Comparing Psy.D. vs. Ph.D. Programs

| Staff Writers

Candidates seeking a doctoral degree in psychology can pursue a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) or a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.). The differences between the two degrees center on career goals — research and teaching versus clinical work — and completion times.

Following a scientist-practitioner model, Ph.D. programs prepare students for positions as professors and researchers. To graduate, students must pass a comprehensive final examination and write a dissertation based on original research. Ph.D. programs typically take 5-7 years to complete, and candidates working as teaching or research assistants usually receive a stipend and paid tuition.

Psy.D. students train to become clinical psychologists, and the Psy.D. curriculum focuses on practical experience. Program timeframes span 4-6 years and culminate with an examination. Psy.D. students also complete a one-year internship in a counseling, clinical, educational, or healthcare facility. Psy.D. students rarely receive funding.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do I need an undergraduate degree in psychology to apply to a Psy.D. or Ph.D. program?

    Most Psy.D. or Ph.D. programs do not require an undergraduate degree in psychology, but admissions committees often prefer applicants to hold them. Candidates without psychology degrees should obtain a degree in a closely related field, such as social work, neuroscience, or biology, with a background in statistics and the sciences.

  • What doctoral degree do I need to be a therapist?

    While Ph.D. candidates prepare to become therapists, they focus more on research and theory, complete a dissertation, and take longer to earn a degree. Pursuing a Psy.D. may be the more direct path, as it prepares graduates for counseling and therapy roles, requires less time, and provides practical experience.

  • What is the most common doctoral degree in psychology?

    According to a 2018 American Psychological Association (APA) study, the highest number of candidates applied to doctoral programs in clinical psychology. While the Ph.D. has traditionally been the most common doctorate, the APA report states that only 13% of Ph.D. applicants are accepted into a program, compared to 40% of Psy.D. applicants.

  • How much can you make with a Psy.D. vs. a Ph.D.?

    A 2017 APA workforce study reports that psychologists with a Ph.D. earned higher median salaries than those with a Psy.D. Ph.D. graduates earned $85,000 a year, while Psy.D. graduates made $75,000 annually. The highest-paid psychologists held research positions, with those working in postsecondary education making $98,500 and private sector researchers earning $130,000.

  • Can someone with a Psy.D. diagnose and prescribe medicine?

    While most states do not allow Psy.D. professionals to prescribe medication, they may diagnose patients and provide therapy in all states. Only psychologists in New Mexico, Louisiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Idaho hold prescriptive authority. In other states, medically-trained mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists and nurse practitioners, can prescribe medication.

Educational Difference Between a Psy.D. and a Ph.D.

The following sections outline the differences between a Psy.D. vs. Ph.D., including curriculum, admissions, and program length. Candidates choosing between a Psy.D. vs. Ph.D. must define their career goals and understand the distinctions from each degree. Those drawn to research and teaching roles may benefit more from a Ph.D., while aspiring clinical psychologists should consider pursuing a Psy.D.

Curriculum Differences

A Psy.D curriculum focuses on human behavior among individuals and groups, emotional development throughout the lifespan, and clinical practice standards. The program may include courses in advanced psychotherapy, ethics for psychologists, lifespan development, personality assessment, and psychological measurements.

Ph.D. programs emphasize research, theory, and statistics. Coursework often covers topics in multicultural psychology, psychological tests and measures, psychology of personality, qualitative research methods, and quantitative research methods.

Another key difference between the degrees lies in the dissertation requirement, which is often omitted from Psy.D. programs entirely. Ph.D. students spend considerable time formulating original research topics, gathering data, and writing, presenting, and defending their dissertation. In contrast, Psy.D. students typically engage in practical workplace training.

Candidates should understand the distinctions between the two doctoral degrees, especially when completing prerequisite coursework, selecting appropriate schools and programs, and gauging their chances of admission.

Admission Differences

Applicants should also understand the similarities and differences between Ph.D. and Psy.D. program admission requirements and procedures. Common requirements for both include a master’s degree, letters of recommendation, resumes, admissions essays, and interviews.

Differences may include minimum GPA requirements — typically 2.7-3.0 for Psy.D. admission and 3.0-3.5 for Ph.D. programs. Another potential distinction involves standardized testing. Unlike Psy.D. applicants, Ph.D. candidates are virtually always required to provide their GRE scores.

Prerequisite coursework topics may also diverge. Ph.D. applicants should ensure that classes in basic psychology principles, research and scientific methods, and statistics appear on their transcripts. Psy.D. preparation should include courses like general psychology, learning and cognitive theory, psychopathology, and social psychology.

Regardless of which degree students choose, the program must hold accreditation from the APA Commission on Accreditation. Accreditation is an important component for obtaining licensing and securing employment. Ph.D. programs may also hold Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System credentials.

Program Length Differences

Psy.D. programs generally take less time to complete than Ph.D. programs. Students graduate with a Psy.D. in 4-6 years, while earning a Ph.D. can take a minimum of five years, or as many as eight.

Factors influencing graduation timelines include internships and dissertations or doctoral projects. Psy.D. students spend at least one year gaining practical clinical experience through an internship. Ph.D. students may also participate in an internship, along with teaching or research assistantships. All students should ensure that their internships hold APA accreditation.

Ph.D. students must write and defend a dissertation, which may further affect completion times. Some Psy.D. programs also include dissertations or doctoral projects.

Career Differences Between a Psy.D. and a Ph.D. in Psychology

Clinical psychologists

assess, diagnose and treat clients with behavioral, emotional, and mental health disorders. These professionals can expect to earn a median annual salary of $78,200 and see projected employment growth of 3% through 2029.

Social workers help people with day-to-day challenges. Licensed clinical social workers provide diagnostic and treatment services. The median annual salary for social workers is $50,470, with a 13% projected job growth rate.

Family and marriage therapists help their clients with relationship issues and earn a median annual salary of $49,610. The projected job growth rate for this profession is 22%.

School and career counselors work with students and other individuals experiencing employment-focused issues. They can expect to earn a median salary of $57,040 and see jobs in their field grow by 8% in the coming decade.

Substance abuse, behavioral disorders, and mental health counselors advise and treat clients facing challenges like addiction and mental health problems. They enjoy a median annual salary of $46,240 and a 25% projected job growth rate.

Ph.D.-holders often secure positions in academia, working as postsecondary teachers at colleges and universities. Professors earn $79,540 and can expect a 9% projected job growth rate. Some become researchers, drawing a median annual wage of $59,170, and often much higher salaries.

Licensing and Certifications for Psy.D. and a Ph.D. in Psychology Graduates

Professionals using the title “psychologist” must be licensed, and most state boards expect licensure candidates to hold a Psy.D. or a Ph.D. All states mandate licensure for psychologists who practice independently.

Clinical and counseling psychologists must complete a doctoral degree, an internship, and 1-2 years of supervised work experience. Licensure candidates must take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Students should check with their state licensing board for specific requirements, which vary by jurisdiction.

While some clinics and hospitals require certification, these credentials can be advantageous for all psychologists. Certification demonstrates to employers and clients that a psychologist possesses professional expertise within a specialization.

The American Board of Professional Psychology offers certification exams in 15 specialty areas, including clinical health, forensic, psychoanalysis, and rehabilitation. The American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology credentials neuropsychologists. Applicants need a Psy.D. or a Ph.D. and a state license, along with any specialty-specific requirements.

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