Doctorate Degrees in Health Psychology – PsyD and PhD Programs

Health psychologists work on the cutting edge of our modern understanding of wellness.

For hundreds of years, physicians were concerned almost entirely with the physical aspects of illness and how to treat it. The mental health impacts of disease and injury were considered secondary, if they were considered at all.

But that was a limited perspective. Consider coronary artery disease: the primary type of heart disease. It stands as the leading cause of death in the United States, taking the lives of a full quarter of all Americans, according to the CDC. Yet the solutions for risk factors like stress and anxiety, obesity and diet, physical inactivity and alcohol abuse don’t fall within the realm of medicine.

Those factors are primarily behavioral in nature, so the medical community has come to realize that professional psychologists are best equipped to offer solutions.

Modern medicine has gotten a lot better at holistic treatment, incorporating not just medical care, but mental wellness, too. It’s also begun to recognize that psychological factors influence the quality of the healthcare providers deliver. You don’t have to look any further than the COVID-19 pandemic to understand how stress and trauma can overwhelm doctors and nurses.

In an industry shaken by the pandemic, the work of health psychologists was thrust to the forefront as they became key players in multidisciplinary healthcare teams. And as the people responsible for the mental health of not just patients but also the nurses and MDs treating the sick, health psychologists will be dealing with the fallout for decades. Along the way, they’ll be developing new treatments and new ways to handle the mental health effects of future pandemics.

Becoming a health psychologist may be one of the most exciting jobs you can get into in psychology today. But you’re going to need the right preparation to get there… and that means a doctorate in the field.

What is Health Psychology? – And What Do Health Psychologists Do?

Health psychology is the study of how patients deal with injury and illness, and the impacts of their mental health on their physical health. It looks at both how debilitating disease impacts mental wellness, and perhaps even more importantly, how poor mental health can lead people to neglect their physical health and wellness and even act in ways that are very self-destructive.

It crosses over to look at the psychological impacts on healthcare providers, too, improving their ability to handle the stress that comes along with the pressure to nail diagnoses, implement the right treatment plans and save lives.

Psychologists working in the healthcare domain have a range of different specialties. They may work in clinical treatment, directly helping patients who are also under care for physical ailments. They might work with long-term cancer patients going through chemotherapy or survivors of traumatic amputations working to adjust to a new kind of life. These are just a few examples of how challenging and satisfying this kind of work can be.

Health psychologists also perform a lot of research work. Their population-level studies help clinicians fine tune the ways in which they provide healthcare, and can be used to inform healthcare policy decisions. They also work in public health agencies and advise decision-makers on the best messaging responses to major public health threats, like managing virus outbreaks and curbing childhood obesity.

The unique pathophysiology of COVID-19 created tremendous challenges for health psychologists. The crucial but necessary isolation of patients in their final days, separated from loved ones by strict quarantine protocols, was a factor that even the most experienced palliative care psychologists had rarely encountered before. In most facilities, PPE shortages meant that only front-line nurses and doctors could enter patient rooms… so psychologists were shut out as well.

But that didn’t mean there wasn’t work to do. Psychologists in hospitals got creative… working from charts to review biopsychosocial risk factors to identify patients in the worst distress, serving as critical contacts for frantic family members, and pioneering the uses of technology to try to bridge the gap. Sending a nurse in with an iPad for final goodbyes is a heartbreaking and indelible image of the pandemic. But as terrible as those moments were, health psychologists realized that delivering some sense of closure was better than none.

There is also some overlap between health psychology and industrial-organizational psychology, where health psychologists assist with reducing workplace risks or treating individuals with occupational injuries.

This means you can find jobs in big companies, in government, or with major healthcare systems. Many health psychologists also work in academia, conducting important research in the field. And, there’s always room for independent practitioners who consult or treat on their own terms in their own business.

What to Consider When Choosing The Perfect Doctorate in Health Psychology

Health psychologists deal with all of the major professional elements of psychology, no different from any other licensed psychologist. It’s just the specific medical causes behind the psychological issues they treat and the context for the diagnoses that make this area unique. Like any other psychological specialty, you’re going to need a program that provides you with strong academic, research, and clinical experience before you’re ready for professional practice.

Performing psychological work in medical settings involves picking up skills beyond the basics too. Not every doctoral degree can deliver on providing those skills, so finding one with a dedicated specialization track in health psychology is a must.

Typically structured as a PhD or PsyD in Clinical Health Psychology, they are often offered with a concentration in certain sub-specializations that focus in one of a number of different areas of health psychology practice:

  • Clinical Health
  • Community Health
  • General Health
  • Woman’s Health
  • Pain Management
  • Occupational Health
  • LGBT Health
  • Greif and Bereavement

You are going to be spending between four and seven years in a full doctoral program in health psychology, so you will want to choose your specialization and your school wisely.

Deciding Between a PhD And PsyD Program

One of the first things you’ll notice as you are searching for degrees is that you will find specializations in healthy psychology offered under both PhD and PsyD credentials. Don’t panic! The two paths have more in common than not. Either one can get you a job working in any aspect of healthy psychology… but there are some differences in philosophy and training between them.

PhD – Doctor of Philosophy in Health Psychology: A PhD is a degree that is designed primarily to prepare graduates for work in research and academic pursuits. This is a nature fit of those are the elements of health psychology you plan to pursue. Your training will place a higher emphasis in experimental design, quantitative analytical methods, writing scholarly papers, and teaching.

PsyD – Doctor of Health Psychology: A PsyD will cover all the same core subject matter as a PhD, but it will do it from a different angle. The knowledge will be taught with a view toward preparing you for a career in direct clinical treatment of patients. You’ll learn more about psychological assessment and treatment options, making practical applications of the psychological principles and theory you will be taught.

There’s nothing in either kind of program that will restrict you from any sort of health psychology career after you graduate, however. Plenty of PsyD grads go on to become well-respected instructors and researchers, while many PhDs are first-rate clinical practitioners. Your best bet is to pick a degree that is a good fit for your interests, no matter what the letters behind it happen to be.

Can I Get a Quality Education with an Online Doctorate in Health Psychology?

You’ll also get a choice these days between pursuing a traditional program format, studying in a classroom on campus, or going with an online program, taking in your course content from anywhere.

That choice is mostly a personal one. Psychology departments have been offering online doctoral options for more than a decade now, and the kinks are thoroughly worked out of the system. There’s no difference in educational outcomes between the old and new styles of learning.

Also, it’s true that no psychology doctorate is ever completed entirely online. It may be more accurate to think of them as blended programs that combine online and in-person training. It’s a field that involves a lot of in-person contact, so all your practicum requirements will have to be fulfilled working in an actual hospital or clinic.

But it can still be valuable to some students to have the option of taking the scholastic aspects of the training online. It can save you a move halfway across the country to attend your preferred program, for one thing. For another, the ability to shuffle around how and when you study from day to day or week to week is invaluable to anyone who is still holding down a job or managing a family during their years of training.

Getting Into a PhD or PsyD in Health Psychology

Whether it is online or in-person, any health psychology doctoral program is going to be tough to get into. There are right around 400 schools in the United States that offer psychology doctorates, but not all of them include the health psychology specialization. So you and everyone else pushing to enter the field are scrambling for a small number of admissions slots that come open each year.

To win one of those, you’ll need to start preparing as an undergraduate. No, you don’t have to pick a major in psychology—although it can’t hurt. But you will have to maintain a minimum 3.0 undergraduate GPA in whatever field you study to even have a shot at a competitive slot in a doctoral program. You’ll also need to cover some specific prerequisite courses, whether you major in psychology or not. Prereqs can vary, but may include:

  • Abnormal psychology
  • Statistics and quantitative analysis
  • Basic physiology and human development
  • Research methods

You’ll usually need between 15 and 20 credits in such coursework to qualify.

You may need to take the GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, a standardized test that assesses your verbal and quantitative reasoning skills. There are typically no minimum scores required, but your performance will be weighed together with your other qualifications.

And you had better have some kind of related experience to show, whether it’s a job working in healthcare or psychology, or at least some volunteer hours in a healthcare or community service program.

Admissions committees want to see examples of your dedication, work ethic, and interests in the field of healthcare psychology.

To that end, you’ll also need to submit a variety of letters of recommendation from supervisors or instructors who are willing to testify to those qualities. And you’ll usually be asked to submit an essay, describing your goals and commitment to making a difference in people’s lives through health psychology practices.

Accreditation Standards for Health Psychology Doctoral Programs

Specialty accreditation from the APA is a very important factor in any programs you consider applying to. Although this may not be a qualification you’ve had to worry about much in the past, it becomes supremely important when you are studying in an area as unique and specialized as healthy psychology. Future employers, licensing boards, and even clients are going to want some kind of third-party assurance that your education has been among the best and most current in the field.

The APA’s Commission on Accreditation offers that kind of assurance. Composed of both practicing psychologists, other healthcare professionals, and even just regular citizens, the CoA and its staff perform laborious investigations of the details that matter in PsyD programs. They dive into factors like:

  • Professional values and ethical training
  • Instruction qualifications and hiring processes
  • Student resources and support systems
  • Internship and practicum placements
  • Grading and appeals processes
  • Recruitment and retention practices

It’s a multi-year process that involves both extensive paperwork reviews and on-site visits for gathering the truth on the ground. It’s a stamp of approval that you can trust, and that plays an important role in your future career.

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Curriculum and Electives You Will Find in Health Psychology Doctorate Degrees

Naturally, one of the key pieces of any PsyD or PhD program in health psychology will boil down to the curriculum it offers. While every accredited program will cover the essential materials, every school has some latitude in how they offer them. You will find programs that have a very small number of required courses in a set progression that all students follow. You will also find programs that offer courses from various knowledge areas, allowing you to pick from a variety of electives to satisfy the requirements for a particular concentration.

Only you know which approach fits your learning style best. In both cases, diving into the details of the courses being offered is the only way to find the best match.

A health psychology doctorate will have the same general coursework as the core doctoral program. Classes will include areas like:

  • History and Foundations of Psychology – You’ll get a broad overview of how the science of psychology has evolved over the years to what it has become today. This will include learning the different schools of thought and how they influence practice, everything from the evolution of behaviorism to the neurological basis of thought.
  • Theoretical Bases of Practice – These courses will cover the basic clinical skills that you will bring to bear with patients. That will cover basic clinical skills in active listening, establishing rapport, and effective interviewing. You’ll also learn about conducting assessments, using standard tools like the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) to diagnose patients. And you’ll learn the cognitive/affective, biological, and social/cultural bases of behavior that drive human beings.
  • Psychopathology – You’ll take courses in abnormal psychology to catalog everything that can go wrong in mental health, from narcissistic personality disorder to schizophrenia.
  • Research – You’ll learn how to put together experiments and interpret results in psychological studies. Quantitative and statistical analysis techniques will be taught to help you make sense of the results. You’ll also be taught how to write up and present findings. The best practices for ethical and informed consent in psychological studies will also be covered in depth.
  • Ethics and the Law – Speaking of ethics, you’ll get a lot of dedicated coursework that covers your obligations in depth. That will include a lot of case studies in the field, as well as some of the legal constraints and obligations placed on the profession.

While all those courses are the same ones that anyone in a PsyD program might study, your specialization in healthy psychology will take you even further. The more specialized classes you’ll buckle down for include:

  • Psychopharmacology – This specialized are is sometimes offered in mainstream PsyD studies, but it’s a practical requirement for health psychology students. You’ll be working with a lot of patients who are on a variety of medications. That means you need a solid understanding not only of various psychotropic meds commonly used in treating mental conditions, but also the mental effects of more typical medicinal substances.
  • Interprofessional competencies – Health psychology means working with healthcare professionals. General and clinical psychologists can be lone wolves, working one-on-one with patients. Your role will be as part of an interprofessional team, working together to complement one another for the patient’s benefit. This requires communication skills and professionalism, which you’ll learn about in these courses.
  • Health Service psychology – Delivering psychological services to health professionals or patients in healthcare settings requires a variety of specialized skills. You will learn about the interrelationships between behavioral, cognitive, and biological components as well as special tools for handling people who are disabled or disturbed by physical ailments.

Of course, all of this is followed by practicum and lab work to help you get a hands-on feel for applying the knowledge you are taking in.

Polishing Your Experience With a Dissertation or Doctoral Project

Learning off that curriculum and being taught by others will take you a long way in building your health psychology knowledge. But what really takes a doctorate degree to the next level is when you start breaking new ground on your own. That all comes together in a dissertation or doctoral project.

A dissertation is the more traditional approach, 50 pages of tightly-reasoned, well-supported original thinking based on your own research and concepts, bringing light to new ideas in the field. A doctoral project is a more action-oriented approach with the same goal, designed to deliver practical applications in clinical treatments.

Your dissertation or project might evaluate the need for health psychology in emergency department settings, or assess the metrics used in standard occupational health settings. It all depends on your interests and ideas.

You will spend most of your last two years in the program putting this work together. Even much of your previous coursework will feed into it, directly or indirectly. With the assistance of your advisor, you’ll produce a piece worthy of publication or presentation. And you will defend it in front of a committee who will ask hard questions and determine for themselves how worthy that contribution is. It puts the cherry on top of the doctoral experience and ties together everything you have learned.

What You Will Spend to Earn a Doctorate in Health Psychology

No one needs to tell you that a college education in the United States is expensive these days. According to a 2018 report from CNBC, college costs in general in the United States jumped by 25 percent over the prior decade.

For psychology doctorates in particular, get ready for even worse sticker shock. The APA conducted a study in 2016 on the costs specifically for psychology doctorates and found that the tuition rates had gone up by 50 percent between 2009 and 2015. Some 90 percent of PsyD graduates have outstanding student debt piled up by the time they graduate.

The same survey found real differences in the tuition costs between different types of institutions:

  • Public university: in-state – $11,000 per year / out-of-state – $24,000 per year
  • Private university – $34,000 per year

Those figures are comparable to statistics developed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for graduate schooling costs in general as of 2018:

  • Public university, in-state – $12,171
  • Private university – $25,929

Keep in mind, however, that the two years between the surveys probably saw psychology degree costs going up at a fast clip. You can expect your average costs to come in somewhere over what the NCES stats show.

Do You Need a License To Practice as a Health Psychologist?

You almost certainly will need a state license to practice as a health psychologist anywhere in the United States. Every state regulates clinical treatment by psychologists. Although there are areas in which health psychology is practiced outside of clinical settings, there is usually some degree of overlap. And states lean into being more rigorous than not, so you will find that it’s almost always better to get a license even if your job isn’t mostly patient-facing.

You will already have taken care of the first requirement for a license just by graduating from an APA-accredited doctoral program. On top of that, you’ll need to pass the EPPP, the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. That’s 220 very difficult questions in a variety of different formats covering both skill and knowledge components of psychology practice. You might also need to pass state-specific legal and ethical tests.

And, depending on the specific requirements of your state, you will need 1000 or more hours of supervised post-doctoral practice hours. A criminal background check is also standard.

Becoming Certified as A Health Psychologist

Health psychology is recognized as a specialty not only by the ABA, but also by the American Board of Professional Psychology. If you plan to enter clinical practice as a health psychologist, you should strongly consider earning a certification in Clinical Health Psychology the American Board of Clinical Health Psychology, a department within that same organization.

As with licensing, you’ll need an APA-accredited doctorate to your name for certification. The program does not have to be health psychology specific, however. Your internship program also has to be APA-accredited.

The health psych-specific requirements come in at the post-doc level. Your postdoctoral practice either has to include one year of an APA-accredited Clinical Health Psychology fellowship, or another APA-accredited postdoc placement where at least half of your training was specific to clinical health psychology. Alternately, you can complete two years of general postdoc experience followed by one dedicated to clinical healthy psychology.

The Board is unusual in conducting their exams orally. You’ll have to pass four different exam components:

  • Practice Sample (Quiz based on your submitted experience in clinical health psychology)
  • Standardized Clinical Case Assessment
  • Professional Issues and Identification
  • Ethics

Earning certification demonstrates to clients and employers that you have put in the dedicated time and energy it takes to master health psychology as a profession, and that you went on to prove your competency to a group of your peers.

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Salaries and Jobs Available for Health Psychologists

Health psychologists have the dual advantages of working in a hot field in a hot industry. Psychology is becoming more and more important in every industry and salaries are moving into the six-figure range for many of those positions. But the healthcare industry is really on fire right now.

According to a Brookings Institute study from 2019, healthcare comprises 11 percent of the American workforce, more than 16 million jobs in every corner of the country. Almost a quarter of government spending goes into the industry.

That kind of demand and spending is fueling major job and salary growth in healthcare psychology. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019 the average psychologist pulled down $80,370. But compare that to psychologists working in various industries where health psychology is dominant:

  • Federal, state, and local government, including government-run hospitals and public health positions – $95,740
  • Hospitals – $90,730
  • Nursing and residential care facilities – $84,570
  • Outpatient care facilities – $98,960

Additionally, the APA ran a study in 2016 that looked at current salaries in various specialized areas of psychology practice. Clinical psychologists averaged $107,183, while experimental psychologists brought in $113,747. Although healthcare work wasn’t specifically broken out, most health psychologists fall into one of those categories.

Of course, the salary is really only part of your compensation. Many people get into psychology because they are driven to help people with mental health issues. Going into health psychology takes it up a notch: you are going to be healing people who have both mental and physical problems, the most damaging possible combination of ailments. It’s hard work, made harder by that crossover. But that also makes it some of the most satisfying work you will ever do.


(Salary data reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2019 for psychologists. Figures represent national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Information accessed Feb 2021.)