Doctorate in psychology program guide

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Introduction to the field of psychology

Studying the field of psychology involves scientific inquiry into human behavior and the process of thinking and feeling from a cognitive perspective.  One of the primary goals across and within the field is to benefit society using diagnosis, treatment, education, and research when it comes to mental health.

Although the field of psychology is broad, it incorporates numerous areas of specialized study like clinical psychology, forensic psychology, and industrial-organizational psychology. Those who choose to earn a doctorate degree and pursue a career in psychology can select from a variety of specialties or subfields according to their interests and career aspirations.

Typically, students who choose to study this field at the doctorate level plan on becoming college professors, researchers, or clinicians.  That said, there are also more niche doctorate programs available to prepare students to work as consultants to provide expert testimony.

Prospective doctoral students should spend time researching the program and training options that best match their desired career goals.  It is recommended that students seek guidance from psychology professors and academic advisors to identify the doctoral programs and faculty members that conduct research or are experts in the specific area of psychology the student hopes to eventually work in.  

What is the difference between a Ph.D. and a Psy.D. in psychology?

In graduate programs for psychology, student need to decide if they want to take a clinical or a non-clinical path. If a student elects a Ph.D. program, this tends to lead to a non-clinical career path. The focus is almost entirely on research and using scientific methods to address research topics and the relationships between different variables. Someone choosing this degree will complete a dissertation. Typically, this degree allows you to work as a researcher or to work in an educational setting like a university or medical school.  Ph.D. programs tend to take 5-7 years to complete and admit comparatively fewer students than Psy.D. programs.  The requirements for specific coursework or internships may depend on whether it is a non-clinical or clinical program. Due to their lower numbers and extended programs, Ph.D. students are more likely to receive some form of tuition waiver, and even a stipend for research or teaching roles.  

If a student chooses to go the clinical route or a Psy.D., the focus will be on diagnosing and treating mental disorders and working in a clinical setting, for example as a counseling psychologist. In contrast to a Ph.D., this concentration is based on clinical research and tends to require 4-6 years to complete including a year-long internship. Other duties include assessing, diagnosing, and implementing treatment plans. This can be done in an outpatient or inpatient clinical setting. An internship under the supervision of a licensed psychologist is an integral part of the program.  Average student debt reported by Psy.D. students is $146,000.

Requirements

Prerequisites for applying for entry to this degree include but are not limited to the following:

  • academic transcripts
  • letters of recommendation
  • GPA requirements
  • writing sample
  • GRE scores
  • paying application fee

In addition, most doctorate programs stipulate having a bachelor’s degree in psychology. It should be noted that non-psychology students may be accepted into the program, although may need to have  completed specified courses including statistics and psychological research methods.

Transferring credit from previous degrees is generally possible although is at the discretion of the individual school.  Contact the school admissions officer to discuss this possibility.

Degree flexibility

Many doctoral programs in psychology have the option for part-time attendance.  Similarly, many programs offer both on-campus and online learning formats.

If a student chooses to complete their degree online, they may have the possibility of asynchronous online courses. This means that you can cover the course material at your own speed, yet within a time frame dictated by the program coordinator.  For students with work of family commitments, this can provide essential flexibility required to factor in the time needed to cover their study program.

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Cost of the degree

The annual average cost of a doctoral program varies between $11,000 and $35,000 depending whether it is a public or private university and whether you are an in-state or out-of-state student.

Financial aid and scholarships 

The Federal Student Aid website provides information for students about the different types of  financial support. On this website prospective students can also submit the free application form for federal aid (FAFSA), that will determine their eligibility.

Given the cost of a doctorate in psychology degree, another option to investigate to finance your studies is with a scholarship. For information about scholarships, contact the financial aid office at your school of choice.

Many doctoral students are offered paid positions, generally in research projects or as teaching assistants, within their faculty.  These positions may cover living expenses, health insurance and travel costs – and are definitely worth investigating as part of your program selection process.

Coursework

Some of the courses typically offered in this degree include:

Research methods

The course covers all aspects of the research process such as the different research designs. Additionally, the student will learn how psychological theories guide the process.

Abnormal psychology

These courses are centered on different mental disorders related to personality or biological factors and the theories that drive therapeutical treatment approaches.

Cognitive psychology

The information in this course covers the science of how humans think and will focus on topics like memory, perception, language, problem solving, and attention.

Statistics

This course provides students with a strong foundation for defining, reporting, and analyzing data including how to make graphs and charts.

Developmental psychology

This subject teaches students about the process of growth and adaptation that occurs from birth until death – and the psychological milestones that are anticipated along the way.  One example is that of babies and attachment: babies need to develop a relationship to at least one primary caregiver to ensure their survival.

The requirement for fieldwork and internships may vary according to the school and type of doctorate degree you choose. For instance, a doctorate degree in clinical psychology generally demands that the student complete supervised fieldwork in a clinical setting. Whereas a research-focused doctorate degree may stipulate that the student to complete an internship. Again this can be reflected in whether your doctorate program is a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in psychology.

Specializations

Below are a few specializations a student can focus on during their doctoral program.

Clinical pr health

A clinical or health specialization would focus on the ability to conduct therapy with clients, possibly prescribe medication, and work in medical settings. This generally incorporates an internship under the supervision of a licensed psychologist.

Research

A specialization in research requires extensive knowledge of all research designs, although you may be able to choose to focus on a minimum of one. These designs include qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods. This specialization can provide the know-how required to publish research articles in psychology journals, for example.

Forensic psychology

A forensic psychology specialization provides knowledge of the legal system including the courts and correctional facilities. This is integrated with psychology and the topics of mental illness, developmental psychology research, criminality theories, criminal behavior, crime scene investigation, and investigative interviewing techniques.

Accreditation

Prior to signing admission papers, check that the program and school are accredited.  This is relevant for transferring credit, financial aid, licensure and eligibility to career options.   Accreditation for psychology doctoral programs and the schools that provide these programs is generally granted by the American Psychological Association (APA), the Commission on Accreditation (COA), or the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

Career options

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job outlook for psychologists is expected to increase by 3% until 2029.  This is equal to the average job outlook for all occupations in the U.S. Psychologists who hold a doctoral degree in a specialized area are predicted to have the best job prospects.

Some of the most common careers pursued with this degree are educational psychologist, counseling psychologist and clinical psychologist.  This can entail working as a school psychologist, providing counseling services for a multitude of mental health issues and disorders, or working in clinical settings like a psychiatric hospital providing assessment and diagnoses.  

To work as a clinical psychologist typically requires a doctorate degree, which is also a prerequisite for licensure. The main job responsibilities involve evaluating the mental state of patients and implementing the appropriate treatment plan for issues that include anxiety, depression, addictions, and behavioral problems.

Average annual salary in 2021 is $81,695

Often with a doctorate in forensic or counseling psychology, these specialists are employed or work as consultants in legal settings, mental health institutions, correctional facilities and governmental organizations.  They are required to assess mental competency, understand psychological factors relevant to criminals and victims, and diagnose mental disorders.

Average annual salary in 2021 is $72,372

Continuing education

A doctoral degree in psychology can open surprising new paths; for example working as a consultant or expert witness in forensic settings, or teaching opportunities in secondary and post-secondary education. To foster these opportunities, continuing education programs are offered to working professionals.  Completion of these programs can increase your knowledge, expertise and salary. 

Should I get this degree?

A doctoral degree in psychology is an important step for anyone seeking to work as a professional psychologist – either in a clinical setting, or in research and academia.  This degree is an enormous commitment in terms of the amount of time you will need to dedicate to your education prior to joining the workforce.  As such, a level of passion for the field is essential.  Wanting to know why someone does or thinks the way they do – and how this process can be adapted to improve quality of life is indicative of the thought processes of a psychologist.  Even for research psychologists who spend their lifetimes working on experiments with rats, there is an underlying need to understand the brain process that is behind a certain response or reaction.  It is undoubtedly a fascinating field and those drawn to it tend to have inquisitive minds and a deep interest in what makes humans work.  If this sounds like you, read about the best doctorate programs in psychology to see whether you can find the right program to meet your career goals.

American Psychological Association (APA)

This resource is a professional website including an in-depth look at financial aid, degree requirements, how to select a program, resources for finding schools, scholarships, internships, career information, and frequently asked questions on a vast number of topics and subjects. You can join the organization as a student or psychology professional and you have some access to publications.

American Psychological Association of Graduate Students

This is a list of resources for graduate students of psychology compiled by the APA. These resources are education-related including selecting the right program of study, applying to graduate school, and addition information on topics such as careers and publications.

American Educational Research Association

This resource is useful for graduate and undergraduate students in terms of locating information about education research. For instance, there are links for publications, policy, advocacy, professional development, along with other topics.