Earning your doctorate degree in psychology (Types & requirements)
Key facts about doctorate degrees in psychology
Degree Type:PhD, PsyD, EdD
Location:Online, classroom and hybrid
Total Credits:Usually 90-140 credits
Aid Eligible:Yes, for accredited programs
Psychologists are highly trained mental health professionals that help people identify and cope with various mental health and behavioral challenges. The American Psychological Association (APA) estimates that there are about 106,000 practicing psychologists in the United States.
Most of these psychologists have a doctorate degree in psychology. With as many branches and specializations in psychology as there are, it’s no wonder that there are several different kinds of doctoral degrees in psychology out there. There are three main types:
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology: The most common type of doctoral level program in psychology in which students generate new knowledge through research and/or teaching in academia.
Doctor of Psychology (PsyD): Another doctoral degree in psychology that is similar to a PhD but with a few differences, primarily that students are focused more on real-world applications rather than research or teaching.
Doctor of Education (EdD) in Psychology: A doctoral degree awarded by a school’s department or college of education. An EdD in psychology studies the intersection of the fields of education and psychology.
Who are doctoral degrees in psychology for?
At their most basic level, doctoral degrees are meant most often for people who want to become licensed psychologists. Psychologists must be licensed, and although licensing requirements vary by state, most states require that you hold a doctoral degree in psychology to qualify.
The question of which specific degree is intended for whom depends on someone’s particular career goals. PhD degree programs, for example, focus more on research and teaching in academia. Therefore, these degrees may be better suited for people who want to conduct studies to make new discoveries in the field or who want to teach.
Since PsyD programs prepare students to apply their knowledge out in the world, these programs may be best for those who want to actually practice psychology in a clinical, forensic or some other capacity. EdD degrees explore the fields of psychology and education in tandem and therefore may be best for professionals who want to work as school psychologists or in education.
Even with their general differences, it’s important to thoroughly research individual programs to find out more about what you’ll learn and who they’re for. Their general distinctions are not absolute—plenty of practicing psychologists have PhD or EdD degrees, for example, and students in PsyD programs still conduct some research, too. After all, not all doctoral programs are created uniformly.
How much do people with a doctorate degree in psychology make?
If you examine the salaries of psychologists, you can get a pretty accurate idea of how much money people with doctoral degrees in psychology make. That’s because you need a doctoral degree to practice psychology in most places.
According to the 2022 Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for clinical and counseling psychologists is $90,130. The lowest 10% of this category earn $42,760, and the highest 10% can earn $168,790.
These psychologists only make up about one-third of the overall workforce of psychologists, which also includes school psychologists, industrial-organizational psychologists and a miscellaneous category called “Psychologists, all other.” School psychologists have a lower median annual wage, while industrial-organizational psychologists and psychologists in the “all other” category have higher median annual wages.
Is a doctorate degree in psychology right for you?
Determining if a doctorate degree in psychology is right for you comes down to your particular career intentions. The same can be said when trying to determine which type of doctoral degree is best for you. Consider the following:
- Do you want to be a psychologist?
- Do you want to work in a clinical mental health role?
- Do you want to teach at the collegiate level and/or work in academia?
- Do you want to conduct research in the field of psychology?
If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you may want to consider earning a doctoral degree in psychology.
Is a doctorate in psychology worth it?
If you intend to work as a licensed psychologist in any capacity, a doctoral degree is not only worth it but quite likely a necessity. That’s because most states require psychologists to have a doctoral degree in order to qualify for licensure.
If being a practicing psychologist is not your intention, however, there are still merits to a earning a doctoral degree that are worth considering. EdD degrees, for example, can also be an excellent degree for someone who wants to work at a high level in the field of education, either as an administrator and leader of policy change or as a professor at the college level.
A doctoral degree in psychology can also be a way for other professionals such as counselors, therapists or even social workers to simply expand their knowledge and skills and go above and beyond as a mental health professional.
How to pick the right program for you
Choosing the doctorate program that’s right for you comes down to several factors. These are a starting point to help narrow in on the kinds of programs you might seriously consider. It may also be worthwhile to chat with academic advisers for specific programs who can give you guidance on whether their program is best for you.
At minimum, any school and program you attend must be accredited by an appropriate accrediting body. In addition, the American Psychological Association (APA) accredits doctoral programs in psychology. Although it’s not always required for licensure, programs accredited by the APA can make obtaining a psychologist license easier.
Do you want to be a practicing psychologist? Which populations might you want to work with? Do you want to participate in research and breaking new ground? Do you want to be a postsecondary teacher? Do you want to work in schools? These kinds of questions may help you decide which type of doctoral degree—PhD, PsyD or EdD—is best for you.
A doctoral program can be a hefty financial investment. You’ll need to figure out how much you can afford to pay for your education to determine which programs are financially feasible for you. Luckily, there are numerous financial aid resources out there for doctoral students to fund their education.
Doctoral degrees in psychology are offered in-person, online or in a hybrid learning format. If you desire more flexibility to study from home, a hybrid or online program may be better for you. If you thrive with more face-to-face interactions with your instructors and peers, a traditional in-person program may be more your style. If the program is accredited by the APA, it does not matter from a professional standpoint whether that program was online, in-person or both.
Keep in mind that even online programs require an in-person internship at some point.
Doctoral programs in psychology always include some kind of internship, fieldwork, practicum or other supervised experience(s) as part of their curriculum. What that experience consists of can vary program to program, but it allows students to apply their knowledge in real world settings under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. These can last a year or more and are typically several thousands of hours.
What if your bachelor’s or master’s isn’t in psychology?
Not all doctoral psychology programs require that you have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology specifically. Although this certainly can make admission easier, these programs may simply require that you’ve completed a certain amount of relevant coursework in psychology to be considered for admission.
Academic requirements before embarking on a doctorate in psychology
Although each program’s admission requirements can vary, you can generally expect a doctorate degree in psychology to require the following in order to apply:
|Minimum education level||Most programs require that applicants have a bachelor’s degree and/or have completed necessary coursework in psychology and related subjects. Some may require a master’s degree, but this is less common.|
|Writing sample or personal statement||Doctoral programs usually request one or several writing samples, typically in the form of a personal essay.|
|Minimum GPA||Most programs require or recommend that you have a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0 from any previous undergraduate or graduate coursework.|
|Standardized tests||Some schools require that students submit scores from the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) in order to be admitted to the school before the student can apply to an individual graduate program.|
|Letters of recommendation||Most doctoral programs require 2-3 letters of recommendation from former professors and/or professional colleagues.|
|Additional materials||Applicants may be asked to submit a resume/curriculum vitae (CV) with their application.|
Applicants whose first language is not English may need to submit satisfactory scores from an English language proficiency examination.
Earning your doctoral degree in psychology
What it takes to complete this degree
Number of required credits: This varies between programs, but most doctoral programs in psychology require between 90-140 credits to graduate. Some programs may allow you to transfer/apply credits from another doctoral degree that you’ve started elsewhere. If you already have a master’s degree in psychology, some programs may allow you to have advanced entry into their doctoral program, meaning you don’t have to take some of the classes you normally would at the beginning of the program and so you get a “head start” on your degree.
Typical length of program: Doctoral programs usually take between four and eight years to complete. The number of credits required by the program, their internship requirements and whether you already have advanced entry into a program can all affect the length of the program.
Culminating project: Doctoral psychology programs require one or more culminating project(s), typically in the form of a research paper, thesis and/or dissertation. This project is usually presented and submitted for publication. It is usually completed near the end of the degree program but prior to the doctoral internship.
Internships and practicums: Practicum and internship experiences are an essential part of doctoral psychology programs. These are both real-world, supervised experiences where the student practices their skills directly with clients. The practicum is typically completed first, and students are usually in a more passive role observing other professionals. The internship is often the final part of the doctoral psychology degree and is a full-time role which takes several thousands of hours to complete. Students have more agency and responsibility to put their skills to the test, whether that be in a school, mental health clinic, hospital or other setting, depending on the student’s specialization and career interests.
What you’ll study
Every school’s curriculum is going to be slightly unique, especially when you consider the different types of doctoral degrees in psych as well as any concentrations you may choose to study. As described in the APA’s policies on accreditation, these are the four domains of discipline-specific knowledge that students are meant to gain from an accredited doctoral psychology program:
Can I get my doctorate in psychology online?
Yes, many schools offer doctorate degrees online. Keep in mind, however, that most doctoral programs require field-based experience to graduate. This typically means you must work on-site directly with others, so you can’t complete a doctorate degree in psychology entirely from your own home.
State requirements for licensure and certification
Psychologists must be licensed in every state to practice, but the requirements for licensure differ from state to state. In most places, a doctoral degree in psychology is considered the minimum education level needed to qualify for licensure.
In addition to education, most states require prospective psychologists to have several thousand hours of supervised experience and pass an exam to earn their license.
What can you do with a doctorate in psychology?
Most psychology degrees offer the chance to specialize in a certain area of practice. A specialization or concentration allows you to learn the specific knowledge and skills pertaining to a particular psychological domain. In some cases, this may be necessary to get a particular psychologist license.
Abnormal psychology focuses on psychological abnormalities and dysfunctional behaviors. Classes cover the causes, possible diagnoses, treatments and tools available for patients.
Example Careers: Clinical psychologist, psychiatric technician, mental health counselor
Clinical psychology examines a wide range of mental and behavioral health issues. Classes in a clinical psychology degree teach students how to diagnose and treat these issues in a clinical mental health setting.
Example careers: Clinical psychologist, neuropsychologist, pediatric psychologist, behavioral medicine specialist
Developmental psychology covers the changes in human development over the lifespan. You’ll study the various physical, cognitive, social, personality and emotional changes that occur at all ages in a developmental psychology degree.
Example careers: Developmental psychologist, research professor, child and adolescent psychologist
This branch of psychology studies the cognitive process of learning itself and how learning occurs on a large scale—for example, by analyzing the academic performance of an entire school, district or community.
Example careers: Educational psychologist, school superintendent, teaching and learning specialist
In a forensic psychology degree, you’ll study how psychology and the legal system intersect. In addition to advanced topics in psychology, you’ll take criminal justice courses and learn how forensic psychologists help address legal concerns in civil or criminal proceedings.
Example careers: Forensic psychologist, criminal psychologist
Health psychology takes a finer look at how behavior impacts our physical health, how patients handle illness, how people can foster healthier habits and more. Health psychologists are essential in many clinical settings and as researchers.
Example careers: Health psychologist, social worker, human services manager, research professor
Industrial-organizational (I/O) psychology
Industrial-organizational psychology studies the application of psychological principles to the workplace. Degrees in this area include courses about assessment and training, performance evaluation and feedback, motivation and more.
Example careers: Industrial-organizational psychologist, human resources director, career counselor
Neuropsychology is the study of behavior, emotion and cognition and their relationship to the brain, especially when a brain injury, disease or disability come into play. Classes teach students how to assess and treat patients with various neurological conditions.
Example careers: Neuropsychologist, rehabilitation counselor, research professor
Being a psychology professor is not an academic concentration, but teaching itself can be a personal focus in your professional life. A doctoral degree in psychology allows you to teach at the postsecondary level.
Example careers: Psychology professor, department chair, dean, lecturer
Research psychology is also not an actual named specialty, but you can choose to focus on research as a psychologist if you want to generate new knowledge in the field by conducting studies, writing research papers and more.
Example careers: Research professor, research coordinator
In studying school psychology, you learn how to support the mental and behavioral health challenges in students as it pertains to their development, both academic and otherwise. Some example topics you’ll learn in classes include family-school collaborative service, diversity in development and learning, school-wide practices to promote learning and more.
Example careers: School psychologist, school counselor, academic counselor
Sports psychologists study the psychological effects of sport on athletes as well as how to help them psychologically prepare for competition. You’ll take courses on exercise and health psychology, counseling athletes, psychological aspects of sports injuries and more.
Example careers: Sports psychologist, athletic trainer, rehabilitation counselor, sports nutritionist, coach
The journey to earning a psychology doctorate
Before you can even begin to apply for a doctoral degree program in psychology, you need a solid baccalaureate education under your belt. Ideally your bachelor’s degree should be in psychology or a closely related field, otherwise you may have to take additional classes to satisfy the prerequisites for a doctoral program. You’ll also need to determine how to finance your education—luckily, doctoral programs have a lot of options to make your degree affordable.
Financial aid, scholarships and other resources
The APA has compiled an exhaustive collection of resources on how to pay for your graduate education. Some of these resources include how to calculate the cost of graduate school, how and where to find federal aid, grants, scholarships and other funding sources, how to repay your loans and other financial wellness tools to help you create and stick to a budget.
Degrees below a doctorate in psychology
Time to complete: About two years
Sample jobs: Social and human service assistant, community health worker, psychiatric aide
An associate degree in psychology can be a great first step on the way to earning a bachelor’s degree, but it can also prepare you for numerous jobs on its own. In an associate degree program, you’ll learn the foundational concepts and history of psychology. This can pave the way for many entry-level social service positions that don’t require a license to practice.
Median annual salary for social and human service assistants: $38,520
Time to complete: About four years
Sample jobs: Social and community service manager, human resources specialist or manager, health educator, career counselor
With psychology being so applicable to numerous fields and industries, the career possibilities are practically endless for a bachelor’s degree in psychology. A bachelor’s degree is also necessary if you wish to pursue a graduate degree later on. These degrees cover the basics of psychology and allow you to take elective classes to learn about special topics. In a bachelor’s degree, you are also expected to take a wide range of courses in different subjects.
Median annual salary for social and community service managers: $74,240
Time to complete: Two to three years
Sample jobs: Marriage and family therapist, mental health counselor, substance abuse counselor, social worker
Master’s degrees in psychology, such as ones that have a focus on mental health counseling, are often necessary to become a therapist or other licensed mental health professional. They explore more advanced psychological subjects and usually include a research project or paper. They often also include a practicum or internship completed in a real-world setting.
Median annual salary for marriage and family therapists: $56,570
Related doctoral-level degrees
If you’re still not sure if a doctoral degree in psychology is what you need for your particular career goals, consider these other doctoral degrees that may be tailored more for the types of roles you wish to hold.
Doctorate in counseling
A doctorate degree in counseling and a doctorate degree in psychology have a lot of overlap. In fact, it may be difficult to distinguish much of a difference just by looking at their curriculums. To make matters even more complicated, there are also doctorate degrees in counseling psychology.
So, what’s the difference? For one, doctoral psychology programs are accredited by the APA, whereas counseling programs are accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Psychology programs tend to have a broader curricular focus that can be applied to numerous specialties within psychology.
Counseling programs, however, focus on the counseling experience and preparing students to become advanced mental health practitioners. From a licensure standpoint, psychology programs make more sense if you want to be a licensed psychologist. That being said, you may still earn your psychology license with a CACREP accredited degree, but your education may require more scrutiny from the licensing boards.
Doctorate in human services
Doctorate degrees in human services are all about addressing peoples’ fundamental needs on a community, society and global level. They prepare students for leadership roles in nonprofit organizations or health and social services. This differs from doctorate degrees in psychology which, when compared to human services degrees, look more closely at the individual’s psyche.
Doctorate in social work
Psychologists and social workers are both highly trained mental health professionals. There may be a lot of overlap in what they know, but they are educated differently. Social workers place an emphasis on connecting clients with a range of health and social services to address a client’s circumstances more holistically. To become a social worker in most states, you need at least a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.
A Doctor of Social Work (DSW) or PhD in social work are meant for social workers who want to devote themselves to research in the field, teach in academia, work in leadership positions or work on public policy change. For the sake of licensure, degrees in psychology and social work cannot be used to obtain a license in the opposing field.
Professional associations to join along the way
Joining a professional association provides members with a host of benefits to help develop their professional identity. Although becoming a member at these organizations is not mandatory, the payoff can be substantial. Benefits often include free trainings and continuing education classes, networking opportunities, discounts, liability insurance, access to scientific journals and more. You may want to consider joining any one of these organizations at some point in your professional journey:
- American Psychological Association (APA)
- Association for Psychological Science (APS)
- Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP)
- Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP)
- National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
- International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychologists (IACFP)
Ready to get started?
Getting a doctorate degree in psychology can be a huge undertaking, but it’s one that could pay off enormously in your professional life and propel you into a rewarding career as a psychologist.
You don’t necessarily need multiple degrees in psychology to get started, either—many programs simply require that you’ve completed a certain number of college courses in psychology to qualify. Start by researching programs today and determining which factors are most important to you, such as internship experiences, curriculum, concentrations and more.