Addiction psychology is the study of substance use and other behaviors with addictive features.

These behaviors commonly include the use of alcohol, nicotine, other drugs, but also have been applied to gambling, eating, shopping, sexual behavior, and more.

Nancy A. Piotrowski, PhD, lead psychology faculty member in Capella University’s Harold Abel School of Social and Behavioral Sciences and a 35-year veteran in the field, discusses addiction psychology, including career opportunities and how it’s different from addiction counseling.


Q. What is addiction?

A. The term addiction refers to a disorder in which an individual becomes intensely preoccupied with or engaged in a behavior that at first provides a desired effect but eventually leads to negative consequences. A degree in addiction psychology advances research and professional training in this broad range of behavior.


Q. What is the focus of Capella’s addiction psychology PhD program?

A. The addiction psychology specialization is a research-oriented PhD program that focuses on evidence-based practice. The program digs deep into the psychological principles connected to addiction, including behavioral, social, emotional, and neurological issues.

The primary focus is research. Students do not complete clinical training but are taught how to synthesize information, principles, applications, theories, and evidence, and how these are applied to addictive behaviors.

Graduates become experts at reviewing scholarly articles and applying critical thinking and research methods towards making new discoveries about addiction problems.


Q. What are the education and career differences between addiction psychology and addiction counseling?

A. Addiction counseling focuses on one-on-one work with individuals. Most addiction counselors have completed a master’s degree, and their clinical practice focuses on treatment and therapy for individual cases.

Addiction psychology graduates are not trained as counselors. Instead, they are trained to be researchers who perform advanced research in treatment facilities, government institutions, schools, businesses, and health care systems.

Addiction psychology graduates also can serve as administrators of programs or research centers, independent researchers, or faculty members at institutions of higher learning. They are trained to look at the bigger picture of how addiction appears in different populations, relevant public policies, and ways research may be translated into new applications and practices.


Q. Is addiction psychology a career within the broader area of clinical psychology?

A. No. Clinical psychology is a special area of study that leads to licensure as a psychologist within a practice, similar to that of an addiction counselor, or as a specialist researcher or professor in that area of work.

Capella’s PhD in Psychology, Addiction Psychology degree program does not lead to a license for clinical practice, although an individual with a PhD in Addiction Psychology may find themselves in administrative or evaluative roles supervising master’s level clinical psychology students.


Q. Who would be interested in studying addiction psychology?

A. Addiction psychology is a great field for someone interested in discovering how to deploy new treatments and theories into our public health and treatment system. For instance, an addiction psychology student might research effective ways to prevent certain addiction issues within a school or workplace environment. Some may have seen addiction cases within their own friends and family members and would like to understand these issues as a way to contribute to society.

PhD students are interested in learning how to solve problems from a 30,000-foot view. Many who join our program hold a master’s degree in psychology, addiction, or a related field, and they come prepared to take their education to the next level in order to write grants, start publishing, or become a teacher.


Q. What education and career experience are required of PhD candidates in addiction psychology?

A. Admissions for the addiction psychology doctoral program require students to have a master’s level degree, ideally in a related field such as psychology or social science. This ensures that they are prepared and accustomed to scholarly rigor and psychology concepts.

PhD candidates are not required to have a license, and a non-clinical master’s is acceptable. If they have licensure, they may have experience that will certainly inform their thinking, but it is not required. For students looking to transfer credits, the course credits must meet the standards of the program and overlap with necessary prerequisites.


Q. What career opportunities are available with an advanced degree in addiction psychology? What are the responsibilities?

A. There are many career roles available for individuals in addiction psychology, including:

  • Consultants
  • Program evaluators
  • Program directors
  • Scientific investigators
  • Grant writers, or
  • Institutional Review Board (IRB) professionals

In addition, there are many opportunities available for a PhD graduate to communicate theories as a lecturer, speaker, author, or policy consultant.

Addiction psychology professionals should be prepared to look at the full range of addiction problems, not just the severe cases, and have a passion to reduce the stigma that vulnerable populations are facing. Overall, this degree is about studying the whole continuum of addiction-related problems—from experimentation and use, to diagnosable disorders and recovery.

There have been so many changes in health care systems related to research and quality assurance. Treatment centers have new accountabilities for outcomes and need to present data to demonstrate these outcomes. There is a great need for new research to monitor and evaluate how facilities and clinics are performing.

The same can be said for school and workplace programs, or even community-level prevention and public awareness campaigns. Addiction psychology doctoral graduates are in a perfect position to do this work.


Q. Why should individuals consider a career in addiction psychology?

A. Addiction issues and psychology have been around for a long time and here to stay—there is plenty of work to do. We need critical thinkers who can apply those skills to new problems that are arising. For people who really love to study and understand addiction, a PhD program is a good fit to help launch an exciting research, evaluation, or teaching career.



Learn more about Capella’s PhD in Psychology, Addiction Psychology degree program.

See graduation rates, median student debt, and other information at Capella Results.