Graduate School Options in Psychology

Types of Advanced Training in Psychology

Please note that Columbia College does not offer psychology graduate degrees, but we do prepare our students to be successful if they decide to continue their education at another institution.

A master’s degree (M.A. or M.S.) in a sub-field of psychology (such as clinical, counseling, or experimental psychology) usually requires two years of full-time study and very often includes completion of a master’s thesis (original research project). Students who earn a master’s degree in a particular sub-field of psychology may choose to go on to a doctoral program or may enter the job market at the master’s level. Most states have provisions for obtaining a counselor’s or therapist’s license at the master’s level, so that the individual with a master’s in clinical or counseling psychology can work somewhat autonomously as a counselor or therapist. However, those licensing requirements vary from state to state and usually include some period of supervised work after obtaining the master’s degree before the individual will be licensed to work independently.

At the doctoral level, there are a few options. For students who intend to pursue a research-oriented career in psychology, the only option is a Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Psychology. Students in Ph.D. programs must complete a dissertation, which entails designing and completing a major research project (larger and more in-depth than a master’s thesis). Ph.D. candidates are also required to pass written and oral comprehensive exams to demonstrate competence in their research area, as well as a working knowledge of other areas of psychology. A master’s thesis or equivalent work is usually required to be accepted into a traditional Ph.D. program. Some Ph.D. programs have embedded within them an opportunity to earn a master’s degree “along the way”; some are simply “Ph.D.-track.” A common completion time for a Ph.D. in psychology is five years (beyond undergraduate work).

A Ph.D. program in psychology can include training on how to be both a scientist and a practitioner, as it has long been the traditional route for those interested in clinical, counseling, or other applied sub-fields of psychology. However, because some individuals may want to focus more on performing counseling or clinical work, without the scientific training embedded in a Ph.D. program, an alternative doctoral program was developed. The Psychological Doctorate (Psy.D.) degree is for those individuals who want to be eligible for licensure as a doctoral-level psychologist but who do not want the emphasis on research. For example, instead of completing a dissertation, students in a Psy.D. program usually complete a major paper that entails reviewing and evaluating the existing research literature on a particular clinical topic that the student chooses. Typically, students in Ph.D. programs and Psy.D. programs receive comparable clinical training and experiences, although students in Psy.D. programs may receive even more clinical training and experience.

If you are interested in graduate study in psychology, which degree is best for you? It depends. If you want to be a college professor, a Ph.D. degree is necessary. If you want to perform clinical or counseling work, an M.A. or Psy.D. might be appropriate depending on the level at which you wish to function. Those with doctoral degrees typically earn more money and work with greater independence compared to those with master’s degrees. However, it is much more difficult to gain acceptance into a doctoral program, and it takes five or more years to earn a doctorate compared to two years for a master’s degree. One option is to enter a master’s degree program and decide later whether you have the interest and ability to compete a doctoral program afterwards (students typically receive credit for their master’s degree when subsequently entering a doctoral program).

What about the Ph.D. degree in clinical or counseling psychology compared to the Psy.D. degree? For many students who are interested in working as a counselor or clinician, the Psy.D. option appears most appropriate. For one, Psy.D. programs accept many more students, so it is easier to gain admission. However, there are some disadvantages. Psy.D. programs admit more students compared to Ph.D. programs because Psy.D. programs rely on student tuition to keep going. So, getting financial assistance is rare in Psy.D. programs. In contrast, Ph.D. programs typically admit few students because most or all of the students are given financial assistance (usually in the form of a graduate assistantship in which students are given a tuition waiver and a small stipend to live on in exchange for being a research or teaching assistant). Some master’s programs also offer financial assistance in the form of a graduate assistantship.

Even Ph.D. programs in clinical or counseling psychology vary widely in the relative emphasis they place on research versus clinical or counseling training they provide. So, when considering a particular program, read their materials closely to determine the type of training they provide and the type of student they are looking for. There is no point in applying to a program whose aim is to train future researchers if you want to become a practicing counselor or clinician.