Should I Get a PhD in Psychology?

Should I Get a PhD in Psychology?As someone who has a PhD in psychology (from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor), I am often asked by other people whether it’s worth them pursuing the same degree. There’s no right or wrong answer, and only you can decide whether you want to spend the time and effort to get an advanced degree. However, I thought it might help people if I outlined some of the benefits and advantages of getting a PhD, as I see them based on my own experience.

Before I get started, keep in mind that PhD programs differ quite a bit between disciplines. If you’re thinking of getting a degree in engineering or English, your program might look a lot different from mine, so keep your grain of salt handy.

You might want to get a PhD in psychology if . . .

You want a job or career that requires a PhD. This one seems like a no-brainer, but not everyone thinks it through. In general, working as an academic in an R1 institution (that is, a tenure-track professor role that includes both teaching and research) will require a PhD. It’s possible to get a college teaching job at a community college or liberal arts school with a master’s degree, although my guess is that this is getting increasingly competitive as PhD programs graduate new doctors faster than the academic job market can bear. Likewise, it’s possible to work in academic research (particularly in a lab manager or coordinator role) without a PhD, but these roles are not plentiful in the social sciences.

East Hall in Ann Arbor, MI, the site of many hours of graduate school angst.
East Hall in Ann Arbor, MI, the site of many hours of graduate school angst.

If you are interested in counseling psychology, it may not be necessary to get a PhD. PhDs in clinical psychology who receive their license (through additional training and internships) are qualified to counsel patients, but so are social workers (LMSWs), psychiatrists (MDs), and many other types of professionals. I’d recommend the PhD for someone who wants to counsel patients but is also interested in conducting and consuming research on mental health and treatment.

You can also use a PhD in psychology in a number of non-academic fields. I work in a blended role where I conduct and apply research on motivation and behavior change to health technology. Other psychologists I know work in market research and consumer insights, human resources data analytics, product development, and strategy consulting. A PhD in psychology typically comes with strong research design and analysis skills that can be creatively applied in a number of fields, although you may need to do some work to help others see that connection.

You are comfortable with intellectual uncertainty. The more you know, the more you become aware of all you don’t know. A doctoral education is a fast way to figure out all of the many, many gaps in your knowledge. Being successful in graduate school requires getting comfortable with the idea that you will never know everything, that there is rarely an easy black-or-white answer to questions, and that your hardest work may not be in acquiring knowledge, but in sorting through it and organizing it. If you’re the type of person who loves puzzling through huge volumes of sometimes contradictory information, you will enjoy grad school more than someone who prefers just enough information to make a basically correct conclusion.

You love learning and sharing what you’ve learned. This is a corollary to being comfortable with shades of gray. A colleague of mine once told me he can recognize people who have PhDs by their outlook when presented with a problem. He said, they’re the ones who will dive into researching and reading and figuring out the problem and want to discuss it and think about it.

I took this photo in Niagara Falls, and my friend and I dubbed it "grad school."
I took this photo in Niagara Falls, and my friend and I dubbed it “grad school.”

You have a big but resilient ego. On the one hand, it’s hard to make it through grad school if you don’t believe in your own intellectual abilities. It’s especially important to have a healthy ego because grad school also consists of being constantly beaten down. That sounds fun, doesn’t it? But in all seriousness, the volume of work required, the depth of feedback given, and the level of competition encountered in grad school all wear down on you over time. Add to that the many rejections and set-backs that everyone encounters during grad school, including paper and conference rejections, grades or exam scores below goal, and funding crises, and it takes a resilient soul to make it through. And it takes a big ego to keep submitting the next paper, exam, or grant application after the last rejection.

This is not to imply that grad school will not also make you more resilient. It will. You will learn a lot of strategies for coping with tough days and nights, and you’ll find enduring friendship in the trenches.

Some cautions . . .

If you want to be rich, a PhD is not a quick win. You can definitely make a very nice living with a psychology PhD, in several different types of jobs. But grad school is expensive–even if you have a stipend to cover your costs, you will not be earning enough money to save, and you may additionally be acquiring loans. Because grad school living is so lean, I am glad I went right after my undergraduate, while I was still used to having no money (although I have friends who worked between undergrad and grad school and were glad to have some savings).

Hail to the Victors! The University of Michigan Diag in Ann Arbor
Hail to the Victors! The University of Michigan Diag in Ann Arbor

Many PhD programs include a master’s degree as part of their curriculum. I’ve met people who pursued a master’s degree as a way to test the waters for a PhD program. In general, I recommend against this. Many, if not all, PhD programs in psychology include a master’s degree as the conclusion of the first few years of coursework, and I’ve never heard of a program that lets someone skip those first few years based on a prior master’s. The people I know who tested the PhD waters by getting a master’s are now people with two master’s.

PhD programs take a while. My grad school program, like many psychology PhD programs, was approximately five years long and included two years of coursework toward the master’s along with ongoing research requirements and at least four semesters of undergraduate teaching. Students pursuing a clinical license also have to do an internship on top of these other requirements.

People will be weird to you if you get a PhD in psychology. First, if you get any PhD, some people will want to comment on your intelligence level (at least they assume it’s high!), which I find awkward. Second, if your PhD is in psychology, prepare for comments like:

  • “Do you know what I’m thinking right now?” (Answer: No, that’s psychic, not psychologist.)
  • “Are you psychoanalyzing me right now?” (Answer: No, I’m not that type of psychologist, but even if I were, I wouldn’t be doing my job for fun right now.)
  • “So you must know everything that’s wrong with me.” (Response: Well, I know you don’t really know what a psychologist does.)

Joking aside, I think the PhD can intimidate people at times, so be prepared for those reactions and ready to either use them to your advantage or alleviate them with humor and humility.

It’s up to you.

Like I said, I can’t tell anyone whether a PhD in psychology is right for them. The decision has to be one you own. Grad school is hard and long, but also filled with many adventures and pockets of joy. I am so glad that I went and earned my PhD. I wouldn’t have my career and the opportunities it provides if I hadn’t, and I would never have met many of the people who are the most important in my life. If you want to take on this onerous journey, you have to really want it; but if you do, I promise you’ll have some good times on the way.

Part of my grad school support group. Here we are at a conference, being all academic-like.
Part of my grad school support group. Here we are at a conference, being all academic-like.


4 thoughts on “Should I Get a PhD in Psychology?

  1. I’m in my last year of my undergrad in psych. In 27 and have 2 kids. I want to pursue a degree where I can do what I enjoy, and make money. I’m worried about another 7 years in school for a PhD and was told there isn’t much for me with a masters in clinical psychology. I had looked into LCSW, but was not sure if I would be content selling short my dream/goal. Can I counsel, and still do research with a masters? Or am I better with an LCSW?

    1. Hi David-

      Admittedly, clinical practice is not my area of expertise. However, I do know people who have counseled with an MA and I also know several people with LCSWs. Both seem like good options if you’re interested in the clinical piece.

      I’m not sure about the research part–I’d imagine that depends on where you end up working as a counselor. In a university or health system setting, it seems to me that should be possible. The PhD does make research more feasible as it sets you up to run a lab (assuming you go into academia or a research-focused company).

      I was very influenced by the idea that even if something takes a long time, that time will still pass and at the end of it you could have done the thing or not. There have been a few times it’s helped me make choices that seem like they take a lot of time and commitment.

      I’m interested in what you decide! I am sure you will find a way to do what makes you happy while making money.

  2. Hi Amy! Thank you so much for your posts. I’ve been STRUGGLING with the decision of whether or not to apply to graduate school for a PhD in Social Psychology. To be frank, I don’t feel qualified to apply and I’m unsure if my reasons for wanting to go to graduate school are good ones. I’m no longer an undergrad student so opportunities to work in a lab has been impossible without at least a Master’s.

    A little bit about me: I graduated from undergrad in 2015. I did work as a research assistant for a couple of months, but I mainly invested my time working full-time to pay for school. I liked working in a lab but it was in Human Development & Nutrition, so I often found myself watching the dynamics and social interactions between the family members rather than watching what I was tasked to focus on (whoops). I graduated with decent grades (3.75) with two majors (Communication & Psychology) and a minor (Latin – I love languages). I have a lot of supervising and training work experience from my job, and I would like to continue working in a training/educational capacity (so not really interested in being in academia).

    The reason I want to study Social Psychology at the Doctoral level is because I have SO many questions on topics like resilience & life stories. As a trainer & supervisor, I would witness people crumble and thrive in the face of obstacles and (as a person who has the tendency to crumble) I would wonder: “What do resilient people do differently? How can the way we view our life stories change how resilient we are in the face of life challenges? What about in the context of training for a new position? How can programs be created to take into account differing personalities and stories?” Another reason is because I’ve read so many personal development books but I couldn’t help but think: “This is nice but show me the research behind it. I want to see it tested and understand why it works.” Not really sure if those are good enough reasons to apply.

    Overall, I want to be able to take research on resilience and make it more applicable and accessible. I want to create workshops & train people on resilience & life stories (possibly do something similar to life coaching), but I’m not sure if that’s a good enough reason to apply or if I should probably go about it through another route.

    I apologize for the long comment, but you’re website has been the only helpful website I have found on this topic!

    1. Hi Liz-

      Thank you for the kind comments!

      As for applying–it can’t hurt to look at a few programs and see if you can’t find one that feels like a good fit. Having served on the admissions committee while in grad school (we were all required to give a year in service), I can tell you that your passion and curiosity will matter. Maybe you can find a few names of professors or grad students at schools that interest you working on resilience and grit and reach out to them for an informational interview (you may have better luck with grad students).

      The other thing you could try to do is find a non-academic research job that lets you explore your questions. Agencies are a good place to look. Many big companies are also bringing behavior change teams in-house.

      I’d love to know what you end up doing!


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