What are the Differences Between a Psy.D. and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology

Though most people are likely more familiar with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, a Psy.D. also offers you the opportunity to study at a high level in this field. In fact, a Psy.D. is a terminal degree, just like a Ph.D.

However, there are many differences between a Ph.D. and a Psy.D. that make one a better choice in some situations over the other. These differences, which are explained in detail below, include different time commitments in college, different coursework, and different job opportunities, to name a few.

If you are on the fence about pursuing a Psy.D. or a Ph.D., consult the guide below to learn more about these similar yet very different degree paths!

PsyD Vs PhD in Clinical Psychology

PsyD Vs PhD in Clinical Psychology

A PsyD in Clinical Psychology is a practice-focused degree emphasizing clinical work, while a PhD in Clinical Psychology is more research-focused, preparing students for academia or research roles. Both qualify graduates for licensure as clinical psychologists.

A Psy.D. focuses on practical training. For example, as a prospective clinical psychologist, your Psy.D. program would focus on helping you develop the skills needed to provide competent psychological services to clients. In other words, a Psy.D. prepares you to work directly with clients by focusing on acquiring clinical psychology skills, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, marriage and family therapy, and psychoanalysis.

Meanwhile, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology usually focuses more on the theoretical bases of clinical psychology and clinical psychology research. While you will still gain the skills needed to work directly with clients, the bulk of the program is spent conducting clinical psychology research and preparing you for non-clinical applications of your knowledge.

For example, with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, you might take courses in psychological research, research ethics, and statistics. The skills you gain in these and other research-oriented experiences prepare you for work in research labs, think tanks, or as a college professor.

Differences in Coursework

Since a Psy.D. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology both prepare you for clinical work, there are some similarities in the courses you take. A good example of this are in the theoretical and scientific bases of psychology, which include courses like:

  • History and Systems of Psychology, which explores the foundations of psychology as a science.
  • Psychoanalytic Models of Psychology, which focuses on the theories of Freud and his followers and their application in treating psychological disorders.
  • Biological Models of Psychology, which examines the theories of psychologists like William James, who espoused that human behavior is largely influenced by biological forces.

But since a Psy.D. prepares you for clinical work and a Ph.D. focuses more on research and academic work, there are far more courses that are different between these two degrees. More specifically, the purpose of courses is different.

For example, as a Psy.D. student, you will likely take courses that examine the social aspects of human behavior. Social psychology is a prime example. In this course, you will develop an understanding of how society influences individual behavior. But more importantly, you will learn how to take those forces into account in a therapeutic setting.

Additionally, you will learn how to use theories and approaches from social psychology as tools for treating psychological disorders. An example of this might be using family systems theory to examine how members of a family (or even a community) interact with one another and reframing maladaptive ways of interacting with more positive ones.

But, as a Ph.D. student in a clinical psychology program, your social psychology course would likely focus more on the theoretical underpinnings of the field. In addition to studying seminal work in social psychology, you would also participate in clinical social psychology research.

For example, you might work with a professor that’s studying how group thinking influences individual decision-making. So, rather than studying therapeutic techniques like a Psy.D. student, your purpose would be to investigate how the decisions we make are (or are not) influenced by other people.

PhD vs PsyD in Clinical Psychology differences

Let’s explore another example of the differences in coursework.

As a Psy.D. student, you are likely to take a number of courses in the realms of diagnosis and psychopathology. Again, your focus is on learning how to diagnose mental illnesses and how to identify psychopathology in various populations. To do so, you might take advanced courses in the diagnosis of childhood mental health disorders, including field experiences in which you work with mentally ill children.

But, as a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology, your courses in diagnosis and psychopathology might focus more on the origins of diagnosis and the questions yet unanswered in the realm of psychopathology.

So, while you might learn how to effectively use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5 TR), your greater focus might be on how the DSM was developed and what research questions remain about the DSM system.

Furthermore, your learning experiences in psychopathology might focus less on how to treat it and more on gaining the skills necessary to study psychopathology and advance the field’s understanding of abnormal human behavior.

Another primary difference in coursework between a Psy.D. and Ph.D. program is the culminating learning experience. As a Psy.D. student, you will likely have to complete a dissertation, but more and more Psy.D. programs are focusing more on final research projects with greater emphasis on the practical application of what you have learned in the program.

A good example of this is a culminating experience in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Rather than conducting research and writing a dissertation on new treatment modalities for paranoid schizophrenia (as a Ph.D. student might do), you might be asked to present how you would treat a client with paranoid schizophrenia.

In other words, your Psy.D. program, which focuses on gaining practical skills for working with clients from the get-go, might end with less research and more experience actually putting your knowledge and skills to the test.

Conversely, as a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology, you will very likely have to conduct doctoral research and defend your findings in a dissertation. Much like a practical culminating experience aligns with the Psy.D. program and prepares you for future clinical work, a dissertation brings together the research-related skills you have learned in your Ph.D. program and prepares you to continue that research focus after you graduate.

In many cases, Psy.D. programs are shorter than Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology. On average, a Psy.D. takes about four to six years, while a Ph.D. might take as many as eight years. A major reason for this difference is that Ph.D. programs have much more significant research requirements to graduate.

Differences in Career Opportunities

The careers you might pursue after graduation with a Psy.D. or Ph.D. differ much like the coursework for these programs. On the one hand, you might be more likely to pursue clinical work with clients with a Psy.D. On the other hand, you might pursue teaching or research positions with a Ph.D.

With a Psy.D., you might work in a community mental health setting with clients who are experiencing low-level mental health issues like periodic depression or work-related anxiety or who are experiencing difficulties in their marriage. But with doctoral-level training, you can also work with seriously mentally ill people.

For example, you might be employed by a residential mental health center where you specialize in treating patients with a dissociative disorder. In this capacity, you would likely work with a team of specialists to provide holistic patient care, including mental health treatment, physical health and wellness interventions, and psychopharmacology.

PsyD and PhD in Clinical Psychology differences

As a Psy.D. graduate, you could also choose to work in private practice. With your knowledge of psychological theory and your understanding of diagnosis and treatment strategies, you could choose to work with a broad spectrum of clients. Conversely, you could choose to specialize and work with a very narrowly defined client base, such as adolescents with ADHD, trauma victims, or people with psychotic disorders.

As a Ph.D. graduate, these clinical applications might be open to you. But you would also have the research knowledge and experience to work in the field of psychological research.

For example, you might work for a pharmaceutical company and run clinical trials for emerging drug treatments for psychological illnesses. As another example, you might work for a government agency or non-profit researching common psychological problems, like what effect divorce has on the emotional development of children or the ways in which social media influences personality development in pre-teen girls.

It’s important to note that these pathways are not set in stone, particularly for Ph.D. students. Many people who get a Ph.D. in clinical psychology go into practice – be that privately or in a community mental health setting – and never conduct psychological research after they graduate. Since a Psy.D. more narrowly focuses on clinical applications, it is far less common for a Psy.D. graduate to conduct research.

Is a PhD or PsyD Better for Clinical Psychology?

If you think about a future as a psychologist that works directly with clients and helps them work through psychological difficulties, your better bet might be to get a Psy.D. Not only are Psy.D. programs more focused on clinical applications, but they also tend to be shorter.

Meanwhile, if being a psychological researcher is what you aspire to be, a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology is a more appropriate pathway. Likewise, Ph.D. programs tend to be better aligned for careers in academics, either as a researcher or as a teacher.

If you are not sure of your future career goals, it’s important to talk to an academic advisor, a professor, or another trusted source. Combined with reading guides like this, you can use their expertise to help better define what you want to learn, how you want to use your skills, and what you want to do for your career.

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