What is the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree?

  • Ph. D.: a research-based degree that is the only doctoral degree in psychology to be offered in most countries
  • Psy. D.: an applied psychology degree (like the M.D. degree in medicine) that is widely granted in the United States, but not in most other countries

In the United States it was decided about 50 years ago that the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD.) should be reserved for those students who wish to devote their career primarily to doing research. A new degree was needed for those who were going to be engaged in applied (professional) psychology –especially clinical psychology. Just as practitioners in the field of medicine get M.D. rather than Ph.D. degrees (unless they are going into medical research), so those going into applied psychology should get a Doctor of Psychology degree. Most graduates from US institutions in the field of psychology now get Psy.D. rather than Ph.D. – this is especially the case with free-standing graduate institutions that are not part of (or affiliated with) a major research university.

Other countries have been very slow to recognize the Psy.D. degree as valid. There is a push toward recognition of the Psy.D. degree (which is usually awarded by an American graduate school) – but progress is slow in this regard.

Brief History: United States

The field of professional psychology is a bit tricky these days, with regard to the doctoral degree one might obtain in order to be called a “psychologist” (or at least do high level psychological work as a re4searches, scholar, therapist, consultant or coach). Traditionally, someone wanting to obtain a doctorate with an academic specialization in psychology worked toward a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. This degree was usually granted by a university and the focus of this program was on research and scholarship. Students who wanted to use their degree to practice as psychotherapists, psychodiagnostic assessors or organizational psychology consultants had to enduring classes that were irrelevant to their area of interest in applied psychology, and were required to write dissertations that usually had little to do with the world in which they hoped to work. Their only experience in the real world of applied psychology often came in the form of an internship – or they entered the realm of professional psychology with virtually no training. Imagine a physician who had taken courses in human physiology but had never worked with an actual patient during their years as a medical student.

All of this led to the decision almost fifty years ago for the American Psychological Association (and related psychological associations) to recognize a new degree: the Doctorate in Psychology (Psy.D.). This was to be a practitioner degree: still very demanding with strong academic rigour (and in most cases a dissertation)—but the curriculum now included many more courses that prepared students to become competent practitioners. With initiation of the Psy.D. degree came the establishment of independent graduate schools of psychology that either operated as tuition-based institutions or as graduate programs (like many medical schools and law schools) that are affiliated with a public or private university. Today, most doctorates in psychology issued in the United States are Psy.D. not Ph.D. degrees. Ph.D. degrees are awarded primarily by academic psychology programs residing inside major research universities.

Brief History: Outside the United States

This is NOT the case with psychology degrees awarded in most other countries—they are the traditional Ph.D.  and are still focused in most instances on preparing students to be research psychologists (usually preparing to become full-time instructors at other universities and colleges). The status of the Psy.D. program is changing around the world – but slowly and with considerable resistance from the academic community (and the academic psychology committee in particular).  Health care professionals and mental health professionals in many countries in many countries are pushing for recognition of the Psy.D. degree since graduates of psychology programs than only offer the Ph.D. degree are often ill-prepared for the work – and there are often not enough graduates (even with Ph.D. degrees) to meet the growing demand for psychological services (often in medical settings, educational institutions or religious institutions). Furthermore, the men and women who are providing consulting and coaching services in organizations find the curricula of most Ph.D. programs to be particularly inappropriate (with their focus on personal psychology and occasional offering of courses that superficially address clinical issues). So, something must change. But the awarding of psychological degrees at the doctoral level  is still a confusing and tricky business once you leave the United States.