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PhD in Psychology

Psychology is a broad and varied field that focuses on the human experience and behavior. The PhD in psychology degree, usually offered at public and private research universities, provides rigorous research training designed to prepare graduates for a career in academia or research, or for practice as a licensed clinical psychologist. This degree covers many different aspects of psychology, including perception, cognition, neuroscience, and behavior. While PhD in psychology programs tend to have more of a research focus than their Doctor of Psychology counterparts, PhD programs can also prepare students for licensure in applied psychology, and fulfill most states’ minimum educational requirements. Students take courses in various qualitative and quantitative research theories and methodologies and conduct independent research with the supervision of a faculty mentor. The degree can take as little as four years to complete if you already have a master’s degree in a related area or at least five years if you enter the program with a bachelor’s degree, though according to Psychology Today, it more commonly takes between five and seven years to complete.1 Typically, the degree is offered through traditional methods on-campus as there are many hands-on research and teaching requirements. After earning a PhD in psychology, graduates will be ready to either work in academic or laboratory settings, conducting research on a variety of subjects and topics to learn about our most basic human functions and behaviors, or to become clinical psychologists, evaluating, diagnosing, and treating patients in a private, hospital, or school setting.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018, psychologists earned a median salary of $79,010 and the job growth was projected at 14% through 2026, which is much higher than average.2 Wages for psychologists varied depending on the work setting and the type of psychology specialization with psychologists employed in government settings earning the highest median salary at $96,410.2 Postsecondary psychology teachers (professors at colleges, universities, junior colleges, professional schools, and technical schools) earned a median wage similar to psychologists ($76,710).3

Admission Requirements

Applicants to a PhD in psychology program should have an undergraduate degree with in-depth psychology training including laboratory experience, statistics, and research methods. Requirements vary depending on the school, but usually neither a master’s degree nor an undergraduate major in psychology is required as long as all prerequisite courses have been met successfully. The minimum grade point average (GPA) for admittance is typically 3.0, however, the average score of admitted students may be considerably higher as competition can be strong for these upper-level graduate degree programs. Strong performance in math and statistics are considered favorable. GRE scores must be submitted along with transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and references.

Traditional psychology PhD programs tend to be more difficult to enter than PsyD programs, with reportedly only 11% of applicants being admitted each year (compared to 40% of those applying to PsyD programs).4 One reason for this selectivity could be that a high percentage of PhD students in psychology programs depend on funding assistance offered by the school in exchange for the research they conduct via research assistantships; in fact, according to a survey by the APA, 80-100% of PhD in psychology students receive some funding and 60-90% receive full funding (tuition waiver plus stipend).5 Since more students are vying for those assistantships and schools only have a certain number available, a lower percentage of applicants are admitted, making the competition tough.

Core Concepts and Coursework

Psychology graduate students take courses in theory, research methods, and statistics beginning in the first year of the program and extending into the third or fourth year of the program depending on the student’s prior experience and degrees. Depending on the area of specialization, the required courses may also include other aspects of the sub-field, such as assessment and intervention for clinical psychology, statistical modeling for quantitative psychology, or laboratory skills for neuroscience.

Coursework is typically completed before the final year of the program, as this time is typically devoted to the student’s independent research program and the writing of the final dissertation.

PhD in Psychology Coursework

Typical coursework found in a PhD in Psychology program may include:

  • Graduate Research Methods
  • Foundations of Cognition
  • Affective Science
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Statistics for Psychology
  • Perception and Reality
  • Psychopathology
  • Advances in Neuroscience
  • Attitudes and Social Judgement
  • Advanced Statistical Modeling

Traditional PhD in Psychology Programs

There are many excellent PhD programs in psychology offered across the country. The following examples are highly-ranked and offer many concentration options.

Stanford University logo

Stanford University (Stanford, CA)

The PhD program at Stanford University is open to students with wide psychology interests as it offers five different concentrations in cognitive, developmental, affective, neuroscience, and social psychology. It is also possible to include a minor from another department at the university. The psychology program teaches students the skills and techniques necessary to conduct rigorous and focused psychology research and requires hands-on learning through the development and completion of a first-year project and a dissertation. Students must achieve at least a B- grade in all courses in order to progress or they may need to repeat courses. Opportunities to teach classes in undergraduate psychology and statistics are available and encouraged to prepare students for academic careers. A variety of funding opportunities, such as graduate scholarships, fellowships, and research and teaching assistantships are offered each year to help students pay for the program and gain valuable work experience. Stanford’s department of psychology has a positive global reputation and in 2017, Stanford’s graduate school of psychology was tied for #1 in the country according to US News & World Report.

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign logo

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (Champaign, IL)

The Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign opened in 1904 and in 2017 was tied as the #7 graduate school in psychology by US News & World Report. In addition to bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in psychology, the department offers a PhD with nine possible concentrations in behavioral neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, clinical/community, cognitive, developmental, quantitative, social-personality, industrial-organizational, and visual cognition and human performance. The degree is designed to prepare students for research and academic careers, with the exception of the clinical/community concentration, which prepares students for a practitioner career and includes an internship in clinical psychology. The PhD can be completed as a combined master’s and doctorate program by applicants with no graduate study experience or students with prior graduate coursework in psychology may be eligible to transfer up to 32 credits towards the doctoral program. The combined program takes approximately six years to complete and all admitted students are offered some form of financial assistance for the duration, which could include a combination of grants, bursaries, and assistantships. Teaching is mandatory in the program and students must complete at least two semesters of teaching assistance.

University of Michigan logo

University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI)

The University of Michigan offers a PhD in psychology with an embedded master’s degree that prepares graduates for either research or clinical careers. The degree takes five years to complete and there are many ways to customize the experience based on the student’s chosen area of interest in psychology. The program offers six concentrations in biopsychology, clinical science, cognition and cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, personality and social contexts, and social psychology. Joint programs are also offered with social work, education, and women’s studies. Finally, PhD students in psychology can also engage with six affiliated programs including culture and cognition, decision consortium, the Detroit Initiative, diversity in psychology, intergroup relations, and the LIFE Course. The school offers an accelerated master’s program for high-achieving undergraduate students, although no stand-alone master’s degree is available. Teaching positions are offered including the opportunity to design and teach a 400-level undergraduate class for upper-year PhD students, which can be advantageous for those wishing to pursue an academic career. In 2017, US News & World Report ranked the UM’s Graduate School of Psychology third of all similar schools across the country.

Online PhD in Psychology Programs

If you need a more flexible study option, an online program may be a good option. Keep in mind, however, that the American Psychological Association (APA) does not accredit any fully-online doctoral programs. It does accredit some hybrid programs that offer some coursework or content online. The APA recommends that if you are choosing an online doctoral program, you should ensure that the school has been accredited by an agency recognized by the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation; that online students have similar access to resources and services as traditional students; that the faculty teaching online courses are the same or equal to the ones teaching on-campus; that you will receive assistance in choosing a practicum placement; and, if you are interested in licensure, that the online program will qualify you for licensure in your state. To read more about getting your psychology degree online, you can visit our Guide to Earning an Online Psychology Degree. While it focuses more on earning your bachelor’s degree in psychology online, it also includes some helpful tips that are relevant to the PhD level. The following programs offer PhD degrees in psychology that can be completed fully or partially online.

Michigan State University logo

Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI)

Michigan State University’s College of Education offers a highly-ranked Educational Psychology and Educational Technology (EPET) hybrid PhD program for students who need flexibility as they pursue their doctoral degree. Much of the coursework in the EPET PhD program can be completed online in an average time period of five years. Graduates of the program will be trained in how online learning and technology is transforming the educational model. They will be prepared to become leaders in the K-12 school system or colleges and universities. Starting in the summer of Year One of the program, two integrated hybrid courses are taken each Summer and one online course is taken each Fall and Spring semester for all five years. There is a two-week face-to-face summer session required each year that must be taken on campus. Courses include Proseminar in Technology and Education, Teachers and Technology, Mind, Media, & Learning, Research Methods for Technology-rich Learning Environments, and Doctoral Dissertation Research.

Fielding Graduate University logo

Fielding Graduate University (Santa Barbara, CA)

Fielding Graduate University offers a PhD in Clinical Psychology that can be completed partially online. The New Student Orientation (NSO) portion of the program is an online component that lasts one month and includes an introduction to the program. The coursework can be completed in a hybrid format. The clinical practicum and clinical internship must be done in-person, and students may have to relocate depending on the location of the internship. The research and training portion is the final component of the PhD program. Concentrations are offered in forensic psychology, health psychology, neuropsychology, parent-infant mental health, and violence prevention & control. To be admitted, students must submit an online application, $75 fee, official transcripts, a Curriculum Vitae (CV), a critical thinking writing sample, and three recommendations. Fielding also offers PhDs in Infant and Early Childhood Development, Human Development, Organizational Development and Change, and Media Psychology.

Psychology Licensure

As psychology is a broad field, licensure requirements depend on the graduate’s career path and goals. For example, individuals in clinical psychology programs who choose to pursue a career as a practitioner may need to complete additional training, pass the Exam for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), and obtain licensure in the state in which they wish to practice. These students should choose a program that is accredited by the American Psychological Association. Students in research-based psychology degree programs do not need to be licensed to conduct research or teach upon graduation. You can read more about licensure in psychology and about how to get licensed in your state on our How to Become a Psychologist page.

Jobs with a PhD in Psychology

Psychology PhD graduates need not feel limited to academic careers, as psychology knowledge and skills are valued by businesses, governments, and the nonprofit sectors as well. Examples of career options for PhD in psych grads include:

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I complete a PhD in psychology part-time?

Some schools may offer the PhD program on a part-time basis, but most students choose to complete the program full-time due to the demanding schedule of the program and the various additional requirements, such teaching or working in the labs.

Is it worth getting a PhD in psychology?

If you plan to work in an academic setting, earning a PhD in psychology will help you gain experience and move into management positions later in your career. Without a PhD, you may still find work as a research assistant but your career growth may be limited. If you do not plan to work in an academic setting, you may find a PhD in psychology helps you gain insight and expertise into a particular issue or population, although it will likely not be a hiring requirement. A PhD will also qualify you to become licensed in clinical psychology should you choose to practice in the field.

Do I need to take the GRE Psychology subject test to apply?

While most schools require GRE test scores, it is generally not necessary to take the GRE psychology subject test. Check the requirements of each school where you plan to apply for more information.

What’s the typical salary for a psychology professor?

Psychology professors made a median salary of $76,710 in 2018, which was comparable to the median salary for psychologists overall ($79,010).3,2 You can read more about PhD in Psychology jobs and their respective salaries on our Careers page.

References:
1. Psychology Today, “Choosing Between a PhD and PsyD: Some Factors to Consider:” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/careers-in-psych/201603/choosing-between-phd-and-psyd-some-factors-consider
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook: Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/OOH/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Postsecondary Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm#tab-5
4. American Psychological Association, Commission on Accreditation 2018 Annual Report Online, Summary Data: Doctoral Programs: https://www.apa.org/ed/accreditation/about/research/2018-doctoral-summary.pdf
5. American Psychological Association, Funding Stats: https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2010/01/funding-stats