Back to Blog
The specificity of graduate school can be daunting! For professions that involve research, a well-crafted and relatively narrow research interest is often looked favorably upon. In the field of Psychology, for example, one who is interested in studying children must know if they wish to study the ways in which children function, their development, how children learn, how children socialize, how their brains develop, or their emotional functioning. Depending on how you answer, you could be interested in one of six different areas of psychology: developmental psychology, school psychology, cognitive psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology, or clinical psychology. Each of these separate areas of psychology have their own literature, programs, curriculum requirements, job opportunities and divisions within the American Psychological Association. With doctoral degrees taking between five and seven years to complete, what happens if you realize you chose the wrong specialty? Do you start over? Do you try to make the best of your situation? Do you try to acquire a broader range of experiences during your training?
With doctoral degrees taking between five and seven years to complete, what happens if you realize you chose the wrong specialty? Do you start over?
A few years ago, two years in to an estimated five-year doctoral program, I found myself in this very position. In an attempt to make the smartest decision possible, I talked to colleagues, former supervisors and professors, friends and family, and feverishly searched the Internet in hopes of finding a success story. While the Internet provided me with some shared experiences, most detailed less-than-ideal situations, only increasing my anxiety. Fortunately, with a few bumps in the road, my story has been successful thus far. And, on a blog about Finding Success in Graduate School, I hope someone in a similar situation might find my experience to be helpful.
As an undergraduate student, I had always planned to get my Ph.D. I took the necessary classes, volunteered in research labs, presented at conferences, and secured a post-baccalaureate research assistant position. When it came time to apply to graduate school, I decided to apply to school psychology doctoral programs. After spending countless hours researching professors and programs, I believed a school psychology program best fit my longstanding research interest, understanding the effects of childhood bullying. Upon accepting an offer to a program across the country from my small hometown in Connecticut, I was excited and eager to start this new chapter of my life and education. Over the course of the first semester, I quickly established friendships with my cohort members and enjoyed a number of my classes. As first semester ended and we started new classes and practicum placements, I began questioning whether this program was the right fit for my career goals. While being in the school environment was incredibly informative, I did not feel satisfied. In an attempt to broaden my experiences, I began working with a number of phenomenal professors, both in and out the school psychology program. My second year brought the unfortunate news that several of these professors were leaving the university. I feared I would not be able to acquire enough meaningful experiences, and I began weighing my options. After consulting with many patient and kind individuals, I ultimately decided to leave the school psychology program with my Master’s degree. What followed was taking two years off to gain additional research and clinical experience. During this time I also retook the GREs and applied to other programs. In the spring of 2017, I accepted an offer from a clinical psychology program, which thankfully, has been an exceptional fit.
I feared I would not be able to acquire enough meaningful experiences, and I began weighing my options.
Reflecting back, the decision to leave my school psychology program was challenging for a number of reasons. First, I did not know if I would be accepted into another Ph.D. program. I understood how competitive acceptance to these programs could be. Second, I feared that my decision to leave school psychology might negatively impact my relationships with my professors, with whom I had really enjoyed working. Third, I questioned whether any of my graduate credits would transfer to another university; and if not, how it might feel to start over again.
Through this process, I was very fortunate to receive support from my former graduate school advisor and a former professor, both of whom offered to write me letters of recommendation and continued working with me to publish manuscripts. I also learned that the clinical psychology program was willing to transfer in several of my credits, saving me from retaking the same classes over again. While I cannot say this experience was not challenging and stressful, I can say I made the right decision. So, before contributing to the infamous 50% graduate school attrition rate (Council of Graduate Schools, 2009), weigh your options, stay positive, reach out to colleagues, and remember the passion that encouraged you to consider graduate school in the first place.
Council of Graduate Schools. (2009). Data Sources: Non-traditional students in graduate education: Research report. Retrieved from: https://cgsnet.org/ckfinder/userfiles/files/DataSources_2009_12.pdf