PhD in Psychology

The Doctor of Philosophy (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 teaches many different components 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 (PsyD) counterparts, PhD programs can also prepare students for licensure in applied psychology as they fulfill most states’ minimum educational requirements for clinical licensure. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are 191 non-profit colleges and universities that offer an advanced degree in clinical psychology (including master’s degrees, PsyDs, and PhDs) in the United States.1

Table of Contents
Reasons to Pursue a PhD in Psychology Degree
Program Options
Admission Requirements
Core Concepts
Top-Rated PhD in Psychology Programs
Select Program Profiles
Jobs with a PhD in Psychology Degree
Frequently Asked Questions

Reasons to Pursue a PhD in Psychology Degree

As mentioned above, a PhD in Psychology degree represents a significant investment of time as well as money; therefore, most people who enter PhD programs have two primary goals in mind.

1. To become licensed. Many PhD students wish to become licensed clinical psychologists upon the completion of the program. All 50 states require a doctoral degree to become a licensed clinical psychologist, and a PhD is one of two types of degrees (in addition to the PsyD) that will qualify for licensure. You can read about the differences between the two degrees here.

2. To begin a career in psychology. The other major reason people pursue a PhD in Psychology is to qualify them for their desired career path. 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. Whether you are interested in becoming a college professor of psychology, a clinical practitioner, or a researcher, obtaining a PhD in Psychology may be the best way to begin your journey.

PhD in Psychology Program Options

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.2 Typically, the degree is offered through traditional methods on campus as there are many hands-on research and teaching requirements.

Some common areas of specialization (also known as concentrations, specialties, or emphases) for PhD in Psychology programs include:

Online Degree Formats

If you need a more flexible study option, an online PhD in Psychology program may be a good option. Keep in mind that the American Psychological Association (APA) does not accredit doctoral programs that are fully online; it does, however, 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 the guide focuses more on earning your bachelor’s degree in psychology online, it also includes some helpful tips that are relevant to the PhD level.

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 is considered favorable. Some schools require GRE scores to be submitted (though many schools are waiving this requirement), 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).3 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).4 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 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. Typical coursework found in a PhD in Psychology program may include:

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

Top-Rated PhD in Psychology Programs

US News & World Report’s Best Clinical Psychology Doctorate Programs 2020

  • University of California-Los Angeles (#1)
  • University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (#2)
  • Stony Brook University-SUNY (#3 tie)
  • University of California-Berkeley (#3 tie)
  • University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (#5 tie)
  • University of Washington (#5 tie)
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison(#5 tie)
  • University of Pennsylvania (#8 tie)
  • University of Pittsburgh (#8 tie)
  • Harvard University (#10 tie)
  • Indiana University-Bloomington (#10 tie)
  • Pennsylvania State University-University Park (#10 tie)
  • Temple University (#10 tie)
  • University of Colorado-Boulder (#10 tie)
  • University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (#10 tie)
  • University of Texas-Austin (#10 tie)
  • Washington University in St. Louis (#10 tie)5

Select PhD in Psychology Programs

Traditional Programs

Stanford University logo

Stanford University

The PhD program at Stanford University is open to students with wide psychology interests as it offers five different specialization areas in Cognitive, Developmental, Affective, Neuroscience, and Social Psychology. It is also possible to include a minor from another department at Stanford. 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.

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign logo

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

In addition to bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in psychology, the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign offers a PhD with nine possible concentrations in Attention & Perception; Behavioral Neuroscience; Cognitive Neuroscience; Clinical-Community; Cognitive Neuroscience; Cognitive; Developmental; Industrial-Organizational; Quantitative; and Social-Personality. 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

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 and gender 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.

Hybrid and Online Programs

Fielding Graduate University logo

Fielding Graduate University

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; and Social Justice and Diversity. To be admitted, students must submit an online application and 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.

Michigan State University logo

Michigan State University

The College of Education at Michigan State University’s Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology & Special Education offers a hybrid Educational Psychology and Educational Technology (EPET) PhD program for students who need flexibility as they pursue their doctoral degree. Students can choose to emphasize in either Educational Psychology or Educational Technology. 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 the first year 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. Students enrolled in the Hybrid Mode usually enroll in four courses each year so that they can continue working full time. Since they are enrolled part time, hybrid students are not eligible for paid assistantships.

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 as teaching or working in the labs.

How much can I make with a PhD in Psychology?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2020, psychologists earned a median salary of $82,180 per year, with projected job growth of 3% through 2029, which is average for all occupations.6 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 $100,360.6

How do I become a licensed psychologist?

Since 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 will likely need to complete additional training and pass the Exam for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) before obtaining licensure in the state in which they wish to practice. These students should choose a program that is accredited by the APA. 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.

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 some schools require GRE test scores, it is becoming more common for the GRE score requirement to be waived. Even when GRE scores are required, it is not usually 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?

Postsecondary psychology teachers (professors at colleges, universities, junior colleges, professional schools, and technical schools) earned a lower median wage of $78,180 in 2020.6,7 You can read more about PhD in Psychology jobs and their respective salaries on our Careers page.

1. National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator: https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
2. 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
3. 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
4. American Psychological Association, Funding Stats: https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2010/01/funding-stats
5. US News & World Report Best Clinical Psychology Doctorate Programs 2020: https://www.usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-health-schools/clinical-psychology-rankings
6. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/OOH/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
7. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Postsecondary Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/postsecondary-teachers.htm#tab-5