What is a PhD in Psychology?

Created by careersinpsychology

What Is Psych PhDThe PhD in Psychology is the highest level graduate degree in the field to which a student can aspire. The PhD and PsyD prepare the bearer for a variety of career options representing a wide range of research and practice areas; each of which is unique in its educational scope and training. Although the entrance requirements differ according to the degree granting institution's policies, all universities do require a bachelor's degree to be accepted and sometimes a master's degree to gain admission. Alternatively, some universities offer a combination degree of the master's program and the doctoral program; thus the matriculant enters the degree program with a bachelor's degree and finishes with both a master's and doctorate.

When surveying the options available in PhD programs, an important distinction to make is whether you want to work in a psychology-related field such as counseling, social work, therapy or education; or if you are striving to get a diploma conferring a "Doctorate of Psychology." Novices quite frequently confuse the academic Discipline of Psychology with alternative disciplines which are psychology-related and in the mental health field.

If you decide to pursue the Ph.D. in Psychology, be assured that across the entire mental health spectrum, a doctoral program is perceived as the ultimate pursuit of academic excellence. Communities look to their academic scholars for answers to society's most important and complex questions. Without individuals committed to going the extra mile; systems and agencies could not be assured the knowledge and techniques being applied in their prospective fields were on the cutting-edge of development.

The "Doctorate of Psychology"

If you want to earn a doctorate in the discipline of psychology, you will  be presented with 2 options from which to choose within the field: you will be able to enroll in either a doctoral program which grants a Ph.D. or one that will culminate in the awarding of the Psy.D.  Scholars who are focused on research, data collection and processing, academics, professorship and authorship are best suited for the Ph.D. in Psychology. Individuals who are interested in research but are more people and practice-driven as well as; desirous of being on the front lines working with patients, interested in methodologies and enjoy making educational theory a reality are well served by enrolling in a Psy.D. program.

Dr. Emma Mansour is a licensed psychologist and founder of  "Life Matters Counseling and Psychological Services, LLC., with locations in Salt Lake City and Farmington, Utah.  Dr. Mansour is a graduate of  the Counseling Psychology Program at the University of Utah, as well as a former instructor. She has taught classes in Developmental Psychology, Group Counseling, Personality Psychology and Counseling Skills. In her capacity as educator, Dr. Mansour has come in contact and consulted with many students facing these exact questions. Regarding the choice between the Ph.D. and the Psy.D. her advice is straightforward;

"My advice would depend on the student's ultimate career goal. If the goal is to become a professor and engage in teaching and research as a career, there is really no option but to get a PhD. If the student is not interested in teaching or research and just wanted to be a private practicing psychologist, I would advise that they consider a PsyD program."

Learn more about a psychology doctoral degree.

Do I need a PhD to Achieve My Goals?

One of the pressing questions doctoral candidates face is whether or not they are primarily only interested in a career as a practicing counselor, therapist or educator. If this happens to be the case, technically speaking they do not need to go beyond the Master's Degree in Counseling, Therapy, Social Work, etc., to reach their goals. In other words, various careers  are accessible with a master's degree and do not require a PhD. On the other hand, some careers are only available if you have a PhD. This is the point at which clarification of your career objectives becomes imperative. Getting a PhD is an arduous process and if you are unsure of your ultimate goals, it is advised you thoroughly research all of your options. Experts agree: it pays to do your "homework" before you enroll in a doctoral program.

17Dr. Lori Attanasio Woodring has a Master's and Doctorate in Psychology as well as a Professional Diploma. She has worked for over 2 decades as a psychologist in numerous environments with children and parents.  Her research is known both nationally and internationally; she has also been an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the Graduate School at Fordham University.  Dr. Woodring is the author of "My Very Exciting, Sorta Scary, Big Move" which is a workbook aimed at helping children adjust to a new home and neighborhood. Her advice to someone who isn't sure about whether they want to pursue the Ph.D. or not is to realize that continuing education to the Ph.D. level facilitates greater career opportunity and allows time for the student to grow and develop. Dr. Woodring shares,

"Becoming a psychologist, versus a counselor or therapist, is certainly a longer process but it affords you many more possibilities and will ultimately open many more doors for you as a professional, both from the status of the degree to the possibility of branching out into many other areas. It is important to bear in mind that a students' current interests will likely change over the course of their career so the broader degree allows for ongoing growth and opportunity."

How Long Will it Take to Get a PhD in Psychology?

Universities are highly unique in their approaches to their doctoral programs. For example, UCLA's program is 6 years. In describing their program they write, "The Ph.D. program is a six year, full-time only program." In other words, students do not have the option of attending part-time. Many PhD programs can be completed within 5 years; most of them typically require the equivalent of 72 semester units. The design of the program can greatly influence the length of time it takes to earn the PhD; even for doctorates earned at the same institution. For example, NYU has 2 Psychology PhD programs: the PhD in Cognition and Perception and the PhD in Social Psychology. Although each doctorate requires 72 semester units, students who are "Teaching or Research Assistants" in the Cognition and Perception program usually take 3 courses per semester; the remaining student schedules are more flexible. Thus someone taking 2 courses a semester will graduate later than those taking 3 classes a semester. Most programs also have a maximum time limit to complete the PhD; at NYU if the matriculant has not finished their requirements after 7 years, their enrollment in the program is likely to be terminated.

Some of the questions you'll want to research with regards to the amount of time you will be in school are:

  • Is the college on a semester or quarter system and how many units are required to complete the PhD in Psychology?
  • Does the program have a minimum number of units to complete each quarter or semester?
  • Is the program strictly full-time or is there a part-time option?
  • Is there a time maximum within which the program must be completed?
  • Is there a time limit condition on program grants, awards or special financing?

What Types of Classes Will I Take in a PhD Program?

PhD programs in the field of psychology consist of some or all of the following categories of study:

  1. Core Content Classes and Advanced Elective Courses
  2. Research
  3. Oral Examinations
  4. Presentation of Papers
  5. Practicum & Teaching
  6. Internships
  7. Special Event, Conference or Convention Attendance
  8. Doctoral Dissertation Proposal, Submission and Defense
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Elements of the PhD in Psychology

  1. Core Content Classes and Advanced Elective Courses: The length and depth of core classes depend heavily on the nature of the PhD program and the university. Each college program varies on how many units are required, the title of the courses and how much emphasis is put on the ratio of research/clinical. Below is a very generalized sampling of what to expect.

Core classes prepare the student for the in-depth research they will embark upon as they advance in their prospective careers. Statistical proficiency is an important aspect of every program; examples of courses include:

  • Mathematical Tools for Cognitive Science and Neuroscience (NYU)
  • Statistics courses (UCLA)
  • Developmental Psychology (Stanford)
  • Foundations of Cognition (Stanford)
  • Exploratory-Graphical Data Analysis (Vanderbilt)
  • Multivariate Analysis (Vanderbilt)
  • Psychological and Educational Measurement (Vanderbilt)

Advanced Electives: Some examples of Advanced Elective courses from NYU are:

  • Principles of Neuroimaging
  • Research in Social Psychology
  • Cognitive Development
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Cellular, Molecular & Developmental Neuroscience
  • Language Acquisition
  • Biobehavioral Mechanisms of Stress and Disease
  1. Research: Every university expects the student to constantly be involved with research throughout their years of training. Throughout the process of research, students are supervised by at least one member of the faculty in some form of an advisory role. However, differences in a university's research emphasis, timing, manner of execution and application of research requirements is one of the factors you will confront when choosing a PhD program. For example, research dominates the 8 UCLA program specialties from which to choose. They write:

"Students are admitted by one of the department's eight areas: Behavioral Neuroscience, Clinical, Cognitive, Developmental Psychology, Health Psychology, Learning and Behavior, Quantitative and Social. With rare exception, this area affiliation is retained throughout a student's stay in the program. Much of the program is administered by the areas."  Also-

"All areas are research-oriented. This applies to the Clinical area as well: although this area offers excellent clinical training, the emphasis lies in research, not in training private practitioners."    

At UCLA research is included in the core curriculum and has a designated time sequence:

"The core program has three parts: a two-quarter statistics series, four courses selected from among special offerings in each of the seven areas, and a two or three quarter research sequence. In the latter sequence the student designs, conducts, and writes up a research project under the direction of two faculty members. Core-program work is completed by the end of the second year."

In slight contrast, while the program at Vanderbilt also emphasizes research- "We expect students to be continually involved in research throughout their tenure in our program;" their description of the first 2 years is quite different:

"The faculty attempt always to tailor graduate training to meet the needs and the interests of each individual student" and "The curriculum is designed to: (a) familiarize students with the major areas of psychology; (b) provide specialized training in at least one of the five specific areas of psychology emphasized in the program; and (c) provide students sufficient flexibility to enroll in classes consistent with their interests and long-term developmental trajectory. During the first two years, students take several core courses in quantitative methods and in substantive areas. Beyond this, the program consists of seminars, further research participation, and other inquiries expressly designed to fulfill career objectives."

  1. Oral Examinations: As a PhD candidate you will need to be prepared to undertake oral examinations as part of the qualifying and requirements processes. Oral examinations can take place at both the MA/MS level as well as the PhD level. This method of examination may prove helpful in preparing for a license; according to the American Psychological Association (APA) 21 states require an oral examination to qualify for licensure.
  1. Presentation of Papers: Some universities may require the submission of yearly papers and encourage students to present these papers at conventions or other academic events. For example, one of the research requirements at NYU is a first, second and third year paper (the third year paper may or may not be the dissertation proposal, depending on the program). While students are not required to present papers, under a bold heading in the PhD Cognition and Perception program requirements it reads:

Highly Recommended

"Presentation of Research Papers at Professional Meetings
The Program strongly encourages its students to present papers (or posters) on their research at relevant professional meetings around the country as a "real life" part of their education in becoming professional scientists and educators and to aid them in forming contacts for possible jobs and postdocs after the Ph.D."

  1. Practica: If you have tried to understand what a practicum is and have failed, do not dismay. Even the experts in the field admit that it means different things in different places. In the report, "Report on Practicum Competencies" by The Association of Directors of Psychology Training Clinics (ADPTC) Practicum Competencies Workgroup: Robert L. Hatcher, Ph.D. & Kim Dudley Lassiter, Ph.D. answer the question in the following way:

What is a Practicum?

Psychology programs vary considerably in their definition of practicum. Some consider the experience at their department’s in-house clinic to be the practicum, and may call subsequent pre-internship training in other settings  “traineeships.”  Others classify all pre-internship clinical experience as practica; others limit this definition to supervised experience only. This document is based on the definition that practicum experience includes all supervised pre-internship clinical training."

One of the strong suggestions made by the APA is that your practicum time is a phase of preparation for your internship. In the APA published cover article, "Steps to the Match: Laying the groundwork to land an internship starts on day one of your program" by Christopher Munsey, the author offers an informative, easy-to-read and must-read regarding practica for every psychology PhD candidate. The author outlines the best possible uses of time during "all supervised pre-internship clinical training."  Munsey advises that during your practicum you:

  • Establish a positive connection with all practicum supervisors
  • Acknowledge areas in which you excel and be sure to become and remain teachable in areas in which you perform poorly
  • Work with all types of people; diversity in experience is a plus
  • Develop superior communication skills
  • Identify target internships
  • Progress check to ensure your experiences are in alignment with your internship goals
  • Accumulate lots of hours and keep immaculate records
  • Network with psychologists
  • Volunteer
  • Rehearse interviewing
  • Give presentations

Teaching Requirements

Doctoral programs can include teaching experience as a requirement for successful completion of the degree. Each university has unique mandates about the nature of the teaching experience and when it occurs.

  1. Pre-Doctoral Internships: Currently (2016) the topic of the psychology internship is of serious concern. CareersInPsychology.org explains in detail the current dilemma which the APA is addressing in the article, "Internships in Counseling: Shedding Light on the Explosive 'Match.'"

To summarize, doctoral students are paired with internships which have earned APA approval. This process is called the "Match." The crisis stems from a profound lack of APA approved internships. While the APA is making strides in bridging the gap, the problem remains substantial. The progress made since 2012 is hopeful: in 2012 there were 1,041 students who could not progress in their doctoral studies because there were not enough matches. By 2015 the APA had reduced the number to 689 students. (The APA Report can be accessed by following this link.) For some students, waiting the year(s) to be matched was not an option. Some did non-approved internships, which had lifelong consequences.

A doctorate which includes a non-approved internship means that even when the PhD is granted, the graduated can never work for the Veterans Administration (one of, if not the largest employer of psychologists in the nation) or any military/government organizations. Secondly, many states will not grant a license to practice without an APA approved internship. The  Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) has a database within which the  Handbook of Licensing and Certification Requirements can be accessed. Before reviewing the handbook, however, you will have to provide the ASPPB with basic information about yourself. (The link provided for the Handbook will take you immediately to the questionnaire.) In retrospect, it becomes clear why the APA advises you to begin to work on getting your internship as soon as you begin your doctoral program; if you do not, you might not finish the program.

  1. Special Event, Conference or Convention Attendance: While not every university requires you to attend events, some have a form of scholastically-based group which is a graduation requirement. The PhD degree requirements at NYU have two examples:

"Brown Bag Seminar: All members of the program are expected to participate in the weekly Brown Bag seminar. The seminar meets informally, over lunch, and is a forum for presenting current and planned research. Each student is required to present on his or her research once a year. The seminar is a key component of student training over the five years of doctoral study.

Mini-Convention: The Mini-Convention is a day-long, convention-type meeting currently held on the Friday a week-and-a-half after Labor Day in September. Faculty and students of the Program attend this meeting which provides a training experience in convention-style oral presentation. All first- and second-year students are required to present talks based on their research projects. Upper-year students with well-worked-out, interesting findings to report are encouraged to present talks, as well as those who have not presented at a Brown Bag for the past academic year."

  1. Doctoral Dissertation Proposal, Submission and Defense: The dissertation is required by all PhD students. This voluminous composition  includes and represents the entirety of the candidate's body of work, research and study focus. It presents an original thesis which the student is prepared to propose, submit and defend.

Proposal: Preparation for the dissertation-the proposal, begins and varies according to each university program. Examples of requirements from the colleges utilized thus far are:

NYU: "Dissertation Proposal. In the third year, it is expected that each student will have sufficiently clarified his or her interests to be able to formally propose a dissertation project." Note: NYU offers 2 choices regarding the dissertation. The student can present the Traditional Thesis or choose a "Publication Route."

UCLA: "By the fourth year a student should have enough experience and knowledge of current research issues to begin formulating a dissertation proposal."

HARVARD: " The Dissertation Prospectus: By the end of the spring semester of their penultimate year, students must complete a dissertation prospectus for an original project that is meant to culminate in the dissertation."

Basic Elements of a Proposal: The following is a general list of what is contained in the proposal.

  • Importance of the topic: The proposal should provide intellectual rationale for why the thesis is critical to the field of study
  • A review of the literature currently in existence on the topic
  • An explanation of the theoretical basis of the proposed thesis
  • Detailed description of the research methods to be used
  • Comprehensive discussion of proposed analyses
  • Projected implications of the topic for the field

Proposal Resources: There are numerous proposal support avenues, the most obvious being the APA website. A valuable listing of their publications specifically dealing with the dissertation from start to finish can be found in their Education section under "Dissertations and Research" (link provided).    

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Submitting: The proposal is typically submitted to the student's advisor(s); following their approval it is submitted to  department/governing committee for approval. The final "paper(s)" or dissertation is also submitted for final acceptance.

Defense: Dissertations are defended by the PhD candidate in a formal setting. Scholars in the field test the ability of the student to orally explain and defend their research findings. There are usually university-specific "norms" regarding the event and knowing what they are should be of utmost importance.

Funding: The time and research materials for the dissertation can run into the thousands of dollars. There are many ways to receive financial assistance; the APA is a good place to start. Their "Student Funding" page is helpful for finding grants, scholarships and the like. (link provided) They also have many advisory articles which offer real life examples of how others have managed the costs involved.



The PhD in Psychology is a tremendous commitment with regards to time, opportunity costs, money and emotional wear-and-tear. Thoroughly investigate the programs available to you and speak with those who have successfully completed the journey. Good luck!

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