“I am committed to pursuing a doctorate in psychology, but should I do a PhD or PsyD?”
What Are They?
These are two distinct labels for types of doctoral degrees. A doctorate is the highest degree possible of a given type of education, and broadly speaking, the PhD is an academic degree while the PsyD is a professional degree. The “PhD” degree stands for “Doctor of Philosophy” (although it does not necessarily mean you studied philosophy), and it is a degree label for someone who deeply studied an academic topic and conducted a great deal of independent research. One can earn a PhD in all sorts of academic subjects including art, biology, music, criminology, mathematics, physics, linguistics, and of course various psychology specialties. The PhD is a degree indicating that one has achieved the highest level of academic mastery over a particular body of knowledge and methodology, and the training is typically intended to prepare one for a career in creating new content in that field. Meanwhile, the “PsyD” degree stands for “Doctor of Psychology” and is a professional degree akin to many others including those of physicians (MD or DO), lawyers (JD), dentists (DDS or DMD), or optometrists (OD), just to list a few. Professional degrees are more specifically labeled and are conferred upon individuals trained to be experts in applying the content of a given field to its real-world pursuits.
How Are They Similar?
The PhD and PsyD degrees in psychology are similar in many ways. Both sorts of programs are typically designed to consist of either 4 or 5 years of on-campus study plus a 1-year internship usually located elsewhere; both will involve conducting a doctoral dissertation project; and both will involve training in the application and science of psychology. The topic areas covered in coursework are largely the same, the licensing options after graduation are identical, and many of the work positions for which one is eligible will be overlapping. There exist both PhD and PsyD degrees for the topic areas of Clinical Psychology, Counseling Psychology, and School Psychology. And finally, a graduate with either sort of degree is a “doctor” and can claim the title “psychologist.”
How Are They Different?
The key difference between the two types of degrees deals with their training philosophy and intentions. Programs awarding a PsyD are aiming to train future clinicians, the people who would be competent in the application of psychology to various settings and problems. Programs awarding a PhD on the other hand are aiming to train individuals for a variety of roles and tasks which may involve applied psychology, or academic/scholarly works, or both. Inherent in this comparison is the idea that PhDs are trained to be producers/creators of research and other scholarly content (e.g., conducting studies, writing journal articles, presenting at conferences, teaching higher education courses) while PsyDs are trained to be consumers/users of research (e.g., designing treatment protocols based on existing studies, utilizing assessment measures built through psychometric research). There is overlap here of course–many PsyDs engage in ongoing research activities throughout their careers and many PhDs become primarily applied in orientation–but the training received differs on these focal points. Also, related to the different training aims, doctoral admissions committees for PhD versus PsyD programs are looking for slightly different things in their applicants. Concisely, research productivity matters more for getting into a PhD program, whereas experiential learning matters more for PsyD admissions.
Three Training Models
Although there are two primary kinds of doctoral degrees in psychology, there are actually three distinct training models. These are the Scientist-Practitioner, Practitioner-Scholar, and Clinical-Scientist models. Before applying to graduate schools, one should reflect on which model aligns best with their interests and career goals!
Scientist-Practitioner: This is the oldest of the three models, established in 1949 by the American Psychological Association (APA). It is often called the “Boulder Model,” after the city in which the convention took place and at which the model was proposed and accepted. This model of doctoral psychology training focuses on a blend of applied skills and scholarly output. These programs award their graduates the PhD degree. More info about this model here.
Practitioner-Scholar: This is the second training model to emerge, established in 1973 by the APA. Again known as a Colorado city name for the location of its origins, this “Vail Model” focuses on applied clinical activities (e.g., psychotherapy, assessment) and the responsible consumption of psychological science, but less so its creation. These programs award their graduates the PsyD degree. More info about this model here.
Clinical-Scientist: This is the newest of the three models, established in 1994. It is sometimes also referred to as the “Bench Science Model” for its focus on basic science and dissemination of clinical findings. These programs are intended to train future professors, research scholars, directors of clinical trials, or other industry scientists. These programs award their graduates the PhD degree. More info about this model here.
Examples: For some examples of the three training models across the nation, check out this APA article. Here in the state of Michigan, we have doctoral training programs exemplifying each model. CMU offers a scientist-practitioner (PhD) program, MSP offers a practitioner-scholar (PsyD) program, and UofM offers a clinical-scientist (PhD) program. These are just a few examples, there are numerous others in state.
Other Training Differences
A few other things may be worth noting, regarding the logistics and practical factors associated with earning each type of degree. Note that there is variability in each, and there will be exceptions to these general descriptions. Briefly, here are some key comparisons:
Finances: PhD programs (especially those of the Clinical-Scientist model) tend to be most likely to have significant student funding available (e.g., grants, tuition-remission, assistantship positions, and even “full ride” scholarships). This is often because of the state or federal money pulled in for research grants. PsyD programs on the other hand, are somewhat less likely to have financial support available, or it may take the form of paid therapy trainee positions. All things considered, PhD programs are less expensive on average.
Enrollment: PhD programs tend to be smaller (e.g., 5 to 10 students in a given cohort) while PsyD programs vary more widely and are sometimes much bigger (e.g., 10 to 50 students in a given cohort).
Admissions: PhD programs tend to be more selective and competitive than PsyD programs. Whereas, annually, a given PhD program may receive 200 applications for 5 available seats (2.5% admitted), a PsyD program may receive 200 applications for 40 available seats (20% admitted). As such, the GPA, research productivity, and other applicant characteristics typically need to be stronger to secure admission to a PhD program.
Structure: Some graduate programs handle their admissions and mentorship processes in a lab-specific kind of way. In this model, a given mentor decides if their lab has room to take on a new student, and they’ll handle interviews and selection decisions relatively independently. When that is the case, an applicant is essentially applying not to “University of X” but rather to “Professor X’s Lab at University of X.” Thus the funding, mentorship, and various assignments may feel very different from the other model which is more of a community/cohort design. In the cohort model, all students in the incoming class are brought in together to the program as a whole, and mentorship decisions (e.g., who will advise one’s dissertation) are decided afterwards, once students have arrived and begun the program and gotten to know the faculty. Clinical-Scientist PhD programs tend to be of the lab-specific model, Practitioner-Scholar PsyD programs tend to be of the cohort-model, and Scientist-Practitioner PhD programs vary with which model they use. This information is especially important when applying, so take some time to find out!
Accreditation: It is recommended that students attend APA-accredited doctoral programs in psychology, rather than unaccredited programs. While most programs granting either the PhD or PsyD degree are indeed accredited, there are somewhat more unaccredited programs of the Vail model. As such, there is a bit wider variability in quality of Practitioner-Scholar programs granting the PsyD. This is not a slant against all Vail model programs, just an encouragement to carefully review before applying–many PsyD training programs are absolutely fantastic.
Internships: There has historically been a bit of a difficulty in the fields of clinical and counseling psychology, such that there are too many doctoral students for the available internship site placements. Remember that to complete an APA-accredited doctoral program, a pre-doctoral one-year applied internship placement is required. In recent years as many as 25% of applicants did not match to a site, so it is important for graduate school applicants to check the so-called “match rate” of the schools to which they are applying. PhD programs, on average, tend to have higher match rates than PsyD programs. Be looking for match rates of 80%, 90%, or even higher to have confidence that you’ll be adequately prepared when you get to that stage and likely to succeed rather than tacking an extra year onto your graduate education and needing to try again.
What Do You Want?
While both forms of doctorate open doors to many similar career pathways, arguably the key difference involves whether one has a desire to play a role in the academic field of psychology versus the applied world. For those hoping to spend much of their career writing books or journal articles, securing grants for clinical trials, or teaching at the college/university level, a PhD may make more sense. And oppositely, if someone’s career goals are mostly or exclusively in the application of psychological practice, then a PsyD may make more sense. However, it is ok to explore programs of both types and even apply to some of each, given the many overlapping characteristics!
While pondering the similarities and differences between the training models described above, you may also find that there are reasons to reconsider the doctorate altogether and instead pursue a terminal Master’s degree. To help with that decision process, read this page.
This is all pretty complicated, but here is an attempt at stating it concisely…
1) The PhD in Psychology indicates the highest level of academic training, geared toward the future creation of psychology content.
2) The PsyD indicates the highest level of professional psychologist training, geared toward the application of psychology to issues in our world.
3) Both the PhD and PsyD are doctoral degrees, making one eligible for many similar types of career opportunities, but their goals and intentions differ slightly.
4) Beyond the PhD/PsyD distinction, an aspiring psychologist should also be aware of the three training models (Scientist-Practitioner, Practitioner-Scholar, and Clinical-Scientist) and choose to pursue graduate training programs fitting their career goals and interests.