Master’s vs Gap Year

“I’m committed to pursuing a competitive doctoral program, but didn’t get accepted on my first attempt. Should I go to a master’s program or take a ‘gap year?'”

It depends.

First Things First
I am truly sorry to hear you did not gain admission to your desired program(s). Seriously, I get it. If you are reading this page, you are probably feeling a very real sense of disappointment, and it stings. This does not mean you are inadequate or not cut out for a career in mental health. It simply means that the *first* attempt didn’t work. Be reminded that you were likely competing with hundreds of other similarly qualified people, and there is a great amount of both unearned privilege and dumb luck going into the formula for those who get selected. Take a breather, recuperate, and plan your next steps.

What Does This Mean?
Ok, let’s define a few things. When referring to graduate programs being “competitive,” be aware that some receive up to 200, or 300, or even more applications every year and may only have 4 or 5 open spaces to offer for an incoming cohort of students. So in cases like that, you’re looking at a 1-2% chance of acceptance, assuming all other factors are equal. That’s highly competitive, moreso than the vast majority of medical schools or law schools, and that level of selectivity is common for certain kinds of programs (e.g., PhD Clinical Psychology) simply because they are so popular. Other programs are not so cutthroat and may have space to accept 25% or even 50% of their annual applicant pool, especially if they take in larger cohorts. To know details about the exact competitiveness of the program you’re considering, check out their specific website or search them in the APA Graduate Study Database if it happens to be a psychology program.
And when people say “gap year,” what do they mean by that? Well, it varies somewhat. Some cultures/groups use that phrase to refer to the year between high school and college, during which there is supposedly a period of growth and exploration and perhaps “finding yourself.” The stereotype of backpacking Europe or going on long hiking excursions comes to mind–that is not what we’re talking about here. In this context, a “gap year” would be the year in between finishing college with your bachelor’s degree and starting a graduate program. Decisions about what to do after finishing college for aspiring mental health professionals often involve a distinction between master’s and doctoral level plans, so be sure to check out this page with a more detailed conversation about those routes. Gap years can obviously take many different forms, so let’s consider what to do with that time.

How To Decide?
Back to the question at hand, it’s one that students ask very frequently. Upon not ‘getting in’ to their desired program(s), an individual wonders the reasonable question of whether they should simply take a year off and try again, or head into a master’s program so that they are continuing their educational journey. To figure out which route is best, consider these three questions:
“How strong are your credentials compared to the other applicants?” If one did not gain admission to a competitive doctoral program of their choice, and especially if one was not even offered an interview, then it is probably pertinent to take a close look at the status of their credentials against the broader applicant pool. Perhaps a slightly lower GPA or GRE score contributed to being not selected. Or perhaps there are gaps in one’s CV, such as lacking research experience or minimal hands-on experience. Next moves should be focused on boosting any areas in which the applicant profile may be lacking.
“How will your application strategy next year be similar or different?” After spending a year applying and thoroughly reviewing the programs toward which hopes and expectations had been built, have the goals or desires changed at all? Perhaps you initially applied exclusively to competitive PhD programs in School Psychology, but after further thought are now more open to school psych specialist programs, school counseling programs, or PsyD clinical programs. This drastically alters what is needed in order for you to be competitive. Alternatively, perhaps you applied solely to competitive PhD programs in Clinical Neuropsychology and remain committed to that path–you now need to bolster various aspects of your credentials to improve your chances for next time.
“What will you do with a gap year?” An effective gap year boosts your credentials and improves your CV. Some gap year plans can be really transformative (e.g., taking a job as a research lab manager or study coordinator, or joining some kind of clinic or practice in an entry-level role) whereas others are far less likely to enhance your future chances of graduate school acceptance (e.g., working retail or bartending). That might seem blunt and insensitive, but if one’s envisioned gap year amounts to simply “waiting and trying again” then it is not the best strategy. Of course most folks have financial needs and are juggling many responsibilities, but if committed to this career, one needs to take steps in the direction of productivity rather than stagnation. No matter what, the next year will come and go, and there will be certain areas of progress or change in life–what is most crucial and strategic?
“What will you do during the master’s program?” An effective master’s program training experience, if it truly is meant to serve as a stepping-stone* toward a competitive doctoral program, should include not just coursework but also opportunities for growing in key ways and expanding one’s CV. The program should propel research involvement and productivity, allot numerous opportunities for hands-on training in applied settings, and offer an opportunity to develop a stronger GPA than what was earned in undergrad. This is why, for students with impeccable credentials upon completion of their bachelor’s, a terminal master’s may not be necessary because it simply will not have enough value added beyond what they’ve already done. However, for other students this is a great way to become more competitive. *Remember that if goals have changed and a terminal master’s degree is now desirable for its own sake, then much of this is a moot discussion!

Essentially Identical
Basically, the key piece of feedback here is that your “gap year” and a master’s program should both be trying to do the same thing for you–enhance your credentials and experience such that you are successful the next time you apply to that competitive graduate program. If you can make progress on research projects, gain experience in a mental health setting, and continue to build your professional network all while not being enrolled in a master’s program, then do it. If you feel that you need the structure of a master’s program to guide you through those goals and it’s worth the tuition (and especially if you want a chance to develop a GPA which is stronger than the one you had in undergrad), then perhaps a master’s degree is the right move. Either way, you should spend next year reading, writing, and applying skills from psychological science such that you are inching ever closer to the career and identity which you really desire!

Foot-in-the-Door Approach
Perhaps it is worth noting that some graduate programs offer a terminal masters and a post-master’s doctoral program, which are separate entities with separate admissions processes (i.e., as opposed to the more common model wherein a student earns a master’s within the track along the way to the doctorate). At such programs, it is sometimes the case that the really successful master’s-level students are able to hop from the terminal master’s to the doctoral program with relative ease, given they’ve already met the faculty and built connections. If this is the case, one is able to essentially get a foot in the door; however, it remains a risk (just like any other master’s program) that the application to the doctoral program would not be accepted, and then one is left with a master’s degree and needing to re-apply elsewhere for a doctorate, hoping to transfer credits in. In the cases when it works well, a major benefit is that no courses would require repeating from one program to the next. Again, however, this program setup is not as common.

It’s Not a Full Year
One quick final note is to think carefully about the timing of this whole experience. Although it is referred to as a “gap year” between iterations of applying to graduate school, the gap is not actually a full 12 months. By the time someone knows for certain that they were not accepted to any graduate programs in a given round of applications, it is usually springtime (e.g., late-March or early-April). For many people, this is also happening while finishing up their last year of college, meaning the felt “gap” does not really start until around May after classes are finished up. Then, the next round of applications will have deadlines beginning in early December, meaning that the bulk of the application work is occurring in October and November leading up to those due dates. Looking at it this way, that gap year is now a gap six months! So, what can you do in just half a year to boost your credentials as effectively and efficiently as possible? Don’t panic, but don’t stall either–take action now because time is limited!