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Choosing Between a Ph.D. and a Psy.D?

Choosing Between a Ph.D. and a Psy.D?

  • Student Tips
Joanna HughesOct 24, 2016

Psychology is a perennial top five major among undergraduate students. And while many students use their undergraduate psychology degrees as a launching point to a breadth and depth of careers, others opt to pursue advanced degrees in the field. But before you can continue your psychology studies, you have a significant choice to make: Psy.D. or Ph.D.? Let’s take a closer look at these two academic pathways, along with highlighting some pros and cons of each.


About the Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology

A Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology is a Doctorate of Philosophy of Clinical Psychology. The title alone offers valuable insight into the nature of this course of study.

Accounting for the vast majority of all doctoral degrees in the field -- approximately 75 percent -- Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology are very much like all other Ph.D. programs in that they focus heavily on research, tests and measurements, and theoretical advancement. Because of this, a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology is viewed as a solid foundation for graduates seeking careers in either academia or administration.

The Ph.D. also represents an appealing option for aspiring psychology graduate students for whom finances are a concern. Not only are Ph.D. programs typically less expensive than their Psy.D. alternatives, but they’re also more likely to be affiliated with universities which offer funding. As a result, Ph.D. students typically graduate with fewer loans than Psy.D. students.

About the Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology

While the Ph.D. is best suited for research-driven students, the Psy.D., or Doctor of Psychology, is a strong fit for students interested in pursuing clinical practice. While programs do offer a research component, the typical Psy.D. degree aims to deliver the practice-based knowledge required for face-to-face work with clients in the field. These professional degree programs also typically include training for state licensure exams, thereby increasing the readiness of students to work as practitioners in the field.

This isn’t to say, however, that Psy.D. students aren’t qualified to take on administrative positions. They are and regularly do, according to former associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students Carol Williams-Nickelson, Psy.D.

And while Psy.D. students may pay more for their degrees than Ph.D. students, they’re also more likely to enter the workforce sooner. (While the classroom portion of both degrees is similar, the dissertation portion of the Ph.D. is more rigorous and usually takes longer.) This means they’ll see a faster ROI on their tuition dollars and will be able to start paying those loans back sooner.

In search of right medical solution. Handsome young doctor in white uniform stretching out his arms while standing against grey background

So How Do You Choose?

While factors ranging from budget to competitiveness (Ph.D. programs are generally harder to get into than Psy.D. programs) certainly factor into the picture, the overarching concern pertains to your career direction. Are you more interested in academia or clinical practice?

While it’s not impossible to pursue a career in academia with a Psy.D., experts agree that the Ph.D. comes out on top when it comes to positioning grads for careers in research, higher education and administration.

And while Psy.D. and Ph.D. programs are viewed equally in the clinical practice sphere, most would argue that the Psy.D. more immediately prepares grads for clinical work. Then again, research also suggests that Ph.D. students are more likely to be accepted to their preferred internship programs than Psy.D. graduates.

Not sure which direction you’d rather go yet? Many students end up in this position, and opt to let the degree pick them by considering a variety of Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs. This allows them to get a better understanding of the experiences offered by each individual program as opposed to generalizing them based on degree alone. After all, the quality of a program is not ultimately determined by whether it confers a Ph.D. or a Psy.D., but is instead a reflection of its unique curriculum and offerings.

Which brings us to one last consideration: Accreditation. Perhaps even more paramount than the choice between a Ph.D. or Psy.D. is the importance of selecting a program accredited by the American Psychological Association. In short, there’s no better guarantee on your investment. As Williams-Nickelson told PsychCentral, “Accreditation standards set a reasonable quality bar for graduate psychology education.”

Interested in finding the perfect Ph.D. or Psy.D. program? Start your search at

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.