Psychology PhD vs PsyD Degree Differences Which is Best?

Psychology is a fast-growing field with the potential for lots of good employment options and high salaries throughout a person’s career.

Whether working in an elementary school, in private practice or in an academic research setting, psychologists must have a thorough education in mental, emotional and behavioral health before beginning their careers.

For those interested in entering the field of psychology, there are two main degree paths — Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in psychology. While both degrees will prepare you well for high paying careers in psychology, you may find one degree will suit your career goals better than the other.

While the degrees are quite similar and may lead to the same career, a few key differences distinguish them:

  • Research vs. clinical experience
  • Length of program
  • Competitiveness and financing

Let’s break down the differences to help you determine which track, a Ph.D. in psychology or a PsyD, might be right for you.

Research vs. Clinical Experience

The biggest difference between a PsyD and Ph.D. is the overall nature of the programs and how they go about training individuals for careers in psychology.

A Ph.D. in psychology is just like any other Ph.D. in that the program will provide an intensive focus on research, both how to understand published works and how to conduct scientifically valid research that expands the body of scientific knowledge. This allows eventual doctorate-holders to practice psychology but also to conduct and publish their own new academic research to add to the understanding of psychology.

In a PsyD program, the focus is on the actual practice of psychology rather than the academic study of the field. Since it was introduced more than a half-century ago, PsyD has become the preferred degree for those without an interest in academic research or publishing who want to focus solely on the hands-on, clinical practice of psychology.

SEE ALSO: Highest Paying Clinical Psychology Careers & Jobs

Those who complete a PsyD program will get a thorough education in standards of the practice of psychology as well as clinical techniques, and while it wouldn’t be impossible for a PsyD-holding psychologist to publish their own research works, their coursework will be heavily weighted toward clinical experience. Ultimately, individuals who wish to publish may be better served by a PhD even if they only want to publish once in a while.

Given the broader focus of Ph.D. programs, they are ideal for individuals who aren’t yet certain they want to practice clinical psychology hands-on with patients. Those with a Ph.D. in psychology could be practicing clinicians or they could teach while conducting their own research projects, for instance. The bottom line is they are likely to have more career options down the road.

For individuals who have a strong desire to practice clinical psychology but have a passion in one certain area, such as addiction, a Ph.D. may end up being a smarter path, as they’ll be able to intensively research their area of passion, which may be more challenging in a PsyD setting.

Once you finish either program, you must become certified to practice in your state, and many states require continuing education programs to keep licenses valid, so this may give individuals exposure to new issues and trends in psychology regardless of which degree path they took as students.

Length of Program

Both programs are several years long, usually at least four years. Both programs also require a dissertation, but the PhD dissertation process generally is much more rigorous and will take more work to complete.

SEE ALSO: Online Accredited PsyD Programs vs Online Accredited Ph.D. Programs

A typical PsyD student can finish their education in as little as four years, including a one-year internship and their dissertation. For PhD students, that’s closer to five to seven years.

With the focus on academic study with a Ph.D., students will take many more courses on things like statistics and research than will PsyD students, who will get a grounding in such matters but will not focus on them.

For those who are interested in beginning the practice of psychology as soon as possible, a PsyD could be the better option, but the reality is the two degrees will take roughly the same amount of time to complete in the grand scheme of things. If you think about a person’s career lasting 30 to 40 years, a half-decade is just a fraction.

Competitiveness and Financing

Generally, Ph.D. programs will be more difficult to get into but may be easier to afford.

Most PsyD programs accept a larger percentage of applicants than Ph.D. programs, which is partially due to the more intense academic focus most Ph.D. programs have.

In its 2016 report, the American Psychological Association estimated PhD programs in psychology had an overall acceptance rate of 13.3%.

Compare that to acceptance rates for PsyD programs that hover around at least 40%, according to most sources.

Ph.D. programs tend to be more competitive, but once you get in the door, many schools offer fellowships and other programs to offset the cost of your training. More than 70% of psychology and social sciences Ph.D. earners in 2017 had their degrees funded, at least in part, with fellowships, grants, assistantships or scholarships, according to the National Science Foundation.

However, that doesn’t mean a Ph.D. is always totally free — in the same report, the foundation determined that the number of psychology Ph.D. recipients who completed their degrees with no debt dropped by more than 20% between 2008 and 2017.

Given that most PsyD programs will require students to pay for their education themselves, at first glance it seems PhD programs are better in that regard, but with the debt trends among PhD students, that may not prove to be completely true for all degree-seekers.

Featured Video

In this video, Capella University explains the differences between PsyD and PhD. The video address’s would you rather work in research, administration, or an academic setting, or see patients in a clinical practice? A PhD prepares you to teach, while a PsyD is more geared toward a professional career.

Find your psychology niche and take your career to the next level—perhaps start a consulting business, prepare to teach, build your practice, or expand your understanding of human development. See our award-winning FlexPath Online learning format. Request FREE information from Capella University.


No matter the path you take, a career in psychology is likely to be a successful one. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job market for psychologists is expected to grow 14% through 2026, which is faster than the rate for all jobs.

SEE ALSO: Average Clinical Psychologist Salary by State

In addition, psychologists tend to be well-paid. BLS data indicates a median wage of over $75,000, much higher than the national median wage, and the top 10% of workers in the field can earn $125,000 or more.

Elementary and secondary schools are some of the largest employers of psychologists (27%), with 24% of psychologists being in private practice as clinicians or consultants.

With such growth potential and a high-income ceiling, a doctorate in psychology, whether a Ph.D. or a PsyD, is likely to be a smart investment, but which degree is right for you will depend on what you plan to do once the degree is in your hands.