The psychology doctorate, or PsyD degree, is growing up.

Of the four programs that pioneered what is becoming an increasingly popular degree in professional psychology, three are still thriving.

Founders of the PsyD--programs at Widener University, Baylor University and Rutgers University--have recently celebrated silver anniversaries. And as the degree comes of age, educators and degree recipients are struck by its growth.

"In the beginning the PsyD was a leap of faith," says Rosalind Dorlen, PsyD, who was in the first class of PsyD students at Rutgers. "Now it's an accepted practitioner degree. You see it everywhere."

Just 25 years after the first programs offered the degree, almost 9,000 PsyDs in clinical psychology have been awarded, two-thirds of that number since 1992. Each year, more than 700 students earn a PsyD in clinical psychology, which is offered by more than 50 institutions. That compares with just about 1,200 students who earn PhDs in clinical psychology annually. In fact, the number of PsyDs--whose programs stress practice more than research--has been increasing at the same time that PhDs in clinical psychology have leveled off and remained stable.

Some educators view this as evidence that the degree has gained the credibility it fought for in its early years. But others say the PsyD still skimps too much on science.

Responding to the criticism, the degree's defenders point to the reason the PsyD was founded--to train practitioners, not researchers.

"The idea is to educate people directly for practice, instead of educating people for science and practice in one program, and doing neither job as well as we might," says Donald Peterson, PhD, former dean of the program at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

How the PsyD got started

It isn't that science and practice don't belong in the same program. It's a matter of emphasis, says Peterson, author of "Educating Professional Psychologists: History and Guiding Conception" (APA, 1997). Clinical PhD programs must teach students the fundamentals of practice, but their primary job is training students to conduct research. PsyD programs must teach students the full spectrum of psychological science, Peterson says, but their primary job is training students to practice what they learn.

The need for direct education and a practice-oriented degree emerged in the 1960s when only PhD programs were available, and students interested in practice careers had to deceive their professors to gain admission, says Peterson. More psychology practitioners were needed, he says, but there was no degree available to people who wanted to practice only, and not do research.

"You used to have to pretend you liked doing research," says Nancy McWilliams, PhD, a Rutgers instructor. "You did it for the meal ticket."

In the 1960s, an APA committee on the scientific and professional aims of psychology, chaired by Kenneth E. Clark, PhD, argued that the hybrid scientist-practitioner programs weren't accommodating many students who wanted strong professional programs. They appealed for a more practice-oriented degree.

The proposal met with controversy in 1965 at the Chicago Conference on the Professional Education of Clinical Psychologists. Objectors said the new degree would mar the field's prestige, and ignore science. Supporters argued it would be based on, and informed by, science. They noted that medicine and law had well-respected professional degrees.

By a slender vote margin, the conference granted the University of Illinois permission to pilot a model program in its psychology department. The program started in 1968, but only lasted 12 years, ending in 1980. According to Peterson, who founded the program, training practitioners turned out to be a poor fit with the values of a research-oriented psychology department. The Illinois program was all that was needed, however, to inspire several other programs to try their luck, too.

First wave

In 1970, the second PsyD program started at Hahnemann University's medical school. It moved to Widener University in 1989 and became the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology. Jules Abrams, PhD, then chair of the psychology division in the medical school's department of psychiatry, founded it to equip graduates with intensive clinical experience.

"At the time, people coming out of PhD programs had very little clinical experience, including myself," says Abrams.

Baylor University started its PsyD program for similar reasons in 1971. Another motivator was the fact that the PhD can take up to eight years to complete, says Michael Frisch, PhD, a faculty member there. Baylor limited its PsyD program to four years and replaced the dissertation with a doctoral project, so that practitioners-in-training could get out in the field faster and more efficiently.

Despite those programs, it wasn't until 1973 that the Vail Conference on Professional Training in Psychology officially sanctioned the PsyD. Soon afterwards, responding to a pressing need for mental health services in New Jersey, the Rutgers program opened its doors.

Its first class of 40 students was somewhat unusual. To gain acceptance into either the school or clinical program, students needed a master's degree in a related field, two years of work experience in areas related to mental health and New Jersey residency. Most students were in their late 30s and helped shape the program curricula. Many have published industriously or risen to leadership positions in the field. For example, Dorothy Cantor, PsyD, served as APA president in 1996, and Rosalind Dorlen, PsyD, is currently president of the New Jersey Psychological Association.

The Rutgers program has grown considerably since its early years. It now enrolls 185 students across its clinical, school and organizational programs, and it has opened a grant-supported Center for Applied Psychology, through which students serve schools, foster children and other community populations in need.

The Widener program has also grown, from six enrollees to 150. It too has expanded its programs beyond practice and psychotherapy to keep pace with the marketplace. One new addition is its joint PsyD/JD program. Another is its PsyD/MBA.

In contrast, the Baylor program has stayed much the same as when it began. It still focuses on clinical practice and limits its enrollment to 40 students.

But the three programs share similarities on other fronts: All are affiliated with universities and all enroll fewer students relative to the freestanding, PsyD-granting professional schools, whose numbers have grown most in recent years.

While none of the programs take in more than 30 students a year, many freestanding schools--driven by tuition, as opposed to the support of a state or university--take in more than 60 a year.

PsyD today and tomorrow

Some educators voice concerns about those high enrollments, viewing them as a threat to the acceptance the PsyD has achieved relative to the PhD. Producing large numbers of graduates stiffens competition for jobs, "and makes the more traditional programs dismissive of PsyDs," says Sandra Harris, PhD, dean of the Rutgers program.

Such concerns are somewhat exaggerated, says Joseph Bascuas, PhD, president of the National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology. Many PsyD programs, he points out, have adeptly geared curricula to the changing marketplace--adding courses in managed care, brief therapy and outcomes assessment, for example, and programs in forensics, prison rehabilitation and organizational psychology. He adds that if students face poor job prospects, they won't enroll in PsyD programs.

As for criticism that the PsyD is unscientific, Peterson, the grand dean of the PsyD, is quick to counter that the degree is based in science. PsyD students, he says, are trained as "local scientists" who apply the scientific method to problems in the field. Most programs require a dissertation or dissertation-like project, but students cover a wider range of topics than those allowed in PhD programs. Many students publish papers on their local research.

"They're educated to meet the needs of their communities in a scientific fashion," says Peterson. "In their own way, they're contributing to the knowledge base that is the foundation of our profession."