Proud supporter of not-for-profit colleges and universities

The Online PHD in Psychology

Psychologists study the behavior of individuals and groups, conducting extensive research into the thoughts, emotions, and disorders that influence behavior. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that more than 160,000 psychologists practice in the United States. One-third of working practicing psychologists are self-employed, one-third work in educational and research settings, while the remainder take jobs with social service and healthcare organizations. Jobs for psychologists are anticipated to grow by 12 percent during the 2012-2022 decade. Best prospects will be for candidates with a PhD, according to the BLS.

This strategic guide serves as a one-stop, in-depth resource for prospective students saddled with employment responsibilities, family obligations and other commitments that make pursuing an online PhD in psychology the best educational option. You'll find a listing of top schools with an online psychology PhD, details on types of doctoral programs, curriculum and graduation requirements and details on earning a license to practice. There is also an interview with a graduate, who earned an online doctorate in psychology.

Types of Online Psychology Doctorates

In general, there are three types of online psychology doctorate degrees: the PhD, PsyD and EdD. Each degree type has its own set of curriculum and objectives mapped to the preparation requirements for careers in research, education, and clinical practice. Here is a breakdown of each of the three doctorates and type of careers they suited to graduates:

PhD

PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology

The PhD represents the pinnacle of research-focused academic work. Many programs do not require applicants to have a master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree in psychology. The two main types of online psychology PhDs are in clinical psychology and counseling psychology. Programs take four to five years of study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Candidates in the counseling, clinical, school, or health service concentrations typically must complete a one-year supervised internship to graduate. Students are also required to complete and defend an academic thesis and take a comprehensive examination. The degree is ideally suited for professionals who want to focus on college and university teaching or in research roles with academic institutions, governmental agencies, or private corporations.

PsyD

The PsyD, or Doctor of Psychology

The PsyD is a doctorate program focusing on clinical or counseling practice. It emerged in the 1970s as a program designed for psychologist/clinicians, rather than for academic researchers. The program takes four to seven years to complete and includes a dissertation, a supervised practicum and one-year internship requirement. Following graduation, you are required to pass pertinent state and national licensing exams in order to practice. Graduates find jobs with public and private hospitals, government healthcare offices, mental health clinics, or establish a private practice.

EdD

The EdD, or Doctorate of Educational and Counseling Psychology

The doctoral in school psychology was officially made a specialty by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1968 and currently includes high-level education in clinical, counseling and school psychology. The EdD focuses on studies in educational theory, leadership and administration, curriculum development, educational psychology, resource development and education technology. Graduates may work in school counselor roles, with diverse populations, or in fields as broad as sports psychology or industrial organizational settings. Internships and dissertations are also an integral part of the degree requirements. It can be the ideal choice for education professionals looking to advance in their field.

Researching Psychology PhDs: Key Questions

No online program fits any and all students. No campus programs do, either. Therefore, finding one that meets your academic and professional needs means all the difference. For example, students with visions of working with at-risk youth may seek a doctoral program with practicum relationships with middle schools. Others may need a program with ultimate flexibility, allowing for more than the standard five years to achieve the degree. Bottom line, it’s important to research and ask questions. Here are four critical questions to ask program advisors before taking the first step toward an online psychology PhD:

1. How does the online program handle hands-on training?

Like many social sciences, psychology at the professional level requires work with patients. Therefore, it’s important that an online PhD program in psychology includes practicum, externship and internship opportunities for its students. Going one step further, make sure all available internship locations have been approved by the American Psychological Association (APA).

2. Does the program have proper accreditation?

Two levels of accreditation come into play here. First, the college or university from which you plan to earn your PhD in psychology should have full accreditation. At this level, regional accreditation serves as the gold standard. Second, some psychology schools or departments choose to earn programmatic accreditation from the APA.

3. What percentage of graduates pursues and passes state licensure?

All practicing psychologists must have a license. To achieve licensure, a psychologist must hold an advanced degree and pass a state-specific examination. Before applying to an online psychology degree program, especially at the doctoral level, it’s important to know how its graduates fair when they sit for these exams. A high pass rate could indicate a strong program.

Concentrations and Careers

At the PhD level, specialization is everything. If a student wants to help children identify and overcome emotional challenges, research and patient work focused on child psychology is key. Before applying to an online psychology PhD program, however, it’s critical to understand how concentrations in the field work. Some doctoral candidates in psychology may have their hearts set on working with patients a majority of the time, as in the child psychology example. Others may be drawn toward a research or academic track, preparing themselves to teach and publish at the university level. And may students may find their concentration to be a little of both. Let’s take a more detailed look at some of today’s most popular advanced psychology concentrations:

Child psychology

Handling the behavior and emotional development of children from the time they are born through their teens, child psychologists study the mental, social and emotional behaviors of adolescents as they grow. Child psychologist may focus on areas such as the development of personality, social maturity and language, as well as genetics. In their work with children, they will help to identify and diagnose a variety of social, emotional and developmental issues, and work to prevent these issues when possible.

Child Psychologist

Working closely with children, child psychologists help to diagnose and treat different mental, social or emotional developmental issues that may arise. They also focus on the prevention of such issues when possible.

Clinical Psychologist

Heavily focused on research and study, clinical psychologists usually work in hospital or academic environments. While they do not treat patients, they may help them to identify and better understand a spectrum of different mental disorders.

Educational Psychologist

Using their research in understanding how people learn in different environments, educational psychologists identify both gifted and disabled students, and work to develop the best educational paths for them.

Clinical psychology

Focusing on the analysis, identification and prevention of various mental disorders, clinical psychologists typically work in private practices or in academic environments. While they do not prescribe medical treatment, they do work closely with patients, helping them to identify and understand a range of psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety issues and schizophrenia.

Child Psychologist

Working closely with children, child psychologists help to diagnose and treat different mental, social or emotional developmental issues that may arise. They also focus on the prevention of such issues when possible.

Clinical Psychologist

Heavily focused on research and study, clinical psychologists usually work in hospital or academic environments. While they do not treat patients, they may help them to identify and better understand a spectrum of different mental disorders.

Community Psychologist

Focused on the study and research of both small and broader communities, community psychologists work to understand how and why people interact and behave in their societies the way they do.

Educational Psychologist

Using their research in understanding how people learn in different environments, educational psychologists identify both gifted and disabled students, and work to develop the best educational paths for them.

Gerontologist

Tracking both the physical and emotional changes one undergoes as they age, gerontologists focus on not only the actual aging process, but the social and biological implications of getting older.

Military Psychologist

Military psychologists assess the emotional trauma and disorders that may occur due to involvement in war-time activities. They may be deployed as part of a military unit, or work in hospitals that focus on treating veterans who have recently come back from deployment themselves.

Neuropsychologist

Studying brain anatomy and the various diseases and dysfunctions that may occur, neuropsychologists aim to understand the relationship between how one’s abilities, behaviors and cognitive functions are impacted by these problems.

Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

Within an organization, industrial-organizational psychologists study employees and their roles in the environment and organizational structure of a workplace, help to improve efficiency and implement best practices and training policies.

Sports Psychologist

Either with an individual or an entire team, the sports psychologist can help athletes overcome issues that may impede athletic performance, as well as help to facilitate better communications between both team members and between coaches and players.

Forensic psychology

Working hand-in-hand with the justice system, forensic psychologists apply their backgrounds in the understanding of psychological issues to the fields of criminal investigations, justice and litigation. They may be called upon to use their expertise in the courtroom in cases such as custody battles, or they may work on the investigative side of things, using their knowledge to evaluate involved parties and determine mental competency of defendants.

Community Psychologist

Focused on the study and research of both small and broader communities, community psychologists work to understand how and why people interact and behave in their societies the way they do.

Military Psychologist

Military psychologists assess the emotional trauma and disorders that may occur due to involvement in war-time activities. They may be deployed as part of a military unit, or work in hospitals that focus on treating veterans who have recently come back from deployment themselves.

Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

Within an organization, industrial-organizational psychologists study employees and their roles in the environment and organizational structure of a workplace, help to improve efficiency and implement best practices and training policies.

Neuropsychology

Neuropsychologists assess, diagnose and set forth treatment plans for those suffering abnormal neurologic development or who have issues with medical, psychological or neurological conditions. They closely study brain anatomy, neurologic diseases and brain dysfunction in an effort to help those afflicted with such issues.

Child Psychologist

Working closely with children, child psychologists help to diagnose and treat different mental, social or emotional developmental issues that may arise. They also focus on the prevention of such issues when possible.

Gerontologist

Tracking both the physical and emotional changes one undergoes as they age, gerontologists focus on not only the actual aging process, but the social and biological implications of getting older.

Neuropsychologist

Studying brain anatomy and the various diseases and dysfunctions that may occur, neuropsychologists aim to understand the relationship between how one’s abilities, behaviors and cognitive functions are impacted by these problems.

Sports Psychologist

Either with an individual or an entire team, the sports psychologist can help athletes overcome issues that may impede athletic performance, as well as help to facilitate better communications between both team members and between coaches and players.

School psychology

While providing support for children with the aim of ensuring their academic success, these psychologists work in school environments, collaborating with the rest of the staff to help create the best learning environment possible for students. They study and will be trained in child development, education and the different learning disabilities that students may need assistance dealing with while in the pursuit of their educations.

Child Psychologist

Working closely with children, child psychologists help to diagnose and treat different mental, social or emotional developmental issues that may arise. They also focus on the prevention of such issues when possible.

Community Psychologist

Focused on the study and research of both small and broader communities, community psychologists work to understand how and why people interact and behave in their societies the way they do.

Educational Psychologist

Using their research in understanding how people learn in different environments, educational psychologists identify both gifted and disabled students, and work to develop the best educational paths for them.

Community Psychologist

Focused on the study and research of both small and broader communities, community psychologists work to understand how and why people interact and behave in their societies the way they do.

Educational Psychologist

Using their research in understanding how people learn in different environments, educational psychologists identify both gifted and disabled students, and work to develop the best educational paths for them.

Military Psychologist

Military psychologists assess the emotional trauma and disorders that may occur due to involvement in war-time activities. They may be deployed as part of a military unit, or work in hospitals that focus on treating veterans who have recently come back from deployment themselves.

Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

Within an organization, industrial-organizational psychologists study employees and their roles in the environment and organizational structure of a workplace, help to improve efficiency and implement best practices and training policies.

Child Psychologist

Working closely with children, child psychologists help to diagnose and treat different mental, social or emotional developmental issues that may arise. They also focus on the prevention of such issues when possible.

Clinical Psychologist

Heavily focused on research and study, clinical psychologists usually work in hospital or academic environments. While they do not treat patients, they may help them to identify and better understand a spectrum of different mental disorders.

Community Psychologist

Focused on the study and research of both small and broader communities, community psychologists work to understand how and why people interact and behave in their societies the way they do.

Educational Psychologist

Using their research in understanding how people learn in different environments, educational psychologists identify both gifted and disabled students, and work to develop the best educational paths for them.

Gerontologist

Tracking both the physical and emotional changes one undergoes as they age, gerontologists focus on not only the actual aging process, but the social and biological implications of getting older.

Military Psychologist

Military psychologists assess the emotional trauma and disorders that may occur due to involvement in war-time activities. They may be deployed as part of a military unit, or work in hospitals that focus on treating veterans who have recently come back from deployment themselves.

Neuropsychologist

Studying brain anatomy and the various diseases and dysfunctions that may occur, neuropsychologists aim to understand the relationship between how one’s abilities, behaviors and cognitive functions are impacted by these problems.

Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

Within an organization, industrial-organizational psychologists study employees and their roles in the environment and organizational structure of a workplace, help to improve efficiency and implement best practices and training policies.

Sports Psychologist

Either with an individual or an entire team, the sports psychologist can help athletes overcome issues that may impede athletic performance, as well as help to facilitate better communications between both team members and between coaches and players.

The Online Psychology PhD Timeline

Many students considering a PhD in psychology understand the process to a certain extent. They’ve spoken with students, professors or advisors to get at least a basic understanding of what’s involved and how long it all might take. However, seeing it on paper can give potential applicants a more complete view by outlining everything from day one to year two to graduation. See how one path to the psych PhD might look:

Year 0

Applying to an online PhD program usually involves more steps than a standard bachelor’s or even a master’s. In addition to transcripts, test scores and letters of recommendation, doctoral candidates may need to submit past research papers, project results and any other materials that illustrate advanced aptitude in psychology. Critical steps of application and enrollment include:

Organize grades & test scores

Make sure all colleges previously attended send official transcripts to each psychology program to which you apply. The program needs to evaluate all undergraduate and graduate coursework taken in the field, as well as the grades earned. Some doctorate programs in psychology will also want to see GRE test scores. The GRE testing service can send copies of your results to your target programs, as well.

Collect psychology references

While grades and test scores matter, endorsements from psychology professionals – especially professors – can make a tremendous difference. Past and current professors can speak intelligently to the level of your work and, most importantly, how you would perform in a psychology PhD program.

Create a psych portfolio

Put your best work forward. Have research papers or projects that got attention or an “outstanding” from the professor? Include them. Present a paper at a regional psychology society meeting? Add it. Compile as many examples of stand-out work you can. The more materials the review board can look at, the better.

Submit the materials

Every PhD program has its own deadline for applications. First, make sure you have all the required materials at the ready – including the necessary fee. Second, know the deadline and don’t miss it. Send everything by certified mail if needed. Missing the cut off date could mean a delay in admission – potentially to the following year.

Years 1 & 2
Required psychology courses

During the first two years of an online PhD program, psychology students often take most of their required courses. These courses may start out as non-specific advanced courses, such as Advanced Research Methods in Psychology or Understanding Systems of Psychology. During year two, however, psychology students at the doctoral level may select both required and elective courses more in tune with their intended concentrations.

Becoming an assistant

Many doctorate programs in psychology require or strongly recommend participation as a research assistant (RA) or teaching assistant (TA). Research assistants help professors collect and organize primary sources, secondary sources and laboratory data for papers and manuscripts. Not only does this help the professor, but it also gets students better acquainted with the research landscape. Most students work with a professor working in his or her psychology concentration.

Teaching assistants also help professors, but may lead psychology discussion groups online or handle introductory video lecture courses. This route gives psychology students interested in teaching, or even in working with patients, more experience communicating with people one-on-one and in groups, and using multiple media.

Psychology practicum

Students get their first taste of practicum during years one and two. Practicum means putting knowledge and skills learned in the classroom to work in hospitals, schools, homeless shelters or other locations where psychologists often work. For online students, the psychology department may help coordinate practicum at a location near their residence. The department might also provide a list of medical facilities with whom they partner, and let the student organize the volunteer opportunity. Before applying to an online doctoral program in psychology, find out how practicum works.

Thesis (or dissertation first steps)

The exact path of an online psychology PhD can depend on whether a student has already earned a master’s degree. Those who haven’t completed the two-year credential may need to research, write and defend a thesis related to his or her psychology specialty. Those who have a psychology master’s in hand, however, may use this time to begin planning a dissertation. This can include selecting a mentor, discussing and narrowing down a topic, and starting very preliminary research and reading.

Years 3 & 4
Comprehensive examinations

Year three of an online psychology PhD program usually bring exams. Materially generally covers everything learned throughout the courses taken during years one and two. For some exam cycles, the student may organize the contents of the examination with an advisor to ensure the questions and other requirements stay targeted on the student’s coursework and concentration.

Dissertation completion

By the end of year three and after passing exams, official dissertation prep should be well under way. This means having a clear (or at least a somewhat clear) vision of topic, thesis and research methods. Proposing the thesis to a panel may come either at the end of year three or the beginning of year four, depending on the program. By the end of the year, students may need to have the entire dissertation completed and ready to defend verbally.

Year 5+
Psychology internship

All online PhD students in psychology need to complete a pre-doctoral internship, the capstone experience of the program. This gives aspiring psychologists more advanced hands-on training in a clinical setting. Students often apply to intern at schools, hospitals or related facilities approved by the APA. Online students should be able to find opportunities in any number of metropolitan areas near home. Internships often require significant preparation, as well as official selection, application, an interview and matching. The goal is not only experience, but to identify an internship that coincides with the professional aims of the student.

Graduation

Each program handles graduation differently. However, to earn an online PhD in psychology, most candidates need to apply for review. This means submitting a formal application to a pre-selected committee, which will review all accomplishments (from coursework to internship) completed during the program. A successful review results in granting of the PhD.

Spotlight: Fielding Graduate University
Online PhD in Clinical Psychology

California’s Fielding Graduate University

California’s Fielding Graduate University, founded in 1974, is the first and only online distributed PhD program to receive an accreditation from the APA. The university also holds accreditation by the Regional Board – Western Association of Schools and Colleges. It is a recipient of the 2015 Carnegie Foundation for Community Engagement Classification.

The Fielding online program requires PhD candidates with a master’s degree to complete 90 credits. Bachelor’s degree holders admitted to the program must complete 173 credits and hail from an undergraduate school that has a regional accreditation. Students accepted into the school can choose from five specializations in their research: Forensic Psychology, Health Psychology, Neuropsychology, Parent-Infant Mental Health, and Violence Prevention and Control. Requirements also include 500 clock hours in a clinical practicum and an internship (one year if full-time, two years if part-time).

The Fielding online PhD program is a generalist doctorate built on a “distributed” model; students complete all classwork online but are required to attend faculty-led “cluster groups” near their communities for seminars, discussions, research training and networking. Students must also attend three week-long residential sessions located across the country. Because of these requirements, students residing outside the country or the continental U.S. are not eligible to participate.

About Licensure

All states require practicing psychologists to be licensed. All independent psychologists need to hold a license. Whether PhD grads need a license depends on their state and their employer. For example, there may be licensing exemptions for psychologists who work in federal and governmental organizations, college and universities, and research laboratories. National licensing examination is administered through the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology.

Online PhD programs in psychology do not confer licenses. However, they can be instrumental in helping students to coordinate the curriculum, internships, and residencies to prepare them for licensing. According to the APA, students should start investigating licensing requirements in the state where they intend on practicing as early as the second year of their doctoral to ensure they’ll meet educational requirements to gain a license. The requirements with the greatest variables from state-to-state include:

  • Required graduate level courses
  • Jurisprudence exams
  • Pre-doctoral internships and postdoctoral clinical residency requirements under direct supervision. For example, California requires 3,000 supervised hours, while Michigan requires twice that many.
  • Calendar for taking the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP)
  • Length of professional experience

Students should also budget for test-prep materials and licensing fees which, depending on state, can run over $1,000. For more information on the path to licensure, visit The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

In addition to licensing, some states require psychologists to hold certifications. The American Board of Professional Psychology awards specialty certifications in 13 professional areas such as psychoanalysis, rehabilitation, couple and family, and clinical health. To qualify, you must complete a post-doc program in your specialty.

Interview with an Online Psychology PhD Graduate

Dr. Sharon L.,graduate of an online PsyD program.

What factors went into your choosing an online doctorate in psychology?

At the time, I worked with a county counseling organization. I needed a grad program that allowed me to complete a PsyD without leaving town — but it had to be academically reputable. I looked at things like accreditation, degree requirements, financial aid options, research opportunities and faculty.

Did the program challenge you?

At first it was hard returning to college, especially in managing my time, committing to a study schedule, and balancing a very heavy academic workload. If you believe an online graduate degree program is relaxed and easy, you have another guess coming.

Was the distance learning experience difficult in terms of working with cohorts, colleagues and mentors?

The clinical requirements brought us all together and put a face on a voice. But I also enjoyed networking through voice conferencing, chat, emails, and the department bulletin boards. Sure, online work is a compromise, but I’m good with a solid academic program and plenty of virtual support. You have to be self-directed to make it.

How has your degree impacted your life?

I switched agencies in my third year of the grad program because I felt ready to take the challenge of working with at-risk adolescents. Now I am an assistant director and still enjoy working directly with teens on their issues.

The Psychology PhD and Money

One of the most popular questions psychology students ask when considering a PhD program is, “Will it be worth the money?” The short answer is, “it depends on your point of view.” A great way to look at the worth of an online PhD in psychology is to analyze the various costs that go into it, and what a graduate stands to earn when transitioning from college to career. First, let’s break down the associated costs.

PhD & Price

When earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology – tuition remains the most notable cost. Colleges and universities charge by the credit, quarter or semester, with some students earning discounts through scholarships or grants. Of course, there’s room and board, lab fees and living expenses, as well, all of which can add up. But for PhD students in psychology, the catalog of costs differ. For example, many colleges waive tuition for doctoral students in exchange for them serving as research assistants or teaching assistants. This allows professors to spend more time publishing papers in the field. Also, doctoral students may receive stipends to help pay for the aforementioned room and board and other bills.

Advanced psychology students should definitely be mindful of direct costs such as tuition and fees — even with tuition waivers and stipends in the mix. However, students also need to think about opportunity cost. In other words, during the five additional years spent earning an online PhD in psychology, how much money could you have made with just a bachelor’s in hand? According to the 2011 Georgetown study, “What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,” the average bachelor’s degree holder in psychology earns ~$42,000 per year, which equals $210,000 of potential earnings over five years. But is that really opportunity cost, or a mid-to-long-term investment?

The Psych PhD Payoff

In addition to having PhD at the end of your name, earning a doctorate in psychology online comes with notable financial rewards. Here’s a quick look at salaries for some of today’s most popular psychology PhDs:

Psychologists
Median Salary$69,280 Top 10%$110,880
Industrial-Organizational Psychologists
Median Salary$80,330 Top 10%$140,390
Clinical Psychologists
Median Salary$67,760 Top 10%$112,380
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013

When looking at Georgetown and BLS data together, average PhD holders in psychology earn an estimated 65% more per year than their bachelor’s holding counterparts. This means that typical psychology PhD graduates would make up the opportunity cost of their educations within ~8 years (see below). Although the data only uses average wage numbers, it still presents a pretty compelling case for the potential financial gain connected to the psychology doctorate.

PhD Year Bachelor’s Salary PhD Salary
Year 1 $42,000 $0
Year 2 $42,000 $0
Year 3 $42,000 $0
Year 4 $42,000 $0
Year 5 – Graduation $42,000 $0
Work Year 1 $42,000 $69,280
Work Year 2 $42,000 $69,280
Work Year 3 $42,000 $69,280
Work Year 4 $42,000 $69,280
Work Year 5 $42,000 $69,280
Work Year 6 $42,000 $69,280
Work Year 7 $42,000 $69,280
Work Year 8 $42,000 $69,280
Total Earnings $546,000 $554,240

Sources

Accreditation Fielding Graduate University
2012 Graduate Study in Psychology American Psychological Association
Psychologists U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
The Path to Licensure The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.
Why Specialize? American Board of Professional Psychology,
Interesting Careers in Psychological Science American Psychological Association