Doctoral degrees in psychology: How are they different, or not so different?

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).

Re posted with permission from American Psychological Association’s Psychology Student Network.

Interested in additional resources on getting into graduate school? Click here.

According to the most recent Graduate Study in Psychology data from 2013-2014, 94 percent of participating PhD programs were housed in university colleges of arts and sciences or education. Participating PhD programs housed within nonspecified or indeterminate institutional locations were excluded from analysis.
According to the most recent Graduate Study in Psychology data from 2013-2014, 72 percent of participating PsyD programs were housed within professional schools of psychology (university-based or free-standing) or in medical/health science institutions. Participating PsyD programs housed within non-specified or indeterminate institutional locations were excluded from analysis.
The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards offers comprehensive resources pertaining to psychology licensure regulations and examination requirements.

Are you an applicant interested in graduate study in psychology? PSYCAS is an online centralized application portal for students applying to graduate-level (master’s and doctoral) programs across the discipline of psychology—from health service provider programs to research programs to other professional graduate degree programs. Learn about how PSYCAS can streamline the process for you.

About the Author

Daniel Michalski, PhD
Daniel’s diverse experiences as a workforce/pipeline researcher and accreditation policy analyst uniquely position him to share his perspectives on psychology education and training. Having presented at regional and national conferences, as well as at invited lectures, Daniel intends to contribute regularly to this blog and participate in an ongoing conversation about the leading issues within the discipline and profession. He earned his Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, a Master of Public Administration from the University of Colorado Denver, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Economics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When not satisfying his hedonistic professional and academic curiosities, Daniel is happiest in the bright sun; either a Florida beach or a Colorado ski slope.
Garth A. Fowler, PhD
Garth directs the APA’s efforts in producing resources and information to help psychology graduate students, postdoctoral trainees, and those that teach them, improve their training and career success. Before coming to APA Garth was a faculty member and Assistant Chair in the Department of Neurobiology, where he managed the departmental office staff, advised students, taught courses for undergraduate, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, and was the director of the MS Program in Neurobiology. His first job after finishing his postdoc was the Outreach Program Manager for Science Careers, the online career resources for Science magazine & AAAS. When not reading about educational policy and best practices, he enjoys traveling, running through the city, and cycling with his friends. Garth has a B.A. in Psychology from the College of Wooster, a Ph.D. in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of Washington – Seattle, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute in San Diego, CA.

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