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Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD
Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD

Masters vs. Doctorate in Clinical Psychology

Know the facts when deciding between a Master's or Doctorate in clinical psych.

In choosing a career related to clinical psychology, there are a lot of decisions that must be made. In a previous post we discussed the Ph.D.-PsyD decision. Today, we want to explore another tough decision: Master's (e.g., MA/MS in Psychology, Marriage, and Family (Counseling) Therapy, Mental Health Counseling or MSW) versus Doctorate (Ph.D. or PsyD).

Let’s start with some basic characteristics of each type of degree. First, a Master of Psychology can be in clinical (best suited for those with an interest in psychopathological populations and behavioral health), counseling (best for those interested in vocational and career processes, human diversity, and professional training) or educational (provide counseling services to students, including those with a learning disability or those with behavioral or social problems).

Second, a Master's of Social Work (MSW) degree can be in a clinical direct practice track, or a macro-practice track (i.e., focus on political advocacy, community organizing, policy analysis and/or human services management).

Third, a PsyD is a Doctor of Psychology degree that is best suited for those with an interest in psychopathological populations and behavioral health, and places greater emphasis on the practice of psychology and less emphasis on research. Finally, a Ph.D. (a Doctor of Philosophy degree) can be obtained in the same domains as a Master’s degree, and puts greater emphasis on research than a PsyD.

Source: Komsomolec/pixabay

The time frame for completing each of these graduate degrees is MSW: 2 years, MA: 2 years, PsyD: 4-6 years, and Ph.D.: 5-7 years. During these years of study, it is important to note that (in general) only Ph.D. students will receive support (tuition paid and a stipend) during their years in graduate school.

Of course, there are funding exceptions, especially in cases where a university only has a Master’s program. In addition, scholarships are sometimes available to MSW, MA and PsyD students, but this is generally rare. Support during graduate school might be very important for you, because you can rack up literally tens of thousands of dollars each year in financial assistance, and the amount of money you will earn with your graduate degree may not be as high as you imagined.

Master’s and PsyD programs, in general, are unable to provide the same type of support as a Ph.D. program. Part of this is tied to the fact that typically only Ph.D. students serve as Teaching Assistants or Research Assistants. Also, because Ph.D. programs have far fewer graduate students than PsyD programs, schools are able to afford to support their Ph.D. students.

As far as deciding to go Master or Doctorate degree, there are several issues to keep in mind. First, the general state of affairs for graduate school acceptance is that there is a hierarchy, with Master's programs being easier to get into than PsyD programs and Ph.D programs being the hardest to get into. For the sake of this post, ease of being accepted is defined in terms of grades and GRE scores, although other factors (e.g., clinical and research experience) do come into play. Of course, there are exceptions to this hierarchy, and you may decide to seek a degree at a for-profit school where grades and GRE score are not deemed as important as a non-profit public or private institution.

Our point is simply that your decision about going for a Master’s or Doctorate degree in a graduate program may be a function of what type of program your grades can get you into. We are not saying this is fair, but we hope you understand that schools need some way to pare down the number of students they will accept, with grades and (especially) GRE scores are seen as two important criteria to make these decisions.

We want to add one more point about all of this. It may be the case that your undergraduate academic record is not strong enough to get into a Doctoral program, but you can get accepted into a Master’s program and you do very well in this program. This can work to your advantage if you still want a Doctorate. The thinking here is that if you do well in the Master’s program, you show a Doctoral program that your undergraduate academic record was not indicative of your true potential. However, your stellar record in your Master’s program can show you have what it takes to continue your education in a Doctoral program.

The second issue to think about is the length of time you will be in graduate school. As stated above, the time in graduate school is shorter for a Master’s student than a Ph.D. student. Of course, this means a typical Master’s student can be earning a real salary a few years before a Ph.D. student. Although this is true, one must keep in mind (1) a Master’s degree leads (on average) to a lower salary than a PhD, and (2) a Master’s student will typically have some debt incurred during their two years in school. Let me add that to find out tuition costs for any APA-accredited graduate program, go to their website and look for the link that says “Student Admissions, Outcomes and Other Data.” I think you will be very surprised to see the tuition costs at graduate programs—they’re pretty high. As stated earlier, a Ph.D. student will typically not have any tuition debt hanging over their head. Thus the extra salary for a Master’s student in the time they are out of graduate school working compared to the stipend of a Ph.D. student will probably be offset by the debt the Master’s student must repay.

Third, whether you go for a Master’s or Doctoral degree, you need to consider issues of accreditation of your graduate program and (for Doctoral degrees) your clinical internship. The reason for this is that graduating from an accredited program will offer a greater range of job opportunities. In fact, some employers will only hire those from accredited graduate programs (e.g., the Veterans Administration). If a school does not indicate that it is accredited (e.g., from the American Psychological Association) it should be viewed with caution. With all of this in mind, you should know that to be licensed (certified to practice by a state) in your chosen field it is often the case that you need an accredited graduate degree or internship. Also, note that licensure requires supervised professional experience, an examination at both the state and national levels. Specific courses may be required if a state deems it necessary.

Fourth, as discussed earlier, you must be clear about the issue of job opportunities and salary. In general, it is the case that Master’s degrees lead to fewer job opportunities and lower salaries than Doctoral degrees. One could argue that this is a function of the amount of training--employers are looking for potential employees who have more experience and supervised training. Some might argue that in this regard, a Doctoral student has a stronger foundation of training than a Master's student.

Fifth, you need to decide how much research training versus clinical practice training you want. If you are hoping for the former, then a Ph.D. is definitely for you. A Master’s in Psychology degree may include some research experience. An MSW and a PsyD will likely offer the least research training. One must keep in mind, however, that regardless of the clinical degree you pursue, there will always be some discussion of research, since the basis of diagnoses, testing, therapeutic techniques, etc. is based on research. The key point here is that certain clinical degrees do not require you to be actually conducting research.

Finally, give some thought to how much independence you want to have when you graduate. This all revolves around the issue of licensure that was raised earlier, and it gets very complicated because every state has its own laws regarding licensure for psychology-related degrees. Make sure you understand the laws for the state where you will practice. Of course, you might not know where you will end up, but you must be aware that the state where you end up living may have very different laws than what you expected or from where you originally were working. An important point to keep in mind about licensure is that once you are licensed, if you decide to go into private practice, your fee schedule is typically market-driven.

With all of this in mind, licensure issues require you to consider the following (also check out this info from the APA):

You need to see what are the licenses your state approves. For a PsyD and PhD, this is not a problem, because all states will have a license for a Psychologist. The issue gets tricky when you have a Master's degree, because states tend to have different types of licensure for these individuals.

  1. If your state does not have a license that meets your background, what requirements are needed to get a license in a different area? For example, your Master’s degree may not allow you to be licensed as a Psychologist, but after meeting additional requirements you might get licensed as a Licensed Clinical Counselor.
  2. You need to be clear which licenses require you to be supervised (by a colleague with a certain license) and which allow for autonomous functioning (i.e., functioning on your own). Keep in mind that an employer typically likes an employee to be autonomous—they do not like paying for two hours of supervision (your time and that of your supervisor).
  3. When you apply for a license that will eventually allow autonomous functioning, what are the requirements to ultimately receive this license (e.g., supervision hours, direct service hours) that you must fulfill?

In presenting these important factors to think about with regard to a Master's vs. Doctoral degree], we, of course, understand that each individual has unique circumstances that must be taken into account. Still, we hope that presenting these factors gives you some food for thought as you consider your ultimate career path in clinical psychology.

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding, Dr. Lippert and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

Want more? Check out our website for more psychology-related career information.

About the Author
Jonathan Golding, Ph.D. and Anne Lippert, PhD

Jonathan Golding, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. Anne Lippert, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Kentucky.

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