What It Takes to Earn a Clinical Psychology Degree

A career in clinical psychology is likely to be lucrative and successful, as openings in the field are expected to grow at twice the national average through 2026 (14 percent vs. 7 percent) and the median annual salary for a psychologist is more than $77,000.

With such a bright future, it’s no wonder many people are interested in becoming a clinical psychologist. While getting a doctorate in clinical psychology is a necessary step in that process, there are several steps to take and issues to consider before you get to that point.

Let’s explore what it takes to earn a clinical psychology doctorate.

Traits and Interests You Will Need

Clinical psychologists, whether or not they’re working directly with patients and clients, must have a natural sense of curiosity about human nature and the roots of human behavior. Exploring why people do the things they do is at the very core of psychology, which seeks to understand the cognitive, emotional, behavioral and social processes surrounding how humans relate to each other and their environments.

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In addition to a strong desire to understand human behavior, a potential clinical psychologist must have a logical, analytical mind and the ability to recognize patterns. These traits are required both in treating patients and in many other jobs for which a clinical psychologist is qualified. Understanding a patient’s behavior patterns, for instance, is critical to helping them overcome negative emotional reactions to events in their lives.

All jobs in psychology are rooted in scientific study, so a solid background in biology, physiology, health or related fields is important.

What to Study in College

While it’s not usually a requirement that you have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, naturally, if you’re planning to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology, your undergraduate course history should reflect a dedication to and foundational knowledge of the field.

You certainly should be taking psychology courses, but you should also consider courses in biology, sociology, anthropology, analysis and statistics or neuroscience. If pre-med is an option at your chosen college or university, that could be a smart choice, as it will give you a very solid foundation in the understanding of brain science that is at the heart of clinical psychology.

If you already are targeting specific doctoral programs, be sure to read any requirements they have for undergraduate study, as some schools will outline all the courses needed to be admitted to their clinical psychology doctoral program.

Taking the GRE

For many psychology doctoral programs, particularly PsyD programs, it’s not necessary to first earn your master’s degree, but you will need to have taken the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) recently. Most schools require the test within the past five years, but be sure to verify with the schools you’re planning to apply to so you can be sure.

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If you wish, you can also take the GRE psychology subject test, though most programs won’t require it. Still, if you score well on the subject test, that could boost your standing among all applicants and illustrate a strong command of the subject matter. This is especially helpful if your college record isn’t filled with courses in psychology or related areas.

Several GRE test dates are offered every year, so be sure to give yourself enough time to study and prepare for the GRE and psychology subject test (if you decide to take it).

Deciding on a Degree Type

One of the biggest decisions a future clinical psychologist will have to make is choosing what degree type to pursue — a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) or a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (PhD). While it’s largely a matter of personal taste, it’s helpful to understand some of the key differences between the two degree types.

A PhD program will usually take more time than a PsyD program, and it will be more difficult to get into and may require a few more admissions hurdles (such as higher test scores or a master’s degree).

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The other major difference, and one that often tips the scales one way or the other, is that PsyD programs are designed specifically to provide hands-on technical training in clinical psychology that PhD programs are not. This means that for two students completing their programs at the same time, the PsyD graduate likely is better prepared to hit the ground running as a practicing clinical psychologist than the PhD holder.

Choosing a School

Once you’ve decided on a degree type, the next important step is picking a program. While the decision may come down to money or program availability, it can be helpful to think about what types of populations you wish to serve. If you know, for instance, that you want to work with teens in crisis, you should look for clinical psychology programs that offer specialized courses in adolescent psychology and therapeutic methods for young adults.

Completing your doctorate in psychology is the final step before earning your license to practice in your state, so be sure the program you choose will fill your needs.

Completing Your Education

Many PsyD programs take as little as four years, which includes a dissertation and an internship. PhD programs will take two or three years longer, on average, and will include a more rigorous dissertation process.

The difficulty level of the program will vary depending on the school you choose, but remember this is a doctoral program, so the level of rigor will be unlike what you experienced at the bachelor’s degree level (or the master’s level, if you went to graduate school).

When you consider the role and influence you’ll have in your patients’ lives once you’re a practicing clinical psychologist, you can begin to understand the need for the level of difficulty you’re likely to see throughout your doctoral program.


As our society continues to evolve into one that’s more understanding of mental health and treatment of emotional and mental disturbances, clinical psychologists will be in ever-increasing demand. When you add to that the expansion of affordable healthcare, which often includes coverage for psychotherapy, a doctoral degree in clinical psychology is likely to be a very wise investment in your future.