What is a PsyD Degree?
A PsyD, or Doctor of Psychology, degree is a doctoral-level psychology training program that has an emphasis on clinical treatment of patients with mental health issues. It is considered a more practice-focused degree than the PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, in psychology.
Most people just think of psychologists as psychologists. The public knows that they have gone through advanced training and earned a doctoral degree as part of their education. The expertise is fully recognized, but no one really knows how you got it.
If you’re planning on becoming a psychologist, though, you suddenly need to know a lot about the educational path to the profession. And before you get too far along, you probably run into a mysterious set of letters that seem to be associated with the process: PsyD.
That’s because the Doctor of Psychology degree, which is what PsyD stands for, is relatively new. According to APA (American Psychological Association) data from 2017, only about 17 percent of members hold a PsyD, versus almost 70 percent who have PhDs. But the PsyD is becoming more widely recognized and may be a better choice depending on the specific practice of psychology you plan to pursue.
Choosing a type of psychology degree is a decision you will have to make before you can get started as a psychologist. And that means understanding your options before you enroll.
What Does PsyD Stand For and Why Was it Created?
PsyD stands for Doctor of Psychology… while the traditional PhD in psychology stands for Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology.
Doctoral programs in psychology used to only come in one particular flavor: the doctor of philosophy in psychology, or PhD. Available in the United States since the mid-1800s, these doctoral programs were pretty much the only path to a career as a clinical psychologist. Like most doctoral programs, they offered advanced training in research and academic skills, designed in part to turn out professors of psychology for university posts.
When psychology was becoming an established and regulated profession in the wake of the Second World War, a group from the APA (American Psychological Association) got together in Boulder, Colorado to figure out exactly what the standards should be. They came up with something that has since been called the Boulder Model. It involved a dual preparation in experimental research together with training in delivering clinical practice, a scientist-practitioner model of education.
Existing PhD programs in psychology already covered both areas, but when you try to develop two kinds of expertise, you are definitely making some trade-offs in one or both.
So those APA folks got together again in 1973, this time in Vail, and came up with a solution to this dilemma. The new Vail Model called for different degrees to prepare for experimental versus clinical psychology practice, with the educational focus to reflect those specialties. The new clinical-focused degree was to be called the Doctor of Psychology.
The new degree program was packed to the gills with clinical training and experiential education. Although it still included a solid basis of research skills and quantitative and qualitative analysis expertise, it was built to emphasize the diagnostic and treatment skills that clinical psychologists need. Theoretical and academic preparation take a back seat in PsyD programs.
What is a PsyD Degree Good For?
The PsyD was designed pretty much entirely for one purpose: to educate psychologists to handle clinical therapy. So that’s exactly what it is best for.
The degree still has significant research and experimental design coursework, so you can also use it to get into academic posts. That’s just the same as the PhD can still be used to prepare for and become licensed as a clinical psychologist. The differences are not extreme.
The PsyD will cover all the ground of psychology theory with a view toward putting it into practice. For example, you’ll learn all about behaviorism in either program. But with the PhD you are likely to look at the history of behavioral research and how experiments were designed and conducted to prove the effect of operant and classical conditioning. You might even replicate or conduct your own studies of the subject.
In a PsyD, you’ll study the same topics. But your focus in class will be learning how to use those theories and findings in modern clinical treatment by designing your own conditioning programs for clients.
That puts most PsyD jobs right into clinical positions. They diagnose and treat mental health issues with the wide range of psychotherapeutic interventions that they have learned in their program. Many work in private practice, but you can also find PsyD jobs with organizations like:
- Nonprofit social services groups
- Hospitals and healthcare systems
- Long-term care facilities
PsyD Degree Standard Curriculum
What are the kinds of classes you get in a PsyD degree? Well, you will find a lot of the same subjects as any doctoral psychology degree. But you will notice a different emphasis both in the number of courses devoted to clinical subjects as well as the perspective offered in core psychology subjects.
Those will include:
- Psychopathology - An overview of mental health issues and diagnostic standards
- Psychological assessment and analysis - Clinical interviewing techniques and testing procedures
- Research methods and experimental techniques - PsyD students do receive training in research and experimental design, although not as heavily as their PhD counterparts
- Human psychological lifecycle development - How psychological development proceeds across the human lifespan from birth to old age
- Cognitive and affective bases of behavior - The core theories of how human personalities are formed and what our motivations and behaviors emerge from
- Psychotherapy - Training in the core procedures of delivering clinical treatment is one of the most heavily emphasized parts of a PsyD program
- Clinical neuropsychology - The wiring of the brain and human sensory and perception systems offers a view of the physical hardware that memory, cognition, and other psychological processes are run on
A PhD in psychology will have many of the same courses, but the material will usually be offered from a more theoretical, research-oriented perspective. You would spend more time on research and experimental design, with heavier emphasis on quantitative and qualitative analysis, preparing you to understand and execute psychological research programs. The PsyD gives you only enough of that type of material to allow you to fulfill clinical duties and understand new research that emerges in the field to influence your practice.
What Concentrations are Offered in PsyD Programs?
You can find concentrations in just about any kind of practice-oriented specialty in a PsyD program. Not every university will offer the full set of specializations, but in general you can expect to run across concentrations in areas such as:
- Behavioral psychology
- Counseling psychology
- Child and adolescent psychology
- Forensic psychology
In general, as long as there are strong clinical applications in a specialty, you can find a PsyD option that will teach it. The exceptions are usually more theoretical and research oriented specializations, which you may only find in PhD programs.
PsyD Capstone Options Offer More Practice-Oriented Projects
PsyD degrees also sometimes give you a more focused capstone option for clinical preparation. While the doctoral dissertation, a long, scholarly paper documenting original theoretical research, is the standard final project for PhD students, PsyD programs may let you complete a doctoral project instead.
These projects still involve research and writing, but allow you to pursue more practice-focused ideas with less emphasis on pure theory. You’re expected to address and attempt to resolve a real-world psychological issue of some sort. Examples of PsyD doctoral projects have included:
- Suggesting perinatal interventions to improve body acceptance in pregnant women
- Investigating equine-assisted psychotherapy techniques
- Training proposals for psychologists supporting patients in end-of-life care
You have a lot of latitude to pick your doctoral project, in consultation with your faculty advisor. Just like a dissertation, however, you’re going to have to face the music by presenting a defense of the results to a doctoral project committee.
Is a PsyD a Doctor?
A PsyD graduate is a full-fledged doctor of psychology, so the answer is definitely yes. But many people who are asking the question actually want to know if a PsyD is a medicaldoctor. That answer is no. Psychiatrists combine psychological training with a traditional medical education to become medical doctors with expertise in psychology as well.
The main distinction between the two roles is that the psychiatrist can prescribe any type of medication as a matter of course in their psychological treatment. In fact, most psychiatrists prefer to offer pharmacological treatments. They usually leave psychotherapeutic treatment to psychologists.
Can a PsyD Prescribe Medication?
In five states, PsyD graduates who have gone on to earn their licensure as clinical psychologists are allowed to prescribe certain medications. Because standard PsyD and PhD in psychology programs don’t cover specialized pharmaceutical and drug interaction training as part of their coursework, psychologists in these states are usually required to take advanced training in medical and chemical science before they are granted any prescriptive authority. They are also limited in the kinds of pharmaceuticals they are allowed to prescribe.
According to the APA, the states that allow psychologists some authorization to prescribe medications are:
- New Mexico