Done After the Degree?

In psychology-related fields, there's usually more work to do.

Posted May 12, 2020

Photo by Rubén Rodriguez on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Rubén Rodriguez on Unsplash

I teach undergraduate psychology students. Many of them plan to get master’s degrees. Though I cover it in my classes, I rarely get questions about, or interest in, stopping with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Most questions focus on using those degrees to transfer and to get into graduate school.

Perhaps this is a reflection of what a nonprofit management colleague recently said to me: “Master’s degrees are a dime a dozen these days. Everyone has them. You can get them anywhere. It’s the standard now.”

Or, maybe this is a reflection of the fact that students already know that most psychology-related fields that interest them, such as therapy and counseling, prefer or require a master’s degree.

And though I’m anecdotally seeing a lot of bachelor-level jobs these days, maybe they just aren’t happy with the job prospects or know that, given the reality of the job market, those jobs are often taken by people with higher degrees.

Indeed, students probably won’t be done after their associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

Photo by Jonathan Daniels on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jonathan Daniels on Unsplash

Whatever the reason, most of my students clearly don’t realize that they probably won’t be “done” after they get a master’s degree, either. As I’ve mentioned before, they see it as a clear endpoint. Their reactions to the news that there is more remind me of the first time people who want to be doctors learn what the word “residency” actually entails. Yep, there’s a lot more beyond the M.D. (like, a lot).

There’s also much more beyond that master’s degree, most likely. Some considerations:

Licensing: Most of the clinical professions (e.g. therapy and counseling) will require licenses. This is an important consideration I want students to have on their radars from the beginning. It’s certainly the biggest shock to my students. “Three more years after my master’s!?” Yes, and start planning for that now.

Every state and discipline has its own requirements, but for the most part, it’s going to be at least two to three years of working under expert supervision plus a big test. Then licensees must obtain a certain number of continuing education hours every year to maintain the license.

More and more states are adding new licenses and licensing requirements. If I wanted to return to and work in St. Louis, for example, there is a new license I’d have to get that wasn’t even available when I was going to school at Washington University in St. Louis, an LMSW (Licensed Master Social Worker). Even before clinical licenses, states are now offering licensing at the bachelor’s level, new master’s-level and non-clinical licenses, and more.

I urge students to work licensing into their plans, especially if they want to do clinical work. But even if they don’t want to do clinical work, they might still consider it. Right after completing my first graduate degree program, before I left St. Louis, one of my closest mentors urged me to go ahead and get the clinical social work license (LCSW) even though I wasn’t planning to do clinical work. “A lot of employers require an LCSW and they don’t even know what it means,” she explained.

Photo by JESHOOTS on Unsplash
Source: Photo by JESHOOTS on Unsplash

Internships: “How am I supposed to have two years of experience when no one will hire anyone with less than two years of experience!?” Ah, the familiar lament of the new job seeker. Many clinical master’s degree programs will require or offer some sort of practice-related experience (a “practicum” for which you pay tuition), and the licensing process for related professions may involve interning (search “MFT Intern” on a job search site, for instance). Or students may have to seek these opportunities on their own.

Though common, internships do not exclusively apply to clinical work. Those who want to work in health policy or program management, for example, may find that they just don’t have the experience employers want. Some take entry-level jobs with the hope of working their way up. Some go another direction entirely, perhaps not using their degrees. Others seek internship opportunities.

As per usual, the point here is planning. Ultimately, I advocate for trying to work in as much experience as possible before or during the degree, but at minimum, I want students to be aware of its necessity and the possibility that they just might have to tack on some time to do it after the degree.

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

Doctorates: I’ve literally heard academic counselors for doctorate programs ask students deciding between master and doctorate programs, “Do you want to be the expert or do you want to rely on the expert?” First of all, on behalf of all master-level professionals, thanks. Second, there are more considerations, like cost and length of schooling, just to start.

After I wrote about the hidden realities of graduate school, an aggressive emailer assured me that all psychologists (doctorate required) everywhere are doing great. Anyone like me who has hired for $15/hour bachelor-level positions and reviewed résumé after résumé of candidates with Ph.D.’s knows that no one can confidently make that claim.

Still, many Psychology Today readers will probably confirm to students that they might think they are done at the master’s degree level, but time, experience, income, and other factors may lead them back to school for a doctorate.

For students who are interested in doctorates, first and foremost, I encourage them to start thinking about how they can distinguish themselves. For most, this involves their topic(s) of interest and research. For some, who are enthusiastic about teaching at the college or university level, this involves other considerations, like teaching experience and credentials.

It’s a very unique process for each student and I’m lucky that I get to help them so early on. Keeping a potential future doctorate in mind may save years of preparatory work. Besides, who wants to take the GRE more than once? 

It can be hard for students to hear that there is even more to the career they want than maybe a round of graduate school, and it’s my job to put that on their radars as early as possible. As good practitioners know, and as students learn, our understanding of people and our scientific discoveries grow every day. We grow every day.

In that sense, are any of us ever really done, anyway?