Masters vs. PsyD vs. PhD in Clinical or Counseling Psychology

There are very big differences between these three training routes. One commonality is that they can all lead to a career working directly with patients. However, aside from this commonality they differ widely.

General Resources:

  • The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies has a video that explains the differences between a PhD vs PsyD.
  • We recommend reading Chapter 2 “Choosing the PhD or PsyD program” in the Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology. This book, written by Michael A. Sayette (a faculty member at Pitt!), and John C. Norcross (University of Scranton) provides much more details than we can go into here. You can buy this book online, and there is also a copy in Pitt’s Psych Dept. advising office, and if you aren’t a student at Pitt, your advising office may have a copy as well. 
  • We also recommend watching the videos about psychology careers on that explain many different psychology careers. 
  • In this video Dr. Julie Quimby explains the differences between PsyD vs. PhDs. 

Emphasis on Research

PhD programs tend to be fairly focused on research, whereas PsyD programs tend to be less focused on research and more centered on direct clinical service provision. (Masters level programs tend to involve no or minimal research.) However, there is variation and you should look at each program individually to see where it falls on the research spectrum - the book mentioned in the prior paragraph can help.

One exception is that a minority of accredited Psychology PhD programs offer a focus on qualitative rather than quantitative research, and may emphasize clinical skill development and intellectual scholarship grounded in psychological and philosophical literature over the production of original quantitative studies. Graduates of these programs who choose to stay in academia will be good fits for other programs that share a similar emphasis on humanistic psychology. You can learn more about humanistic psychology from APA’s division 32, and you can learn more about psychoanalysis from APA’s division 39. You can also learn where a PhD program falls in terms of their focus on research versus practice from the program’s online description. Programs that are heavily research-focused may describe themselves as “clinical science” programs, whereas those that balance research and practice training may describe themselves as espousing a “scientist-practitioner” model of training.  On the practice end of the continuum, APA-accredited PsyD programs will often refer to themselves as espousing a “practitioner scholar” model of training, which will include some research training and independent dissertation research (often in the qualitative domain) along with a heavy focus on practice.

Our overall advice is that it is very helpful to try to clarify your level of interest in research before applying to and committing to a PhD program. Doing research as an undergrad, and potentially for a few years after college, will help with this. Surely there are many people who get a PhD in clinical psychology who eventually realize that they don’t want to go into a career in research. There are also some people who aren’t sure about how much they like research and find out in a PhD program that they like it more than they expected. However, it is helpful to try to learn about your level of interest in research before making a major life commitment to a graduate program.

If you know you are not interested in research, you should seriously consider whether a PhD program is right for you for the following reasons:

  • In the application process most schools will be screening applicants for their promise in doing research. So it will be hard to feign interest.
  • During graduate school the majority of your training will be to do research. If you do not like research, a doctoral degree is a long-term commitment to a challenging program, and so doing something you don't enjoy for much of that time will likely feel very taxing.
  • At many schools there will be implicit pressure if not explicit pressure to pursue a research-oriented career. (This is not something we condone, but will happen at many places.) If you do not want to go into research, this can feel ostracising and make you feel like you are making the ‘wrong’ choice for your career.


On the practical side, PhD programs from not-for-profit universities almost usually pay your tuition and also a salary through available ‘assistantship’ positions (though the amount of coverage and stipend varies widely, and there may be other fees). In contrast, PsyD programs tend to have less funding for students. Masters programs typically expect students to pay for tuition. Caution is in order, however, in evaluating programs from for-profit institutions and online programs, as these degrees can be costly and often do not provide you with the training needed to pursue future research or practice work.

A natural question that some students ask is why not just do a PhD in clinical psychology because it seems like a better deal? To answer this question, please see the section above on why it is probably not a good idea to apply for PhD programs if you know you are not interested in research.


Comparisons of Masters, PsyD, and PhD

This table provides a comparison of these three different sorts of programs.


Masters programs in

      Social work

      Counseling (not Counseling Psychology)

      Marriage and Family Therapy

      School Psychology


This does not include MA/MS in General or Experimental Psychology.


PhD in Clinical or Counseling Psychology


Some Masters and PsyD programs are housed in nonprofit universities. However, some are housed in for-profit professional schools. Though these may sometimes call themselves “universities”, they may offer only a few professional degrees.

PhD programs are usually (though not always) housed in non-profit university settings. These will usually be housed in a psychology department at a university, or sometimes there are education psychology or counseling psychology PhD programs in schools of education. You may sometimes see psychology PhD programs as part of Psychiatry departments in schools of medicine.


There are a range of programs of varying degrees of quality. It is important to find out about the quality of the program and success of alumni getting jobs. 

There are many high quality programs affiliated with research universities.

Accreditation and Licensure

Some are and some are not accredited. It is better to go to an accredited program and you should make sure that the program actually sets you up to be eligible for state licensure.  For PsyD programs, look for those accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).

PhD programs should all be accredited with the American Psychological Association.

Is a clinical internship necessary to provide clinical practice?

No - masters students do not do the same sort of clinical internship that PsyD and PhD students need to do. However, often masters students complete internships or practicums as part of their course requirements. Additionally they need to work  under the supervision of a licenced professional prior to being eligible to practice on their own (year and hours requirements for eligibility depend on state guidelines).

Yes. However, students from PsyD programs have lower success rates of getting internships, though this also depends considerably on whether the program is accredited. Additionally, for licensure in most states, some level (often 1-2 years) of supervised clinical practice is needed post-degree to be eligible to apply for licensure.  

Yes. Students graduating from PhD programs have high success rates of getting internships.  Additionally, for licensure in most states, some level (often 1-2 years) of supervised clinical practice is needed post-degree to be eligible to apply for licensure.  


2-3 years (plus additional time to obtain licensure)

4-5 years (plus additional time to obtain licensure)

5-6 years (plus additional time to obtain licensure)

Amount of Research Training

There is limited time dedicated to topics related to research. Time is primarily spent on learning about the helping profession, conducting therapy, and content knowledge required to pass state exams.

The amount of time doing research can vary by the program though usually considerably less than in a PhD. Instead the time is spent mostly in classes and learning to do clinical work. Though a dissertation is required, it may be qualitative in nature and/or include smaller sample size projects or more applied research.

The majority of time in the program is spent doing research. There is also a lot of coursework and considerable time learning to do clinical work. Advancing in the program involves multiple steps of original research including a master’s thesis and a dissertation.


Usually you pay tuition and living expenses. You may need to take out loans. However, many of these programs offer evening courses and the option of full or part-time study.

Usually you pay most if not all of the tuition and living expenses, though some PsyD programs may provide funding opportunities. You may need to take out loans. A PsyD is often more expensive than a masters level degree. Usually these programs require full-time study, though some programs may provide evening coursework for working students.

Usually tuition and salary are paid by the university. Fewer students need to take out loans, but this varies by program and location depending on amount of stipend and cost of living. These programs usually require full-time study.


You can do clinical practice.

You can do clinical practice and you can also teach in PsyD programs. It is rare to enter a research-focused career, or to teach at the BA or PhD level.

All paths are open. You can do research, teach for BA and PhD programs, and do clinical practice.

How Competitive

Less competitive and varies by program.

Less competitive and varies by program.

Highly Competitive.