Clinical Psych--Master's vs. Doctorate

Clinical Psychology: Master's vs. PhD

If you are thinking about a career in clinical psychology, you are in store for a lot of decisions. One big one is is to get a Master's degree (MA/MS/MSW) or a Doctorate (PhD or PsyD). Here are some big issues to think about with regard to this distinction:

1) Are there basic differences between the two types of degrees? Yes, but even here the distinction gets a bit complex. First, only a PhD degree is focused on research. Both a Master's and PsyD are more interested in applied issues. This may seem confusing, since a PsyD is a Doctorate degee, but this is the nature of a PsyD degree. Second, the time frame for completing each of these graduate degrees differs: MSW: 2 years, MA: 2 years, PsyD: 4-6 years, and PhD: 5-7 years. Third, during graduate school, typically only PhD students will receive financial support (tuition paid and a stipend) rare. This discrepancy in financial aid is tied to PhD students typically serving as Teaching Assistants/Research Assistants., and that PhD programs have fewer graduate students than PsyD and Master's programs. The issue of finacial support may be extremely important for you, because without this support you will potentialy be taking out thousands of dollars in loans. You may not realize it, but graduate school is pretty expensive! Moreover, the amount of money you will ultimaytely earn with your graduate degree may be less than you had hoped. Check out more detailed information on these points at

2) What about differences with regard to applying to Master's vs. Doctorate programs? Again, there are important distinctions. In general, the state of affairs for graduate school acceptance is that there is a hierarchy, Master's programs are easier to get into than PsyD programs and PhD programs are the hardest to get into. Difficulty of being accepted can be defined in various ways. For now, let's just say that ease of being accepted is defined in terms of grades and GRE scores. Keep in mind, however, that there are always exceptions to this hierarchy. Our point is simply that the type of program you apply to may be a function of whether your grades give you a chance to be accepted. Is this fair? That is a tough iquestion, but we hope you understand that grades and GRE scores need a way to determine who to accept and these are seen as two important criteria to make these decisions.

books on stacks in college library

One point to add about acceptance is that it may be the case that your undergraduate academic record is not strong enough to get into a Doctoral program. However, you can get accepted into a Master's program. If you go the Master's route and do very well in this program, this can be the springboard to then applying to being accepted to a PhD program. In this case, your performance as Master's student shows PhD programs that you can do graduate level work and that your undergraduate academic record was not indicative of your true potential.

3) Should I go to an accredited program? Regardless of whether you shoot for a Master’s or Doctoral degree, you should probably lean toward an accredited program. The reason is that these programs offer a greater range of job opportunities. For example, some employers will only hire those from accredited graduate programs (e.g., the Veterans Administration). With this in mind, if a school does not indicate that it is accredited (e.g., from the American Psychological Association) view it with caution. One other point about accredited schools is that to be licensed (certified to practice by a state) in your chosen field you sometimes need an accredited graduate degree or internship. 

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4) There is the issue of job opportunities and salary. In general, it is again the case that there is a hierarchy. Master’s degrees typically lead to fewer job opportunities and lower salary than Doctoral degrees. Part of this is the result of employers looking for those who have more experience and supervised training. 

5) Fifth, let's bring up the issue of esearch training versus clinical practice training agin. You really need to decide which path you want to follow. If you like to conduct research, a PhD is for you. However, a Master’s degree may include some research experience. With regard to an MSW and a PsyD, they likely will offer the least research training. Keep in mind that no matter what clinical degree you pursue there will always be some discussion of research.

6) There is the issue of how much independence you want to have when you graduate. This issue brings up the issue of licensure that was raised earlier. It is a complicated issue, because every state has their own laws regarding licensure for Psychology-related degrees. It is critical that you understand the state licensing laws for where you will practice. We know that you may not be clear on where you will end up working, but just be sure you know that the state where you end up living may have very different licensing laws than what you expected or from where you originally were working.  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. Check out for issues about licensing

In presenting these important factors to think about with regard to a Masters vs. Doctoral degree], we of course understand that each individual has unique circumstances that must be taken in 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 and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

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