Requirements and Options for a PhD in Psychology

FAQ About the PhD in Psychology Degree

Earning a PhD in Psychology degree.
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Are you interested in earning your doctorate degree in psychology? Getting a PhD in Psychology can open up a whole new world of career opportunities, but is it the best choice for you? For many careers paths in psychology, a doctorate degree is necessary to work in that field. A PhD is one option, but it is not necessarily the only educational path available.

Learn more about the PhD psychology degree as well as a few alternative graduate options that might also want to consider.

What Is a PhD in Psychology?

A PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, is one of the highest level degrees you can earn in the field of psychology. If you are considering pursuing a graduate degree, you might be wondering how long it takes to earn a PhD in psychology. Generally, a bachelor's degree takes four years of study. While a master's degree requires an addition two to three years of study beyond the bachelor's, a doctorate degree can take between four to six years of additional graduate study after earning a bachelor's degree.

Recently, a relatively new degree option known as the PsyD, or Doctor of Psychology, has started to grow in popularity as an alternative to the PhD. The type of degree you decide to pursue depends on a variety of factors including your own interests and career aspirations.

Before you decide which option is right for you, research your options and decide if graduate school in psychology is the best choice for you.

Depending upon your career goals, you might need to earn a master's or doctorate degree in psychology in order to practice in your chosen field. In other instances, a degree in a similar subject such as counseling or social work may be more appropriate. 

What Can You Do With a PhD in Psychology?

A doctorate degree in psychology is required if you want to open your own private practice.

If you want to become a licensed psychologist, then you must earn either a PhD or a PsyD in clinical or counseling psychology.

In most cases you will need this level of degree if you want to teach and conduct research at the college or university level. While there are some opportunities available for people with a masters degree in various specialty fields, such as industrial-organizational and health psychology, those with a doctorate-level degree will generally find higher pay, greater job demand, and more opportunity for growth.

How to Earn a PhD in Psychology

In order to earn a PhD in Psychology, you need to first begin by earning a bachelor's degree. While earning your undergraduate degree in psychology can be helpful, students with bachelor's degrees in other subjects can also apply to psychology PhD programs. Some students may also earn a master's degree in psychology, but many doctorate programs do not require it.

After you’ve been admitted to a graduate program, it generally takes at least four years to earn a Ph.D. and another year to complete an internship. Once these requirements have been fulfilled, students can take state and national exams to become licensed to practice psychology in the state where they wish to work.

Which Specialty Area Should You Choose?

Once you enter the graduate level of psychology, you will need to choose an area of specialization such as clinical psychology, counseling psychology, health psychology or cognitive psychology. The American Psychological Association accredits graduate programs in three areas: clinical, counseling and school psychology. If you are interested in going into one of these specialty areas, it is important to choose a school that has received accreditation through the APA.

For many students, the choice may come down to a clinical psychology program versus a counseling psychology program.

There are many similarities between these two PhD options, but there are important distinctions that students should consider. Clinical programs may have more of a research focus while counseling programs tend to focus more on professional practice. The path you choose will depend largely on what you plan to do after you complete your degree.

Alternatives to the PhD in Psychology

Of course, the PhD in Psychology is not the only graduate degree option. The PsyD is a doctorate degree option that you might also want to consider. While there are many similarities between these two degrees, traditional PhD programs tend to be more research oriented while PsyD programs are often more practice oriented. The PhD option might be your top choice if you want to mix professional practice with teaching and research while the PsyD option might be your preferred choice if you want to open your own private psychology practice.

In their book Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology, authors John C. Norcross and Michael A. Sayette suggest that one of the key differences between the two degree options is that the PhD programs train producers of research while PsyD programs train consumers of research. In either case however, professional opportunities for practice are very similar with both degree types. 

Research suggests that there are few discernible differences in terms of professional recognition, employment opportunities, or clinical skills between students trained in the PhD or PsyD models. One of the few differences is that those with a PhD degree are far more likely to be employed in academic settings and medical schools. 

Social work, counseling, education and the health sciences are other graduate options that psychology undergraduates may also want to consider if they decide that a doctorate degree is not the best fit for their interests and career goals. 

A Word From Verywell

If you are considering a PhD in psychology, spend some time carefully researching your options and thinking about your future goals. A doctorate degree is a major commitment of time, resources, and effort, so it pays to consider which option is right for your needs. The PhD in psychology can be a great choice if you are interested in being a scientist-practitioner in the field and want to combine doing research with professional practice. It is also great training if you are interested in working at a university where you would teach classes and conduct research on psychological topics. 

Earning a PhD in psychology places you in a fairly elite group. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, only around 4.7 percent of the almost 110,000 psychology degree awarded between 2004 and 2005 were doctorate degrees. 


Davis, SF, Giordano, PJ, & Licht, CA. Your Career in Psychology: Putting Your Graduate Degree to Work. New York: John Wiley & Sons; 2009.

Norcross, JC & Sayette, MA. An Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology: 2016/2017 Edition. New York: The Guilford Press; 2016.