Getting a Ph.D. in Psychology

Requirements and Options

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

Ph.D. vs. Psy.D.

A Ph.D., or doctor of philosophy, is one of the highest level degrees you can earn in the field of psychology. If you're considering pursuing a graduate degree, you might be wondering how long it takes to earn a Ph.D. in psychology. Generally, a bachelor's degree takes four years of study. While a master's degree requires an additional two to three years of study beyond the bachelor's, a doctoral degree can take between four to six years of additional graduate study after earning your bachelor's degree.

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

Before you decide which option is right for you, research your options and decide if a graduate school in psychology is the best choice for you. Depending on your career goals, you might need to earn a master's or doctoral 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 You Can Do With a Ph.D. in Psychology

A doctorate 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 Ph.D. or a Psy.D. 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 master's degree in various specialty fields, such as industrial-organizational and health psychology, those with a doctorate will generally find higher pay, greater job demand, and more opportunity for growth.

How to Earn a Ph.D. in Psychology

In order to earn a Ph.D. in psychology, you need to first begin by earning your bachelor's degree. While earning your undergraduate degree in psychology can be helpful, students with bachelor's degrees in other subjects can also apply their knowledge to psychology Ph.D. 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, you can take state and national exams to become licensed to practice psychology in the state where you wish to work.

Which Specialty Area to 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 (APA) accredits graduate programs in three areas: clinical, counseling, and school psychology. If you are interested in going into one of these specialty areas, it's 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 Ph.D. 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

Of course, the Ph.D. in psychology is not the only graduate degree option. The Psy.D. is a doctorate degree option that you might also want to consider. While there are many similarities between these two degrees, traditional Ph.D. programs tend to be more research-oriented while Psy.D. programs are often more practice-oriented.

The Ph.D. option might be your top choice if you want to mix professional practice with teaching and research, while the Psy.D. option might be your preferred choice if you want to open your own private psychology practice.

In their book "An 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 Ph.D. programs train producers of research while Psy.D. 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 Ph.D. or Psy.D. models. One of the few differences is that those with a Ph.D. 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 you may want to consider if you decide that a doctorate degree is not the best fit for your interests and career goals.

A Word From Verywell

If you are considering a Ph.D. in psychology, spend some time carefully researching your options and thinking about your future goals. A doctoral degree is a major commitment of time, resources, and effort, so it pays to consider which option is right for your goals. The Ph.D. 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's also great training if you're interested in working at a university where you would teach classes and conduct research on psychological topics.

Earning a Ph.D. 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 percent of the 117,440 psychology degrees awarded between 2015 and 2016 were doctorates.

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