What is a PhD in Psychology and Should You Get One?

A woman holding a pen to her forehead in front of a blackboard with an image of a brain shaped cog drawings and question marks

Deciding if the field of psychology is a good fit for your graduate education can be confusing and overwhelming. To start, the career field is VAST. There are so many subfields in psychology and each requires unique specialization in order to become a licensed professional in that field. A graduate degree in “psychology” doesn’t really exist. Rather, you get a graduate degree in clinical psychology, industry psychology, social psychology, quantitative psychology, behavioral neuroscience, and so on. Keep in mind, someone who is educated in one area of psychology cannot always do a job in another, and because of that, it can be hard to figure out the right education for what you want to do. As someone who is currently a PhD student in a psychology program, I’m here to help answer all your questions related to what a PhD in psychology actually looks like, and help you decide if it is the right choice for you.

What Is a PhD in Psychology?

A PhD in psychology is the highest level of education offered in a specialized field of psychology. The majority of careers in psychology require a PhD or PsyD, but there are some careers that can be done with a specialized master’s or EdS degree (e.g. applied behavior analysis, school psychologist, etc.).

A PhD or PsyD can prepare you for a wider variety of roles in the field of psychology (e.g. academic, client-based, research/lab based, etc.) and it often leads to higher paying positions: anywhere from $55k to $150k per year based on specialization and location.

Wait, What Is a PsyD and How Does It Compare to a PhD?

Both a PhD and a PsyD are doctoral level degrees. The difference between degrees comes down to your priorities in your education and career. See the table below to compare degree types.

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) PsyD (Doctor of Psychology)
Who is it for? People who want to create scientific research, data, and publications; people who want to teach at a university level; people who want to be practicing psychologists People who want to be practicing psychologists
What is the focus? Research and teaching Application of theory and methodologies
How long is the degree program? 5-8 years 4-6 years
What is the average acceptance rate for these degrees? 10-15% of qualified applicants Around 40% of qualified applicants
What funding is offered? Commonly offer stipends and/or waived tuition in exchange for research and teaching responsibilities Stipends and waived tuition are NOT common, programs may offer assistantship opportunities to curb tuition costs
Do I have to do a dissertation? Yes Depends on the program
Can I be called “Doctor?” Yes Yes

Should I Apply for a Psychology PhD/PsyD or Should I Apply for a Master’s/EdS?

This depends entirely on the career you want to pursue. Practicing psychologist roles will require doctoral degrees and any careers in research and academics require, specifically, a PhD degree. That said, there are a lot of careers that do not require training beyond a master’s or EdS degree. Do your research on what jobs you want to be able to do with the education you receive before applying to any programs.

Additionally, you will need to factor into your decision the time commitment involved with a psychology doctoral program. They take longer to complete, are almost always full-time and in-person programs, require a year-long internship as well as a dissertation (PhD and some PsyD), and often have extensive additional time requirements outside of coursework. If that does not sound feasible for you, consider finding an alternative career path or waiting until that commitment is feasible.

One thing to note is there are careers in the mental health field that fall outside of the psychology field and do not require doctoral degrees. Jobs like a counselor, therapist, or a social worker only require a master’s for licensure and have online program options. If you just want a career where you help counsel people in tough situations, choosing one of those pathways instead of a psychologist pathway could save you a lot of time and money.

What Prior Experience or Education Do I Need to Apply for a PhD/PsyD Program?

It entirely depends on the program for which you are applying. Some programs will require you to have a master’s degree. Some offer combined master’s and PhD/PsyD programs where an undergraduate degree is sufficient for admissions. Some require a certain amount of research experience while others expect you to have work experience in some field related to the subfield you will be entering. Be sure to do your due diligence while researching any program requirements before applying, and if you have any questions about the program prerequisites, always ask!

What Steps Should I Take Before I Apply for a Doctoral Program in Psychology?

STEP 1: Decide on a Subfield of Psychology

If you decide you want to be a psychologist of some kind, you first have to decide what specialization you want for your doctorate. This career guide from The American Psychology Association (APA) is a great place to start when choosing a subfield and career path in psychology.

For me, I knew I wanted to pursue my doctorate in the science of learning, and I wanted a career where I could impact decisions being made in educational institutions. When looking into psychology programs, something like health psychology or clinical psychology would not make sense with my aspirations. A better fit for me was educational and school psychology. Do not fall into the trap of just applying for clinical psychology programs if you want to be a psychologist. Clinical psychology programs are incredibly competitive and may not actually meet your education and career goals. Research all types of specializations offered in psychology to find the right fit for your interests.

Side note, to become a psychiatrist, you will need to be accepted into medical school and follow their unique admission requirements. In this article, we are only discussing education and training for psychologist careers.

STEP 2: Research Licensure Requirements

Once you have chosen a specialization that makes sense for you and your goals, it is paramount that you research licensing requirements before applying for graduate programs. You may be required to attend a university program that is APA accredited and some states may not accept licensing from other states or recognize the subfield you got your degree in. Research licensure THOROUGHLY before applying to graduate programs. The last thing you want is to spend 5-8 years pursuing a doctorate and not be able to get licensed for the job you want to do. For state licensing information, the ASPPB website is a great starting point.

STEP 3: Find University Programs For You

The final step before applying is finding the programs that can give you the education and training you need. University psychology departments only offer specialization if they have specialized faculty in that area, so you may have to do some broad searches across the country to find the right program for you. This means that to get the education you need, you may need to be open to moving where it is offered (don’t forget about researching licensing issues!) and you may need to be open to applying to only a few programs. I ended up applying for five programs in four different states, none of which were my state of residency.


There are so many factors to consider when deciding if a graduate education in psychology is right for you. I spent a lot of my time researching and considering my options before finally deciding to apply. Thankfully, all of my preparation benefited me when it came down to interview time, and I could easily answer their big question: “why do you want to pursue a PhD in educational and school psychology from our university?” This early stage will feel stressful and confusing at times, but, as long as you do your research and know what you want, you will find the right degree and the right program for you.

[crp limit=”4″ post_thumb_op=”after”]


  • Kelsey Crowson

    Kelsey is an admissions instructor at Magoosh. She graduated from Utah State University with a B.S. in English, history, and psychology education. Upon graduation, she worked in a middle school in Wyoming teaching literature and composition while also teaching her students the art of navigating adolescence. After being in the workforce for five years, she sought out Magoosh for help with GRE test preparation and admissions questions to help her pursue her goals in furthering her education, and just recently accepted to pursue her PhD in school psychology at her alma mater. She is eager to share her experience with graduate admissions and continue to help others achieve their educational goals!

No comments yet.

Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will only approve comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! 😄 Due to the high volume of comments across all of our blogs, we cannot promise that all comments will receive responses from our instructors.

We highly encourage students to help each other out and respond to other students' comments if you can!

If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service from our instructors, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.