When choosing a career path in the field of psychology, the educational options available can seem overwhelming. If you are interested in pursuing a doctoral degree as a psychologist, there are two main options to consider: the PhD and the PsyD.

Whether your hope is to have a career in academia, or spend the majority of your time treating patients in a clinical setting, read on for an in-depth look at the most frequently asked questions about PhDs and PsyDs in Psychology.

What is a PhD?

PhDs, or “doctor of philosophy” degrees, are the most common type of graduate degrees for those who have earned the title of “Dr.” in a field other than medicine. The PhD in psychology prepares students for careers in academia and other jobs requiring strong research experience. Psychology PhD programs place greater emphasis on research, as opposed to clinical training (i.e. direct patient care), which is the main focus of PsyD programs.

What is a PsyD?

PsyDs, or “doctor of psychology” degrees, are designed for students who are interested in careers providing direct care to patients in clinical settings. PsyD programs typically include more clinical training early on in the program than psychology PhD programs, and focus less on research experience. That said, PsyD programs usually do include research training as well.

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Is it better to have a PsyD or a PhD?

Somehow, the PhD has gained a reputation for being “better” than the PsyD in some circles. This has caused some prospective students to worry that internship opportunities required of their PsyD program will be scarce, or that their degree will make them less competitive when looking for a job. In reality, the reputation of the PsyD as being less valuable than the PhD does not tend to bear out.

The value of the program you choose rests solely on what your goals are. If your goal is to become a tenured professor at a research institution, for example, the PsyD would indeed put you at a disadvantage. However, if your goal is to open a private psychotherapy practice or work in another clinical setting, a PsyD is a very valuable degree to have.

Are PhD or PsyD programs more competitive?

In some ways, comparing PhD and PsyD programs in terms of their competitiveness is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. PhD programs tend to accept fewer students, keeping their cohorts small. On the other hand, PsyD programs exist in fewer numbers, but tend to accept more students into each of their cohorts. The bottom line is that you should apply to the program that best suits your career goals and skill set.

How long do the programs take?

Most candidates can plan to spend a minimum of four or five years in a PhD program, and some spend up to eight or ten. Less time is usually needed for PsyD programs, with the average number of years students spend on their studies ranging from four to six. It is worth noting that the length of doctoral programs is usually not predetermined by the educational institution. Doctoral candidates work fairly independently and can move at their own pace in most cases.

Which degree should I choose if I want to be a professor?

You will find that graduates of both PhD and PsyD programs are able to teach at the university level, but this path is much easier with a PhD. The PhD is designed to prepare candidates for a career in academia, and many graduates become tenured professors, performing research at their institution. For those who are interested in teaching as adjunct or part-time professors in addition to their clinical work, the PsyD is likely sufficient.

Which degree should I choose if I want to be a psychotherapist?

Either a PsyD or a PhD in clinical psychology will prepare you well for a career as a psychotherapist. Some psychoanalytic training institutes in the state of California grant PsyD degrees, but this is not the case anywhere else. With some exceptions, psychoanalytic training institutes are typically not housed within a university. However, accredited psychoanalytic training programs provide rigorous clinical training and experience to their students.

Can clinicians with a PsyD or PhD prescribe medication?

Typically, no. Clinicians with a PsyD or PhD in Illinois, Louisiana, and New Mexico can undergo additional training qualifying them to prescribe medications. In most states, only medical doctors and nurse practitioners are permitted to prescribe medications.

In the field of psychology, psychiatrists are medical doctors (MDs) who specialize in diagnosing and treating mental illness. In most states, only psychiatrists are able to prescribe medications.

Do PsyD and PhD programs have different application requirements?

The requirements for applying to PhD and PsyD programs vary among educational institutions, but are generally similar for both types of degrees. There are a few things that you will almost certainly need in order to apply to a doctoral level program, but be sure to look at each university’s individual requirements carefully:

  • A bachelor’s degree in psychology or closely related field. Some people also apply to PsyD and PhD programs after earning master’s degrees in related disciplines like social work.
  • GRE scores. Most educational institutions require GRE scores from applicants to PsyD and PhD programs, including the psychology subject test. However, some universities have begun to dispense with the GRE requirement. There is little evidence of the exam’s ability to predict a student’s success in graduate school, and it can present a barrier for some students, due to the expense of preparation courses, and of the test itself.
  • Undergraduate GPA over 3.0. More competitive institutions will look for higher GPAs.
  • Letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation should come from former professors or supervisors you have worked with in psychology-related jobs.
  • Personal statement. You will likely be required to submit an essay based on prompts provided by the university you are applying to.
  • CV or resume. Some universities will require either a CV or resume as part of your application.
  • Transcripts. You will need to request transcripts from the registrar’s office where you earned your bachelor’s and/or master’s degrees.
  • TOEFL score. If you are applying from a country where English is not the primary language, you may need to submit scores from the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

Are there any other degrees at the doctoral level in psychology?

Yes! At some universities, psychology programs are housed within their school of education. When this is the case, it may be an option to earn an EdD (doctor of education), in psychology. This degree type is less common than the PhD and the PsyD, but it is an option at many universities. The EdD may be an option for those interested in pursuing a career in school counseling psychology, educational psychology, or marriage and family counseling.

PhD vs PsyD: What's the Difference?