Financial questions about becoming a Christian psychologist

Recently, I received a  blog comment to an post I wrote a year ago about the decision process for those thinking about pursuing doctoral programs in psychology. You can read that old post here. In response, Emily asked,

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’s question is very important. Much of the time, we answer questions about doctoral training by discussing career goals, philosophy of education, and theological training. However, it is a huge oversight to ignore the high cost of a doctorate in clinical psychology. So, I want to respond to the issue of economics by raising a few questions for the person considering doctoral education.

What is your desired career outcome? Is it necessary to have a doctorate?

Wait, this doesn’t sound like an economics question, right? Well, if you are thinking about taking on a sizable debt then you ought to consider whether or not you absolutely need to do it. If you want to be a professor in a University, then you’d better be looking for a PhD (probably over a PsyD which tends to cost more). If you want to counsel people, you might not need a PhD or PsyD. You might be fine with a Masters’ degree and really good supervision by a doctoral level psychologist. If you really want the extra years of training and the possiblity of supervising others, then maybe the doctorate is right for you. If you don’t know if you need a doctorate for what you want to do, then find out first before you take on the debt load.

Can I find a cheaper PhD/PsyD program?

Some of the Christian programs tend to be longer and therefore more costly. The reason is that these programs believe (rightly so) that theological training is essential. While I am a proponent of an integrated (theological and psychological training), you may be able to find cheaper theological training and mentoring in another format while completing a secular (and shorter) degree program in clinical psychology. It is possible that a seminary degree or certificate in theological or biblical studies will provide you want you need. Or, you may be able to befriend a well-trained pastor or counselor who will mentor you for free or for a meal and and coffee. The question you need to evaluate is whether you want theological competency or a degree to show up on your vita? Do you need to get the official “blessing” of a degree to get a job?  Are you prepared to complete a secular based psychology degree and confident that your value system will remain intact? If not, you could undertake some graduate training in theology first and then complete your doctoral training elsewhere.

What is the likelihood you can pay off your school debt quickly?

Will you be able to secure a job that pays well enough to pay off your debt, pay your living expenses and/or purchase a house at the same time? Are you wanting to be a missionary psychologist with a 200K debt? Do you know what the going salary is for individuals working in the field you want to enter? You should check out for some very helpful data (search their site for “salary” and check out the information) such as this link or this one on the current debt load and salaries of the field.  Some psychology grads have been able to land jobs that enable them to pay off federal loans in an abbreviated fashion in return for their years of service in an underserved population.

One way that students reduce their debt is by (a) marrying someone rich (just kidding…though I was married to someone able to command a great salary), (b) working full-time while going to school full-time, (c) reducing expenses by living in a communal setting, or (d) getting work study for tuition reduction. Options A and D may be limited. Option B is possible but may drive you insane as you do it.

Finally, do you have family/friends who want to give to your educational needs?

I know of a student who held a dinner for important friends/family/church members in the church basement. After the meal, he made a presentation to all about his educational dreams and desire for training. He asked them to give…and they did. I imagine there might be some creative ways for people to give and get a tax credit for it. If what you want to do is important and will fill a void…someone might be willing to help fund you. Friends? Family? Church? Employer?

I was blessed by being able to get through a 5 year (4 years of coursework and 1 year postdoc year) program with no debt at all. We lived very frugally. My wife had a great job. We received some inheritance. I worked a couple of different part-time jobs. Somehow, we survived for a year of postdoc life with a newborn (adopted even! Thank goodness for adoption tax credits) on about 11,000 dollars of salary. The Lord provided. The degree was absolutely essential for what I wanted to do.

If you are thinking about this kind of major decision. Pray. Ask for those you trust to offer their advice and to pray with you for an open door.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling skills, Psychology, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Financial questions about becoming a Christian psychologist

  1. Phil,
    Thank you for addressing this question. I think this is one of the great unspokens with regard to training in psychology. I probably lean fairly conservatively on this issue but I would say a person is unwise to accrue 200K in debt to become a psychologist of any stripe. Your question of “what do you want to do?” is an important one and another that does not get asked enough either.

    I applied at Rosemead and was accepted, however, I declined the offer, opting instead for a master’s degree at about 1/6th the cost. After completing my master’s degree, I applied, and was accepted, into a counseling psychology program in a research 1 institution. By God’s grace, my mentor was an evangelical Christian. However, I think by going to a secular institution, I was doubly cautious about holding fast to my faith (and my marriage, but that is a story for another time) because I knew of the dangers of being a secular program. I have unfortunately run into grads from some of the Christian programs who have abandoned their faith, not so much because of the psychology, but because of the liberal theology that is presented. But I digress.

    The options you present are good ones. However, I would also encourage your readers to consider a Research 1 program–the training will be top notch and it will cost much, much less.

    • Jason, excellent points. I concur, 200K is too much unless you are going to have a debt forgiveness program or you will be a neurosurgeon. For the sake of readers….describe a research 1` program.


      • One of my mentors once described the research 1 university as a school that has a NCAA Division 1 football team, but that probably doesn’t capture it entirely. Rather, it tends to be schools that are engaged in great deal of research across multiple specialties. This is the brief classification from Wikipedia (I learned to use Wikipedia in grad school–j/k):
        Offer a full range of baccalaureate programs
        Are committed to graduate education through the doctorate
        Give high priority to research
        Award 50 or more doctoral degrees each year
        Receive annually $40 million or more in federal support

        Generally there are millions of dollars (or more) in research taking place every year. They may, or may not, have an associated medical school. One of the advantages is access to top notch people in many disciplines. I took my statistics courses from the people that design and maintain the ACT. I also was able to take neuroanatomy in the medical school with the medical students. Another advantage is that there are often well funded research or teaching assistantships. My first 3 years, I had an internship at a prison and my last 2 on campus, I was a research assistant in the department of psychiatry at the hospital.

        I do not want to discount your call for theological training. I did not get that during grad school, though I was involved with a great church. I have been spending more time in the past several years honing that side of my training, though as a neuropsychologist, it is less often an issue in the foreground.

        As an aside, other options people may want to look into are programs like becoming a nurse practitioner.

  2. As an addition, when I mention the Nurse Practitioner program, they would also want to get training in counseling.

  3. Emily

    It’s me again. First, I want to thank you so much for answering my question and taking the time to do so in depth! That was awesome! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. Now, I have another question. 🙂

    Recently, I feel lead to be a minister and psychologist. I’m not really sure if that’s even possible, but I’m only 17. I still have time. I am finishing up my A.A. this year and I really want to know what your thoughts are on having ministry be a not-so-side job. When answering this could you keep in mind that I hope to start this church and ministry with whomever my husband may be. So, let’s pretend that everything that is conditional works out (i.e. I marry the guy that I’m dating now who is earning his B.A. in youth ministry, right now and who wants to start this church with me, and that we have the money to start the church). Do you think it’s possible? Also, would it be better if, in this situation, I work as a private practice psychologist or for a company?

    Thank you so, so, so much for all of your time. 🙂

  4. I’ve spent months thinking, researching, and talking to several people about counseling and theology in general. I just thought I’d offer some thoughts in addition to those already mentioned.

    I think Dr. Phil made a great point as to whether one wants/needs to have a theology degree on his vita. One should really refelct on the reasons why he needs it there and if those reasons are legitimate. I spoke with a man who earned 2 MAs, a ThM and a PhD and he advised me to simply do guided self study. That is, find someone who is knowledgable in theology, Bible, etc. and ask them to suggest books for you to read. I have learned a lot through doing this.

    There are also unaccreditted seminaries out there which may be a great option for someone who just wants to learn and doesn’t plan on using the degree to become a professor at Yale, Princeton or some other well-known school. Columbia Evangelical Seminary offers bachelor, master and doctorates in biblical fields. Some might think because the seminary is unaccreditted that it’s a scam or something as such; however, CES offers valid reasons for its non-accredittation and its founder has even written a book on what accredittation is.

    Finally, I think Dr. Phil’s advice on really thinking about what one ultimately wants to do is vital for whether or not one should pursue a doctorate in any field. It would be a waste of a lot of time and money to obtain all of that training only to discover that it’s not really where you want to be, nor what you truly want to do. First, figure out where you want to go then take the necessary steps in order to arrive there. Hope this helps someone.

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