Almost every week I am asked "should I get a doctorate?" by a master's level student or new professional. And "what kind of doctorate should I get?" Or "how about an art therapy doctorate?" Finally, "I want to teach [because I can't find an art therapist job I can stand for the next 20 years], will a doctorate help?" These questions are the subject of this final installment of "So You Want to be an Art Therapist." As King Lear said, "oh, that way madness lies"...well, maybe not in every single situation, but it's complicated.

I have a doctorate--- a PhD in research psychology. My choice of degree was based on several factors. First, I really did want to learn as much as possible about research, having watched art therapists fumble at it [myself included] for many years. I also did not need another license to practice so PhD or PsyD in clinical psychology did not make sense for me because getting paid just a little more per hour would not have been cost-effective. Since I have already studied art therapy extensively, it also made no sense for me to enroll in a program that bestows an art therapy or expressive therapy doctorate. My PhD program allowed and encouraged me to integrate art therapy research within my coursework and dissertation, plus I learned a lot more by stepping outside my comfort zone. Finally, I did not have to take out any loans in order to study; I was fortunate to have an employer pay my tuition. But as for an increase in salary, I don't really think it has made any difference except that maybe I sell a few more books these days.

So, should you get a doctorate? If you are interested in art therapy, is it a wise investment to get a doctorate in art therapy or some other field? And will you be able to become a professor and teach art therapy in higher education? But before I give you my opinion, you don't want to miss this gem of a film on getting a doctorate in clinical psychology:

Okay, I hope you took a few minutes to watch this film because so much of it is pretty accurate. It's not about art therapy per se, but in my experience, it mirrors a lot of why many people decide to go for a doctorate and the realities involved in investing both time and money into any graduate study. As the professor tells her advisee, your friends and your four cats will not call you doctor if that is what you are hoping for as an outcome. Nor will you necessarily make more money than you are making at a master's level and possibly you will not feel better about yourself, post-graduation.

What most of my colleagues are expecting as their end games via doctoral study generally falls into two areas. First, most want to find a position teaching in higher education after graduation---oh, this is where the madness lies. In recent years, the odds of landing a tenure track full-time teaching gig in higher education have decreased tremendously. So much so that some educators are calling doctoral degrees a "Ponzi scheme" on the verge of collapse because there are so many PhDs competing for fewer and fewer academic jobs. Meanwhile universities keep taking in students at increasing numbers; after all, students equal more tuition and/or extra cheap labor teaching introductory courses or assisting graduate programs. To some extent whether you land that academic job will depend on your degree title [see more about that below], but "buyer beware" if you are expecting a doctorate to lead you down a path to a guaranteed assistant professorship. It may only increase your chances of teaching more courses as an adjunct professor or lecturer at low pay and without health or other benefits; remember, those tenured professors in your doctoral program are not retiring any time soon and many of them are working in academia well past 70 years and older these days.

The second mantra my colleagues oft repeat when considering doctoral study is this: "I want to conduct art therapy research because the field needs evidence-based studies." Art therapy does need much more research and evidence-based or outcome studies in particular. Is it helpful to have a doctorate to undertake this? Yes and no. Having a PhD does not guarantee that you will be able to obtain research grant money nor is it completely necessary to conduct meaningful research. I have many masters level art therapy colleagues who have carried out some really fine research on pain management, asthma, sexual abuse, psychological trauma and psychosocial treatment of cancer; they simply worked under a principle investigator [PI; generally an MD or research scientist] and helped design and conduct the studies. But of course, going to a really good doctoral program at a research-oriented university can be a game-changer for those who want in-depth learning experiences in the area of research design.

So should you still go for a doctorate? Certainly, especially if you enjoy learning, are okay with long hours away from family and friends, and you don't go into too much debt. And if you are willing to accept a challenging job market and relocation [I hear that Kansas is always looking for professors]. On the more optimistic side, your doctoral study will give you more time to learn more about something you are really passionate about and provide a framework and mentorship for advanced study. So here is my short list of recommendations:

Get a PhD, PsyD, or EdD. In other words, get a standard, recognizable degree unless you are going to get something like a DSW [doctorate in social work] or DOT [doctorate of occupational therapy], two well-recognized professional fields.

Go to a university rather than a college or institute program. If you are really interested in learning how to design and conduct research, go to a university for your doctoral degree. A college or institute will not have the necessary connections or research faculty to really provide in-depth experiences. A university associated with a teaching hospital or medical school is the best choice if you can find one that suits your specialty area. And while many doctoral students are entering fast-track programs with limited residency, don't be afraid of a brick and mortar program that requires more residency; the isolation of independent study works for some, but others find that self-motivation to complete papers and projects is extremely difficult.

To my masters level art therapy colleagues, you already received a degree in art therapy, so take a look at a different degree title for your doctorate. I know many will disagree, but I don't think it is in your best interest to get yet another, higher level degree in art therapy unless you know that you will find employment, have the financial means, or your employer is paying for your program. It's just too risky, given that it is not clear that art therapy is recognized profession [see previous installments on credentials and education].

If you need a sure bet, consider a PhD or EdD in counselor education. If you have read the first several installments in this series, you might remember that art therapy has hitched its academic wagon to the field of counseling. Many graduate programs will be looking for individuals with doctorates in counselor education because the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs [CACREP] has required that its accredited programs employ those with counselor education doctorates in the near future. Even programs that are not CACREP accredited will be looking for faculty with this degree title because of counseling licensure laws in some states. My guess is that either there will be many art therapy programs looking to hire art therapists with counselor education doctorates or counseling graduate programs will be interested in your dual expertise in counseling and art therapy.

Finally, interview recent graduates from the programs of study that interest you before you make a decision. For an interesting discussion on the value of doctoral study, see "The Disposable Academic," in The Economist. It's hard to say how it applies to art therapists who are considering a doctorate in a mental health field, but it will give you some insight into the current challenges.

As promised, in the coming weeks I will be writing about some related fields --- play therapy, creative arts in counseling, and arts in healthcare-- that are options for those of you interested in bringing art or all the arts into a career as a helping professional.

Be well,

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT

© 2011 Cathy Malchiodi


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