Like a Ph.D. in any discipline, a doctorate in clinical psychology is a research degree, but it differs from most Ph.D.s in that it trains students to work directly with patients. Plan to spend five or six years earning your doctorate before entering the one- to two-year postdoctoral fellowship required for licensing.


Upon entering a clinical psychology program, you’ll begin the coursework phase. This portion of the degree usually takes four or five years of coursework, depending on the program. During this time, you’ll attend classes covering a broad spectrum of topics in clinical psychology research and practice, such as statistical design, psychoanalytic psychotherapy, professional and ethical issues and cognitive, developmental and physiological psychology. You’ll also complete a series of clinic practicums, some of which are held during the summer rather than the academic year, to log hours of direct patient contact.

Dissertation and Predoctoral Internship

After you take your comprehensive exams in the program, usually by the end of the third year, you’ll begin to conduct original research in clinical psychology, on which your dissertation is based. In your fifth or sixth year of study, once your coursework is complete, you’ll balance dissertation research and writing with a one-year clinical psychology internship. Your choice of internship program may depend on what area you want to practice in as a licensed clinical psychologist, but all internships involve rotations in multiple areas and applied training in patient consultation, assessment, and treatment. By the end of the internship year, you should complete and defend your dissertation to earn the Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Training

After you finish your Ph.D., you won’t yet be a licensed clinical psychologist. Most states require you to complete a one- to two-year postdoctoral fellowship in clinical psychology before licensing you to practice. Postdocs pick both a research and a clinical emphasis, such as adult clinical psychology, child clinical psychology or neuropsychology. The proportion of time that postdocs spend in research compared to direct patient contact differs depending on the program, and you should consider your own preferences for this ratio when applying to fellowships. During a postdoc, you accrue the supervised clinical hours necessary for licensing. These vary by state: The average is 2,000 hours, but Michigan requires 6,000 hours, whereas California requires 3,000 hours, according to the American Psychological Association.


The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards publishes an online handbook listing the current requirements for licensure in the U.S. All states require those seeking a clinical psychology license to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. The optimal number of hours to study is between 200 and 300, according to a 2012 research study published in “Training and Education in Professional Psychology” and summarized on the American Psychological Association’s website.

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About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.