PhD in Psychology Degree Programs
The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology degree prepares graduates to practice as licensed clinical psychologists or to work in academia or research. This degree is usually offered at public or private research universities and trains students in research methods, perception, cognition, neuroscience, and behavior. PhDs in Psychology are typically focused on one of the specialties and proficiencies within the field. PhD programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology are more research-focused than Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) programs, but both qualify students for licensure in applied psychology. 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
- 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
A PhD in Psychology degree represents a significant investment of time and money; therefore, most people who enter PhD programs do so to pursue one of the following career paths:
1. To become licensed practitioners. PhDs in Clinical Psychology prepare graduates to evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients in private, hospital, or other settings. All 50 states and Washington DC require a doctoral degree to become a licensed clinical psychologist, and a PhD is one of the primary degrees (in addition to the PsyD and the Doctor of Education (EdD) in some states, for school psychologists) that qualify candidates for clinical licensure.
2. To work in an academic or research setting. PhDs in Psychology equip graduates to work in academic or laboratory settings, where they can conduct research to learn about our most basic human functions and behaviors. If you are interested in becoming a college professor of psychology or a researcher, obtaining a PhD in Psychology may be the best way to begin your journey.
PhD in Psychology Program Options
In PhD in Psychology programs, students take courses in quantitative research theories and methodologies, and conduct research with the supervision of faculty mentors. A PhD in Psychology can take as little as four years to complete if you already have a master’s degree in a related area. If you enter the program with a bachelor’s degree, it usually takes five to seven years to complete. Typically, the degree is offered on campus since 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:
- Cognitive Behavioral Psychology
- Child Psychology
- Clinical Psychology
- Counseling Psychology
- Forensic Psychology
- Industrial-Organizational Psychology
- School Psychology
- Sport Psychology
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. 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
- Online students have similar access to resources and services as traditional students
- The faculty teaching online courses are the same or equal to the ones teaching on-campus
- You will receive assistance in choosing a practicum placement
- The online program will qualify you for licensure in your state if you are interested in licensure
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 for the PhD level.
PhD in Psychology applicants should have an undergraduate degree with in-depth psychology training including laboratory experience, statistics, and research methods. Requirements vary depending on the school, but applicants do not usually need a degree in psychology if all prerequisite courses are met. The minimum grade point average (GPA) for admittance is typically 3.0, but the average GPA of admitted students may be considerably higher due to strong competition for upper-level graduate degree programs. High marks in math and statistics are considered favorable. Some schools require applicants to submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, references, and GRE scores (though many schools are waiving this requirement).
Admission to traditional psychology PhD programs is more competitive than PsyD programs, with reportedly only 11% of applicants being admitted annually (compared to 40% of those applying to PsyD programs).2 One reason for this selectivity could be because PhD students in psychology programs often depend on limited research assistantships, where schools offer students funding in exchange for research, teaching, or administrative work. 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).3 Since more applicants are vying for assistantships than schools have to offer, only a low percentage of applicants are admitted.
Core Concepts and Coursework
In the first three to four years of a psychology graduate degree program, students take courses in theory, research methods, and statistics, depending on the student’s prior experience and degrees. Required courses also include a student’s area of specialization, such as assessment and intervention for clinical psychology, statistical modeling for quantitative psychology, or laboratory skills for neuroscience. The final year of the program is typically devoted to independent research and the final dissertation. Common coursework in a PhD in Psychology program includes:
- Advanced Statistical Modeling
- Advances in Neuroscience
- Affective Science
- Attitudes and Social Judgement
- Developmental Psychology
- Foundations of Cognition
- Graduate Research Methods
- Perception and Reality
- 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)4
Select PhD in Psychology Programs
The Doctor of Philosophy (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. Students can also include a minor from another department at Stanford to further specialize their training. The psychology program teaches students the skills and techniques necessary to conduct rigorous and focused psychology research. It 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, or they may need to repeat courses. Opportunities to teach classes in undergraduate psychology and statistics are 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.
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 Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) with nine possible concentrations in Attention & Perception; Behavioral Neuroscience; Cognitive Neuroscience; Clinical-Community; 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 practitioner careers and includes an internship in clinical psychology. Students with prior psychology graduate coursework may transfer up to 32 credits toward the doctoral program. All admitted students in good standing are offered financial support in the form of a nine-month, 50%-time research or teaching assistantship, traineeship, or fellowship. Teaching is mandatory in the program, and students must complete at least two semesters of teaching assistance.
The University of Michigan (U of M) 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 students can customize their experience based on their chosen area of interest. The program offers six concentrations including 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 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 offers a PhD in Clinical Psychology that can be completed partially online in a hybrid format. 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 clinical practicum and clinical internship must be done in person, and training sites are often in your local community. 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; Clinical Psychology; and Media Psychology.
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 degrees. 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 of five years. Graduates are trained in how online learning and technology are transforming the educational model. They will be prepared to become leaders in the K-12 school system or colleges and universities. Two integrated hybrid courses are taken each summer starting the first year, and one online course is taken each fall and spring semester for all five years. Hybrid students are encouraged to arrange an annual campus visit at a time that is convenient for their studies. Students enrolled in the Hybrid Mode usually enroll in one to two courses per semester and continue working full-time. Hybrid students may qualify for teaching or research assistantships depending on their schedules and the funding available.
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. Examples of career options for PhD in psych grads include:
- Academic Researcher
- Clinical Psychologist
- Independent Consultant
- Industrial-Organizational Psychologist
- Laboratory Manager
- Policy Advisor
- School Psychologist
- User Experience (UX) Researcher
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I complete a PhD in Psychology part-time?
Yes. Some schools may offer PhD in Psychology programs on a part-time basis, but most students complete the program full-time due to the program’s demanding schedule and 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), clinical and counseling psychologists earned an average annual salary of $99,640 in May 2021.5 Postsecondary psychology teachers earned an average annual salary of $88,390.9 Wages for psychologists vary depending on the work setting and the specialization, with industrial-organizational psychologists earning the highest average salary at $113,320.6
Projections Central predicts employment for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists to grow by 10% from 2020 to 2030.10 Postsecondary psychology teachers are also expected to see high job growth of 10% through 2030.10 Industrial-organizational and all other psychologists can expect slower growth of around 2% through 2030.10
How do I become a licensed psychologist?
To become a licensed psychologist, you generally need an APA-accredited doctoral degree, supervised professional experience including a qualifying internship, and a passing score on the Exam for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). However, licensure requirements vary by state. 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 potential may be limited. Even if you do not plan to work in an academic setting, a PhD in Psychology can help you gain insight and expertise into a particular issue or population. 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 an annual average wage of $88,390 as of May 2021.9 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. 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
3. American Psychological Association, Funding Stats: https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2010/01/funding-stats
4. US News & World Report Best Clinical Psychology Doctorate Programs 2020: https://www.usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-health-schools/clinical-psychology-rankings
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2021 Occupational Employment and Wages, Clinical and Counseling Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193033.htm
6. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2021 Occupational Employment and Wages, Industrial-Organizational Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193032.htm
7. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2021 Occupational Employment and Wages, School Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193034.htm
8. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2021 Occupational Employment and Wages, Psychologists, All Other: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193039.htm
9. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2021 Occupational Employment and Wages, Psychology Teachers, Postsecondary: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes251066.htm
10. Projections Central Long Term Occupational Projections: https://projectionscentral.org/Projections/LongTerm