If you have empathy, an interest in the inner workings of the mind, excellent interpersonal skills, and a desire for helping others attain well-being, you may have considered becoming a clinical psychologist.
Clinical psychologists play an admirable and vital role in our culture. This is especially true in the wake of the pandemic, which precipitated a 25% rise in mental health issues across the globe.1 Tasked with diagnosing and treating mental health complications, licensed clinical psychologists work toward helping people discover their core strengths and provide them with counsel on managing their symptoms with mindfulness and compassion.2
Given the seriousness of their obligations, clinical psychologists must undergo substantial schooling and training to work with individuals safely and effectively. But what degree do you need to become a clinical psychologist, exactly? And why should you become a clinical psychologist? Let’s dive into the important aspects of the discipline.
What Is a Clinical Psychologist?
Clinical psychologists work in research-based practices or education. They can also work as healthcare providers who diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional challenges.3 The latter works with individuals at nearly every stage of life, as well as families, couples, and groups in various settings.4 These may include but aren’t limited to:5
- Private practices
- Community mental health centers
- Primary care settings
What Does a Clinical Psychologist Do?
Clinical psychologists are rigorously trained to perform several crucial duties, including conducting behavioral assessments and interpreting diagnostic examinations. They may call upon one or more specialties to help their patients, such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) or cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).6
Unlike psychiatrists, clinical psychologists do not prescribe medications. And unlike counseling psychologists, who might work with individuals with less severe mental health issues—such as relationship problems and trouble adapting to major life changes—clinical psychologists typically obtain more comprehensive education and training in assisting patients with:
- Major depressive disorders
- Bipolar disorder
What Degree Do You Need to Be a Clinical Psychologist?
In most states in the U.S., clinical psychologists who work directly with patients must possess a doctorate in clinical psychology to practice independently; individuals who hold a master’s are typically supervised by a colleague who holds a doctorate degree. Those who want to perform research or teach in higher education will typically need a doctorate in psychology.7
The typical trajectory to becoming a clinical psychologist follows these steps:
#1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree
While a BA or a BS in Psychology may be valuable to aspiring clinical psychologists, some graduate psychology programs may be open to other degrees. According to some sources, the only requirement is that you have completed the particular program’s prerequisites—a subject we’ll explore more closely below.
#2. Earn a Master’s Degree
Some PhD and PsyD programs require the completion of a master’s in Psychology; others do not. This reinforces the importance of conducting thorough research before taking the next step on your academic and professional journey.
Moreover, some prospective clinical psychologists may find continuing education programs offering a terminal master’s degree.8 Lastly, some doctoral programs may be willing to accept students who hold a master’s in an adjacent field.
#3. Earn a PhD
A PhD in Clinical Psychology prepares graduates for a role in clinical research or academia or to become licensed to practice in a healthcare setting.9 This advanced degree emphasizes research10 and focuses on myriad aspects of psychology, such as:
A doctoral program in clinical psychology generally takes between 5 and 7 years to complete. The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that some doctoral programs require candidates to complete their degrees within 10 years. However, this, too, depends on the program you choose.
To obtain a PhD in psychology, the requirements beyond coursework might be to:
- Pass a comprehensive test
- Write and defend a dissertation
#4. Or Earn a PsyD
Alternatively, if you are committed to practicing clinical psychology in a clinical setting, you may have the option to pursue (and earn) a PsyD—or a doctor of Psychology degree.11 Established in the 1970s, PsyDs were launched for individuals more interested in offering therapeutic services than clinical research. Earning a PsyD generally requires four to six years of postgraduate study.
#5. Complete an Internship
Usually a one-year, APA-accredited clinical internship is required to complete a doctorate in psychology successfully.12
#6. Obtain Licensure
To practice in the U.S., you must successfully pass national and state licensing exams (and fulfill other requirements), which differ by state.13
Both PhDs and PsyDs are vigorously educated and trained in the field of psychology. That said, doctoral candidates may choose one or the other based on their ultimate professional goals:
- PhD in Clinical Psychology – Aspiring clinical psychologists who elect to pursue a PhD may want to work outside of a strictly clinical setting and might put their education and training toward:
- Teaching psychology
- Consulting professionally in the arena of mental health
- Conducting research
- Working on clinical trials
- PsyD in Clinical Psychology– PsyDs are geared more toward doctoral candidates who want to practice in a clinical, mental health setting.
Both advanced doctoral degrees require a substantial amount of research. The primary difference between the two is that a PhD candidate may concentrate the lion’s share of their research on new theories and knowledge. In contrast, a PsyD candidate may focus on digging deeper into existing theories in the psychology field, usually to solve an issue and provide psychological services.
Neither degree is superior to the other. Rather, they prepare students for separate roles in the discipline. Further, a PhD doesn’t preclude a graduate from working directly with patients. Nor is a PsyD confined to working only in a clinical setting.
What are the General Education Requirements for a PhD or a PsyD?
Acceptance into a PhD program is competitive, with an estimated 10 to 11% acceptance rate; this is due to the scarcity of programs in the U.S. and the amount of funding available. Acceptance rates tend to be a bit higher for PsyD candidates, around 40%.
With both, however, you will usually need, in addition to a bachelor’s degree (and possibly a master’s):14
- A GPA of 3.0 or higher
- GRE Psychology scores (albeit depending on the program—taking the GREs is not a universal requirement)
- Letters of recommendation
- Letter of intent
Remember that every psychology doctorate program differs. As mentioned, some programs will require you to complete a master’s degree.
Doctoral psychology programs may require the completion of several prerequisites. Again, keep in mind that these will be unique to the program to which you apply, but some of the most common requirements include:
- Abnormal psychology or psychopathology
- Experimental psychology
- Research methods in psychology
- Physiological psychology
What Opportunities Do Clinical Psychologists Have?
Clinical psychologists' in-depth education and training set them up for careers that can provide intellectual stimulation and opportunities to contribute to the health of their community. Earning either your PsyD or PhD may pave the way to put your skills toward meaningful endeavors, such as:
- Teaching at the university/college level
- Crafting and implementing programs to address social issues
- Performing research
- Diagnosing and treating mental health struggles and psychological disorders
Furthermore, according to the APA, clinical psychology is one of the most extensive specialties in psychology.
As such, clinical psychologists may be able to select a particular specialty that is meaningful to them, whether it’s working in a clinical setting to help patients with chronic conditions like diabetes, zeroing in on a specific psychological issue like bipolar disorder, or working with a particular population, such as veterans. They may also have the opportunity to concentrate on broader areas like:15
- School psychology
What Core Strengths Do Clinical Psychologists Typically Possess?
Whether you identify as an introvert or an extrovert, clinical psychology can be a solid fit for a range of personalities.
That said, clinical psychologists work toward honing key strengths, such as:
- A passion for learning and research
- Outstanding listening skills
- The capacity to manage stress and conflict well
Few clinical psychologists have these traits nailed down before starting their academic odyssey. Still, they’re important to remember as you start planning your next big move in life.
What Should You Look for in a Graduate Psychology Program?
There is no “ultimate” PhD or PsyD in Clinical Psychology programs. But there are programs that may be the best fit for your career goals, geographic location, resources, lifestyle, and learning preferences.
A few of the most pertinent questions to ask might include:
- Is the graduate program accredited by the APA?
- Is the program remote, in-person, or hybrid/remote?
- What are the class sizes?
- Is there a flexible class schedule?
These questions are intended to jumpstart your imagination and help you determine what would suit your professional aims. But above all, you may want to search for a program that will furnish you with precisely what you need to flourish as a clinical psychologist.
Explore a Career in Clinical Psychology at Alliant International University
Clinical psychologists may enjoy a vital and rewarding career. Learning the answers to the core question, what degree do you need to be a clinical psychologist? is the first, and perhaps one of the most critical, steps toward deciding if the profession may be right for you.
Alliant International University can help you answer that particular question. We offer a PhD in Clinical Psychology and a PsyD in Clinical Psychology to satisfy your interests and professional objectives. With a robust staff of compassionate, experienced instructors, and campuses throughout California—including the great cities of San Francisco and Sacramento—we help you develop the mastery you need to thrive in your chosen specialty.
Reach out to us today for more information.
- “Covid-19 Pandemic Triggers 25% Increase in Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression Worldwide.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-…. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- “Pursuing a Career in Clinical or Counseling Psychology.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/education-career/guide/subfields/clinical/education…. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- “How to Become a Clinical Psychologist.” CORP-MAT1 (TEACH), December 23, 2022. https://teach.com/careers/psychology/clinical-psychologist/. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- Clinical Psychology.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/clinical. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- University, Alliant International. “Home.” Clinical vs. Counseling Psychology: What's the difference? https://www.alliant.edu/blog/difference-between-clinical-and-counseling…. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- “Types of Mental Health Professionals.” NAMI. https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Treatments/Types-of-Mental-He…. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- Cherry, Kendra. “Is a Ph.d. in Psychology the Right Choice for You?” Verywell Mind. Verywell Mind, October 28, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/phd-in-psychology-2795130. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- Cherry, Kendra. “How Clinical Psychology Is Used to Treat Mental Illness.” Verywell Mind. Verywell Mind, July 6, 2020. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-clinical-psychology-2795000. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- Stoffle, Audrey. “Phd in Psychology.” Psychology Degree 411, February 2, 2023. https://www.psychologydegree411.com/degrees/phd/. Accessed March 21,2023.
- “Choosing between a Phd and PsyD: Some Factors to Consider.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/careers-in-psych/201603/choosin…. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- Raypole, Crystal. “What's the Difference between a PsyD and a Phd?” GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog, March 20, 2019. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/whats-the-difference-between-psyd-and-…. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- “Phd in Clinical Psychology Degree Info: All Psychology Schools.” AllPsychologySchools.com, January 24, 2023. https://www.allpsychologyschools.com/degrees/phd-in-clinical-psychology/. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- “Doctoral Degrees in Psychology: How Are They Different, or Not so Different?” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/psn/2016/01/doctoral-degrees. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- “Online Catalog System.” Admissions and Registration - Alliant International University - Acalog ACMS™. https://catalog.alliant.edu/content.php?catoid=37&navoid=1432&_ga=2.298…. Accessed March 21, 2023.
- University, Alliant International. “Home.” 6 Clinical Psychology Jobs and Career Paths. https://www.alliant.edu/blog/what-are-different-career-paths-clinical-p…. Accessed March 21, 2023.