Considering a doctoral program?

In recent weeks I have had several students ask me about the pros/cons of doctoral programs in psychology. I would point those who know they want to attend a traditional clinical psych program to this book by the APA. It offers lots of helpful data on programs and what they require.

For those not sure what they want to do or if they should pursue doctoral studies, consider the following. If readers have additional questions we should consider, post them in a response and we’ll expand on these. This is my first pass:

What career doors do I want to open that are not available to me now? Do I want to teach? Do I see myself in private practice? In a research job? in the business world?

The PhD in Clinical Psych from an APA accredited program (and with an APA approved predoctoral internship) probably opens the most doors of all. This degree allows you to teach in both undergrad and grad depts., work in research settings, government settings, private practice, etc. There are specific kinds of jobs that it might not help: such as an area focusing entirely on social psychology or developmental psychology.

One caveat. If you want to teach in a MA Counseling program that is either seeking or already obtained CACREP accreditation (counseling accreditation sponsored by the ACA), you will need a PhD in Counselor Education (which entitles you to work towards an LPC credential). This is a recent and troubling change (turf warfare with psychology).

Part of your work dream should answer whether or not you are looking to work in either a secular or faith environment. Now, you can change your mind but there will be some doors that are easier to open with secular degree and other doors that a Wheaton/Fuller/Regent degree will open more easily.

What areas of counseling/psychology most excite you?

Try to be creative here. Think more than just private practice, 50 minute hour. Who do you know who is doing what you would like to do? Find out where they got their education? Be bold, ask them (even if you do so by email) what they would recommend as an educational route to do the kind of work they do now.

Programs tend to have both a model of psychology (some are CBT others are more analytic) and a focus (specialties). Further programs tend to either be scientist focused or practitioner focused.

Many programs are generalist, but it is helpful to have a specialty. Child? Forensic? Neuropsych? Geropsych? Marriage & Family?

Look at what the professors are publishing at the schools you are thinking about attending. Anything there excite you? FYI, professors love those who are excited to help them with their research

PhD or PsyD?

There are some differences. Typically, the PhD student completes a very rigorous dissertation (has more coursework in research and stats) but has fewer practice hours (maybe 800 total) leading up to their yearlong pre-doctoral internship year.

PsyD students tend to have a less rigorous dissertation (though my PsyD program acted more like a PhD) but have far more practice hours under their belts (maybe 2000!).

PsyDs do get teaching jobs but less likely in undergrad programs because of old assumptions (i.e., PsyDs are practitioners and PhDs are scientists).

Secular vs. Christian programs?

The first question: what is your current theological/biblical literacy level? How well do you understand the depths and complexities of your faith? How well versed are you in the controversies surrounding Christianity, Psychology, biblical counseling, integration, etc.? Your answer will dictate how ready you are to jump into a PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology. If your faith is weak, then you may want to strengthen it in an MA program at a Seminary. Or do some reading on your own. Psychology is not just an art and science, but a philosophy. You want to know what philosophy, even religion, you are imbibing. Sometimes the glittering images of psychology cause students to neglect the source of the power of change.

Practical matter: Christian doctoral programs in Psychology tend to be a year longer (because of extra bible/theology courses). Being a graduate of these programs will not harm you in secular settings (usually) if the program is accredited by the APA.

Obviously, programs and schools have identity. You graduate from Harvard, you get an identity. You graduate from Fuller, you get an identity—fair or not.

In my experience, secular programs tend to have less issues about a student’s Christian faith than do quasi-Christian programs or those housed in catholic institutions. These programs have had more fundamentalist-liberal wars and so you find faculty more sensitive.

If a student has a strong theological base, I would probably go for a secular institution unless you want the Wheaton/Fuller credential to open Christian doors.

Counseling Psychology vs. Clinical Psychology programs?

Not much of a distinction here anymore. I think the clinical one is more valuable (my bias) but once you have the degree, no one explores your transcript.

Would you rank the Christian doctoral program?

No. Each one has their own strengths and liabilities. I would look at the professors at each and what they are writing/doing. Try to go learn from some professors you’ve come to respect. For example (and this is a limited sample. Some schools I haven’t really known much about)

Regent University (VA Beach): Mark Yarhouse, Jen Ripley and Bill Hathaway are topnotch Christian psychologists. With Mark you get the sexual ethics research as well as someone well-versed in Puritan writings. With Jen, you might get access to her and Ev Worthington’s work (forgiveness, couples, etc.). Of course Ev is at VA Commonwealth and so you might want to go right for him.

Wheaton: There are a number of great faculty there. But let me mention just three. Sally Schwer Canning is doing child and urban stuff. Bob Gregory is doing neuropsych stuff and William Struthers just published on porn and the male brain.

George Fox: At Wheaton I came to really respect Mark McMinn. He is now at George Fox (Oregon). He’s great to study under for psych testing and his integrative model. Plus, if you get in on his research team, he’ll teach you how to be a survey king or queen. He is a publishing machine!

Biola: Todd Hall and Jon Coe just published a key work called Psychology in the Spirit. It is going to be a significant work.

On-line vs. residential programs

Online programs only if they are APA accredited (psychology programs that is). You have to be a self-starter. These still get negative reactions from some of those in the position to hire you. In the PhD in counselor ed, both Regent and Liberty have programs with good quality eworlds.

Residential provides lots of time to interact with profs on a daily basis. There isn’t a way to really do this in the on-line programs (which tend to have lots of students in them!). You can get good peer relationships in on-line programs, sometimes even better than in person.

I’m sure I’ve left something out. What else should we consider? Of course, you should get your MA from Biblical Seminary. That way, you will be prepared to think Christianly, biblically, and yet able to think psychologically about the world. 😉


Filed under APA, biblical counseling, Biblical Seminary, christian counseling, christian psychology, Psychology

51 responses to “Considering a doctoral program?

  1. Scott Knapp

    Any thoughts on the usefulness of a PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision, in terms of simply enhancing a career in counseling? I know a few who have this degree, with LPCC-S credentials.

    • I did make a brief comment about that degree. It is the only degree that will allow you to teach in a CACREP accredited program. It does focus on the teaching and supervision aspects whereas many in clinical PhDs have NO coursework in the area of pedagogy. However, the amount of clinical experience and exposure to psychological assessment is wanting in that degree. In my degree I had about 4,000 hours of practice before my postdoc year. That can’t compare to what a PhD in counselor ed gets. I think, and I could be wrong, the internship at that level is about 600 hours.

  2. Ryan Morrison

    Do you know of any good online Marriage and Family Therapy MA programs out there?

    I am a self-starter and have flourished in online education (currently finishing up a BS in Christian Ministry with Crown College).


    • No, I don’t. Readers?
      I would be surprised a bit if there were some. MFT degrees are so much based on supervision and hands-on training. Face-to-face clinical work is the heart of the MFT model. But then, I’m not really up on those programs.

      • Ryan Morrison

        Thanks so much!

        You input is very comforting. I’m actually planning on Bethel University in Minnesota. Despite my best efforts at being thorough in my search for MFT programs, I’ve had a nagging feeling that I’m missing something.


      • Lance Flood

        Liberty offers a great online MFT program with just a few on campus intensives.

    • Try Northcentral University The program is COAMFTE-accredited.

  3. Carmella T

    I appreciated this discussion, as last year I was wrestling through many of these questions. Ultimately, what it came down to for me was:

    -the population I want to work with (co-occurring mental health and substance use disordered) makes me feel I need advanced training beyond my LPC

    -I do want to teach one day in a university setting

    -I want to be well-trained in CBT

    I therefore chose a holistic-but-secular APA accredited, CBT-oriented Psy.D. program (and a research team so that I gain sufficient research experience) and I am VERY happy with that decision 🙂 It is expensive, though- so it is important that the options are weigh’ed carefully.

  4. Abby

    Could you explain your thoughts on MSMFT route as opposed to the clinical psychology route and how that affects further pursing a PsyD or PhD?

    • I very much respect the MFTs I know. They tend to be fabulous clinicians. I don’t think the degree would hinder doctoral work later. However, LMFTs sometimes have less options when it comes to getting on insurance panels. Not fully sure why.

  5. A doctoral program in psychology is a lot of study and information, yet it does not necessarily help you become a better Christian Counselor. In fact, it sometimes has the opposite effect.

  6. Abby

    Coming back to this a year later and in the process of applying to graduate programs, I have one more question if I may – two of the most highly recognized Christian master’s programs I know of (Fuller and Wheaton) are not accredited by the APA or AAMFT. What does this mean long-term?

  7. Andrea

    @Ryan a great MFT program is at Christian Theological Seminary, it’s a solid Christian clinical program.

  8. For readers: has a great list of psychologists who study issues concerning religion. Not all of these psychologists are Christian, but they do concern themselves with religion, at least as a research topic.

  9. Emily

    I’m really wondering what you’re thoughts are on places like Rosemead and Fuller. They appear to be wonderful institutions but I have heard that students come out with $100,000+ worth of debt. Is that really worth it, or would it be just as well to get two separate degrees – one in psychology and one in theology. Doing my own research, I’ve discovered that to get a PsyD at Rosemead would cost me over $200,000 for 5 years. That includes tuition, miscellaneous fees, books, and the cost of housing in SoCal. I just can’t decide whether it’s worth it or not and I would love to know the thoughts of a Christian Psychologist on this.

    • Emily,
      You raise a very important and troubling question. Is it worth it to become a psychologist (or a Christian psychologist) if you leave with 100-200K of debt. Let me try to answer this a couple of ways. Look for a post in the next day or so!

      • Jason

        I was curious to a similar thing but more so the time and bachelors requirements to a PhD. If I am interested in pursuing a Christian psychology program (eventually PhD), what would I start for an undergraduate. What appropriate course degree would I need to get into the PhD? General psych, theology, or does the undergrad even necessarily have to relate to the PhD? Thanks.

      • Jason, time to a PhD is 4 years undergrad and 4-5 years PhD work if you go straight from a BA to a PhD program. If you are doing a PhD in clinical psychology you need either an undergrand in Psychology or at least a minimum of courses (most schools list these). I did not have a BA in psychology but I did have an MA in a counseling degree and so I was fine (but the MA adds 2 extra years). Having an undergrad in philosophy or theology is a good idea but will mean you probably then need to get an MA first in a counseling related field before you get admitted into a doctoral program.

      • PJ

        Very interested in your response to the “debt” question above. I’ve applied for Rosemead.

      • I wrote a blog about it, you can find it here.

  10. Mason

    In my opinion an MA in Counseling can get your foot in the door the quickest and with the least amount of debt. That is if counseling is what you want to do. I graduated from a seminary based program so I got a good balance of theology and psychology. Your post-grad is where you really learn the most. Oh and get in some Clinical Pastoral Eduction (CPE) if you can.

  11. Eric

    Dr. Phil,

    There are two things which I would like to put forth and I hope you can offer some input. I’m stuck between going for a MSW degree or PsyD. I’m drawn to the MSW degree because I have a heart for children, especially those kids who are less privileged than others. I’m drawn to the PsyD because I’m really interested in forensic psychology. The work that they do really captured my interest.

    I thought about going for the MSW and then if I really wanted to enter into forensic psyc then applying to a PsyD program later; however, a professor told me that I would be going the long route if I did that. She said if I know that I want to get into forensic psyc then I should just head straight for the PsyD. Here are my questions:

    1. To enter the forensic psych field, can one earn a general PsyD degree and that be sufficient or must one enter a PsyD program that has an emphasis in forensic psyc?

    2. If I obtained the PsyD, would I be able to do similar or the same work as a social worker with an MSW?

    3. How hard is it to maintain a biblical worldview while working in the secular counseling field? I know the secular world is extremely hostile to Christians and I have heard of Christians being thrown out of graduate programs for staying true to their convictions based on Scripture. To be honest, this is the main reason why I’m hesitant to enter a graduate program at all. I wonder whether I will be able to even keep a job if I don’t bow down to secular values.

    If you could offer some insight regarding the things I mentioned, I would truly appreciate it.

    • Eric, sorry for the delay. If you want to do forensic psychology, you should probably pursue the PsyD. But even then, make sure the program has a course in forensic and/or have internships that will put you in forensic settings (psychiatric hospitals, prisons). I would do some searching for forensic psychology programs or specializations. Harvard Med School has a forensic psychology internship. Division 41 in the APA is the law/psychology division. Check them out too. I took one class in my general psyd but then had experiences in my pre and post doc that enabled me to be ready for a forensic psych position (which I promptly turned down to come to Biblical Seminary).

      It is not hard at all to maintain your biblical worldview. It can be hard to be open about it with colleagues in a secular setting. The South and Midwest are easier places. Now, I went to a christian PsyD program so it wasn’t so hard. I think those getting thrown out are more likely to be those who decide to evangelize. I worked for 2 years in a secular setting. I saw my job not in evangelizing clients but in providing mercy ministry. Now, I didn’t want to do it forever, but it wasn’t that hard (though it was lonely). In forensic psych, the bigger issue is whether or not you have empirical warrant for your work.

  12. I have degrees in AB Psychology and Master in Management major in Educational Management. Presently I am working as a School Principal in a Christian school here in the Philippines. Am interested in your online doctoral course in counseling. Please advise. Thanks.

  13. Mike

    Phil, do you have any thoughts on Gordon-Conwell’s DMin with the professional counseling track? I’ve been accepted into the program. My only goal is to become a LPC with a private practice. Do you know of any alumni from the program? This is mostly a change of course for me. I’m currently a military chaplain with about 7.5 more years until I retire. By then I’ll have finished the degree and hopefully most of the requirements for licensure. I’m doing as much research as I can and happened to come across your site, which is superb!
    Best wishes,

    • Not really. Sorry. My perception (and that is ALL it is) is that it fits on the continuum side where the program is professionally oriented and that is the main focus. Some DMin programs are professionally oriented but maintain a strong theological bent. While others are professional programs that just happen to be taught in a seminary context. You can verify this by asking where they fit in the “5 views of psychology” book (IVP). Do they tend towards the “levels of explanation” approach or more towards the Christian Psychology approach?

  14. Dan

    I’m looking into getting a master’s in counseling. How much does the particular school matter? Assuming all schools I look at are CACREP certified, are they all probably going to be of comparable quality? Or might some schools be much better than others? Do things like school reputation matter (ie, would it be better to get my MA from a well-regarded school rather than a local college, even if the local college is CACREP accredited?)

    • Ultimately, you want to get your education from a place you respect and you believe will teach you quality work. Not every school is like that. Try not to make it only about costs. CACREP will mean that the school adheres to certain standards. I don’t think that means that the school teaches in a quality manner however. Yes, school reputation does matter. One might regard Harvard as a top school and get a job merely from the school on their vita while another might have gone to a small school and gotten excellent hands on training but since the school is unknown…they might get passed over. So, check out the school’s reputation…from alums and others in the know.

      • Dan

        Awesome, thanks for your advice! I think that helps to narrow it down for me quite a bit (there were a few schools that were more convenient to me and CACREP certified but that I felt ehh about).

        Right now, I’m split between a Christian school and a secular school. I went to a Christian undergrad and feel solid in my faith, so does your advice for Christian/secular Ph.D programs still apply (ie, you would recommend I go for the secular program?) Is one or another more likely to prepare me to be a better counselor, or does it just depend on what kind of reputation I want?

        Finally, one more question. I have Asperger’s and have had a lot of success in overcoming the social challenges of that condition (I even wrote an online social skills guide to help others, A big part of my desire to get my degree is to expand the work that I’m doing with Improve Your Social Skills – have the credentials I need to speak at Asperger’s conferences, run social skills workshops, etc. I think that I am a story of hope for Asperger’s, so I would like to have an impact beyond a clinical practice (although I am interested in a clinical practice as well.)

        Is there anything that I would want to look for in a counseling program that would better equip me to do this? I’ve found special ed programs that have Asperger’s/Autism focuses, but most counseling programs seem generalist. In honesty, I don’t necessarily need a focus on Asperger’s (I’ve lived Asperger’s!), but more a focus on social skills/relationships/interpersonal dynamics. I would be very grateful for any advice you had for me. Thanks!

  15. George Kocman

    Hello, Dr. Monroe:

    I came upon your site while looking at doctoral programs and am hoping you could give me your thoughts on my situation.

    I have been licensed as a psychologist here in Pennsylvania since 1993 after receiving a Master’s in counseling from Villanova. I have been working full time in the MH field since 1981. For the past ten years, I have been providing outpatient therapy in a large hospital-affiliated private practice.

    With the extensive experience I have, I am wondering if you are aware of any program that does not have an internship.

    Thank you for your response.

    George Kocman

    • George, I have not heard of one that doesn’t require an internship. Despite your being a psychologist, they will still want to have you do a doctoral level internship. I do know that PhDs in Counselor Education are shorter in duration. Not a full year of internship. 600 hours and not 2000. I suppose there are some non-clinical PhD programs like a PhD in history of Psychology. But, that may not be your interest.

      If you find one…let me know.


  16. srbanks


  17. Jim

    This is slightly unrelated but I’ll ask anyway. I have studied communication and conflict resolution and I have a strong desire to apply that in helping married couples. I really want to meet with couples to help them to restore their friendship and learn ways to deal with future conflicts. As you would expect, John Gottman’s work is therefore interesting to me. And while I am naturally gifted as a counselor, I hold only degrees in engineering, business and dispute resolution. And this is a mid-life career change for me. So it seems I need something to give me credibility to do therapy for pay… is that a master’s in MFT? Also, while I am a Christian, I feel the tools I have and want to use can be helpful to Christians and non-Christians alike. So I am stuck on 3 points: 1. Should I do MFT, or a program in Clinical psych with an emphasis in MFT?; 2. Does it have to be COAMFTE certified in order to get into loan forgiveness programs?; and 3. Secular or quasi-faith (like Abilene Christian or Pepperdine). I mean, if I go secular, will I miss out on what the faith community might know? And will I be lonely in a secular environment?

  18. I am currently a Senior in college and am looking at graduate schools. I am really interested in Christian Counseling in principle because I think any image of a person is incomplete without seeing them as meant for a relationship with God and yet I am strongly adverse to the sort of half-baked psychology that says that if a person just prays enough and reads enough scripture their lives will be rosy and perfect. Any advice for sorting through Christian Counseling programs and finding the ones that are well respected in the larger world of psychology and grounded in good literature and research as well as being theologically sound?

    • Amy, the best solution is to think about what kind of jobs/activities you want to be able to do once you finish your advanced degree. That will limit/shape your options. Christian programs that are licensed oriented at the doctoral level tend to be theologically lighter given the need to jump through the APA accreditation hoops. There are programs at the MA level, like my own, that do work toward licensure but as still theologically robust. These are often taught at seminaries.

    • Dan

      Amy — I’m considering the doctoral programs at both George Fox and Fuller. Both seem to have very strong clinical training and also a strong Christian grounding (and they have master’s level programs as well). They’re not the only schools out there that offer the combination of good psychology and serious Christian commitment, but they might be a good place to start your search.

  19. thomas

    Are there any fully funded PhD or PsyD programs from seminaries or schools that are conducting spiritual research in psychology?

  20. Phil,

    I really like your blog, mate. I really appreciate this post especially. I’d like to pick your brain over just a couple things– if possible. Both questions are strongly related.

    1. I was a late bloomer when it came to academics (I am 28 now). I really feel that I have found my home though…psychology and theology (a direction that seems to be developing very well). I will be finished with a BA from Trinity College in Christian Ministry in about two years. Is it a foolish pursuit to hunt down a PhD or PsyD program now as I am a few years older? Is my concern of ageism valid?

    2. My hope is to be bi-vocational, both as counselor and pastor (able to help in both arenas, and one [hopefully] pays the bills). Does a PhD or PsyD program make sense in the long term for someone that seems themselves as bi-vocational? Or should I just look for an MA? It looks like a PhD or PsyD opens up more opportunities to practice, to teach, etc. I feel like I have to gain some clarification as I have not found many bi-vocational pastors in the world of psychology. Your undergrad lets me think that you have thought about this avenue before.

    I know this is a lot. I hope these questions make sense! Any insight would be appreciated.

    • Timothy, I don’t think you are too old. I know there were several folks in their late 30s and older who were in my PsyD program. Older can be a plus rather than a minus. There aren’t many bi-vocational pastors out there who are in the world of psychology. Some, I know a few. I think you may want to consider: Do I primarily want to be a pastor who has psychology background and training or psychologist with pastoral training and capacities. Because they are such different identities and training models, you may want to think which one gets a bit more of the attention. For me it was psychology but it doesn’t have to be that way at all. But, here’s how that would matter. If your primary identity is pastor, then be sure to get the requisite training for that and then add an MA. If you want more clinical practice and teaching opportunities, then be sure to do the PhD and see theological training on the side.

  21. Karen McCarrell

    Does already having a master’s degree in social work ( MSW):
    1) shorten the course for the PhD in Psychology; and/or
    2) eliminate possible entrance exams (GRE)?

    • Every program is different but I imagine the answer is no to both. I had an MA going into my doctoral work but it didsn’t shorten my program. It did allow me to transfer a few courses that reduced the number of courses and costs but not the length.

  22. Christina

    Hi, I was wondering if you have any recommendations for Christian colleges that offer forensic psychology degrees?

  23. PEE

    Hey, I do realise this is an old post, but I was hoping to get some direction. Do you have resources/books to recommend for me to read up more on integrating Christianity with Clinical Psych for clinicians. Thank you in advance!

  24. Christy Lee

    Hello Dr. Monroe,

    Thank you for such a helpful post.

    I have a question – what characteristics would describe a Fuller identity?

    I’d greatly appreciate your response. Thank you!

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