Clinical psychology comprises the fastest growing subfield in the study of psychology, and it accounts for approximately half of all doctoral degrees earned within the field . There are two primary degrees awarded for doctoral study within psychology: the PhD and the PsyD. Briefly, the PhD holds a primary research focus in addition to clinical practice, while the PsyD is focused primarily on provision of clinical services. The PsyD, or the Doctor of Psychology degree, emerged in the 1970s and has since grown rapidly as a primary model of training for clinical psychology.
Most PsyD programs follow the scholar-practitioner model, also known as the Vail model. This type of training is characterized by emphasis on practical clinical training. In the course of this training, students also learn how to analyze and evaluate existing scientific research, and they may carry out their own original research, as well.
The PhD, or the Doctor of Philosophy, takes a balanced approach to research and clinical work. In addition to learning the practice of clinical psychology, the PhD emphasizes conducting research. This is the scientist-practitioner model, or the Boulder model. Students in PhD programs gain extensive training in the development, execution, and dissemination of research.
The purpose of this post is to assist in facilitating the choice between graduate training in a PsyD or PhD program, and to provide a few points of consideration as you carefully plan for your professional and academic development.
Consider the role of research
The fundamental difference between the PhD and the PsyD is the role and scope of research. Choosing a PsyD does not mean you will not have research opportunities, or even requirements. However, the scholar-practitioner model often emphasizes consuming and applying research, rather than conducting it, while the scientist-practitioner model of the PhD privileges developing, conducting, interpreting, and disseminating your own research. If you enjoy rigorous, systematic inquiry into the science of psychology, consider pursuing a PhD program, where you’ll receive high-quality training in contributing to research. Within a typical PhD program, you’ll complete a thesis project and a dissertation. Many PsyD programs may offer or require these engagements as well, so consider this as you apply to PsyD programs if you know you are not interested in research. (Spoiler alert: you’ll probably have to take statistics courses in both PsyD and PhD programs, so don’t let that be your swing vote!)
Consider the size of the program
PsyD programs admit a much larger proportion of applicants relative to PhD programs, and in turn, produce more graduates. Given that the rate of acceptance into PsyD programs is roughly four times higher than in PhD programs, PhD cohorts are considerably smaller than PsyD cohorts .
As with any academic setting, it is important to consider the faculty-to-student ratio. This is especially important in graduate school when thinking about access to your clinical supervisors, professors, and research advisors. Consider the difference between a private institution, public institution, or a freestanding professional school — all of these will color your clinical training experiences, and ultimately, will shape your professional trajectory.
Consider the cost
One of the realities of facing graduate training in psychology is the cost. When you are choosing between a PsyD and PhD, consider the cost of tuition, living expenses, and potential sources of funding. Some PhD programs are funded, and students are given a stipend for research assistantships. PsyD and PhD students alike have opportunities for funded teaching assistantships. Grants are another source of potential funding, where PhD students may have the opportunity to offset the costs of graduate school. Some grants will fund research, while others will provide a stipend for the researcher.
PsyD students also have the opportunity to apply for grants; however, keep in mind that these are often research-oriented. Some PsyD programs offer merit-based scholarships based on GPA or GRE scores, overall academic achievement, or may offer identity-oriented scholarship opportunities.
Consider the commitment
In addition to considering the financial costs associated with completing graduate training, think also about the time commitment. The mean time to completion for a doctorate in psychology is 5.4 years , and a PhD generally takes more time to complete than a PsyD; on average about one full year longer. . PsyD programs can take four to six years to complete, and PhD programs can take five to seven years to complete.  Consider the feasibility of this both financially and logistically — think also about the risk of burnout, especially if you are transitioning immediately from undergraduate training to graduate school!
Consider your clinical interests
Norcross et al. (2017)  found that CBT is the predominant clinical and theoretical orientation among graduate psychology training, specifically within PhD training programs, while some PsyD programs may have faculty with a broader range of clinical orientations (i.e., existential/humanistic, psychodynamic, integrated).
That being said, consult specific graduate training programs to identify the areas of emphasis they offer. Research the program faculty and learn about their clinical interests and areas of expertise — find programs that offer training that aligns with your perspective as a clinician, or that will provide you with the experiences to make a decision about how to practice.
And your research goals
This extends to research, too. When choosing your program, look online to learn about the faculty’s research interests and determine if you would want to engage in that type of empirical study. It is also important to know how much control you will have over your research field. In many PhD programs, you are admitted into a specific professor’s lab, and admission may depend on whether that faculty member has space or funding in a particular year. PsyD programs may vary – in some programs you are admitted directly into a research lab, but in others, you may not be assigned a research adviser (and thus a research area) until later in your program.
For me, faculty research interest was a primary deciding factor in selecting my PhD program. I knew that my interest in neurodegenerative disease and cognitive impairment was a primary focus of my faculty advisor’s research, and I knew I would receive valuable training in research design and dissemination. Within this, though, I have also had the opportunity to engage in novel research with the support and mentorship of my advisor, even as I began to engage in more clinically-focused research on ADHD.
Consider your career trajectory
When choosing between a PsyD and PhD program, it can become easy to focus on the graduate training experiences; however, don’t forget to think about the goals you are pursuing. In some cases, the path may be clear — if you certainly want to pursue provision of clinical psychology services, you might choose the PsyD. If you are sure that you want to pursue research in psychological sciences or as a tenure-track professor, the PhD could be right for you. Sometimes this is murky, though. Maybe you aren’t sure about clinical work, or maybe you haven’t engaged in research so you aren’t sure if it is right for you. Here are few sources of guidance when making this decision:
- Consult with a trusted academic mentor. Maybe you have a favorite professor at your undergraduate institution — talk with them about your academic interests and your interest in pursuing graduate school. Ask about their research or other professional interests. When I was choosing a graduate program, I talked with an important academic mentor of mine from undergrad — I was enamored with the idea of teaching and conducting research in the university setting, and I asked the professor what I should do to get there. These conversations were instrumental in my choice to pursue a PhD in order to prepare me for my eventual academic and research goals.
- Consult other students. If you are in an academic institution where they have a PsyD or PhD program (or both!), consider contacting current graduate students to ask what the training is like. This allows you to get an idea, from the student perspective, of the level of engagement with clinical work, academic demands, and research. Ask why they chose a PsyD over a PhD, ask what they are surprised about in graduate school, and ask what their favorite things are about the work they do.
- During my graduate training I have had a number of undergraduate students (even a few high school students) attend our PhD lab meetings or professional grand rounds. This is a unique opportunity for students to see what research looks like, and to get an idea of what types of activities they might be doing if they pursue a PhD. This, of course, may be less accessible for clinical settings — we obviously can’t have observers sitting in on therapy sessions! But, you might be able to attend a clinical training meeting, sit in on a class, or attend another type of informational meeting held by a PsyD program to get an idea of what clinical training might feel like.
Think about what you want your post-graduate life to look like: Are you a therapist? A professor? Running a lab? Are you working in a community mental health clinic? A university? A college counseling center? Or maybe the Veterans Administration? How much of your time are you devoting to clinical work? Do you want to teach, supervise a clinical team, or maybe work at an institutional level with program evaluation? None of these things are mutually exclusive — your professional career may be filled with any combination of clinical, academic, and research-based tasks and positions.
Graduate training years are a great time to try different things to see what feels like a good fit. Try things that you haven’t had the opportunity to do before — take a class on program evaluation just to see if you like it, or run a therapy group in your clinical practicum site — you might find something that you really want to pursue long-term.
Resources and References
The choice to pursue graduate training is an exciting and important step in your professional development, and it is equally important to choose the right type of graduate training for you — here are a few more resources to help!
Psychology Graduate School Blog — This is a resource developed by a variety of psychology professionals. It offers brief but thorough descriptions of types of graduate training, training models, and other helpful information to aid in your decision making.
APA — There are several articles and guides on the topic of graduate training available through the American Psychological Association. These can be incredibly informative and offer additional insight relative to accreditation and training standards for graduate psychology programs. Here are two to start:
Additionally, here are a few particularly informative articles about the current state of graduate training in psychology, including references for this post. These articles include information about predictors of success in graduate psychology students, and perspectives of different training models. Norcross, J. C., Sayette, M. A., & Pomerantz, A. M. (2017). Doctoral training in clinical psychology across 23 years: Continuity and change. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 74(3), 385-397. doi:10.1002/jclp.22517  Graham, J. M., & Kim, Y. (2011). Predictors of doctoral student success in professional psychology: Characteristics of students, programs, and universities. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67(4), 340-354. doi:10.1002/jclp.20767  De Angelis, T. (2010). Fear not. American Psychological Association gradPSYCH, Sept. 2010. Available online at: http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2010/09/cover-fear.aspx  Golding, J. and Lippert, A. (2016) Choosing between a PhD and a PsyD: Some factors to consider. Psychology Today: Careers in psych. Available online at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/careers-in-psych/201603/choosing-between-phd-and-psyd-some-factors-consider
Dornfeld, M. D., Greenhennessy, S., Lating, J., & Kirkhart, M. (2012). Student Ratings of Selection Factors for PsyD Programs. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68(3), 279-291. doi:10.1002/jclp.20864
Vanderveen, J. W., Reddy, L. F., Veilleux, J. C., January, A. M., & Dilillo, D. (2012). Clinical PhD graduate student views of their scientist-practitioner training. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68(9), 1048-1057. doi:10.1002/jclp.21883
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