Doctorate in Social Psychology – PsyD and PhD Programs

It’s been recognized at least since the time of the ancient Greeks that what is in a person’s mind is shaped by the minds around them. Plato’s work relied on the premise that individuals take their idea of proper conduct from the cues they get from those around them. Freud theorized that being a part of a crowd unlocked the unconscious mind, with the super-ego displaced by the collective ego of the assembly. Jung went even further, postulating that the crowd itself possessed a collective unconscious.

Whatever the reasons, it’s long been clear that there can be no understanding of individual behavior without understanding the behavior of people around that individual… and no understanding of collective behavior without unlocking the key to the individual.

And that kind of understanding is important – even life and death important. Everything from designing parking lots to preventing genocide rests on elements of social psychology.

In July of 1961, in a basement at Yale University, 40 men gathered to participate in what they had been told was a psychology experiment to explore the relationship between punishment and learning. In those years, at the height of popularity of B.F. Skinner’s theories on operant conditioning, experiments like this were taking place in psychology departments around the country.

The men were separated, then introduced to another person who was also said to be a volunteer, and each were given a role as teacher or learner in a one-on-one experiment. The learner would be given tasks, while the teacher, observing from a separate room, was told to press a button for every wrong answer the learner gave. They were also told that each time the button was pressed it would deliver painful electrical shocks to the learner.

The intensity of the shocks increased throughout the experiment, from 15 volts up to 450 volts. Even when the learner began to scream and cry, the teacher was encouraged to continue delivering shocks. They had signed up for the study of their own free will; they must continue the experiment.

In the end, 26 of the 40 did so, delivering what was potentially fatal voltage. Even the remaining 14 went up to at least 300 volts. Or so they thought.

In reality, the learners were paid actors, the voltage fake. The experiment, in reality, was designed to test the limits of human obedience with no compulsion other than a presumption of authority. And the results, published by researcher Stanley Milgram, opened up stunning new realities for social psychologists about atrocity and society.

Today, everything from systemic racial discrimination to online betting markets rely on research and theories from social psychologists. It’s an area that allows almost any mystery of culture and society to be explored.

What is Social Psychology and What Do Social Psychologists Do?

Social psychologists study the psychological components that make a society tick. The thoughts and perceptions of millions of individuals come together to shape our culture and relationships. That culture, and those relationships, in turn have dramatic impacts on individual thoughts and behaviors.

These interactions and effects are red meat for social psychologists. They observe and research the development of social trends, everything from road rage to internet addiction, and explore how they form out of the actions of millions of individuals, and how they go on to shape the lives of millions of others.

Social psychologists deal with all types of interpersonal and group interactions, on every level, from small family groups all the way up to global intercultural relationships.

This sort of work is largely about research and experimentation. Social psychologists are keen observers, using their training in deep psychological concepts to interpret behaviors that might not make sense to other people. And they develop their own expertise in the psychodynamics of group behavior. They make predictions and attempt to understand how people will interact in certain circumstances and with certain information.

There are many jobs for social psychologists working in government, which has a real interest in understanding cultural impacts of governance. Academia is another natural habitat, where studies are conducted and theories built. But other social psychologists work for nonprofit organizations, in social service agencies, and even in some private companies, where they might spot trends for marketing or product development purposes.

Social psychology is a very diverse field with a lot of opportunities in both the public domain and private employment. That means you’ll find a lot of different colleges offering social psychology programs, and a wide array of different specializations and fields of research among them.

Although that opens up your options, it also makes your selection of the right program even more difficult. You’ll need to look for a school that has the right kind of expertise for the aspect of social psychology that you are most interested in—or, if you aren’t sure yet, a program that is broad enough to keep your options open.

Social psychology isn’t a specialty that typically requires licensure. The applications are broad, but not usually applied directly in clinical treatment. That’s the area that most states regulate.

But the rules are not the same from state to state, so you will definitely need to check to see if the specific position you are aiming for is one that might fit their definitions. The requirements typically involve passing a background check, state and national examinations, and accumulating a certain amount of supervised practice hours.

A PsyD Might Be Better Suited for Jobs in Industry, While a PhD is a Good Option for Research Work

There are many people working in social psychology who do not earn a doctoral degree. For many positions, it’s not necessary. But if you want to be at the top of the profession, conducting leading edge research and developing ground-breaking theories and ideas in applied social psychology, then getting a PhD or PsyD is next up on your agenda.

While you’re looking at programs, you’ll notice that some psych doctorates are called PhDs, and others are called PsyDs. The difference is subtle but definitely worth noting.

Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (PhD) – This is the older and more traditional psychology doctorate. It is designed around research and experimentation and is considered better preparation for a career in academia or research. They are usually slightly longer and slightly more expensive than PsyD programs. It’s a natural fit for the kind of experimentation and research work that social psychologists usually perform.

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) – The PsyD is a newer type of degree and is designed to train psychologists specifically for clinical treatment. It focuses less on research and more on the applied principles of the field. You get more hours of training in assessment and treatment techniques and usually more direct patient contact.

Finding a PhD in Social Psychology won’t mean taking whatever you can find; fact is there are plenty of them out there. PsyD programs in social psychology are another story, however. That doesn’t mean you can’t find work as a social psychologist if you earn a PsyD. You’ll still get the same basic grounding in fundamental research and theoretical aspects of psychology that you need.

Are There Online Social Psychology Doctorate Options?

You won’t have any problem finding accomplished social psychology doctoral programs available almost entirely online today. Online learning isn’t a novelty anymore. There are social psych programs that have been doing this for decades, and the kinks have all long since been worked out.

Not all your work in a psych doctorate can be completed online, however. It remains an intensely hands-on profession, and there will be practicum and internship requirements that still demand that you conduct real world research and social experiments face-to-face. This is all something that can generally be handled locally, however.

Even with those requirements, the ability to complete most of your academic coursework remotely can be a huge advantage. For starters, it opens up dozens of options when it comes to choosing from a pool of schools that you would otherwise not be able to attend without moving out of state—not a real option for many students.

But the real practical benefit is that it allows you to shift any asynchronous coursework to a time of day that works best for you. Any busy professional or anyone with a family will instantly get what a game-changer that can be. If you need to be at soccer practice in the afternoon, class can wait until after dinner.

With that kind of freedom, many people who never would have been able to give up four to seven years of their lives to a doctoral program can get in the game.

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Making Sure Your Doctorate in Social Psychology Holds Specialty Accreditation

Most students don’t care, and maybe don’t even know, if they are attending a fully accredited college. It’s such a common thing that most people don’t even need to check—just about all American colleges have at least a general regional accreditation.

When you get into specialty subjects like social psychology that have rigorous curriculum standards and professional requirements, programmatic accreditation is something you need to be thinking about. That’s definitely true in psychology, where accreditation from the American Psychological Association is considered a basic requirement of every state licensing board.

The APA’s Commission on Accreditation has members that include active psychologists, healthcare providers, college professors, lawyers, and more. Together, they form a diverse review panel that ensures a broad range of expertise and perspectives come into play as they are evaluating the quality of psychology doctorate programs.

Getting into one of these APA-accredited doctorates isn’t always easy.

According to the APA, there are only around 400 active and accredited doctoral psychology programs operating in the United States. Not all of those offer social psychology concentrations. And almost all of them admit only a handful of students each year. If you want to be one of them, you’re going to need to start building your CV early.

A master’s degree isn’t usually required but it can shorten your social psychology doctoral program if you hold one. A master’s in psychology or a related field is preferable, and good grades are essential.

Your CV, which should have some genuine work experience in a related field, or at least some volunteer hours in a social services or similar organization. Getting the kind of experience admissions departments look for to fill seats with candidates who plan to go on to work in social psychology tends to be easier than in many other fields of psychology.

While you’re getting that experience, try to impress some people—you’ll need them to write you letters of recommendation for the doctoral admissions committee. Three is typical.

Finally, you’ll have to do some writing yourself. Just about every program wants to see a personal essay of around 500 words outlining your goals, qualities, and dedication. All these programs can be highly selective, and they want to recruit the best. You need to make the case that you are one of them.

Curriculum and Dissertation in Social Psychology Doctoral Programs

Social psychology degrees are almost always concentrations available as part of a larger and more general PhD program. So there are certain core classes that you will have to take in areas like:

Principles of Modern Psychology – You’ll study the history of the field leading to today, including theories and the evolution of thought on psychology from Freud to Skinner. Courses in the bases of human behavior, ranging from cognitive to social, will help you understand how people are put together. And you’ll have classes in abnormal psychology that cover the various mental issues that humans can experience.

Assessment and Treatment – These courses are emphasized in PsyD programs and less emphasized in PhD programs, but you will be trained in how to assess patients through face-to-face interview techniques, standardized tests like the Meyers-Briggs or MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory), and how to develop treatment plans based on those assessments. You’ll also learn how to conduct those treatments with a variety of therapies, like psychotherapy or cognitive behavior therapy.

Research and Statistical Analysis – General coursework in research methods, experimental design, and quantitative analysis are all part of the general coursework in a doctoral program, but you may also find that this is where you start to get more social psychology-specific training. You’ll learn statistical and experimental methods appropriate to large and small scale population research.

Ethics and Professional Standards – Every aspect of psychology has sensitive privacy and ethics issues surrounding it. You’ll get plenty of classes in how to evaluate scenarios from an ethical perspective, the philosophical bases of ethics, modern professional standards in psychology, and the legal standards to which you will be held as a psychologist.

Social psychology itself is a very broad area, and you will find a lot of different options for pursuing coursework aligned with that specialty. You can find classes as varied as:

  • Social and Cultural Psychology of Genocides or Collective Violence
  • Social Forums
  • Social and Personality Development
  • Stereotypes and Prejudice
  • The Psychology of Stigmas
  • Masculinity and the Psychology of Men
  • Ethnicity, Race, Culture, and Child Development
  • Mental Healthcare Disparities

All kinds of topics are on the table for your social psychology studies.

Some social psychology programs offer further specialization in the field, honing your expertise in research and quantitative methods, or narrowing the focus of your studies to subjects like developmental changes in social psychology. Even without specializations, in many cases you can take electives to satisfy some of your topical study areas, allowing you to pick classes that fit best with your interests and career intentions.

Capping Off Your Social Psychology Degree With a Dissertation Project

No matter what your specialization, you’ll have to pull together all your studies and thoughts over the course of the program into a single cohesive paper at the end: your dissertation.

A dissertation tends to run to about 50 pages, but it will take you the better part of your final two years in the program to right them.

A dissertation topic must be original, creative, and relevant to social psychology. It should draw from your learning over the course of the program, but also on independent research and personal perspectives and analysis.

You’ll work closely with your advisors to come up with an appropriate topic and devise the right research program to back it up. Social psychology is rich with diverse options to explore, especially today as lockdowns in response to the global pandemic of 2020 have sort of forced the world into a giant real time experiment in how we all respond to more social isolation than most of us would ever sign up for voluntarily. This alone provides an endless number of questions to delve into and countless thought-provoking conclusions to draw from it all.

You’ll have to defend the result in front of a dissertation committee, and probably go through several rounds of revisions to get it right.

In some programs, a doctoral project is now accepted as an alternative to a dissertation, which offers the same sort of cohesive statement about your learning over the course of the program. Instead of a purely written paper, however, the project is a more action-oriented expression of your theories.

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Cost Vs. Salary – Job Prospects and Your Return on Investment for a Degree in Social Psychology

For the four to seven years you might take to complete a PsyD or PhD in social psychology, you could pay anywhere from $50,000 to over $200,000.

An APA cost analysis of psychology doctorates shows why that range is so large. They looked at the average annual costs by type of school and whether students were from in-state or out-of-state:

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

That same APA survey showed that around 90 percent of PhD students graduate with some kind of student loan debt hanging over their head.

Just like the wide range of degree costs, social psychologists have the broadest range of salaries out of any specialization in the field. You can find jobs at small non-profits researching obscure academic theories in improving constructive dialog in public discourse, or at Fortune 50 corporations helping hone marketing messages for next year’s hottest product release. You can guess which one of those is probably pulling down a mid-six figure salary with bonuses and benefits to match.

The APA took a stab at nailing down the average salary for social psychology specialistsand came up with an annual figure of $85,860. It comes in slightly on the low side for psychology doctorates generally, although it is higher than the $80,370 average for psychologists in general that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found in 2019. The top ten percent, however, earned more than $132,070, showing you how high you can get in the right position.

The real lesson here is all the options you have to find jobs in social psychology. They exist in every one of those regions, and in jobs more diverse than almost any other specialty in the field. That gives you a lot of chances to find something that is the perfect fit for you. You can get the salary you want and spend your career exploring some truly fascinating social phenomenon all in one package.

(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.)