Master’s vs Doctorate

“I know that I want to pursue grad school, but should I do a Master’s or a Doctorate?”

It depends.

Seriously, it depends on many factors.
This is an extremely common but also extremely complicated question. Your advisor, mentor, or faculty members likely cannot answer this for you with a simple either/or response. You will need to thoroughly evaluate your options, your career goals, your qualifications, and your level of dedication to a certain plan. Know that you might change your mind too, and that’s ok!

When considering the master’s versus doctorate question, it can be useful to go back to the basics: Why do you want to do either degree? What is the ultimate goal of this time-intensive and likely costly training experience? Could you be happy, satisfied, and financially stable taking a different path altogether? Would a Bachelor’s degree suffice for your goals? If you are leaning toward a doctorate, are you absolutely sure that a Master’s would not afford you the same career options?

Before choosing the level of your desired degree, the subject is a crucial decision. For instance, the considerations about master’s versus doctoral training for social workers and counselors look quite a bit different from what they do for psychologists. Before we dig in any further, let’s briefly clarify what these two degrees are: typically a Master’s degree (e.g., MA, MS, MSW) is a training program of approximately 2 years in length which is primarily coursework, exposes the student to an in-depth coverage of a certain field, and sometimes involves supervised fieldwork and/or a thesis research project; meanwhile a Doctorate (e.g., PhD, PsyD, EdD) is a training program of approximately 4 to 7 years which consists of a blend of coursework and other tasks such as research projects, fieldwork, and internships, and concludes with a dissertation research project. Both require a bachelor’s degree as a pre-requisite. The doctorate is a higher level of training than a master’s in any given topic area, and in fact most doctoral programs grant students a master’s along the way. Let’s next look at how these tracks compare in a few topic areas.

One version of the master’s vs doctorate question actually is relatively easy, and that is for folks aiming at academic careers. If you desire a career as a full-time tenure-track professor, then you will almost definitely want to pursue a doctoral level of training, with the PhD likely being the best fit (but PsyD and EdD degrees are appropriate in some contexts). Jobs as an adjunct instructor at colleges/universities are often available to master’s-level professionals, and some fields such as social work may hire tenure-track professors at a master’s level; but for the most part you will need a doctorate if you intend to build a career around research and higher education.

Social Work
The Master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) is the typical terminal degree. At that degree level, one is eligible to pursue state licensure for practicing (e.g., LCSW) as well as many job openings. The vast majority of social workers are MSW’s, but there are also PhD programs available. For most social work positions, the MSW is an appropriate degree. For those pursuing academic positions or other roles with heavy research and administrative involvement, a doctorate may be appropriate, but these are far less common routes.

Here too, the common terminal degree is the Master of Arts degree in Counseling (MA) which would allow one to pursue state licensure to practice mental health counseling (LPC). The vast majority of practicing counselors hold a master’s, but there are indeed doctoral programs in counseling as well, and these would make sense for someone desiring a role in training future counselors and/or conducting counseling research.

This is perhaps the most complicated comparison of master’s versus doctoral routes. On the one hand, it is true that many people earn a terminal master’s degree in either Clinical Psychology or Counseling Psychology, and that there are some positions available for that degree level. But on the other hand, the master’s is not the typical terminal degree for psychologists–it is more frequently thought of as a ‘stepping stone’ into a doctoral training program. Further, it is important to be aware that most states actually do not honor a master’s in psychology as a license-eligible degree for professional practice. Several states do, including Michigan, but the regulations require that those clinicians remain in supervision for the entirety of their careers and cannot technically call themselves a “Psychologist” (i.e., their title is LLP or “Limited License Psychologist,” or they are sometimes called a “Psychological Associate” or other related terms). Check out these LARA links for more information about becoming a TLLP and then an LLP here in Michigan with a master’s in psychology. This site about state guidelines and this site about online training both also provide some commentary on the process of seeking master’s level psychology licensure which may be helpful to review.

Psych Degree Level Pros and Cons
Given some of the complications noted above, one may come to the conclusion that a doctorate in psychology is the best route for someone interested in clinical/counseling psych sorts of careers. To some extent, that is true–the doctorate affords much greater career flexibility and mobility, and the ability to charge at a higher per-session rate via most insurance providers. Due to the licensing issues and limits to professional independence, some would go as far as to say that, as a general rule, “a [terminal] master’s in clinical psychology is not a useful degree” (Metz, 2016, p. 26). That is harsh, perhaps too harsh, but it is one common perspective. Those endorsing this view would likely encourage the undecided to instead pursue a doctoral level psych program, or a master’s level program in another therapy specialty. On the other end of the continuum, there are master’s level psychology clinicians out working in Michigan with their LLP license status who would likely shrug at this input and say “well it’s been fine for me!”
There are important reasons why a doctorate is not feasible or the best choice for all aspiring psychology grad students: a doctorate takes a very long time; these doctoral programs tend to be extremely competitive and hopeful students may never get in; doctoral programs can be quite costly; admission to a doctoral program often requires significant periods of relocation and income insecurity which is not practical for all families; and a doctorate is an extremely high level of scholarly achievement usually involving much research work (but see this related page on PhD vs PsyD training), hence it is not a good match for the interests of everyone desiring to become a therapist. For these and other reasons, a doctorate in psychology does not make sense for all psych hopefuls, but a master’s degree may be a good fit instead.
Some of the strengths of a Master’s in Clinical Psychology or Counseling Psychology (as compared to a doctorate) include its shorter time commitment, less money spent on tuition, and not needing to conduct a dissertation, yet still getting an advanced training in applied psychology. This training also has numerous unique features (compared to say social work or counseling) such as an in-depth focus on psychological assessment via personality or intelligence tests, as well as detailed exposure to theory and evidence regarding psychotherapeutic practices and models. While a social work program, for instance, would yield more exposure to systemic issues, policy matters, advocacy skills, and other such ‘macro’ needs, the master’s in psychology would hone in scientifically at the level of the individual.
Some of the strengths of a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology or Counseling Psychology (as opposed to a Master’s) would include greater professional freedom, likelihood of a higher salary, opportunity to pursue a wider diversity of career activities, and a greater degree of expertise in numerous topics, especially conducting research and/or clinical supervision. And again, the doctorate yields license-eligibility anywhere in the USA and Canada, whereas the Master’s is recognized as part of a license-eligible track in only a handful of states.

Why the Conundrum?
How do students find themselves caught in these difficult decision-making scenarios, torn between the characteristics of various training models and pathways? Part of it, of course, is that there are many similar roads and relatively similar outcomes, such that choosing is not as obvious as the differences between some other careers. Perhaps more troublesome however, is the fact that many senior-year undergraduate psychology students will apply for doctoral level training programs (with annual deadlines around December 1st), only to find that they unfortunately did not gain admission, and by early springtime they may panic about what to do upon graduation and begin applying to master’s programs (with annual deadlines ranging from February to April) as a sort of ‘backup’ plan. In an ideal scenario, applicants would not need to resort to impulsive backup choices but rather stick to a plan and re-attempt the following annual cycle if needed. However, the prospect of waiting an extra year to begin one’s graduate studies whilst (seemingly) not progressing toward their ultimate goals is difficult for many to stomach. Thus, folks will start wondering if they can ‘settle’ on a different degree level or different topic area, in order to simply keep progressing forward in their education. Related to all this, for some students, is the indecision between pursuing a Master’s versus taking a so-called “gap year,” which is explored separately on this page, so check that out if relevant to you.

Like I Said, It Depends!
I see this complex set of issues relatively frequently in my advising of senior students and recent undergrad alumni. This is all part of why I encourage folks to explore their options broadly up front, and to apply to an array of programs spanning different options so that they can thoughtfully explore each avenue. For some, the doctorate is truly worth it, and this may mean applying two or three years in a row until an acceptance is reached. For others, the important thing is to get into grad school and get done efficiently, hence a master’s in psych or an alternate route such as counseling may make the most sense. You have many options, and the best path for you depends upon many factors!