Doctorate in clinical psychology program guide

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Introduction to clinical psychology

A Ph.D. or Psy.D. in clinical psychology is a practical way to take the skills learned in an undergraduate college degree and apply them in a practical way, in order to help people with mental health or behavioral issues. This can include things like:

  • Eating disorders
  • Addiction and substance abuse
  • Anxiety and panic disorders
  • Developmental problems in children
  • Psychosis and schizophrenia
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder.

People who hold a doctoral degree in this area of psychology usually work in dedicated mental health facilities or in academia. Note that there is a difference between Ph.D. and Psy.D. degree programs. The former is a research-heavy route into further education, research positions, and teaching. A doctor of psychology, or Psy.D, on the other hand, was created to funnel graduates directly into clinical practice. This second option is more likely to see the graduate working in their own private practice as a self-employed practitioner. Put another way, if you’d like to work with patients, a Psy.D. is the best option, whereas budding researchers should go for the Ph.D.

In any case, a doctoral degree in clinical psychology is intended for students who wish to turn a psychology-orientated master’s degree into a career.

About the degree

puzzle Requirements for admission 

  • bachelor’s degree in psychology
  • graduate degree
  • GPA of 3.0 – 3.5
  • GRE scores
  • 3 letters of recommendation
  • transcripts
  • in-person interview
  • research experience for Ph.D. courses

Note that the application process for clinical psychology courses in the U.S. can vary according to individual institutions and states. For example, some doctoral programs admit students with only an undergraduate degree.  In this case, you would complete a master’s degree on the way to earning your postgraduate qualification.

Another consideration is transferring between programs. You may be able to transfer credits from a master’s degree, although this will need to be decided by the individual program you apply to.

rssDegree flexibility

Online studying for a doctoral degree in clinical psychology is possible and may broaden the range of specialties you can research. Online degrees are usually self-paced or asynchronous, which makes them ideal for students with additional commitments.

Part-time options also exist but, as with other traditional face-to-face learning experiences, scheduling and course structure may be more rigid than with an online degree.

Colleges are usually flexible in terms of how and when you complete your degree but there will be conditions. For instance, you may have to complete a certain number of credits or practicum hours per semester. Note that any relevant work-study programs are only available to U.S. citizens.

alt"currency-dollar-1" Cost of the degree

  • in-state: $11,000 per year. 
  • out-of-state: $24,000 per year.
  • online: $16,280 – $27,851 per year.

The above figures represent the median cost of studying for a doctoral degree in clinical psychology at institutions in the U.S. Be aware that an education at a private college can be up to 1.5x more expensive.

Financial aid for your studies

Federal aid and scholarships are available for graduates embarking on a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. This reduces the financial burden of post-graduate study. It’s important therefore to begin your applications with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. The window for applications opens in October of each year.

Scholarships are financial awards given to students who complete particular tasks. This may be an education-orientated goal, such as getting good grades, or the fulfillment of a condition set by a private organization.

Many universities also offer funding to doctoral students in exchange for teaching or research assistant positions, in fact, some universities offer full funding to Ph.D. students. In general, doctoral programs in the U.S. give their candidates a stipend of $15,000-$32,000 over 9 months, although this varies according to the institution. Summer studies are rarely funded. 

This tuition waiver is possible under the student/practitioner model, in which doctoral candidates contribute to research and care in the community while they too are studying. Stipends come in both taxable and non-taxable forms, depending on whether they can be considered a salary or not.

In more general terms, psychology students seeking financial aid should start with the Scholarships, Grants, and Awards department of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students or APAGS. The same organization offers a Dissertation Research Award, Minority Fellowship Programs, and Psi Chi Research Grants, among other scholarships.

Coursework for a doctorate in clinical psychology

As mentioned, a doctoral degree in clinical psychology can be split into Ph.D. or Psy.D. according to how much research or hands-on work is preferred. However, these qualifications share many of the same courses.

Doctoral degrees encourage the student to concentrate on the core aspects of psychology that you were introduced to as an undergraduate student.

Here are a few examples of core modules:

Biological basis of behavior

This course considers how the human body and the nervous system influence our patterns of behavior. Elements like emotion and memory are also considered.

Abnormal psychology

Mental illnesses and other psychological conditions are explored in this module. Modern treatment methods are introduced.

Research methods and scholarly writing

Important to the more research-orientated degrees, this course covers high-quality research methods and how to present results to journals and other publications.

Human development over the life span

Not so much about how long people live but how they develop adapt over their lives. This can include how the human brain develops from birth to adulthood.

Ethics and laws

What is acceptable in the pursuit of psychological study? Ethics and laws prevent cruelty and malpractice in research methods.

As with many science-based courses, fieldwork is an integral part of a psychology degree program. How you choose to study for your degree will make a difference in how much practical experience you need to accrue during your course. At least one year spent on an APA-approved internship is required at most colleges.


Child mental health

Sigmund Freud believed that early trauma may re-emerge as psychological problems in adulthood. This specialization typically can see you working with young people with behavioral issues.

Substance abuse

The opioid crisis in the United States is of critical concern for psychologists. This area of study attempts to lessen the impact of substance abuse on individuals and their families.

Geriatric care

Dementia, loneliness, grief, and other mental health concerns can materialize or become more pronounced in the elderly.

Developmental psychology

This specialization delves into the reasons why people do or don’t change throughout their lifetimes. If you appreciate the work of Jean Piaget, this may be the career for you.


APA-accredited doctoral degrees are the gold standard of psychology education in the U.S. Depending on the state you hope to work in, your qualifications may not be recognized if earned from an unaccredited program – and this will mean that you will be ineligible for the appropriate license to work as a therapist.  

As mentioned, the biggest issue with licensing affects students who complete online or otherwise long-distance courses in clinical, school, or counseling psychology. APA accreditation is usually required to work in these areas.

In addition to the APA, there are 2 other accreditation bodies in the U.S. These each have their own rules that must be followed by applicants.

  • The National Association of School Psychologists
  • The Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System

Career options with this degree

A substance abuse counselor dedicates their time to helping people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. This is generally done on an outpatient basis. This kind of counselor aims to empower the individual to overcome their problems on their own through a series of therapeutic sessions with the counselor.

This position requires state licensing and up to 3 years of experience. A psychologist in this role may work for charities and similar non-profits.

The average salary in this career for a holder of this degree is $40,231.

A program director is usually a Ph.D. graduate who wishes to remain in education, specifically, in a leadership position. Program directors work at universities and lead M.A. and M.S. students in the pursuit of further knowledge. They report directly to the chairperson.

Additional responsibilities for the program director include the hiring of staff and other personnel matters and responding to student concerns.

The average salary in this career for a holder of this degree is $57,880.

Clinical case managers have the responsibility for deciding whether a patient’s care should continue or end. They monitor service users and recommended treatment and support options.

Case managers work in a critical position. A lack of access to a person in this role can result in patients struggling to integrate into their community after discharge.

The average salary for a clinical case manager is $41,691.

Continuing education

A doctoral degree might feel like the pinnacle of higher education. With a Ph.D. in particular, you will always be able to conduct additional research. Choosing to work in a data or experience-driven position like teaching will open up new ways for you to create knowledge yourself.

As a clinician, your ability to prescribe medications and similar care options can depend on whether the state you practice in permits psychologists to prescribe medication and your licensure. Check you state regulations for psychologists if this is relevant to your career goals.

Aside from that, there may be opportunities to earn horizontal certifications like fellowships. For example, the federal government offers a Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services Doctoral Fellowship to post-doctorate psychologists working with certain ethnic groups.

Should I get this degree?

If you are sure that your future lies in psychological research or treatment, yes. At its core, a doctoral degree in clinical psychology is a study of human beings and what makes each one of us tick. It can be a challenging but highly rewarding choice of career.

American Psychological Association (APA)

The APA is the primary psychology research organization in the United States. The APA site features book reviews, relevant news, and access to resources like scholarships and grants.

Journal of Clinical Psychology

A professional journal that publishes articles on all aspects of psychological research.

American Board of Professional Psychology

This is the certification board for professional psychologists in the United States.

The National Association of School Psychologists

The accreditation board for school-based psychologists.

Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System

A science-based psychology accreditation program.