Ph.D. Programs in Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology is essentially the core area of study, research, and practice in the broad discipline of psychology. Historically, it is the foundation upon which other areas of specialization and sub-specialization within psychology have risen and coalesced. Clinical psychologists engage in academic research and instruction; provide one-on-one patient care in the form assessment, diagnosis, and counseling; work in schools, hospitals, clinics, and private practice; and can be found at just about every level of psychological practice. As the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) details, “clinical psychologists provide professional services for the diagnosis, assessment, evaluation, treatment and prevention of psychological, emotional, psychophysiological and behavioral disorders across the lifespan. [They] may provide services directly or support and facilitate the provision of services through supervision, teaching, management, administration, advocacy and similar roles.”

In other words, when we picture a psychologist, we’re usually thinking about a clinical psychologist. And, almost by definition, a clinical psychologist is someone who had earned a doctorate in the field. Because, as we’ll see, a PhD in clinical psychology, or the largely equivalent PsyD in clinical psychology, is in almost all cases an absolute requirement for licensure to practice professionally, or even to call yourself a psychologist, in all 50 states.

PhD in Clinical Psychology Concepts

  • Psychological assessment & testing
  • Psychotherapy
  • Research methodology
  • Program development (preventive & treatment)
  • Human development (childhood through adulthood)
  • Neuropsychological disorders
  • Psychotherapy
  • Psychology of personality
  • Social psychology
  • Research design & methodology
  • Intervention techniques
  • Statistics
  • Multicultural counseling

Benefits of Earning a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology

There are a number of specialties in graduate-level psychology, from school and social psychology, to forensic and industrial-organizational psychology. But, in terms of research methodologies and real-world practice, they all draw on the scientific theories of human cognition, behavior, and emotional development that are central to clinical psychology. Thus, a doctorate in clinical psychology has the distinct advantage of preparing serious students of psychology for a wide range of career options, including academic teaching and research, institutional administration, counseling services, and work in schools, hospitals, the criminal justice system, veterans affairs, or the business sector.

In addition, a doctorate in clinical psychology, whether it’s a PhD or a PsyD, is designed to provide the proper training in research methods, psychological theory, and clinical practice for the state-level professional licensure necessary to work as a psychologist. Graduates with a doctorate in clinical psychology are prepared to pursue a wide array of careers opportunities, working in a range of settings with patients from all walks of life. As the American Psychological Association (APA) points out, “The scope of clinical psychology encompasses all ages, multiple diversities and varied systems.”

PhD in Clinical Psychology vs. PsyD in Clinical Psychology

Historically, there have been two paths to earning a doctorate in psychology — the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). A PhD in clinical psychology was thought to be more rigorously research based, with a heavy emphasis on completing a doctoral dissertation in psychology. The APA’s Society of Counseling Psychologists explains it this way: “PhD training in clinical or counseling psychology prepares psychologists to conduct research as well as to provide clinical services.”

PsyD programs, in contrast, were created more along the lines of the medical school model, to train practitioners, with a “greater emphasis on psychotherapy and supervised experience with patients than PhD programs.” The Society of Counseling Psychologists’ literature goes on to the explain that, “graduates of PsyD programs are taught how to understand and appreciate research (i.e., they should read and understand scientific studies and their practice should be shaped by this research), but they are not trained to actually produce research — at least this isn’t emphasized as much as in traditional PhD programs.”

In spite of these historical distinctions, a 2008 paper by two Texas Tech psychology professors, Robert Morgan and Lee Cohen, found little in the way of actual differences between PhD and PsyD degree programs in clinical psychology. The two researchers concluded that, “clinical PsyD programs emphasized research and dissertation work as much as their PhD counterparts. In fact, Morgan and Cohen say, there’s much greater variability among individual clinical or counseling programs than there are differences across these categories as a whole.”

Clinical Psychology Core Concepts

Because there are more similarities than differences in the core requirements for PhD and PsyD programs in clinical psychology, the expectations should largely be the same. The APA guidelines for clinical psychology define five vital areas of mastery for students of clinical psychology:

  • Diagnosis: Understanding of psychopathology and diagnostic/intervention considerations.
  • Developmental: Understanding mental health issues across the lifespan based on a solid understanding of psychopathology.
  • Assessment: Ability to integrate and synthesize personality test data with additional standardized assessment measures.
  • Consultation: Ability to consult with other health and behavioral health care professionals and organizations regarding severe psychopathology, including suicide and violence.
  • Research Base: Engagement with specific research and critical review of science, knowledge and methods pertaining to those areas identified as distinct to clinical psychology.

Clinical Psychology PhD Coursework

Work in these areas of theory and practice can begin as early as a bachelor’s degree program, and continue through a two-year master’s degree program in clinical psychology, which in many states allows graduates to become Licensed Professional Counselors. However, to become a fully licensed psychologist requires a doctorate, which can begin directly after completion of a bachelor’s degree, and typically takes between five and seven years to complete, including at least one year of clinical internship and a doctoral dissertation.

The internship, or practicum, associated with a PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology begins the process of working toward full state licensure, which can require up to two years, or 3,000 hours, of supervised clinical experience. Similarly, the dissertation is considered an integral part of the coursework for a doctorate in clinical psychology. As for the kinds of classes you’re likely to find at the PhD and PsyD level, they vary in nature from program to program. However, the chart below details many of the key subjects addressed in a clinical psychology doctorate:

CourseAreas of Study
Adult Assessment and PsychopathologyTheories of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral function in adults across a spectrum of psychopathologies
Childhood and Adolescent DevelopmentThe biological, physiological, and pyscho-social factors that influence the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development of children and teens
Statistics in Clinical PsychologyUsing data as an analytical research tool in clinical psychology
Research Methods in Clinical PsychologyDesigning, implementing, and assessing research in the field of clinical psychology
Professional Ethics in Clinical PsychologyLegal and ethical issues surrounding the practice of psychology in research and in counseling
Principles of PsychotherapyTheories and practice of psychotherapy
Developmental PsychologyChanges in psychology over the course of the human lifespan
NeuropsychologyThe relationship between brain function and human psychology
Social PsychologyHow social interactions impact psychological development
Cognitive PsychologyThe mental processes involved in human psychology
Abnormal PsychologyThe study of mental disorders, behavioral dysfunction, and emotional problems from a psychological perspective
Clinical PsychopharmacologyThe use of drugs and medications in the treatment of psychological disorders
Biological Basis of Psychiatric DisordersThe interplay between biology and neurophysiology on psychological function
Critical Assessment and InterventionUsing the tools of clinical psychology to diagnose and treat patients and populations

Specializations in Clinical Psychology

Just as in medicine, psychology is a discipline that has evolved to include a greater emphasis on a growing number of specializations. And, as is common in medical school, specialization is effected through a combination of elective coursework, independent research and dissertation focus, and internships. For example, a clinical psychology PhD candidate with an interest in counseling psychology would be encouraged to take courses in various approaches to counseling among different populations and age groups, and would follow up with field work, research, and ultimately a dissertation in that area. Clinical psychology PhD candidates who are drawn more toward laboratory research on the nature of various psychopathologies would likewise be advised to concentrate more on conducting research through coursework, internships, and ultimately a dissertation topic.

Those are just two of the more divergent paths open to a PhD in clinical psychology. Indeed, because clinical psychology is so foundational to the broader discipline of psychology, a PhD in clinical psychology can theoretically encompass almost any recognized areas of specialization and sub-specialization. These are delineated in somewhat different ways by different authorities, including the APA, the SCP, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Here are some of the more commonly recognized areas of specialization in clinical psychology:

SpecializationAreas of Study
Child PsychologyThe application of psychological theory and practice to the treatment of children and young adults
Clinical Counseling PsychologyUsing the theories and practices of psychology to treat individuals, couples, families, and other social groups
Clinical GeropsychologyThe psychology of aging as applied to older adults
Clinical Health PsychologyThe psychological challenges in the realm of healthcare and medicine
Clinical NeuropsychologyAssessment and treatment of patients through an understanding of the interplay between brain function and behavior
Clinical Psychology of Ethnic MinoritiesThe unique psychology challenges faced by racial and ethnic minority populations
Clinical Psychology of WomenThe psychological issues faced by women
Clinical School PsychologyThe application of psychological theory and practice to counseling students and creating better educational environments
Forensic PsychologyThe psychology of criminal behavior
Industrial-Organizational PsychologyThe principles of clinical psychology applied to the workplace
Social PsychologyA focus on how group dynamics and social interactions relate to psychological development and function
Sports PsychologyUsing the tools of clinical psychology to improve cognitive, emotional, and behavioral performance in athletes

Career Paths and Salaries for Clinical Psychology PhDs

The two career paths most commonly associated with a PhD in clinical psychology are clinical counseling jobs and research positions. But there are many more options in the realm of professional psychology. The latest data from the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook indicates that 31 percent of the 160,200 psychologists licensed in 2012 worked in educational services, 29 percent in healthcare and social assistance, and almost a third were self-employed in patient counseling and private research. The BLS’s overall job growth projections for psychologists stood at 12 percent through 2022, which is in line with the national average for all occupations. However, in some areas of psychological practice, like industrial-organizational psychology, growth is expected to spike by 53 percent.

The average annual wage estimates for licensed psychologists can also vary widely from specialty to specialty. The latest data, from the BLS’s May 2014 Occupational Employment Statistics report, breaks down this way by category:

Industrial-Organizational Psychologists$90,070
Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists$74,030
Psychologists, all other$89,810

Certifications in Clinical Psychology

Psychologists must be licensed by a state board in order to practice professionally, and in most cases this means earning a PhD or PsyD, completing up to two years of supervised clinical practice, and passing an exam. As the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook stresses, “Most clinical and counseling psychologists need a doctorate in psychology, an internship, at least 1 to 2 years of professional experience, and to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology.” That exam — the EPPP — is overseen by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB), and the BLS recommends contacting the ASPPB for detailed state-by-state licensure requirements. The American Board of Professional Psychology also offers additional voluntary certification in 13 areas of specialization for clinical psychologists, including couple and family psychology, clinical neuropsychology, and organizational and business consulting psychology.

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