Degree In Sight

Gregory Webster earned good grades as a psychology major at Colorado College and scored well on his GREs. So it came as a rude shock when every doctoral psychology program he applied to rejected him: "I was 0 for 20," he recalls.

The weak point in his application? A lack of research experience: His undergraduate program had been heavy on coursework, light on lab work. His solution? Earn a master's degree offering plenty of hands-on research.

Webster found that degree-a general research master's intended as a "feeder" into doctoral work-at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. And sure enough, after two years there studying such topics as resource-sharing in families and the relationship between self-esteem and aggression, Webster received six acceptances from doctoral programs. What's more, his chosen program in social psychology at the University of Colorado doesn't require a master's degree of those who already have one.

The research grounding Webster gained from William and Mary accounts for why many doctoral psychology programs-slightly more than 80%, according to APA's Research Office-offer or require a master's. Some, such as the school psychology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, won't even officially grant enrollees doctoral candidate status until they complete the master's.

The psychology department at Miami University of Ohio has a similar setup, says its chair, Karen Maitland Schilling, PhD, because "it provides a real opportunity to assess students' research capability-key to doctoral success."

Not only does the requirement give students a chance to test their research stamina, but it also can motivate those who might otherwise procrastinate, says Miami student Robert Rydell, who defended his master's thesis in April 2002 and is continuing on for his social psychology doctorate.

"It gets students in the mindset of doing research and gives them a concrete goal to work toward," he explains.

For practice-oriented students, the master's may yield even more immediate rewards: Employers and internship sites often require new hires to have a master's with a license because of insurance companies' reimbursement requirements in many states.

Still, not all types of programs consider the master's a necessity-some, more often strictly research- or mentorship-based programs-skip it altogether to avoid piling extra requirements and burdens on students, among other reasons, notes Schilling, chair of the Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology.


 

REQUIREMENT RATIONALE

Among programs that do require a predoctoral master's, the intent is often to help students transition more smoothly from the bachelor's to graduate level, says Schilling, by providing:

  • A dissertation practice run. Students learn key research know-how, from collaborating with others to formatting studies to working with reviewers, says Rydell. In addition, the master's thesis allows students to get a taste of what's to come with their doctoral dissertation.

"The jump from undergraduate research project to dissertation is enormous, and the master's allows an intermediate step," Schilling explains. "A lot of false starts and inappropriate strategies students may have taken on in the dissertation are avoided by completing the master's thesis." In the process, some students, she notes, may find that conducting research isn't a good fit with their goals; they may decide against a research-oriented track or even forego the dissertation, and the doctorate, entirely.

  • A point of progress. Students receive official recognition of their graduate work, whether or not they complete the doctorate, notes Paul Nelson, PhD, APA's deputy executive director for education. "It may be that you're not sure you want to go on with the doctorate, or you want to go somewhere else for it, and this marks where you left off," he explains.

  • A chance for publication. Students with strong enough master's theses can publish them in journals, a particular boon to those seeking academic jobs, says Schilling.

"For those positions, taking initiative as first author is increasingly important," she notes.

  • An employment edge. Students with a master's-especially those in practice-oriented areas-can more easily find field-related work while earning their degrees, says Cynthia Baum, PhD, president of the National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology and also of Argosy University/Washington, DC. For example, students can serve as research aides and teach at some institutions, such as community colleges. What's more, in clinical practice areas, facilities in many states only hire students with master's degrees or higher; insurers often won't reimburse for anything below that.

That's one of the reasons the Derner Institute at Long Island-based Adelphi University has kept its master's requirement, says Robert Mendelsohn, PhD, a professor there. "For a while, the master's was seen by some as just an appendage," he says. "Now it's useful again."


 

THE DIRECT-TO-DOCTORATE ALTERNATIVE

Not all programs consider it so useful, however. A case in point: Stanford University's cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology programs admit students directly into doctoral candidacy with no master's prerequisite.

The reasoning, according to Kalanit Grill-Spector, PhD, a Stanford assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, is that students' research ability is hopefully already demonstrated. Stanford prefers students who already have significant research experience, gained either as an undergraduate, by working in a lab after graduation or through previous graduate work, explains Grill-Spector.

Other institutions see both sides of the issue and make the master's optional. One of them is Argosy University, which, says Baum, offers the direct-to-doctorate option to accommodate particularly directed students and also to avoid burdening students with bureaucratic requirements. The option also allows students to fit their degree paths to their career goals and schedules.

But, Baum admits, "My personal bias is to advise students to complete the master's. It can give you an edge on the internship and job market, and provides an additional piece of scholarship."

Indeed, for some students, like Webster, it can make over a career. Though his time-to-doctorate is lengthier than usual-seven years or more instead of four or five-"getting the master's," he says, "made the difference between night and day."

"The jump from undergraduate research project to dissertation is enormous, and the master's allows an intermediate step. A lot of false starts and inappropriate strategies students may have taken on in the dissertation are avoided by completing the master's thesis."

Karen Maitland Schilling
Miami University of Ohio