An Interview with Melissa Tarantola
“In order to succeed in a clinical psychology PhD program, students need to be passionate. PhD students not only endure an intense workload but also sacrifice most of their free time, so it is crucial to have a deep interest in the subject matter.”
Melissa Tarantola is studying to earn her Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology. She is a student at University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. Melissa has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with minors in Human Development & Family Studies and Biology.
Melissa chose to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology because she has always wanted to understand human behavior. With a degree in clinical psychology, she hopes to become a professor and conduct research.
In your own words, what is clinical psychology?
Clinical psychology is the study of abnormal psychology. Clinical psychologists are interested in defining, studying, measuring and treating disorders and abnormalities in psychological processes. They often treat and study people with more severe and long-standing disorders, like schizophrenia and depression. In addition, clinical psychologists provide patient services, such as therapeutic interventions and psychological assessments.
Why did you choose to get a PhD in clinical psychology?
I chose to get a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Missouri because I not only have a passion for the subject but also want to be a conduct new research and teach psychology students. I believe a career in clinical psychology will give me the opportunity to help people, immerse myself in meaningful work and have a fun and rewarding life.
When you first considered pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology, what were your expectations?
When I first considered pursuing my doctorate, I expected to be completely overwhelmed. Now that I have been in my program for over a year, I realize that the academic requirements are not as stressful as I thought they would be. In a way, I have found them to be more manageable and easier to handle than my undergraduate studies.
What do you find most and least enjoyable about studying clinical psychology?
I enjoy studying clinical psychology because of the discussion-based classes. I love learning in a collaborative setting because I enjoy exchanging ideas with students and professors. In fact, I prefer to think of school as being a collection of interesting discussions.
On the other hand, I consider time management to be the most challenging. It can be quite difficult to organize my time so that I can juggle all of my various obligations throughout the day.
How did you choose your graduate school?
I chose University of Missouri’s PhD program in clinical psychology based on the type of research being conducted at the school. Because research is such a crucial aspect of the clinical program, it was extremely important that I identified a program that matched my research interests. I even purchased a book titled The Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology and systematically went through every single school in the book.
Then I examined every single professor’s research interests, and made a list of all the people I liked. After creating the list, I scanned through different publications to see what each professor
was doing in terms of research. Although this process was incredibly time consuming, I was able to confidently select a graduate school that met my academic needs.
What is your program’s curriculum like?
My clinical psychology program’s curriculum is composed of coursework and research. About half of my classes focus on aspects of research, such as research methods, psychometrics and statistics, while the rest of my classes are split between practical and theoretical concerns in the field. The practical classes focus on clinical practicum, ethics and different modes of therapy, whereas the theory-based classes cover aspects of psychology from each branch, including developmental psychology, social psychology and adult psychopathology.
I also attend 2 seminars per week, 1 on clinical psychology and the other on addictions. In addition, I have the opportunity to take classes in other departments, such as statistics and counseling psychology.
The first few years of my program are mainly focused on coursework. Classes are writing and problem-solving intensive, and require a lot of reading, homework, tests and papers. It is important to note that time spent on coursework is not wasted since the projects and papers almost always directly relate to students’ research interests and can be turned into publishable papers.
Although students take a full load of classes, they are still required to conduct research and fulfill teaching assistant or research assistant duties for funding. And as students progress through the program, they take fewer classes and transition into research full-time. Advanced students also have the opportunity to serve as an administrator in the school clinic, teach an undergraduate or practicum class, act as a forensic psychologist and treat inpatient clients at a state hospital.
What parts of your curriculum or particular classes do you think will be most valuable for your future goals?
I think my psychometrics, research methods and statistics classes will be the most valuable for my future goal of conducting research. These classes increased my competence as a researcher by teaching me how to carry out and interpret research.
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 succeed in a clinical psychology PhD program, students need to be passionate. PhD students not only endure an intense workload but also sacrifice most of their free time, so it is crucial to have a deep interest in the subject matter. In addition, students must have strong interpersonal skills. Clinical work requires a professional who can connect and empathize with clients.
On the other hand, sensitive students might struggle in the clinical psychology program. Because graduate students are constantly being evaluated on their academic and clinical abilities, a successful student needs to be to handle criticism well without being highly reactive.
Do you have an advisor, and if so, how does your advisor support your academic progress?
Yes, I have an advisor. I actually worked with my current advisor as an undergrad and enjoyed his research so much that I decided to continue working with him as a graduate student. His expert-based advice has not only helped me navigate the field but also reap the most benefits from my education. I would not be successful without him.
What is your daily schedule?
On a typical day, I attend classes and meetings as well as work on my research. I usually arrive to school by 9:00 a.m. and then alternate between attending 2-hour classes, reading, assisting research participants, going to meetings and completing homework throughout the day. After I get out of my last class at 4:00 p.m., I usually go home and study until about 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.
How do you balance your studies and your personal life?
In order to balance my studies and personal life, I pick and choose my activities. I often decline social events, like going to parties, to complete school work, and focus on maintaining 1 or 2 hobbies. I enjoy going to concerts though, so I make sure to attend shows once in a while. This keeps me from getting burned out. In addition, I find it helpful to use a planner to avoid procrastination and to stay organized.
What are your plans for after graduation?
After I graduate with my PhD in clinical psychology, I hope to become a professor at a research school like University of Missouri.
Now that you have completed 1 year 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 take a break between my undergraduate and graduate studies. At the time, I was dead set on getting my PhD by age 30 so I felt compelled to apply to graduate schools immediately. Now looking back, I wish I had taken a year off to travel or relax.
What advice do you have for students who are considering a PhD in clinical psychology?
My first piece of advice for prospective clinical psychology students is to not get discouraged by low grades or GRE scores. Just try to make up for them by bolstering your research experience and clinical experience.
I would also advise prospective students to show enthusiasm. Use your time as an undergraduate to involve yourself in activities that illustrate your passion and commitment to the field of psychology.