Related Educational Alternatives to Clinical Psychology PhD Programs

PhD vs. PsyD

PhD programs in clinical psychology follow the traditional “scientist-practitioner” model. This means that roughly half of your time is spent on research and half on clinical training. The PhD is generally viewed as a "research" degree, and a dissertation (an original empirical research study) is always required. Graduates are equipped with skills to compete for academic jobs in colleges and universities, to enter private practice, or to work in business, organizations, and social/community agencies. The PsyD is viewed more as an "applied" degree, with greater emphasis on clinical training in preparation for a career in direct practice with clients; however, a substantial research paper is usually required as well. Both clinical PhD and PsyD programs require a year-long pre-doctoral internship.

PhD programs are typically found in universities, while PsyD programs are often located in freestanding training institutions (e.g., in Schools of Professional Psychology). PsyD/professional school programs are usually expensive, in part because there are fewer opportunities to earn money through working as a teaching or research assistant. These schools tend to select students with more experience working in clinical settings such as psychiatric hospitals or halfway houses. GREs and grades are generally less important for admission to professional schools.

Clinical vs. Counseling

Doctoral degree programs in clinical psychology tend to focus on intellectual, neuropsychological, and personality assessment and on clinical work with individuals with severe psychopathology. Doctoral programs in counseling tend to focus on less severe psychopathology and on such developmental issues as academic and vocational guidance and parent-child and marital conflict. As noted above, many clinical PhD programs strongly emphasize research; this includes investigation of the nature and causes of psychological disorders and the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions. This is generally less true of counseling programs. APA-approved counseling programs typically have high admissions standards, though not quite so high as the most selective clinical programs.

While several differences exist, there is also substantial overlap between the fields of clinical and counseling psychology. Thus, students considering clinical psychology as a career may benefit from taking a careful look at counseling psychology options too. To learn more about counseling psychology, see the webpages of the counseling psychology division of the American Psychological Association.

MSW and MA/MS programs

Many students who hope to provide therapy to clients may be best off attending a master’s level graduate program. Those who earn a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) can become licensed to provide direct human services to individuals, groups, or families (as a therapist or case manager). They may work in a variety of settings – hospitals, schools, mental health centers, government agencies, or private practice. Their focus is often on social and health problems related to poverty, illness, and/or economic or emotional instability. Social workers are perhaps the best equipped among social service providers for connecting clients with appropriate professionals and agencies in their communities, as well as for working with communities to develop new resources. For those who seek academic and/or research positions in social work, doctoral-level degrees are also available. For more information on social work, see the webpages of the National Association of Social Workers.

Master’s-level programs are also offered in both clinical and counseling psychology, as well as in more specialized areas such as family therapy or rehabilitation counseling. Master’s programs in these areas take less time to complete than doctoral programs, and the primary focus is generally on training and experience in working with clients. Research training and experience may be minimal. Students earning a master’s degree in counseling and some of the specialized areas can provide therapy services in a variety of settings, sometimes under the supervision of someone with a doctoral degree and sometimes on their own. However, to be licensed to practice as a clinical psychologist, a doctoral degree is required.

One good source of information on counseling psychology – including how to choose a graduate program – is the webpages of the American Counseling Association. Many other web resources are available as well. If you think you might like to work with college students, take a look at the webpages of the American College Counseling Association. The National Rehabilitation Counseling Association and the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association have webpages with information about that field. To learn more about marriage and family therapy, a good place to start is the webpages of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

Students often ask whether getting an MA from a clinical psychology program will facilitate admission to a clinical PhD program later. In most doctoral programs in clinical psychology, the master's is not a "terminal" degree. That is, it is merely a hoop to jump through en route to a doctoral degree. Some PhD programs find a prior master's degree desirable (because of the experience entailed in obtaining the degree). However, having a master's degree does not guarantee preferential admission, nor does it necessarily decrease the time that it will take you to complete a doctoral program.

School psychology

If you are interested in working with students, parents, and teachers in school settings, then you may want to consider a graduate program in school psychology. School psychologists evaluate students who are having problems in school, whether academic, emotional, or behavioral. They may both diagnose the problem and work with parents and educators to develop interventions that can help students function more effectively. While some school psychologists are trained in clinical psychologists, others attend graduate schools of education and may earn either a master’s or a doctoral degree. For more information on school psychology, see the webpages of the National Association of School Psychologists.