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Clinical Psych Doctoral Program’s Reputation Is Growing

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Photo: Psychology professor Kate Gunthert and student Sue Wenze recently explored the ways depression and anxiety affect focalism.
Psychology professor Kate Gunthert (standing) and Susan Wenze (PhD '09) recently explored the ways depression and anxiety affect focalism. Wenze now is doing post-doctoral work at Brown University.

How does a male soldier’s sense of masculinity enhance or hinder his willingness to access health care and reintegrate himself into the community after he’s sustained a blast injury?

For families with a son or daughter suffering from juvenile diabetes, does the father’s level of involvement with the child contribute to the mother’s well being.

People engage in self-injury for a host of reasons, but what occurs during the course of daily life that triggers these harmful behaviors?

It’s obvious that the questions being raised by American University clinical psychology doctoral students are among the most intriguing in the field today. Now, it’s equally clear that the PhD candidates researching these issues are among the brightest in the country as well.

Recently published results of the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, the accreditation exam taken by graduates of 161 doctoral programs in the United States, show that AU students are achieving at an impressive level.

The pass-fail test consists of 175 multiple-choice questions that are broken into eight subsets. From 2005 through 2009, all 23 AU students who took the exam passed, and AU students had the highest percentage of correct answers of any program in cognitive-affective bases of behavior. They finished second to Yale in assessment and diagnosis and second to Northwestern in social and multicultural bases of behavior.

“We have excellent students,” said Professor Carol Weissbrod, director of clinical training. “They’re hard working, they’re bright, they’re productive and they engage. Part of that engagement comes from our excellent faculty. We do research and we teach. We also have a mentorship program where students work with a research mentor and advisor. I think they fully get exposed through that kind of relationship and also in the coursework to the breadth and depth of psychology.”

AU’s results in all eight subsets were:

•  Cognitive-Affective Bases of Behavior: 1st
•  Assessment and Diagnosis: 2nd
•  Social and Multicultural Bases of Behavior: 2nd
•  Biological Bases of Behavior: 5th
•  Treatment/Intervention: 6th
•  Growth and Lifespan Development: 6th
•  Ethical/Professional/Legal: 16th
•  Research and Statistics: 27th

Professor Anthony Ahrens, who conducted the data analysis, has been on the faculty since 1987. He credits the program’s growth to several factors, including increased funding for doctoral students from the university.

“It’s possible that lets us both attract even stronger students on average and also that it keeps the graduate students focused on doing psychology and doing their graduate work rather than needing to go out and have some employment that’s supporting them and pulling them in a different direction,” he said.

Ahrens is helping the program conduct a self-study as part of its reaccreditation from the American Psychological Association.

“One of the questions is ‘how approachable is your advisor?’” he said. “Of the alums, 30 rated that as good or excellent. Of the current students, 35 of 38 responded good to excellent. I would like to think that the atmosphere and the sorts of relationships we’ve built within the department help to create an environment in which students can end up learning better than they otherwise might.”

The test results are just one sign of the program’s burgeoning success.

“Students in clinical do a full-year internship in their fifth or sixth year,” Ahrens said. “We have students this year in places like Duke and Yale. After that students often go on to do postdoctoral work, and we’ve got students at Penn and at Brown. Our students’ placements are consistent with this [test] performance results.”

The program, which admits six or seven students per year and has a total enrollment of about 40, is set to add another faculty member.

“An extraordinary objective measure of the quality of our clinical psychology program, this report is evidence of the strategic plan goal to demonstrate distinction in graduate and professional studies,” Provost Scott Bass said in a statement. “It demonstrates that in this tough, competitive field and among the best programs in the nation, our clinical psychology program excels in preparing its graduates.”