Clinical Psychology Degrees: PhD, Master's & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a clinical psychology degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and doctoral degree and potential careers.
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Studying Psychology: Degrees at a Glance

A clinical psychology career usually requires you to wear several hats. For this position, you need compassion and attentiveness, solid research skills and the ability to know how and when to apply psychological theory to help patients with mental and emotional issues. A doctoral degree is the standard needed to qualify for state licensing, which is required for employment in most settings, including private practice, hospitals and schools. You can earn a master's degree in clinical psychology, but once you enter the job market, your options may be limited to counseling or research assisting. The demand for clinical, counseling and school psychologists is expected to increase by 22% from the years 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That translates into the creation of nearly 34,000 new jobs across the nation during that ten year period.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? People wanting to work in related fields, such as counseling or education, or those who want to advance into doctoral studies People wanting to become clinical psychologists or postsecondary instructors and researchers
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Marriage and family therapist ($49,000)*
- School counselor ($57,000)*
- Social science research assistant ($42,000)*
- Mental health counselor ($43,000)*
- Clinical psychologist ($73,000)*
- Postsecondary psychology instructor ($75,000)*
Time to Completion 2-3 years full-time, up to five years part-time 5-10 years full-time (master's usually earned en passant)
Common Graduation Requirements - Around 36 credits
- Master's project
- Clinical practicum
- Around 95 credits
- Dissertation project
- 1-year clinical internship
-Research and/or practicum requirements
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree - Bachelor's or master's degree in psychology or related field
- Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores
- Personal statement and/or interview
Online Availability None found at this time None found at this time

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's Degree in Clinical Psychology

As mentioned above, getting your master's degree in clinical psychology won't qualify you for licensure as a clinical psychologist. Therefore, master's degree programs in this topic are less common than doctoral programs are, and admission can be competitive. Completing a master's program can put you on the road toward similar types of licensure, such as marriage and family therapy or mental health counseling, or it can prepare you for doctoral studies in clinical psychology. However, many programs don't require a master's degree for consideration, so going straight into a doctoral program after completing your undergraduate degree may save time and money. Typical master's curricula include clinical opportunities, as well as the completion of an independent research project and/or comprehensive exams.

Pros and Cons


  • Applied degree that requires less time spent on education than does a doctorate
  • Psychology and counseling jobs are expected to increase (22% overall from 2010-2020)*
  • Upon graduation, you could enter a variety of fields (mental health, counseling, education, etc.)


  • A master's does not qualify you to become a clinical psychologist (doctorate needed)
  • Graduates with only master's degrees face more competition for jobs an may need to work in fields outside of psychology
  • Marriage and family therapists earn less than do clinical psychologists (almost $25,000 less annually)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Courses and Requirements

Typical master's coursework covers specific topics in clinical psychology, such as personality or addiction, along with a range of applied treatments and therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Many master's programs include supervised internships, practica and/or apprenticeships so you can gain hands-on experience before you enter the job market. Here are some examples of courses you might encounter at the master's level:

  • Developmental Psychology
  • Clinical Research Methods
  • Psychopathology
  • Psychotherapy

In addition to academic courses, other common requirements include a research project, master's paper or comprehensive master's examination. Some clinical psychology master's programs include areas of specialization or emphases, such as marriage and family therapy.

Online Course Info

Online master's degree programs in clinical psychology are not available at this time; if you find one, careful research is recommended to check for program accreditation. If scheduling is a concern for you, some on-campus master's programs offer a choice of day or evening schedules. If you're considering a clinical or academic career track, a traditional on-campus master's program (with fieldwork or research opportunities), may be the best option for a well-rounded education.

Standing Out with this Degree

As a master's student, one way you can prepare for the job market is by cultivating relationships with faculty members. Master's degree programs in clinical psychology may not have as many research opportunities as doctoral programs do; however, some clinically-based master's programs include the opportunity to work under faculty supervision providing psychological services to the community through the university's clinic. Some universities have designated program advisors that work with each individual student to assist with career goals. Other programs may include departments that provide students or recent graduates with access to professional connections and/or practical experiences that can be beneficial for career prospects.

The use of technology is increasing in nearly all fields, and clinical psychology is no exception. You can gain familiarity with the tools and technology used in this field if you want to gain an edge over your competition. Psychologists use computers, biofeedback equipment and office management software, such as accounting, billing and spreadsheet programs. Medical and analytical software is also commonly used for patient assessment or research.

Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology

Doctoral programs in clinical psychology usually lead to two specific degrees: the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). If you're interested in more academic pursuits, such as research and teaching, or if you'd like to have these career options in addition to the option to become licensed and start a clinical practice, a Ph.D. program may be a better fit for you.

Ph.D. programs can be very competitive, usually admitting only a small percentage of those who apply. You can apply to many Ph.D. programs without a master's degree; instead, a bachelor's in psychology or a related field can be sufficient. The curriculum generally includes topics in psychotherapy and treatment, but focuses more on scientific research and methodology. Ph.D. students work closely with faculty members as teaching aides or research assistants. Often, programs assign you a specific faculty advisor who helps you craft your dissertation.

Pros and Cons


  • Flexible work schedule, especially if in private practice
  • A doctoral degree leads to more job options
  • Choice of research or applied degrees (Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree)


  • Highly selective program admission (UCLA accepted 16 out of 365 Ph.D. clinical psychology applicants in 2011)*
  • Could spend up to 10 years in your program (Ph.D. programs last 5-10 years)*
  • Working in clinical practice is formally regulated (licensure and continuing education are required)

Source: *University of California, Los Angeles

Courses and Requirements

Doctoral clinical psychology programs consist of around 95-96 credits total and can take anywhere from 5-10 years of full-time study. Most doctoral programs include a clinical internship and/or practicum that usually requires a yearlong, full-time commitment. You will need to complete a dissertation which involves working closely with your faculty advisor to present and publish research in an individualized area of focus. Other typical program requirements include qualifying examinations (written and oral), case study papers and seminars. See the list below for examples of doctoral-level courses:

  • Ethics in Clinical Psychology
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Clinical Assessment Methodology
  • Behavioral Therapy

Online Course Info

Online doctoral clinical psychology programs are not available. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there are no fully online programs that are APA-accredited at this time. Doctoral clinical psychology students usually work closely with faculty advisors on research projects, teach other graduate students and have networking opportunities through professional events. These things would be hard to offer in an online environment, so they contribute to the lack of accredited online clinical psychology programs at the doctoral level.

Standing Out with this Degree

As a doctoral student, a major program focus is preparation for your career in psychological research or clinical practice. Although most doctoral programs can be divided into two degree categories (Ph.D. and Psy.D.), many of the ways you can distinguish yourself with either designation are very similar. Below are ways you can stand out in this competitive field:

  • Voluntary certification - You can become board certified in a variety of psychological specialties, including clinical psychology, to display your expertise and competence to potential employers or clients. Since this is a voluntary step that entails further requirements (which usually includes a certification exam), earning certification is a way to demonstrate dedication and increase prestige.
  • Professional organization membership - Become a member of a professional organization, such as the American Psychological Association. By joining, you have access to resources and publications, like journals and magazines. Conferences and meetings give you the chance to network, keep up with the latest news in the field or present research. By utilizing the benefits of membership in a professional organization, you have increased exposure and possibly, more avenues to advance your career.
  • Utilize your university psychology clinic - You can gain clinical experience and develop relationships with faculty that may help you with future career prospects by working in your university's psychology clinic. Some universities have their own campus clinic, which provides discounted psychological services to the community. These clinics are staffed by graduate students and supervised by faculty members.
  • Stay current with trends in technology - Becoming familiar with technology used in the field can give you an advantage in your career prospects. Psychologists commonly use computer software to help with field research and analysis, patient diagnoses and treatment, along with the management of business operations; therefore, you might familiarize yourself with scientific analysis, medical and scheduling software.

Alternative Degrees

As mentioned briefly earlier, there are two common types of doctoral degrees in clinical psychology. If you'd like to provide therapy directly to patients or prefer to downplay the scientific aspects of a Ph.D. program, you may consider a professional-level Psy.D. program instead; however, either degree can qualify you for licensure to practice in a clinical setting. Since Psy.D. programs are specifically designed to train practitioners of clinical psychology, the curriculum emphasizes clinical experiences, seminars and internships over research. However, like Ph.D. programs, Psy.D. programs often include a dissertation project. The BLS predicts that the need for psychologists will increase because more people are looking for psychological services and treatment, so earning a Psy.D. degree may be a good alternative if your interests tend more toward patient care in private practice. Benefits to a Psy.D. program include that they are often less competitive than Ph.D. programs and can be completed in a shorter amount of time (around 1-1.5 years less). However, Ph.D. programs usually offer a lot more financial assistance than Psy.D. programs do, so completing a Psy.D. program can be very expensive.

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