Doctorate in Psychology Program Guide

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Published on October 27, 2020 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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As the primary credentialing requirement for practitioners in the field, Ph.D. programs in psychology prepare students for the licensing process required to work as a practicing psychologist. Graduates with a psychology Ph.D. degree can pursue a license to practice clinical psychology or counseling in their state and can pursue voluntary certification, such as school counseling or experimental psychology. Earning a terminal degree in psychology demonstrates a student's mastery of the core skills needed to enter into a professional psychology career, including training in ethics and social services.

According to the BLS, psychologists generally earn an annual salary of around $77,000, and their projections show that job opportunities for psychologists will increase steadily through 2026, especially for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists.

Ph.D. programs in psychology, and related doctoral programs such as Psy.D. and Ed.D. degrees, qualify graduates for their choice of top careers in the field. Ph.D. candidates who earn licensure in their state may treat clients through clinical or counseling psychotherapy, become postsecondary psychology teachers, or pursue psychology research in a specialized area. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychologists generally earn an annual salary of around $77,000, and their projections show that job opportunities for psychologists will increase steadily through 2026, especially for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists.

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Should I Get a Doctorate in Psychology?

Many schools offer both online and traditional doctorates in psychology. Though schools often allow students to choose whether to complete the bulk of their coursework online or in person, Ph.D. programs in psychology also require a doctoral internship during the course of their degree. As a specific requirement of the licensure process, all psychology doctoral programs accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) include an internship experience and are designed to provide students with experience in clinical psychology or their preferred area of specialization.

The study of psychology attracts students from all walks of life. Due to the subject's popularity over the last decade, schools adapted to offer increasingly flexible degree options for psychology majors. For example, students who work full time, or already hold an advanced degree and plan to make a career change, can enroll in an online degree in psychology, potentially with accelerated options. Recent bachelor's degree graduates might prefer a traditional program on campus that leads straight into a combined master's/doctoral degree in psychology. Both online and on-campus programs aid students in securing an internship placement, which is a crucial component of all APA-accredited Ph.D. programs in psychology. Many programs also provide networking and postdoctoral fellowship opportunities, and even career placement services.

What Can I Do With a Doctorate in Psychology?

Graduates of APA-accredited Ph.D. programs can choose from many psychology careers. While a few jobs in clinical or counseling psychology accept less than a doctoral degree, which is the minimum licensure requirement for almost all specializations, job candidates with a Ph.D. in psychology hold an advantage over competitors in their field. Many graduates of psychology doctoral programs go on to obtain state licensure and/or certification and pursue clinical, school psychology, or counseling careers. Others aspire to focus their unique skills in a career in education, sociology, or social work. The following represent a sampling of some of psychology's most common occupations.


Clinical, counseling, or research psychologist positions require a Psy.D. or Ph.D. in psychology. Clinical and counseling psychologists must also obtain licensure in their state, and/or certification in their field specialty, in addition to at least one year of supervised work experience. Many school psychologists opt to pursue an Ed.D. specialist degree instead of a Ph.D. or Psy.D.

Median Annual Salary: $75,090*

Postsecondary Teacher

Postsecondary teachers must hold a doctoral degree in psychology to teach this subject at the college level. Some schools may employ postsecondary psychology teachers who hold a master's degree and can demonstrate doctoral candidacy in progress. As educators of students in a profession that requires licensure, many postsecondary psychology teachers hold licensure or certification in psychology or a specialty in the field.

Median Annual Salary: $76,000*


Sociologists research and observe cultures, social groups, and social institutions, examining human development and psychology as they relate to sociability. Sociology job candidates may require a master's or doctoral degree, depending on the employer and the individual requirements of the position. Sociologists often earn an advanced degree in psychology, sociology, education, or public policy.

Median Annual Salary: $79,650*

Marriage and Family Therapist

Marriage and family therapists must hold a minimum of a master's degree in psychology, marriage and family counseling, or a similar mental health specialization. Professionals must also complete 2,000-4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience after completing their degree, which counts toward licensure, required in every state for workers in this occupation.

Median Annual Salary: $48,790*

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How to Choose a Doctoral Program in Psychology

As a requirement of licensure in the field of psychology, many considerations factor into choosing the right psychology doctoral program. Students must decide how much weight to assign various factors, such as completion time, cost, and location. A psychology Ph.D. degree candidate also needs to consider whether to pursue an online or on-campus program, as their course of study will require an internship, which they must complete in person, and may require additional campus visits.

The first step in selecting any college program includes checking its accreditation status. The ideal psychology Ph.D., Psy.D., or Ed.D. program receives accreditation from the APA, in addition to being offered by a school with institutional accreditation through a national or regional agency. Such programs often assist the student in entering an APA-recognized doctoral internship and/or postdoctoral fellowship. Applicants must also confirm that their school of choice offers their preferred specialization, if applicable.

Students should also decide whether to study full time or part time. Part-time courses often save working students time and money, allowing them to keep their jobs and begin their careers faster, especially if they require less than a full load of credits to graduate. For students who can study anywhere, an online psychology phd can extend these savings even further, as many schools feature accelerated completion times and discounts for distance learners.

The location of a school can also affect which psychology degree a student chooses. Both on-campus and online students should research the area surrounding the school, considering factors like the cost of living, quality of life, and employment opportunities. Even though most psychology phd programs allow students to complete internship requirements near their residence, some programs require additional campus coursework or local postdoctoral training.

Programmatic Accreditation for Doctoral Programs in Psychology

While a student should start by considering schools with institutional accreditation, additional programmatic accreditation through the APA signals high quality standards among psychology Ph.D., Psy.D., and Ed.D. degrees. The U.S. Department of Education sets standards by which a school receives national or regional accreditation, while the APA regulates programmatic accreditation for doctoral programs in psychology and maintains standards for certification of APA-recognized psychology specializations. Many states require candidates for licensure to complete an APA-accredited doctoral degree in psychology, which ensures the graduate meets field standards for education and work experience.

Doctorate in Psychology Program Admissions

Some applicants, particularly those who completed their previous degrees on campus, may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of applying online. However, in most cases, an additional step requiring the completion of an online contact form before submitting the application remains the only difference between a traditional and online application. Admission requirements for doctoral degrees vary by school, as do the format and terms of the program itself. For example, most programs require a final project or thesis, depending on whether the student pursues a clinical-focused Psy.D. or research-oriented Ph.D. in psychology.


Some programs require a master's degree for admission, though most schools accept a bachelor's degree as the minimum education requirement. Generally, students with an undergraduate degree in a major other than psychology can still apply for a doctoral degree in psychology. Psychology Ph.D. programs include a mandatory doctoral internship experience and widely accept bachelor's degree graduates; most schools do not require professional experience. Though GPA requirements vary by school, many Ph.D. programs require at least a 3.0 GPA for admission. As professional licensure in each state requires a doctoral degree, applicants to an APA-accredited Ph.D. program in psychology do not need to hold a license to gain admission.

Admission Materials

Each program maintains its own application process. Though the time it takes to apply for a Ph.D. program varies from one student to another, make sure to give yourself ample time to gather your materials, fill out the forms, proofread your submissions, and apply by the deadline. Ph.D. applications require transcripts showing the student's previous bachelor's or master's degree coursework. Students should submit a free transcript request to their former school, directing them to send the transcripts to the new school's address. Most transcript requests require only shipping costs. A Ph.D. program may request between one and three letters of recommendation from former teachers, counselors, or mentors. Applicants should request the recommendations from their sources at least two months in advance. Many programs require GRE scores for admission; some also require the GRE subject test in psychology for consideration, especially for the Ph.D. in psychology or Psy.D. degree. Application fees for psychology doctoral programs average roughly $100, though applicants that meet low-income requirements may qualify for an application fee waiver.

What Else Can I Expect From a Doctoral Program in Psychology?

Doctoral programs in psychology provide aspiring psychologists and other field professionals with the degree they need to pursue a license to practice in their state. Earning an APA-accredited psychology Ph.D. degree can also lead to optional certification in a specialization, such as school, industrial-organizational, or forensic psychology. Many schools offer broad clinical or counseling concentrations in psychology, while others offer more acute specializations as part of their graduate programs. The following table represents some of the field's most common concentrations.

Concentrations Offered for a Doctorate in Psychology
Concentration Description Careers
Clinical Psychology The clinical concentration builds on a student's foundational psychology skills, including diagnostics and assessment, treatment, and ethics training. Specialists in this area can pursue academic or scientific psychology research, or earn licensure to go into practice as a counseling psychologist. Psychologist, researcher, psychology services director
Forensic Psychology Students concentrating in forensic psychology study the intersection of mental illness, criminal behavior, and the justice system. Coursework explores the psychology of crime victims, the neurological aspects of psychology, and criminal justice. Forensic psychologist, forensic neuropsychologist, social and experimental forensic psychologist
Health Psychology Studying health psychology trains students to understand the relationship between physical health, human behavior, and psychology. Course topics explore chronic illness, treatment interventions in healthcare settings, and psychophysiology. Health psychologist, occupational health psychologist, director of psychology healthcare programs
Social Psychology The social psychology specialization teaches students to explore the ways in which human beings affect each others psychologically, emotionally, and behaviorally. Social psychologists often pursue positions in marketing, politics, and other fields that focus on people's reactions, motivation, and cognitive behaviors. Industrial/organizatioal psychologist, marketing manager, political strategist
Neuropsychology Coursework in a neuropsychology concentration encompasses the study, evaluation, and treatment of brain function disorders in patients from infancy through adulthood. An expansion of core clinical psychological practice, neuropsychology students may pursue academic or laboratory research as an experimental psychologist. Neuropsychologist, experimental psychologist, rehabilitation director

Courses in a Doctoral Program in Psychology

Evidence-Based Psychotherapies

This course explores common evidence-based, clinical methods of treating psychological disorders, including interventions, individual and group psychotherapy, and psychopharmacological therapy. Coursework typically emphasizes mentalization as well as transference-based and brief-dynamic psychotherapy. Students also examine the research and practice of therapeutic intervention in psychology.

Developmental Psychology Through the Lifespan

Students in this course study human development from birth through old age, considering a broad range of factors, including developmental, clinical, and cultural implications. Coursework emphasizes childhood violence and trauma and aging and senior care as they relate to lifespan development. The course provides a comprehensive survey of the aging process in terms of psychology, biology, and sociology.

Principles of Clinical Supervision and Consultation

Coursework in clinical supervision and consultation provides aspiring psychologists with the foundational skills required for professional practice. Students explore the topics of diversity, ethics, and legal issues related to the profession. The course examines the role of the internal supervisor and the interpersonal and psychodynamic relationship between the supervisor and their supervisee.

Biological Foundations of Human Behavior

This course explores the biological mechanisms that inform the psychology and behavior of human beings throughout their lifetimes. Coursework emphasizes micro- and macro-level biological systems and how they affect conditions and responses, including neuroplasticity and empathy. Topics include cognition and consciousness, memory, dream states, and sensory-motor systems.

Legal and Ethical Professional Practice

Learning how to practice psychology legally and ethically remains a requirement for all aspiring psychologists. Through this course, students gain a complete understanding of the practical considerations of a clinical psychology career, as aligned with APA standards. Topics include reporting child abuse, malpractice, cultural competence, and forensic psychology concerns.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Doctorate in Psychology?

Doctorates in psychology typically take between four and seven years to complete, depending on several factors, including the format of the degree, whether a student enrolls full-time or part-time, and the practicum and postdoctoral work experience requirements. Some schools offer faster completion times through accelerated online degrees.

Each student completes the Ph.D. in psychology in their own time, based on how many credits they take, and how much of a commitment they can make to fulfilling internship requirements in addition to coursework in a timely manner. Some of the most flexible psychology phd programs allow students to enroll in part-time or full-time courses, taking only the credits they need to earn the degree, allowing students to save time and money by helping them graduate more quickly than would be possible in a traditional program.

How Much Is a Doctorate in Psychology?

Many factors affect the cost of APA-accredited Ph.D. programs in psychology. Students pursuing a psychology Ph.D. degree must consider the time it takes to complete the degree, the type of school offering the program, and whether they plan to earn the degree on campus or online, as a student's state of residence can impact their tuition costs and financial aid. Some schools offer in-state tuition rates to all online students, regardless of their geographic location. Others offer tuition discounts, laptop vouchers, and/or scholarships exclusive to online students.

Prices vary from one school to another, specifically depending on whether it is a public or private school, and whether it offers in- and out-of-state tuition rates. According to the 2016 Graduate Study in Psychology Summary Report administered by APA, earning a doctoral degree at a public institution costs just under $11,000 for in-state students and $24,000 for students living out of state. Meanwhile, the median annual tuition rate for private institutions came in just under $34,000.

Certifications and Licenses a Doctorate in Psychology Prepares For

Clinical Psychologist

Clinical psychologists, or psychologists providing direct services to clients, must pass the examination for professional practice in psychology (EPPP) exam to earn licensure to practice in their state. Students must hold a doctoral degree in psychology, in the form of a Ph.D. or Psy.D., to qualify for professional licensure. Many states specifically require students to complete an APA-accredited Ph.D. or Psy.D. program. Additionally, candidates typically must complete a one-year internship while earning their doctorate, and must complete one to two years of postgraduate supervised clinical work experience. Some states also require candidates to pass additional jurisprudence exams.

Counseling Psychologist

Counseling psychologists must also obtain state licensure and pass the EPPP exam in order to practice legally in the profession. Counseling psychologists must hold a Ph.D. in psychology or a Psy.D., and must complete a clinical training internship (typically lasting for at least one year) while earning the degree. Many state boards require an APA-accredited doctorate to qualify for licensure. Applicants must also complete at least one year of supervised postdoctoral training in a clinical setting. Some states require candidates to pass a separate ethics exam as part of the licensure process.

School Psychologist

School psychologists must hold at least a master's degree to obtain licensure to practice in their state. Like all clinical psychology professions, this specialization requires state licensure. However, students may also obtain optional national certified school psychologist certification. Candidates must also complete at least 1,200 hours (600 of which must be in a school setting) of supervised internship experience. A graduate with a doctoral degree in this specialization, such as a Ph.D. or Ed.D., may qualify for more competitive positions.

Licensed Psychological Associate

LPA applicants must hold a master's degree in clinical or counseling psychology, pass the EPPP, and complete at least two years of work experience after graduation. Some states hold additional work experience and jurisprudence exam requirements.

Licensed Professional Counselor

LPC certification requires a minimum of a master's degree in clinical or counseling psychology. In addition, candidates must pass a state-recognized psychology exam. Most states require applicants to complete at least 3,000 hours of supervised clinical work experience after earning their degree.

Resources for Psychology Doctorate Students

Alley Dog

Proclaimed by its founder to be the "best friend" of psychology students, Alley Dog emerged as the personal project of a student completing their Ph.D. in social psychology. The site provides a wealth of educational resources, including a description of various psychology concentrations, steps toward licensure, a glossary of field terminology, and degree information.

Psychology Today

Among the most well-known publications for practitioners in the field, the virtual component of Psychology Today offers a therapist directory, a comprehensive help section, archived issues of the magazine, and blogs about trending news topics in the industry.

Online Psychology Laboratory

A special section of the APA website, OPL provides resources for both students and educators operating in psychology. The site offers unique field demonstrations indexed into specialized categories, including biological bases, lifespan development, and treatment methods. OPL also publishes data resulting from its interactive research experiments.


As the licensing requirement for clinical and counseling psychologists, the EPPP exam and how to prepare for it remains the primary focus of However, the site also prepares students to successfully pass the California state licensing exam. PsychPrep offers both free and paid study packages for psychology students aspiring to professional practice.

Brain Blogger

Brain Blogger categorizes its news and research into relevant health and science categories, including psychology and psychiatry, health and healthcare, and neuroscience and neurology. The site's diverse team of contributors includes anthropologists; biomedical engineers; and clinical, educational, and forensic psychologists.

Professional Organizations in Psychology

For psychology Ph.D. or Psy.D. candidates, professional organizations can provide crucial career resources, including networking opportunities and access to conferences, speaking engagements, continuing education courses, and job opportunities. As a field with many specializations recognized by APA, professional organizations also offer specialists the opportunity to collaborate with fellow scholars in their area of expertise. Such organizations support doctoral candidates specifically through resources tailored to their career stage, such as professional and teaching opportunities.

As the most well known agency in the field of psychology, APA recognizes 54 divisions of psychology specializations. The organization remains the national authority on continuing education opportunities, networking events, and industry news and publications for psychology professionals. The credentialing agency for psychology specializations, ABPP awards certification to aspiring specialists in the field, after guiding them through the application process. The ABPP website provides students with crucial information, including how to apply for and maintain certification, fulfill continuing education requirements, and add their listing to the professional directory. The largest international organization of professionals in this specialization, NASP boasts a membership of more than 25,000 school psychologists around the world. The organization offers its members exclusive access to networking, advocacy, and scholarship opportunities, as well as discounts on registration for annual conferences and liability insurance. APS promotes transparency in psychological science, as the most prominent organization of its kind in this subfield of psychology. With special discount rates available for students, members can take part in the organization's annual convention, participate in collaborative research opportunities, and access the APS job board. SPSP offers diverse opportunities to its various types of members, targeting psychology researchers, educators, and students. The organization offers face-to-face networking opportunities, a large selection of grants and awards for psychology scholars, and comprehensive career services.
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