Clinical and Non-clinical Psychology PhD Programs: What’s The Difference?

Woman in office space

Authored By: Michelle Ackerman, PhD

Many people, including students of psychology, frequently get confused about the different “types” of psychology and psychologists that exist. Not all jobs in psychology require a clinical license, which is one of the main differences between clinical and non-clinical Psychology PhD programs. I got my PhD from a non-clinical PhD program, and it has confused friends, family, and strangers about what it is that I actually do. I often tell people that I’m a “lab coat and clipboard” psychologist to try and explain my focus on research and teaching. That is, of course, an oversimplification. Many clinical PhD holders work in research or teaching, and many non-clinical PhD holders work in helping professions, but it has been an easy way for me to explain to people that having a PhD in psychology is not the same thing as having a clinical practice and seeing clients.

What is a clinical PhD program in psychology?

Clinical PhD programs usually focus on licensure eligibility. Students in clinical psychology programs participate in face-to-face residencies and may need to complete supervised field training to qualify for state licensure after graduation. If your goal is to work in a job or career where state licensure to practice psychology is required, then a clinical PhD program in psychology would be the right place for you. However, there are many positions where you might work directly with people or within the mental health field that do not require state certification. To figure out the right path for you, you will have to do some legwork. Contact state and national psychology organizations to request information about licensing requirements. You can call your state licensing board and speak with an advisor about what jobs and positions require licensure. You can even browse through local job listings to see what their requirements are.

What is a non-clinical PhD program in psychology?

A non-clinical PhD program usually focuses on the knowledge of psychology without the focus of specifically working with clients. Usually, non-clinical PhD programs focus on information rather than practice – how the mind works, how humans develop throughout their lives, or even how changing conditions (in the environment, in a community, or in a family) can impact different populations. Non-clinical programs also focus on research skills – how to conduct research that contributes to the body of knowledge about psychology.

If you need a clinical PhD in psychology to be a clinician, what can you do as a non-clinical PhD in psychology? Individuals with a PhD in Psychology work in a wide variety of career fields. Recent research suggests 50% of those with a psychology PhD reported working as either a clinical psychologist or psychology professor. However, the other 50% of respondents reported working as counselors, top-level managers and administrators, training and labor relations specialists, and managers in the medical and health services fields (Pappas & Samm, 2021). The National Science Foundation (2021) reported that over the past 10 years, those with a doctorate in psychology entering business or industry has increased by 10%. This information just demonstrates that the skills you learn in a PhD psychology program – clinical or non-clinical – are valuable in many different industries.

Develop New Skills

There are a surprising number of skills that you will develop as you gain your PhD in psychology, including communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, management, leadership, and teamwork. A recent article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology (Pappas & Stamm, 2021) reported that many job postings during the pandemic (March-July, 2020) specifically listed these skills: 84% of the job posting listed at least one of those skills, and 30% listed 2 or more.

Some organizations will be interested in your knowledge and expertise a psychologist, while others might be more focused on transferable skills. For example, using your experience conducting independent research during your dissertation to help an organization analyze data to better understand how consumers use their organization’s website

woman smiling with graduation cap on with a Psychology PhD

The online psychology PhD program at National University is a non-clinical program

Consider what your goals are in obtaining your PhD, then decide which program best aligns with those goals. Feel free to reach out to professors, professionals in the field you are interested in, as well as organizations of interest. You will need to do some soul-searching and some research, but these efforts will help you choose the best path toward realizing your goals


National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation.
(2021). Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2020. NSF 22-300. Alexandria, VA.
Available at

Pappas, S. & Stamm, K. (2021). Psychologists’ skills are in great demand. Monitor on
Psychology, 52(1), 56-57.

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