PsyD and PhD Degree Programs in Developmental Child Psychology

Developmental psychology is having a moment in American history. Society today is bombarded with questions about gender roles, caring for an increasingly elderly population, and issues of child care and development. Although at first glance these might not seem to be related, in fact they all draw strongly on our knowledge of psychological development and changes across the lifespan. And the answers to thorny social questions will come from the elite among developmental psychologists: those who have earned doctoral degrees in the field.

Developmental psychologists are key to understanding the big questions related to human development that are arising today:

  • What kind of psychological supports are necessary for elderly populations? The population over the age of 65 in the U.S. grew by 34 percent between 2010 and 2020, and by 2030 around 20 percent of the population will pass that milestone. At that point, they will outnumber children, and increasing amounts of resources will need to be directed toward supporting them. But what will that look like?
  • Speaking of children, what will the long-term effects of lockdown and online schooling be on this generation of children, anyway? The Census Bureau reported some 93 percent of households with school-age children had some shift to distance learning in 2020. It’s an unprecedented and uncontrolled experiment in social segmentation and digital exposure. What kind of cognitive impacts will it have in the coming years and how will that impact society?

If these all sound like hard questions, you’re right. And that’s why developmental psychologists need a serious education to be prepared to answer them. It’s the kind of education that you get with a doctoral degree in the field.

What is Developmental Psychology? – What Do Developmental Psychologists Do?

Developmental psychology explores the emergence of mental processes and behaviors that come at every point in the aging process. It is all about the nuts and bolts of how people learn, think, and feel as influenced by everything from their neurological hardwiring to the social and cultural mores they are surrounded with.

Developmental psychologists have a unique range in the field of psychology. They consider the impact of human maturation and aging from the psychological perspective. That can take them everywhere from cradle to grave in terms of patients.

Most developmental psychologists specialize, however, focusing their practice on a particular age range. Everything from childhood to geriatric practice is on the table.

The greatest number of changes happen at either end of that spectrum. Most developmental psychologists focus either on children and adolescents or geriatric practices.

That naturally leads to positions working in rehabilitation and senior care facilities, with advocacy and policy organizations, and with youth groups or early childhood and crisis intervention programs. Psychologists who specialize in a particular age range are often licensed in and conduct standard clinical practices treating individuals in those groups.

Other development psychologists are found primarily in research and academic roles, investigating the causes and changes of psychological issues across the lifespan. They spend a great deal of time constructing and running experiments and assessing data to develop new theories and new treatments. Their input can also be important in public policy development and patient advocacy.

What to Look for in a PhD or PsyD Program in Developmental Psychology

A doctorate in developmental psychology may be one of the broadest kinds of education you can get in psychology. It literally covers every phase that a human will go through in their lives. If you find those changes fascinating, then studies of cognition and emotional development and, eventually, decline, will all be topics you’ll love to dive into in these degrees.

Most of the degrees you will find in this area of practice, particularly for the PsyD, are aimed at one or the other of those specialties. Some of them also include subspecialties within developmental psychology, including:

  • Administration and leadership
  • Health and human development
  • International perspectives
  • Education

The Differences Between PhD and PsyD Programs in Developmental Psychology

The major difference between PhD (Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology) and PsyD (Doctor of Psychology Programs) is one of emphasis. PhD programs lean toward research and academic pursuits in psychology. PsyDs are aimed more directly at clinical practice in the field, the hands-on treatment of patients using practical applications of psychological knowledge.

The lines are not hard and fast. Many PhDs go into clinical practice, while you can find PsyD graduates who go on to careers in teaching and research. But it can help you get your coursework aligned with your passions if you choose the one that is closer to the job you want to get.

When it comes to developmental psychology, the most important difference is that you will find few, if any, PsyD programs that cover the whole range. Because the areas of practice tend to be set within particular age ranges, most PsyD programs that have a developmental focus will actually be even more specialized… geropsychology or child psychology, for instance.

Things are different on the research side of the field. There are a number of PhD programs that teach the entire spectrum of developmental psych because study can find new and interesting information from comparing the long-term changes and differences over the lifespan.

Your choice of degree should reflect your interests and goals, and how you think you will fit into a particular program.

Online Doctoral Degrees in Developmental Psychology

No psychology doctorate can ever be entirely online. It’s a field that demands in-person assessment and learning, definitely during your practicum experience if at no other time.

But just as COVID-19 has changed the nature of professional therapy practice, the academic world is shifting online in psychology as well. It’s a trend that started long before the pandemic, but it’s a gift both to students stuck at home and those who just want the flexibility that comes from remote learning.

You can find degrees that deliver most of their classroom experience online at the doctorate level. Using asynchronous delivery, they offer on-demand video streams, interactive chat sessions, and digital resources for taking care of all your homework needs. That lets you handle your coursework at any time of the day or night, from anywhere in the country. It’s convenient for both those who are currently employed and people with family and other commitments. And it means you can stay close to home yet pick the best program for your purposes without relocating.

Entrance Requirements for Doctoral Programs in Developmental Psychology

Psychologists are in great demand across the country, but so are spots in psychology doctoral programs. There are only around 400 APA-accredited programs in the United States, and they often admit only a dozen or so candidates each per year.

The competition is fierce to get into these slots that lead to lucrative and satisfying jobs in developmental psych. You need to have strong qualifications and a thirst for knowledge to convince admissions committees that you deserve to get in.

That has to start at the undergraduate level. Most programs require a minimum of a 3.0 undergraduate GPA. Although a bachelor’s in psychology is not usually required, it’s a plus. Even if your degree was not in psychology, you’ll be usually need to have taken some prerequisite courses in subjects like:

  • Statistics
  • Abnormal psychology
  • Physiology and human development

Naturally, a master’s degree in the field won’t hurt your chances, but it is usually not required.

A CV, however, will be. You should have some work history in the field, or at least some documented volunteer time working in some psychology-related pursuit.

Admissions committees are interested in more than just your transcripts, though. You’ll also be required to submit one or more essays, describing yourself, your goals, and why you think you’ll be a good fit for the program. They aren’t going to just take your word for it, either. You will be asked to submit three or more letters of reference from previous bosses or professors to talk about how great you are.

Some schools also require that you take the Graduate Record Exam standardized admissions test. In most cases, there is no pass or fail score involved. They’ll look at the grade in combination with the other factors of your admissions packet.

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What You Need to Know About Accreditation for Doctoral Programs in Developmental Psychology

Most American college students barely think about accreditation, if at all. That’s because you usually don’t have to. Just about every college you’ve ever heard of or considered attending holds a general accreditation from one of the various regional accrediting bodies that certify their academic quality and competency.

When you are getting into a highly specialized field like psychology, however, you need to pay more attention. That’s because both employers and state licensing boards care a lot about whether or not your PsyD or PhD came from a program that was fully accredited by the American Psychological Association.

The APA has a dedicated Commission on Accreditation that goes past the general look at academics and administrative elements to evaluate doctoral degrees on an intensive and practical basis. That commission is made up of both practicing psychology professionals as well as academics, healthcare workers, and even plain old civilians. They ensure that graduates will meet the needs of industry and society.

They do it through a years-long process that takes in reams of paperwork and goes through multiple on-site visits to assess the department and the college. They look at factors like:

  • Instructor hiring and qualifications
  • Professional values and ethics
  • Resources made available to students
  • Student recruitment and retention
  • Grading and appeals processes
  • Internship and practicum availability

Schools that come out the other side with a passing grade aren’t done yet. The APA also re-evaluates them periodically to ensure they are delivering the kind of education that the industry demands and that patients can rely on.

Curriculum and Electives for Doctoral Degrees in Developmental Psychology

The curriculum of a degree in developmental psychology is where it will distinguish itself from other kinds of psychology doctoral programs. You will start by covering many of the same core classes as a general psychology degree:

  • Foundations and History of Psychology – Understanding how the field has come about is important groundwork for every psychology student. You’ll learn about the early philosophers and how their explorations have lead to the modern field of psychology, as well as the various schools of thought, such as behaviorism, have influenced the development and practice of psychology over the years.
  • Psychopathology – Abnormal psych is everyone’s favorite class as an undergraduate, but in doctoral programs, you will go much deeper into the categories of mental issues that can develop in human beings at every stage of development. You’ll learn how to conduct assessments of personality and mental well-being using cognitive and personality-based assessment techniques. You’ll probably also at least touch on other critical fields such as forensic pathology and neuropsychology.
  • Ethics and Standards – Any time you are working with sensitive subjects such as come up during psychological investigations, you have to consider the ethical element. You’ll get a lot of in-depth coursework in any PsyD program that covers your legal and ethical responsibilities to patients and research subjects, as well as your general professional obligations.
  • Research Design and Experimentation – This will include a general coverage of statistics and quantitative reasoning, so brush up on your math skills. You’ll also study experimental design, the ethics of conducting research on human participants, and a variety of biases to guard against.

Where developmental psychology degrees differ, however, is in their study of lifespan development and its effects on cognitive and behavioral mental health issues. You’ll do that in classes like:

  • Lifespan Development – These courses will cover various aspects of human development at every stage, from prenatal to old age. You’ll learn about various milestones and factors of heredity and environment on human progress. These courses can also include new and exciting fields that are still emerging in development psychology like the effects of digital media on development and modern theories of gender and image.
  • Language and Cognitive Development – Theories and research into the relationship between language learning and cognitive development on psychological well-being are fascinating. The major impacts this has on social acculturation and reasoning ability are studied, and you’ll learn about psycholinguistics and neurobiological studies covering both typical and atypical development.
  • Culture and Psychology – Culture is a crucial part of psychological development, and your degree will take you in-depth on the ways this can play a role in psychopathology. You will probably spend time looking into cross-cultural psychological comparisons as well as tracing the effects of cultural shift over time.
  • Practicum – Like other students in PsyD or PhD programs, you’ll have to complete a practicum placement for first-hand experience as part of the degree. With a developmental psychology degree, that practicum will almost certainly be research-based, working in a lab with faculty who specialize in developmental psychology research.

A Dissertation Polishes Off Your Degree Experience

For the final year or two of your program, you can expect to spend most of your time concentrating on the most important part of any doctoral degree: the dissertation.

A 50 or so page paper wouldn’t normally take that long to write. But a dissertation is expected to be an independent, creative work that results in a genuine contribution to the field based on your own unique research and analysis. It should bring together the state of knowledge in the field, tie in your previous coursework, and develop the overall theme of your experience through the course of the program.

You’ll develop that core theme together with your advisor, and go through extensive research and possibly even run experiments to gather more data. You will undoubtedly go through many revisions to the paper along the way. Finally, you’ll defend it in front of a committee of professionals and academics, fielding challenging questions and demonstrating your command of the material.

At the end of the process, you’ll have a publishable paper that serves as your strongest advocate as you enter the practice of professional psychology.

What Can I Expect a PsyD or PhD in Developmental Psychology to Cost?

A graduate degree of any sort in the United States is one expensive piece of paper. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual cost of a doctorate in 2018 was $12,171 if you attend a public school, and $25,929 at a private institution.

When you consider that you’ll be attending these programs anywhere from four to seven years, you’ll see why the APA found that some 90 percent of PsyD graduates have some level of student debt to pay off after they graduate.

The APA conducted its own research into the average cost of degrees in 2016, and it mirrors the NCES findings on the differences between public and private schools:

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

Although those numbers seem on par with the NCES figures, keep in mind they were gathered two years earlier. Another part of the study found that tuition had jumped by 50 percent between 2009 and 2015. So it’s quite likely the average PsyD costs more than most doctorate programs.

Earning a License as a Developmental Psychologist

Not all developmental psychologists need to seek licensure. If you plan to stay in the research and academic side of the business, there’s no requirement that you get a license as a psychologist.

If you plan to treat patients in clinical settings, however, your state board of licensing is going to want to have a word.

Fortunately, as long as you graduated from an APA-accredited program, you are much of the way toward getting your license already. Each individual state has its own specific requirements, which usually involve background checks, some level of supervised field experience, and a test on state law and ethics.

But all of them require that you take and pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. Put together by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards, it’s a multiple-question, multiple-format test in two parts.

The first part is a knowledge test that quizzes you on domains such as:

  • The biological, social, cultural, and cognitive bases of behavior
  • Growth and lifespan development
  • Assessment and diagnosis
  • Treatment, intervention, and supervision
  • Research and statistics

The second half is a skills test. It covers everything from scientific approaches to professionalism, with additional questions on collaboration, consultation, and supervision.

Most psychologists devote time to preparing through third-party test-prep courses or through the ASPP practice exams. Although you will have covered the same material through your doctoral studies, some of it will be four or more years in the past by the time you get around to testing… you will need a refresher!

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Salaries and Job Prospects with a PsyD or PhD in Developmental Psychology

Probably the majority of people who study developmental psychology are bound for jobs in research and academia. Specialists, however, might find themselves working in schools, retirement communities, or in government and policy. It’s a broad range of positions to aim for that can include both clinical, research, and policy work.

That means it comes with a equally broad range of salary possibilities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average psychologist in 2019 made $80,370 across all roles.

That includes many psychologists who do not hold doctorates, however. The APA, however, conducted a study of members in 2016 that focuses on salaries for PhD and PsyD holders. It also breaks down compensation in different specialty areas. Some of those that are particularly relevant to developmental psychologists include:

  • General psychology – $73,606
  • Clinical psychology – $107,183
  • Educational psychology – $87,257
  • Experimental psychology – $113,747
  • Social psychology – $85,860

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data also shows a breakdown by industry. Some of those where developmental psychologists are more likely to be employed in include:

  • Clinical, counseling, and school psychologists – $78,200
  • Government – $96,870
  • Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools – $85,000

The top ten percent earn more than $132,070 per year, which is closer to what you can expect toward the high point of your career, when experience and education peak.

In any case, there’s no question that a PhD or PsyD in developmental psychology will end up paying for itself. And the job satisfaction you can get from being a part of new breakthroughs in the field or treating individual patients isn’t something that any paycheck can compare to.

(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.)