What is a Clinical Psychology Degree?

Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to distinguish between counseling psychology and clinical psychology.

Counseling psychologists typically work with generally healthy patients who need help to manage emotional, social, or physical issues, such as relationship problems, career challenges, or substance abuse.

Clinical psychologists work with those kinds of patients as well, but they tend to focus on more pathological populations. In other words, they work mostly with people who have a mental illness or a psychosis – a severe disorder or disability that can incapacitate them, not merely diminish the quality of their life. Examples are schizophrenia, delusional disorder, and substance-induced psychotic disorder.

Degree programs in clinical psychology teach students both how to observe, assess, diagnose, and treat patients and how to conduct and interpret clinical research to improve on each of those processes.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology – Four Year Duration
As schools typically do not offer a specific clinical psychology degree at the undergraduate level, it is quite common for aspiring clinical psychologists to earn a bachelor’s in general psychology or a closely related discipline.

Graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology may qualify for some roles in social work or psychology research. In most cases, however, the degree is a stepping stone to further education in the field. This is because individuals who wish to become clinical psychologists, who work directly with patients, must hold a doctoral degree.

Below are some common psychology undergraduate courses:

  • Introductory Psychology – scientific psychology as applied to human behavior
  • Introduction to Developmental, Social, Personality, and Clinical Psychology
  • Introduction to Biological and Cognitive Psychology – the structure and function of the brain, memory, problem solving, how genes and hormones influence behavior
  • History of Psychology
  • Life Span Human Development
  • Theories of Personality
  • Psychological Research, Testing, and Measurement

Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology – Two to Three Year Duration
While there are many distinct master’s degree programs in clinical psychology, it is important to note that some schools offer a combined master’s and doctoral program, resulting in a doctoral degree. This educational path is quite common in the field and requires less time than completing both a master’s and a doctoral degree. The joint degree option may not be available to students who earned an undergraduate degree outside of psychology.

At the master’s level, students commonly choose a clinical psychology sub-discipline, in which they focus their studies and base their thesis.

The four primary specializations are:

Clinical Child Psychology
Child psychology is comprised of three areas:

Adolescent psychology is focused on issues relevant to children and youth between the ages of 12 and 18. These issues include behavioral problems, learning disabilities, depression, and eating disorders.

Developmental child psychology is concerned with the emotional and cognitive developments that impact children as they age. Among these developments are language, formation of identity, and understanding of morality.

Abnormal child psychology focuses on the treatment of children and adolescents dealing with atypical issues like physical abuse, trauma, personality disorders, and sociopathy.

Clinical Health Psychology
Health psychologists take a biopsychosocial approach when treating patients. They identify and examine how biological and social factors can impact psychological health. Their focus areas include illness, injury, harmful behavior, worrisome thoughts and beliefs, and stress.

Clinical Neuropsychology
Neuropsychologists study how psychological behavior is affected by brain and central nervous system function and anatomy. Much of their work involves diagnosing and treating traumatic brain injury, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and learning disabilities.

Clinical Geropsychology
Geropsychologists specialize in the mental wellbeing and the all-round physical, emotional, and social health of older adults. They commonly treat depression, cognitive dysfunction, and chronic illness. When working with older patients with progressive conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, geropsychologists and neuropsychologists typically collaborate to complete psychological evaluations and determine treatment methods.

Doctoral Degree in Clinical Psychology – Four to Six Year Duration
Prospective clinical psychologists have an option to earn either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. Both degree programs require coursework, a supervised internship, and a dissertation of original research. The Ph.D. or Doctor of Philosophy degree is typically pursued by individuals wishing to conduct research, to practise in the field, and/or to teach. The Psy.D. or Doctor of Psychology degree is designed for those focused on establishing a clinical practice.

Doctoral programs in clinical psychology prepare candidates to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP).

The EPPP is separated into these eight ’domains’:

  • Biological bases of behavior
  • Cognitive-affective bases of behavior
  • Social and cultural bases of behavior
  • Growth and lifespan development
  • Assessment and diagnosis
  • Treatment, intervention, prevention, and supervision
  • Research methods and statistics
  • Ethical, legal, and professional issues

Degrees Similar to Clinical Psychology

Art Therapy
Art therapists use art as a therapy to support health and well-being and treat and rehabilitate patients with physical, mental, or emotional illnesses or disabilities. Their goal is to help the whole person: body, mind, and spirit. This degree is of particular interest to individuals who have an interest in and appreciation for art, the science of healthcare and rehabilitation, and the psychology that connects them.

Marriage and Family Therapy
Marriage and family therapy is psychotherapy that focuses on the relationships between couples and within family units. Degree programs in the field teach students how to lead and facilitate this kind of therapy.

Mental Health Counseling
The mental health counseling curriculum teaches students how to help people dealing with issues that impact their mental health and overall well-being. Coursework often includes the holistic or mind and body approach to counseling.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Degree programs in psychotherapy prepare students to work as psychotherapists. The curriculum covers the use of talk therapy to help patients manage various types of mental illness and emotional anxiety.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Special Education Teaching
Graduates with a degree in special education are qualified to teach students with physical or mental disabilities. They help students develop basic life skills and must be prepared to adapt their curriculum to do so.

Substance Abuse Counseling
Degree programs in substance abuse counseling prepare students to counsel people suffering with alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorders, and other behavioral problems. The curriculum covers topics such as coping mechanisms and treatment plans.

Skills You’ll Learn

The work of navigating the human mind and finding solutions for people battling mental, social, and emotional afflictions is at best challenging and rewarding and at worst daunting. Learning how to do this work leaves students with skills that are valuable in any career, and in life in general:

Active Listening
Many disorders and problems are complex and not easily communicated, particularly when patients themselves do not understand what is going on. The capacity to pay attention, listen intently, and read between the lines is imperative to reach a diagnosis and determine the appropriate course of action.

Putting patients’ interests first may require that clinical psychologists convince them of ideas with which they initially disagree. This may involve finding creative solutions when traditional approaches fail. The dedicated psychologist is first and foremost a patient advocate.

Appreciation for Diversity
Clinical psychologists are exposed to people from different backgrounds and home environments. They are called upon to cultivate an understanding of and an appreciation for diversity.

Assessment and Report Writing
Clinical psychologists must track, assess, and record their clients’ progress and development. These are skills that are transferrable to many professional sectors.

Without doubt, the ability to convey information, impressions, and ideas is vital when dealing with patients and in research settings.

Critical Thinking
Well-reasoned and logical thinking is the foundation both of patient care and of research. Diagnosing patients, developing treatment plans, designing experiments, and interpreting results all rely on the ability to examine problems from different perspectives and consider alternatives.

High-order Analysis
Sometimes, facts and information appear unrelated or random. Accomplished clinical psychologists are skilled at sorting through data to detect possible patterns and relevance.

Scientific Reasoning
Even outside of the research realm, the work of clinical psychologists is rooted in scientific principles and concepts. The mastery of these doctrines and the skill to apply them to patient treatment are crucial to practising in the field.

Social Perception
Patients’ internal ‘data’ – their feelings and emotions – may sometimes be accessible only through thoughtful observation of non-verbal cues. While patients cannot always accurately or clearly express what is wrong, their behavior may provide clues to the factors affecting them. Clinical psychologists must be empathetic and perceptive to these clues.

Sound Judgement
Clinical psychologists invariably face dilemmas. Not all circumstances are simple or straightforward. In fact, most of them are not and require carefully considered decisions informed by clinical knowledge and compassion.

When introducing new or complex concepts to patients or colleagues, clinical psychologists need to be able to explain not just the ‘what,’ but also the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of an issue.

Trust Building
Building trust is vital when working with patients. The ability to build trust is valued in every kind of work, as well as in society at large.

What Can You Do with a Clinical Psychology Degree?

Clinical psychology graduates are able to apply their knowledge and skills in a fairly wide variety of roles, all of which are focused on mental, emotional, and social well-being. Here are some sample career paths:

Clinical Psychology Private Practice
Private practice is the most common career path for doctoral graduates in clinical psychology. Clinical psychologists may also be employed or contracted by hospitals and outpatient clinics, prisons and correctional facilities, legal firms and court systems, corporations, professional sports teams, and branches of the military.

Animal-Assisted Therapy
This a growing sector in the field of psychology. It uses interaction with pets and animals to help people manage suffering and function better emotionally, socially, and cognitively.

Art Therapy
Art therapists combine knowledge and skills in psychology with therapeutic art projects. Depending on individual cases, they may be focused on helping a client or patient overcome a trauma, improve their self-esteem, express emotion, express creativity, experience less pain and anxiety, be more relaxed and sleep better, or simply make their hospital stay more positive.

College / University Teaching
To teach clinical psychology requires a doctoral degree in the discipline. In most cases, college and university professors split their time between teaching and conducting research in the field.

Family Therapy
Family therapists provide guidance to families dealing with conflicts and facing troubles such as illness, unemployment, or death.

With a master’s or doctoral degree in the field, clinical psychologists may dedicate their careers to researching mental and emotional disorders and developing new therapies and treatments.

School Psychology
School psychologists work in K-12 schools. They work with teachers, principals, administrators, counselors, and parents to provide students with academic, emotional, and social support.

Social Work / Social Service
Social workers help clients with mental, behavioral, and social problems, recommend community outreach programs, arrange adoptions and foster care, and generally act as advocates for both individuals and families in need of assistance.


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