Hi! And welcome to The Psychology PhD, a podcast developed by grad students here in the Columbia University psychology department where we discuss psych-focused graduate programs. I’m Monica Thieu, and I’m a rising 5th year student in Columbia’s psychology PhD program. This is the very first episode of our very first season, so let me take a minute to tell you a bit about this series. The purpose of The Psychology PhD podcast is to provide you with some insight into graduate studies in psychology, from applying to programs to learning about day-to-day life as a grad student. In this first season, we’ll focus on the application process. We’ll begin with an introduction to the psychology PhD, which will then be followed by more specific videos on all aspects of the application process, from getting organized through developing your application materials, and preparing for program interviews.
In today’s episode, we’ll discuss 3 main topics. First, what is a PhD in psychology? Second, what differentiates a psych PhD from other graduate degrees you could do in psychology? And, finally, what does a day in the life of a PhD student look like?
First, let’s discuss what a PhD actually is and what you do during a PhD. A PhD stands for a Doctorate in Philosophy. You can obtain a PhD in a multitude of subjects, and there are some similarities and some differences between the PhD process in different disciplines. Today, though, we’ll stick to talking about the norms of a psychology PhD here in this series. A PhD in experimental psychology is typically designed to be five years long. For people pursuing a clinical PhD, six years is more the norm, as these students have to do a clinical internship year after they finish the academic portion of their program. Remember that this is just an estimate and, in both cases, some people take longer to finish.
The focus of a PhD is on your independent research, as opposed to class work, which makes this degree distinct from a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. In general, there tend to be about four major components of a PhD: first, your independent research projects; then, class requirements or opportunities; third, teaching assistant requirements or opportunities; and finally, service requirements for the university.
The actual requirements of each program vary a lot from university to university and are something to pay a lot of attention to when looking into programs. Get clear on your priorities! For example, do you prefer more teaching or less? Taking more courses or fewer? You can find a program whose requirements line up with your own training goals.
A huge perk of obtaining a PhD is that a lot of programs fund you; that is, your tuition and classes are completely comped, and you are also given a living stipend. The stipend can range drastically. For example, some programs might give you $12–15k a year, whereas others may exceed $40k a year. However, be sure to keep in mind the local cost of living, as big cities like here in New York can be far more expensive than small towns! It is also the case that not all programs will fund you, so you’ll want to keep that in mind: whether you’re willing to pay for a PhD or not. And lastly, pay attention to whether a program offers 9- or 12-month funding. Some programs only offer funding during the “school year” and require that you obtain your own funding for the summer.
If you’re interested enough in psychology PhD programs to be listening to this podcast, you may also be considering other kinds of graduate programs in psychology. In this next segment, we’ll compare and contrast a few different kinds of psych-focused grad programs.
First, let’s talk briefly about the different kinds of PhDs within psychology. Generally, PhD programs in psychology will tend to fall in two camps: experimental and clinical or counseling. A quick note: although clinical and counseling programs are different, they are much more similar to each other than they are to experimental PhD programs, so we will discuss them together under the “clinical” label today.
The biggest distinction between experimental PhD programs and clinical or counseling PhD programs is the programs’ focus. Experimental programs tend to focus solely on research and don’t provide clinical training. As a result, these programs are best suited for people who want to become researchers or professors. In contrast, clinical and counseling programs focus on both research and either clinical or counseling practice, respectively. If you are interested in research but also are interested in working as a practicing psychologist with patients in the future, a clinical or counseling program will train you for such a career.
And given that clinical and counseling PhD programs include this additional focus on practice, they tend to take approximately a year longer than experimental PhD programs. This is primarily due to the year-long internship that we briefly mentioned earlier, but clinical and counseling PhD students are also required to spend time doing clinical training during the first five years of their program as well. As a result, whereas experimental PhD programs tend to take about five years, clinical and counseling PhD programs tend to take about six years.
Finally, let’s talk funding. Both experimental and clinical or counseling PhD programs are often funded, so in most programs, you should not need to pay tuition, and you should receive a stipend to help cover your cost of living. So, this is one dimension on which these degrees do not differ!
So now that we’ve covered the distinctions between experimental and clinical PhD programs, let’s turn our attention to the differences between the PhD in psychology versus another degree, the PsyD.
As you might have guessed by the Ds at the end of these degree abbreviations, both are doctorate degrees. As we mentioned earlier, a person who earns a psych PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy in psychology. In contrast, a person who earns a PsyD is a Doctor of Psychology. These tiny differences in naming aren’t very helpful in understanding how the degrees differ, though.
So now, let’s cover a few key distinctions between PhDs and PsyDs.
The first distinction is the primary focus of the program. As we mentioned earlier, regardless of whether it’s an experimental, clinical, or counseling PhD, PhD programs tend to focus heavily on research. And, on top of this, clinical and counseling PhD programs include practical training. In contrast, PsyDs tend to focus only on practice, without an emphasis on research. As a result, PsyD programs may be a good fit for people who know that they want to work with clients full-time, without also conducting research.
And because of this sole focus on practice as a PsyD, those programs are often a bit shorter than clinical or counseling PhD programs, and last 4-6 years on average.
Finally, an important distinction between PhD and PsyD programs is funding. So, whereas most PhD programs in psychology, whether experimental, clinical or counseling focused, tend to be fully funded, PsyD programs tend not to be funded at all. This relates to how the major components of a PhD differ from those of a PsyD. In a PhD, your research and teaching work is conducted on behalf of the university, so your funding compensates you for that work. A PsyD doesn’t tend to involve these responsibilities, so as a result most PsyD programs aren’t funded. This means that if you pursue a PsyD program, it is likely that you will need to pay your own tuition and you will not receive any kind of stipend to help you cover your cost of living. So, as you might imagine, this is a very important trade-off to keep in mind as you are considering programs.
Now that we’ve covered different kinds of doctoral programs in psychology, let’s quickly discuss how master’s programs in psychology differ from PhDs programs. Before we dive into these distinctions, keep in mind that we’re focusing on terminal master’s programs in psychology here—that is, master’s programs that aren’t on your way in another program like a PhD. There are other kinds of master’s programs that may be worth considering for anyone interested in practice (for example, a Master’s in Social Work) but we won’t be covering those in this episode.
First, let’s review the focus of each program. As I mentioned before, PhD programs tend to focus heavily on research, with an added focus on practice in clinical and counseling programs. In contrast, master’s programs in psychology tend to focus heavily on coursework, although you will get some exposure to research. As a result, while master’s programs will often provide people with a solid background in the discipline, this program alone is neither sufficient to become a university professor nor to become a practicing psychologist. Some people find a master’s in psychology to be a helpful stepping stone to more advanced degrees in the discipline; however, keep in mind that PhD programs also include coursework—and it’s often just as much as you would complete in a master’s program.
Furthermore, many PhD programs (like ours) will award one or more non-terminal master’s degrees to PhD students on their way toward achieving their doctorate. So, if you are certain that you want to pursue a PhD, you may find it to be more efficient and cost-effective to simply earn a master’s degree along the way, rather than pursuing a separate, terminal master’s program. With this said, some PhD students do say that pursuing a terminal master’s before starting their PhD was helpful for them given specific personal circumstances.
If you do decide to pursue a master’s program, you will find that it lasts 1-2 years, as compared to the 5-6 years spent in a PhD program. However, keep in mind that even if you already have a master’s degree when you enter a PhD program, you typically will not be able to apply the coursework from your master’s to your PhD to shorten your time spent in the program. So, if you do eventually pursue both, this time can be a bit redundant.
Finally, let’s talk about funding. While PhD programs in psychology, as I said before, tend to be fully funded, master’s programs tend not to be funded at all, again, because they often don’t involve the level of research and teaching required in a PhD. This means that if you pursue a master’s program, it’s likely that you will need to pay your own tuition and you won’t receive any kind of stipend to help you cover your cost of living, just like a PsyD.
Now that we’ve wrapped up our overview of the different types of graduate programs in psychology, let’s briefly talk about the factors you might consider when determining if pursuing a PhD in experimental psychology is a good fit for you. For the rest of this episode and series, when I say “psychology PhD” I’m specifically referring to an experimental psychology PhD, as this is the kind of PhD program that I am currently in and that I can speak to.
First, as a student in an experimental psych PhD program, you will spend a big portion of your days thinking deeply about research questions that fascinate you, and then designing and conducting studies to answer them. If you’re thinking, “I can’t imagine a better way to spend my time than that!” then a PhD program could be a great fit for you.
Second, although some people decide to pursue a PhD because they find it personally fascinating, others choose to do so because pursuing a PhD allows them to have a positive impact on their community—both by researching topics that could one day contribute to making their community a better place, and by mentoring others from their community (for example, by supervising an undergraduate’s independent research).
Third, PhD programs unlock certain career pathways that wouldn’t otherwise be available—particularly, tenure-track faculty positions at universities. However, full disclosure: these positions are highly competitive and can be extremely difficult to come by. For instance, between 2005 and 2009, there were only enough open professorships to employ 16% of the new PhDs produced by U.S. universities during those years. It’s a really unfortunate reality, but it is an important one to keep in mind!
It’s also important to remember that although certain career pathways are limited to people with PhDs, it’s not needed for many others—for example, if you wanted to be a therapist, or a marketing researcher, or a high school psychology teacher, you don’t need a PhD to do any of those jobs, although you can do them all with a PhD. So, we do recommend that you do some research to confirm if a PhD is needed for your desired career.
Next, succeeding as a PhD student does require a lot of self-motivation. And you’ll need to keep that motivation up for a long time—five years or more.
However, although this kind of independent self-motivation is important, this does not mean that PhD students only work alone! In most labs, there are a lot of opportunities for collaboration with cool, brilliant people who are interested in the same topics that you are.
Furthermore, PhD programs involve unique mentoring relationships that are different from those typically found in industry. Your advisor will mentor you throughout the years spent in your program, and you will also have the opportunity to mentor undergraduate students conducting their own research projects.
And, finally, unlike graduate programs like master’s and PsyDs, you get paid! Finances matter for many of us, including myself, and this is a huge benefit. I personally would not be able to do a PhD without being funded. However, it’s worth noting that this pay typically won’t be as much as you would be making if those same years were spent pursuing a career in business.
Now let’s take a look at what a day in the life of a PhD student typically looks like. As we mentioned earlier, there are normally four main components of a PhD, being your independent research, classes you take, classes you TA for or teach, and then any other departmental services or jobs that you may have. For an idea of what a student’s week-to-week schedule might look like when they’re doing all four of these things at once, in the video version of this podcast episode, I’ve shared a snapshot of the weekly calendar from a 2nd year student in our program last semester.
So in light blue you’ll see the classes that they were taking this semester as well as a four-part workshop series they were doing for a teaching development program, which took up about nine hours of their week.
In darker blue are the three weekly lab meetings they attended that semester, which in total took another four hours.
In green are some standing weekly meetings that the student had with their advisor and their research assistants, as well as a workshop series that they ran and a Diversity and Inclusion working group that they are a part of. That’s altogether about four to five hours each week.
In pink is the class for which they were working as a teaching assistant and the office hours that they held for that class: another five hours a week. Then, in orange are working meetings that they had for a science equity program that they are developing alongside other Columbia faculty, which took about three hours a week.
And, finally, you can’t see it on the calendar, but between all of these weekly commitments is when you'll make time to work on your research. But, keep in mind that this was a fairly busy semester for the student involving them having a job, taking classes, and TAing other classes. You might not be doing all of these things in any given semester, so your schedule can really fluctuate in how much flexible time you have for research.
And keep in mind that PhD students’ schedules may look quite different based on their institution, their lab, what year of the program they’re in, and their priorities in and out of the program. To get a broader sense of what daily life looks like for psych graduate students, we hope you’ll check out Season 2 of this podcast as soon as it launches! In the next season, we will sit down with PhD students from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences to hear more about their path to grad school, their day-to-day life as a grad student, and their future plans after they finish the program.
So, to wrap up, in today’s episode we covered three main topics. First, what is a PhD in psychology? Second, what differentiates an experimental psych PhD from other graduate degrees in psychology? And, finally, what does a day in the life of a PhD student look like?
In the remainder of Season 1, we’ll dive more deeply into the process of applying to psych PhD programs from start to finish. In Episode 2, we’ll talk about getting organized, from choosing programs to apply to, to figuring out your application timeline. In Episode 3, we’ll talk about developing CVs and resumes for program applications and anything else you might want to apply to. In Episode 4, we’ll talk about acquiring research experience and requesting letters of recommendation from your research supervisors. In Episode 5, we’ll talk about writing your statement of purpose for your applications, and in Episode 6, finally, we’ll talk about preparing for interviews with schools that you’re applying to.
And we’ll be updating the show notes to include links to these different topics as soon as each new episode launches. And you can find it below this episode if you’re watching on YouTube or in the show notes section of whatever podcast app you’re listening to this on.
To receive notifications when new episodes are released, subscribe to our channel on YouTube or to our podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, wherever you’re listening! You’re also welcome to join our email list to receive an email each time we release an episode. And, finally, if you found this content helpful, please consider liking the episode on YouTube or rating or reviewing it in your preferred podcast app.
And, finally, I wish you the best of luck as you consider the right next step for your career. Talk to you next time!