Understanding the Difference Between a PsyD and PhD

Students walking on campus
“Choosing between PsyD and PhD programs? Find the one aligned with your career goals.

Students find themselves at a crossroad when they have to make a decision on which program to take. Being interested in higher level education and training in psychology usually leads students to deciding between PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) and PhD (Ph. D. in Psychology) programs.

If you are about to make the same decision, you might be wondering how the two programs are alike and different. Which program will be the best ladder to reach your career goals?
To help answer your questions, we will discuss PsyD programs as a flourishing and growing niche in the industry. We will understand it by tracing its roots, studying the current scenario, and looking at its state in the future. Comparing it to more established PhD programs can also help you make better decisions towards your meaningful career.

PsyD as an Alternative to the PhD

Simply put, a PsyD is a doctoral degree in psychology. This was created in the late 1960s to early 1970s as an alternative to the PhD programs. PsyD is a professional degree that is given to two main practices of psychology which are Clinical Psychology and Counseling Psychology.

“The idea is to educate people directly for practice, instead of educating people for science and practice in one program.”

– Donald Peterson, PhD, Rutgers University

This Doctor of Psychology degree has emphasis on clinical practice and hands-on experiences. Courses and training are geared towards psychotherapy and monitored experiences with patients, with less focus on research. Therefore, they are not creators but consumers of research-based knowledge.

What to Expect

As a student of a PsyD program, you can expect to have an in-depth understanding of practice-related knowledge. You will gain more clinical training and experience that will enable you to work directly with patients.
Although PsyD programs do not focus on research as much as PhD programs, you will find that it has a number of research courses. This enables you to become a consumer of research and apply research findings to the work that you do as a practicing psychologist.

Understanding PsyD Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Although the PsyD programs are newer than PhD programs, Bridget Murray of the American Psychological Association describes it as a flourishing field.

“In the beginning, the PsyD was a leap of faith. Now it’s an accepted practitioner degree. You see it everywhere.” – Rosalind Dorlen, PsyD, Rutgers University

Rosalind Dorlen belonged to the first class of PsyD students at Rutgers University. Her quote above aptly describes the transformation that PsyD went through from its birth to the present. PsyD stemmed from the mismatch between what clinical psychologists learned and what they needed to do in actual practice. During that time, the PhD programs put primary emphasis on research. In the 1960s, the APA committee on scientific and professional aims of psychology felt that they needed to have programs for practice-focused instruction. This led to creating the first form of PsyD which only lasted for 12 years. Graduates from the program found themselves to be a poor fit in the research-oriented institutions that were available after they graduated.

However, the market changed in the 1970s and became more accepting of the practice-oriented notion. Institutions realized that graduates coming into the work force had very little clinical practice and training. Thus, the PsyD program was resurrected through The Vail Conference of 1973. In 1992, just two decades after the PsyD program was offered, there were over 9000 graduates awarded with the degree.
Today, there are over a hundred institutions in United States. Enrollments are also on the rise, leading to schools producing a large number of PsyD graduates. There is a positive outlook for the future of PsyD as it has become adept in changing with the market needs. It has continuously added courses such as managed care, outcomes assessment, and forensics, among others.

Delving Deeper: A Survey of PsyD Granting Schools and Programs

At this point, you’re probably thinking of how PsyD schools and program choose their students based on their background. As enrollments are increasing, schools began to streamline its admission policies and requirements.
In 2008, Daniel Michalski of APA conducted a case study to gather information on predoctoral education of PsyD recipients. 40 out of the 97 PsyD schools participated in the study to shed a light on the characteristics of students that undergo a PsyD program.

Significant findings include the following:

  • 12 % of the recipients obtained associate degrees in psychology while 1.5 % had non-psychology related degrees.
  • 67 % or more than two-thirds majored in psychology in the undergraduate or baccalaureate level while 21 % majored in other fields.

With this, you have to assess your predoctoral education vis-à-vis the school that you are eyeing. Are they more accepting of the predoctoral degree that you have? If you have a non-psychology degree, what courses do you have to take before you undergo the PsyD program?

Comparing PsyD and PhD Programs

Differences At Glance

  • Emphasis: PsyD puts emphasis on practice while PhD is focused on research.
  • Admission Requirements: Requirements are generally the same. Schools look for pre-doctorate education, GPA scores (varies), GRE scores (varies), transcripts, letters of recommendations, and other assessments (e.g. interviews, essays, Statement of Purpose, etc.)
  • Courses and Required Training: In both programs, there is advanced coursework on psychology which prepares students to practice in a wide range of clinical settings.
  • Differentiation: The differentiation begins in the later years as PsyD focuses on applied psychology through internships while PhD focuses on research through papers and dissertations.
  • Acceptance Rate:There is a 40-41 % acceptance rate of students who apply to PsyD programs while only 11-15% is admitted to PhD programs.
  • Program Length Programs for both can range from five to seven years. Generally PsyD students finish less than 1.5 years than PhD students. PhD takes a longer time to finish due to the need to complete a research or doctoral dissertation.
  • Financial Assistance: 84% of PhD students receive full financial assistance in comparison to 20 % of PsyD students.
  • Internship Acceptance and Licensure Exam Performance: 96% of PhD students get accepted to APA-accredited internships in comparison to 74 % of PsyD students. PhD student generally score better than PsyD students at licensure exams.
  • Potential Jobs: PsyD graduates generally become clinical psychologists who work directly with patients while PhD students have options to teach, research, or engage in practice.


PsyD is practice-oriented. If your goal is to become a practicing psychologist after you graduate, you will be more inclined to choose PsyD. This will equip you with knowledge in therapy and will give you ample knowledge on research to understand and apply it to the work that you do.
On the other hand, PhD puts emphasis on research. If your goal is to enrich the field of psychology by producing more research, you will be keen to take the PhD program. The PhD program is best for people who want to create research or teach.

Courses and Required Training

In both programs, there is advanced coursework on psychology which prepares students to practice in a wide range of clinical setting. Different schools have varied courses for the PsyD and PhD programs. In PsyD programs, there is focus on applied psychology, practicum, and/or internship to hone students in working directly with patients. Dissertation may also be required but not as complex as in PhD. In PhD programs, there is a highlight on research and experimentation. The program culminates in dissertation that contributes to the literature and knowledge of psychology.

Differences in PhD and PsyD Program Lengths

Doctorate programs typically last for five to seven years. PsyD students usually finish 1.5 years earlier than PhD students. PhD students are required to produce an original research which usually takes an extra year or two to complete.

Financial assistance may vary and may include full tuition waiver and/or stipend. Although there is a higher acceptance rate in PsyD programs, there is less financial assistance compared to PhD programs. 84% of PhD students receive full financial assistance in comparison to 20 % of PsyD students. The financial assistance that PsyD students receive also varies depending on the organizational setting wherein the PsyD program is housed. University-based PsyD programs offer aid to 31% of students, university professional schools give to 14 %, while only 12 % of students in freestanding programs receive assistance.

Internship Acceptance and Licensure Exam Performance

96% of PhD students get accepted to APA-accredited internships in comparison to 74 % of PsyD students. The higher acceptance rate of PhD students is associated with the more rigorous admissions process and requirements of PhD programs than PsyD programs.

Results in licensure exams show that PhD students score better than PsyD students. Research shows that higher scores are attributed to smaller-sized programs and larger faculty-student ratio. Students who get low scores mostly come from PsyD freestanding programs which tend to have a bigger population and lower faculty-student ratio.

Potential Jobs

Graduates of PsyD and PhD programs are presented with various opportunities. There is a continuing demand for those with doctorate in psychology, whether it’s PsyD or PhD. PsyD graduates generally become clinical psychologists who work directly with patients. PhD graduates mostly choose careers in research and teaching although there are some who also do applied psychology.

Making a Choice

Now that you have the information about PsyD and PhD programs, it all comes down to making a choice. The choice you make all boils down to knowing what the best is for YOU. How do you determine which is best?

It is important to consider your interests, strengths, and career goals. You may ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are my career goals? What do you envision doing in for a long time?
  • Do I enjoy doing research, conducting interventions and therapies, or both?
  • Do I plan to teach in the academe or go into clinical practice?
  • What were the subjects and courses that I took in preparation for my doctorate degree?
  • Which subjects did I feel good about and excelled at the most?
  • What are the PsyD/ PhD graduates doing? Am I interested in their jobs?
  • What are my financial needs? Which program can I afford the most?
  • Is the program APA-accredited?

What if you are still unsure despite pondering over the questions above? Ashley Solomon, PsyD was on the same page as you are. She recalls, “When I was applying to graduate school, I actually wasn’t certain whether my long-term career goals would include research, clinical work or both.,” To solve that, she applied to a variety of PhD, PsyD, and non-psychology programs. During the interview processes, she focused on the PsyD as her criteria in choosing . “When I interviewed at Xavier, it immediately felt like the place that matched my interests and needs best.” She was able to come to a decision because she understood what her needs, interests, and goals are.

Remember, YOU are paramount in choosing which program to take. It is a matter of knowing your personal goals and being fully informed about the programs before you take the big leap for your career.

  • Reference & Data Information Provided by the Following:
  • Data from: http://cms.bsu.edu/-/media/www/departmentalcontent/psychology/docs/psyd.pdf
  • Case Study from: http://www.apa.org/workforce/publications/08-psyd/index.aspx
  • https://www.binghamton.edu/psychology/files/psyd-norcross.pdf
  • http://psychcentral.com/lib/choosing-between-psyd-phd-psychology-graduate-degrees/
  • http://www.div12.org/sites/default/files/DifferenceBetweenPhDandPsyD.pdf
  • http://www.apa.org/monitor/jan00/ed1.aspx