Everything international students should know before taking a PhD in Psychology

phd in psychology
Aniruddh Patel, professor of psychology at Tufts University, speaks at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago on February 15, 2014 about how a rare few creatures can keep a musical beat and what this means for the study of evolution. Source: AFP

The human mind is an intricate place, with many mysteries to unearth still. Those who want to explore it, deeply and profoundly, often decide to pursue a PhD in Psychology. 

The typical educational pathway for those aspiring to attain this degree involves several key milestones.

To get to the dizzying heights of a PhD, many start with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology or a closely related field.

This gives students foundational knowledge of various psychological theories and research methodologies. 

Many famous people have earned this bachelor’s, including actress Natalie Portman, singer-songwriter Gloria Estefan, rapper Lil Wayne, and the original presenter “The Daily Show” Jon Stewart

The next step for those still keen to pursue a PhD is a master’s degree in Psychology or a related discipline. This offers an opportunity to specialise further in specific areas of interest. 

These foundational steps equip students with the essential skills and knowledge to navigate the challenging terrain of doctoral-level research and practice.

While many know the pioneers of the field — like Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and B.F. Skinner, a behaviourist luminary — there are many other PhD holders who have made great headway. 

Known as the “Father of Black Psychology,”  Francis Cecil Sumner was the first  Black American to earn a PhD in Psychology in 1920.

He founded the psychology department at Howard University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU).

Jennifer Eberhardt, who is a psychology professor at Stanford University, studied unconscious racial bias.

She was able to discover that people commonly associate Black people with crime more than people of other races. 

This was key information which pointed out how racial bias affects policing, and the criminal justice system has been used to develop implicit bias training. 

Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein found that children often utilise play as one of their primary means of communication.

Margaret Floy Washburn was the first woman to be awarded a PhD in Psychology, making strides in the fields of animal cognition and motor theory.

These great figures are certainly inspiring, fighting the boundaries of their time to make a difference in the field of psychology. 

For international students aspiring to undertake this transformative journey, it is essential to grasp the intricacies of the PhD process in psychology. 

Still, how do you know if a PhD itself is the right programme for you?

Should I get a PhD?

Most of us don’t know the difference between a PhD and a PsyD. 

Understanding the distinctions between these degrees is crucial for making an informed decision based on one’s career goals and aspirations.

“While there are many similarities between these two degrees, traditional PhD programmes tend to be more research-oriented while PsyD programmes are often more practice-oriented,” says Kendra Cherry.

She is an MS, a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, a psychology educator, and the author of the “Everything Psychology Book”.

The PhD in Psychology is a research-focused degree that places a strong emphasis on scholarly inquiry and the advancement of theoretical knowledge. 

Those pursuing a PhD often engage in original research, contributing new insights to the field. 

The PsyD is a practitioner-focused degree designed for individuals interested in applying psychological principles in clinical practice. 

These programmes prioritise hands-on experience, practical training, and the development of clinical skills. 

Graduates with a PsyD often pursue careers in clinical psychology, counselling, or therapy. 

phd in psychology

The road to completing your PhD in Psychology is a long one, so be prepared for the ride. Source: AFP

10 burning questions you might have about pursuing a PhD in Psychology

1. How long is a PhD in Psychology?

The duration of a PhD in Psychology is a critical consideration for prospective candidates. 

Earning any PhD is a rigorous process, but this one can take from five to seven years to complete. 

The timeline is influenced by various factors, including the specific requirements of the chosen programme, the nature of the research involved, and the individual’s progress.

The first few years often involve coursework to deepen theoretical understanding and refine research skills.

Then, candidates undergo comprehensive examinations to demonstrate mastery in their chosen speciality. 

The heart of the PhD journey lies in the research and dissertation phase, where students contribute original knowledge to the field. 

This demanding process, although time-consuming, fosters deep expertise that prepares graduates for impactful contributions to psychology. 

2. Is a PhD in Psychology useful?

A PhD in Psychology is more than just a pathway to a career in academia.

To those passionate about understanding and improving mental health, it is a valuable investment, whether or not they end up with a job.

“There’s a lot out there that really does overlay the training we psychologists have,” says Anjali Forber-Pratt, PhD, who directs the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR). 

“If you don’t want to go the clinical route or the academic route, there are all of these really rich and robust opportunities that you may not realise are out there.”

While academia offers a natural home for many doctoral graduates, with opportunities for teaching and research, the degree’s applicability transcends traditional boundaries. 

Many find themselves equipped for roles in clinical practice, where they can contribute to therapeutic interventions and counselling. 

A PhD in Psychology also opens doors to leadership positions in healthcare, organisational psychology, and even governmental agencies.

What’s more, the advanced research and analytical skills honed during the PhD journey empower individuals to assess and address complex issues critically. 

As societies worldwide recognise the importance of mental well-being, the demand for qualified psychologists continues to grow. 

This degree not only enriches the individual’s intellectual and professional capacities but also positions them as agents of positive change in diverse fields.

phd in psychology

Skipping your master’s degree before pursuing a PhD can be risky if you’re prepared for the drastic learning curve. Source: AFP

3. Can I skip my master’s and pursue a PhD in Psychology?

Some general PhD in Psychology programmes accept students without a master’s degree, but you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree for admission. These programmes are often called dual or joint-degree programmes.

In Australia, it’s possible for bachelor’s graduates with an honour’s year to apply to PhDs without a master’s degree.

It’s always important to check the admission requirements for your programmes before enrolling. Speak with faculty members or advisors within the university’s psychology department to understand their expectations and recommendations regarding your academic journey.

Demonstrating substantial research experience, such as through internships, assistantships, or independent projects, can also strengthen your application for direct entry into a PhD programme.

phd in psychology

Beyond academic and clinical practice, a PhD in Psychology can set you up to become a public intellectual. Source: AFP

4. Should I go straight to do a PhD in Psychology or a master’s programme?

Nothing stops you from pursuing your PhD in psychology without taking a master’s degree. 

That said, the transition between a bachelor’s degree and a PhD is incredibly sharp.

While this move could save you money, it may be harder for you to complete a PhD with the research experience obtained from completing a master’s degree.

5. What is the highest degree in psychology?

The highest degree you can achieve in the field of psychology is at a doctoral level. Primarily, there are two types: a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). 

phd in psychology

Sports psychology is a popular PhD in Psychology specialisation3. Source: AFP

6. What are the best PhD in Psychology programmes to pursue?

The best PhD in Psychology specialisations for you can depend on your specific research interests, career aspirations, faculty mentors, available resources, and the overall fit between your goals.

Here are some popular specialisations for this type of programme:

  • Clinical Psychology: Focuses on diagnoses and treatments of mental, emotional, and behavioural disorders. 
  • Cognitive Psychology: Studies mental processes like perception, memory, attention, language, and problem-solving. Research in this field explores how humans think, learn, and process information.
  • Developmental Psychology: Focuses on human development across the lifespan, from infancy to old age. Researchers in this field explore cognitive, emotional, and social development.
  • Social Psychology: Examines how social influences affect human behaviour, attitudes, and interactions. It covers topics like conformity, persuasion, prejudice, and group dynamics.
  • Neuropsychology/Behavioral Neuroscience: Explores the relationship between the brain and behaviour, studying the neurological basis of behaviour, cognition, and emotion.
phd in psychology

Get a PhD in Psychology, become a professor and you may just one day sit on the same panel as the Dalai Lama. Source: AFP

7. Which university is best for a PhD in Psychology?

These universities are known to house some of the best PhD in Psychology programmes:

  • Cornell University: It is a private Ivy League land-grant university with seven undergraduate and graduate divisions, each functioning mostly autonomously. The university offers one of the best PhD in Psychology programmes today, which aims to encourage students to contribute to original research and develop the ability to critically analyse subjects in their fields of study based on scientific literature. The programme has a practical and experimental focus, with facilities like electrophysiological, chemical, and surgical laboratories and audio-visual studios.
  • Harvard University: As one of the world’s most prestigious higher learning institutions, it has the highest endowment levels of any US or Canadian university and offers two doctoral psychology programmes in two different tracks. One track includes social psychology, developmental psychology, and CBB (Cognition, Brain, and Behavior), while the other is based mainly on Clinical Science. Do note that this department is APA-accredited. APA stands for American Psychological Association
  • Stanford University: The PhD programme in Psychology at Stanford earns high marks for its collaborative spirit between students and faculty advisors. Over the course of this five-year programme, students participate in 135 units of research units and coursework.
phd in psychology

Funding opportunities for student who wanted to undertake a PhD, and those who want to study a PhD in Psychology,  are no different. Source: AFP

8. What funding opportunities are available for a PhD in Psychology?

Many universities offer teaching assistantships or research assistantships to doctoral students. In return for some work, usually teaching courses or helping faculty members with research projects, they receive financial support. 

Universities, private foundations, government agencies, and professional organisations may award fellowships or scholarships that cover tuition, stipends, or research expenses. 

You can apply for research grants to fund their dissertation projects or other research endeavours as well. Faculty members or departments often guide students in applying for these grants.

9. Do all psychologists have a PhD?

According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, almost all psychologists have a doctorate degree. Only a few specialities of psychologists can work with a master’s degree and additional certification and licensure. 

For a clinical or counselling psychologist, an internship in counselling is typically required. The candidate must then pass a licensure exam from the state where they want to practise.

For a research psychologist, a completed doctoral dissertation and fellowship are required, followed by licensure. Educational psychologists need licensure to practise in public education as well as the psychologist’s licence.

Many psychologists and professionals in related fields hold master’s degrees. Master’s programmes in psychology can lead to careers in counselling, therapy, school psychology, industrial-organisational psychology, and various specialised areas.

Examples include Master of Arts (MA) in Psychology, Master of Science (MS) in Psychology, and Master of Counseling (MC).

phd in psychology

Studying a PhD in Psychology can be challenging due to how long it takes to complete the programme. Source: AFP

10. Is getting a PhD in Psychology hard?

Like all PhD programmes, a PhD in Psychology is academically demanding. They involve intensive coursework, advanced statistics, research methodologies, and theoretical studies.

These programmes often require students to conduct original research for their dissertations. This process involves designing studies, collecting data, analysng results, and presenting findings in a scholarly manner.

Then, there’s the issue of time. PhD in Psychology can take up to seven years to complete. The duration can vary based on the programme, research requirements, and individual progress.

The challenges are likely to start even before your first day. And that’s because admission to doctoral programmes can be highly competitive.

Applicants need strong academic backgrounds, relevant research experience, impressive letters of recommendation, and compelling personal statements. The application process can take close to a year.