At the advanced research level, health psychology involves research in both economics and psychology, as well as other disciplines concerning human development and governmental policy. The subject fascinates those who are invested in supporting psychological health across a patient’s lifespan, from childhood to old age. Researchers in this field also study the history and development of policy and its impact on infrastructure. They ask questions about how infrastructure changes human behavior and, in turn, how people affect policy.
Why a Ph.D.?
Students who enroll in a health psychology Ph.D. program have already invested a substantial amount of time, energy, and money into the field. They are often motivated by a strong desire to influence and optimize the relationship between people and the policies that govern their lives.
Some scholars may be more interested in the psychology aspect of the discipline, while others will be more drawn to sociology. Either way the focus for most programs is on human health psychology, and doctoral students aim their studies toward careers in education, psychology, and/or public policy. Some graduates know that their career goal does not require an advanced degree, but seek a high level of expertise in order to bring about change.
Inside a Health Psychology Ph.D. Program
When most students begin the doctorate program, they have completed the core curriculum for their department. Instead of taking additional (and often unnecessary) classes, doctorate students try to strike a balance between a number of other responsibilities including research, attending conferences, teaching undergraduate courses, and applying for grants.
It is worth noting that some programs do not view the master’s as a terminal degree, so incoming students must first begin fulfilling core curriculum requirements before they delve into further research. These students may also be asked to teach or serve as research assistants, both of which are usually paid positions. Course work may include seminars such as ‘Biology of Chronic Disease for Behavioral and Population Scientists’, ‘Psychoneuroimmunology’, or ‘Psychosocial Factors in Health’.
The culmination of the degree is the dissertation and oral defense. This step will vary for each student; the determining factor is the subject matter the student chooses for his or her dissertation. Many students need at least six years from the beginning of the master’s to the completion of their dissertation. Some Ph.D. in health psychology programs require 10 years or more to complete.
What's Next for Health Psychology Ph.D. Holders?
Graduates of health psychology doctorate programs have the qualifications to enter positions at institutions of higher education. They may decide to look into research occupations, business consulting or even personal life coaching. Graduates commonly find work as health psychologists in medical schools, hospitals or rehabilitation centers. They may also elect to set up a private practice. In 2014, psychologists earned a median salary of $70,700, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS).
More often than not, recent graduates of health psychology programs seek professional experience before they continue with further education. However, certification in specialized areas within psychology may prove beneficial as doctorates gain experience and discover their niches. Possible certifications may involve subjects like substance abuse or gender diversity.