Online Art Therapy Doctorate Graduate Programs

Art therapy combines the disciplines of psychotherapy and art for a therapeutic form of holistic healing. It encourages emotionally, mentally, and physically traumatized patients to freely communicate and express themselves in new ways using art and their natural creativity as the form of expression.

Online Art Therapy Ph.D. Programs

Given that art therapists practice within a clinical setting, a master’s degree is required, and there are a plethora of online programs offering Ph.D.s in art therapy. However, since this is a specialized form of psychotherapy, it is highly important that the programs and college or university are accredited by one of the regional or national accrediting bodies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and also follow the educational standards of the American Art Therapy Association (AATA).

Educational standards by the AATA include a requirement of 18 credit hours in studio art and art making and an additional 12 credit hours in psychology. Pursuing an art therapy degree from a college or university that does not meet these minimum educational requirements puts a student at risk for the coursework and degree not being recognized by the AATA and also puts the student at jeopardy for not meeting minimum educational requirements of employers.

Challenges and Benefits of Online Art Therapy Ph.D. Programs

In any field of study, earning a graduate degree online compared to the traditional classroom setting offers the flexibility that a working professional may desire. The same is the case for art therapy degrees, but there are also differences in the program offerings between online and traditional programs. Many art therapy students decide to earn their degree online because state universities and local colleges do not always offer the degree program, it is primarily private and/or online colleges that do so. However, not all online degree programs are equal with many having various methods of instruction, clinical practicum, and coursework.

The flexibility of online art therapy Ph.D. programs may also be also particularly beneficial to health and social service practitioners who pursue this degree since they already have the core health training background. These professionals may already work in a health setting and also have a Bachelor’s degree in a health field and desire the graduate degree to either enhance their career or enhance their training. So for these students, the flexibility of an online art therapy Ph.D. program and the fact that it is accommodating to work schedules may be a benefit.

For students without a professional background in health, not having the hands on practicum and classroom setting to interact with other art therapy students is a disadvantage to an online program, and the traditional classroom may be better suited for them. These students may find the required psychology courses unfamiliar since they lack a health background and might prefer the more personalized teaching that a classroom setting offers. Nevertheless, the flexibility of an online degree may be beneficial to students that are committed and motivated to self-study.

In addition to online degree programs being flexible, there are other differences in pursuing an art therapy degree online vs. within a classroom setting. Some programs offer a hybrid format of mainly online coursework with some time spent in the classroom for collaborative learning, in-person training, group coursework, and the ability to interact with faculty. A hybrid format offers the best of both worlds – flexibility and traditional classroom training – and may be the best format for some students.

Both online art therapy Ph.D. programs and traditional programs usually also require clinical experience and fieldwork and will allow distance-learning students the flexibility to obtain their experience at an approved health facility if the student is not local to the school. The difference is that traditional programs sometimes offer more support and resources in the clinical fieldwork, which may not always be available with online programs. For programs that are fully online, it is important to choose one that is the right fit based on the level of support the program offers in assisting with arranging clinical training and accessibility to available resources for meeting the educational and work requirements. Some online courses will allow the student the option to choose their own clinical training as long as the training is supervised and meets the program’s clinical requirements.

There are also challenges to pursuing an art therapy Ph.D. online. The greatest contrast between the online and classroom program options are with coursework that requires hands on training such as the studio-based practicum. Art therapy degree programs usually have half of the coursework focusing on psychology and the other half centered around art and art making. For online programs, not having the classroom setting for the art making portion of the degree can be a disadvantage especially since the accrediting standards require that art be a major component of the degree program.

While the psychology coursework could be completed through individualized learning for the online programs, being in person for the studio-based art courses may be a necessary part of learning artistic techniques and being proficient in various art forms including ceramics, painting, sculpture, metal smithing, photography, printed image, etc. This might also be  the case for specializations in other forms of expressive art such as dance and music therapy. The exception to this may be in the case of students who already have an art background and are already proficient in artistic techniques. Always check the program’s course offerings for better understanding on how the online art courses are conducted and how the student could expect to pursue the same level of art training and techniques that a traditional classroom student would get.

Tips and Resources for Online Ph.D. in Art Therapy Programs

Though there are differences in pursuing an art therapy Ph.D. online compared to a traditional classroom setting, there are ways students in this field of study could enhance their educational coursework and adjust for the differences in program types. For the required clinical fieldwork, some programs will allow distance-learning students to earn their clinical credits provided that they work under supervised training. In this case, it is beneficial to work with the school to ensure that the clinical work that they choose meets the minimum standards of the American Art Therapy Association.

Additionally, since learning art techniques is a very important component of this field of work and is also essential in helping patients express themselves through various forms of art, it is important that online students lacking the studio-based practicum pursue alternative options to getting hands on art experience and enhancing their appreciation, understanding, and practical proficiency in art. Doing so may help overcome the disadvantages of pursuing their degree online. Some ideas include taking additional art classes at a local college to get the personal hands on experience. Another idea is to take advantage of art appreciation events and activities often offered by local museums and art galleries. Joining an art club is also a potential option. Generally speaking, anything that will help an online student learn more about art techniques could be beneficial to their studies.

There are also resources available to online art therapy Ph.D. students. The American Art Therapy Association is the foremost source on information about educational standards, the industry, career options, as well as research and publications. Many states also have a local association, and it is a good idea to connect with and consider joining to one get a better understanding of policies and standards at the local level. This would also help to network with other professionals within the field. As with any other career, staying on top of industry news, opinion papers, and thought leaders in the field may be good opportunities to enhance training. If possible, getting a mentor in the field and/or volunteering where possible could help with gaining practical knowledge and understanding.

A career in art therapy may provide additional options and flexibility in pursuing work within a clinical setting and could be a great career option especially for those with a health or social service background. While many colleges and universities may not offer graduate coursework in this field, there are credible online degree programs that are accredited and offer the same level of educational training necessary to pursue a career in this field. As with any online degree program, it is important to understand your specific needs and what is important to you when deciding between programs. Distance learning may offer the flexibility that working professionals need and may also sometimes be accelerated and allow you to earn your degree quicker, but also understand that online courses will require a commitment to being a motivated self-learner. If having access to faculty and a supportive network is important, then also be sure that the online degree programs may have a great communications platform that makes it easier to interact, collaborate, and get the assistance and help that you may need.  

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