By Sarah Ruiz
Researching different degree options for graduate education in psychology can quickly become overwhelming. There are over 401 programs available in clinical, counseling, and school psychology, and they are divided into Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) programs. There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about what those doctoral-level degrees signify and various things to consider when deciding which of the two doctoral-level degree options might be a better fit.
What are your career and training goals?
The most oft repeated distinction is that a PhD is designed for those who want to pursue research training and ultimately an academic research career, while a PsyD does not include research training and is geared towards those who want to pursue careers as clinicians. While it is true that PhD and PsyD programs differ based on the underlying training models, many programs can be classified along a research-practice continuum such that there are many PhD and PsyD programs with the same emphasis on research and practice. Doctoral PhD programs developed with the perspective that graduates should be “scientist-practitioners” and thus may have a greater emphasis on research and may emphasize research careers to their graduates. However, clinical training is still an important part of training, and there are many graduates from these programs that pursue careers involving clinical practice. The PsyD degree was developed with an emphasis on developing “scholar-practitioners” who would pursue clinical professional careers. In many programs there is still a strong emphasis on research literacy, and research may still be required but to a lesser extent than in PhD programs. While this is not to say that pursuing a research career after graduating from a PsyD is impossible, if an applicant knows they wish to pursue an academic or research career, a PhD might be a better fit for their training and career goals.
Along with the difference in emphasis on research, PhD and PsyD programs may also vary based on training requirements. To graduate from a PhD or a PsyD program, it is necessary to complete the coursework and training requirements, as well as a year-long internship. There may be subtle differences in the coursework, such as less clinical coursework at PhD programs, or differences in the culminating program (such as a research study known as a dissertation to graduate from a PhD program, or a clinical research or capstone project at PsyD programs). These training requirements take about 4 to 6 years to complete, with some studies finding that training at a PsyD program can be about a year less than a PhD program (Norcross et al., 2004).
Is the program APA-accredited?
While there are many doctoral level training programs, only 401 doctoral-level clinical, counseling, and school psychology programs are accredited through the American Psychological Association (APA), certifying that the doctoral program meets minimum educational standards as recognized by the profession. Without APA accreditation, it becomes increasingly difficult to pursue educational and professional milestones, such as matching for internship, pursuing licensure, or working in certain fields. (For example, VA hospitals do not hire people from non-APA training programs.) Being aware of APA-accreditation while researching programs can help you identify potential “degree” or “diploma mills.” These are programs that offer doctoral-level education with insufficient or substandard academic training. Sometimes the programs will emphasize other accreditations they have received to offer legitimacy, but these forms of accreditation may not be acknowledged by other institutions, employers, licensing boards, credentialing agencies and other groups.
What are internship match rates?
The year-long internship is one of the last milestones of the doctoral program, but is crucial for potential applicants to consider at the onset of researching programs. Without this internship, it is impossible to complete a PhD or PsyD degree. Many programs and state licensure governing boards require that psychologists complete an APA-accredited internship, which is a competitive process. Importantly, this year-long internship is regulated by an independent organization, Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (APPIC), and operates as a match system. As of 2018, there are more applicants than there are position in the APPIC match, and every year a percentage of applicants remain unmatched (4% in 2018). In recent years, match statistics suggest that more PsyD programs applicants remain unmatched than applicants from PhD programs, although the gap is getting smaller in recent years. It is important to examine the outcome data that APA accredited programs post online for their internship match rates, particularly for APA accredited internships; not matching or not being able to obtain an APA-internship could have significant consequences for one’s ability to graduate and have implications for one’s career.
What can their posted statistics tell you?
Another important step when deciding between applying to PhD and PsyD programs that is often overlooked is examining their admissions and outcomes data. All APA accredited programs are required to post student admissions and outcomes data on their websites. It is important for prospective students to examine this data closely to get a better sense of the programs. This information will allow you to directly compare specific programs in terms of how long it takes to complete a program, cost of the program, internship placement, and licensure data. Since there is such wide variability among PhD and PsyD programs, understanding each program’s data can give applicants a better sense of the quality of the program (e.g. low APA internship match rates may indicate lower quality training), or the type of training (e.g. low licensure rates may indicate that students may not pursue practice positions) in ways that simply comparing a PhD and PsyD degree may not.
How much does it cost?
The cost is often overlooked by many prospective applicants. With a median annual starting salary at approximately $60,000 (Pate & Finno, 2009), it is important to be mindful of the cost of attendance and the level of debt that can be expected. PhD programs are more often housed in graduate departments within universities, whereas PsyD programs may be housed within a psychology department, a university-affiliated psychology school, or a professional school. While most university-based PhD programs waive tuition costs for graduate students, and often provide modest funding in the form of a teaching or research assistantship, this type of funding is less common in PsyD programs, which typically charge tuition. Various studies conducted in recent years suggest that students from PsyD programs carry greater amount of median debt as compared to PhD students with numbers varying as much as $50,000 median debt for PhD as compared to $120,000 for PsyD. (Michalski & Kohout, 2011).
Due to the variability among PhD and PsyD programs, it is difficult to generalize about which degree program is the best one to pursue. For applicants, finding the appropriate graduate program is about fit between training and career goals and what individual programs can offer. Keeping some of these issues in mind can help applicants narrow down the search and find the right fit for their doctoral training.
Michalski, D. S., & Kohout, J. L. (2011). The state of the psychology health service provider workforce. American Psychologist, 66(9), 825-834.
Norcross, J. C., Castle, P. H., Sayette, M. A., & Mayne, T. J. (2004). The PsyD: Heterogeneity in Practitioner Training. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 35(4), 412.
Pate, W. E. II, & Finno, A. A. (2009, August). Graduate school debt and starting salaries in psychology. Presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto, Canada.
About the Author
Sarah Ruiz is a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota and is currently on clinical internship in Chicago. Her research interests include attachment development in the context of risk. Her clinical interests include medically-complex populations, and adolescents with internalizing and trauma disorders. In her free time she likes to run, try new restaurants, and spend too much time on the internet.