Student Loan Debt for Psychologists: PhD vs. PsyD

A survey of grad students and early-career psychologists by Doran and colleagues (2016) found that 43.1% of respondents had undergraduate student loan debt and 78.7% accrued graduate school debt. Of the graduate students in the sample, their expected total (undergrad and grad school) median debt was $120,000.

Debt by Degree Type

The expected median graduate debt for PsyD students ($160,000) was significantly higher than Clinical/Counseling PhD ($76,500) and research and other PhD ($72,500) candidates (Doran  et al., 2016).

Although PsyDs have more debt, median early career psychologist salaries for PsyDs ($60,000) were similar to those with Clinical/Counseling PhDs ($63,000) and research and other PhDs ($63,000) (Doran  et al., 2016).

Ancecodetally, I know recent graduates whose student loan debt ranged from $0 (PhDs) to well over $250,000 (PsyDs).

Why the huge difference?


PhD students often receive a stipend for their work as either a Research Assistance (RA) or Teaching Assistant (TA) throughout their graduate training. Many PhD programs only accept the number of students for which they have funding. Because they are working for the university, in addition to receiving a stipend many also receive a tuition waiver.


In comparison, only 1% to 10% of clinical PsyD students receive both tuition waiver and assistantship (Norcross, Ellis, & Sayette 2010).

Considerations before applying to grad school

If you are planning to apply to a doctoral program in psychology, it would be wise to only apply to programs that offer both a tuition waiver and a stipend.

Most doctoral programs do not require you enter with a terminal Master’s degree first. In fact, in my program hardly anyone entered with a Master’s degree. Those who did only reduce their time in the doctoral program by a year, if at all.

I know PhD programs can be competitive. But it may be a better use of your time and money to skip a Master’s program and instead take a year or two to work in the field (e.g., as a research coordinator). Try contribute to poster(s) or paper(s) to strengthen your CV (try working with a grad student or post-doc on one of their papers). Study diligently for the GRE. Be part of the research team.

With a strong CV, high GRE scores, and a good letter of recommendation, you will better position yourself for the more competitive positions that offer financial support. See my post How to Get a Doctorate in Psychology for Free. This could save you tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars.

Considerations for tackling debt

You may also like to learn about repaying debt, budgeting, leveraging your income, and saving money while enjoying life. And of course, The Debt Shrink’s story!


How much did you accrue in student loan debt and for what type of degree?


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