Doctorate in General Psychology – PsyD and PhD Programs

Psychology is a field with many specialized disciplines that explore every aspect of the human mind and psyche – from forensic psychologists who take on the challenge of unravelling the workings of criminal minds and motives, to health psychologists working with patients coping with the trauma of serious injuries and disease.

Developing that kind of expertise takes years of study in a doctoral program alone – about four years if you have a master’s and seven if you’re accepted with a bachelor’s.

But not everyone who goes into psychology is eager to dive head-first into a narrow concentration. In some cases, keeping your options open could be the best bet.

For a lot of people going into the field, getting the opportunity to switch gears from marital counseling one day to a stint working with alcohol addicts the next is the exact kind of diversity in practice they are looking for.


That’s exactly what you get in the general psychology domain. As the most popular option available at most universities that offer terminal degrees in psychology, general psychology doctorates give you a diverse exposure to psychological principles and a broad knowledge base to draw from.

What Is General Psychology? What Do General Psychologists Do?

General psychology forms the basis of all practice specialties. The generalist role is one that many in the field prefer for the simple fact that it imposes no limits on the scope of practice, leaving the door open to doing work in a variety of areas:

  • Clinical psychology The roots of psychology practice are here in the traditional one-on-one clinical therapy approach to treating mental health issues. Clinical psychologists often work with in-patients at psychiatric hospitals. The role is typically marked by the fact that it involves working with the most severe cases of mental illness, from clinical depression to schizophrenia.
  • Counseling psychology Counseling psychologists are more often found outside of in-patient settings and focus on specific issues that do require developing some kind of subject-matter expertise related to responses and behavior patterns, though the psychological knowledge and therapeutic methods they use are quite general. Using the full generalist toolset, they may focus on drug and alcohol treatment, handling depression, relationship conflicts or other practical problems with specific solutions.
  • Social Psychology Social psychologists study the cultural aspects of psychology, often working in research or in policy or advisory capacities. They look at how individuals influence, and are influenced by, the society in which they live.
  • Health psychology Health psychologists also sometimes practice at the policy level, working with public health professionals on messaging or evaluating public perceptions of health policy. The role could even involve counseling healthcare professionals or handling patients dealing with traumatic or long-term health issues in clinical settings.

General psychologists can practice in just about any area of psychology that requires a doctorate.

You will find a few doors closed to you, however, by either custom or regulation. For example, forensic psychology, the use of psychological evaluations in legal contexts, is so heavily specialized that you would need significant specialized training on top of your PsyD to break into the field. Industrial/Organizational psychology is another role where most practitioners need to have a graduate-level education with a concentration track in I/O or applied psychology.

You might have assumed that the busiest psychologists during the COVID-19 pandemic were health psychology specialists. There’s no question, those professionals ended up burning the candle at both ends. But where the biggest demand landed was squarely on the shoulders of the generalists.

That’s because the psychological impact of the pandemic didn’t just heat up one kind of mental health issue. It hit all of them, all at the same time. Everything came bubbling up, from relapsing eating disorders to juvenile mental health concerns from school shutdowns to fear and stress responses.

There’s no single specialty in psychology designed to cope with all that. Instead, general psychologists end up taking on any case that comes in the door. And the number of cases was huge. The American Psychological Association polled members in late 2020 and found three-quarters reporting more patients coming in with anxiety disorders, and two-thirds with more depressive disorders. A third of psychologists overall reported taking on more patients during that time, and many simply had no room in their schedules to take on new clients.

With the effects of the pandemic likely to echo for a long time, the years ahead could be the era of the generalist psychologist.

Choosing a Program in Psychology for Generalist Roles

The good news for aspiring general psychologists is that there are a wide variety of options out there for doctoral education. Just about every PsyD or PhD program in psychology allows you to pursue a general option. In fact, specialist tracks, in most cases, are simply built on the core generalist curriculum. That opens a lot of doors for the universities you can attend.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be choosy, though. You are going to devote somewhere between four and seven years of your life and tens of thousands of dollars to earning the degree. It had better be a good fit for your goals and abilities.

With more than 400 APA-accredited psychology doctoral programs in the United States, you have a lot of options to explore.

Differences Between PhD and PsyD Psychology Programs

To some extent, it matters less than ever whether you pick a PhD or a PsyD program if you plan to become a generalist psychologist. Both are considered terminal degrees in the field that meet the requirements for full authority licensure in all states

Both PhDs and PsyD programs do have a sort of specialization to them, although it’s not toward a specific subject within the field. Instead, the difference is a matter of perspective and practice:

  • PsyD – Doctor of Psychology: These degrees are primarily designed to prepare graduates for work in direct clinical treatment of patients. Most of the areas of psychology you study will be covered from a practical perspective. You’ll learn how to use that knowledge in an applied mental health treatment setting, working with patients to help them overcome psychological issues.
  • PhD – Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology: A PhD is more oriented to the theoretical perspective. These degrees are set up to prepare graduates for work in research and academic pursuits. They lean heavily into experimental design and research practices, teaching you how to evaluate psychological theory using science and data. They are considered great preparation for teaching or research positions.

Neither of these types of degree locks you in to a particular kind of practice; there are many PhD graduates active and highly respected in clinical practice, and plenty of college professors and cutting-edge researchers who studied at PsyD programs. For aspiring generalists, there is no reason you can’t take either type of degree and turn it into a successful career.

Online Doctoral Degrees in Psychology

Should you look for an online psychology doctorate? That’s really going to depend on you and your personal learning style. For some people, sitting in a classroom is really the only way to connect all the dots.

For others, though, relocating halfway across the country or spending a fixed set of hours sitting in a classroom just isn’t possible. For them, online courses provide the perfect solution. The asynchronous scheduling means it’s possible to shift your studies to the time of day you are available… that’s the kind of flexibility that people with jobs and families need to make a doctoral program work. And having the pick of schools from across the country means not having to make sacrifices in choosing the very best fit for your goals.

Although online courses are every bit the equal of traditional classes these days, no psychology doctorate is actually entirely online. The nature of the profession means engaging with people in person. So you’ll have practicum and internship placements that do involve traditional face-to-face engagement.

Those can often be arranged locally, however, so you are still gaining a lot by picking an online degree. It’s all down to your preference and learning style.

Getting Accepted Into a PhD or PsyD Program

Whether it’s online or traditional, though, your first challenge will just be getting accepted by a psychology doctoral program. Competition can be fierce.

There are around 400 programs in the United States accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Being a competitive candidate starts at the bachelor’s level. You’ll need to earn at least a 3.0 GPA across the board during your undergraduate studies. And although your bachelor’s doesn’t need to be in psychology, there are some prerequisite classes that you do need to complete to be considered for admission to any APA-accredited doctoral program. Those vary only slightly from program to program, and almost always include such basics as abnormal psychology, statistics, physiology and human development.

It’s not as common, but some doctoral programs do require that you already hold a master’s degree. Again, that’s not usually required to be in psychology, but the course prerequisites still apply.

Also depending on the program, you may be required to submit standardized test scores, such as the results of the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). A minimum passing score isn’t usually specified, but the results are weighed with your other qualities and accomplishments.

Speaking of which, you’ll have to submit a CV with your packet. And it should have some interesting and relevant psychology-related experience on it. You may already be working in a psych-adjacent field, or perhaps have some volunteer hours in counseling. Whatever it is, you’ll need to show some kind of pre-application interest in the field.

Letters of recommendation are usually required also. Almost every program will want you to submit an essay, too, talking about your personal goals, qualities, and dedication to the field. They pick applicants with the best chances of completing the program, so you need to demonstrate both skills and desire.

Considering Accreditation for Psychology Doctoral Programs

Accreditation isn’t something that most students have to spend a lot of time thinking about. Just about every American college holds a general accreditation from one of the various third-party institutional accreditors that are recognized by the Department of Education to perform those rigorous evaluations.

When you are going into a highly specialized field like psychology, though, you need something more. You need to pick a school that holds a specialty accreditation from the APA.

That’s because any future chances you will have at getting a license to practice in the field require that seal of approval. Every state licensing board in the U.S. mandates a degree from an APA-accredited school (or, in some cases, foreign equivalents, if you want to jump through the hoops).

But you should do it for reasons beyond just licensing. The APA has current, in-depth knowledge about the state of education required to succeed in the field. Their Commission on Accreditation includes not just practicing and academic psychologists, but also members of other healthcare and legal professions related to psychology practice, and even a few people from the general public to provide general feedback. They take a comprehensive look at the curriculum and how it’s delivered, and if they say it’s solid, it’s solid.

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Curriculum and Electives in Psychology Doctoral Studies

The curriculum you will study might be the most important factor in your decision about what doctoral program to choose. It’s going to determine what you learn and how well you are equipped to work as a psychologist. Although the same basic knowledge is going to be covered in every APA-accredited program, the format and delivery can vary a lot from school to school. Some offer a stair-step model, where every student is required to take the same courses in the same order. Others break up the subjects into sets of electives to give you more control over your focus.

In both cases, the kind of general knowledge you’ll find will be in these areas:

  • The History and Foundations of Psychology – People have been thinking about how other people think for a long time. You’ll go back to the ancient Greeks and learn how the development of philosophy underpins modern psychology, working forward through exciting breakthroughs in the field and how they have shaped what psychology is today.
  • The Bases of Human Behavior – Starting at the neurological level, you will learn what the modern understanding of the bases of human behavior are. Brain wiring is just the start; you’ll move up into social, cultural, and cognitive impacts on psychological processes, too. You will also have courses in how these things change at the various stages of human development, from childhood to old age.
  • Psychopathology – Abnormal psychology studies what happens when those thought processes and behaviors go off the rails. You’ll learn how thoughts and emotions exhibit psychological disturbances, and all about the various types of mental disorders that you may encounter in practice.
  • Assessment Competencies – Taking your knowledge of both human cognition and emotion and putting it together with what you have learned about psychopathologies, you’ll be taught how to assess and diagnose patients in a clinical setting. You’ll learn about different tests and assessment techniques like the Stanford-Binet and Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, as well as how to put together a formal diagnosis on the basis of those observations and outcomes.
  • Clinical Treatment – The meat and potatoes of a PsyD program revolves around clinical practice. In these courses, you will learn how to apply different therapies in a treatment program, from cognitive behavior therapy to traditional psychotherapy to psychopharmacological approaches. More importantly, you’ll learn why each separate approach may be more or less appropriate for certain cases. You’ll also be taught how to write clear reports and work on complex cases with colleagues, both other psychologists and as a part of cross-competent care teams.
  • Research – Experimentation and study is a stronger focus in PhD programs, but all doctoral studies will include courses in how to design experiments, how to interpret statistics, and what the best practices are in ethical and responsible psychological research.
  • Ethics and Legal Obligations – Psychology is a touchy field when it comes to legal and ethical matters. You can expect a lot of time in class learning not just about the various laws and regulations that govern the field, but also about the basis of making ethical choices and how to conduct yourself professionally in both clinical and academic settings.

A generalist education in psychology gives you well-rounded exposure to every element of the field. In any area of practice, you will find yourself using those skills daily.

Most general psychology programs also have plenty of room for picking electives in areas that might more traditionally be specialized. That gives you a chance to mix and match classes on subjects that interest you. That could be crossing over between legal applications of mental health and social disparities in mental healthcare… anything you want, and combinations you would never find in specialized degrees.

Dissertations and Doctoral Projects Cement the Learning Process

All of that coursework is a lot to study, but it’s really just leading up to the most significant part of your doctoral studies: your dissertation or doctoral project.

This capstone piece to your degree traditionally takes up most of your concentration for the last year or two. It’s supposed to be an original, creative work taking the state of knowledge in the field and fusing it with your own research and ideas into a synthesis that is worthy of publication or presentation.

A traditional dissertation can amount to 50 pages or so of writing, presenting your ideas and the evidence behind them in a form that will be critiqued extensively by your advisor and dissertation committee. Ultimately, you’ll have to successfully defend it in front of that committee in order to graduate.

The doctoral project is a more modern innovation that puts a more applied spin on your capstone work. It has equivalent research requirements, but doesn’t need to fit into the rigid constraints of a traditional dissertation. The result will be a work with practical implications in psychology, whether it’s a new spin on treatment or considerations for cultural sensitivity in clinical practice.

Either way, you’ll finish off the program with an outstanding demonstration of your skills and competency in general psychology.

Will You Need To Become Licensed as a Generalist Psychologist?

Generally speaking, yes. But ultimately, the answer to this question depends on a couple things:

  • Your state licensing regulations
  • Your area of practice

As a general psychologist, you have many, many different possibilities for employment. You can take a role in everything from delivering active therapy in clinical settings, to working as a consultant in corporate marketing campaigns, to working as an instructor in psychology.

That represents a spectrum of responsibilities and patient contact. Your state may require licensure anywhere along that spectrum. In some states, no patient contact means no license requirement.

The clearest necessity is for any psychologist in clinical practice. For that, your doctorate will help you qualify for a license in any state.

That’s because all 50 state licensing boards require licensed psychologists hold an APA-accredited doctoral degree. But that just gets you to the place where you meet the education requirements to be eligible for licensure. To earn a license to practice, you also need to:

  • Pass the EPPP – The Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology is a two-part exam developed by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards. It tests you on both skills and knowledge across 220 questions in multiple formats.
  • Complete postdoctoral practice requirements – You will have to have a set number of supervised practice hours, usually over 1000, after completing your degree.
  • Pass state-specific regulatory and ethics tests
  • Pass a criminal background check

What Does a Doctorate in Psychology Cost?

You might get a little bit of sticker shock when you come to realize that the total cost of a general psychology doctorate falls somewhere between $50,000 and $200,000. It’s no surprise that a survey published by the APA found that around 90 percent of psychology doctoral students graduate with some amount of student debt to repay.

The same survey calculated the average annual costs of studying in psychology doctoral programs based on the type of school you attend:

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

Those prices had jumped by 50 percent between 2009 and 2015, and have probably increased since then.

The National Center for Education Statistics publishes more current data on the costs of doctoral education. They found the following averages in 2018 for public and private schools:

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

Although at first glance those costs seem comparable to the APA numbers, it’s likely that the specific pricing for psychology programs is higher than the overall average.

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Salaries and Job Opportunities for Generalist Psychologists

There is a lot of work out there for generalist psychologists. Many roles in the field aren’t highly specialized and require candidates who can deal with anything that comes in the door. That’s you.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in 2020, the median pay for psychologists in general rose to $82,180 per year.

But that’s just the mid-point. After you get some experience under your belt, you can aim to join those experts in the top ten percent of the profession, who made more than $137,590.

It’s not just what you do, however, but also where you work that influences your pay.

All of these figures are well above the national median salary of $53,490, but none of them really tell you about the best kind of compensation for general psychologists: having a job you love.

With the general training and the flexibility to treat new patients and new conditions every day, it’s a job that never gets old. And the benefits you bring to those patients are things they will never forget, and either will you.

May 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and labor market information for Psychologists is based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed May 2021.