The Education and Training Council promotes high-quality education and training in Health Psychology at the graduate, internship, and postdoctoral levels. The council also is supportive of continuing education for Health Psychologists and for those interested in the field.
The members of the Education and Training Council currently represent doctoral programs with varying emphases and perspectives (e.g., clinical and non-clinical programs, research-focused and scientist–practitioner, and professional programs).
Question #1. What are the graduate training options in health psychology?
Answer: Health psychologists typically hold a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) in psychology. Traditionally, PhD programs tend to emphasize training to conduct empirical research, whereas PsyD programs tend to emphasize training in practice.
A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree program in health psychology prepares individuals to conduct independent basic and/or applied research examining the biological, psychological, behavioral, social, cultural, and environmental correlates of health and illness. The emphasis in Ph.D. programs is on the development of strong research and data-analytic skills. Health psychology training in Ph.D. programs lay the foundation for additional training and specialization in health psychology that can be obtained in postdoctoral fellowships.
There are two general types of Ph.D. programs that train health psychologists, one that includes a focus on research training and one that includes a focus on both research and service delivery (i.e., providing clinical interventions).
- A Ph.D. from a program with an emphasis in health research, but which does NOT include training in service delivery (i.e., not a practice degree).
- These Ph.D. training programs typically involve four to five years of training beyond an undergraduate degree, and are often tracks within social, experimental, or developmental psychology programs. These programs tend to prepare students for careers centered on health psychology research rather than patient care. Individuals who obtain this type of Ph.D. in psychology are prepared for careers designing and conducting research in academic, medical, health, governmental, and corporate settings.
- A Ph.D. from a program with an emphasis in health and that includes training in both research and provision of clinical interventions Both clinical and counseling Ph.D. programs in psychology include training in health-relevant research AND practice. (This training area is often called “clinical health psychology.”) A clinical or counseling psychologist is trained to both conduct research and provide health-related clinical services. In addition to the research training, individuals in clinical or counseling psychology Ph.D. programs are required to complete a one-year clinical internship to obtain a Ph.D. Clinical and counseling training programs typically involve five to six years of training beyond an undergraduate degree. In general, a clinical psychology Ph.D. program includes training in the treatment of individuals with more severe mental health issues (e.g., psychosis, bipolar disorder), whereas a counseling psychology Ph.D. program focuses training on the treatment of less severe psychological problems (e.g., stress, psychological adjustment to life transitions). Individuals who obtain a clinical or counseling Ph.D. in psychology are prepared for careers designing and conducting research in academic, medical, health, governmental, and corporate settings, as well as for careers that include providing health services and supervising other clinicians delivering clinical care, or some combination of research and practice. Note that licensure to practice psychology occurs at the state level, and typically requires passing a licensure exam and some level of postdoctoral clinical practice that is supervised by a licensed psychologist.
In addition to the Ph.D. degrees described above, the Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) degree offers another option for a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. The graduate training associated with a Psy.D. generally provides students with greater emphasis on clinical training and lesser focus on training to conduct research than does the training in a clinical or counseling psychology Ph.D. program. Some Psy.D. programs will provide an emphasis in health psychology as part of the general clinical training. Normally, Psy.D. programs involve four to five years of training beyond an undergraduate degree and also require completion of a one-year clinical internship. These programs primarily train individuals to work as clinicians in a wide variety of clinical and service-oriented settings. However, some Psy.D. graduates may function in administrative positions and some may enter academia, with teaching and research responsibilities similar to those of Ph.D. graduates. Individuals with Psy.D. degrees with a health psychology emphasis will often work in interdisciplinary settings such as medical hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, primary care settings, other medical specialty clinics or health care centers or even in government agencies. Those with private practices specializing in clinical health psychology may work closely with physicians and other health care professionals who refer patients to them when psychological treatment is necessary.
MASTER’S DEGREE IN HEALTH PSYCHOLOGY
A master’s degree in health psychology can serve a number of different purposes, depending on the goals of the student and the program selected. Individuals often elect to pursue a master’s degree in health psychology 1) because it can serve as a mechanism through which research experience or clinical experience can be enhanced in preparation for application to a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. program (as well as for medical school and for doctoral programs in public health); or 2) to obtain a degree from a program that will provide the appropriate training and degree that will meet state licensing requirements to provide clinical services as a psychological associate or with a limited license in psychology. (Note: states often do not grant licensure to practice psychology with a master’s degree). A master’s degree program typically requires one to two years of training beyond an undergraduate degree. Individuals with a master’s degree in health psychology can be employed in research settings, for example, serving as research study coordinators. Opportunities in public health and government-related activities might also be pursued. It is important to note that individuals with a terminal master’s degree in health psychology would not be considered health psychologists.
- Potential applicants for any program will benefit from examining the particulars of various programs (including specific curriculum requirements, faculty interests, and practicum opportunities) to determine which program characteristics match best with their own interests and background. Increasingly, graduate programs make this type of information available on their web sites. For individuals interested in Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs, a good place to start is the APA Guide to Graduate Study, an excellent compendium of graduate programs (available at most university libraries and online). APA also provides resources to prospective graduate students at: http://www.apa.org/education/grad/applying.aspx
Question # 2: What kinds of experiences should I be looking for as an undergraduate, graduate student, or postdoctoral student?
At the undergraduate level:
- What can I do now to best prepare myself for a graduate career in health psychology?
Answer: Most undergraduate psychology programs offer coursework in health psychology. However, interested undergraduates can enhance their didactic experiences by seeking out or cultivating other opportunities. For instance, most faculty members with active research programs welcome undergraduates on their research teams. Such research participation is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with certain areas of health that may be of special interest to you and to actually participate in the full spectrum of research activities (from study conceptualization to dissemination of results), which will prepare you for graduate study. Additional opportunities to get involved in health-related research may also be available through other departments (e.g., medicine, nursing, physical therapy, etc.) In addition, if your undergraduate program has a Psi Chi chapter or psychology club of some sort, get involved. Many of these groups provide exposure to health psychology topics and learning experiences. You might even talk with one of your favorite faculty members about starting a health psychology interest group at your school. Furthermore, great preparation for graduate work in health psychology would include a broad psychology background (e.g., social, abnormal, cognitive neuroscience, developmental and definitely psychobiology) but also biology, anatomy, and even a public health course if that is possible in your university.
The APA website offers information on how to identify training programs that fit with your interests and career goals at: http://www.apa.org/education/grad/index.aspx
*Check out additional advice for undergraduates, recommendations for choosing a graduate program , advice for applying to graduate school in health psychology, and insight into what makes an applicant competitive for graduate school.
At the graduate level:
- What are some ways I can maximize my exposure to the field of health psychology if my graduate program does not have a health psychology focus?
Answer: It certainly is possible to enhance exposure through all these options. Taking public health and nursing classes (e.g., epidemiology, health policy) are good options. Go to conferences (and watch for health psych preconferences at larger, more general conferences) and also seek out those summer courses that are offered from time to time on related topics by NIH and other organizations. Even if your clinical, counseling, or other psychology doctoral program does not offer formal health psychology training, it may be that some faculty are engaged in health psychology research and may welcome the involvement of interested students. Or, perhaps, in consultation with current faculty, you can develop a dissertation with a health emphasis or a health-related dimension. In addition, if you are enrolled in a clinical psychology doctoral program, you might consult your Director of Clinical Training about the possibility of health-relevant practica or other opportunities s/he may recommend. Having acquired as many health-relevant training experiences as possible at your current site, you will be better prepared to pursue pre-doctoral internship and post-doctoral training in clinical health psychology.
- What types of practicum opportunities/clinical training experiences should a health psychology graduate student be pursuing to prepare to apply to internships in clinical health psychology?
Answer: At the doctoral level, training should be broadly-based. This means that you’ll want to take advantage of a variety of practicum opportunities focused on different areas of clinical or counseling psychology, including (but not limited to) health psychology. Take advantage of training opportunities in a variety of different health settings (e.g., inpatient, outpatient, community health) with a broad diversity of clients and presenting concerns. In addition, at each site, seek to acquire a broad a range of skills by immersing yourself in as many supervised activities as are available to you (e.g., assessment, intervention, report writing, consultation/liaison, community outreach etc.). Such a broad-based foundation will prepare you to more finely hone your skills on internship and perhaps during post doctoral training.
- Are there internship opportunities in clinical health psychology? How can I identify potential sites?
Answer: Many internship sites offer opportunities for students to gain experience in a variety of clinical health psychology rotations with the amount of exposure to health-related experiences varying across training sites. The Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (http://www.appic.org/Directory) offers a searchable directory that allows trainees to search specific criteria such as agency types (for example, medical centers) and training opportunities (for example, primary care, health psychology or HIV).
At the post-doctoral level:
- What are the post-doctoral opportunities available for health psychology trainees?
Answer: There are increasing numbers of post-doctoral training opportunities in health psychology. Some of the most interesting combine internship and post-doctoral training in a two-year sequence. NIH supports a number of training grants that are appropriate for health psychologists, and these tend to provide opportunities for both pre and post-docs (http://grants.nih.gov/training/). The VA and military branches provide training (https://www.psychologytraining.va.gov/). And of course individualized post-docs with health psychology professors are also possible, and these are sometimes funded with the National Research Service Award (NRSA) mechanism within NIH. The Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers (http://www.appic.org/Directory) also provides information about postdoctoral training sites with health psychology opportunities.
*Hear health psychologists talk about their postdoctoral fellowship training in health psychology.
- What are the requirements for licensure to practice as a clinical health psychologist?
Answer: Licensure requirements vary from state to state. The APA website provides information about how to access state-specific requirements at: http://www.apa.org/support/licensure.aspx The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards is a resource that provides, among other services, general information about the licensure/certification process and licensure examination. Additionally, the site provides contact information for state, provincial and territorial agencies responsible for the licensure and certification of psychologists throughout the United States and Canada. This site can be accessed at: http://www.asppb.net/
In preparation for board certification:
- What is board certification and how does a clinical health psychologist become board certified?
Answer: Board certification is a mechanism through which psychologists can demonstrate their competence in specialized areas of psychology (such as clinical health psychology). The mission of the American Board of Professional Psychology is to enhance the protection of consumers through a process of rigorous examination and certification of psychologists with competence in various specialty areas. The ABPP website provides information about the specialty areas eligible for board certification and the process of board certification at: http://www.abpp.org
Question # 3: What kind of debt can I expect to incur to obtain my graduate training, and what are starting salaries for psychologists? Are there options are available to help me repay my debt?
Answer: The APA website offers some information about average debt and starting salaries for doctoral level psychologists.
APA also posts information regarding programs that are available to help individuals within some professions, including psychology, repay their education debts.