A master’s degree is mandatory for art therapists, who help individuals with mental and physical health issues as well as those seeking personal growth to gain insight and peace through creative expression. Ambitious students might wonder, if a master’s degree is the minimum educational requirement for the field, whether they should advance their education further and pursue a doctorate in art therapy. More academic studies don’t always translate to better career success, especially in fields like art therapy. You should consider earning your Ph.D. only in certain circumstances. It’s important for students to know going in what to expect from a doctoral degree program in art therapy – and whether a Ph.D. in a different area of study is a better option for what you want to achieve.

Who Needs a Ph.D. in Art Therapy?

Although art therapy programs at the master’s level undergo a formal approval or accreditation process, there’s no such procedure for doctoral programs in this discipline, according to the American Art Therapy Association. In addition to not being scrutinized in the same way as a master’s degree program, Ph.D. programs in art therapy are harder to find. In recent years, the American Art Therapy Association has recognized just five doctoral programs in five states – California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – in the field of art therapy.

If you’re wondering why there aren’t more doctoral options in this field of study, it’s largely because there generally isn’t much demand for them. A master’s degree plus the appropriate supervised clinical experience qualifies you to become fully certified and work in the clinical practice of art therapy. A doctoral degree in this field typically doesn’t improve your job prospects as an art therapist, your scope of practice or your earning potential in any direct way, according to Psychology Today. What this degree does is allow you to move into roles that are more distant from the practice of art therapy – academic roles in teaching aspiring art therapists and research roles.

Statistically, the number of practicing art therapists who hold doctoral degrees is nearly nonexistent. When surveyed, 76 percent of art therapists reported a master’s degree as their highest level of education and 24 percent, a post-master’s certificate.

A Doctoral Art Therapy Curriculum

Since neither the education nor the research path commonly found in a Ph.D. program in art therapy involves the actual practice of art therapy with clients, you might wonder what exactly these programs of study do entail.

Will a Ph.D. Help Me in the Field of Art Therapy?

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Some doctoral programs, like a professional doctorate in art therapy, include some emphasis on advanced practice of art therapy, including studies in enhancing the clinical and artistic skills used in direct care and practice development. Even in these programs, though, much of the coursework is devoted to research inquiry and leadership studies. Doctoral-level studies offered through more traditional Ph.D. programs may have a stronger emphasis on research methodology and inquiry, theory and epistemology, or the philosophical theory of knowledge as it relates to the field of art therapy.

Art therapists who earn a Ph.D. are driven more by a passion for advancing the field of art therapy, through conducting the research that informs evidence-based practice or by teaching the next generation of practitioners, than a desire to advance their own career.

Considering Doctoral Options Beyond Art Therapy

If you’re not looking to become a professor in a graduate art therapy program or to delve deep into the research aspect of the field, a Ph.D. in art therapy may not be a good fit for you. Even if you do want to work in these areas, it may be wise to consider other degree options that would allow you the same opportunities. Often, doctoral students who already have master’s-level knowledge of the field of art therapy can gain more from choosing a different but related program of study, such as counseling education, clinical psychology or research psychology, according to Psychology Today. You already have sufficient high-level knowledge of the specialized area of art therapy for most roles in the field, and doctoral studies in these broader fields of study are often more versatile.

A final reason why art therapists may consider a Ph.D., in art therapy or in another field, is because they have a legitimate passion for learning in its own right, rather than learning solely to qualify for a job or credential.

Additional Resources

What Degree Should I Get to Become an Art Therapist?

What Can I Do With a Bachelor’s Degree in Art Therapy?

Do I Need a Master’s Degree to Become an Art Therapist?

Should I Earn a Post-Master’s Certificate in Art Therapy?