President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, Barack Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, the Common Core State Standards program, and even the oft maligned and misunderstood New Math — these are all educational reform proposals that, like so many that have come before, aim to improve upon the way we teach our kids. And they have another thing in common: they are all based in one form or another on models of teaching and learning supported by research methodologies that come out of the social and behavioral sciences.

Learning how to study the process of how people learn, from a cognitive and behavioral point of view, is the primary domain of educational psychology, a graduate-level specialization within the larger fields of psychology and education. Educational psychologists design and implement testing and assessment tools and protocols, they draw on accepted models of learning and cognitive development to improve curricula and teacher effectiveness, they develop targeted programs for at-risk populations, and increasingly over the past two decades, they’ve been at the forefront of measuring the effectiveness of new technologies as they are introduced to the classroom.

In this guide we’ll undertake an exploration of PhD programs in educational psychology, the skills and knowledge base associated with the discipline, and the career and salary prospects that come with earning a doctorate in educational psychology. According to the latest Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) data, the U.S. ranks fifth in spending per student among the 34 member nations, but has yet to see a reasonable return on that investment: U.S. students rank 17th in math and in reading, and 21st in science, scoring average or just below average on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam that was administered to half-a-million 15-year-olds in 2012. Clearly there is much work to be done, and educational psychologists are central to that mission.

Mean Scores from the 2012 PISA Data:

United States481498497
United Kingdom494499514

Who Earns a PhD in Educational Psychology?

As with most doctoral degree programs, a master’s degree or above is an almost absolute prerequisite for applicants, and educational psychology PhD programs draw on both psychology and education graduate students. So, in the simplest terms, a PhD in educational psychology is best suited for those who have completed a master’s degree in either psychology or education, and who are interested in applying the quantitative research methodologies of psychology to the study and administration of education. In other words, it’s a practical terminal degree for psychologists who want to work in the field of education, and for educators who aim to use the study of the human mind and behavior as a means to better understand learning processes.

However, it’s important to draw a clear distinction between educational psychology and school psychology. The former is primarily an avenue toward clinical psychological research in the realm of education, while the latter focuses more on using the assessment and treatment methods of counseling psychology in school settings. School psychologists may assist administrators in implementing curriculum reforms and classroom protocols, but their primary responsibilities include counseling students with behavioral or learning problems and working with groups of students on social-psychological issues like bullying, substance abuse, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy. The work of educational psychologists often brings them into contact with students, teachers, and administrators, but mainly in the context of studying the ways in which learning takes place in order to understand, design, and implement successful educational strategies. One easy to way to conceptualize the difference is this: educational psychologists design the tests that measure the effectiveness of various teaching approaches, or pedagogies; school psychologists counsel students who may be feeling anxious or stressed out about those tests, and help teachers and administrators implement new pedagogical approaches with a minimum of disruption.

PhD in Educational Psychology Concepts

  • Lifespan development
  • Learning theories
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Various styles and levels of statistical analysis
  • Principles of educational psychology
  • Testing and assessment methodologies
  • Teaching psychology
  • Instructional design
  • Human prenatal development
  • Child and adolescent development
  • Child and adolescent psychology
  • Multicultural issues at various points in development
  • Ethical issues pertaining to educational psychology
  • Standards and legal issues in educational psychology professions

Educational Psychology PhD Coursework

Unlike other areas of specialization within psychology that more easily fall in line with the medical school-style training of PsyD, or doctor of psychology degree, educational psychology is almost exclusive taught through PhD, or doctor of philosophy, programs, which tend to put a stronger emphasis on quantitative research, statistical modeling, and scientific methodologies. That means that a PhD in educational psychology will almost certainly entail a large research project in the form of a doctoral dissertation, as well as coursework that can take between two and three years to complete.

We’ll list some of the courses specific to a PhD in educational psychology below. But first, it’s helpful to understand the broader conceptual framework in which educational psychology is anchored. One of the primary pillars of educational psychology falls under the umbrella of quantitative research methods, and it involves statistical analysis, measurement theory, and data evaluation. The other foundational element in educational psychology involves the theoretical and practical examination of learning and development, including processes by which information is perceived, processed, synthesized, and stored, the ways in which cognitive development relate to problem solving, and the impact that social groups and emotional health can have on the learning process. In a sense, the practice of educational psychology boils down the application of those quantitative assessment tools to the study of how theories of learning play out in the classroom. The best PhD programs in educational psychology are designed to address both of these crucial elements related to the methodical study of how people learn.

Core Topics Typically Covered in Educational Psychology PhD Program :

  • Principals and theories of educational psychology
  • Developmental psychology and learning
  • Social context and learning
  • Models of cognitive learning
  • Statistical modeling and data analysis in education
  • Research design and implementation in education
  • Qualitative and quantitative research methods in education
  • Applied regression and analysis of variance in educational research

Most PhD programs in educational psychology will also include a requirement for teaching under the direction or supervision of a faculty member, as well as directed and independent research toward the completion of a doctoral dissertation. Because educational psychology is itself an area of specialization within the discipline, any further specialization within the realm of educational psychology tends to happen through research for the doctoral dissertation. For example, a student interested in early childhood development and learning would design a research project around that topic, while another student might choose to look into the impact of certain learning disabilities on secondary school children.

However, the rapid evolution of digital technology has created an emerging area of sub-specialization within educational psychology that is being addressed at the graduate school level. To that end, some PhD programs in educational psychology are beginning to offer targeted coursework in educational and classroom technology and its uses, including online teaching models. This is clearly an area in which educational psychology is poised to experience some significant growth, at least in terms of new research and analysis.

Career Options and Salary Outlook in Educational Psychology

As with any research-based field, the fate of educational psychology is at least somewhat tied to the budgetary priorities of federal agencies and state governments, since that’s often the biggest source of funding. Fortunately, education seems to be a priority on the federal level, and many states are also getting behind new educational initiatives.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook doesn’t include specific data for educational or research psychologists. However, they project a healthy growth rate of roughly 12 percent across the board for psychologists between 2012 and 2022. The BLS also stresses that, “Overall, candidates with a doctoral or specialist degree and post-doctoral work experience will have the best job opportunities.” It is important to note that psychologists are licensed on the state level, and that in most states a doctorate degree is a requirement for licensure to practice as a psychologist. Most states also require licensed psychologists to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. So, with very few exceptions, the PhD in educational psychology is a absolute requirement to practice in the field at a professional level.

Salaries for professional psychologists can vary quite a bit. But, the latest data from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics indicates that the mean annual wage for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists is $74,030. The BLS also groups together data for “Psychologists, All Other,” a designation which has a slightly higher average annual salary of $89,810. To get a sense of how this compares to fields related to educational psychology, we’ve put together a chart of the median annual salaries from BLS’s May 2014 data.

OccupationMedian Annual Salary
Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists$68,900
Psychologists, All Other$92,110
Secondary School Teachers$56,310
Education Administrators$89,540
Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors$53,370
Social Science Teachers, Postsecondary$65,320

While it’s difficult to say with certainty where educational psychologists fit into these job categories and salary estimates, it’s more than fair to assume that those with a PhD in educational psychology likely fit somewhere on the continuum between “clinical, counseling, and school psychologists,” and “psychologists, all other.” It’s also not too far fetched to imagine that it might not be long before the field of educational psychology is large enough to earn its own independent designation.

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