A PhD in Psychology is considered to be the terminal degree in the field. That means, technically, you can’t go any further in your studies at that point. It’s the most in-depth education you can get in psychological knowledge and treatment skills.
That means you will be qualified for pretty much any kind of position you can dream up in the world of psychology.
The traditional jobs for graduates with PhD psychologists are in academia, including teaching and research, and the big kahuna: working as a licensed clinical psychologist.
But psychology has many different branches and sub-fields, with positions in every kind of industry. Basically any field you can think of that involves human interaction or decisions also involves psychology at some level. And with a PhD, you can take your career to the next level in any of those fields.
What Does it Take to Earn a Doctorate in Psychology?
First, though, you are going to have to get out there and earn that degree. As you can imagine, if you want to unlock the highest paying, most responsible, highest impact jobs in the field, you’re going to have to work your tail off to get the credentials.
That means committing to between five and seven years of study in a PhD program. It’s tough, make no mistake. You can see exactly how tough when you look at the attrition rate. More than 29,000 people earned master’s degrees in psychology in 2018-19. Care to guess how many went on to complete a doctorate in the field?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only around 6,000 people a year graduate with doctoral degrees in psychology.
If you want to be one of those 6,000, you will need dedication, strong study skills, and deep pockets. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the average costs for psychology doctoral programs in a 2016 survey came out to:
- Public in-state university – $11,000 per year
- Public out-of-state university – $24,000 per year
- Private university – $34,000 per year
Of course, you can’t just start right out in doctoral studies. It’s not always necessary to start with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but it can be a big help to your eventual doctoral studies. Either way, you will need to earn a bachelor’s degree in some related field first.
Earning a master’s, interestingly, is not a requirement. Many doctoral programs in psychology accept applicants who have only completed a bachelor’s program, although usually additional experience in the field is also preferred.
Once you’re accepted to a PhD in psychology program, you can expect to study subjects such as:
- Psychological assessment and diagnosis
- Individual and group psychotherapy techniques
- Cognitive and affective bases of behavior
- Human lifespan development
- Professional ethics
You will also spend plenty of time in clinical practicum and internship placements that help teach you the trade of clinical psychological therapy with real patients facing real problems.
More importantly, you’ll be expected to complete a doctoral dissertation. That’s a publication-quality research paper developing original ideas and showcasing unique research that you will undertake, write, and defend before a dissertation committee. The paper itself can take as many as two or three years of your entire program.
You’ll need to make sure you are at a school that supports your goals and offers the right resources to make that happen.
What is the difference between a PsyD and a PhD in psychology?
The PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology, is the traditional degree in the field and the one that most practicing psychologists hold. It is traditionally very research focused and has excellent preparation for careers in research or academic psychology.
The PsyD, or Doctor of Psychology, is a newer degree that has a more clinical focus. It’s designed for anyone who wants to become a practicing clinical psychologist and offers more practical preparation.
Should you earn a master’s degree in psychology before studying for a PhD?
Earning a master’s degree in psychology isn’t really necessary before you enter a PhD program, but you might choose to do so for other reasons. Master’s programs can be more focused and customizable to your fields of study than doctorates in psychology. It can also cut two years off your eventual time in a PhD program.
Most PhD programs will grant you a master’s along the way to earning your doctorate—you are covering the same ground, it’s just all included in a single program. Choosing to earn a master’s program before proceeding with your doctorate allows you to fine-tune your studies in a way that the doctorate alone might not accommodate, however. For example, you might have better luck finding a master’s program with specialized training in sport’s psychology than a PhD program in that specialization. By taking the master’s separately first, you get that niche expertise on top of your clinical skills from the doctorate.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Psychology?
Probably the primary use for a doctorate in psychology is to become licensed as a clinical psychologist.
All 50 states require a doctorate as part of the qualifications of licensed psychologists. The five to seven years of study and in-depth clinical experience are exactly the training that both the public and government want to see in trusted psychological professionals.
There are many different kinds of applications for clinical therapy for psychologists. You can specialize and find work in areas such as:
- Industrial-organizational psychology – Work in businesses and large organizations to optimize interaction and productivity.
- Counseling psychology – Delivering direct psychotherapy in areas ranging from substance abuse to post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Marriage psychology – Performing couples and family counseling work to preserve and improve relationships
- Health psychology – Health psychologists work with populations in medical treatment and recovery, dealing with adjustments to long-term or traumatic health issues.
What jobs can you do with a PhD in psychology?
Clinical psychologist is the most popular job for graduates with a PhD in psychology, but you’re not limited to clinical practice. There are many jobs that require a psychology doctoral degree but don’t directly involve psychotherapy. Some of these areas straddle the boundaries between clinical and general psychology practice; a forensic psychologist, for instance, might work with police to evaluate evidence at crime scenes, but also work directly with criminals to offer therapy and treatment.
- Forensic psychologist – Works in legal environments, both analyzing the psychology of crimes and criminal behavior and also that of witnesses and juries.
- Educational psychologist – Educational psychologists may work in schools, but they are not school psychologists, who need only a master’s degree. Instead, educational psychologists study the processes of learning and the learning environment, figuring out the most effective presentation and techniques.
- Social psychologists – Social psychologists study group psychology and how culture and environment can effect individual and group behavior.
- Developmental psychologists – In developmental psychology, you study how culture, individual development, and genetic influences come together to determine how people think and grow. This includes looking at the roots of psychopathologies and helping develop treatments and prevention techniques.
You can also find psychologists with PhDs working in many other kinds of industries. There are psychologists working for NASA on the psychological challenges of space travel, for example, and working with casinos and computer gaming companies to understand how to craft compelling and absorbing play experiences. You can carve out an exciting job in psychology in almost any industry with a PhD in your pocket.
PhD in Psychology Salary and Job Prospects
Psychologists who go all the way through the pipeline to earn their PhD in the field don’t have to worry about ending up on the unemployment line. With only a few more than 6,000 individuals a year attaining that high level of education, you will find you are always in demand.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 3 percent increase in the number of psychologist positions between 2019 and 2029.
That’s about the average rate of increase for all American professions.
Of course, like any job, you can find different rates of growth and different prospects depending on where you are located. BLS ranks the five states with the highest employment level of psychologists, all other, which is the group that includes clinical psychologists, as:
According to the APA’s Center for Workforce Studies, there were about 102,000 active doctoral-level psychologists licensed in the U.S. in 2018 – which works out to about 31 psychologists per 100,000 people nationwide.
How much does a psychologist make with a PhD?
The overall median salary for all psychologists in 2020 was $82,180. But that’s probably much lower than most PhD-prepared psychologists make. The highest-paid psychologists during this time worked in the government sector, where the median was $100,360, followed by those working in hospitals ($90,640), ambulatory healthcare settings ($85,970), and elementary and secondary school settings ($77,560).
While BLS salary statistics detail what psychologists are earning in specific industries, it pays to note that psychologists who run their own private practice or provide their services in a consultancy role may earn significantly more than those working as an employee of a hospital, healthcare practice, or other healthcare employer.
While it may take some time to build a psychology business and a strong client base, the freedom that comes along with taking control of your career can have significant financial and professional benefits in the long run. Build a practice that includes employing multiple psychologists or establish yourself as a top industry consultant and your earning potential has the potential to surpass what any employer will pay you.
Practicing clinical psychologists fall into the broader category for “psychologists, all other,” which in 2020 showed a median salary of $105,780. But even that may be low for many PhD majors in psychology. The top ten percent of those in the profession earned more than $137,590 that year.
The states with the highest mean wage in 2020 were: