PhD in Clinical Psychology: What It Is and What You Can Do With It
In the field of psychology, clinical psych is a specialization focused on dealing directly with clients, helping them to overcome mental, physical, or behavioral issues. In settings such as a mental health facility or a private practice, clinical psychologists work to evaluate, diagnose, and create treatment plans for patients struggling with relationship problems, addiction issues, cognitive disorders, and much more.
Most high-level roles in the field of clinical psychology require a doctoral degree. In fact, in order to gain a legal license as a psychologist and practice independently, almost every state requires that you hold this level of degree. There are several options for your doctorate in psychology, but of these, the most common is the PhD. How do you pursue this degree and what can you do once you graduate? Below, find answers to these questions and more.
What Is a PhD in Clinical Psychology?
A PhD in clinical psychology is a degree that allows you to work in the highest levels of the field. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), PhDs are “intended for students interested in generating new knowledge through scientific research and/or gaining teaching experience. PhD graduate students receive substantial training in research methods and statistics in order to independently produce new scientific knowledge and are often required to produce a dissertation to demonstrate research competency.” That said, PhD students will also be highly trained in applied psychology, working hands-on with patients in public or private settings.
As previously stated, a PhD or other doctoral degree is necessary in most states if you wish to apply for your psychology license. Even if it’s not, most employers will require that you hold a license. This involves completing a set number of supervised clinical hours, often in the thousands, and passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) through the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). Many boards also require their own state-specific exam. If you pass all of the necessary tests, you can then apply for licensure through your state board.
PhD vs. PsyD degrees
Another increasingly popular option for a doctoral degree is the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). But what exactly is the difference between a PsyD and PhD?
Introduced in the 1970s as an alternative for students who were less interested in conducting ongoing research, the PsyD degree was designed for those with more of an interest in providing psychological services to patients and the public. Per the APA, “the focus of PsyD programs is to train students to engage in careers that apply specific knowledge of psychology and deliver empirically based service to individuals, groups, and organizations.”
Both of these degrees can prepare you to get your license and work in many of the same roles within clinical psych. However, if you know for certain that you don’t want to conduct research or teach at a graduate level, a PsyD can put a stronger emphasis on client-facing training. Because of a lesser focus on conducting extensive research, PsyD degrees can also often be earned in a shorter period of time.
Who are PhDs in clinical psychology intended for?
PhDs in clinical psych are typically designed for students who’ve already earned their master’s in the same or a related field. These PhDs are made to train students in multiple facets of the field, including applied psychology, research, and teaching. Even if you plan on pursuing a career that doesn’t involve research or teaching, holding a PhD can likely open more doors down the road if you change your mind.
How Long Does It Take to Get a PhD?
In some states, the program you attend must be accredited by the APA if you want to get your license. The APA requires all accredited programs to include at least 3 full-time academic years and a 1-year internship, so the length of your program will always be at least 4 years. Many factors affect the amount of time it takes students to earn a PhD, and some take as long as 8 years to complete their degree.
The PhD in Clinical Psychology Curriculum
Clinical psychology doctoral programs will prepare you to work both hands-on with clients and in research and teaching settings.
What courses are involved?
The courses you take will vary depending on the individual program, however expect to take some variation of the following:
- Theoretical psychology
- Abnormal psychology
- Development psychology
- Ethics in psychology
- Psychological intervention
- Statistics and research
- Scientific writing
Number of course credits
In general, you can expect a PhD program to be at least 70 credits, though this varies widely between schools. Some students might evaluate a program on a cost-per-credit basis.
Within clinical psychology, it’s common for PhD students to tailor their education even further. This involves taking classes that focus on specific concentrations. These may include but aren’t limited to:
Addiction psychology: Focuses on applying principles of psychology to the treatment of drug, alcohol, emotional, or behavioral addictions, with the goal to reduce or stop medical, interpersonal, and other problems that arise from addiction.
Child psychology: Involves understanding the psychological needs of children ranging from infants to adolescents, and how the family and other social contexts affect them in the development of their emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and health adaptation.
Counseling psychology: This more general practice focuses on how people of all ages function in their emotional, social, school, work, and physical lives at different stages, emphasizing the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of both everyday stresses and more severe issues.
Forensic psychology: Involves melding together knowledge of psychology and the law to identify the mental and emotional state of criminals, victims, police officers, and more, and report this analysis in a way that impacts the outcome of legal cases.
Geropsychology: Emphasizes the application of psychology methods to specifically address the mental, medical, and functional changes that occur in later life, with the aim being to help this population achieve and maintain maximum well-being.
Group psychology: Involves working with all kinds of age groups in various different settings to employ the analysis of group dynamics to identify treatment plans that affect the development and well-being of each individual and the group as a whole.
Psychoanalysis: Unique in its intensive approaches to treatment, this concentration aims to make changes to an individual’s personality, bringing about the awareness of unconscious or negative recurring patterns and promoting optimal healing, functioning, and expression.
Rehabilitation psychology: Focuses on addressing disabilities in those who have been ill or injured, helping individuals and groups such as sports teams to overcome their physical obstacles and any mental and emotional issues that may arise because of them.
Sleep psychology: Emphasizes the analysis of normal and disordered sleep in order to address the behavioral, psychological, and physiological factors that impact sleep disorders, as well as develop treatment plans for their negative effects.
Is Fieldwork or a Practicum Required?
Yes. You will take part in a practicum, during which time you’ll begin applying the techniques you’ve learned in class in supervised settings such as mental health centers, hospitals, and universities. This practicum will prepare you for the 1-year clinical internship that’s required of all clinical psychology PhD students. Your internship must be accredited by the APA.
Can You Get a Degree Online?
While it’s certainly possible to earn an online clinical psychology PhD, keep in mind that you’ll still be required to participate in practicums and internships. For this reason, the first few years of your program may be online while the remaining time will largely be in-person.
You may also find a hybrid program that combines both online and on-campus classes. These typically allow you to take most of your courses online while attending in-person classes just 1 or 2 times a week. As with other online programs, you’ll still be expected to undergo practicum and an internship.
How to Pick a Program
Choosing the right program to get your doctorate in clinical psychology can be a daunting experience. While researching schools, ask questions such as:
- Is the program accredited by the APA?
- What’s the class size?
- What’s the graduation rate?
- What are the expectations for the dissertation?
- How many students match with their preferred internship?
- What other projects or experiences are required?
- How well do students do on average on the EPPP?
- What types of positions have recent graduates gone on to have?
- What kind of financial aid is available?
Career Options with a PhD in Clinical Psychology
Clinical psychology is a broader field under which many different careers can fall. Many clinical psychologists work in hospitals, mental health facilities, and private practices, while others work in settings such as schools, court systems, or business organizations. Often, clinical psychologists tailor their degrees to focus on certain problems or patient populations. Some work with specific demographics like children and adolescents, while others treat issues like disorders, addiction, and trauma.
Couple and family psychologist
Working directly with families and couples, these psychologists help both individuals and groups address things such as relationship issues, behavioral problems, trauma and loss, or other aspects that might be negatively affecting the home.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), marriage and family therapists earn an average annual salary of $53,860.
Requirements and certifications
Every state requires marriage and family therapists to be licensed by the Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.Requirements vary by state, but you’ll typically be expected to complete somewhere between 1,500 and 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience after you’ve earned your degree. You will then need to pass the Examination in Marital and Family Therapy in order to get your license. In most states, you must renew your license every few years and undergo a set number of continuing education credits.
Beyond holding your license, board certification can be beneficial—but not necessary—when pursuing high-level careers in psychology. The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) offers a Clinical certification, as well as one for Couples and Family specifically.
Organizational psychologists work with companies to conduct screenings, training sessions, and performance reviews in order to assess employee behavior as well as implement policies and procedures that help these employees best work toward company goals.
The BLS lists the average salary for an organizational psychologist as $102,530 per year, though data for this type of role is rather limited.
Requirements and certifications
An optional Organizational and Business Consulting certification can be obtained through an ABPP specialty board.
School psychologists collaborate with students, teachers, and parents to address issues concerning learning styles, social interactions, and family problems that can impact the level of education a student receives.
According to the BLS, school psychologists working in elementary and secondary schools earn an average annual wage of $77,430.
Requirements and certifications
Additional credentials are not necessary, but the ABPP offers both School and Clinical Child certifications.
Working with law enforcement, criminals, judges, lawyers, and others in the legal field, forensic psychologists put their skills to use to make a positive impact on the justice system. They might examine defendants involved in criminal cases, develop psychological profiles, report findings to judges and lawyers, and serve as an expert witness in court.
The BLS doesn’t list salary data for forensic psychologists specifically, however psychologists across all fields earn an average annual wage of $93,050. Those working with local and state government often earn more.
Requirements and certifications
The ABPP offers an optional certification in Forensic Psychology. Other certifications could be helpful in the field as well. These include Behavior and Cognitive, Counseling, Police and Public Safety, and Psychoanalysis.
Sports psychology is a particularly unique subfield of the industry. Collaborating with athletes, coaches, trainers, they work to keep teams and individuals on the path toward peak performance, physical condition, and mental health.
The BLS doesn’t provide any data for sports psychologists. However, according to Scott Goldman, the director of sports psychology for the University of Arizona, roles within the athletic department of a college can typically expect to earn between $60,000 and $80,000 a year. Sports psychologists working in a rehab facility will likely earn less, while those working with national teams could make significantly more.
Requirements and certification
Again, certification is not necessary, but you can opt to become a Certified Mental Performance Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
Another great way to put your PhD in clinical psychology to work is by pursuing a career as a psychology professor. Working at the postsecondary level, these roles can instruct students on the principles of general psychology or focus on more tailored specializations. Psychology professors often combine teaching with research to produce new knowledge in the field.
According to the BLS, psychology professors earn an average annual wage of $85,050.
Requirements and certifications
You will need to get a teaching certification from your state’s Board of Education. Requirements for this vary, but it typically involves completing an approved teacher preparation, passing a series of exams, and undergoing a background check. Some states require you to renew your license every 2 years, while others allow certification to be valid for up to 5 years.
Financial Aid for PhD Students
According to a study conducted by the APA, in 2016, the median tuition for doctorate programs was as follows:
That said, in many cases, psychology PhD programs will waive a student’s tuition and provide a stipend for assisting with teaching or research. The same study found that 94% of advanced doctorates in public schools and 77% in private schools offer tuition remission for these assistantships. Most schools that don’t fully waive tuition provide at least partial funding.
|Degree Type||Percentage of Schools Offering Remission for Teaching and/or Research|
|Doctoral–Public (First Year)||86% offering81% of aid is full waiver|
|Doctoral–Public (Advanced)||94% offering81% of aid is full waiver|
|Doctoral–Private (First Year)||53% offering69% is aid is full waiver|
|Doctoral–Private (Advanced)||77% offering66% of aid is full waiver|
Fellowships and scholarships are also a great way to fund your education. These financial awards may be short- or long-term and often come with additional stipends and benefits.
|Degree Type||Percentage of Schools Offering Fellowships and/or Scholarships|
|Doctoral–Public (First Year)||72% offering85% of awards are full waiver|
|Doctoral–Public (Advanced)||74% offering83% of awards are full waiver|
|Doctoral–Private (First Year)||77% offering56% of awards are full waiver|
|Doctoral–Private (Advanced)||79% offering57% of awards are full wavier|
Of course, you can always apply for government-issued loans and grants using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Loans are also available through banks and other private institutions, but these tend to have much higher interest rates.
Does Clinical Psychology Qualify for Student Loan Forgiveness?
A number of student loan forgiveness programs are available to psychologists, though you must meet certain criteria. Through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, it’s possible to relieve direct loans if you’ve made at least 10 years of payments and have secured full-time work in a government or nonprofit agency. Additionally, many states also have their own loan forgiveness programs with their own individual requirements.
Professional Organizations for Clinical Psychology
Becoming a member of a professional organization can provide great opportunities to network, gain new education, and obtain special certification. The APA is the largest organization of psychologists in America. Within the association, there are 54 divisions dedicated to subfields and other topical areas. Some of these that you might consider include:
- Society for General Psychology
- Society for Clinical Psychology
- Society of Counseling Psychology
- Society of Addiction Psychology
- Society for Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
- Society for Couple and Family Psychology
- Society for Personality and Social Psychology
- Society for the Psychology of Women
- Society for the Psychology Study of Social Issues
Ready to Get Started?
If you’re ready to pursue a career clinical psychology, you need to hold a doctoral degree to move you up the field. A PhD in clinical psych can not only prepare you to work 1-on-1 with clients, but also help you step into a role involving research and teaching. If a PhD is the right degree for you, use the Find Schools button to explore programs online and in your area.
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