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Clinical Psychology Degrees: What You’ll Study

Here’s what your school program will look like when you decide to earn a clinical psychology degree.

clinical psychology instructor conducting training course
clinical psychology instructor conducting training course

There are many career opportunities in clinical psychology, and depending on the specific field you want to go into, there are different degree options…and requirements.

Keep reading to learn about which degrees are required for which specialties.

As you move up through your education, from bachelor’s through advanced degrees, you’ll find more career opportunities open to you.

What degree levels are available?

Earning a four-year undergraduate degree sets your career as a clinical psychologist in motion. Then, you’ll need to complete a master’s degree and internship/supervised work in order to become a practicing clinician. Many clinical psychologists choose to continue with their education and earn a doctoral degree as well, which can be a PhD or a PsyD. We’ll talk more about the differences between them, and how they can further your career, in the doctoral degrees section.

Bachelor’s Degree Programs

Most bachelor’s degree programs in psychology include a combination of science and liberal arts courses. You’ll typically be ready to take psychology electives by your junior year.

Junior year is also the ideal time to start making graduate school plans if you’re confident this is the field for you. As long as you complete the basic electives in psychology, you don’t necessarily need to have a BS or BA in psychology to be accepted into a graduate program in clinical psychology. However, you should confirm this with the graduate programs you plan on applying to.

As an example of a typical course load, University of Phoenix offers the following Bachelor of Science in Psychology with both lecture and lab courses.

Examples of Core Courses

  • General Psychology: Students are introduced to the major topics in scientific psychology as applied to human behavior.
  • History and Systems of Psychology: The modern era of psychology and its use are discussed. Structuralism, functionalism, Gestalt, behaviorism, psychoanalysis and phenomenological/existential approaches are covered in class.
  • Statistical Reasoning in Psychology: Introductory course in applied statistics, with an emphasis in psychology. Both descriptive and inferential statistics are included.
  • Biological Foundations of Psychology: Exposes you to the underlying physiological mechanisms of behavior. It explores the relationship between our biological systems and behavior.
  • Life Span Human Development: Emphasis is given to personality, social, intellectual, and physical development, and the major theories used to describe how people change throughout their life span.
  • Theories of Personality: Students will learn about the field of personality from a scientific perspective, examining the general approaches to understanding personality.
  • Abnormal Psychology: Addresses the frequency of abnormal behavior of various types; how abnormal behaviors are classified into various diagnostic categories; the etiologies (causes) of psychological disorders; and the treatment methods used for abnormal behavior.
  • Psychological Tests and Measurements: Basic principles, research, and theories on testing and measurement of psychological constructs are covered in this class.
  • Elements of Clinical Psychology: This course is intended to provide the beginning psychology student with an overview of the theory and practice of clinical and counseling psychology. The course includes reference to major theories of personality, assessment, and psychotherapy.

You may also be required to conduct a thesis project on a selected topic in your senior year. Some schools call this a Capstone Course, which creates an integrative project that combines the cumulative learning of their 4-year program into a “senior project.”

Master’s Clinical Psychology Programs

Course work at the master’s level often includes study in ethics, assessment and program evaluation, as well as personality-related topics. Some of the popular types of online and campus-based master’s degrees in clinical psychology include:

  • Master of Arts (MA) in Clinical Psychology
  • Master of Science (MS) in Clinical Psychology—Thesis track
  • Master of Science (MS) in Clinical Psychology—Clinical practitioner track
  • Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology—Marriage and family therapy emphasis
  • Master of Science (MS) in Psychology

Using Capella University as our resource, the following areas of specialty in the field of psychology are examples of what’s available in the master’s track:

  • Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Child and Adolescent Development
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Counseling Psychology
  • Educational Psychology
  • Evaluation, Research, and Measurement
  • General Psychology
  • Industrial-Organizational Psychology
  • Leadership Coaching Psychology
  • School Psychology
  • Sports Psychology

Doctoral Programs

Some doctoral programs require applicants to have a master’s degree in psychology. More often, students can enter a doctoral program with a bachelor’s degree and work directly toward a doctorate. Earning a doctoral degree typically requires at least 4 years, with the average time being closer to 7 years of study (2–3 years for your master’s degree and 4–5 years for your doctorate) after the bachelor’s degree. It’s definitely a commitment. Doctoral studies include:

  • Completing in-depth coursework in the core areas of psychology
  • Working with a professor to learn how to do research
  • Studying how psychological research is applied to real-life situations

Once you’ve completed your coursework, you must pass a comprehensive exam and write and defend a dissertation, which is a long, formal essay on a particular psychology subject or other scholarly project. To become a professional clinical psychologist, you’ll also need to complete a 1-year internship in your area of practice.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there is a shortage of quality internships for doctoral students in accredited psychology school programs. Such sites as the APA and the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internships Center strive to match qualified students with internship programs, and provide resources to help students find hospitals, centers and organizations in which they may serve a 1-year internship.

PhD vs. PsyD

Some psychology schools offer a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree in lieu of the traditional research doctoral degree, the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). People with a PsyD may pursue leadership, consulting, research, program administration or higher education faculty positions.

Students enrolled in typical PhD programs are generally expected to complete a master’s degree research project as well as their doctoral dissertation, while PsyD students focus on actual clinical training.

What certification will I need to practice clinical psychology?

In most states, practicing psychology requires licensure or certification. In all states and the District of Columbia, psychologists who practice independently must be licensed. Licensing laws vary by state and type of position.

Most clinical and counseling psychologists need a doctorate in psychology, an internship, at least 1 to 2 years of professional experience, and to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Information on specific requirements by state can be found from the Association of State and Provincial Licensing Boards. In many states, licensed psychologists must complete continuing education courses to keep their licenses.

The American Board of Professional Psychology awards specialty certification in 13 areas of psychology, such as clinical health, couple and family, psychoanalysis, or rehabilitation. Although board certification is not required for most psychologists, it can demonstrate professional expertise in a specialty area. Some hospitals and clinics do require certification. In those cases, candidates must have a doctoral degree in psychology, state license or certification, and any additional criteria of the specialty field.

What will I learn in my courses?

The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends the following 10 high-level education goals for undergraduates:

  • Knowledge base of psychology
  • Research methods
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Application of psychology
  • Values and ethical behavior
  • Computer skills
  • Communication skills
  • Cultural diversity awareness
  • Personal development
  • Career planning and development skills

How long will it take?

Depending upon your level of dedication, a clinical psychology major can take the following time to complete:

  • Master’s degree programs generally require one to two years
  • Doctoral degree programs take approximately five to seven years to complete
  • Some doctoral programs require a one year internship

Are online programs available?

Online programs for clinical psychologists are available for certain types of coursework. Generally, to complete a bachelor’s degree programs, internships and approximately 1,800 clinically supervised hours are required. Because of these requirements, you may not be able to complete clinical psychology postgraduate degree programs online only.

How much will my education cost?

Several factors will influence the cost of your education.

The cost of a bachelor’s degree in psychology will vary depending upon the type of institution you attend. According to College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2017-2018, the average annual cost* for a four-year, public institution runs around $9,970 for in-state tuition and $25,620 for out-of-state tuition.

The average annual cost for a four-year private non-profit school is $34,740 and $16,000 for a private for-profit school.

Master’s degree program tuition at in-state public institutions costs an average of $8,670 per year, and doctorate program tuition costs $10,830 per year at in-state public institutions.

Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or an online program.

*Cost of tuition only. Prices do not reflect other fees, books, room and board

As a point of comparison, the following tuition costs to obtain a postgraduate psychology degree summarize the findings of the Graduate Study in Psychology performed by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Estimated annual tuition costs to earn a master’s degree or a doctorate:

  • In-state public school, resident: Master’s – $8,670; Doctorate – $10,830
  • In-state public school, non-resident: Master’s – $18,046; Doctorate – $21,606
  • Private School: Master’s – $29,960; Doctorate – $42,920

Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program.

Are there prerequisites?

Undergraduate: A strong college preparatory high school education is a good start for your clinical psychology degree program. Courses in science, math, English, history, social studies, and a foreign language are important. Science and math are especially critical because they provide the necessary skills for research and analysis in college psychology courses.

Graduate: A completed, four-year bachelor’s degree in psychology, education or another field will prepare you for graduate school. Any electives you’ve taken in psychology and/or education will be valuable in your graduate work.

What accreditation is there for my program?

Accreditation shows that an institution or program meets standards of quality set forth by an accrediting agency, and that it is committed not only to meet those standards but to continuously seek ways in which to improve the quality of education and training provided.

Increasingly, employers and health services reimbursement companies require that the psychologists they employ or reimburse be graduates of accredited programs in professional psychology.

There are two types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized. The American Psychological Association is a specialized/professional accreditor. Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges, such as The Higher Learning Commission. Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates.

Attending an accredited school may allow you to apply for financial aid, whether the school you select is a traditional classroom or online program.