If you have a passion for the subject of psychology and enjoy helping others, your dream job may be working as a psychologist. Your career path would be long and challenging but also rewarding and exciting. In most states, psychologists have a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in clinical psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree from a doctoral program accredited by the American Psychological Association. The practice of psychotherapy is tightly regulated to ensure that clients are appropriately diagnosed and counseled by competent, qualified professionals.

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A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in clinical psychology is a research-heavy degree that takes around five to seven years to finish, which is about 18 months longer than the more hands-on Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Ph.D. in Psychology?

Generally, Ph.D. programs require up to seven years in residence after completion of a bachelor’s degree. For instance, doctoral students in a Ph.D. program at the University of California, Los Angeles can enroll in a six-year course of study within a chosen area of psychology after earning their four-year undergraduate degree. The early years at UCLA are spent learning advanced qualitative and quantitative research methods while taking classes in the student’s intended specialization, such as clinical or developmental psychology. In the fourth year of the program, doctoral students are ready to write and defend a dissertation proposal. Students then write a lengthy thesis describing an original research project undertaken and analyzed.

Once the student fulfills all requirements for the dissertation, finishes internships and passes exams, the student is awarded a Ph.D. and may apply for a state license. Students who already have a master’s degree may be accepted into a Ph.D. program with advanced standing, meaning a few master-level courses may substitute for courses in the Ph.D. curriculum.

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Many research and teaching jobs in academia require a Ph.D. and a history of publication in books and scholarly journals. Psychologists with a Ph.D. and a license can represent themselves to the public as a psychologist and work in mental health or in private practice.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Doctorate in Psychology?

An APA-accredited Psy.D. program requires about six years of study beyond a bachelor’s degree. For instance, students in the University of St. Thomas Psy.D. program may enroll in a two-year master’s program with guaranteed admission into the four-year Psy.D. program upon successful completion of the M.A. The curriculum emphasizes counseling theories, techniques, assessment measures, practicum experience and a one-year internship in the fourth year.

Psy.D. programs tend to have less stringent research requirements than Ph.D. programs, making it possible to graduate sooner from a Psy.D. program. The downside is that Psy.D. students are less likely than Ph.D. students to receive research and teaching assistantships that cover tuition and provide a stipend. Some Psy.D. programs give students the option of undertaking a major project instead of writing a dissertation.

Do not choose a traditional or online Psy.D. program because it is fast or easy. Look into your state’s licensing requirements for psychologists before deciding on a program. Some states stipulate that applicants must have completed an APA-approved doctoral program and an APA-approved internship, or they cannot sit for that state’s psychology licensing exam.

Steps to Become a Psychologist

If you are seriously thinking about becoming a psychologist, work on your reading, writing, communication and math skills in high school. Taking sociology and psychology classes will deepen your understanding of people and societal influences. Statistics classes are very important if you see a college psychology major and possibly a doctoral program in your future. Psychology requires a handle on statistics to make sense of fundamental concepts such as the bell curve, statistically significant findings and causation versus correlation. Strive for excellent grades and practice for the Graduate Record Exam. Competition for Ph.D. programs and graduate assistantships can be fierce.

You can apply to some doctoral programs in your senior year of college and enroll soon after graduation if you are accepted, or you may complete a master’s degree in psychology and then decide whether to further your education.

What Can I Do With a Doctorate in Psychology?

Jobs in clinical or counseling psychology are typically limited to people with a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. and a license. Exceptions are found in school psychology and industrial-organizational psychology, but a doctorate is still a competitive advantage in the hiring process.

Within the field of clinical psychology, there are many specializations and employment opportunities. For instance, clinical psychologists administer diagnostic tests, reach a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan that may include individual or family therapy. A few states allow a licensed clinical psychologist to prescribe medication. Forensic psychologists work within the criminal justice system and may offer expert witness testimony in court. Counseling psychologists help people solve problems occurring in personal or job situations. Research psychologists work for private companies or in academia studying human behavior. College professors teach, consult, publish and lead research teams.

Some employers of psychologists, such as the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, require a doctorate from an APA-accredited program and completion of an APA internship. Those who meet VA hiring qualifications work as psychologists in VA programs related to psychiatric recovery, post-traumatic stress disorder, outpatient mental health, neuropsychology or geropsychology, for instance.

About the Author

Dr. Mary Dowd is a dean of students whose job includes student conduct, leading the behavioral consultation team, crisis response, retention and the working with the veterans resource center. She enjoys helping parents and students solve problems through advising, teaching and writing online articles that appear on many sites. Dr. Dowd also contributes to scholarly books and journal articles.