diversity science;
2. Encouraging the development of diversity related curriculum at both the undergraduate and graduate levels;
3. Overseeing the graduate-level Diversity Science Specialization;
4. Addressing the issues and concerns of students and faculty within the department on issues of enrollment, retention, and curriculum, as well as larger societal concerns.
Diversity Science Specialization
We believe that a comprehensive understanding of human behavior requires examination of the meaningful differences between and among people across the diversity of human experience. These differences are often rooted in current and historical experiences of oppression and prejudice that have disproportionately devalued people of different identities including, but not exclusive to, races, cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations, genders, gender-identifications, abilities, and socioeconomic statuses. The goal of the Diversity Science Specialization is to inform our understanding of human behavior and develop competency in the following areas:
1. The unique and intersecting psychologies and perspectives of underrepresented groups.
2. Psychological processes that contribute to the development of identity and bias.
3. Exploring, identifying, and questioning biases within our own research and the field at large.
4. The development of psychological services and empirical investigations that are applicable to and implementable in marginalized communities.
While the information detailed above describes our specific recommendations for your application to our Clinical Psychology program at UW, there are many rich sources of information online that can provide you with guidance about the application process, more generally.
Professor Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D., from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an outstanding guide on graduate admissions and components of the application. You can read it here, and can also find more extensive advice he shares on his website here.
Assistant Professor Jessica Schleider, Ph.D., from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, also provides an excellent introduction (slides from a talk) to applying to graduate school here.
In addition, the Association of Psychological Science has provided a guide for how to develop a curriculum vita or "CV" (the specific type of resume you will need to submit with your application): "How to Write a Strong CV".