Day: August 5, 2022

Selecting a Doctoral Program: Ph.D. versus Psy.D.

David Van Engen, Psy.D.
Student Perspective Article

I recently sat on some informational panels for the Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP) at the University of St. Thomas. Among the usual questions regarding pathways to a doctoral degree, a couple questions recurred between groups:

1) “What’s the difference between a Ph.D. and Psy.D.?”

2)“I’ve heard that a Psy.D. is not as ‘good’ as a Ph.D. program.” (Myth)

3) “Is selecting a Psy.D. over a Ph.D. program going to harm my future job or credentialing prospects? (Short answer: No)

I remember agonizing over the same questions back in 2015 when was in the process of researching and applying for psychology graduate programs. At the time, it felt like selecting any pathway into mental health would send me hurtling down an irrevocable route that would close off all the others and limit my future prospects. Now in 2022, having recently completed my Psy.D. (my program included an MA along the way), it turned out that those fears were never realized and the things that caused the most stress didn’t matter at all. I would like to reflect on those questions again, attempt to dispel some misconceptions, and hopefully make the program selection process a little less ambiguous for anyone interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology.

Ph.D. versus Psy.D. What’s the difference? Put simply, the difference between degree types comes down to training emphasis. The majority of Psy.D. programs are centered on the scientist/practitioner model, which prioritizes learning and practicing clinical skillsets with the end goal of clinical practice. Ph.D. programs historically emphasizes theory and methodological learning pertaining to research and academic pursuits; however, clinical skills are still taught. Over the last decade, the differences between the two types of degree have and continue to narrow due partly to competency-based APA accreditation requirements for training programs. The curriculum for both degrees meet the requirements for licensure as a psychologist. However, it is important to examine each doctoral program as the differences between them may be considerable in terms of quality (e.g., student-to-full-time faculty ratio, labs, availability of practicum options, resources, etcetera).

It is important to note one significant difference between program types. Since Psy.D. programs are relatively younger, there is some disparity when it comes to the availability of tuition remission, assistance, grants, and scholarships. While this gap is narrowing, Ph.D. programs may have more opportunities for tuition remission via teaching opportunities at the college or in the community. For example, I was accepted to a graduate program in Boston that offered up to 98% tuition remission. I wound up going with a Psy.D. program in Minnesota that offered no tuition remission but did offer some graduate assistant positions to defray some costs. At the time of this writing, I am aware of initiatives within graduate programs across the U.S. and the APA to provide greater opportunities for tuition assistance.

Myths about the Psy.D. Contrary to what you may have heard, the Psy.D. is not a “lesser” degree, nor is it a barrier to securing practicum/internship/postdoc placement or employment upon graduation. While some bias has historically existed, it is not based on empirical evidence and reflects prejudicial attitudes that thankfully have eroded over time. During your journey you may still encounter some of this bias but you may rest assured that those individuals do not represent the evolving and increasingly diverse field of psychology.

A useful historic comparison would be the attitudes surrounding the incredibly outdated MD (medical doctor) versus DO (doctor of osteopathy) debate. Again, the key difference is more philosophical than practical. Generally speaking, osteopathic programs are more holistic in their conceptualization of patients, pathology, and the mind. Both pathways will produce a highly trained, licensed physician who is held to the same standards of medical care in order to obtain licensure. During my former medical career, I worked in the emergency center with physicians of both backgrounds and the type of degree did not matter a whit. Also, I’ve had multiple surgeries over the years provided by both MDs and DOs and my internal organs couldn’t tell the difference. Just like these professionals, the comparison of Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs comes down to how the quality of education, supervision, and practica opportunities prepare doctoral-level professionals to enter the field.

Licensure. Students that successfully complete a Ph.D. or Psy.D. doctoral program and internship accredited by the APA can take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) as an entry-level licensed psychologist. Concerns and known issues surrounding non-APA-accredited programs and internships are not a topic that I can speak to adequately here but will address in a future article.

Career Prospects. Examining the modern workforce, psychologists with a Psy.D. can be found working alongside their Ph.D. colleagues with total parity. Specific settings that were initially synonymous with the Ph.D. such as the VA, academia, research, or neuropsychology no longer take the type of degree into consideration and instead focus on relevant experiences such as practica, internship/postdoc, research, and program evaluation. This is a significant change from when I first started graduate school in 2015.

Final Thoughts. Ultimately, graduate school is a lengthy process of learning, practicing new skills, failing (sometimes spectacularly), and self-reflection. Those 5-6 years are going to challenge and change you. At the end, the aspects of psychology that initially drew you toward this field may continue to inspire or they may disillusion you. You may find yourself in a vastly different setting than you first envisioned… and that’s okay. In fact, it’s one of the saving graces of this profession. It is not hyperbole to say that there are nearly limitless ways to practice psychology and retain your values (e.g., work/life balance, family, sanity, minimal criminal record). In fact, I would argue that the type of degree (Ph.D./PsyD) will have considerably less bearing on your future than the quality of training, clinical experiences, and supervision that you picked up along the way. When evaluating which program is right for you, deemphasize the degree and attend to the qualities of the program (e.g., philosophy, resources, diversity, faculty, rates of graduation). The importance of the goodness of fit (i.e., how well the program aligns with your values) cannot be overemphasized.