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Obtaining a PhD in psychology comes with a number of benefits, from the freedom to start your private practice to the chance to dive deep into research.

But if you’re charting out the next steps of your academic journey, the big question is, “How long does a PhD in psychology take?”

Ultimately, it depends on a handful of factors, but you can expect to be in school anywhere from five to seven years. 1,2 Let’s break down the timeline together and explore why earning a doctorate in psychology may be well worth the commitment. 

Get Your PhD in Psychology Degree

 

Psychology PhD Program Overview

A doctorate of philosophy in psychology is a terminal degree that helps prepare graduates for a range of professional pathways. It’s often seen as an ideal choice for students who hope to gain teaching experience or produce fresh insights through scientific research.3 PhDs in psychology may also earn their licensure and work directly with clients in clinical settings, such as a mental health clinic or a private practice.

PhD in psychology programs may vary from institution to institution. Yet, they’re typically broken down into four primary categories:

  • Academic coursework – Academic coursework is the foundation of PhD in psychology programs. Most states require psychologists to complete a minimum of 60 semester hours of coursework, while some graduate schools require 125 hours. 4,5  The specialty you choose—such as developmental psychology or forensics psychology—will dictate your classes, (as well as the research you conduct) but doctoral candidates usually take courses and seminars centered around:6 
    • Ethics
    • Methods and statistics
    • Assessment and treatment of mental health conditions
  • Research – Research is an integral component of PhD in psychology programs. Throughout your program, you may fine-tune your ability to gather information, perform interviews, work with participants of your selected study (or studies), gather and evaluate data, conduct literature reviews, and present results.
  • Clinical practice and research – The knowledge and skills you obtain through coursework and research are taken from theory into practice through supervised training and/or a doctoral internship. Depending on the school, you may also have the opportunity for teaching assistantships.
  • Dissertation – Your dissertation and dissertation defense are the key to the completion of your PhD and a culmination of your academic coursework, research, and hands-on training. While some may compare a dissertation to a thesis, dissertations are much more substantial in scope and typically come in between 100 and 300 pages.7 If you’re unsure about your focus, we have the top 10 clinical psychology research topics to explore for your dissertation.

Stages of the PhD Program

The phases of a PhD in psychology also range from school to school. Graduate students can expect the following:

  • Coursework
  • Comprehensive exams
  • Research proposal
  • Dissertation research
  • Dissertation defense

Does this mean you’ll manage each of these one at a time? Not necessarily. You might attend a morning lecture, teach for an hour, see a patient for an intake assessment, and spend your evening working on your dissertation.

Factors Affecting the Duration of a PhD in Psychology

Several factors may influence your particular answer to “How long does a PhD in psychology take?” These may include:

  • Part-time vs. full-time status
  • Job obligations
  • Family obligations
  • Domestic circumstances
  • Extenuating circumstances that occur during your program
  • Area of specialization

The duration of your graduate program may also be contingent upon the strength of your relationship with your mentor/doctoral advisor and, importantly, what you bring to the program, such as time management skills, motivation, and momentum.8

Get Your PhD in Psychology Degree

 

The Role of Internships and Practical Experience

Internships and clinical practicums are crucial to gaining the skills and confidence required to transition from your doctoral program into the “real” world.

The type of hands-on experience you gain—and where it will occur—will depend on your program and discipline, but PhD in psychology students usually observe a licensed clinical psychologist in action or work directly with clients or groups of clients. In both scenarios, you typically have the opportunity to ask questions and request feedback.9

Where do these internships and practicums take place? In a range of settings, such as:

  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Substance abuse facilities
  • Private practices
  • Hospitals
  • Correctional facilities

The PhD in Clinical Psychology program at Alliant International University, for example, pairs doctoral candidates with clinical practicum opportunities within the community to further your professional development.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Psychology PhD?

As mentioned, a PhD in psychology usually takes between five and seven years, plus, in most cases, a one-year internship. Bear in mind, however, that the factors noted above could potentially delay completion.

5 Tips for Staying on Track

There are several ways to remain on track throughout your graduate studies:10

  • Establish regular meetings with your mentor/dissertation advisor to evaluate your progress
  • Set firm deadlines
  • Select a manageable research topic
  • Work at building a support system, inside and outside of your program
  • Decompress with regular breaks, whether that means exercise, a staycation, or a quick weekend away

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), studies suggest that picturing the completion of your PhD and your future success can boost your motivation. Getting a PhD in psychology is no easy feat, but you are making a difference in the lives of others.

How We Support Our PhD Students

Alliant International University is intent on ensuring students receive the support they need to thrive throughout their academic journeys. We offer a number of resources to nourish your well-being, including libraries, labs, and online databases. Add an encouraging faculty to the list, and you can rest assured that we’ll help you stay on track.

Elevate Your Academic Career at Alliant International University

“How long does it take to get a psychology PhD” is case by case, much in the way your clients may be in the future. However long it does take is incomparable to what you may gain from your program, from in-depth knowledge of the brain to the finest research techniques.

Alliant International University nurtures these very things. We offer two doctoral degrees in Psychology: a PsyD and a PhD in Clinical Psychology. Both come equipped with attributes that can help students flourish—during their PhD degree programs and after.

Imagine your future in psychology by exploring our doctoral programs today.


Sources:

  1. Kendra Cherry, MSEd. “Different Timelines for Doctorate-Degree Options in Psychology.” Verywell Mind, November 7, 2023. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-long-does-it-take-to-get-a-phd-in-psychology-2795131. 
  2. “Home.” Alliant Intl University. Accessed April 20, 2024. https://www.alliant.edu/psychology/clinical-psychology/phd. 
  3. “Doctoral Degrees in Psychology: How Are They Different, or Not so Different?” American Psychological Association. Accessed April 20, 2024. https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/psn/2016/01/doctoral-degrees.
  4. “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/. 
  5. “Best Doctorate in Psychology (Ph.D.. and Psy.D.).” Psychology.org | Psychology’s Comprehensive Online Resource, April 12, 2024. https://www.psychology.org/degrees/phd/. 
  6. “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/. 
  7. "How Long Is a Dissertation? Here’s the Average Length.” Dissertation Team. Accessed April 20, 2024. https://us.dissertationteam.com/blog/how-long-is-a-dissertation/. 
  8. Young, Sonia N, William R Vanwye, Mark A Schafer, Troy A Robertson, and Ashley Vincent Poore. “Factors Affecting Phd Student Success.” International journal of exercise science, January 1, 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6355122/. 
  9. “Internships and Practicums.” Psychology.org | Psychology’s Comprehensive Online Resource, April 10, 2024. https://www.psychology.org/resources/internships-and-practicums/. 
  10. “Revive Your Drive--Six Empirically Supported Techniques for Getting Excited about Grad School Again.” American Psychological Association. Accessed April 20, 2024. https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2008/09/grad-school. 

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