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PhD in Psychology: Beginner's Guide

Learn about the basics of a PhD in psychology and the opportunities it can offer to advance or change your career.

May 31, 2024
  • Education
PhD in psychology: beginner's guide

✨ 5-second summary

  • A PhD in psychology is a graduate degree that emphasizes both research and practical application of psychology.
  • It takes 4 to 8 years to complete and requires you to do a practicum, an internship, and a research paper.
  • A PhD in psychology allows you to take on various jobs, from researcher to HR director, and earn around $100,000 annually.

If you have a strong passion for psychology, you may have thought about pursuing further education and getting advanced knowledge in the field or researching a specific idea to contribute to science. In this article, we'll cover the basics of a PhD in psychology and explore the opportunities it can give you.

PhD in Psychology: Basic info

PhD in Psychology is a graduate degree that focuses on research training for future scientists and professors, as well as licensed psychologists – a so-called scientist-practitioner model. The program is designed to deepen the knowledge of mental health issues and the methods used to address them. Generally, the coursework includes:

  • Ethical and legal standards
  • History and systems of psychology
  • Scientific psychology
  • Research methods, statistical analysis, and psychometrics

Requirements for a Doctoral degree in Psychology

To apply for a PhD in psychology, you'll often need a Master's degree with completed coursework in psychology and related subjects. However, some programs require only a Bachelor's degree and even offer dual degrees, meaning you'll get both a PhD and a Master's upon graduation. So it's important to check the admission requirements of the programs you're interested in.

How long does it take to get a PhD in Psychology?

A Doctorate in psychology typically takes from 4 to 8 years to complete depending on your specific circumstances and the requirements of the program you choose.

To graduate, you'll have to:

  • Complete the required number of credits – between 90 and 140 usually
  • Submit a thesis, research paper, or a dissertation
  • Get supervised practicum and/or internship experience

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PhD in Psychology subfields

General psychology is a very broad field so many universities offer more narrow-focused programs to target a specific area of psychology to cater to individual interests. Here are the most common programs:

PhD in Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology, the largest specialty field in psychology, focuses on providing mental and behavioral healthcare. PhD in clinical psychology programs are meant for students who want to engage in any kind of clinical practice. While graduates often pursue research positions, becoming a licensed clinical psychologist and starting a career in that field is also an option.

PhD in Counseling Psychology

Counselors help people deal with the problems of everyday life, and manage stress, grief, anger, and other heavy emotions. You can take many paths to start working as a counselor, but a PhD in counseling psychology can allow you to have a wider scope of practice and provide patients with more therapy and treatment options. It's also a great opportunity to research new treatment methods.

PhD in Organizational Psychology

A PhD in organizational psychology focuses on the study of human behavior in organizational settings, such as business, government, healthcare, and education. It allows you to apply psychological theories and research methods to help organizations improve their functioning, effectiveness, and efficiency.

PhD in Forensic Psychology

A PhD in forensic psychology is intended for students who want to apply psychological principles to the legal system. Forensic psychologists can improve the administration of justice, understand criminal behavior and victimization, and use their knowledge to help other professionals prevent and solve crimes.

PhD in Educational Psychology

A PhD in Educational Psychology prepares you to conduct research on the different ways people get and process knowledge at various stages in their lives. It focuses on areas of human behavior, cognition, and development related to educational experiences in homes, schools, group settings, and workplaces.

PhD in Child Psychology

A PhD in child psychology, as the name suggests, provides an in-depth understanding of child development and delves into advanced assessment techniques and evidence-based treatment approaches for children with various psychological needs. This degree can be applied in schools and hospitals, as well as government institutions and non-profits.

Child psychologist

PsyD vs PhD vs EdD in Psychology

There are 3 types of doctoral degrees in psychology:

Which one is right for you depends on your career goals. PhD programs, for example, focus more on research and teaching in academia. So, if you want to become a professor or conduct research to contribute to the scientific field – a PhD would be perfect for you. PhD programs also tend to have more financial aid available and are sometimes perceived as more prestigious.

In contrast, PsyD programs prepare students to use their knowledge in practice. PsyD graduates usually get licensure and work as clinical, forensic, or other psychologists. EdD degrees explore the intersection of psychology and education, therefore they may be best for professionals who want to pursue careers as school psychologists or in education.

An EdD typically takes 5-6 years to complete, a PsyD – around 5, so a PhD is the longest. However, it also offers the highest payoff. According to Payscale, the average annual salary of a PhD in psychology holder is $100,000, compared to $92,000 for PsyD graduates and $83,000 for EdDs.

What can you do with a PhD in Psychology?

After getting a PhD in psychology, the most straightforward career path is to become a psychology professor or a researcher – a PhD equips you with all the necessary skills for that. It's a great opportunity for people passionate about the science aspect of psychology to generate new knowledge and share it with students.

Of course, it's not the only option, especially if you chose a more narrow specialty. Some other careers include:

  • School psychologist: A mental health specialist who provides support and guidance to students throughout their emotional, mental, and academic journeys.
  • Forensic psychologist: A specialist who helps understand psychological issues linked to criminal actions and identify potential suspects, and provides therapy for those who have committed offenses.
  • School superintendent: A manager in charge of several schools in a district.
  • Human resources director: A person in charge of making all executive HR decisions for policies, practices, and strategies.
  • Neuropsychologist: An expert who helps diagnose cognitive, behavioral, and other conditions affecting the brain and conduct research.

PhD in Psychology salary

A PhD in psychology can get you on average $100,000 per year. If you choose to become a senior researcher, you can expect to earn about $115,400 annually, while the average salary for school psychologists is $85,000 per year. More unconventional positions, like a market researcher or HR director, for example, have a salary of around $74,000-100,000 annually, according to


A PhD in psychology is a research-focused graduate degree that prepares future scientists and practitioners by providing advanced knowledge of mental health and the necessary training to address various issues connected to it. You can study general psychology or choose a more specific field, such as clinical, counseling, or forensic psychology.

Overall, a PhD in psychology equips you with the skills and knowledge needed to help people and organizations in various ways. Whether you want to teach, conduct research, or work directly with people, this degree gives you an opportunity to make a real difference.

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