Earning an Online Doctorate in Psychology

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Colleges and universities throughout the country conferred 118,000 undergraduate degrees in psychology for the 2014-2015 school year (the latest time frame for which data is available). It was the fourth most popular field of study. A versatile degree, psychology opens several career options for graduates, including jobs as career counselors, marketing representatives, and social service professionals.

To earn licensure as a psychologist, you need to earn a doctoral degree. This guide focuses on online Ph.D. programs in psychology and covers important aspects such as funding options, degree requirements, and professional organizations and resources.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Doctorate in Psychology?

An online Ph.D. in psychology benefits busy professionals who cannot afford to take a break from their jobs to pursue an on-campus program. Several U.S. colleges and universities now offer online Ph.D. programs in psychology. In addition, psychology degree holders who are interested in building a career in a specific subfield (e.g., industrial or clinical psychology) will gain professional traction with a doctoral degree. And, as mentioned above, some careers in the field require a doctoral degree to pursue.

Why Get a Doctorate in Psychology?

Pursuing Specialization

A doctorate allows you to focus on, and build a career in, a specific field that holds your professional interest. For example, a doctorate in clinical psychology qualifies you to apply for licensure and start a private practice. Or, you can apply the knowledge and skills you gained from pursuing the degree to a particular industry, such as retail or human resources. Either way, you get to practice in the area of psychology that supports your professional objectives.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Completing an online psychology Ph.D. degree not only expands your career options, it enhances your salary potential as well. While it is true that experience often leads to career advancement (the longer you have been in your job, the greater the chances of being promoted or given broader responsibilities), a doctoral degree can yield the same career advancement opportunities.

Online Learning Technology

Colleges and universities offering online and on-campus programs often follow the same curriculum. Online students not only learn the same material as their onsite counterparts, they also become familiar with the technology that delivers the material. Online doctoral degree holders come not only with specialized knowledge in their field, but technological versatility as well.

Prerequisites for Online Psychology Programs

Whether you choose to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology online or on campus, you are expected to meet certain requirements before you begin the program. Below are some of them.

    • Work Experience: Many onsite and online Ph.D. psychology programs require applicants to have some type of professional experience after they complete their master's degree and before they begin a doctoral program. Some, however, accept applicants right after completing their master's program. Relevant work experience benefits doctoral students since they can relate classroom theories to real-world practice more easily.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Most graduate programs require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) to be considered for enrollment. Understandably, colleges and universities have varying minimum GRE levels for acceptance. You can get a general idea of threshold levels here, but it is best to inquire directly from the institution where you plan to attend. Test scores usually remain valid for five years.
    • Coursework: A 3.0 GPA during your master's program increases the chances of being accepted to an on-campus or online Ph.D. psychology program. Because the psychology field of practice is fairly wide-ranging, doctoral programs share few common courses aside from research methodology and general background courses. For most Ph.D. in psychology programs, you only enroll in classes specific to the field of psychology that comprise your area of study.
    • Recommendations: Colleges and universities often rely on an applicant's references or letters of recommendations to help determine whether a candidate is a good fit for their program. Most require letters of recommendations to come from individuals who are aware of the rigor of a doctoral degree. This often includes the applicant's academic mentor or professor, a direct work supervisor, or a colleague with an advanced degree.
    • Essays: Most schools require applicants to submit a personal essay focusing on their future career goals and how a Ph.D. in psychology can help support and attain their professional objectives. Alternately, some colleges prefer applicants to submit a portfolio of their written work, such as academic research papers or articles they published in peer-reviewed journals.
    • Interviews: More recently, if an interview is part of a school's graduate admission process, it is often conducted online. This is especially true for colleges and universities that offer online psychology Ph.D. degrees, but many brick-and-mortar schools take this approach as well. Applicants juggling full-time work along with other professional and personal responsibilities profit the most from a prospective school's decision to follow this interview method.
    • International Students: International doctoral applicants must meet the same program requirements as U.S. citizens. In addition to the common requirements, schools require international students to submit the results of a recognized English proficiency test. Most U.S. colleges and universities accept results from TOEFL (Test of English as a Second Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System).

How Much Can I Make with a Doctorate in Psychology?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14% job growth for psychologists through 2026, which is twice as fast as the average job growth projected for all other occupations (7%). Psychologists enjoy a median annual salary of $77,030, compared to the median annual salary of $37,690 for all other occupations. A doctoral degree paves the way for several growth-oriented career options in field of psychology. You can explore some of these options below.

Traditional Careers for Psychology Doctoral Degree Graduates

Career Stats Description

Psychologist

Median Pay: $77,030

Job Growth: 14%

Psychologists work in a variety of settings, depending on their area of specialization. For example, school psychologists work in academia, while industrial-occupational psychologists usually practice in a workplace environment. Licensed psychologists with doctoral degrees can also set up their private practice as counseling, rehabilitation, or clinical psychologists.

Ideal for: Individuals who are skilled in identifying, diagnosing, and managing behavioral, emotional, and psychological issues.

Marriage and Family Therapist

Median Pay: $48,790

Job Growth: 23%

Marriage and family therapists assist their clients manage familial challenges and difficulties by helping them identify and process their reaction to major life changes such as divorce, job loss, or the death of a loved one. When necessary, they also refer clients to community resources and services such as group therapy sessions or treatment institutions.

Ideal for: Licensed psychologists have a deep understanding of family and relationship dynamics.

School and Career Counselor

Median Pay: $55,410

Job Growth: 13%

Student counselors evaluate students' strengths and interests and help them develop the academic and social skills they need to succeed in school. Career counselors help college-bound students and working professionals to explore work options and choose a suitable educational program that will help them reach their career goals.

Ideal for: Psychologists who have excellent interview and aptitude assessment skills that allows them to help individuals perform better in school or make a career choice that maximizes their strengths and supports their interests.

Postsecondary Teacher

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

Postsecondary teachers develop course outlines, instruct students in their subject area, assess students' progress, and work with their colleagues to design and develop a curriculum that prepares students for work and life choices. They also often advise students on course selection and career options.

Ideal for: Individuals who enjoy teaching and interacting with students in the classroom as well as in socially-appropriate non-academic settings.

Nontraditional Careers for Psychology Doctoral Degree Graduates

Career Stats Description

Market Research Analyst

Median Pay: $63,230

Job Growth: 23%

As market research analysts, psychologists apply their knowledge of the human mind to the marketing realm. They help companies discover what their customers want to buy, monitor and forecast future sales trends, and analyze buying patterns and consumer behaviors using statistical software.

Ideal for: Psychologists with an interest in exploring how psychological principles impact consumer behavior.

Research Scientist

Median Pay: $77,677

Job Growth: 19%*

As psychologists, research scientists often gather information on issues directly related to the field of psychology. However, as doctoral degree holders, they are usually qualified to analyze and interpret almost any type of data-driven information. Many research scientists work in applied scientific fields where their insights and conclusions lead to business or commercial decisions. Some however, perform pure research and publish their findings and conclusions in peer-reviewed industry publications.

Ideal for: Research-oriented Ph.D. degree holders, whether they engage in applied research or add to the body of knowledge in a particular field.

HR Director

Median Pay: $86,246

Job Growth: 9%**

Human resources directors take on a variety of responsibilities, usually depending on the size of the company or organization for which they work. Much of their responsibilities involve human interaction (hiring new personnel, interviewing applicants, training, liaising between management and employees) where their doctoral degree in psychology gives them considerable leverage.

Ideal for: Ph.D. in psychology degree holders who count building strong professional ties as one of their strengths.

Department Chair (College/University)

Median Pay: $84,131

Job Growth: 10%***

The responsibilities of a department chair often consist of the following: supervising professors and assistant instructors to ensure they are teaching the curriculum and employing fair and effective classroom methodologies; overseeing the budget to ensure it meets department, administrative, and instructional needs; and coordinating with college or university administrators to make sure departmental decisions are in unison with overall school objectives.

Ideal for: Individuals who prefer to work in academia but no longer in the classroom setting

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Projections Central, 2017-2018

*Job growth projection for Postsecondary Education Administrators (BLS.gov)
**Job growth projection for Computer and Information Research Scientists (BLS.gov)
***Job growth projection for Human Resources Managers (BLS.gov)

Paying for a Doctorate in Psychology Online

The decision to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology online or on site comes with considerable costs not only financially, but also in terms of time and effort. Fortunately, scholarships and grants help cover the cost of a doctoral program (see some of them below). But following a specific time path to graduation can also make your doctoral program less expensive, especially if you are shouldering some of the costs out of pocket.

Tuition Timelines

Review the different timelines to degree completion below and see which one works out best for you in terms of your financial situation and time availability.

Part-Time Path

Part-time Ph.D. psychology programs are uncommon. Some schools allow students to enroll in a portion of the program (up to two years) on a part-time basis, but they are still required to complete several years of full-time residencies.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Fielding Graduate University
Total Credits Required: 82
Online Tuition Cost: $16,280
Pace: 6 Credits / 2 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 10-12
Summary: Although an online program, students are required to attend regular cluster meetings with professors and peers in locations nearest the student's geographical area. The program cost does not include the expense students might incur in attending these meetings.

Full-Time Path

Full-time doctoral students usually complete their program within five years. Several schools help students fund full-time enrollment (via fellowships, grants, scholarships) once they are accepted to the program. Some funding programs require recipients to maintain full-time enrollment status throughout their doctoral studies.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: University of Southern California
Total Credits Required: At least 60 credits beyond a baccalaureate degree; 36 units beyond a master's degree
Online Tuition Cost: $39,109 per year
Pace: 12 Credits / 4 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: Minimum of six to complete coursework, additional time required for dissertation
Summary: USC requires Ph.D. candidates to complete a minimum of 24 units on campus or at a university-approved off-campus centers. Online doctoral students can schedule their residency during summer months.

Accelerated Path

Colleges and universities that accept a higher number of transfer credits help their Ph.D. students earn their degree in less time. It is worth noting, however, that most doctoral programs only accept transfer credits earned from an accredited school or program.

Real-Life Example:

School Name: Walden University
Total Credits Required: 65 quarter credits for coursework, plus 20 credits for dissertation
Online Tuition Cost: $585 per credit hour
Pace: 18 Credits / 6 Classes per Semester
Total Semesters: 6
Summary: Walden University has a liberal transfer policy and a fast-track option that allows Ph.D. candidates to complete their program in less time.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants & Scholarships

Financial aid options for Ph.D. candidates usually consist of grants and fellowships from the college or university. However, some funding opportunities are nationally available. You can review five of these below.

What to Expect from an Online Doctorate in Psychology Program

Whether schools offer their Ph.D. in psychology online or onsite, most observe similar program and graduation milestones. What sets a doctoral program above others is its accreditation status. In the United States, the American Psychological Association (APA) acts as the main accrediting body for both undergraduate and graduate psychology programs. Although the APA does not currently offer accreditation for fully online Ph.D. programs in psychology, several regionally accredited institutions offer high-quality hybrid doctoral programs with plenty of room for flexibility.

Major Milestones

  1. Coursework Completion

    The student's adviser or department chair submits the necessary documentation to the college or university certifying that the student has completed all general and concentration coursework requirements.

  2. Qualifying Examination

    Some schools require Ph.D. degree candidates to pass a written test, while others require an oral examination. The qualifying exam usually takes place after the student has completed the required coursework.

  3. Advancement to Candidacy

    Once a student passes the qualifying exam, they advance to Ph.D. candidacy status and focus on the work required for a dissertation.

  4. Dissertation Approval

    Ph.D. candidates typically narrow down their dissertation topic as they progress through the program by consulting with their advisers and conducting exhaustive literature reviews.

  5. Final Exam/Dissertation Defense

    Ph.D. candidates face a panel familiar with the dissertation topic and answer any questions or clarifications they pose. A defense usually lasts for two to three hours, after which the panel deliberates and informs the student of their decision.

  6. Degree Requirement Completion

    The department chair informs the university that the student has successfully completed the departmental requirements for the degree and presents them as eligible for graduation.

Coursework

Every Ph.D. in psychology curriculum follows a focus that often sets it apart from the curriculum in other schools. However, there are a few foundation or general courses common to many Ph.D. programs.

Advanced Human Neuropsychology

This course focuses on the various aspects of the human brain (structure, function, organization), but also covers topics such as basic neurology, motor function, language, memory, and executive functions. Students also learn about dysfunctions like apraxias and amnesia through clinical case studies.

Advanced Social Psychology

Students examine the psychological factors that influence social behavior and study current and emerging trends in experimentation in the field of social science. The course requires students to conduct a literature survey focusing on research design and methodology.

Culture and Psychology

In this course, students explore how culture influences personality development, the creation of a personal belief system, and social behavior. This course often provides a global perspective so students gain a broad understanding of the relationship between culture and psychology.

Human Development Through the Lifespan

Students examine the psychological and developmental milestones that occur at each junction of human development. They also explore factors such as heredity and the environment and how these factors affect human development through the lifespan.

Research Design, Methods, and Theory

Students learn about the components of graduate-level research including enhanced data collection procedures; qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods research design and development; and the sociological and ethical implications of research. This course often requires to students to craft a comprehensive annotated bibliography as part of the culminating experience.

Requirements to Practice

Most states require psychologists to be licensed before they can practice. State requirements for licensure vary, but generally include a minimum number of supervised direct-client contact hours and a doctoral degree from an accredited college or university. Some states stipulate the completion of additional requirements, such as a teaching license for psychologists who plan to pursue a career in postsecondary education. Postdoctorate certifications are often not necessary to practice; however, many professional psychologists still opt to get certified to show their competence and expertise in their specialty area.

    • Board Certification in Clinical Psychology: The American Board of Clinical Psychology (ABCP) administers this examination designed to determine a candidate's competency to engage in clinical psychology practice. After the board reviews an applicant's generic and specialty credentials review, they sit for an oral exam with examiners in their specialty.
    • Board Certified Behavior Analyst: Administered by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, the BCBA determined the competency of psychology practitioners who provide a variety of behavior-analytic services and interventions. The exam comprises 150 multiple-choice questions. There is a four-hour time limit to complete the exam.
    • Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology Credential: Psychologists can apply for this credential from the American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology after one year of postdoctoral practice. Candidates undergo a three-hour competency-based oral examination after samples of their child psychology practice have been approved by the preliminary screening committee.
    • Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology: Nearly all 50 states and several Canadian provinces require psychologists to pass the EPPP before beginning their practice. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards administers the EPPP, which consists of 225 multiple-choice questions that exam takers must answer in four hours.

Professional Organizations & Resources

Professional organizations often sponsor regional and/or national conferences where members can learn about the latest research findings and developments in their industry. In a field like psychology, where research usually plays a key role in career advancement, practitioners benefit greatly from the opportunity to share findings and learn from researchers in the field. These conferences also provide excellent networking and mentoring opportunities for early-, middle-, and late-career psychology professionals.

  • American Psychology Association: APA takes on numerous advocacy tasks for its members that help enhance and elevate psychology practice throughout the country. Their website contains research funding and scholarship opportunities as well.
  • Association for Behavior Analysis International: Members earn continuing education credits, access a career center with job postings from all over the country, and keep up with the latest developments and news about the behavior analysis field of practice.
  • National Alliance of Professional Psychology Providers: Members access the following benefits at no cost – continuing education units, practice tools, referral service, and updated jobs lists. NAPPP also offers low-cost malpractice insurance to its members.
  • Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology: SIOP administers several funding options that support scholarships for students pursuing a degree in the field (undergraduate and graduate levels) and various research initiatives that enhance industrial and organizational psychology practice.
  • Society for Research in Child Development: SRCD's website contains information about federal funding opportunities for behavioral and social science research connected to the child development field, as well as SRCD initiatives like the mentorship program and the Scholars-in Residence program.
  • allconferences.com: This site maintains a list of conferences held throughout the country and across the world in several industries and professional fields including psychology. The list is updated regularly and contains the latest information about the conferences.
  • BrainBlogger.com: The Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation maintains this website, which reviews and publishes emerging and research-related issues linking diverse disciplines that include neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, and health.
  • gradPSYCHblog: The American Association of Graduate Students maintains this blog that is written for and by graduate students in psychology. The blog tackles issues relevant to psychology graduate students, such as licensing standards, student debt, and internship opportunities.
  • Review of General Psychology: An APA publication, the Review of General Psychology publishes scholarly articles that advance the theory and practice of psychology as a whole and the subdisciplines it encompasses.
  • The Observer: The Association for Psychological Science publishes this journal 10 times each year. Psychology professionals can find informative articles and the latest research findings related to psychology education and applied psychology.