What are the Key Differences Between a PsyD and Ph.D Program in Psychology?

If psychology is your major of choice, and you want to get an advanced degree, you might be faced with choosing between a PsyD and Ph.D. The question is, what are the differences between the two?

Ultimately, both degrees offer a high level of training in psychology, but how these programs go about doing that differs, both in terms of some of the coursework and the learning outcomes you are expected to master.

Likewise, you will find differences in the careers you might pursue after completing a PsyD as opposed to a Ph.D. Other differences exist, too – which are explained in the detailed guide below.

PsyD Vs PhD

PsyD Vs Ph.D.

PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) emphasizes clinical practice and hands-on therapy. Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology) often focuses on research, theory, and teaching. While both can lead to therapeutic roles, their primary goals differ: PsyD trains clinicians, while PhD prepares researchers and academics.

PsyD programs are much newer. While Ph.D. programs in psychology date back to the late 1800s, PsyD programs weren’t developed until the early 1970s. But why did the psychology community feel the need to add another high-level degree offering?

Simply put, back then, as today, Ph.D. programs in psychology focused mostly on research and academic pursuits, not clinical applications of psychology. PsyD programs, on the other hand, were developed as professional training specifically for students who wished to provide psychological services to clients in a clinical setting.

As a result of this key difference, these programs approach coursework and learning outcomes in different ways.

Differences in Coursework

The core coursework of most PsyD and Ph.D. programs is actually quite similar. In both programs, you will spend the first couple of years of your studies exploring the central tenets of psychology in courses like psychopathology, developmental psychology, and ethical issues in psychology.

Likewise, PsyD and Ph.D. programs typically include coursework in psychological assessment, history and systems of psychology, and cognitive psychology. Behavioral psychology, psychological interventions, and psychoanalysis are common.

However, as one progresses through these programs, the focus of the coursework begins to diverge. For example, as a PsyD student, you can expect to continue a path of psychology coursework for much of the remainder of the program. But as a Ph.D. student, the third through sixth years of the program focus much more on research-related topics.

Let’s assume you are a third-year PsyD student. Since PsyD programs focus more on clinical applications of psychology, your semester course schedule might look like this:

  • Projective personality assessment
  • Couples and family therapy
  • Psychopharmacology

Now let’s assume you are a third-year Ph.D. student. With a focus on psychological research, your semester course load might look like this:

  • Biostatistics
  • Experimental design
  • Data analysis

So, while the foundational courses students initially take might be very similar, the focus in many programs begins to shift such that PsyD students get the needed training to apply their knowledge as a clinician, whereas Ph.D. students get the needed training to conduct research.

It’s worth mentioning that not all Ph.D. programs are wholly focused on research – some Ph.D. options mirror the training provided by a Psy.D.

Differences in Duration, Core Subjects, and Electives

When deciding between a PsyD and a PhD in psychology, understanding the duration and course structure can help prospective you align their choices with your personal and professional goals.


  • Duration: Typically, PsyD programs last between 4 to 6 years, including internship. The exact duration can vary based on full-time vs. part-time enrollment, the program’s intensity, and individual progress.
  • Course Structure:
    • Core Subjects: PsyD programs often include core courses in psychotherapy, diagnostics, psychological assessment, human development, and psychopathology.
    • Electives: PsyD programs may offer electives in areas like child psychology, forensic psychology, neuropsychology, and health psychology, allowing you to tailor your education to specific interests.
    • Clinical Training: Hands-on clinical experience is central to the PsyD curriculum. You will engage in supervised internships or practicums throughout your program.


  • Duration: PhD programs typically last between 5 to 7 years, with the variation often due to the time required for original research and dissertation completion.
  • Course Structure:
    • Core Subjects: PhD programs frequently include core courses in research methods, statistics, cognitive psychology, biological psychology, and psychometrics.
    • Electives: As a PhD candidate, you can choose electives related to your specific research interests, be it in social psychology, developmental psychology, organizational psychology, or other specializations.
    • Research: A significant portion of a PhD program is dedicated to research. You will be expected to produce original research, culminating in a dissertation. Some programs also require teaching or assisting in undergraduate courses.

Differences in Learning Outcomes

As a result of the differences in coursework between these programs, there are often distinct differences in learning outcomes as well.

A good example of this is in the application of knowledge and skills acquired in a PsyD versus a Ph.D. program:

  • A primary learning outcome for PsyD students might be successfully assessing and diagnosing a client with a specific psychological disorder. This would include having competency using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to identify the presenting issue and outlining a course of treatment to address the presenting.
  • A primary learning outcome for Ph.D. students might be to design and carry out a psychological experiment successfully. This would include the competency to examine relevant psychological research, conduct detailed data analyses, and interpret data to draw evidence-based conclusions.

We can drill down to even more specific differences in these learning outcomes. For example, a PsyD student might be evaluated on their ability to form a trusting relationship with a client in a clinical setting. This skill would be evaluated and assessed in the context of a supervised field experience, such as a pre-doctoral internship. The PsyD student would be observed by their supervisor, who would provide actionable feedback regarding the student’s demeanor with the client, application of relevant skills, and so forth.

Meanwhile, a Ph.D. student might be evaluated on their research competencies in the context of their dissertation research. The dissertation process is a lengthy one, with years of research devoted to the project and feedback provided by one’s dissertation committee at various points in the process.

But, rather than being evaluated on their ability to provide psychological services to a client, a Ph.D. student’s dissertation committee would provide a final evaluation of the quality of research and academic value of that research during the student’s dissertation defense. Again, while the underlying theory and training might be similar, the application of knowledge gained in a PsyD versus a Ph.D. program can be quite different.

Licensing and Certifications

After completing a PsyD program, graduates typically need to pass a state licensing exam, often referred to as the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Additionally, all states have post-doctoral supervised practice requirements before granting full licensure.

If you are looking to specialize further, there are various certifications available. These can be in areas like clinical child psychology, forensic psychology, school psychology, or neuropsychology. These certifications may enhance your job prospects, professional reputation, and potential earning capacity.

Just like PsyD graduates, PhD graduates aiming for clinical practice must pass the EPPP and fulfill any state-specific requirements. If you are planning to venture into academia, credentials like teaching certifications or post-doctoral fellowships can further bolster your academic profile.

Differences in Career Opportunities

As a result of the differences in coursework and learning outcomes in PsyD and Ph.D. programs, you’ll find that the career opportunities can be quite different as well.

Assume you are a PsyD graduate looking for your first job. With your background in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment, it stands to reason that the career opportunities ahead of you would be in areas like clinical psychology, counseling psychology, or marriage and family therapy.

Bear in mind that the specific job opportunities you have depend on your specific PsyD training. For example, some PsyD programs focus on forensic psychology. In that case, the career opportunities you pursue would be specific to that field, such as clinical forensic psychology. With this specialization, jobs in marriage and family therapy would likely not be on your radar.

Even though PsyD programs might have a narrowed focus on a specific niche of psychology, what binds PsyD programs together is clinical training. Regardless of whether your PsyD program focuses on clinical psychology, developmental psychology, forensic psychology, or something in between, your training will lead to a career in which you apply your skills in a therapeutic setting with clients.

The career opportunities for Ph.D. students can be much broader than Psy.D. students. On the one hand, if you complete a traditional Ph.D. program focusing on psychology research, your career opportunities will mostly exist in the research and academic realms.

For example, you might pursue employment at a psychology research lab, conducting research trials for new medications to treat psychological conditions. Alternatively, you might pursue employment at a college as a teaching professor in psychology. In both instances, you’re applying your training in non-clinical fields.

However, as noted earlier, not all Ph.D. programs in psychology are research-focused. For example, you can complete a Ph.D. program in counseling psychology and pursue a career in community mental health. Likewise, your Ph.D. program might provide you with training in child psychology, which would lead to a career working with children and adolescents in a clinical setting.

Differences in Admission Requirements

The application process for PsyD and PhD programs can be competitive. Admission requirements for PsyD and PhD programs slightly differ:


  • Educational Background: Most PsyD programs require a bachelor’s degree, but not always in psychology. However, having a foundation in psychology can be beneficial.
  • Prerequisite Courses: Some programs might require completion of specific coursework, such as statistics, research methods, or foundational psychology courses.
  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE): Many programs require GRE scores, but some might waive this requirement.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Typically, 2-3 letters from academic or professional references..
  • Personal Statement: An essay detailing your interest in the field, career goals, and reasons for choosing a PsyD program.
  • Clinical Experience: While not always mandatory, having prior experience in a relevant clinical or counseling setting can strengthen an application.


  • Educational Background: A bachelor’s or master’s degree, often with a preference for psychology or a related field.
  • Research Experience: Given the research emphasis of PhD programs, prior research experience, publications, or presentations can be a significant advantage.
  • Graduate Record Examination (GRE): Required by most, though some institutions have started to eliminate this requirement.
  • Letters of Recommendation: Generally, 2-3 letters, with a preference for those from research advisors or professors familiar with your academic abilities.
  • Statement of Purpose: This is more than just a personal statement. It should detail your research interests, potential faculty mentors, past research projects, and long-term career aspirations.
  • Interview: Many PhD programs have an interview component, either in-person or virtual, where the fit between you and the program is evaluated.

Both PsyD and PhD programs may also assess other materials like writing samples and CVs.

Is a PsyD Harder than a PhD?

Whether a PsyD is harder than a Ph.D. really comes down to your individual strengths as a student and prospective psychologist.

For example, if you aren’t comfortable working with clients with serious psychological issues, you might have difficulty completing a PsyD program since much of its focus is on developing the skills necessary to build an effective therapeutic relationship with a client. Likewise, if you aren’t terribly interested in mastering the techniques of specific psychological approaches (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy), you will find a PsyD program hard to complete.

Conversely, a Ph.D. program would be difficult if you struggle with the scientific applications of psychology. If statistics, for example, is hard for you to understand, you will have trouble in a Ph.D. program since statistics is a much larger component of the curriculum than in a PsyD program.

In other words, in a vacuum, a PsyD program isn’t harder than a Ph.D. program, nor is a Ph.D. program harder than a PsyD program. What it comes down to is what your strengths are, what your goals are, and what you’re interested in as a future psychologist. If you align your selected program to those components, you’ll have an easier time completing the program.

It should go without saying, though, that both PsyD and Ph.D. programs are difficult. They require years of training and practical experience, an enormous output of time and money, and require a sincere dedication to mastering relevant knowledge and skills. No matter which type of program you select, you will have to work hard to achieve your educational goals!

Is a PsyD as Good as a PhD?

Yes, a PsyD is every bit as accepted as a high-level psychology degree as a Ph.D. Think about it like the differences between a Master of Science and a Master of Arts – though these degrees have distinct differences, they are widely accepted as equal qualifications for many jobs in the psychology field.

Which is Better? A PhD or PsyD?

As discussed earlier, a Ph.D. is often preparatory for a career in research psychology and academics, which usually makes it a better choice if you wish to pursue jobs in those specific fields. On the other hand, a PsyD might be a better option if you prefer to explore a career in a helping profession like clinical or counseling psychology.

But this isn’t a clear-cut, black-and-white issue in which one of these degrees is always better than the other. Each degree has developed as a quality training program for different psychology applications. Which one is better for your specific needs and interests depends mainly on how you want to apply what you’ve learned in a work setting.

Either way you go, a PsyD. or Ph.D. in psychology is an excellent vehicle for advancing your education. When it comes down to it, you will emerge from either program with a terminal degree in your field backed by years of training and practical experience that makes you an expert in psychology.

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