Best Online PhD Degrees in Psychology: 2016

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Concentrations, Careers & Salaries with a Doctorate in Psychology

Practicing psychologists, whether in clinical practice or research, typically need a doctorate-level degree. The Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD, is specifically geared toward those seeking a career in advanced research, although positions may also involve hands-on patient care. An online PhD psychology program is a significant undertaking, with most requiring five to seven years to complete, but the payoff comes in dramatically improved marketability and earning potential.

Timeline of PhD in Psychology

Applying to Doctorate Programs

Once a student has chosen a degree path and narrowed down a list of potential schools, it’s time to begin the admissions process. This can be a daunting and time-consuming task, so it’s best to allow plenty of time for each step. Overall, the application process includes the following:

  • Scores and transcripts.

    Obtain or arrange for test scores (such as the GRE) and academic records to be sent to selected schools. Many of these will need to be sent directly from the source.

  • Resume.

    Psychology PhD programs use a prospective student’s work history and professional achievements to assess their potential.

  • Letters of recommendation.

    These letters can be obtained from former professors, work colleagues, supervisors and others familiar with the student’s work. Most schools require at least two letters, with three preferred.

  • Statement of purpose.

    This is a strong opportunity for students to tell the admissions committee why they want to get a PhD in psychology at the particular school, and what they intend to do with their degree.

  • Psychology portfolio.

    Some schools may ask for a list of publications, notable research or other examples of prior experience and background in psychology.

Year 1

This year is all about coursework. Students will immerse themselves in the most common courses for the doctoral degree, although classes may differ somewhat depending on whether a student is entering with a bachelor’s or a master’s. Some general courses include psychological data analysis, quantitative analysis and grant writing.

Year 2

Foundational courses continue through year two, but if the PhD student is obtaining a master’s degree in conjunction with the PhD degree, this year may also involve work on the master’s thesis. Students also begin to take electives specific to their concentrations.

Some schools recommend that PhD students become a research or teaching assistant during this time. Research assistants help professors conduct research and analyze data, while teaching assistants help professors with their courses and usually teach some basic classes at the undergraduate level.

Year 3

Classwork winds down during year three, and by the end, PhD students should be prepared to take a final comprehensive exam to close out the year. For those who entered the program with a bachelor’s degree, the master’s thesis will be completed this year if it hasn’t already. For those who are entering with a master’s degree, the third year takes students deep into their dissertations.

Years 4 and 5 (or more)

While work during these years will depend on the structure of the online program, students often use this time to obtain additional work experience and hands-on training in real-world settings. Online students should be able to find internships that are approved by the American Psychological Association (APA) close to their geographic location. Meanwhile, work on the dissertation is in full swing, and should be nearing completion.

Testing and Graduation Requirements

In addition to coursework and a dissertation, a PhD in psychology usually has other requirements, such as a comprehensive exam, graduate assistant teaching duties, and internship experience. Following are the most common requirements for graduation:

  • Qualifying exam.

    After finishing their required classes, students take a final exam that covers what they should have learned during the first two to three years. The exam usually occurs in the middle of the PhD program, after coursework is finished and before the bulk of the dissertation process.

  • Research.

    PhD students usually carry out one or more research projects during the first half of their PhD pursuit. The work will almost always require a final paper discussing the research, and is written with the intent of eventual publication.

  • Dissertation.

    The dissertation process begins with choosing a topic that must be approved by a committee. The next stage is conducting the research and writing the dissertation. The last step involves defending the dissertation, usually orally before a committee.

Search Online Doctorate Degrees in Psychology

Interested in finding the right online school, but don’t know where to start? Our search tool can help. By filtering school characteristics such as tuition cost, type of school, location and school size, students can easily sort through the many online PhD psychology degree programs available.

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Paths to a Doctorate in Psychology

In addition to the PhD, two other doctorate level psychology degrees are the PsyD and EdD. While they all have some overlapping characteristics, each degree is tailored for certain academic and professional goals, and therefore has its own unique curriculum and degree requirements.

PhD in Psychology

For those interested in research and teaching, the PhD is the ideal choice. While a PhD normally follows a master’s degree, many online programs require only a bachelor’s degree to start. A PhD program will involve a dissertation, and usually a practicum or internship requirement.

Doctor of Psychology: PsyD

Psychologists who are more interested in clinical practice might be well served by getting a PsyD. Unlike the PhD, the PsyD is aimed at psychologists who work directly with patients, whether in the clinical or counseling realm. As with PhD psychology programs, many institutions do not require students to have a master’s degree in order to pursue the PsyD degree.

Doctor of Education: EdD

Similar to the PhD, the EdD is intended for psychologists who do not necessarily want to work directly with patients. Specifically, the EdD focuses on research within the field of education. However, there are also areas of concentration in administration, policy and human resources. As a result, graduates who obtain their EdD degree are well suited for work in government as well as education.

It’s important to note that the completion of an online PhD degree program does not confer licensure; in order to become licensed, students must take the Examination of Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), as well as meet all individual state licensure requirements.

The Impact of a PhD in Psychology on Salary & Career Potential

Those who earn a PhD in psychology may do so with several goals in mind, such as attaining better job security and earning higher pay. Often topping that list is the larger goal of finding a specialty that allows them to advance in the profession. The following concentrations, some of the most common sought in PhD psychology programs, might allow students to do all three.

Concentrations
Child Psychology

Child psychology is the study of human behavior as it relates to children, including their mental, emotional and social development. Child psychology looks at how characteristics or traits are manifested in children of different ages, and how they change over time.

Career:
Child Psychologist
Child Psychologist

Child psychologists work with children to study their mental and emotional development, as well as treat children with developmental or mental health problems.

Clinical Psychologist
Clinical Psychologist

A clinical psychologist works to diagnose and treat patients; some take a research-oriented approach of studying mental illnesses or other problems; others focus on treatment at the individual, family or group level to help patients cope with psychological or emotional problems.

Educational Psychologist
Educational Psychologist

Using researched-based approaches, educational psychologists study how humans learn, and implement techniques to help them learn more effectively.

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology encompasses what most people picture as a psychologist’s job. In clinical practice, psychologists examine patients in order to identify any mental or emotional disorders they may have, and then offer treatment as necessary.

Career:
Child Psychologist
Child Psychologist

Child psychologists work with children to study their mental and emotional development, as well as treat children with developmental or mental health problems.

Clinical Psychologist
Clinical Psychologist

A clinical psychologist works to diagnose and treat patients; some take a research-oriented approach of studying mental illnesses or other problems; others focus on treatment at the individual, family or group level to help patients cope with psychological or emotional problems.

Community Psychologist
Community Psychologist

Community psychologists try to understand how groups of people interact with each other, examining the psychological, social, and other factors that may influence those interactions.

Educational Psychologist
Educational Psychologist

Using researched-based approaches, educational psychologists study how humans learn, and implement techniques to help them learn more effectively.

Gerontologist
Gerontologist

Gerontologists examine the changes that the human mind undergoes during the aging process, as well as how people respond to and adapt to those changes.

Military Psychologist
Military Psychologist

Psychological problems and issues common to soldiers and other members of the military—such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and substance abuse—serve as the primary focus of military psychologists.

Neuropsychologist
Neuropsychologist

Neuropsychologists study the physiology and processes of the human brain, and how those differ in healthy individuals versus those with mental illnesses or disorders.

Industrial-Organizational Psychologist
Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

Industrial-organizational psychologists focus on psychological concepts as they apply to the workplace and organizations. They look at issues such as communication, decision-making processes, and group dynamics to improve the productivity and overall well-being of workers.

Sports Psychologist
Sports Psychologist

With emphasis on both physical and psychological factors, sports psychologists help athletes optimize their performance, deal with setbacks such as injuries, and interact effectively with teammates.

Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology deals with psychological principles as they apply to both the civil and criminal court systems. In this melding of psychology and law, forensic psychologists examine issues such as mental competency and criminal intent, and provide relevant information and consultation to judges, lawyers and members of law enforcement.

Career:
Community Psychologist
Community Psychologist

Community psychologists try to understand how groups of people interact with each other, examining the psychological, social, and other factors that may influence those interactions.

Military Psychologist
Military Psychologist

Psychological problems and issues common to soldiers and other members of the military—such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and substance abuse—serve as the primary focus of military psychologists.

Industrial-Organizational Psychologist
Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

Industrial-organizational psychologists focus on psychological concepts as they apply to the workplace and organizations. They look at issues such as communication, decision-making processes, and group dynamics to improve the productivity and overall well-being of workers.

Neuropsychology

Neuropsychology focuses on brain physiology as it pertains to mental illness. Many mental disorders have physical manifestations in the brain that can be identified by neuropsychologists.

Career:
Sports Psychologist
Sports Psychologist

With emphasis on both physical and psychological factors, sports psychologists help athletes optimize their performance, deal with setbacks such as injuries, and interact effectively with teammates.

Neuropsychologist
Neuropsychologist

Neuropsychologists study the physiology and processes of the human brain, and how those differ in healthy individuals versus those with mental illnesses or disorders.

Child Psychologist
Child Psychologist

Child psychologists work with children to study their mental and emotional development, as well as treat children with developmental or mental health problems.

School Psychology

School psychology is the application of psychological principles to the school environment. School psychologists apply their knowledge of child development to promote academic success, foster emotional well-being, and ensure student safety.

Career:
School Psychologist
School Psychologist

Social Psychology

Based mostly in research, social psychology studies the psychological basis of how humans interact with each other. Mental processes—including language, perception and human behavior—are studied within the context of group interactions.

Career:
Community Psychologist
Community Psychologist

Community psychologists try to understand how groups of people interact with each other, examining the psychological, social, and other factors that may influence those interactions.

Potential Salary Increases with a Doctoral Degree

Getting a PhD in psychology generally goes hand-in-hand with increased salary; the table below, with recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale.com, shows the earnings of PhD psychologists in a variety of professions.

Career Lower 10% Median Salary Upper 10%
Psychology Professor $35,280 $68,690 $126,640
Clinical Psychologist $40,080 $68,900 $113,640
Industrial-Organizational Psychologist $51,970 $76,950 $145,480
Neuropsychologist $59,000 $88,559 $120,000
Forensic Psychologist $36,000 $61,496 $100,000

Additional Resources & Links

Students interested in pursuing an online PhD in psychology may find the following resources helpful for more information about the profession:

Best Online PhD in Psychology Degrees

With so many online psychology PhD degrees available, choosing the right one can be tricky. One of the biggest advantages of getting an online degree is the flexibility it offers. But that’s only one factor—students also should consider the cost of the program, the specific concentrations offered within a degree, and the program’s job placement rate for graduates. We’ve applied those factors, as well as many others, in creating our list of the best online psychology PhD degrees.

For more information about how these schools were ranked, take a look at our methodologies page.

RANK COLLEGE SCORE TEACHER/STUDENT RATIO COST GRADUATION RATE
1 University at Buffalo 100.00 13:1 72%
2 Southern California Seminary 99.00 14:1 100%
3 Union Institute & University 96.00 8:1 25%
3 Michigan State University 96.00 17:1 79%
5 Texas A & M University-College Station 95.00 20:1 79%
5 Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus 95.00 17:1 86%
7 Northern Arizona University 92.00 18:1 52%
7 Touro University Worldwide 92.00 8:1 N/A
9 Loyola University Chicago 91.00 14:1 73%
10 Liberty University 85.00 18:1 50%