Timeline of a Psychology PhD

To most people, what students do in a PhD in Psychology program is a mystery; that’s understandable, since most people never go through it. What’s more of a problem is that many people who are considering a PhD program don’t really know what they’re going to be doing. Programs aren’t always great at laying out the timeline of a psychology PhD, and often the senior faculty who act as mentors for new students are so used to it all that they forget that everyone doesn’t know the process.

For prospective psychology PhD students, Online PhD offers this Timeline of a Psychology PhD. While the milestones may be somewhat different for on-campus and online programs, the broad strokes are pretty much the same. So if you’re considering a PhD in psychology online or on-campus, get a load of what you’ll be doing for the next 3-7 years.

PhD in Psychology Requirements: Year 1

Major Events:

  • Orientation Activities
  • Coursework
  • Assistantship

The first year of a PhD in Psychology program will usually be devoted just to coursework – reading, researching, discussion, writing, and all of the other requirements of an upper-division college course. Obviously, the workload in a PhD program is much more demanding than an undergraduate or master’s program, but since colleges are aware of the higher workload, for most PhD programs a full-time load is only two courses. Of course, there are a variety of formats, depending on the program; coursework may be fully online, evening or weekend classes, or short-term intensive summer classes. At this stage, making connections with faculty and your cohort – for mentorship from faculty, and support from classmates – is crucial for future success. You will need both.

For students who are in a fully-funded PhD program, one of the requirements of having tuition paid is usually to work as a research assistant or teaching assistant. That job will begin in the first year as well: a research assistant will help a full faculty member with their research (which may range from actively engaging in research to fetching coffee – it all depends); a teaching assistant may help a faculty member in class grading papers and leading discussion sessions. If you have teaching experience, you just might leap right into the classroom as an instructor of record.

PhD in Psychology Requirements: Year 2

Major Events:

  • Electives/Concentration
  • Practicum/Internship

In the second year, students in doctor of psychology programs will usually begin conducting original research, overseen (sometimes loosely, sometimes closely) by a faculty member. This research will form the nucleus of the dissertation, providing a foundation for further study and writing. At the same time students are still completing coursework; by the second year, students will be moving on from core courses to their electives. If you’re in a specialized concentration (like Educational Psychology or Industrial-Organizational Psychology), instead of electives, you will take the courses specific to the concentration. This is the year when students in doctor of psychology programs really begin setting out their career path.

If you are in a PhD program that requires a practicum or internship, it will usually begin in the second year. For PhD in psychology online students, that may require travel, though most online doctorate programs will work with students to plan experiential learning closer to their home – sometimes even in their current place of work. The process may be a little more DIY for online students than for traditional on-campus students. That’s one reason making strong connections in the first year – like at the short residential experiences that many online programs require in the summer – is so important. Stronger connections and mentorship = better opportunities.

PhD in Psychology Requirements: Years 3-5

Major Events:

  • Comprehensive Exams
  • Research
  • Dissertation/Applied Research Project

In most doctor of psychology programs, regular coursework is done in the first two years. The next 1-3 years is taken up with researching and writing the dissertation, although in many programs, a comprehensive exam – a multi-part test on all that you should have learned in the program – will be required before moving onto the dissertation. A dissertation is essentially a long report on your original research; depending on the program, the length of the dissertation may vary, but generally it will be somewhere between an extra-long article and a book-length manuscript. In fact, many researchers will revise their dissertation into their first book, if they are in a position where they need to publish.

The dissertation isn’t done when it’s done, though; the dissertation has to be defended. This is, for many students, the most intimidating part of the whole process. Dissertation defenses are done differently in different schools; some schools make it a highly antagonistic inquisition, while others prefer a friendly discussion among colleagues. Students may defend their dissertation just to their dissertation committee (the senior faculty overseeing the process), or in front of the entire cohort. When you’re applying to a program, definitely ask about how the program handles dissertation defenses so you’re prepared ahead of time (and bail if they say “It can be pretty intense…”).

The dissertation is the traditional culminating project for an academic PhD – that is, a program that is focused on preparing students to work as researchers or educators. However, the dissertation isn’t the only possible path. In fact, many doctor of psychology programs don’t require a dissertation at all; if it’s a program that is more focused on practice, students may complete an applied research project rather than a conventional dissertation. These kinds of programs (like the PsyD or EdD) are usually referred to as “professional doctorates” rather than PhDs.

Most PhD programs put a cap of seven years on the process; that is, students have to complete all of their coursework, comprehensive exams, and dissertation or research project within seven years of starting the program. A 4 to 5-year time frame is more common, though students who begin with a master’s degree can finish most programs (theoretically, at least) in as little as three years. They’re an intense three years, though. Really thoughtful PhD in psychology programs incorporate dissertation research from the beginning, taking some of the load off the last year or two.

Other Things to Consider About PhD in Psychology Programs

This description of the PhD timeline doesn’t even cover all of the other things a psychology PhD student may have to do. For example, students who are intending to go into an academic or research career will be highly encouraged to present a research paper at a conference in the field – in fact, some programs require it. Same goes for publishing; in many programs, publishing an article before graduating with the PhD – an essay from a class, or a chapter from the dissertation-in-progress – can make all the difference in whether your mentors approve your dissertation.

image source: ErrantScience

Traditional on-campus students who are paying their way with assistantships will continue those jobs through the entire course of the program, even when they are working on their dissertation. You’ll be expected to take part in networking events and contribute to the life of the department (maybe volunteering, maybe attending official functions). It can seem like a burden at the time, with all of your responsibilities, but it can pay off in the long run with the goodwill you build up.

Obviously, every student’s experience in a PhD in Psychology program or a PhD in Psychology online will be different. Details vary from department to department, concentration to concentration, and person to person. But having a solid idea of where you’re going can help you feel confident in your decision to pursue a doctorate in psychology.