Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Degrees in Psychology

PhDs in Psychology are offered in a variety of specialized fields of study with wide ranges in their area of focus and career intents. Mental health fields include PhD's in clinical or counseling psychology. Applied PhD's include Industrial/Organizational, Human Factors Engineering, Sports performance and Forensic Psychology, among others. Research Psychology PhD's are offered in almost every subfield such as social psychology, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology and experimental psychology. With a PhD in Psychology, all career paths in Psychology are open to you.

As with MA degrees the major dividing line between areas are those of mental health vs. all others. If you want to work in mental health as a practitioner you must attend a program that is APA accredited and will make you eligible for state licensure as a psychologist. If you get a research or other psychology degree and want to switch to mental health later, you will essentially have to start from the beginning as far as a degree goes. Although you will have some overlap in terms of knowledge base, you shouldn't expect to be able to transfer your credits.

Technically (or legally) if you want to call yourself a “psychologist” you must have completed an APA accredited Doctoral program and be licensed by a state. So this track is the only way to actually get this title. If you have a mental health MA you can call yourself a counselor or psychotherapist but not psychologist. The same is true of a research or applied Doctorate; you can say research psychologist or industrial psychologist but not just psychologist.

All Doctoral degrees are research-based degrees. Some program areas may be more focused on applied aspects or mental health practice, but the foundation will still be in research, both theory and practice. This means you should expect a big part of your graduate training to involve research and quantitative skills. This does not mean you need to be interested in becoming a researcher to pursue a PhD, but just be aware that it will be a focus of graduate training.

Typical degree path for a PhD in Psychology

Although the specific content of programs will vary depending on your field of study, there will be a number of similarities in terms of the graduate school process and experience. Most of the material in this section will generally apply to most Doctoral programs. Expect the PhD itself to take 4-7 years and sometimes even longer. In many cases, you'll spend the first 2-3 taking classes in experimental design and statistics, your area of focus, e.g. cognitive or clinical, and a few in other areas of psychology for breadth of knowledge. Along with this course load you will work on individual research projects with a professor. You may also work as a teaching or research assistant. In the later few years you will have less of a course load with a few advanced elective classes and more focus on your specific research area and dissertation (and/or clinical or applied internships in these fields).

You will have at least 2 major milestone evaluation tests before completing and defending your dissertation. Between years 2-3 you will have some type of comprehensive exam usually with a focus on a subarea within your field. This serves as kind of a Master's level attainment of knowledge. The second will be your "oral" exam and will usually be a presentation and defense of the project you will complete as your dissertation. Keep in mind that your Master's level thesis and your PhD level dissertation may be different, but in many cases the thesis leads into the dissertation. Your last few years will be primarily focused on completing your dissertation project along with roles as a research or teaching assistant or perhaps teaching classes more independently.

Why is there such a large range in time to complete the PhD? There are several factors, including the specific area of research and projects chosen, and the variables that go into completing the projects. Although time to complete credits for classes can be a factor, if you fail a class or two you may be asked to leave the program as they are very competitive and slots are limited. The same applies to the major exam components - generally there will be a time line that can vary by a year at most unless you have extenuating circumstances.

Most of the variability in time to complete the degree relates to the time spent completing dissertation research by answering the question you set out to answer. What this means is you cannot simply do some experiments write them up and if they are not perfect or conclusive hope to pass with a C. If some of the initial experiments are ambiguous or have some confounds or problems you will have to redo them and continue to until the project is conclusive and professional in quality.

Completing your research may take a considerable amount of time, it may simply require undergraduate volunteer subjects or it may require other populations or expensive equipment. Sometimes factors will be completely out of your control. If you are perusing a more research-focused track the expectations will be higher and may tend to take more time. But even more clinically-focused programs will still require a professional quality project.

Paying for Graduate School

A very important point to understand is that there are other options to fund your graduate school education besides footing the bill yourself, either immediately or with student loans. It is possible to pay your way through graduate school with teaching or research assistantships that include tuition support. This means your tuition and most fees will be paid and you will earn a small stipend (maybe $15-$20k a year) for your work as an assistant. Typically these assistantships are awarded through your department, but may also be found in other departments or through the university in general.

The availability of this type of support will vary widely among programs and fields. For more academically focused research degrees, assistantships are really the norm. For more clinically focused or applied programs they are less common but opportunities do exist. Some programs will even guarantee funding for at least 5 years as long as you are making satisfactory progress. Programs that offer funding to their students are, not surprisingly, more competitive for admission. If you can complete your degree and start your career with little or no debt your effective earnings will be significantly higher. How students are funded and how you will pay for your degree should be a major point of research in your search for the right program.

Mental Health PhD Degrees (Clinical and Counseling Psychology)

What is the difference between a Master's and Doctoral level mental health degree? There is considerable overlap in terms of what many of these practitioners do; however the primary difference is that those with only a Master's will be more limited in terms of the clients they can treat and the scope of areas they can work in. Those with a Doctorate can do everything a counselor with an MA degree can do plus additional areas and clients. These extra areas for Doctoral practitioners generally include the following:  treating more severe levels of psychosis and disorders, such as schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder; being able to use a greater number of standardized psychological tests and treatment programs; being more involved in clinical research and a more influential role in developing new treatment programs; more opportunities to work in academic teaching and research.

If these additional areas are ones you would like to work in then a Doctorate would be the way to go. If, however, your interests are more directed toward working with people with non-clinical issues (i.e., more of the normal range of psychological function, dealing with various life and psychological issues) than you may not want/need to pursue the extra study for a Doctorate.
Although those with a Doctorate do tend to make higher salaries, it is becoming more difficult to charge higher rates when performing the same job as a MA counselor as insurance companies prefer to pay the lower rate. So, it may become more necessary for a psychologist to focus on areas a MA level counselor cannot in order to continue to make a higher wage.

Although those with a Doctorate do tend to make higher salaries, it is becoming more difficult to charge higher rates when performing the same job as a MA counselor as insurance companies prefer to pay the lower rate. So, it may become more necessary for a psychologist to focus on areas a MA level counselor cannot in order to continue to make a higher wage.

Clinical vs. Counseling Psychology

You will find Doctoral level programs in both clinical and counseling psychology. Both of these fields will lead to similar professional outcomes - i.e., being eligible to become a licensed “psychologist”, practice independently, and be eligible for insurance reimbursement. Also, similar to clinical psychologists, counseling psychologists can work in an academic setting as teachers and researchers. There is also considerable overlap in the type of work in both fields.

The major difference really is that clinical psychologists tend to work with more seriously disturbed populations (dealing with clinical issues), whereas counseling psychology graduates work with healthier, less pathological populations. Counseling psychologists would also be more likely to be trained and work as occupational, vocational or career counselors or similar roles. There are also some theoretical differences in foundations of training and working with clients but these will vary more across programs. The point is that if you are interested in Doctoral level mental health programs you should look into both clinical and counseling programs, unless your primary interest is in studying severe psychological disorders.

An advantage of the Clinical Psychology PhD.

A clinical psychology PhD is the most versatile of all of the psychology degrees, as it will open up the most career paths. With this degree you will have the full spectrum of career focuses available to you. You could choose to focus exclusively on practicing mental health with specialties ranging from severe psychosis to career counseling. You could decide to pursue an academic or clinical research path and focus exclusively on research and/or teaching. You could even pursue an applied research or consulting path and shift your focus to areas that overlap with I/O or forensic psychology. All of these options, and those in between, are within the realm of the clinical psychology PhD credential. Other psychology degree paths do not provide quite the same level of versatility. However, this aspect likely is one factor that makes clinical psychology PhD programs the most competitive for admission.

For doctoral level mental health training and oversight the American Psychological Association (APA) is the primary governing body.

Counseling Psychology -

PhD Degrees in Applied Psychology

The types of applied PhD degrees generally include all the areas included with Master's level study, such as Industrial/Organizational, Human factors engineering, Forensic and other areas. Completing a Doctoral degree will primarily require more extensive research and a bit more in-depth specialization within one area of expertise. There will be overlap in terms of the types of work available to both Master's and PhD holders. The Primary advantage of completing a PhD will be more diverse job options, including greater specialization and more opportunities to hold senior positions in research and consulting organizations. All else being equal, a PhD holder would generally be favored over a lower degree when competing for the same position. If you want to work in academic teaching and research a PhD is typically required.

Programs and jobs in applied psychology are still research-based career tracks. The primary focus will be research and understanding an applied area of human behavior. Areas of focus could include topics such as: factors that influence purchase decisions, job performance or job satisfaction measures, eye witness memory studies. Much of your graduate training and career development will be developing quantitative and research methods skills along with focus in a specialized area of research application.

If your primary interest is using psychology rather than doing research, this doesn't mean you shouldn't look into to an Applied Psychology PhD program. The point is that you need to be aware of how important research is to the PhD training process. Also, while research tends to be the focus of many applied career paths, there will be opportunities that involve more application-oriented work. If this is your interest it will just take a bit more digging to find the best program and area to match what you want.

An important point to realize is that applied psychology is not necessarily a people intensive area of work. Your focus will of course be about people, but your job will be primarily to understand behavior rather than working directly with people intensively. There are exceptions and some jobs in this area may involve more direct people work. Some areas of I/O psychology practice may be more focused on workplace issues like complaint management and dealing with employee issues. But, if your interests and goals are more people contact you may want to consider counseling programs. There are counseling areas that focus on workplace or business counseling.

Particularly true at the PhD level, when evaluating programs, it will be vital to look into what specific areas of research faculty are engaged in.  As a graduate student you will work closely with one or more of these faculty and the areas of research you are interested in pursuing must fit within these areas of interest. Most programs will offer a strong foundation in applied topics and research methods. However, the specific research projects along with whom you work with can make a huge difference in your career development and prospects. So you want to make sure that a program is going to offer a research area that interests you.

Types of areas of research vary widely within applied areas such as I/O. You could do research on personality and work performance, product marketing strategies, workplace safety, computer usability or many other areas. Typically this specific area of research experience will greatly influence your career initially. This experience will both shape your interests and specific experience you can market to employers. A big part of your screening of graduate programs should be the faculty - you are interviewing them (to make sure there's a good fit) as much as they're interviewing you. You will want to ask questions about the types of research they do and the opportunities you will have to work on specific projects.

Relative to other programs, work experience will also be more valued for admission. Some type of internship during the program of study may be encouraged or even required depending on the area of study. Some programs may even be geared toward working professionals who want to expand their expertise in an area they are already working in.

For applied programs it still should be possible to fund one's education with teaching or research assistantships that include tuition support. However, these will not be as widely available as in academic research programs. Programs geared more toward work training in industrial settings may have less self-funding sources and many students will have to come up with their own funding often with loans. However, higher salaries in these specialties can justify this type of financing more so than other tracks.

Research Psychology PhD Degrees

PhD degrees are offered in many subareas of psychology including: Cognitive, Cognitive neuroscience, Developmental, Biological and Neuroscience, Quantitative, Social-Personality, Animal Behavior, Health, Educational, Community, Environmental and other specialty areas. Some programs may offer a general or “experimental psychology” degree but you would still focus on one major subarea of study along with a specific research area.

For many people, the primary purpose of pursuing this degree is to work in an academic teaching and research setting. Opportunities to work outside of these settings and in other fields may be more limited and the degree may not offer many options outside of the specific academic field of study, although this may not always be the case. Some areas of more applied focus such as education or health psychology may have more career options in organizations or with the government.

The “research psychology” degree track will have the most variability in terms of focus of programs and career tracks relative to other degree paths within psychology. This is primarily due to the fact that “research psychology” covers such a wide range of areas of study. If you think you are interested in this career path you will need to carefully consider both individual graduate programs and what career options will be available once you earn the degree.

One advantage in researching this career is that you should have great access to people in this field - professors and graduate students at your university. Take advantage of this fact and ask them about the field. Find out what they like and don't like and get all the advice you can from them.

Pursuing a career as an academic research psychologist can be very rewarding and there are many in the field who truly love what they do. However, to be successful in both career and personal satisfaction, this career path really requires a type of personality and level of interest that is different from other paths in psychology. It will be important to understand the type of person who will enjoy this career and determine whether it is the right fit for you. While all career paths have their negative aspects, the academic track has some peculiarities that are different from other paths. It will be important to understand what these are and how they fit into your career ideals. Of course, this is not the only path within psychology and, as we have discussed, there are many graduate study career paths to choose from.

Pursuing this career requires a great deal of intrinsic motivation, genuine interest, and independent work initiative to really be successful and satisfied. Not that these qualities are not helpful in other careers but they are really at the core of academic researchers.

Pursuing a degree in research psychology begins a career focused on lifelong learning. While all careers require continued professional development a career in academic research is one focused on constantly developing new ideas and expanding scientific knowledge for us all. For many, this can be an incredibly rewarding endeavor. People who pursue and succeed in this area are very passionate about their work and have an intrinsic love for learning and understanding the mind.

As a researcher it will be your job to expand the worlds understanding of human behavior and the brain. Your job is to discover aspects of how our mind works that no one has ever known or understood. You will be constantly discovering something new and be a leader in advancing knowledge and solving problems. Unlike some jobs where your primary goal may be to solve problems for a particular client or company, knowledge you gain as an academic researcher is intended to be shared with the world. This aspect can bring a good deal of personal satisfaction.

If you focus on teaching you will be continually learning and expanding your knowledge within the field. Your purpose will be to understand new findings and ideas and help spread this knowledge to others so that it can advance their understanding of themselves and others and ideally help the world to function better as a society.

Academic teaching and research job tracks.

If you pursue this type of PhD your career track will primarily include these options.

Entry level positions:
Post Doctoral research fellow - Work on specific research projects with a major professor at a university or lab. Generally these will be highly research-focused with some teaching but there are some with more teaching focus. These are considered a kind of apprenticeship position for new PhD's and can range from 1-4 years.

Adjunct teacher - Can range from teaching a single to multiple classes hired on a class by class basis (sometimes you will see full-time adjuncts but usually these are more experienced professors). You will be paid less than a full time professor for the same classes and you will have no expectation of rehire. Usually people who take these positions are working to gain experience or as a second job because they are in need of a second income. Many new PhDs may have to work in this capacity for multiple years before finding full time work.

Visiting professor - This is essentially a more contractual adjunct hired as a full time professor for a 1 or more year contract with no expected potential for permanence or rehire.

Tenure track professor - Considered the ultimate goal for this career track. Tenure track means a full-time job with potential for tenure (permanent faculty) depending on performance after a review period (usually 5-7 years). Pre-tenure appointments are titled as Assistant Professors. Post-tenure titles are Associate Professor, then Full Professor with a promotional review every 5-7 years.

While all career tracks generally involve some teaching and research, ratios can vary greatly depending on the type of jobs one is interested in.

Major research universities or labs - These types of positions are primarily focused on research and attaining grant funding to continue that research. You may still have light teaching duties but the primary metric of evaluation will be research success.
Other 4 year institutions -Positions vary dramatically in balance of research and teaching load. Generally schools with graduate programs have higher research emphasis. Some schools may have a high teaching load/emphasis in terms of evaluating performance with little expectation for research but most 4 year institutions expect some degree of research.

2 year/Community college - High emphasis on teaching and high course load. Faculty  have little to no expectation for research responsibility but often will be expected to expand areas of teaching expertise beyond specialty of training.

As far as career tracks go it is rare for a recent PhD graduate to be offered a full time tenure track position soon after graduation. Most graduates will go on to post-docs, visiting positions or find adjunct teaching work before being offered a tenure track position. You should not be surprised if it takes 10 years from the start of your Doctorate until you land a tenure track job.

Important points about careers in academic research psychology.

Job Requirements
Many undergraduates tend to underestimate the amount of time professors spend at their job. They just see the teaching portion, which is just the tip of the iceberg for most college professors. In addition professors are expected to continually maintain an active research program which involves constantly writing grants in addition to the actual research, keeping current with the field by reading the many journals in their field, collaborating with colleagues, advising students and serving on several university committees are all required as part of their job. Summers are not down time but opportunities to catch up on research work. Even for more teaching-oriented jobs, class loads are higher and research efforts are supplemented with curriculum expansion and additional committee work.

Geographic Flexibility
More than any other career track the academic research and teaching one will require the greatest amount of geographic flexibility. There are very few academic jobs in any given area and fewer still that will be in your area of expertise. If you are not willing to consider jobs in a wide range of locations you are handicapping your career prospects.
Professor positions are advertised and recruited nationally, and even internationally, and you will be competing with everyone even if you live locally. This fact is the truest for major research institutions. For more teaching-focused positions and community colleges you may have more options within one region of interest if you have a broad teaching focus, but full time jobs are especially competitive in highly desirable areas. As a general rule graduate institutions do not hire their recent students for full-time positions. For this reason it is unlikely you will land a full-time academic job at or near the institution where you complete your degree.

Applying to and Researching Programs

When applying to a graduate program you are really applying to work with a specific professor or small group of faculty working in a similar area. Usually they will have to personally sponsor your application based on the fact that you have interests in their area and they feel you are a good student. This means that your interests should be well defined. It will not be enough to say you're interested in cognitive psychology or even attention and memory. You will need to have a good understanding of faculty's specific lines of research and explain why you are interested in working with them. If you end up in the program working with this professor his or her work will be your life for several years, and that work will be the foundation of your career - so it better be something that genuinely interests you.

A good source of information in refining your interests can come from researching faculty in PhD programs and how they describe their work and interests in their web pages or other material. It will be important to do much more research into program characteristics and faculty if you want to pursue this type of degree compared to any of the other areas within psychology.

Next Steps

Now that you know all about the PhD. in psychology, what should you do next? Here are the three most appropriate next steps: