Therapy FAQ

Ph.D. vs. Psy.D.: What’s the Difference and Which One Should You See for Therapy?

Choosing between a Ph.D. and a Psy.D. for therapy can feel overwhelming. Both have their strengths, but understanding their differences is key. Let’s dive into what sets them apart and how to choose the right fit for your mental health needs.

Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta By Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Updated on May 12, 2024

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Choosing a mental health professional can be a daunting task. Not only do you have to find someone who specializes in the right kind of treatment for your needs, but you also need to ensure they have the right qualifications.

Two of the most commonly-used degrees in psychology and psychiatry are the Ph.D. and the Psy.D. While both degrees may seem similar at first glance, a few key distinctions can help you decide which suits your therapy needs. 

In this article, you’ll learn the differences between Ph.D. and Psy.D. degrees and what they mean when choosing a mental health professional.

What Is a Ph.D.? Definition and Characteristics 

Ph.D. is an abbreviation for Doctor of Philosophy. It refers to a doctoral degree, the highest academic qualification one can achieve. The degree typically involves researching and writing a thesis offering an original contribution to an area of study.

A Ph.D. in clinical psychology focuses on research-based mental health treatment approaches. The highest academic qualification in psychology, clinical psychologists with a Ph.D. have typically completed extensive coursework in psychology and research methodology.

A Ph.D. in psychology involves more research on psychological theories and practices than clinical practice. Typically, 20-40% of the first two years of study are focused on research and statistics. One year is dedicated to clinical practicum, while the last two are usually for completing a doctoral dissertation.

According to Christy Barongan, Ph.D., a mental health services provider with Grow Therapy, “Those who undertake a Ph.D. program are focused on research, academics, professorship, data collection and processing, and authorship. However, the time they spend in clinical practice adequately prepares them to work with clients in the mental health field as well.” 

Skills Learned

A Ph.D. program in psychology prepares graduates to work in various sectors ranging from academic and research institutions to mental health facilities. Throughout the study period, Ph.D. students are equipped with crucial hard and soft skills to offer the highest services in the psychology sector. The skills include:

Specialties

Holders of a Ph.D. in psychology have several specialties. Some of the concentrations include:

Educational Psychology: Educational psychology focuses on education theories and testing and measurement for adult learners.

Research in Psychology: This specialization offers a chance for professionals to extend their research skills beyond the basics. Areas of study include tests and measurements, multivariate analysis, and advanced mixed methods.

Health Psychology: With this concentration, the emphasis is on the relationship between psychology and health. This specialization focuses on health psychology and how to change behavior.

Social Psychology: Social psychology focuses on the effects of social settings on human behavior. Areas of study include social cognition, social work, survey research, and applied social psychology.

Teaching in Psychology: This specialization prepares professionals to conduct research and document new knowledge while working in the education sector as professors or research assistants in colleges and universities.

What is a Psy.D.? Definition and Characteristics  

A Psy.D. is a doctoral degree in clinical psychology focusing on clinical practice rather than research. The full title of the degree is Doctor of Psychology, and it’s offered in various universities and colleges across the United States. 

The program was developed in the 1970s as an alternative to a Ph.D. for those more interested in providing psychological services instead of carrying out disciplinary research. As a result, a Psy.D. focuses more on preparing professionals for career opportunities that involve the application of scientific knowledge of psychology. The professionals are trained to provide empirically-based services to individuals, organizations, and groups.

The program consists of four to six years of academic study, with most of the study time dedicated to clinical practice to enhance hands-on skills. A Psy.D. program will typically include three years of practicum training, a dissertation, and one year of internship. 

Skills Learned

Psy.D. and Ph.D. holders learn similar skills to some extent. A Psy.D. exclusively operates in a clinical environment with training characteristically geared more toward providing mental health services.

Some of the skills learned include:

Specialties 

A Psy.D. program offers clinical training that spans the broad field of psychology to prepare individuals to thrive in their professional practice. All professionals receive foundational training but have the opportunity to pursue specialized training in one of the following fields:

Counseling Psychology: Counseling psychology focuses on how people function in relationships and at a personal level. The specialization addresses the social, emotional, school, work, and physical health issues affecting individuals. Psy.D.s in this field are trained to help people solve their mental health issues.

Clinical Psychology: This concentration prepares professionals to offer comprehensive and continuing mental and behavioral assistance to couples, families, and individuals. Professionals in this field work with all groups of people regardless of age.

The Primary Difference Between Ph.D. and Psy.D. Degrees

While both psychology programs can lead to a successful career in therapy, they still differ in training programs and career paths. Here are the primary differences:

Focus of Study

Like most Ph.D. programs, a degree in psychology emphasizes research. The degree trains a student to understand published work, act as a research assistant at a college level, and conduct research to expand existing knowledge in psychology. However, Ph.D. holders are also prepared for psychology careers besides conducting research, publishing their findings, and teaching.

On the other hand, Psy.D. emphasizes the practice of psychology as opposed to the academic study of the discipline. The degree suits those who want to focus on hands-on clinical psychology practice. It is important to note that Psy.D. holders are also trained in research and can still publish their work.

Study Duration

Due to its focus on academic study, a Ph.D. typically takes longer to complete. The extensive research requirements carry the bulk of study time. It takes four to seven years to earn a Ph.D. in psychology. The duration may vary depending on the specific university’s program.

A Psy.D. can take less time, typically requiring three to five years to graduate. Because there is less focus on research and more emphasis on practice, students are expected to complete a mandatory internship in clinical work

Career Path

A Psy.D. or a Ph.D. can lead to a career in psychology, but the path one takes depends on career goals. Due to the heavy focus on research and academic work in Ph.D. programs, most graduates opt for research or teaching-related careers. Since a Psy.D. is focused on clinical practice, these professionals tend to go for careers in mental health.

Whichever path you take, a career in psychology is rewarding. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychology careers are on an upward trajectory and are expected to increase by 6% by 2031. The statistics prove a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. is a worthwhile investment.

Acceptance Rates

Acceptance rates for Ph.D. vs. Psy.D. programs are another significant difference. The American Psychological Association (APA) accredited Ph.D. programs are more selective than PsyD. The discrepancy is partly attributable to the number of available opportunities. There are more opportunities for PsyD programs than Ph.D.

Since most Ph.D. programs are fully or partly funded, they tend to follow strict selection criteria, hence the low acceptance rates. Factors like the applicant’s performance during the interview and research interests play a significant role in admission. High grades alone do not guarantee acceptance.

Financial Aid

Many Ph.D. programs are fully sponsored, and students benefit from a stipend to finance their research. On the contrary, Psy.D. students, in most cases, have to finance their studies. The good thing is that they’ll likely graduate faster and start earning and paying off any debts they incurred while learning.

Which One Should You See for Therapy? 

Both Psy.D. and Ph.D. degrees can lead to a career in therapy. Although a Ph.D. places emphasis on research, the professionals are adequately prepared to work as mental health service providers during training. 

Whether one holds a Psy.D. or Ph.D., state licensing is mandatory to work as a professional therapist. While the two degrees qualify for state licensing, the licensure requirements differ from one state to another. 

After getting the degree, Psy.D. and Ph.D. holders are also eligible for board certification by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). The certification paves the way for peer and public recognition of demonstrated competence of a professional in a specialty area.

Psy.D. and Ph.D. holders are qualified and certified to:

Conduct Diagnostic Tests 

Psy.D. and Ph.D. holders are trained to evaluate and diagnose problems in people’s thinking, emotions, and behavior. They identify specific mental health issues affecting their patients through diagnosis within an approved diagnostic framework.

The professionals usually share the diagnostic results with you to help you better understand your problem. Diagnosis also helps to inform other healthcare professionals where necessary and guides treatment interventions.

Provide Therapy

After diagnosis, a Psy.D. or Ph.D. has the necessary skills to implement effective therapeutic approaches depending on the nature of the specific mental health issue affecting you.

A Grow Therapy therapist can help you handle stressful events, overcome addictions, or manage illnesses. These professionals handle mental health conditions resulting from traumatic experiences, death, family, life transitions, or relationship issues.

Interview Mental Health Patients

When you begin therapy, your psychologist may want to know what brings you to treatment, your concerns, and changes you want to make in your life. Sometimes the therapist may administer a questionnaire to learn about your childhood, family background, relationships, and work history, among others. 

The Bottom Line

Both Psy.D. and Ph.D. professionals are prepared to work in clinical psychology. Since Ph.D. professionals are more equipped with the skills necessary to conduct research, they may prefer to work in research institutions rather than directly with mental health patients. Due to their training approach, directly working with mental health patients is a more common path for Psy.D. holders.

Whether your therapist has a Ph.D. or Psy.D., or any other mental health qualification, they can provide you with the mental health care and treatment you need. It is important to find out whether a professional is licensed to work in your state, their specialties, and their experience in handling issues similar to yours.

When looking for a therapist who suits your needs, credentials are less important than the therapist’s specialties and therapeutic style, so it’s important to ask questions and make sure you’re comfortable with their approach.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta is a licensed mental health counselor with over 10 years of experience in the mental health field. She helps individuals overcome numerous issues, including stress and anxiety disorders, self-esteem issues, relationship issues, depression, behavioral issues, and grief.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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