The doctorate, or what’s typically known as a PhD, amounts to the gold standard in the field of psychology. As in most academic fields, it is the terminal, or final degree, and it signifies that you’ve reached the uppermost level of study in the discipline. But, psychology isn’t just theoretical in nature, nor is its practice confined to the hallowed halls of research and educational institutions. Much like physicians, registered nurses, and other health-care professionals, psychologists work with real people in the real world, collecting and analyzing data from groups and individuals, assessing and counseling children, families, and others who seek their guidance and expertise in matters of the mind and general well being.

That’s one of the primary reasons that a PhD, or the largely equivalent PsyD (Doctor of Psychology), is so crucial to anyone who wants certification to practice as a licensed psychologist. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook stresses, “In most states, practicing psychology or using the title of ‘psychologist’ requires licensure or certification,” particularly if an individual wants to set up a private practice and work independently with the supervision that a larger institution provides. Indeed, such certification requires a doctorate, one to two years of experience in the field, and passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. But once you’re licensed to practice psychology, a wide world of potential career paths in a range of specialized areas opens, as do the doors to the most lucrative and rewarding jobs in the field.

PhD vs. PsyD: Choosing the Right Program

The primary difference between a PhD in psychology and a PsyD, both of which typically take two years or more to complete, is one of focus and intent. A PhD is primarily a research degree. Most PhD programs do provide professional experience in the form of clinical work in the field and in laboratory settings. But, PhD programs are oriented toward producing new research in the field, and they generally culminate in a doctoral dissertation in which that research is presented.

The PsyD, as the American Psychological Association notes, “is a professional degree in psychology,” akin to an MD in medicine or a JD in law. “Programs conferring the PsyD degree focus heavily on the application of psychological science to provide a service to individuals or groups.” In other words, the PhD involves the kind of academic and clinical research that might be published in a professional journal, while the PsyD aims more narrowly to prepare students to practice in the field, including a post-graduate residency that may begin while the degree is still being completed. Ultimately, they confer the same title and signify equally high levels of achievement, but they can be very different experiences, and the differences are not to be casually overlooked.

Of course, once you’ve attained a level of scholarship and experience that meets the specs for applying to a PhD or PsyD degree program, you’re not likely to overlook even small details. Earning a master’s degree in psychology is almost always a prerequisite for beginning a doctoral program. So, by the time you reach the doctorate level, you should have already had the opportunity to specialize and garner some experience in the field. At that point, candidates are likely to already have a career path in mind, and it should be fairly obvious which PhD or PsyD programs suit various areas of specialization.

Doctoral Degree Specializations

Doctoral work in psychology can follow fairly directly from the focus of a master’s degree. There are PhD and PsyD programs geared toward counseling and clinical research psychology, as well as PhD’s geared more specifically toward clinical neuropsychology, child or developmental psychology, educational psychology, forensic or criminal psychology, and industrial-organizational psychology. In addition, different doctoral programs in psychology allow candidates to further specialize in various growing and emerging fields. Here are some of the unique areas detailed by the American Psychological Association:

  • Clinical Health Psychology: Focuses on the interrelationship between mental, emotional, and social wellbeing, and physical health. Requires a broad understanding of physiology, anatomy, and pharmacology, as well as psychological principles.
  • Forensic Psychology: Focuses on the intersection of the legal system and psychological function. Forensic psychologists apply the principles of psychology to situations and individuals involved in civil and criminal cases, working with prosecutors and defense attorneys to help create a deeper understanding of the mental and cognitive facts that pertain to a particular case.
  • Police and Public Safety Psychology: Focuses on conducting research and outreach in tandem with law enforcement and other public safety officials with an aim toward assessing and improving policies, and offering operational support on the ground. Additionally, psychologists in this area of specialization can work with hostage negotiators, criminal profilers, and crisis intervention officers.
  • Family Psychology: Focuses on working with individuals, couples, and families on issues related to group dynamics and dysfunction. Problems addressed may be parenting challenges, work-family stress, and childhood development issues.
  • Sleep Psychology: Focuses on the cognitive and emotional factors that effect and are affected by sleep disorders, the impact of sleep medications on the brain, and non-medical behavioral treatments for sleep disorders.

Course Topics

Depending on the specific concentration, psychology PhD or PsyD programs may provide you with knowledge in some, if not all, of the following areas:

PhD in Psychology and PsyD Concepts

  • Lifespan development
  • Biopsychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Statistics
  • Design of research methodology
  • Theory and application behind social change
  • Social psychology
  • Data evaluation/analysis
  • Substance abuse related therapies
  • Program development
  • Multicultural issues related to various aspects of psychology
  • Couples therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Principles of family pathology
  • Health psychology
  • Innovation in various health care practices
  • Coping with chronic illness
  • Cognitive aspects of physical illness

Career Options, Salaries, and Job Outlook

The job forecast for psychologists looks bright, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall employment across the field is projected to grow at a rate of 12 percent through 2022, but the estimates do vary from specialty to specialty. Steady demand for psychological counselors in schools, hospitals, and mental health clinics, along with a spike in the need for psychologists who specialize in the cognitive and emotional problems associated with aging account, in part, for the rosy projections. There is a also a growing population of veterans who require trauma counseling, and of children and parents in need of psychological services to help deal with an increase in autism diagnoses. And the BLS is predicting a massive growth in demand for industrial-organizational psychologists, amounting to a far about average 52 percent increase in jobs. Not surprising, the BLS also concludes that, “candidates with a doctoral or specialist degree and post-doctoral work experience will have the best job opportunities.”

The latest numbers relating to annual salaries in the field of psychology are also very good. As of May 2014, clinical, counseling, and school psychologists were earning an average of $74,030 a year. Industrial-organizational psychologists were doing somewhat better than that, with an average annual salary of $90,070. And the numbers for “Psychologists, all other,” a catch-all category that can include any of the other specialties and sub-specialties in the field, came in just under that, at $89,810. The data does indicate that there’s a fairly large gap between the lowest and highest earners in psychology — $42,230 for the lowest 10 percent; $120,670 for the highest 10 percent. But, it almost goes without saying, having a doctoral degree is one of the better ways to find your way to the upper percentile.

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