What Is an Online Doctorate in Psychology Program?

Jul 26, 2021

What is an Online Doctorate in Psychology Program?

Psychology focuses on how humans engage and interact with each other in various environments. Psychologists observe individuals with the view of understanding how they interact with others and study their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. They may publish their findings in journals and research publications that others may use to test theories or administer treatments.

There are several branches of psychology, including:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • School psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Rehabilitation psychology

Online doctorate programs in psychology are flexible for students who are currently working or have other responsibilities such as family care. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that psychologists usually need a doctoral degree in psychology, although a master's degree is sufficient for some positions. Professionals who want to practice clinical psychology must have a license.

Why Should I Get an Online Doctorate in Psychology?

Online doctoral programs in psychology are for students who want to earn a degree while fulfilling additional responsibilities such as work or family obligations. When pursuing online programs students may complete their degree requirements faster and save money on on-campus dorm costs, commuting costs, and other fees. Online degrees also allow students to take classes at their own pace and from anywhere with a reliable internet connection. Online doctoral programs also give students the opportunity to take their degree through either the full-time or part-time study routes.

Students may choose from several specialties in psychology that put them in various career environments, such as hospitals, schools, clinics, and private practices. According to the BLS, there is an expected 3% growth rate increase from 2019 to 2029, for psychologists, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. The BLS also reports that graduates with a doctoral degree may have the best job opportunities in clinical, counseling, and school psychology positions. Job opportunities are expected to be on the rise for rehabilitation psychologists and those who specialize in working with the elderly.

What is the Difference Between a Ph.D. and a Psy.D. in Psychology?

Students can choose to pursue either a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). Students in a Ph.D. program generally take courses that emphasize research rather than practical work. Those wanting a practical career in psychology usually seek a Psy.D. Earning a Psy.D. may also take less time than earning a Ph.D as students can complete their online doctorate program in 4-6 years. Students taking an online Ph.D. program may take up to 7 years to complete their program, as it requires the completion of a research project Both programs may require students to take an additional internship year.

While both degrees are doctorates in psychology, certain jobs might stipulate that graduates have either a Psy.D. or Ph.D.. Students who are interested in conducting and publishing research during and after graduate school and who want to work in academia usually pursue a Ph.D. Whereas those who want to obtain licensure and practise psychology in various fields should pursue a Psy.D.

Admissions Requirements for Online Psychology Doctorate Programs

While admission requirements typically vary by program, most online psychology doctoral programs require a master's degree to be considered for admission. However, some programs may accept candidates with a bachelor's degree and experience in the field. Some programs may also only take students with a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 or higher. Some programs may also require scores from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or other entrance exams. Additionally, schools may also require letters of recommendation from professors or employers, personal essays, and in-person interviews. Applicants may also have to send a copy of their academic transcripts for consideration.

What Should I Expect From an Online Doctorate in Psychology?

Online doctorate programs in psychology range from 60 to 90 credits. The length of the program varies depending on many factors but may take up to 7 years to complete. Students who are transferring credits from other accredited universities or colleges may complete their programs at a faster rate.

Students can expect to take courses that cover the history and systems of psychology as well as the various factors that may impact human behavior. There are also specialized courses available at most institutions, such as psychopharmacology, which focuses on the effects of medication and chemical treatments used in different disorders.

How Long is an Online Doctoral Psychology Program?

Many online doctoral psychology programs may take up to seven years to complete. However, students completing a Psy.D. may finish their degree sooner than those in a Ph.D. program. The average completion time for a Psy.D. is 4-6 years. Most online psychology doctorate programs require students to complete fieldwork, an internship, a comprehensive exam and also complete a dissertation before graduating.

Students may also complete programs faster if they have transferrable credits from an accredited university. For example, if a student has completed a certification in behavioral science, they may be able to transfer those credits over.

Common Courses for Online Psychology Doctoral Programs

Courses for online psychology doctoral programs vary by school. Students pursuing a Psy.D. may take courses that are focused on clinical practice, while those in a Ph.D. program will take courses that emphasize research. Other courses may involve the exploration of topics such as the ethics of psychology or the principles that guide the proper use of the American Psychological Association (APA) citation system. Understanding APA citation is essential for graduates seeking to publish in scholarly journals. Students will also have to complete a doctoral dissertation. Students may also have to complete a clinical internship or supervised practicum. This allows students to show that they are able to apply the scientific method to research and investigate the causes of mental illnesses and treatments.

Ethics of Psychology

Ethics of psychology is an important focal point for students pursuing an online doctoral degree in psychology. These courses provide an in-depth understanding of ethical practices for psychologists. Students may examine the ethical standards of various institutions, including:

  • American Psychological Association
  • Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards
  • National Association of School Psychologists

Cognitive Development

Courses in cognitive development focus on reviewing the pros and cons of different paradigms that explain cognition. Courses typically focus on the cognitive ability of children, and how human thought and behavior evolve over a lifetime. Students may research the development of:

  • Vision
  • Attention
  • Language
  • Memory
  • Social Cognition
  • Problem-solving skills

After the completion of these courses, students may gain an in-depth understanding of research strategies and also gain experience in conducting analysis at a high level.


Neuroscience is concerned with the study of the brain and its impact on cognitive functions and behavior. Most students seeking an online doctorate in psychology will take a course in neuroscience. This course may introduce students to various aspects of neuroanatomy, histology, developmental neuroscience and more. Some courses may also feature a hands-on approach in a laboratory setting.


Many online psychology doctorate programs feature courses in psychopathology. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is typically reviewed extensively in these courses. Students review how culture, diversity, and ethics affect how mental disorders are treated. Additionally, students may learn different approaches to diagnosing and treating patients for various mental disorders.

Online Psychology Doctorate Degree Specializations

Online psychology doctorate degree programs often feature specializations in the field. When considering a specialization, students frequently think about their chosen career path and may select courses that deal with a certain age group or mental illness. Possible specializations include:

  • Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychologists assist courts by making decisions on various legal issues and cases. Psychologists specializing in forensics may work with various demographics, including criminals, families, children, and victims. Graduates will have to obtain licensure to practice as forensic psychologists. Ph.D. graduates may still find careers in research or forensic consulting.

  • School Psychology

Students specializing in school psychology focus on the biological, social, and cognitive factors that affect behavior and learning. They may also study different educational evaluation methods, intervention strategies, research procedures and more. Students seeking to specialize in school psychology are likely to obtain a Psy.D., as all states require that school psychologists be licensed.

  • Social Psychology

Students specializing in social psychology focus on how social interactions affect individuals. Students may take courses focusing on information analysis, research design, editorial reviewing, group and intergroup relations, and social and affective neuroscience.

  • Developmental Psychology

Courses in development psychology place particular focus on cognition and the mental development of children and adolescents. Unlike their clinical psychology counterparts, who have extensive training in assisting people with specific mental health concerns, developmental psychologists are more interested in understanding how people grow and change over their lifespan.

  • Behavioral Science

Students who wish to examine society and the different ways in which people interact may choose to specialize in behavioral science. These types of programs emphasize analytical and research skills. Students may take courses in social statistics, group dynamics, consumer behavior, and qualitative methods of analysis.

Doctoral Dissertation for Psychology

Most programs require students to complete and present a dissertation to graduate. Advice from the American Psychological Association (APA) suggests that students should start their dissertation work by identifying their research interests early in their program so that they can then align their coursework with that interest. The first step in any dissertation is picking a topic. Students who have completed a master's program frequently use their master's thesis as a starting point when considering a topic for the doctoral dissertation. Topics should be something the student finds interesting, but not one that the student is emotionally involved in. Students who have personal experience with mental illnesses such as depression should not focus their dissertation on depression.

After identifying the topic, students need to write a review of the literature in the area. This section typically includes:

  • A brief introduction
  • An introduction of key concepts
  • Review of existing literature

The third step in the dissertation writing process is to identify research questions that the dissertation research will seek to address. Students should also be able to defend their dissertation's importance and why it has not been studied previously. Both the problem statement and research questions are usually included in the introduction of the dissertation. A final step in the dissertation process is for students to present and defend their dissertation. While some programs may allow students to remotely present their dissertations, most require in-person presentations. Creating and writing a dissertation for psychology is extensive, exhaustive, and may take well over a year to complete.

How to Choose the Right Online Psychology Doctorate Program

There are various factors at play for students seeking a suitable, high-quality online psychology doctorate program. Students should consider the accessibility of different programs. Some programs may be entirely online, while others could have a hybrid format - so combining both online and in-person or on-campus components. Most online psychology doctorate programs have in-person requirements, such as fieldwork, practicum, and the dissertation. Students may have to travel to complete these requirements. Students who cannot meet on-campus requirements will have to consider these factors when deciding on schools.

Students may want to pursue a particular specialization within psychology. A student who already knows what their passion in psychology is should search for colleges and universities that provide a high-quality, accredited program in that area of interest. Focusing on which schools offer the coursework and specialization of your choice is a great way to narrow your research for an online doctoral program that best suits your interests.

Another consideration is a student's own level of education before applying for a doctorate program. While most programs require a master's degree in a related field, some programs do accept applicants with a bachelor's degree who have prior experience in the field. Tuition costs are another factor that can influence your decision about an online program. Costs can vary depending on the applicant's level of education, with those holding a master's degree typically spending less. Tuition costs for online psychology doctorate programs can range anywhere from $240 to $640 per credit hour.

Accreditation for Schools with a Psychology Doctorate Program

Accreditation status is an important consideration for students. Institutions in the United States receive accreditation from various agencies that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Accreditation is only given to programs that have a high-quality education, and it shows that the program meets the minimum requirements for education in that field. Accreditation is important for students in online psychology doctorate programs, as those in unaccredited programs may become ineligible to receive financial aid or obtain licensure to practice.

The main accrediting agency for psychology programs is the APA Commission on Accreditation (APA-CoA). The commission is recognized as the national accrediting authority for education and training in psychology. Other reputable agencies include:

  • Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools
  • Higher Learning Commission
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission

Students should be wary of accrediting agencies when searching for the right online psychology program. Many online universities list fraudulent accrediting agencies that appear reputable. If a school lists an agency that is not listed by the Department of Education, students should avoid that school.

Job Outlook for Psychology

Psychology is a broad field that encompasses many sub-fields and professional specializations. Graduates who want to become practising psychologists must have a doctoral degree in psychology, licensure, completed internships, and relevant experience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an average 3% growth rate from 2019 to 2029 for psychologists. Those who have a doctoral degree in an applied specialty typically have a greater job prospect. Availability for careers in psychology vary by specialty and level of education. Typically, those with a doctoral degree have an advantage over those with less education. According to the BLS the median annual wage of $82,180 in 2020, for psychologists, equates to an average hourly wage of $39.51 in 2020. Furthermore, job prospects for psychology positions are on the rise, with the BLS predicting an increase of 5,700 psychology positions from 2019 to 2029.

Organizational Consultant

Organizational consultants help improve the relationships between employees and management in the workplace. Organizational consultants are also frequently referred to as industrial-organizational psychologists. Typically, organizational consultants need only a master's degree, but those that want to train future psychologists will need a Ph.D. On the other hand, industrial-organizational psychologists have a projected job growth rate of 3% according to the BLS and a median annual salary of $96,270.

Clinical Psychologist

Clinical psychologists focus on evaluating, diagnosing, and treating patients for mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. In order to practice, clinical psychologists are required to have a license. The BLS reports an expected 3% growth rate from 2019 to 2029 for clinical psychologists. Additionally, students may also seek a career as a clinical psychiatrist. While clinical psychologists work with patients to identify personal issues and find healthy coping mechanisms, psychiatrists not only diagnose but are also able to prescribe medicinal treatments for mental health illnesses. Unlike clinical psychologists, becoming a psychiatrist also requires the completion of a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) program and a residency. The projected job growth for clinical psychiatrists from 2019 to 2019 is 12%, with a median annual salary of $217,100 in 2020.

School Psychologist

School psychologists work closely with students to manage their social, emotional and behavior problems as they relate to education. While most school psychologists work in K-12 schools, some do find work in colleges and universities. School psychologists work to identify children with learn difficulties and work with them. They frequently also work with parents and school personnel to create an efficient learning environment. School psychologists may also find careers in clinics, hospitals, and juvenile justice centers. The BLS reports a 3% job growth rate from 2019 to 2029, which is as fast as the average for other occupations. The median annual wage for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists in May 2020 was $79,820.

Social Worker

Social workers help people solve and cope with everyday problems. Graduates pursuing a career as a social worker may find jobs in a variety of settings, including clinics, schools, child welfare agencies, hospitals, and private practices.

The BLS projects that the employment of social workers will increase by 13% from 2019 to 2029, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. As of May 2020, the median annual wage was reported as $51,760 with the hourly wage was $24.88.

Financial Aid and Scholarships for Online Psychology Doctorate Programs

Online doctorate degree programs in psychology can be expensive, as per-credit costs can range from $240 to $640. For a 60-credit program, students can spend anywhere from $14,400 to $38,400 for courses alone. Students may also have to pay additional fees, such as equipment and technology fees, as well as pay for textbooks and travel expenses. There are various financing options available to students studying psychology.

Students may apply for federal financial aid using the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA). Graduate students may have fewer aid options than undergraduates but can still apply for scholarships and grants.

There are many scholarships available for students pursuing a doctorate in psychology. Some students may be eligible for The Dingwall Foundation Dissertation Fellowship in the Cognitive, Clinical and Neural Foundations of Language if they are completing their dissertation work in the area of language and brain variables. This scholarship is open to students who are busy completing the dissertation component of their program and also requires a nomination from the department chair.

There are a number of scholarships that use other criteria, such as academic merit, affiliations or demographics when considering a student's eligibility; for example, grade point average, ethnic minorities, and religious or military affiliations. Employers sometimes also provide funding assistance to employees pursuing graduate studies.

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