Doctoral degrees in psychology offer individuals preparation to conduct scientific research, professional practice or both. Most individuals receive either the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. Although each of these degrees is designed to engage students in deep knowledge and skills within a subfield of psychology, there are substantial differences in the type of training and career plans of individuals with these degrees. Finding the best-fitting program for an individual student begins with understanding these differences.
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
The PhD is the most common degree conferred in psychology and is generally offered at either private or public research universities.1 PhD degrees are intended for students interested in generating new knowledge through scientific research (i.e., setting up experiments, collecting data, applying statistical and analytical techniques) 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. Students enrolling in PhD programs may also be interested in pursuing professional careers in applied work — such as health services, counseling in school settings and consulting in businesses and organizations in addition to research and academic work.
Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)
The PsyD degree came into existence in the 1970s as an alternative to the PhD for those more interested in providing psychological services than conducting disciplinary research. The PsyD degree is generally offered in professional schools of psychology — either affiliated with research or teaching universities or housed in a free-standing graduate school.2 The focus of PsyD programs is to train students to engage in careers that apply scientific knowledge of psychology and deliver empirically based service to individuals, groups and organizations. Most programs require students to write a thesis or dissertation, and students may use quantitative or qualitative methodologies to demonstrate how psychological research is applied to human behavior.
Both PsyD and PhD programs can prepare students to be licensed psychologists, and training in these types of programs prepares graduates to take state licensing exams (licenses are awarded by individual states, not graduate programs).3 Many states require graduates to have attended accredited graduate programs to ensure that all students have minimum training and competency necessary for treating patients and serving clients. APA accredits doctoral programs in clinical, counseling and school psychology, and you can find a list of these programs on the APA Office of Program Consultation and Accreditation website.
When you’re gathering information about particular programs, it is important you understand what training and education the program provides so you are aware of what skills and abilities you will acquire and how those prepare you for a career after you get your doctorate. There is no “best” doctoral degree in psychology: There are, however, “best-fits” for your academic and professional goals. Please visit the Office of Graduate and Postgraduate Education and Training website for more resources on graduate study in psychology. The APA Office of Program Consultation also provides further details on the distinctions between PhD and PsyD degrees in its Standards of Accreditation for Health Service Psychology (PDF, 222KB).