A doctoral degree in psychology is a must for those intent on becoming licensed psychologists, and is reserved for the most progressive professionals in clinical practice, research, and administration.
The doctoral degree in psychology may be designed as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Clinical Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). Clinical, counseling, and school psychologists may have a PsyD or PhD degree, and all states recognize both PhD and PsyD psychologists for state licensure.
According to the APA-CoA’s 2014 Annual Report, there were 24,649 students enrolled in accredited doctoral programs, broken down as follows:
- Clinical PsyD: 10,272
- Clinical PhD: 9,192
- Counseling (PhD/PsyD): 2,592
- School (PhD/PsyD): 2,086
- Combo: 507
Doctorate Programs in Psychology: What to Expect from PsyD and PhD Programs
A doctorate in psychology is the highest degree in psychology, designed as a PsyD or PhD. There are some subtle and not so subtle differences between the two, so it’s well worth taking the time to understand the differences and similarities between a PsyD and a PhD in psychology.
Students may choose general clinical doctoral programs, although many choose to focus their doctorate work on one or more American Psychological Association (APA) recognized specialties, such as:
- Clinical neuropsychology
- Clinical health psychology
- Psychoanalysis in Psychology
- Forensic psychology
- Rehabilitation psychology
- Behavioral and cognitive psychology
- Family psychology
The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Commission on Accreditation (CoA) is the accrediting agency for doctoral programs, internship programs, and postdoctoral residency programs in psychology in the U.S.:
- Doctoral Graduate Programs: The APA-CoA accredits doctoral programs in counseling, clinical, and school psychology, as well as programs offering a combination of two or more of these areas. Accredited options include both the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). All accredited programs prepare students for practice in professional psychology.
- Internship Programs: The APA-CoA accredits internship programs in counseling, clinical, and school psychology, as they are a required component of a doctoral program.
- Postdoctoral Residency Programs: The APA-CoA accredits postdoctoral residency programs, a required component for state licensure. Postdoctoral residency programs provide an advanced course of education and training once students complete their doctoral psychology programs.
There are currently 900 accredited doctoral, internship, and post-doctoral programs in the U.S. As of September 1, 2015, the APA-CoA no longer accredits programs in Canada. The APA maintains a list of all APA-CoA programs here.
Both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognize the APA-CoA as an accrediting agency. APA-CoA accreditation encourages consistency among doctoral programs in psychology through a set of comprehensive policies, procedures, and guidelines. The APA-CoA accredits programs at the doctoral level—not schools or universities. It does not accredit programs at the undergraduate or master’s levels.
APA-CoA accreditation does not guarantee state licensure or employment. However, it does provide students with assurance that the doctoral program meets nationally endorsed standards and ensures that it meets specific goals and objectives throughout its educational process.
Both PsyD and PhD programs tend to be highly competitive, admitting only the most qualified students. Admission into these programs relies heavily on the student’s undergraduate/master’s degree focus and achievement. Students must possess, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, along with specific prerequisite courses at the graduate level. While some students choose to complete a master’s degree before a PsyD/PhD program, it is generally not a requirement for admission. However, doctoral programs would accept graduate credits from students who have completed a master’s degree.
The admission process can be a lengthy process, and many factors play a role in the decision-making process, including the applicant’s academic history, research experience, recommendations, and motivation for professional study. However, most institutions require candidates to possess the following:
- Minimum undergraduate GPA
- The completion of specific undergraduate/graduate-level courses, depending on the doctorate program specialty
- Minimum GRE scores
Candidates applying to PsyD programs must often:
- Sit for an interview
- Possess related work and/or research experience
- Submit letters of recommendation
- Possess clinically related service
Candidates applying for PhD programs must often:
- Possess research experience, related work
- Submit letters of recommendation
- Sit for an interview
According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Commission on Accreditation (CoA), the average length of a doctoral program in 2014 was 5.84 years, although PhD programs tend to take longer than PsyD programs (5-7 years vs 4-6 years).
During this time, students of these programs complete the following:
Students of PhD programs often begin research during their first semester and continue their work while simultaneously completing the programs’ required coursework. The institution grants candidacy for the doctorate to those students who complete all course requirements, the qualifying examination, and a dissertation based on their research.
Many PhD programs provide both teaching and research opportunities for their PhD students.
Courses in a PhD in Psychology reflect the research-focused plan of study:
- Qualitative analysis
- Quantitative research methods in psychology
- Tests and measurements
- Ethics in psychology
- Advanced interferential statistics
PsyD programs focus more on practical work and examinations than research. Most programs require the completion of a one-year internship as part of the program. The research component of PsyD programs usually requires writing a dissertation or completing a research sequence that includes the completion of a doctoral paper and a proficiency examination on clinical research.
Content in these programs tends to focus on therapeutic techniques, including assessment and intervention skills. The coursework reflects the practice-related component of PsyD programs:
- Advanced biological psychology
- Advanced psychopathology
- Evidence-based practice in psychology
- Strategies of clinical supervision and consultation
Graduation Outcomes and Employment Settings for Graduates of PsyD and PhD Programs
According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Commission on Accreditation (CoA), the largest percentage (40 percent) of graduates of Clinical PhD programs secured initial employment in hospitals/medical centers in 2014, followed by:
- Academic teaching: 29.33 percent
- Independent practice: 16.29 percent
- Other: 13.32 percent
- Community mental health center: 11 percent
- Psychiatric facility: 4.58 percent
- University counseling center: 3.54 percent
- Correctional facility: 2.53 percent
During the same period, the largest percentage (28.49 percent) of graduates of Clinical PsyD programs identified independent practice as their initial employment setting, followed by:
- Community mental health center: 21.64 percent
- Hospital/medical center: 17.90 percent
- Other: 16.20 percent
- Academic teaching: 9.52 percent
- University counseling center: 7.88 percent
- Correctional facility: 7.40 percent
- Psychiatric facility: 6.52 percent
- Health maintenance organization: 2.50 percent
- School district system: 2.37 percent
The largest percentage (25.98 percent) of graduates of counseling psychology doctoral programs identified academic teaching as their initial employment setting in 2014, followed by:
- University counseling center: 24.25 percent
- Independent practice: 19.22 percent
- Hospital/medical center: 16.65 percent
- Community mental health center: 11.6 percent
- Other: 11.4 percent
The majority of graduates (62.44 percent) of school psychology doctoral programs found initial employment in school district/systems. Other settings in which school psychology doctoral graduates attained initial employment include:
- Academic teaching: 20.40 percent
- Other: 9.21 percent
- Independent practice: 9.16 percent
- Hospital/medical center: 5.99 percent
- Community mental health center: 4.09 percent