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Doctorate in Psychology


Featuring expert advice from Katie Federico James, psychology doctoral candidate

A doctorate is the highest degree you can get. When you complete a doctoral program in psychology, you’ll have the training you need to contribute at the highest levels of the field in research, academic, and clinical settings.

Although there are many types of careers in psychology, if you want the job title “psychologist,” you’ll need to earn a doctorate. While licensure requirements vary depending on where you live, this lofty educational requirement is a prerequisite in every state.

A doctorate allows psychologists the opportunity to integrate research and (at times) testing data in order to provide the best treatment for the individual, regardless of that person’s age, gender, racial/ethnic background, or presenting concern.

— Katie Federico James

Most doctorate programs in psychology focus on specific areas of study, such as neuroscience, cognition, developmental, industrial-organizational, or behavioral psychology. Some programs will expose you to cross-specialty instruction combining two or more areas. You’ll learn how to conduct high-level independent research through instruction in areas such as qualitative and quantitative methodologies and theories. You’ll be taught by faculty who specialize in each specific discipline.

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Psy.D. vs. Ph.D.: The Two Types of Psychology Doctoral Degrees

As you consider your choices for getting your doctoral degree in psychology, it’s important to understand the two main types of degrees: a Doctor of Psychology degree (Psy.D.) and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in psychology. Although there are likenesses between the two—either one will qualify you educationally to work as a fully licensed psychologist, researcher, or professor—there are also some important distinctions.

In general, a Psy.D. program focuses on clinical psychology—treating patients. There are many career paths you can choose with this degree: you can specialize in school psychology, forensic psychology, or child psychology, to name just a few.

Some Psy.D. degree holders teach or design and perform research, but most are interested in treating people.

A Doctor of Philosophy in psychology, or a Ph.D. degree, is academically focused and is the degree that can lead to a position in research or teaching at the college or university level.

If you earn your degree in a psychology Ph.D. program, you’ll be prepared to work in academic settings, hospitals, or governmental agencies. You can do clinical work if you earn your Ph.D., but it is not the primary focus of the degree. One exception to this is the Ph.D. in clinical psychology. These programs prepare you for clinical practice, and there are often several specialization options within these types of psychology Ph.D. programs.

Here’s a table that shows the differences between the two degrees by key factors.

FocusPractitioner-based model of educationResearch-based model of education
CareersClinical psychologist, with many specialty optionsResearcher, with many possible focuses; teacher*
Typical Time to Complete4 to 6 years5 to 7 years
Typical Admissions RequirementsAcademic letters of recommendation

Academic writing samples

In-person interview

Official academic transcripts

Professional letters of recommendation

Proof of professional experience

School-specific essays

Tends to place more emphasis on clinical experience

In addition to the Psy.D. requirements:

May require higher scores

Often places weight on publishing and presentations

Students Accepted for Graduate School**Number of students chosen can be as high as 100Typically 10 or fewer students selected
FundingTraditional financial aid, grants, and scholarshipsTuition often waived, stipend often provided for assisting with research or teaching

*Exception: A Ph.D. in clinical psychology prepares you to work with patients as a clinician.
**Psychology Today

However, there are also similarities between the two degrees. Both degrees earn you the title of “psychologist.” Education programs for both are rigorous and require internships and usually a dissertation. And finding programs that are accredited is important for both degree types.

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Why Get a Doctorate in Psychology?

If you want to earn the title of “psychologist,” you need to have a doctorate. Those with master’s degrees can become counselors or therapists, but not psychologists. Why does this matter?

First of all, psychologists tend to earn higher salaries than counselors or therapists. The median yearly salary for psychologists was $79,010 in May 2018. In contrast, counselors (a combined category of substance abuse, behavioral disorders, and mental health counselors) earned a median annual salary of $44,630.

A doctorate in psychology provides those who’ve earned it the unique flexibility of a wide-ranging field. Psychologists may often choose to either generalize or specialize in particular areas, much like physicians, and yet can be flexible in which they choose throughout their career.

— Katie Federico James

Psychologists also have more career options than counselors. Psychologists can conduct research and teach. They can work with populations outside of mental health, including businesses and criminal justice agencies. Psychologists also have the option of focusing more on the science of psychology, not just interpersonal relationships.

Finally, being a psychologist shows that you have undergone rigorous training and have a strong dedication to your field.