An Interview with Scott Lilienfeld
“Clinical psychology is an unusual hybrid of science and the desire to nurture people, so it is helpful if students are scientifically curious but also interested in alleviating suffering.”
Scott Lilienfeld is a professor of clinical psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He teaches courses in personality and psychopathology as well as diagnostic interviewing.
Dr. Lilienfeld has a PhD in clinical psychology from University of Minnesota and a bachelors degree in psychology from Cornell University. Prior to teaching at Emory University, Dr. Lilienfeld was an assistant professor at State University of New York Albany. In 2009, Dr. Lilienfeld published his work 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior.
In your own words, what is clinical psychology?
Clinical psychology is the branch of psychology that is dedicated to the alleviation of mental illness and mental suffering.
What classes do you teach in clinical psychology?
I teach courses specific to clinical psychology in addition to a few unrelated classes. The clinical psychology classes I teach are for my graduate students. Those classes include 1 on personality and psychopathology and 1 on psychiatric interviewing, where we teach students how to interview people to help diagnose certain disorders.
I used to teach an undergraduate class on abnormal psychology. In that class, we discussed the classification and diagnosis of mental illness and the ethical and legal implications of those mental illnesses. I also spent a lot of time trying to dispel mischaracterizations about psychology.
How long have you been a professor of clinical psychology?
I have been a professor of psychology since 1990. I earned my PhD in clinical psychology from University of Minnesota and became a faculty member at State University of New York Albany less than a year later. I went straight from earning my doctorate to teaching.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in studying clinical psychology,” what would your response be?
If a student said they wanted to study clinical psychology, I would ask them what their reasons were for doing so. I think some people just want to help others and are not interested in learning about the science of psychology. For those students, I wouldn’t suggest pursuing clinical psychology.
Students should think about pursuing clinical psychology if they want to help people and if they are also interested in learning about psychology and conducting research. A lot of graduate clinical psychology programs are focusing on training researchers, so it is science heavy in that regard.
The benefit of studying clinical psychology is that there is potential to help people who are suffering from mental disorders. Research in this field may lead to the eventual prevention of certain disorders. It can also help you understand yourself a bit better.
In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles or difficulties that students entering a clinical psychology program have?
For the graduate programs in clinical psychology, 1 one of the biggest hurdles is that it is a lot of work and it can be overwhelming. As a clinical psychology graduate student, you are both a teacher and a student. You spend a lot of time researching, doing clinical work and doing psychotherapy. In addition to that, you may be asked to serve on certain committees. It is wonderful and exciting, but it can be overwhelming.
From reading through graduate school applications, 1 of the biggest misconceptions I have come across is that a lot of students think clinical psychology will lead to them becoming private practitioners. That isn’t what most clinical psychology programs help you do.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a clinical psychologist and what traits would hinder success?
The personality traits that will help someone succeed as a clinical psychologist are curiosity, empathy and flexibility. Clinical psychology is an unusual hybrid of science and the desire to nurture people, so it is helpful if students are scientifically curious but also interested in alleviating suffering. Students should also be flexible and able to get along with others, because a lot of the work is going to be a collaboration of different people with different roles.
What courses in clinical psychology are most important for a student to take?
In graduate clinical psychology programs, there isn’t a lot of flexibility in the kinds of classes students can take. The American Psychology Association has strict requirements about what students must take.
For undergraduates, there is a little more room for them to choose their courses. I would recommend they take abnormal psychology. If a school offers undergraduate classes in clinical psychology, they should try taking those, as well. Courses in research methodology will also be very useful for students.
Aside from certain classes, it is important for students to obtain some research experience. Students can do this by speaking to their psychology professors and looking for opportunities within the department.
Outside of clinical psychology, what courses would you recommend to a student?
Because clinical psychology is a hybrid discipline with a focus in science, students should make sure they take courses in math and science, especially biology. These will help students with the research aspect of this field.
What skills can students expect to gain while studying clinical psychology?
The most important skill students will gain while studying clinical psychology is scientific thinking. With this, students learn how to evaluate evidence. Beyond that, the skills a student will learn are going to depend on the lab they are working in.
Can you give a few study tips that would help a clinical psychology student succeed?
The best tip I can give to students of clinical psychology is to ask their professors questions and engage in the material they are studying. I think too many students are observers rather than participants in the classroom. I also encourage students to find ways to connect the different concepts they learn.
For a student who is not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of clinical psychology?
If a student is not interested in an academic career, the optimal level of education in clinical psychology is probably a masters degree. With that, students can work in social work and possibly perform therapy.
What is the job outlook for students with degrees in clinical psychology?
I think the job outlook for students who are interested in clinical psychology research is competitive but good. I worry about people who are interested in private practice positions because I don’t think it is the way of the future.
I would suggest that students be as versatile as possible to make themselves more marketable. In clinical psychology, they should be able to do research, confrontation and assessment.
There isn’t really a typical salary for someone with a PhD in clinical psychology. The starting salary for someone working at a university is probably going to be between $50,000 and $60,000.
How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying clinical psychology at the graduate level?
The best way undergraduate students can prepare themselves for studying clinical psychology at the graduate level is to take abnormal psychology, biology and math courses, and to get as much research and clinical experience as possible.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in studying clinical psychology?
My advice for students interested in studying clinical psychology is to research graduate schools and choose a mentor from the professors they want to work with. I think a lot of students make the mistake of choosing graduate schools based on geography rather than on the program they are interested in.