An Interview with Patricia Nicholls
“For managing stress, I try to take care of myself by getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, playing as hard as I work, incorporating friends and family into my life as much as possible, and taking a break when I need it.”
Patricia Nicholls is studying to earn her Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology from Alliant International University in Fresno, California. She has a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology from Alliant International University and a Bachelor of Arts from California State University at Fresno.
Patricia is studying clinical psychology because she enjoys helping clients heal spiritually and emotionally. With a doctorate in clinical psychology, she hopes to open her own practice.
In your own words, what is clinical psychology?
Clinical psychology is a broad field in science that includes training in child psychology, psycho-pharmacology, adult chemical dependence and sexual offender treatments, among other areas. Clinical psychologists help heal people by providing them with coping skills and guidance to reduce stress and enhance health. Clinical psychologists also help people heal from past emotional hurt or trauma through the use of different theoretical models of psychotherapy.
Why did you choose to get a doctor of psychology degree in clinical psychology?
I chose to earn my doctorate in clinical psychology because of my desire to become a licensed clinical psychologist. After reevaluating my career goals, I decided to pursue a degree in psychology because of my ability to listen and work well with people. In comparison with a PhD, which in addition to training students in therapeutic practices also teaches them to conduct research in the psychology field, a PsyD concentrates on the practice of psychology and is geared toward students whose end goal is to become a therapist. Both PsyD and PhD graduates may work as therapists or researchers during the span of their careers, but PhD graduates are more likely to conduct original research and work in academia.
When you first considered pursuing a PsyD in clinical psychology what were your expectations?
When I first considered pursuing a PsyD, I anticipated there would be a big difference between undergraduate and graduate studies. This has turned out to be a fair expectation. At the graduate school level, I am learning both theory and practical information that I can apply to real-world situations. In addition, the level of study is more in-depth compared to my undergraduate education and is driven by desire for knowledge rather than because the professor assigns the work. Graduate students design and conduct research independently and learn more about specific theories that are used in the practice of psychology rather than just a brief overview of those theories.
What do you find most and least enjoyable about studying clinical psychology?
I enjoy studying clinical psychology because of the variety of work in the program. For one of my practicum assignments, I worked in an elementary school with students from low socio-economic backgrounds and a variety of cultures. Another experience afforded me the opportunity to work at an in-patient mental hospital facility with a team of medical doctors and social workers. Through these different experiences, I have gained personal satisfaction watching clients progress and change in terms of their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.
On the other hand, I consider my stressful schedule to be the least enjoyable aspect of studying clinical psychology. I typically have 12- to 16-hour days because of various class and work commitments. It can be a time-management challenge sometimes.
How did you choose your graduate school?
My main criteria for choosing a graduate school were location, national reputation and the PsyD opportunity. Alliant International University met all 3 of my criteria.
If I had to choose a graduate school again, I would still use the same criteria. However, I would consider additional criteria, including a larger offering of elective subjects, the number of full-time, on-site faculty and the number of students who find an internship after their coursework is completed. The internship experience is critical to becoming a well-rounded psychologist.
What is your program’s curriculum like?
My program’s curriculum consists of clinical work, research, internship requirements and coursework. The coursework is centered on providing students with education relevant to the clinical setting. Each semester, I enroll in 15 to 20 units of classes and acquire 15 to 25 hours of practicum work per week. During the practicum, students work directly with clients under the supervision of a licensed clinical psychologist. So far, I have taken classes in chemical dependency, ethics, mental health administration, parent-child interactions, diagnostics and organizational psychology, to name a few.
In addition to coursework, I conduct clinical work and research. For example, last year I worked in the Psychology Service Center at Alliant, seeing 3 to 5 patients daily, including developmentally disabled clients, children, married couples, and single men and women. My program also encourages me to engage in research in the form of campus projects, conference presentations and submitting papers for publication in professional journals.
In order to be eligible for the internship component of the program, students need to pass their comprehensive exams, complete all their coursework, submit their dissertation and pass their preliminary oral defense of that dissertation. Upon securing an internship, which I am in the process of doing, I will need to submit a report documenting the number of hours I spent conducting assessments and the number of hours I spent conducting face-to-face client therapy.
What parts of your curriculum or particular classes do you think will be most valuable for your future goals?
I think that my classes and my practicum assignments are equally valuable for my future goals because they provide me with relevant information to use in real-world situations. I am learning about different theories and models of therapeutic treatments, and the practicum assignments provide valuable experiences.
What personality traits do you think would help a student to succeed in a clinical psychology program and what traits would hinder success?
In order to be a successful clinical psychology student, you need to be flexible and open to new ways of thinking. Both therapeutic and classroom settings require you to change your mode of thinking on occasion. A passion for helping people is equally important.
On the other hand, if you lack organizational skills, you may struggle in this program. A good clinical psychology student must be able to juggle 2 or 3 major projects at the same time and divide his or her schedule accordingly.
What is your dissertation topic?
My dissertation topic is entitled “The Effects of Art Therapy on Depression.” I wish to examine the effectiveness of art therapy compared to talk therapy by conducting 12 weeks of research with a population of depressed adults. I plan to have licensed psychologists provide treatment to their patients with either art therapy or talk therapy. The level of depression at the onset of treatment will be measured, then it will be measured again after 6 weeks and 12 weeks with the Beck Depression Inventory II. The scores on the inventories will be recorded and entered into an appropriate statistical computer program. The program will run a series of calculations that will show if art therapy or talk therapy works better for the short-term treatment of depression.
I chose my dissertation topic by finding an area of research that combined my work as a clinician and my interest in art. I used research databases, research papers and other dissertations to begin my research, then I moved on to published books and journals about art therapy and how to use it with different populations.
What words of advice or caution would you give students for selecting a dissertation topic?
I would encourage students to select a dissertation topic that they consider interesting. Don’t let others push you into studying a topic that has no relevance in your work or your life. It is not uncommon to experience pressure from your dissertation chair and committee to hurry up and select a topic, but don’t succumb.
I would also advise students to utilize your university librarians in selecting your dissertation subject. They know how to work like detectives to locate the best resources and find existing research on your topic.
Do you have an advisor, and if so, how does your advisor support your academic progress?
I have an assigned advisor who helps me throughout the dissertation process. When I first entered the program, I was assigned to an advisor who played an extraordinarily important role in helping me navigate the program requirements. However, as I progressed in the program and became more confident in the direction I was heading, I began to depend on her less and less. Although I don’t visit her as much as I used to, I still seek her out for advice in the dissertation process and even elected her as my dissertation chair.
What is your daily schedule?
On a typical day, I wake up early and head to class for a couple of hours. I usually have a small break and then return to class for another few hours. Before grabbing a quick lunch, I usually meet with my advisor or practicum supervisor. Then I meet with patients until about 5:00 p.m. My day winds down with teaching parenting classes and attending evening appointments. After I return home, I work on coursework, my dissertation and literature reviews until about 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.
How do you balance your studies and your personal life?
In order to balance my studies and my personal life, I keep my priorities straight and stay focused when I am doing any activity, whether it be studying, playing or working. This way, I can avoid getting burned out and producing inferior work. Graduate school is an enormous commitment of time and resources, so I accept that I have little time for the usual personal activities. However, I am blessed to have a supportive family who has picked up the slack and pitched in to cover my usual chores. I keep my priorities straight and stay organized with the help of a calendar.
For managing stress, I try to take care of myself by getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, playing as hard as I work, incorporating friends and family into my life as much as possible, and taking a break when I need it. Vacations and personal days off from school and work are needed to keep my mental state healthy.
What are your plans for after graduation?
After graduating with my doctorate in clinical psychology, my plans include completing my post-doctorate and hopefully getting licensed as a clinical psychologist in California.
Ultimately, I would like to establish my own practice alongside 2 or 3 of my colleagues. I would like to give back to the community by doing pro bono work and reaching out to people who don’t have access to mental health services.
Now that you have completed 3 years of your clinical psychology graduate program, if you could go back to college, what would you do differently?
If I could go back to college again, I would avoid taking certain professors, as well as select different extra-curricular activities. Some of the professors I had for my core courses were less than willing to commit their time to students’ success. As for extra-curricular activities, I would have focused more on charity work outside of school. The school activities are nice, but they are often trivial compared to what can be done in the community.
What advice do you have for students who are considering a PsyD in clinical psychology?
My first piece of advice to prospective clinical psychology students is to be yourself in the admissions process. The admissions board wants to know who you are and how you are going to fare with the rest of your cohort.
Secondly, I would advise students to explore different programs before applying to graduate school. It is important to stay committed to your chosen field of study throughout graduate school. Don’t alter your academic goals as you go, because it can cause turmoil in your academic schedule and future planning, as well as your finances.
Finally, I would suggest that students who are not emotionally strong might consider a different career path. If you have significant emotional baggage, you might have trouble processing different issues discussed in the classroom setting or during your practicum experiences.