I have had several students ask me about the pros/cons of doctoral programs in psychology. I would point those who know they want to attend a traditional clinical psychology program to this book by the APA. It offers lots of helpful data on programs and what they require.

For those not sure what they want to do or if they should pursue a Doctorate in Counseling or Psychology, consider the following questions. If you have additional questions we should consider, post them in the comments section, and I will try to give an answer.

  • What career doors do I want to open that are not available to me now?
  • Do I want to teach?
  • Do I see myself in private practice?
  • Do I see myself in a research job?
  • Do I see myself in the business world?

The Ph.D. in Clinical Psych from an APA accredited program (and with an APA approved predoctoral internship) probably opens the most doors of all. This degree allows you to teach in both undergrad and grad departments, work in research settings, government settings, private practice, etc. There are specific kinds of jobs that it might not help: such as an area focusing entirely on social psychology or developmental psychology.

One caveat.

If you want to teach in an MA Counseling program that is either seeking or already obtained CACREP accreditation (counseling accreditation sponsored by the ACA), you will need a Ph.D. in Counselor Education (which entitles you to work towards an LPC credential). This is a recent and troubling change (turf warfare with psychology) if you don’t think CACREP should be the only standard for MA level counseling education.

Part of your work dream should answer whether or not you are looking to work in either a secular or faith environment. Now, you can change your mind but there will be some doors that are easier to open with a secular degree and other doors that a Wheaton/Fuller/Regent degree will open more easily.

What areas of counseling/psychology most excite you?

Try to be creative here. Think more than just private practice, 50 minute hours. Who do you know who is doing what you would like to do? Find out where they got their education? Be bold, ask them (even if you do so by email) what they would recommend as an educational route to do the kind of work they do now.

Programs tend to have both a model of psychology (some are CBT while others are more analytic) and a focus (specialties). Also, explore programs tend to either be scientist focused or practitioner focused. Decide which focus will be better for you.

Many programs are generalistic, but it is helpful to have a specialty. Child? Forensic? Neuropsych? Geropsych? Marriage & Family? If you don’t have a pressing specialty, then the general clinical may be best for you.

Next, look at what the professors are publishing at the schools you are thinking about attending. Anything there excite you? FYI, professors love those who are excited to help them with their research.

PhD or PsyD?

There are some differences between a Doctorate in Counseling and Psychology, Typically, the Ph.D. student completes a very rigorous dissertation (has more coursework in research and stats) but has fewer practice hours (maybe 800 total) leading up to their yearlong pre-doctoral internship year.

PsyD students tend to have a less rigorous dissertation (though my PsyD program acted more like a Ph.D.) but have far more practice hours under their belts (maybe 2000!).

PsyDs do get teaching jobs but less likely in undergrad programs because of old assumptions (i.e., PsyDs are practitioners and PhDs are scientists).

Secular vs. Christian programs?

The first question I have for you is: what is your current theological/biblical literacy level? How well do you understand the depths and complexities of your faith? How well versed are you in the controversies surrounding Christianity, Psychology, biblical counseling, integration, etc.?

Your answer will dictate how ready you are to jump into a Ph.D. or PsyD in clinical psychology.

If your faith is weak, then you may want to strengthen it in an MA program at a Seminary. Or do some reading on your own. Psychology is not just an art and science, but a philosophy. You want to know what philosophy, even religion, you are imbibing. Sometimes the glittering images of psychology cause students to neglect the source of the power of change.

Practical matter: Christian doctoral programs in Psychology tend to be a year longer (because of extra bible/theology courses). Being a graduate of these programs will not harm you in secular settings (usually) if the program is accredited by the APA.

Obviously, programs and schools have an identity. You graduate from Harvard; you get an identity. You graduate from Fuller; you get an identity — fair or not.

In my experience, secular programs tend to have fewer issues about a student’s Christian faith than do quasi-Christian programs or those housed in Catholic institutions. These programs have had more fundamentalist-liberal wars and so you find faculty more sensitive.

If a student has a strong theological base, I would probably go for a secular institution unless you want the Wheaton/Fuller credential to open Christian doors.

Counseling Psychology vs. Clinical Psychology programs?

Not much of a distinction here anymore. I think the clinical one is more valuable (my bias) but once you have the degree, no one explores your transcript.

Would you rank the Christian doctoral programs out there?

No. Each one has their own strengths and liabilities. I would look at the professors at each and what they are writing/doing. Try to learn from some professors you’ve come to respect. For example, here are some limited examples:

Regent University (VA Beach): Mark Yarhouse, Jen Ripley and Bill Hathaway are topnotch Christian psychologists. With Mark, you get the sexual ethics research as well as someone well-versed in Puritan writings. With Jen, you might get access to her and Ev Worthington’s work (forgiveness, couples, etc.). Of course Ev is at VA Commonwealth, and so you might want to go right for him.

Wheaton: There are a number of great faculty there. But let me mention just two. Sally Schwer Canning is doing child and urban stuff. Jamie Aten runs their Humanitarian Disaster Institute.

George Fox: At Wheaton I came to really respect Mark McMinn. He is now at George Fox (Oregon). He’s great to study under for psych testing and his integrative model. Plus, if you get in on his research team, he’ll teach you how to be a survey king or queen. He is a publishing machine!

Biola: Todd Hall and John Coe published a key work called Psychology in the Spirit. It is going to be significant work.

On-line vs. residential programs

I would choose an online program only as a last resort and only if they are APA accredited (psychology programs that is). You have to be a self-starter. These still get negative reactions from some of those in the position to hire you. In the Ph.D. in counselor education programs, both Regent and Liberty have programs with good quality e-worlds.

Residential provides lots of time to interact with professors on a daily basis. There isn’t a way to do this in the on-line programs (which tend to have lots of students in them!). You can get good peer relationships in on-line programs, sometimes even better than in person.

I’m sure I’ve left something out. What else should we consider? Of course, you should get your MA from Biblical Seminary. That way, you will be prepared to think Christianly, biblically, and yet able to think psychologically about the world!