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FAQ: How Long Does it Take to Become a Clinical Psychologist?

Answer: It can take eight or more years for a high school graduate to complete the education and training required to become a clinical psychologist. The exact amount of time may vary by several years, depending on state licensure requirements and the pathway one chooses. However, to qualify for licensure, clinical psychologists must complete a doctoral degree followed by 1,500 or more hours of postdoctoral clinical training, a process that requires a bachelor’s degree (3-4 years) and may involve earning a master’s degree in psychology (2-3 years) prior to enrolling in a doctoral program (3-7 years). Thus, while it is possible to become a clinical psychologist in eight years, it is not uncommon for a clinical psychologist to spend ten or more years in school and training prior to licensure.

The process of becoming a licensed clinical psychologist involves academic training resulting in the conferral of a terminal doctoral degree in psychology, as well as supervised clinal practice hours that meet state requirements for licensing eligibility. As noted above, this process can take eight, nine, or more years. However, it is important to note that students who are enrolled in psychology doctoral programs are generally qualified to work in non-clinical settings, as well as in clinical settings, provided they work under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. Graduate students in psychology commonly begin accruing work experience as research assistants and in other supporting roles while they are in school and doctoral candidates are required to complete several thousand hours of clinical internships prior to receiving their degree.

Most states then require candidates for licensure in clinical psychology to engage in a specified number of postdoctoral supervised clinical hours, although the American Psychological Association (APA), a professional organization that accredits doctoral programs in psychology, has been advocating for states to eliminate the need for postdoctoral internships and several states have done so. The APA tracks these developments in its State Psychology Licensure Toolkit.

Students who opt to earn a master’s degree in psychology prior to enrolling in a doctoral program may also be eligible to work in various types of non-clinical roles. Graduate credits accrued at the master’s level may be counted toward an eventual doctorate in clinical psychology for students who choose this route, thereby reducing the number of credits they will have to earn in their doctoral program and shortening the time to completion.

Finally, candidates for licensure in psychology must pass the 225-question Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) exam administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). Some states also require clinical psychologists to pass a jurisprudence test prior to licensure.

What Is Clinical Psychology?

Clinical psychology is a primary branch of psychology and one of the largest specialty areas in the field. An American Psychological Association (APA) Center for Workforce Studies analysis of data on psychology degrees awarded by US institutions in the 2011-2012 academic year (the most recent academic year for which this data analysis was conducted) showed that of the more than 6,000 doctoral degrees conferred that year, 2,480 were in clinical psychology. In contrast, 420 of the psychology doctorates conferred that year were in counseling psychology, 470 were in educational psychology, and 1,800 were in general psychology, the next largest group after clinical psychology.

Clinical psychology is also a broad specialization that encompasses a range of professional roles and population groups. Clinical psychologists are trained to conduct behavioral research and to provide counseling and other types of treatment to individuals with cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues, including those suffering from moderate and severe mental illnesses. The key distinguishing characteristic of clinical psychology is its focus on clinical work with human subjects, rather than on specific type of work (e.g., substance abuse research, family counseling, or cognitive behavioral therapy) or a specific population group (e.g., children, married couples, or older adults).

The broad scope of clinical psychology is reflected in the structure of the APA, which has three divisional affiliates devoted to clinical psychology: the Society of Clinical Psychology; the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology; and the Society of Clinical Neuropsychology. In addition, the Society of Clinical Psychology has subdivisions in the following areas:

  • Clinical Geropsychology
  • Clinical Psychology of Women
  • Clinical Psychology of Ethnic Minorities
  • Clinical Emergencies and Crises
  • Clinical Assessment Psychology

Steps to Become a Clinical Psychologist

High school graduates who are interested in pursuing a career in clinical psychology must first complete a bachelor’s degree program. Most schools offer an undergraduate major in psychology and earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related behavioral science typically provides solid foundational training for studying psychology at the graduate level. While introductory coursework in psychology and statistical methods may be a prerequisite for admission to a psychology graduate program, an undergraduate degree in psychology is not a universal admissions requirement for graduate programs in psychology.

Bachelor’s program graduates then have several academic options they can pursue, including master’s programs in psychology and two types of psychology doctoral degrees: Doctor of Psychology (PsyD); and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology. The PsyD is a professional practice-based degree similar in structure to a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree, while PhD programs are typically more research oriented. PsyD programs may take less time to complete than PhD programs – 3-6 years vs. 4-7 years – and some PsyD programs do not require a doctoral dissertation, which is one of the hallmarks of a traditional PhD program. There are PhD and PsyD programs in clinical psychology that are accredited by the APA and that prepare students to qualify for licensure in clinical psychology.

Earning a master’s degree in psychology, which typically involves two years of school, may shorten the time it takes to subsequently complete a doctoral program, as doctoral students are generally not required to re-take graduate courses they have passed at the master’s level. In addition, a master’s degree in psychology may qualify graduates for some types of academic work as well as for positions in government institutions, business consulting, and non-clinical behavioral research. However, a master’s degree will not qualify graduates for licensure to practice as a clinical psychologist. Graduates from master’s in psychology programs who want to become clinical psychologists must first complete a PsyD or PhD in clinical psychology program.

Graduates from doctoral programs with sufficient training in clinical psychology must meet two additional qualifications prior to licensure. In most states, they must complete a certain number of postdoctoral clinical hours, as mandated by the state in which they intend to apply for licensure. These requirements vary by state, and the APA has been urging states to count clinical hours completed as part of a doctoral program toward the total number of hours required for licensure. However, many states still require clinical psychologists to engage in a significant number of postdoctoral clinical hours prior to licensure, which can add an additional year or two to the time it takes to become a licensed clinical psychologist.

The final step in the licensure process for clinical psychologists involves sitting for and passing the EPPP and a jurisprudence exam in the states that require it.

The steps to become a clinical psychologist and the typical number of years each step takes are listed in the table below:

Steps to Become a Clinical PsychologistNumber of Years
Earn a bachelor’s degree3-4 years of full-time enrollment
Earn a master’s in psychology followed by a PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology, or enroll directly in a PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology program4-8 years of full-time enrollment
Fulfill state requirements for postdoctoral clinical experience and pass the EPPP exam0-2 years of full-time work

Individuals who intend to pursue a career in clinical psychology should familiarize themselves with the licensing requirements for their jurisdiction. Most state licensing boards have online resources that list that state’s licensing requirements, and the ASPPB maintains an online PSY|Book tool that provides an overview of licensing requirements by jurisdiction.

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