Eyes on the Future: Selecting a Program Type

Sarah Greene

The first step in preparing for graduate school is deciding which type of graduate program is right for you. Knowledge about requirements, length of time in the program, and career opportunities for each of the different degrees can aid prospective students in their choice.

Master’s programs in psychology (M.A./M.S.) generally take less time to complete (2-3 years), are less expensive, and are generally less competitive than Doctorate programs (PhD/ PsyD). Still, Doctorate degrees are the recommended choice for most psychology students.  

Differences between degrees:

You may be asking, what are the differences between all of these degrees? There are many. There are several distinctions between the types of Master’s degrees offered. Master’s of Science degrees (M.S.) are generally oriented toward applied psychology such as clinical or counseling. Most M.S. degrees are terminal (Callaghan, 2004). The Master of Arts degree (M.A.) tends to be oriented toward research and most likely require a thesis. M.A. degrees can be terminal but many are used as stepping stones to doctoral programs (Callaghan, 2004; Lloyd, 1997). One very important distinction among Master’s programs is whether or not the degree is terminal. Terminal degrees end at the master’s level and are generally not encouraged for those who plan to pursue doctorial training. One last variation of Master’s programs is specializations, such as the Master’s of Science in Social Work (MSW).

Distinctions between doctorate programs are much more distinctive than in the Master’s programs. The Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) is the oldest of the two doctorate programs. The PhD is a research-oriented program that usually consists of both a thesis and a dissertation. Students must conduct, write, and defend original research. PhD programs generally take an average of 5-7 years to complete and many do not require internships (depending on your specialization). Because many PhD’s go on to teach and conduct independent research, there are many opportunities for graduate students to work as either teaching assistants or research assistants in exchange for financial assistance, and generally includes a full or partial tuition remission.
Doctorate of Psychology programs (PsyD) are “professional” and applied in nature. Clinical and Counseling programs are usually offered under the PsyD (American Psychological Association). Although the PsyD program is just as competitive as PhD programs (more so for clinical), a larger number of students are generally accepted each year. Also, many PsyD programs are taught in non-universities and private institutions. These programs usually require some specified amount of internship/clinical experience, but do not offer as many opportunities for research.

Career path:
When considering which program is right for you, it is crucial to examine what your individual areas of interest are. More importantly, you need to explore which degrees are necessary for entry-level and which pose a greater chance for opportunity. Master’s degrees are required for entry-level jobs in government, industry, university, and private practice, but many are usually employed under the supervision of PhD and PsyD’s (Suler, 1995). Most states grant licensure to those with Master’s degrees in counseling and social work, but you must have a doctorate degree to officially have the title of “Psychologist” (American Psychological Association). Despite the lack of title, many with Master’s degrees in counseling (marriage and family, career, school, community, drug, etc.) go on to work independently or in the practice of a PhD/PsyD. Similarly, those with a Master’s in I/O psychology can provide independent consulting services.

            Doctorate degrees offer more opportunity and a higher pay than Master’s degrees. Teaching at universities and graduate schools require a PhD/PsyD (most require PhD). Doctorate degrees generally offer more responsibility, status, and independence (Lloyd, 1997). Still, many find that a Master’s program will meet their educational and career goals better and cheaper than a doctorial program ever could.

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American Psychological Association. Psychology Scientific Problem Solvers:
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Callaghan, G. M. (2004, October).Considerations for applying to graduate school in
            psychology. Retrieved January 20, 2007, from

Lloyd, M.A. (1997, August 28). Graduate school options for psychology majors. [Online].
            Retrieved January, 19, 2007 from http://www.psywww.com/careers/options.htm

Suler, J. (1995). Graduate School and Careers in Psychology. Retrieved January 18, 2007 from

Sarah Greene is a APS Student Affiliate