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A PhD in Psychology is the ultimate degree—a symbol of your commitment to the discipline and a representation of your knowledge and skills. Held by top-tier researchers, instructors in higher education, and clinical practitioners alike, a clinical psychology PhD may help you and the people and organizations you might one day serve.1

While the benefits of a PhD in Psychology may be clear to you, how to go about earning this doctorate degree might feel confusing—until now.

Here’s how to get a PhD in Psychology, what to expect in a doctoral degree program, and what you might gain from obtaining one.

Start Your Journey

 

Step 1: Understand the PhD Path

A PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, in Psychology is one of two of the highest degrees in the field of psychology. (The other is a PsyD, or Doctor of Psychology, a doctorate degree created in the 1970s to prepare students specifically for the rigors of working in clinical settings.)2 A clinical psychology PhD may enable you to work in a variety of environments and a range of roles.

As such, earning this degree is an involved, immersive, and often exciting process that’s composed of:3

  • Academic coursework – Academic coursework is frequently the jumping-off point to a PhD in Psychology; an in-depth extension of the topics you may have studied in an undergraduate Psychology degree or, for some, in a graduate program. The area of specialization you choose as a PhD student, such as Trauma, Stress, and Resilience or Psychodynamic Psychology, will inform a significant portion of your doctoral program academic course load, but you can expect to dive into topics like:4
    • Statistics and methods
    • Ethics
    • Assessments 
    • Clinical treatments

Coursework in a PhD program now frequently integrates discussions on psychology and technology, examining how digital advancements are transforming therapeutic methods and research techniques.

  • Research – Research makes up the majority of the work you’ll do as a PhD student. Typically under the guidance of your mentor/dissertation advisor, you’ll delve into a topic of your choosing within the field. Examples of clinical psychology research topics include examining the effects of social media on teen suicide rates or the influence of childhood trauma on adult substance use disorder. Along the way, you’ll refine specific research skills: collecting and analyzing data, working with subjects/participating, and demonstrating your results.
  • Clinical practicum and internships – Earning a PhD in Psychology also entails hands-on training in clinical practicums and/or internships. Generally speaking, you’ll perform an unpaid practicum for two years, followed by a one-year paid, clinical internship.5 Precisely how you will fulfill this will depend on the program you choose, the opportunities within your community, and your concentration. A few examples include observing a clinical psychologist at a private practice, working with students at a university center, or conducting intakes at a substance abuse facility.
  • Dissertation – Your dissertation is among the most important elements of your PhD program and the key to completing your degree. It serves several purposes: it illustrates your fluency in conducting research, demonstrates the knowledge you’ve gained in your PhD program, and adds an original contribution to existing psychology literature.6

Step 2: Research Potential Programs

Finding the right PhD in Psychology program is paramount to your success. Researching potential programs is also one of the more thrilling aspects of pursuing a doctorate, but it needs to be approached strategically and mindfully. To that end, search for programs that, like the doctoral programs in psychology at Alliant International University, have received accreditation by the American Psychological Association (APA).7

Why?

Accreditation essentially serves as a seal of approval and demonstrates to future employers, the general public, and licensing boards that you have the scientific knowledge required to work in the world of psychology.

Additionally, you may want to zero in on programs that:

  • Feature faculty members who are at the top of their field and whose research interests reflect your own8
  • Offer the area of specialization you want to focus on, whether it’s clinical health psychology, multicultural community-clinical psychology, or family/child and couple psychology
  • Promote work-life balance through online instruction, or a hybrid of online and in-person instruction and training
  • Have a high attrition rate

Further, if you do opt for a program that demands in-person attendance and training, be sure that it’s geographically feasible for you. The cost of living in the area should also be factored into your decision. Lastly, if you’re an undergrad or just finishing up your master’s, consider asking the professors you trust and admire for program recommendations.9

Step 3: Prepare Your Application

Application and admission requirements vary by institution. That said, most programs ask for:10

  • A completed application (along with the application fee)
  • Official transcripts from your bachelor’s and/or master’s program with required credits
  • CV or resume
  • Letters of recommendation

Depending on the program you’ve selected, you may also need to submit GRE scores. Importantly, nearly all programs require a personal statement—a topic we’ll look at in more depth below. While a PhD equips you for high-level research and academic positions, you might wonder if you can be a clinical psychologist with a master's. Although possible, a PhD significantly broadens your professional scope.

Step 4: Gain Relevant Experience

Not only will obtaining relevant experience help strengthen your application package but it will also help you gain invaluable insights into the industry. It might also assist you in choosing a specialization, such as working one-on-one with trauma survivors or dedicating your professional life to neuropsychology research.

Fortunately, there are dozens of ways to get the type of experience that will help your application stand out from the competition:11

  • Research assistantships
  • Volunteering at a mental health clinic
  • Shadowing a clinical psychologist or substance abuse counselor
  • Working for a crisis hotline

Keep in mind that some PhD in Psychology programs require a minimum amount of relevant experience before you can apply. In fact, the Association for Psychological Science (APS) asserts that doctoral applicants usually accrue two to three years of research experience before applying to graduate school.12 All of this emphasizes the importance of conducting thorough research on your schools of interest.

Step 5: Submit Strong Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are a crucial component of your doctoral application. In fact, some state that your letters of recommendation are more important to the decision process than grades.13

Usually, they’re written by former professors and/or former employers or psychology professionals you’ve interned for or shadowed.

Be sure to request letters of recommendation from those with whom you have a visible track record. In addition, request letters well ahead of your application deadline, even as much as a year in advance of when you think you’ll start applying for your doctoral program.

Talk to Our Advisors

 

Step 6: Craft a Compelling Personal Statement

Almost every doctorate in psychology program requires a personal statement. As one of the most critical elements of your application (some indicate that it’s more important than your GRE scores and GPA), it should describe, in detail, your:14

  • Interest in the particular program you’re applying to and why
  • Academic and research objectives
  • Research and field experience and how they align with the particular program
  • Intended area of specialization

Experts consulted by the APA also advise against using three things in your personal statement: humor, hyperbole, and “hard luck,” such as describing the obstacles you’ve overcome.

Step 7: Ace the Interview

Happen to receive an interview offer? Congratulations—your application clearly stood out!

The interview process may start with what’s known as a pre-interview, or a brief conversation to evaluate your fit with the program and department.15 This may be followed by an on-campus interview that asks basic questions, such as the impact you hope your PhD project has and why you believe you’re the right candidate, as well as more precise questions prompted by your specific experience.16

One of the best ways to make a solid, lasting impression is to create a bulleted list of your research interests. Practicing answers to the questions you anticipate ahead of time can also help ensure a smoother dialogue. And remember: you’ll be interviewing for the program, too.

Step 8: Consider Funding Options

The financial assistance you may receive will likely be an enormous determining factor in the program you choose. As discussed, funding may arrive in the form of:

  • Grants 
  • Scholarships
  • Tuition remission
  • Employer tuition reimbursement

Alliant International University, for example, has several forms of funding options available to doctoral candidates—those listed above, as well as fellowship assistantships.

Step 9: Plan Your Coursework and Dissertation

Once you’re accepted into a program, you should select your area of specialization, plot out your coursework, and choose your dissertation topic.

The APA notes that doctoral candidates should ideally land on a dissertation topic within the first year or two of their program.17 Why? Because it will give your program enhanced focus and a guiding theme.

To jumpstart your thinking:

  • Consult with instructors who are active in cutting-edge psychology research 
  • Assess your topic’s viability and manageability (and if it will serve as an original contribution to existing research)
  • Pinpoint the problems and questions you foresee and how you will approach them

Above all, be sure to choose a topic that will sustain your interest and excitement throughout the duration of your program. Earning a PhD in Psychology is a time-intensive commitment. Four to six years is about how long it takes to get a psychology PhD, but it varies by person based on how they balance their personal schedules with coursework, research, and clinical training.

Step 10: Engage in Professional Development Opportunities

One of the biggest benefits of obtaining a PhD in Psychology? The connections you may be able to make, such as through your internship and clinical practicum, as well as psychology conferences and seminars.

Yet, some of the strongest relationships you build might be right inside your program. And this brings us to our final piece of advice: consider choosing a program that features a warm and supportive faculty and a diverse collection of students who will motivate you throughout your academic journey—and beyond.

Your Path Begins Here

At Alliant International University, our PhD in Clinical Psychology program features a faculty that will challenge you in the best possible way alongside a nurturing, engaging learning environment.

Enrich your knowledge and prepare to make a lasting difference in the field of psychology. Apply today and start your journey.


Sources: 

  1. “What Can You Do with a Doctorate in Psychology?” Psychology.org | Psychology’s Comprehensive Online Resource, March 18, 2024. https://www.psychology.org/resources/jobs-with-a-doctorate-in-psycholog…;
  2. Cherry, Kendra. “PsyD vs. Phd in Psychology: Which Is Right for You?” Verywell Mind, October 27, 2023. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-a-psyd-2795135. 
  3. “Psychology Doctorate Phd Defined: Explore Academic, Internship and Research Requirements for a Psychology Phd.” Psychologist, March 24, 2021. https://www.psychologist-license.com/types-of-psychologists/psychologist-doctorate-phd/. 
  4. “Daily Activities of a Clinical Psychology Phd Student.” Simply Mental Health, November 13, 2022. https://simplymentalhealth.ca/2022/11/13/daily-activities-of-a-clinical-psychology-phd-student/. 
  5. “Internships and Practicums.” Psychology.org | Psychology’s Comprehensive Online Resource, April 10, 2024. https://www.psychology.org/resources/internships-and-practicums/. 
  6. Herbert, Robyn S, Spencer C Evans, Jessy Guler, and Michael C Roberts. “Predictors of Dissertation Publication in Clinical and Counseling Psychology.” Training and education in professional psychology, November 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9635593.
  7.  “APA-Accredited Programs.” American Psychological Association. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://accreditation.apa.org/accredited-programs#. 
  8. “Choosing a Graduate Program.” Association for Psychological Science - APS. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/members/apssc/undergraduate_update/summer-2011/choosing-a-graduate-program. 
  9. “Clinch Your Graduate School Acceptance.” American Psychological Association. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2007/11/cover-acceptance. 
  10. “Best Doctorate in Psychology Degree Programs of 2024.” Intelligent, April 3, 2024. https://www.intelligent.com/best-doctorate-in-psychology-programs/. 
  11. 14 ways to get clinical psychology work experience | indeed.com UK. Accessed April 18, 2024. https://uk.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/clinical-psychology-work-experience. 
  12. “Clinch Your Graduate School Acceptance.” American Psychological Association. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2007/11/cover-acceptance. 
  13. “Rockin’ Recommendations.” American Psychological Association. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/features/2009/recommendation. 
  14. “Preparing Your Personal Statement for Graduate School Applications.” American Psychological Association. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/psn/2016/09/graduate-school-applications. 
  15. To ace your interview for doctoral psychology admission. Accessed April 22, 2024. https://mitch.web.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/4922/2021/12/PsiChiI…;
  16. Top 10 common Phd interview questions and answers. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/interviewing/common-phd-interview-questions. 
  17. “Starting the Dissertation.” American Psychological Association. Accessed April 21, 2024. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2005/01/starting. 

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