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Getting Your Doctorate in Psychology: APA Accreditation, or Not?

Updated on April 9, 2015

In the United States, doctoral programs in psychology receive accreditation through the American Psychological Association (APA) while some schools are given state-approval only. Individual conditions for licensing of psychologists are established by each jurisdiction, therefore it is essential to check with the state board to learn what is necessary to become a licensed psychologist in your region of practice.

The APA accredits psychology programs offering education and training within the following specialties: clinical, school, counseling as well as combined professional and scientific psychology. In addition, residency training and internships are also accredited by the APA. Undergraduate or masters programs do not receive APA accreditation, however.

Why Should You Attend an APA-Accredited Institution, if possible?

While in certain regions it is entirely possible to obtain a license to practice as a psychologist without completing a program qualified by the APA, it is best to go to a school that is. Here's are a few reasons why: Certain licensing state boards require it, furthermore some employers hire only psychologists who have received training and education through an APA school. Attending a school that is non-APA may not be recognized by certifying organizations such as for the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology (ABPN), or insurance companies. Many internships require it as well for admittance, which is necessary for licensure. So, if you plan to move out of state, want to be competitive in the job market and internship applicant pool or if you expect to specialize, aim for going to an APA school.

DO's and Don'ts to Think About:

Do not:

  • Attend graduate school without clear goals. Grad school is a large investment of your time, not to mention money.
  • Attend graduate school to impress your parents and friends. Again, there is a huge time and financial investment. Applying to a doctorate program simply for the title of "Doctor" is not a valid reason to do so.


  • Get research experience as an undergrad. It will make you competitive in your applications.
  • Get volunteer experience in the field. Work at a rape crisis center, hospital, substance abuse program, public service agency, or school.
  • Ask questions about the various areas of mental health. Learn as much as you can.

Other Things to Consider

Non-APA schools are very expensive to attend, although it is easier to gain admission to them. Schools accredited by the APA are extremely difficult to get into, but are highly respected in the field. This does not mean that there are not "great" non-APA schools or that those who graduate from them are in fact any less smarter than those who graduate from APA programs. What it does mean is that by graduating from an APA accredited school, you'll have more opportunities open to you and less issues with being paid by insurance companies. After all, what would be the point of spending all of that time in school, incurring huge educational debt only to find that you are limited in how you can be paid, or in the kind of work you can do in the field? You'll want as much flexibility and opportunity as being a psychologist provides, whether it be in research, academia, private practice or all of these.

Alternative Routes to a Career in Mental Health

There are alternative routes to a mental health career.
There are alternative routes to a mental health career. | Source

Other Options: Practicing is Possible With A Masters Degree!

Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT) are licensed to diagnose, assess and treat people coping with common interpersonal problems having to do with divorce, bereavement, marriage and those experienced by children of various ages. However MFT's are NOT psychologists, but can provide counseling (psychotherapy) in an independent practice and charge clients via insurance. Most states allow this type of license, but they are governed by a different board than for psychologists. If you are interested in becoming a marriage and family therapist, check with the MFT licensing board in your state.

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) are licensed to diagnose and treat people dealing with a myriad of emotional concerns or are coping with mental problems. They are allowed to practice independently and the Association of Social Work Board oversees these professionals. LCSW's treat families, children, couples and individuals in a variety of settings such as hospitals, substance abuse clinics, child welfare agencies and public service agencies. They also might work in private practice.

School psychologists can practice with a master's degree (Ed.M or Ed.S) and become licensed as a psychologist. However, the focus of practice is restricted to the educational arena such that they are able to administer special educational tests and counsel children in schools, hospitals and colleges. The educational psychologist helps children of all ages adjust and cope with day-to-day problems so that they may be successful. They also work with teachers and parents to build solid environments for learning. Standards for the profession are set by the National Association of School Psychologists.

Registered nurses who are trained as psychiatric nurse practitioners, are extended most of the same authorities as psychiatrists, with the exception of independent practice in some states. They are advanced practice nurses who assess, diagnose and treat individuals, families and couples coping with emotional problems, particularly as they relate to physical illness and health. They might choose to specialize in helping children. Psychiatric nurse practitioners are typically given prescriptive authority, depending upon the state of practice. If you do not currently have an RN license, you can still become licensed by completing a master's program in nursing, generally referred to as "master's entry" programs.

Psychiatrists differ in one significant way when compared to the psychiatric nurse practitioner: they are medical doctors MD) and are trained via the medical model. After 4 years of medical school, they complete 4 years of residency in psychiatry, so it takes about 12 years of education total unless you decide to specialize in an area of psychiatry or want to work with a particular population like children. In this case, it will require more education. Psychiatrists are qualified to do psychotherapy, diagnose, prescribe medications, conduct tests and hospitalize. It is important to understand that by and largely psychiatrists do not do a lot of actual psychotherapy, unless it is in private practice. They tend to diagnose and prescribe for the most part when they work for agencies (hospitals and clinics, for example). Patients are sent to psychologists, mfts and social workers for therapy and then are seen by the psychiatrist for adjustments to medications and check-ups.

The professional licenses mentioned above provide alternative routes to achieving the same thing, with a few differences, in lieu of attending an APA school, as it is not an option for everyone for many different reasons. You can practice in a mental health capacity, without having graduated from an APA program or obtaining a doctorate degree. The route you choose depends upon your interests and what you want to be doing. Is doing psychotherapy important to you, or would you like to primarily prescribe and diagnose? Do you want to do research and teach in the university? Answers to these questions are essential in your decision.

Most importantly, do your homework, research requirements thoroughly while keeping in mind what specifically you want to do with your mental health career. Be certain to have an alternative back-up option for just in case things don't work out as you previously planned.


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