Doctorate in Educational Psychology – PsyD and PhD Programs

Educational psychologists were thrown right into the deep end by the COVID-19 school shutdowns. According to the Census Bureau, 93 percent of American families with children reported at least some transition to distance learning during the pandemic. Districts were scrambling, not only trying to develop effective remote teaching techniques on the fly, but also trying to assess how distance learning would affect students in the long term. Would it hurt their social and cognitive skills development? Could they absorb the material well enough to be prepared to advance to the next grade the following year? What tools and techniques could mitigate the disruption?

These were all questions asked of educational psychologists across the country. And when they turned to the deep body of research and literature in the field, they found… empty shelves. No one had ever even attempted a controlled study on such questions. Probably no one had even thought of it.

Now, everyone is thinking about it. And educational psychologists are taking action. New research projects such as Texas A&M’s Project VICTORY (Virtually-Infused Collaborations for Teaching and Learning Opportunities for Rural Youth), which recently received $8 million to conduct a controlled experiment in remote learning. With 150 teachers and 1,500 third graders participating over the course of three years, they hope to get scientific evidence on the effects of online education.

While those questions are being explored, educational psychologists across the country and around the world are going to be dealing with the fallout from the pandemic, but also moving forward from a position of strength from their experiences.

What is Educational Psychology? What Do Educational Psychologists Do?

Educational psychology is the branch of the field that studies the science of how people learn. The process of how knowledge is acquired, retained, and used is one of the earliest that philosophers considered. It lead to concepts like the blank slate, proposed by John Locke, and operant conditioning theory, promoted by B.F. Skinner.

Since these are questions that are critical to all of psychology, it’s an important part of the field. Educational psychologists develop and test theories that can shift the entire course of the profession.

There may be no other theory with as much impact on educational psychology than behaviorism. That’s the idea that all human behaviors are learned behaviors, and can be shaped by providing the appropriate positive or negative environmental reinforcements. And there may be no individual with as much impact on behaviorism than B.F. Skinner.

Skinner started out testing on rats, but once he had children, he quickly moved on to developing methods for using operant conditioning in human learning. Working in the 1950s, his ideas were radical—he believed current educational techniques relied too much on punishment. He developed four principles that you will probably recognize as dominant ones in teaching today:

  1. Establish clear objectives
  2. Divide educational content into modules
  3. Gradually increase relative difficulty of study
  4. Require active participation of students

He wasn’t satisfied just developing those principles, though. He wasn’t convinced that educators of that era would follow them. So he went one step further: he developed a teaching machine he called GLIDER to replace teachers and implement his theories directly.

GLIDER didn’t catch on quite as well as his principles did, but don’t laugh… many educational programs on today’s computers effectively adopt the same techniques as GLIDER. Educational psychologists might yet get rid of teachers completely!

Psychologists aren’t the only ones that study and develop learning theory, but your education in the advanced aspects of human mental processes gives you an edge. Doctors in educational psychology have a unique perspective on the social, emotional, and cognitive elements of learning as well as the logical and rational.

On the practical side, educational psychologists work with the systems in our society that are most clearly associated with learning. That means working in and around education, both public and private, but also in fields such as organizational learning and educational technology.

Some educational psychologists specialize in teaching and learning for students in special education, both those in gifted programs and those who have mental challenges to overcome. They design curriculums for easy knowledge acquisition and develop ways to test and measure progress. That means you’ll also find educational psychologists working in government, with state and federal educational authorities as well as major school systems.

Picking the Right Program for a Doctorate in Educational Psychology

As you will find as you keep reading, choosing the right doctoral program in educational psychology can be complicated. You’ll have to juggle several different degree options, accreditation standards, and different licensing paths. And that’s all on top of the challenge of finding a program that is a good fit for you both personally and professionally.

What is the Difference Between a PsyD, a PhD, and an EdD in Educational Psychology?

You’re blessed with a wealth of options for doctoral programs in educational psychology. You can find them in three categories:

  • Doctor of Psychology – PsyD
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology – PhD
  • Doctor of Education in Educational Psychology – EdD

What are the differences? Which one should you choose to boost your career?

For starters, if you plan to become licensed as an independent clinical psychologist, you’ll have to pick either the PhD or PsyD route. These types of degrees are what are required by state licensing boards, and must be APA-accredited. The APA does not accredit EdD programs, so you are out of luck there.

That doesn’t mean you can’t work as a school psychologist with an EdD, however. Most states license school psychologists separately from other clinical psychologists, and their requirements do not include APA-accredited doctorates.

In terms of content, you will find that a PhD differs from the other programs with a much stronger focus on academics and research. A PhD prepares graduates for a role in research or education.

PsyD programs are aimed squarely at clinical practice. You will cover all the same subjects as in a PhD, but with a more practical, applied perspective. It’s designed to train you as a functional clinician in the field.

The EdD mirrors a PsyD in focusing on applied psychological tools in real-world treatment. The content, however, will lean more strongly toward educational perspectives and settings. These degrees are usually sought out by professional educators who may want to shift into counseling and psychology.

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Online Doctoral Programs for Educational Psychologists

If you’ve been anywhere close to education through the pandemic years, then you are no stranger to online learning. The entire world has gone through a vast and unprecedented experiment in shifting to primarily remote schooling, with mixed results.

Happily, the state-of-the-art in online doctoral studies for psychologists is far more advanced. Many programs have been delivering excellent remote learning options for decades now. The quality of the education is every bit the equal to what you would get in a traditional format.

Of course, psychology is very much a hands-on business, so these programs are better thought of as hybrids. They mix online courses with the required on-site practicum and internships that every PsyD has to have.

But you can still get a lot of convenience out of shifting a majority of your classwork online. You get the kind of flexibility that can keep you employed at your current job, or in your role taking care of your family, without shorting your education. Asynchronous courses can be switched around from week to week, shifted into whatever time works best for you. And you can select from a much wider range of programs, when you won’t have to worry about relocating to attend them.

Overcoming Stiff Admissions Requirements to Enroll in an Educational Psychology PsyD

Whether online or traditional, no doctoral degree program is easy to get into these days. Psychology jobs are well-respected and high-paying for PhD and PsyD grads, and the competition for those degrees is lit.

That means you need to start thinking about building your qualifications long before you apply.

It starts with your undergraduate studies. Doctoral programs in educational psychology may have some of the broadest latitude for bachelor’s degrees, but your life will be easier if you studied in education or psychology. In any case, a 3.0 GPA is considered to be about the minimum, so your grades will have to be good. A master’s degree will count even more strongly, although it’s not often required.

Regardless of your educational credentials, you’ll need to have taken certain standard prerequisite undergrad courses. Those include subjects such as:

  • Abnormal psychology
  • Statistics
  • Physiology and human development

You’ll also have to submit a CV, and it’s going to look at lot better if you have some work or at least volunteer experience in education or psychology on it. Strong letters of recommendation from previous professors or supervisors are also mandatory.

Some, but not all, programs will want to see GRE scores. This is more likely to be required if you don’t have a psych or ed background, but there’s not usually a minimum score. Instead, admissions committees are looking for strengths in your knowledge and reasoning from a variety of sources.

Finally, and crucially, you’ll need to submit an essay that outlines your career goals, your dedication, and your outstanding personal qualities. You have to convince the admissions team that you are the perfect fit for their program and have strong potential to succeed as an educational psychologist.

Looking For Specialty Accreditation in Educational Psychology Doctoral Programs

Specialty accreditation is the process that psychology programs go through to be approved by independent third-party agencies who maintain strong standards for the profession. They rely on evaluators from a mixture of backgrounds. These evaluators and agency staff collect and review stacks of paperwork and documentation from prospective schools and conduct on-site visits to review the standards and practices in person. They are looking for all the things that the professional psychology and healthcare communities expect in competent psychology education:

  • Strong standards for instructor hiring and evaluation
  • Consistent grading and appeals processes
  • Curriculum selection processes that line up with modern interpretations and expectations
  • School resources
  • Recruiting standards
  • Internship and practicum options

This kind of intensive evaluation work is particularly important for educational psychology doctorates, because state licensing boards rely on these standards when deciding if your degree meets their requirements. This is also particularly complicated in educational psychology, because you can’t rely on just one specialty accreditor, depending on the kind of license you want to pursue.

The APA (American Psychological Association) handles specialty accreditation for all PsyD and PhD programs in psychology… period. State clinical psychology licensing requires that you have earned one of those accredited degrees. State school psychology licensing boards, however, often rely on different accreditors:

Complicating matters further, EdD programs are typically specialty accredited by CAEP, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

In many cases, you’ll need to find a program that has achieved specialty accreditation from more than one of these accreditors in order to both get the right education and to make sure it will be accepted by the right licensing board in the state where you plan to practice. Check out the guidelines from those bodies before you commit to a program!

Curriculum and Electives in Educational Psychology Doctoral Degrees

With the typical PsyD program lasting from four to six years, and many PhDs going a couple years over that, you will have a lot of content to pack in to your doctoral studies.

Much of that will be the core coursework that every PsyD or PhD student in psychology will learn. Even those courses will often be taught from the educational perspective, however. Examples include:

  • Lifespan Development – While humans go through changes and adaptations at every age and stage of life, these are particularly pronounced, and have the biggest long-term impacts, in childhood and adolescence. You’ll learn about the full spectrum of human psychological development, with the cognitive and behavioral components that play into it. You’ll also learn a lot about culture and social impacts.
  • Research Design and Statistics – You’ll study the ways that psychological information is uncovered both individually and in populations using quantitative methods. This will include regression and multivariate analysis techniques. You’ll look specifically at research methodology in education and the standards and questions used by both state and national evaluators of school programs.
  • Ethics and Professional Standards – All psychologists have to have a strong understanding of ethics and legal obligations. That is particularly true when you will be working mostly with minors, however. You will spend a lot of time in classes examining both rules and laws as well as case studies of various ethical challenges that have come up and been addressed in the profession.

Beyond those basic psychology classes, you’ll also dive even further into education-specific psychological studies. Those can be classes such as:

  • Theories of Human Learning – Figuring out the psychology of teaching is its own complicated topic. You’ll spend time diving into theories of how people acquire and retain knowledge, looking at both the history of the field and some of the cutting edge applications used in the field today for everything from curriculum design to classroom management.
  • Applied Behavioral Science – Behavioral science has become big in education in recent years, largely because it’s proven to be one of the most effective treatments for autism. It also has effective tools for everything from classroom outbursts to ADHD. School psychologists may or may not deliver applied behavioral analysis, but they will definitely work with professionals who do and need to understand the field.
  • Social and Cultural Bases of Behavior – Children are learning both what they are taught by the teachers and what they are taught by their peers and others around them. These form the bases of their behavior as they grow up, and they are all factors that educational psychologists have to be well-versed in. You’ll learn about group dynamics and multicultural issues and how to counsel and provide effective interventions with children and adolescents.

All these courses will be covered to some degree or another, and with varying degrees of emphasis, whether you choose a PsyD, a PhD, or an EdD program in educational psychology.

You will also find that some programs offer different tracks within the specialization, such as separate concentrations in school psychology or school counseling.

Different schools have different approaches to how these subjects are studied. You might have a very limited, but in-depth set of common courses that all students proceed through in the same order. Or you might get a lot of freedom to choose electives to satisfy different requirements and take them as you see fit. Individual programs have a lot of personality; take the time to learn how the ones you consider will work.

The Core of The Educational Psychology PsyD is the Dissertation or Doctoral Project

All of those classes are just preparation for the most critical part of your doctorate: your dissertation or doctoral project.

Dissertations or doctoral projects are heavy enough that they can end up taking up almost all of your final year or two in the program. They represent both a culmination and synthesis of the knowledge you have absorbed in you studies as well as your own unique concepts and analysis.

A dissertation is a paper that typically lands at around 50 pages of tightly-reasoned, well-supported research and logic on a unique topic that you agree on with your advisor. You will be responsible for putting together and conducting a research plan on the subject, including any experiments or data-gathering projects that will have to be run. You’ll go through many revisions and suffer through a lot of feedback to really hone your argument and presentation… and then you will present it to a committee and defend the results.

You are more likely to find a doctoral project as an option in PsyD and EdD programs, although it may occasionally be allowed in a PhD degree. This is a more practical application of the same kinds of thinking and ideas that you would bring to a dissertation. Instead of putting it on paper, you put it into action in an actual school or community center. You’re responsible for lining up support and getting your ideas into action, then presenting them to your professors.

It’s an intensive process that not everyone finishes. But finishing these challenges is part of what gives doctoral graduates their edge in real world educational psychology.

What Does a Doctoral Degree in Educational Psychology Cost?

All graduate degrees are a big financial commitment in the United States today. The National Center for Education Statistics tracked the 2018 costs for annual attendance at a doctoral program as $12,171 for public schools and $25,929 at private schools. Multiply that by seven and see what your total costs could come to… or, on second thought, don’t.

Those are just broad strokes, averages across all doctorates and all states. The APA has done its own research on the specific costs of psychology doctorates and come up with some more refined numbers:

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

Unfortunately, those are the numbers from their most recent survey, which was conducted in 2016. So they probably lag the real-world costs slightly. The same survey found that tuition for those programs had increased by 50 percent between 2009 and 2015. So it’s pretty likely that today’s numbers would be higher.

Licensure for Educational Psychologists

As we noted in the section on accreditation, licensing in educational psychology can get a little complex. You may have several different licensing boards to contend with and different requirements to meet depending on exactly what job you want to fill.

Some states, like California, have an actual credential called “Licensed Educational Psychologist.” But this is just another name for the license for school psychologist, which only requires a master’s degree.

You’re perfectly able to get that license having gone on to earn your doctorate, of course. The National Association of School Psychologists has a good guide to individual licensing requirements for all 50 states.

Other psychologists may want to get the full qualification their credentials have earned them as a licensed clinical psychologist, however. That required taking and passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology test (EPPP), developed by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards. It’s a thorough test of both your psychological knowledge and your practical skillset in the field.

Each state has slightly different requirements in addition to the test, consisting of ethical or legal training specific to the state, practice hour requirements, and passing a background check.

In many states, for some educational psychology roles there is no license requirement. If you are working in research, or are teaching in the field, you may be exempt from clinical practice licensing requirements. Check with your state board for details.

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Job Expectations and Salaries for Educational Psychologists

While the American education system gets panned pretty regularly for the low pay that it awards teacher and other staff, psychologists working in ed psych are an exception. The APA published salary data from a member survey conducted in 2016 and found that the average pay rate for a doctor of educational psychology was $87,257. That’s more than $10,000 higher than those practicing in general psychology.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers more recent data in the field but puts salaries in a similar range. For 2018, psychologists working in colleges, universities, and professional schools made an average of $85,000 per year. School psychologists specifically were found to make $78,200… but that category includes many individuals who only hold a master’s degree. Those with doctorates likely command the higher end of the salary scale. Those in the top ten percent of the profession earned $132,070 per year or more.

At the end of the day, though, educational psychologists pick the specialty because it’s interesting and exciting. A comfortable salary is always a plus, but if you have the kind of mind that is constantly probing the twists and turns of how humans acquire skills and retain knowledge, you would probably be thinking about these things anyway. Getting your doctorate and getting paid to do that thinking is really just a bonus.


(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.)