Earning a doctoral degree involves a significant commitment of both time and effort. A bright employment outlook in psychology attracts candidates who display exceptional initiative, integrity, and acumen. In addition, the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 14% growth rate for psychologists through 2026, with job prospects higher for graduates of Ph.D. programs.
Read on to explore career paths, program requirements, and licensure guidelines for doctoral students in psychology.
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.
Given the competitive nature of many doctoral programs, consider your career goals carefully as you explore your education options. While a master’s degree may suffice for some positions in school psychology, counseling, and industrial-organizational psychology, the vast majority of students who aspire to tenure-track professor positions and independent clinical private practice roles pursue doctoral degrees.
Online Ph.D. programs in psychology typically focus more heavily on advancing scientific research. Doctoral students undergo comprehensive exams and submit a dissertation representing an original contribution to psychology. Master’s degree graduates often provide mental health services and work in administrative roles, but many do not require a thesis. If your primary career goals involve counseling patients or mental health advocacy, you may consider a terminal master’s degree. If you prefer conducting psychological research and treatment, you may decide to explore a Ph.D. program.
Thanks to the adaptability and breadth of psychology as a field, graduates of Ph.D. in psychology online programs may pursue a variety of careers and specialties. Clinical psychologists generally focus on assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of psychopathology. A few of the most popular specialties for clinicians include health psychology, school psychology, neuropsychology, and industrial-organizational psychology. Psychologists may consult with government agencies, provide program evaluation services for public health organizations, or conduct forensic mental health evaluations in courtrooms.
Graduates with an online psychology Ph.D. degree whose primary interests lie in quantitative research, experimental psychology, and other scientific scholarship often pursue jobs in higher education or at research institutes. As specialists with interdisciplinary applications, psychologists also possess expertise that lends itself to professional consulting work in blended roles, such as applications of behavior change and health technology.
While career paths vary, and employers often seek out graduates of Ph.D. programs, psychology typically involves a selection of widely recognized job titles. The section below features three of the most common titles for these experienced professionals.
Median annual salary: $89,510
Psychologists study the relationship between the brain, behaviors, and environments. Responsibilities include conducting research, observing and evaluating human behavior, and applying psychological principles in settings like schools and health centers.
Median annual salary: $76,220
Clinical psychologists diagnose, assess, and treat psychopathology. Job duties include conducting patient interviews, handling diagnostic assessment tests, consulting with healthcare teams, and designing behavior modification programs.
Median annual salary: $79,953
Research scientists collect and analyze data using scientific methods. Their responsibilities include performing laboratory experiments, conducting observations, and reporting their findings at conferences or for publication in professional journals.
Many variables affect salaries for graduates of online Ph.D. psychology programs, including the employer, experience level, geographic region, and sector. Location can hold the strongest influence, as psychologists in some U.S. cities earn up to 43% above the national average. Psychologists working in private sector management or research positions in industrial-organizational psychology typically earn more than those in postsecondary teaching. Other well-compensated roles for a graduate with a doctoral degree in psychology include psychological testing, private practice counseling, health psychology, and forensic psychology. The American Psychological Association (APA) website provides further information on salaries.
Admission requirements for most Ph.D. in psychology online programs typically include:
Students in doctoral programs in psychology typically complete 80-120 credits, including all coursework and dissertation work. Most students complete the degree within four to seven years. Many programs consider five years of study ideal, in the interest of ensuring optimal time for proper professional development, and encourage students to plan accordingly.
Most online programs require students to complete face-to-face clinical work hours at an approved location. Students must secure their own internship placement under the supervision of faculty. Some programs also require short-term, on-campus residencies or field experiences.
This course surveys applications of psychological principles, assessment methods, treatment, and behavior change in clinical settings. Topics include intake, case formulation, differential diagnosis, evidence-based therapies, clinical crisis management, and diagnostic methods appropriate for children and adults.
Students examine a variety of theoretical approaches in social psychology, including development and treatment in clinical practice. Approaches covered include hermeneutics, social constructionist, and existential-phenomenological. Students analyze psychological theories of social influence, including a survey of contemporary research.
This course provides an overview of quantitative methods and research processes, including sampling, research design, and data analysis. Students explore ethical and legal factors, such as informed consent and measurement concepts, including validity. This can involve score interpretation and statistical concepts, including correlation, frequency distributions, and variability.
Learners study the principles, practices, history, and theoretical foundations of psychological assessment. Topics include diagnostic instruments, selection, scoring, validity, psychometric principles, and statistical concepts. Using case studies, students explore legal and ethical issues in interpretation and communication of assessment information.
This course focuses on mental disturbance and behavioral maladjustment in children and adults. Using case histories with an emphasis on contemporary cross-cultural research, students examine classification, interpretation, and modification of disturbed behavior. Topics include etiology, environmental factors, and treatment outcomes.
Students explore the interdependent roles of emotion and cognition in behavior and experience. With an emphasis on neuropsychoanalytic theories of cognition, students examine knowledge acquisition, memory, perception, and sensation. Related topics include language development, social cognition, and decision-making.
This course covers principles, administration, and mechanisms of psychotropic medications from a client empowerment perspective. With an emphasis on multicultural issues and individual variability, students explore drug interactions, comorbidity, efficacy, side effects, neurochemistry, and treatment outcomes.
This course explores human development throughout the lifespan for individuals and families, including a broad overview of cognitive, biological, cultural, and social theory and research. With an emphasis on healthy development and cultural differences, students explore methods of addressing developmental challenges.
All APA-accredited doctoral programs require students to complete a one year predoctoral internship near the end of the doctoral program, usually in the final year. Accredited internships serve as a gatekeeping function for the profession and provide top-notch training to cultivate and hone the student’s skills in clinical practice and consultation.
Practicum experiences typically take place during a residency period in on-campus counseling centers under the supervision of full-time faculty members. Most programs begin with a one-term orientation, and students manage clientele in the second term. Some schools also require additional pre-practicum experiences in which students develop suitable therapeutic approaches.
Students complete externships or field experiences through a clinical placement at an offsite location outside the student’s program. Candidates often proceed through three stages for an externship, beginning with one a week at a selected site and progressing to 16-20 hours of fieldwork at the intermediate and advanced stages.
Under the direction of a faculty committee, psychology Ph.D. candidates undertake dissertation work that requires an original contribution to research. This represents the culmination of the student’s work, including a formal dissertation proposal, an oral defense, and approval of the institutional review board.
Doctoral students in psychology gain many transferable skills and general competencies. The list below features six skills that doctoral students acquire throughout their program.
Analytical skills in psychology include critical thinking, logical reasoning, detecting patterns, conducting literature reviews, synthesizing information, and developing supporting arguments.
Psychologists use interpersonal skills in social interaction, relying on tools like attentive listening, effective speaking, patience, and conveying respect.
Psychologists examine different behaviors, such as body language, facial expressions, and group dynamics. These professionals rely on the ability to describe their observations in great detail.
Psychologists identify problems, apply critical thinking skills like inference and evaluation of relevant information, and formulate potential solutions.
Counselors apply psychotherapeutic theories and practices to facilitate interpersonal functioning, improve well-being, and promote behavioral health throughout a person’s life.
Research skills in psychology include research study design, selecting appropriate research methods, formulating research questions, data collection, and data analysis.
To practice professional psychology in the U.S., graduates of doctoral programs must obtain a state license. Some states grant exemptions from licensure requirements for certain areas of practice, like industrial-organizational psychology, and a few states require a separate state-specific credential for psychologists in healthcare practice, including mental healthcare. Licensure requirements vary by state and practice specialty. To help candidates keep up to date with requirements, the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards maintains PsyBook, a reference database featuring searchable basic licensure information for all U.S. states. Make sure to contact state licensing boards directly to obtain official updated information.
After completing a doctoral degree, candidates for licensing must complete 1,500-6,000 supervised clinical work hours, which usually takes one to two years. Next, candidates must achieve a passing score on the examination for professional practice in psychology and a jurisprudence exam, if applicable. Many states require that all applicants earn a doctoral degree from an APA-accredited institution. APA accreditation applies to doctoral programs in counseling, clinical, and school psychology; internships; and postdoctoral residencies. Applicants who did not attend APA-accredited doctoral programs, internships, and/or residencies may encounter difficulties, including additional scrutiny in the licensing process. To maximize your opportunities for optimal licensure, employment, and career advancement, verify your school’s regional or national accreditation and ensure programs and internships meet all APA standards.
Active involvement in professional organizations in psychology offers many benefits, including opportunities to collaborate with peers, learn from experts, and expand research possibilities. Conferences, webinars, and discussion forums provide regular updates on emerging areas of professional practice, and offer ongoing networking opportunities. Many organizations offer job boards, internship or practicum placement assistance, and scholarship funding exclusively for members. Other members-only benefits include discounts on journal subscriptions, insurance, and conference registration fee discounts.
Consult with department faculty to get help selecting appropriate organizations to facilitate your professional development. To make the most of your membership, you can volunteer to become a mentor, serve on a task force, or get involved in advocacy efforts through service on legislative and ethics committees. Professional organizations provide ongoing opportunities to build collegial relationships, support scholarly inquiry, further your career, and enhance your professional identity as a psychologist.
As a nonprofit educational and professional development organization, the ACA represents professional counselors in practice, ensures culturally sensitive and ethical practices, and promotes enhancement and growth of the counseling profession.
The APA serves as the most authoritative and respected organization in psychology, establishing scientific standards for professional psychologists in the country. The APA disseminates psychological research, promotes high ethical standards, and encourages field development.
Operating a national match program for the placement of doctoral students into internships, the APPIC represents training directors for doctoral and postdoctoral programs. The APPIC also offers service to all members interested in internships.
As an organization of board certified clinical psychologists, the AACP encourages ethical practice and high standards of competence. The AACP prepares candidates for board certification.
As an international organization dedicated to advancing the science of psychology, the APS supports psychological scientists through sharing cutting-edge research, fostering member connections globally, and working with public policymakers to secure increased support.