PsyD vs PhD: which is the best fit for you?
It is difficult to think of an aspect of life that doesn’t involve psychology. Where there are people, there are minds, and where there are minds, there is psychology. The field is vast and varied – psychologists may conduct research, diagnose and treat patients, consult organizations, and teach future psychologists.
Psychologists conduct and apply research to find evidence-based solutions and improve people’s lives.
Although not a hard science, psychology uses the scientific method. Psychologists conduct and apply research to find evidence-based solutions and improve people’s lives. Many psychologists provide healthcare services in roles like clinical psychologist or counseling psychologist. Others focus on research, investigating how our behavior is influenced by the people and society around us.
Psychology helps educators understand how children learn in order to design more effective and inclusive teaching methods. In the justice system, psychologists apply their knowledge of human behavior to help courts understand criminals, and the limitations of certain types of evidence or testimony. In business, psychologists apply the science of human behavior to the work environment with an aim to improving workflow, employee morale, and the overall running of an organization.
About the degree
The educational path to a career as a psychologist usually culminates in a Doctor of Philosophy in psychology (Ph.D.) or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree. Through doctoral studies, would-be psychologists train in their specific area of interest and acquire research and field experience.
In the U.S., it is illegal to practice as a psychologist without a license. Each state sets its own licensure requirements, but a doctorate is required in all 50 states.
Some states allow limited licensure with a master’s degree, although master’s-level psychologists can typically only practice under the direct supervision of a licensed doctorate-level psychologist.
Choosing between a Psy.D. and a Ph.D. in psychology
In graduate programs for psychology, students 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. The capstone to a Ph.D. is usually a dissertation. Typically, this degree allows you to work as a researcher or 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.
If a student chooses to go the clinical route by way of a Psy.D., the focus is likely on diagnosing and treating mental disorders and working in clinical settings.
Ph.D. programs are usually more competitive, as they accept fewer students. On the other hand, it may be easier to receive funding for Ph.D. programs, as they often include opportunities to act as a teaching or research assistant. Less students in Ph.D. programs also mean more funding opportunities.
If a student chooses to go the clinical route by way of a Psy.D., the focus is likely on diagnosing and treating mental disorders and working in clinical settings. The Psy.D. takes 4-6 years to complete, including a year-long internship. An internship under the supervision of a licensed psychologist is an integral part of the program.
A Psy.D. program generally offers the practitioner-scholar model of training, meaning a greater focus on practical training than research. Some common courses include:
Evidence-based practice in psychology
This course covers empirically-supported treatments for major mental health
conditions. It also examines the elements of effective therapy relationships and effective methods for adapting treatments to individual patients.
Clinical supervision and consultation
This course covers models for conducting supervision, the requirements of various licensing bodies, and the skills and qualities that promote effective supervision. The course may also cover how culture and diversity impact the supervisory process and relationship.
Advanced psychological assessment
This course covers advanced topics in psychological assessment and psychometrics, including psychological reports and clinical recommendations. The focus is on the appropriate selection, administration, and interpretation of major psychological tests in clinical settings.
Ph.D. in psychology coursework
Ph.D. psychology programs usually offer the scientist-practitioner model of training, meaning a greater focus on research. Ph.D. programs tend to be more specialized than Psy.D. programs, so courses vary by specialization. Some common courses include:
Advanced research methods and statistics
This course provides training in critically evaluating psychological research, running advanced statistical techniques, and effectively communicating research findings. Students are trained in using statistical software to conduct a range of statistical analyses.
Survey of clinical research methods
In this course, students learn to formulate research questions and plan and perform clinical research. Protocol development, methodologies, and regulatory requirements pertaining to human subject research are also covered. Students are also taught study interventions, randomization, data collection, and presentation of results.
Biological basis of behavior
This course introduces the anatomical structures and physiological processes of the brain that determine behavior. Other topics covered are the acquisition and processing of sensory information, the biological bases of complex behaviors such as sleep, learning, and language, and the basic functioning of the nervous system.
Specializations in psychology
Clinical psychologists provide comprehensive mental health support in clinical settings. They may also offer their expertise by consulting with agencies and organizations. Clinical psychologists have increasingly come to fill the gaps in the care offered by psychiatrists. Where psychiatrists focus on diagnosis and treatment with medication, clinical psychologists offer diagnosis and treatment with evidence-based non-medical approaches. They often collaborate with psychiatrists to provide holistic patient care.
Counseling psychology focuses on mental health and wellbeing, using evidence-based interventions to treat emotional, behavioral, and mental health issues. Counseling psychologists frequently work in private practice, although they can be employed in a variety of settings, including community mental health clinics, hospitals, addiction rehabilitation programs and agencies, vocational rehabilitation centers, correctional facilities, colleges and universities, residential care facilities, child welfare and other family assistance agencies, and many others.
School psychologists address children’s social, emotional, and academic problems. By linking mental health to learning and behavior, they provide specialized support and assistance to children and adolescents, as well as their parents and educators. The profession overlaps but is distinct from educational psychology and school counseling.
Forensic psychology is the application of psychological theories and clinical knowledge to the field of law and criminal justice. Forensic psychologists bring their expertise in understanding human behavior to the legal system, in either a therapeutic or investigative capacity.
Social psychology is the study of how individuals are shaped and affected by their environment. Social psychologists study personality and behavior, and how the way we act is influenced by the people and society around us, in order to improve individual, group, organizational, or societal welfare.
Experimental psychologists apply scientific research methods to studying the mind and human behavior in laboratory settings. Experimental psychologists are employed in various areas, such as academia, research centers, government, and business.
Prerequisites for entry into this degree include but are not limited to the following:
- a GPA of 3.0 or higher
- professional and academic letters of recommendation
- personal statement
- official academic transcripts
- undergraduate coursework in psychology (recommended)
- evidence of paid or voluntary work in a related field (will strengthen your application)
Additionally, most programs require a bachelor’s degree, ideally in psychology. If you do not major in psychology at the undergraduate level, consider taking the following subjects as electives, as they are required for entry into most psychology doctoral programs:
- psychopathology or abnormal psychology
- experimental psychology
- research methods in psychology
- cognitive psychology, learning and memory, or physiological psychology
A master’s degree is generally not required, and is often completed in the first 2 years of the doctoral degree.
Cost of the degree
Tuition costs depends on multiple factors, such as whether the college is private or public, course format, and if you are an in-state or out-of-state student. Projected tuition rates for 2021 suggest a doctoral degree will cost around $23,550 per year at a public 4-year college, and $59,840 per year at a private non-profit 4-year college. Both projected estimates include tuition cost, fees, and room and board.
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 (FAFSA).
Many universities also offer funding to doctoral students in exchange for teaching or research assistant positions. Some universities offer full funding to Ph.D. students on this basis. Doctoral programs in the U.S. generally give their candidates a stipend of $15,000-$32,000 over 9 months, although this varies by institution.
Tuition waivers are possible under the student-practitioner model, in which doctoral candidates contribute to research and care in the community while they are studying.
Psychology students seeking financial aid should start with the Scholarships, Grants, and Awards department of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS). The same organization offers a dissertation research award, minority fellowship programs, and Psi Chi research grants.
Supervised work experience and internships
Supervised work experience (SWE) and predoctoral internships are an important component of both the Ph.D. and the Psy.D. Doctoral candidates are expected to complete anywhere from 1,500-4000 hours. SWE is usually completed after graduation, while the predoctoral internship is completed before. Each state has very specific requirements regarding internship and work experience hours, so it is essential to ensure your program’s requirements meet those of the state you wish to be licensed in.
The requirement for fieldwork and internships may vary according to the school and type of doctorate degree you choose.
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. A research-focused doctorate degree may stipulate that the student complete an internship.
It is important to ensure that your doctoral program is accredited. There is variation between states, yet most stipulate attending attend a regionally or nationally-accredited program, or a program accredited by the APA. Some states also offer licensure to psychologists from Canadian Psychological Association (CPA)-accredited programs.
Accreditation informs future patients, employers, and licensing boards that your qualifications have met the highest standards to provide appropriate care to your patients. Colleges and programs with accreditation also update their programs to stay current and ensure that those studying psychology are informed about new developments in the discipline.
Career options with a doctorate in psychology
Clinical psychologistMedian salary: 83K US$
Clinical psychology is one of the largest subfields of psychology. It offers many specializations, including adult mental health, substance abuse, and child psychology. Clinical psychologists can work in different settings, including private practice, non-profit organizations, hospitals, or academic settings.
Daily tasks can include completing clinical notes or assessments, diagnosing patients, facilitating individual or group counseling sessions, and completing treatment plans for patients. Clinical psychologists typically have extensive training in administering and scoring assessments, which assess for personality disorders, mental health disorders, learning disabilities, career placement, etc. Clinical psychologists may also choose to conduct research and publish their findings.See more
School psychologistsMedian salary: 63K US$
School psychologists address mental health and the behavioral and emotional needs of school-aged children, usually at the K-12 level. Some choose to specialize in a particular area or work with a specific demographic, such as children with learning disabilities. School psychologists can work individually or as part of an interdisciplinary team.
Using evidence-based strategies and research, school psychologists can identify, diagnose, and treat students with mental health disorders, learning disabilities, and emotional, cognitive, and behavioral challenges. They also consult with parents, teachers, and other mental health providers about a student’s social, behavioral, and learning problems. Specific services they provide include assessment, skills training, crisis prevention, interventions, counseling, and support groups.See more
Research psychologistMedian salary: 88K US$
Research psychologists apply scientific methods to the study of the human mind. Their work can include designing research studies, recruiting participants for applied research in psychology, and administering and interpret psychological tests and measurements. They are usually employed by research laboratories connected to universities, private research laboratories, or government organizations.See more
Why get this degree?
A doctoral degree in psychology is an important stepping stone to a career as a professional psychologist. The degree involves a tremendous commitment of time and energy. 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 at the essence of what psychologists do. Even research psychologists, removed from the clinical setting, have an underlying fascination with brain processes and wanting to understand what’s behind a certain response or reaction. Those drawn to psychology tend to be inquisitive and possess an abiding interest in the human mind. If that sounds like you, this may be a fitting path.
With 121,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students as its members, the APA is the largest and most influential organization for psychologists in the United States. They offer 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.
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.
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.