Doctorate in Psychology (Ph.D. and Psy.D.) Program Guide


Updated April 12, 2024

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The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes three distinct categories of doctoral programs: clinical, counseling, and school psychology.

Clinical psychology emphasizes compiling and analyzing research data about people, while counseling psychology students focus more on treating mental and emotional health issues.

School psychology programs explore issues surrounding child and adolescent mental development.

Students interested in teaching or research roles can earn a Ph.D. in psychology, while candidates planning to go into private practice or work with patients may pursue a Psy.D.

This page covers everything you need to know about pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology. Learn how to choose the right school and degree program.

Pros and Cons of Earning a Doctorate in Psychology

Earning a Psy.D. or a Ph.D. in psychology is a significant investment of time and money, and while psychologists earn above-average salaries, other fields such as medicine, law, finance, and engineering often pay more for the same level of education.

However, psychology often offers more work-life balance than these fields, and many psychologists find it a uniquely fulfilling career.

It Takes Longer to Earn a Doctorate Degree in Psychology

Most doctoral degree in psychology programs can be completed in four to seven years. This, of course, is the longest possible amount of time a psychology professional can expect to spend on their schooling.

The time commitment requires a student's full attention, which makes some students move straight from their bachelor's in psychology to their Ph.D. in psychology.


Earning a doctorate in psychology and qualifying for a state license is the only way to become a licensed psychologist. The demand for psychologists is high in most parts of the country, and once you are licensed, you can practice independently. However, if you enjoy collaborating with other professionals, you can work in a hospital, as part of a joint practice, or in other group settings.


At times, it can be very hard for Ph.D. in psychology students to juggle work, internships, clinical training and psychology studies. What's more, almost all Ph.D. in psychology candidates go on to continue their research and training for one to two years after graduation; these externships and practical experiences must be present in order to qualify most Ph.D.s for work.

Once Graduated with a Ph.D. in Psychology, You Enter the Workforce as an Authority in the Field

Part of enrolling and earning a doctoral degree in psychology is making the time and the connections that will allow students to gain intensive practical experience after graduation.


Employers often prefer Ph.D. in psychology candidates with some experience to master's degree in psychology candidates who may have more hands-on skills.


Some evidence suggests that Ph.D. in psychology candidates can oversaturate a market. In these cases, employers may be inclined to hire a candidate with more life experience (such as a master's degree) and lesser academic credentials.

The Doctorate Degree in Psychology is Versatile

Because a Ph.D. in psychology is a terminal credential for the majority of occupational psychologists, earning a doctoral degree in psychology in this broad field can offer candidates a certain amount of flexibility when searching for a career.

For example, while there may not be many opportunities in a graduate's chosen field right away, a doctoral in psychology is an excellent credential for those who may be interested in teaching at the college or university level.


Only graduates with a Psy.D. or a Ph.D. in psychology can become licensed psychologists (except for school psychologists). Similarly, if you want to become a professor of psychology in most colleges or universities, you will need to graduate from an accredited doctorate in psychology program. The APA does not accredit online programs.

Because a psychology Ph.D. or Psy.D. is the terminal degree in psychology, those with a doctorate in psychology are considered more authoritative in jobs such as consulting, government or nonprofit work, or publishing.


Psychology Ph.D. programs are long and hard work, and even when you graduate you must work under the supervision of a licensed psychologist before you can work independently.

While many students work while earning their Psy.D. or Ph.D. in psychology, they are often not yet earning at their full potential and graduate with student loans.

One of the core parts of any doctorate in psychology is conducting original research, which requires years of focus on a single project. Students in psychology Ph.D. programs who do not enjoy the research process may find this very draining.

A Doctoral Degree Offers a High Return on Investment

Because of the high demand for the position and the time and cost psychology Psy.D. or Ph.D. programs involve, psychologist salaries are well above the national average.


Psychologists often earn a median salary over $90,000 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median BLS salary for psychologists include both graduate and undergraduate level occupations. According to Payscale, of the 25 people reporting in September 2023, the average salary for graduates with a Ph.D. in psychology is $95,000.

September Payscale data for 2023 reports the average salary for graduates with a Psy.D. as $92,000.

This is considerably higher than the 2023 national median salary of $48,060, and for many psychologists, the financial and emotional rewards justify the cost and time spent in a doctorate of psychology program.


While only those with a Psy.D. or Ph.D. in psychology can become licensed psychologists, other careers, such as law, medicine, engineering, or finance often offer much higher salaries for programs that take as much time or less than a psychology Ph.D. program.

Some high-paying psychology careers, such as industrial-organizational psychologists, may require just a master's degree.

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What Are The Admission Requirements for Psychology Ph.D. and Psy.D Programs?

Psychology Ph.D. programs require a master's in psychology from an accredited program or an equivalent mix of education and experience. Many will accept students with a master's in a related field or a bachelor's degree with work experience.

Students seeking a Ph.D. in psychology often need to demonstrate knowledge of psychology research, while students applying for a Psy.D. program need to show even more extensive research skills or aptitude.

  • Minimum Education Level: Master's degree, although a bachelor's with work experience is often also acceptable
  • Writing Sample: Transcripts from all undergraduate and graduate institutions attended, usually with a minimum 3.0 GPA
  • Transcripts: 3-5 letters
  • Standardized Tests: Personal statement of intent; previous academic research papers
  • Recommendations: GRE
  • Additional Required Materials: Immunization records; interviews; comprehensive qualifying exam; health insurance

How Can I Guarantee My Acceptance Into a Doctorate Degree in Psychology Program?

While there is no way to guarantee acceptance into a psychology Ph.D. or Psy.D. program, you can improve your chances through your classes, work, community engagement, professional development, and networking. The more you can show that you have strong professional ethics and are likely to succeed in research and as a professional psychologist, the better.

  • The most important thing an applicant can do to increase their chances of being accepted into a doctorate degree in psychology program is participate in research. Clinical trials and data analysis are some of the most vital components of a psychology career. Psychologists focus as much on mental and behavioral health as they do studying and understanding human behavior.
  • Completing relevant internships and practicums demonstrates a commitment to independent research and looks great on a doctoral degree in psychology application.
  • Prospective Ph.D. in psychology candidates can increase their chance of acceptance by cultivating professional relationships with a community of peers. Many do so by joining alumni associations, reaching out to colleagues on LinkedIn, and participating in professional organizations.
  • Subscribing to pertinent magazines, forums and workshops that are popular among others in the field. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) is a good source for information on this topic.

Should I Get a Ph.D. or a Psy.D.?

The Ph.D. and Psy.D. degrees differ in a variety of ways. Students should consider each option carefully before choosing a program.

Ph.D. in psychology programs take between five to seven years to complete, and often include one year-long internship. These programs sometimes admit fewer students, as they tend to offer more funding opportunities.

Ph.D. programs place a stronger emphasis on research, including more coursework in research methods and statistics, and more research-based opportunities during the program. Graduates may pursue careers in research or academia.

The Psy.D. is a doctor of psychology degree instead of a doctor of philosophy degree. Psy.D. programs take between four and five years to complete, including an internship year. These programs are tailored more towards clinical practice, placing less of an emphasis on research. This track may particularly benefit students who wish to work directly with clients in clinical settings.

Both degrees prepare candidates to seek licensure as clinical psychologists. However, Ph.D. programs may best suit individuals who wish to conduct research or teach in colleges and universities after graduating.

Featured Online Psychology Programs

Figuring out where to apply? These top, accredited schools offer a variety of online degrees. Consider one of these accredited programs, and discover their value today.

What Should I Expect From a Doctorate Degree in Psychology Program?

Degree Completion Specifics

  • Number of Required Credits: 60-125
  • Typical Length of Program: 5-7 years
  • Culminating Experience Project/Paper/Exam: Yes
  • Practicums/Internships: Yes

Core Concepts

While you will expand your skills in each of these areas while earning your psychology Ph.D., programs expect you to have a solid understanding of these areas from your previous education and work or fieldwork experience.

  • Developmental Psychology

    This topic explores the biological, intellectual, and cognitive foundations of behavior.

  • Assessment, Statistics and Research Techniques

    Research is a major component of psychology. Students pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology should know how to effectively and efficiently gather pertinent information.

  • Multicultural Consistencies

    These studies explore some commonly addressed issues for people of all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic circumstances.

  • Dissertation Research

    Almost every Ph.D. and Psy.D. in psychology program requires candidates to create and present a dissertation. Many courses prepare students to create, catalog, and share this vital work.

  • Ethics and Legal Issues in Psychology

    More detailed than bachelor's or master's coursework in the same vein, Ph.D. in psychology students explore the important legal responsibilities and concerns commonly associated with their particular field of study.


Doctorate psychology students often concentrate their studies in a particular clinical or academic discipline. Immersion in these topics solidifies existing knowledge and offers the chance to work side-by-side with other psychology professionals in the candidate's area of interest. Some popular concentrations include:

  • Behavioral Neuroscience

    This subfield explores how human brain systems engage in perception, human error, decision-making, movement, and cognition.

  • Clinical Psychology

    Students gather the data necessary to understand emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and interpersonal functions in adults and children.

  • Abnormal Psychological Disorders

    In this subfield, students learn to evaluate, manage, and offer empathetic care to people living with ongoing psychological disorders and trauma.

  • Human Growth and Development

    This research track investigates how the human mind evolves and devolves across the lifespan, paying special attention to behaviors, aptitudes, and at-risk behaviors.

  • Developmental

    This focus area is ideal for those who wish to learn skills of value in careers such as teaching, intervention, and research. A developmental psychology specialty explores cognitive/socio-emotional development and developmental psychopathology.

What Kinds of Psychology Careers Can I Pursue With a Doctorate Degree in Psychology?

Most graduates from psychology Psy.D. or Ph.D. programs work as licensed psychologists or in academic settings as researchers and professors. However, there are other careers available in government or corporate roles, or as a consultant.

Psy.D and Ph.D. Career Options

  • Clinical Psychologist

    Clinical psychologists diagnose patients and prescribe treatment for psychological disorders. They often specialize in a particular approach such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or behavioral therapy, or in a particular type of patient or condition, such as adolescents or eating disorders.

    They differ from counseling psychologists, who emphasize helping patients with specific issues rather than a disorder. The average annual salary, according to the BLS, is $106,600.

  • Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

    Industrial-organizational psychologists or human resource managers apply psychology to improve organizational performance in corporations. They provide guidance on organizational culture, leadership development, motivation, and other issues related to productivity. This is one of the higher-paid specialties, according to the BLS, with an average annual salary of $154,380.

  • Postsecondary Clinical Psychology Educator

    Postsecondary clinical psychology educators include college and university professors and other faculty and staff. While the BLS-reported annual salary of $93,990 is lower than other specialties, many professors are eligible for tenure. Administrations expect educators to both teach and publish; the balance will vary by school and position.

  • Forensic Psychologist

    Forensic psychologists work in the legal or justice system in a number of roles. They may work as part of criminal investigative teams, as consultants for criminal law firms, or as part of the correctional system. While many are licensed psychologists, some have a master's rather than a psychology doctorate. The annual salary, according to March 2024 Payscale data, is $78,800.

  • Educational Psychologist

    Educational psychologists apply psychology to improve school and educational performance. School psychologists primarily work with students and families, while educational psychologists focus more on improving the schools' and teachers' overall teaching capacity. According to the BLS, the average annual salary is $91,990.

  • Research Psychologist

    Research psychologists conduct psychological research in corporate, nonprofit, or government research settings. Their work may include user experience design, nonprofit or government program monitoring and evaluation, or research on ways to improve military performance and morale. According to, the average annual salary is $103,340.

Frequently Asked Questions About Doctoral Programs in Psychology

Can you prescribe medicine with a Ph.D. in psychology?

While some states allow licensed psychologists to prescribe certain medications, psychologists do not have the same prescribing authority that doctors, psychiatrists, or advanced practice nurses have.

Can you get a Ph.D. in psychology without a master's?

In many cases, you do not need to hold a master's for admission to a Ph.D. program in psychology. Many programs accept candidates who hold a bachelor's in the field. Some may require work or internship experience in addition to a bachelor's degree, but this varies from program to program.

Can you get a Ph.D. in psychology online?

Yes! A variety of fully online psychology Ph.D. programs allow students to earn their degree anywhere, at any time. While these programs occasionally take longer to complete than the standard four-year timeline for full-time, full-residency programs, actual program lengths vary. Note that the APA does not accredit online-only programs.

Why get a doctorate in psychology?

Professionals in all states must hold either a Ph.D. or Psy.D. to obtain licensure and practice as a psychologist. A doctorate in psychology prepares candidates for clinical practice, and for more advanced roles in the field. Those with a Ph.D. also tend to earn more than those with a master's degree.

How competitive are Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs?

Doctoral programs in psychology tend to hold high admissions standards, making them very competitive. On-campus programs may be even harder to get into, as they sometimes offer competitive funding and assistantship positions. Applicants should demonstrate a strong academic record with a high GPA.

What's the difference between a Ph.D. in psychology vs. a Ph.D. in clinical psychology?

Ph.D. programs in psychology tend to place a stronger emphasis on research, and often include more courses in research methods and statistics. Psy.D. programs emphasize clinical practice, and are best suited for individuals seeking more clinical experience.

Page last reviewed November 7, 2022. This page's information — not including school descriptions — was reviewed by an independent third party compensated for their time by

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