Clinical psychology students are often enrolled in graduate programs for an average of 5 to 7 years. Their first year is often the most challenging one as they are attempting to adapt to a new environment and focusing on keeping up with the rigorous coursework and research. Additionally, first-year graduate students often face challenges due to high levels of competition in the academic environments. Competition may impact relationships between students, creating rivalries rather than alliances. Though competition can be beneficial to boosting student success, it can also impede the learning process and future mental health care goals. Using a psychological lens, the following article explores the ways in which unhealthy competition among students may shape their graduate school experience. Finally, it highlights the impacts of competition on student peer relationships and the presence of discrepancies between competition and mental health care provision. 

First-Year Challenges

First year graduate students are often new to the local community, creating additional stresses to adjusting to both the academic environment and our new living arrangements . Though competition can be beneficial to boosting our success as students and a new living arrangement (Goldman et al., 2020). High living cost and little community support, together with inadequate clarity related to assignment expectations and heavy coursework and research responsibilities can all exacerbate these stress outcomes (Goldman et al., 2020).

These stresses can be exacerbated further by poor alignment between what attracts students to these programs and what we will learn to do in them. Clearly, there are pros and cons for enrolling in clinical psychology programs, and students should join them only when motivated by a research question or a career aspiration (Walton, 2012).

Student perceptions: social relationships, support, and stress

Empathy plays a vital role in the educational process, but many students and instructors report a lack of empathy, compassion, and trust among peers in contemporary higher education settings. Students may experience social exclusion, which can result in further degrading our empathy towards others, and decrease the level of trust in one another (Munoz et al., 2022). Social relationships and social support, often provided by families, peers, community members, and academic professionals, are also positively associated with student success (McLean et al., 2022). Nevertheless, rather than seeking socially supportive relationships, students may be tempted to seek relationships perceived to be beneficial for academic success, such as seeking out the popular or most accomplished students.

At the same time, there is a culture of competition in graduate psychology programs. Although healthy levels of class competition have been associated with increased engagement, excessive competition can have adverse mental and physical impacts (Li et al., 2022), including a loss of compassion toward others and higher levels of anxiety (Li et al., 2022). Students in these highly competitive settings may also be willing to use others as a means to realize their professional goals—for instance, by viewing our relationship as competitive instead of collaborative, which ultimately may lead to long-term mental well-being consequences. Some students may also feel like imposters in the classroom, which can in turn create resentment among team members and further erode trust in fellow students (Canning, 2019). Collectively, these perceptions and behaviors may have consequences on our work life after graduate school, particularly for students who end up providing therapy and working with clients. The presence of competition within the field of mental health care is counterintuitive to the provision of mental health services. This tension can be resolved by recognizing that the primary goal of mental health services is to assist clients in obtaining treatment options that can help them in living happier and healthier lives.

Conclusion and future directions

Contemporary clinical psychology programs are intended to provide rigorous coursework that assists in preparing students for professional counseling practice. But these programs take place in an environment of extreme competition, where the spirit of learning is often undermined by the culture of doing whatever is needed to get to the top in grad school. Moreover, the high level of competition present between students can erode the academic process. This includes the reduction of, including students’ motivation to work collaboratively to achieve a shared academic and professional goals. Additionally, the presence of competition is also counterintuitive to the counseling practice and can create hostility towards professional peers in the future. It is imperative that students are mindful of the stress and experiences of other students and actively engage in collaborative efforts to achieve success in their clinical psychology degree program,

Mariana Furtado is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology (Psy.D) at Albizu University. Her areas of interests are in immigration, acculturation, and diversity. Mariana is specializing in family and couple’s therapy. Her other interests include integrative approaches, object relations, gestalt and psychotherapy psychodynamics. Mariana also has experience volunteering as a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) a child advocate with the family court of Broward County’s 17th Court District in Florida.


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