The Clinical Psychology PhD Student

Because the PhD in clinical psychology is such a practical degree program, it attracts people with quite-specific career goals. These include:

  • Clinical psychology researcher
  • Clinical psychology teacher
  • Clinical psychologist

Some even go into a mix of the three professions. Regardless, graduates of a PhD in clinical psychology program tend to work in the following settings:

  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Mental health agencies
  • Universities
  • Substance abuse treatment facilities
  • Family service agencies
  • Correctional settings
  • Private practice (in their own office)

The degree program doesn’t tend to attract people who merely want to learn more about clinical psychology. That’s because the program takes five to six years to complete, and becoming licensed thereafter requires an internship, a year or two of professional experience and passing an examination. Only those truly committed to entering the field go through all that work.

What draws people to enter the field of clinical psychology varies. But often the lure of helping people with their mental, emotional or behavioral issues is reason enough. Some people look most forward to the counseling or interviewing portion of the job, whereas others look most forward to the administering of diagnostic tests. Whatever the case, students who earn a PhD in clinical psychology are often driven and compassionate individuals.

Sometimes, there are other requirements in an application for a PhD in clinical psychology, such as a personal history essay (explaining how you’ve overcome some barrier). But these are the most common requirements for entering the program.

Admissions requirements vary between programs, but always at least require a bachelor’s degree (with varying GPA requirements). It doesn’t always have to be in psychology, but some psychology coursework and research experience in the field is typically required. Some programs require a master’s degree in psychology before being admitted, though most either don’t or include that level of coursework in the PhD program itself.

Gaining Entry into a PhD Clinical Psychology Program

Application requirements for PhD in clinical psychology programs vary by institution. However, a lot of programs require the following:

Online Application for Admission

This may include both a general graduate application to the university, as well as an application to the department the program is in.

Statement of Purpose

Typically no longer than two pages, the statement of purpose requires students to explain their interest in clinical psychology (showing their experience in the field), why they’re applying to this specific program and what their plans for the future consist of.

Letters of Recommendation

Typically, three or four references are required, with most needing to come from someone in the psychology field who can speak to the applicant’s skills and potential in the field.


Transcripts from all previous colleges attended are always required.

Test Scores

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is usually required. Sometimes, it’s just the general test that’s required, and sometimes it’s both the general test and the psychology test. Also, for students whose native language is not English, the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is always required.


At the point of applying for PhD programs, students often have other related degrees and experience in the field. Many programs ask to see it in the form of a resume.


An in-person interview with someone in the department is often required, though telephone or video interviews are sometimes accepted.

PhD in Clinical Psychology Program Requirements

Each PhD in clinical psychology program has different requirements. But to get an idea of what the program entails, let’s look at the PhD program in clinical psychology from the University of Central Florida. To earn this degree, which usually takes between five and six years, the following is required:

  • 84-semester credits of courses, practica and research
  • A master’s thesis
  • A one-year pre-doctoral internship that must be completed at an APA-accredited internship site off-campus
  • Successful completion of the Qualifying and Comprehensive Examination (needs to be done before dissertation research begins)
  • A dissertation

For students interested in a PsyD in psychology, practical work and examinations are often required over or emphasized more than a dissertation. Here’s an example of degree requirements for the 5-year clinical psychology PsyD program at Pacific University in Oregon:

  • 137 credits
  • Completion of a master’s degree in clinical psychology
  • Completion of three terms each of Practicum 1 and Practicum 2, with a maximum of 16 hours of clinical work per week
  • At least 1,500 hours in an internship, either full-time in one year or half-time in two years Completion of the Interprofessional Competence sequence
  • Attendance of at least four Interprofessional Case conferences and two SPP Annual Diversity conferences
  • Successful defense and submission of a dissertation

As you can see, no two programs are the same, whether it’s a PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology. But these programs tend to require a mix of coursework, clinical practice and research, dissertations and internships.

Goals of the PhD/PsyD in Clinical Psychology

While no two programs have the same goals, a lot of similarities between PhD clinical psychology programs exist. To give an idea of the types of goals PhD and PsyD programs tend to possess, let’s look at the goals of three different programs.

In the PsyD in clinical Psychology program at Nova Southeastern University, there are four goals that they hope students will achieve by graduation:

  • Demonstrate an understanding of scientific psychology
  • Show that you know the core foundations of practice within clinical psychology
  • Demonstrate entry-level clinical skills necessary for a role as a practitioner in the clinical psychology field
  • Know the research methods and how to apply them in the clinical psychology profession

The PhD in Clinical Psychology program at Emory University has much of the same goals. However, the program has an additional stated goal: Prepare students to be able to train future psychologists one day. While many program possess this goal to some extent, not all mention it, which shows how important it is to Emory.

Another goal that many programs strive toward is the teaching of ethical practice. Of course, “what is ethical” may vary between institutions, but some programs place such a large emphasis on ethics that it’s included in the list of goals for the program. That’s the case with the PhD in Clinical Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. Another stated goal within this program is to encourage lifelong learning in science and for students to be involved in the study of emerging findings.

Regardless of the program, graduate programs in clinical psychology almost always have the goal of preparing students for the following professions:

Clinical psychologist practitioner, in private practice or a medical or educational setting

Clinical psychology researcher, at a university or research organization

Clinical psychology educator, at a university or a medial setting

Graduates of clinical psychology programs are generally prepared for any of these career paths.

Doctorate in Clinical Psychology Program Descriptions

While the organization of graduate programs in clinical psychology vary between programs, there are some things that tend to be the same across programs:

  • A PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology typically takes around five years, if done full-time. Typically, students start with coursework, followed by research for a dissertation, clinical practicum experience and a one-year internship.
  • Faculty typically consists of active scholars or practitioners in clinical psychology. Since clinical psychology programs are so hands-on, students often work under the supervision of faculty in research labs.
  • Programs may be general, or include specializations, such as child clinical, health psychology and neuropsychology.
  • A comprehensive examination is often required, especially in PsyD programs, which emphasize exams and practical work over dissertations.
  • Students generally find a faculty member who has researched or possesses interest in their desired subject area, and study under them.

The topics students can hone in on, for their dissertation, vary greatly. To get an idea of some topics students have focused, here are some interests that students and faculty in the PhD program in clinical psychology have chosen to focus on:

  • Antisocial and aggressive behavior
  • Personality disorders
  • Depression
  • Obesity
  • Eating disorders
  • HIV/AIDs
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Mental and physical health services for minorities
  • Gene-environment interaction
  • Chronic pain
  • Global mental health
  • Pediatric psychology

Within these topics, students and faculty have focused on prevention and intervention methods — which is what it often comes down to in clinical psychology programs. Since clinical psychologists focus on diagnosing, counseling and treating individuals with a variety of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders, students’ research within PhD programs generally focus on how to best go about providing those services to specific demographics and under certain circumstances.

Clinical Psychology PhD Coursework

Coursework in PhD programs in clinical psychology is often very hands-on. While students do learn a lot in the classroom, especially early on in the program, much of their time is spent in a lab or in the field.

While types of clinical psychology doctorate coursework may vary depending on program, here’s a sample:

Clinical Core

(26 semester hours)

Cognitive Assessment

Seminar in Clinical Psychology Family Therapy

Personality Assessment (2 semesters)

Psychological Consultation Individual Psychotherapy (2 semesters)

Psychological Intervention and Consultation in Schools Clinical Supervision

Basic Science of Psychology

(30 semester hours)

Educational Research Methods

Social Basis of Behavior

Statistics and Research Methods (3 courses)

Cognitive Basis of Behavior

Physiological/Biological/ Neurological Basis of Behavior

Individual Basis of Behavior — 3 courses:

  • Personality
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Psychopathology

School Psychology

(5 semester hours)

For students who choose this concentration instead of the general track, they’ll take courses in:

  • Exceptional Children
  • Curriculum/Teaching Methods

Students in both the general and school psychology tracks (all students in the clinical psychology program) also take:

  • 6 semester hours of electives
  • Practica during every year of the program
  • A 1-year internship either in a clinical or school setting
  • Dissertation

While this is just one program, a lot of the courses pop up in other programs, and practica, dissertations and internships are part of nearly every program of this kind.

The Online PhD Program in Clinical Psychology

How the Online Program Works

There are lots of benefits to completing an online PhD in Clinical Psychology program. Even if the program is a hybrid of online and campus-based coursework or features online courses (as is the growing trend), perks abound. Here are some common features of online programs in clinical psychology.

  • Depending how the program is structured, you may be able to complete work anytime and anywhere there’s Internet access.
  • Classwork is not typically scheduled, though there may be set times classes meet in real time in an online forum or via a tool such as Skype.
  • Communication with instructors and fellow students is mostly online via mediums such as discussion forums and email, though you may be required to speak with professors via phone, Skype, or even in person.
  • Lectures may be given in real-time, to be watched via video on your own time.
  • You’ll probably take most exams online, either timed or at your own pace, though final exams may require proctoring or even taking in person.
  • You may be able to complete clinical work and internships in your preferred area or somewhere close by.

Clinical Psychology Doctorate Q&A

Here are some answers to common questions students have about an online PhD in clinical psychology.

Do I ever have to do work at a scheduled time?

In general no, but it depends on the program. Some courses may require students to log in at a specific time, to engage in a class discussion or take an exam. But for the most part, assignments have a deadline and you just have to complete it before that deadline.

Does the APA recognize online programs?

Currently, no fully-online PhD in clinical psychology programs are APA-accredited — though that can change and is not the only thing that makes an online program great. However, there are APA-accredited clinical psychology PhD programs that are hybrid, offering coursework both online and on campus. Hybrid programs typically blend online coursework with local faculty advisor meetings and week-long campus-based intensives a few times a year. A program like this can be ideal for those balancing graduate work with a family or full-time job.

Is the academic quality the same?

Many online PhD in clinical psychology programs boast offering the same academic quality as on-campus programs. With the use of video lectures and the same coursework, often the only thing missing in online programs is the in-person interaction — which is not a matter of quality but preference.

How do I get the face-to-face experience required for this degree?

Depending on the program, there may be no face-to-face interactions required. But if it is a hybrid program, then some face-to-face will be required. The PsyD program in one online clinical psychology program, for example, may require a couple of week-long campus intensives and a number of weekend campus intensives. During that time, students would show up to campus to complete labs, discussion groups and seminars. Other programs may require meetings with local faculty advisors in addition to week-long campus intensives. Each hybrid program differs.

How do I collaborate with instructors and other students?

A lot of online programs have discussion forums, where students and instructors can communicate through public and private conversations. A lot of collaboration can happen there. Email, video chat and phone calls are also great mediums for collaboration. If it’s a hybrid program, students can collaborate in these online mediums much of the time, and in person during the campus-based meetings.

Putting Knowledge to Practice

How Online Clinical Psychology Programs Provide Face-to-Face Experience

Whether you choose a campus-based, hybrid or online program in clinical psychology, it’s a very hands-on degree program that tends to provide face-to-face interactions. There are a few ways that in-person experience occurs in online PhD programs in clinical psychology:

  • Practicums
  • Supervised internships
  • Academic residencies

Not every online program will have academic residences, but completing local internships and practicums are typically included in graduate programs in clinical psychology.

Let’s look at an example of a program that utilizes all of these components, to get an idea of how Here’s an example of how one program provides face-to-face experience:

Practica and supervised internships

Under the supervision of a faculty member and an on-site supervisor, students complete a practicum in their local areas. This allows students to apply what they’ve learned into a real-world setting. Students also complete a supervised internship, which is longer than a practicum and with additional responsibilities.

Academic residencies

Students are required to take eight courses in a hybrid format, blending online and on-campus coursework. The in-person coursework requires travel to campus once a quarter, each quarter over the course of a year. Given that clinical psychologists work so directly with people, this allows students to gain feedback on skills and presentation, and to work with students and instructors on hands-on projects.

Finding the Right Online PhD Degree in a Clinical Psychology Program

There are many things to consider when choosing an online PhD degree program in clinical psychology, such as:

Program Specializations

Some programs have specializations students must choose from, such as health psychology and neuropsychology. Be sure to find a program that has the specializations or kind of coursework you’re looking for.


Choose a program with faculty members who specialize in the area you want to hone in on. Have faculty members done research and have they been published in your area of interest? This will be especially important when choosing a dissertation advisor, but is also important in general, since faculty can shape ideas influential for the rest of your career.


Find out what you’re getting for your money and shop around. The cost of a graduate program can vary widely, even as much as $20,000 a year. That’s considerable savings for a two- or three-year program. Make sure you understand the costs up front and what you are getting for those costs. When considering tuition, understand what that figure includes. Also understand what financial aid is available and what you’re required to do to obtain that assistance.


How much of the program is online versus in the field? It’s important to find a program that fits your life schedule, and it’s vitally important that you will have opportunities to real-life experience. Will you have to travel? Unless the school is in your town, you probably will. But there’s a big difference between a two-hour drive and a cross-country plane trip. How often and how far will you need to travel? If it’s only a few times, the plan trip may be worth it depending on other factors. Determine whether classes are asynchronous (meaning doing classwork on your own time) or synchronous (class meetings at predetermined times). This will determine how you plan your schedule and how much flexibility the program will allow.

Resources for a PhD in Clinical Psychology

Financial assistance you don’t have to pay back should always be preferred when funding a PhD clinical psychology program. Many programs offer funding and list this on their websites, so look into that first. But also check out these 10 scholarships and fellowships:

And here are five other resources, filled with useful information for aspiring clinical psychologists: