A doctoral program in psychology requires students to master the subject matter, in general psychology or a specific specialty within the field, conduct original research and complete a doctoral dissertation. Typically, doctoral students in psychology will be required to complete a supervised internship, usually in an agency or clinical setting. Success in a Ph.D. program in psychology requires a strong understanding of theories and a dedication to research.
Students must have a bachelor’s degree, and perhaps a master’s degree as well, to be admitted to a Ph.D. program in psychology. Although a student’s bachelor’s or master’s degree doesn't necessarily have to be in psychology, the student should have completed at least some basic psychology courses. Admissions requirements for doctoral programs vary across schools.
Doctoral students in psychology must complete a range of required coursework that can include studies in psychological theories, personality, cognitive development, physiology, abnormal psychology, social psychology and developmental psychology. Because a Ph.D. program in psychology emphasizes research, students also must successfully complete one or more courses in social statistics and research methodologies. Ph.D. programs in psychology often require students to complete a written comprehensive examination to demonstrate their mastery of the knowledge in the field of psychology.
After completing required coursework in psychology, students in a Ph.D. program must complete and defend a dissertation that demonstrates their ability to conduct original research in the field of psychology. The student will choose a research topic of interest and, working under the supervision of a faculty member, develop a dissertation proposal that identifies the topic, states the key research question(s), and outlines a research methodology. Once the proposal receives approval from a committee of faculty members, the student conducts the research and writes the dissertation.
Candidates for a doctoral degree must successfully fulfill the clinical component of the program, which entails a supervised internship, often in a University affiliated facility, a clinical setting or with a human services agency. For example, doctoral students in the clinical psychology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison start their practicum working in the school's Psychology Department Research and Training Clinic. After assessing and treating clients of all ages from diverse backgrounds at the PDRTC for a minimum of one year, doctoral students may seek practicums in area mental health centers and hospitals.
Length of Program
The length of time required to complete a Ph.D. in psychology varies by university, specialty and whether the student attends school full- or part-time. Normally, the degree take four to six years to complete. A Ph.D. that specializes in clinical psychology frequently requires the full six years or more given the scope and rigor of the curriculum.
Shane Hall is a writer and research analyst with more than 20 years of experience. His work has appeared in "Brookings Papers on Education Policy," "Population and Development" and various Texas newspapers. Hall has a Doctor of Philosophy in political economy and is a former college instructor of economics and political science.