Advanced Education and Training

Working as a psychologist generally demands more than a baccalaureate degree. With scientific studies on human behavior and the functions of the brain, the interview and observation process with subjects, surveys, data collection and the identification and research of emotional and behavioral patterns, a strong background in the scientific process is necessary for most career paths. Academic study and its application through internships or residency programs are the most common passageway to achieving a doctorate in psychology.

Who Earns the Doctorate in Psychology

Those who seek a doctorate in psychology are interested in research and analysis and have the desire to gain expertise in a number of fields in which human behavior, development and social interactions are used as the basis for contextualizing relationships.

There are two main paths available for earning a doctorate in psychology–either a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology) or PsyD (Doctor of Psychology). Once that degree has been achieved, graduates may choose to remain in the academic field and enter a professorship. Others might open a private practice and become counselors, providing treatment in a number of specialties. A PhD in psychology is geared toward more research-minded individuals, while a PsyD is generally designed for those hoping to go into clinical practice.

Though a master’s degree typically is sufficient for many careers dealing with mental or behavioral health, most counselors are required to have a doctorate degree and professional licensures or certifications in addition to passing certain state exams. Counselors are also expected to continue their education to maintain licenses and stay current on emerging trends in the field.

Steps to Getting into a PhD Psychology Program

Entering a doctorate program for psychology typically requires an applicant to have a master’s degree. Once ready to apply, students should be able to submit the following:

Online application

Most programs require essential information about the student’s identification, academic background, interests, reasons or desires for entering the program and other general background information.

Transcripts of academic records from graduate programs

Grades and marks from previous academic programs will provide an indication of the likelihood of success in a doctoral program.

A resume or curriculum vitae

The candidate’s work history and academic and professional achievements are useful in assessing experience and potential.

A statement of purpose:

Doctorate programs require a written statement that reveals the candidate’s academic and/or professional goals and what they hope to achieve by completing a degree.

Letters of recommendation

Universities typically require at least three letters of recommendation, though this may vary from program to program. Letters should be submitted from professors under whom a student has studied or community professionals who best know the applicant’s caliber of work and work ethic.

Test scores including the GRE, the MAT or similar exams

These are required for most programs.

Application fee

Most colleges or universities require an administrative fee to cover the time it takes to process transcript requests, evaluations and other paperwork filed when an application is received.

Supplemental materials

Some programs require other paperwork or items with the application

International students or those who have completed degrees outside of the U.S. must submit proof of scores and appropriate tests to demonstrate English proficiency in addition to having their transcripts evaluated.

Applicants should be mindful of deadlines to ensure they are considered at the time they desire to enter a program.

PsyD & PhD in Psychology Program Requirements

Psychologists entering a doctoral program typically need a minimum of a master’s degree. Those who choose to become practicing psychologists must also pursue licensure or certification, which require passing rigorous exams, undertaking supervised internships in clinical or research environments and completing a residency program.

Program courses vary depending on a student’s interest, but general psychology includes topics such as physiological psychology, social influence, health policy and administration, social epidemiology, couple and family therapy, psychological trauma, psychotherapy, research methods, statistics and more.

Core curriculum courses show the breadth of the field of psychology and lay the foundation for specialized study early in the program. As students progress, the program engages students with in-depth research and analysis, and perhaps even teaching. By the fourth or fifth year of the program, a student has begun preparing dissertation research and is readying for an oral examination and defense of the dissertation’s contribution to his or her field of expertise.

The requirements for doctorate completion vary according to program. Most can be completed with four to six years of full-time study.

  • 60 credits (including 30 MA credits) or 90 credits for clinical psychology
  • Completion of required and elective courses
  • Completion of clinical practicum courses
  • Completion of master’s thesis (if not previously completed)
  • Completion of externship and internship
  • Completion of a doctoral dissertation and defense
  • Completion of at least one residency

Goals of the PhD and PsyD in Psychology

Achieving a doctorate provides students with holistic perspectives on the theoretical foundations, research, principles, contexts and academic endeavors that define the study of psychology and its applications in real settings. Students obtain a deeper understanding of the biological, emotional and social processes that stimulate behavior.

Graduates of the doctorate program in psychology should gain the following:
  • Insight of essential psychological principles
  • Understanding the practice and profession, including the development of and issues impacting specialty areas
  • Become expert in written and oral communication skills
  • Knowledge of cognitive and adaptive behavior assessments and intervention methodologies The ability to celebrate and advance diversity
  • Learn how to take part in the scientific process and produce their own research with measurable, meaningful results that make great impacts in the scientific community
Goals of a doctorate program include:
  • Providing students with the necessary foundation to become scholars and researchers in the field of psychology
  • Ensuring they receive the necessary hands-on training to work in the field, whether as counselors, neuroscientists, forensic scientists or dozens of other occupations
  • Training them in the writing process so they can publish their own findings
  • Preserving current knowledge of behavior science by teaching others
  • Contributing to the advancement of society by applying the knowledge gained

Doctorate in Psychology Program Description

Doctoral programs can often take four to six years to complete. Some doctoral candidates will apply to fellowship programs, which provide funding opportunities that assist in research. In PhD programs, students engage in the theoretical foundations of research and write a dissertation that focuses on their own original idea. Their research typically provides a strong direction for their chosen career path after graduation.

Coursework of most psychology doctorate programs will cover the following major topics:

  • Neuroscience
  • Foundations of cognition
  • Development psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Mind, culture and society
  • Affective science
  • Graduate statistics

Students may also be required to teach undergraduate-level courses as part of their academic plan.

Members of a program’s faculty bring various backgrounds and levels of expertise in neuroscience, psychiatry and behavioral sciences to their students. Professors often have studied various psychological phenomena, intervention and prevention methods for eating and personality disorders, substance abuse, depression and aggression, among other interests. Professors frequently have national or international reputations as the foremost experts in their particular fields and continue to engage in research and attend seminars on a regular basis to remain current in their knowledge of their fields.

Psychology Doctorate Coursework

Curriculum in a developmental psychology program focuses on producing researchers and professors well-versed in social-emotional and cognitive development of human growth between infancy and late life. Courses, depending on the concentration, delve into the development, psychology and neuroscience specific to each topic area, as well as theories of developmental psychology, behavioral and computational neuroscience, animal behavior and other courses approved by an adviser or committee. Students might also be required to take a methods or statistics course and complete practicum projects during which they complete a research project relevant to their focus area or dissertation.

The curriculum for a systems and integrative neuroscience psychology program includes study of the interaction between the brain, behavior and the environment. Subjects of analysis include cellular, molecular, genetic, behavioral, pharmacological and neural-network models to determine what makes up early life experiences, associative learning, sensorimotor integration, sex and gender differences in the brain, cognition and habit formation.

The Online Doctorate in Psychology

  • How the Online Program WorksSample: Walden University’s Online Psychology Program
  • Courses are taught via an online platform, mostly livestreamed lectures and videoconferencing.
  • Students are required to have access to a computer and network to view prerecorded lectures, access assigned reading and become active participants in online discussion boards or blogs.
  • Students can participate at their convenience and have access to classroom discussion.
  • Faculty members disseminate syllabi electronically that state learning objectives, assignments and grading criteria, including the use of dropboxes for feedback on completed assignments.
  • Some professors also make themselves available on campus or by phone as needed for more personal interaction.
  • Online technical support is available to troubleshoot any problems connecting to school-supported programs.

Online Psychology PhD Q&A

Does the APA recognize online-only programs?

According to, the APA Commission on Accreditation does not accredit doctorate programs conducted only online. Some programs that have been accredited might offer online courses or other distance-education options, but these cannot comprise the majority of the curriculum for a student’s doctoral program.

What should I consider when researching online courses or programs?

Students should consider their career goals as top priority and ensure the programs they research align with those objectives. They should also determine whether these programs are accredited by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Other matters might include availability to university or college resources, including the library, academic advisers, counselors, access to professors, faculty or other department staff. Programs might require internship experience, and some campuses offer direct assistance in placing candidates to appropriate partners in the community. Some students might have to find such internship opportunities on their own.

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

Providing hands-on experience in the field is vital to introduce a student to the day-to-day activities of a psychologist for any branch they choose. Students have various options for application:

A practicum is an opportunity for hands-on application of the knowledge learned in the classroom or online setting and prove one’s proficiency. Components of the practicum vary from program to program but are always under the supervision of an on-site supervisor.

Supervised internships are longer in duration than a practicum and broader in scope. More responsibility is provided for greater hands-on training. Internships are arranged so that students with particular skill sets are matched to maximize learning opportunities in real-world environments.

Academic residencies provide personal interaction with faculty members and peers, allowing a student to develop a network of support for their scholarly and professional efforts, cultivate skills, gain insights into experiences and backgrounds of others, identifying additional resources for the student’s dissertation and acquire research or information that contributes to society in a meaningful way.

Virtual residencies also are available for eligible online doctorate students. These offer a similar experience for nonlicensure doctorate students without having to travel. Through social networking technology, participants can take advantage of virtual conferences and online classrooms with a small cohort of peers. In some programs, online events are scheduled for certain times. This option is viable for those who might be restricted by professional, personal or budgetary challenges; who enjoy working in small groups or independently; favor using social media technologies and are able to communicate through the use of a webcam.

Finding the Right Online Doctorate in Psychology Program

University and Program Standing

Accreditation by an outside agency such as the Higher Learning Commission is a mark that the institution delivering the curriculum has been through the rigors of meeting particular standards and has earned approval for offering a high-quality education to the public. Similarly, for the program itself, researching what the university or college’s psychology academic degree plan requires is important in understanding whether it fits into the student’s interests, career goals and willingness to commit to several years of study.


Taking online classes requires access to the proper resources for videoconferencing, emailing and communicating with instructors and classmates to stay engaged and up-to-date with lessons. What a student has or is capable of accessing should fall in line with what an institution requires for its online program. These requirements often include a computer, a reliable network or router, a phone, a webcam and other basic equipment.

Psychology Resources