Degree In Sight

Student figure striving in books

Christopher Beasley was partway through a master's program in clinical psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago when he developed an interest in community psychology—in particular, how to help people overcome addictions and help prisoners effectively re-enter society.

Unfortunately, none of his professors focused on these areas, so he began thinking about transferring to a doctoral program that specialized in them.

With guidance from his mentor, he found an intriguing program at nearby DePaul University, the Center for Community Research headed by Leonard Jason, PhD. As he finished his master's, he volunteered to work with Jason on a project studying a resident-run substance-abuse recovery program, which included former prisoners. Feeling a strong kinship with the project, he applied to Jason's program, was accepted, and had a year of coursework waived.

"Finding this environment has instilled a passion in me for this work," he says. "It demonstrates the power that ecological systems can have on people's motivation and well-being,"

Beasley is one of hundreds of psychology master's students who go on to get a doctorate each year. Some discover there's more to the field than they knew, or they decide they want to increase their marketability and credibility. Others had pursued a master's hoping it would increase their chances of getting into a doctoral program.

Given that doctoral programs vary widely in terms of cost, financial aid and how many credits they're willing to transfer from your master's program, before you make a leap, experts advise you to:

Find a good fit

When looking into doctoral programs, use all of the tools available to you—fellow students, professors, leaders in the field whose work you admire, and books, including "Graduate Study in Psychology" (APA, 2009), which describes 600 psychology graduate programs in the United States and Canada.

Also, tap into PsycNET, APA's online search system for all of its databases. (To use this service, you must belong to an institution that subscribes to it or have an individual subscription.) Go to psycnet.apa.org and type in key words in your areas of interest, such as "memory and aging" or "child development," and set the "date published" field to bring up only current results. The search will yield not only major journal articles in that area but—on the left side bar, under the heading "Author Affiliation"—the 10 institutions that have been most active in those specialty areas. These institutions and professors are good ones to begin investigating and setting up meetings with.  

Meet the players

Just as Beasley did, volunteer with people you might want as a mentor or supervisor to learn more about a program, says York University doctoral student Jeremy Burman, who transferred from a master's program. He also attended several conferences in his area of interest to get to know the players in the field. "I went to a lot of meetings before figuring out where I wanted to end up," he says.

Weigh pros and cons

Once you've narrowed your choices to a few programs, do a cost-benefit analysis of each school, including how its research focus and theoretical orientation fit with your interests, as well as its costs, financial aid opportunities and lifestyle factors, advises University of Scranton psychology professor John Norcross, PhD, co-author of the "Insider's Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology" (Guilford, 2008).

For many grad students, a major consideration is money—no small concern, as the average debt of psychology doctoral students tripled from 1995 to 2005, according to APA's Center for Workforce Studies. Programs range widely in how many debt-free aid dollars they can provide. Research-oriented PhD programs offer many opportunities, while freestanding PsyD programs offer almost none, Norcross says.

To determine where your prospective program lies, check the department's Web site. APA's Commission on Accreditation requires departments to provide information on their cost, financial aid opportunities, how long students take to graduate and, for programs that require internships to graduate, what percentage of students find APA-accredited internships and how many eventually get licensed. You may need to dig a little to find this information: Look for such key terms as "applicant data," "student outcome data" and "disclosure data," and be prepared to click through a few pages to find it. Having this information up front can save you time, energy and disappointment, Norcross notes.

Check transfer policies

Be sure to find out how many credits a program is likely to transfer. Often, there is both a program policy on transferring credits and an institutional one—so check both, says James W. Lichtenberg, PhD, training director for the University of Kansas counseling psychology program. Programs can be more restrictive than the universities in which they are housed, he explains.

Some programs will waive requirements rather than transfer credits if you can demonstrate you have covered the same material as a class they offer, Lichtenberg adds. To this end, hang on to your course syllabi, as they let faculty see the specific material your master's courses covered. (Your department secretary should have this information if you haven't saved it.) And be prepared to take an exam on the material if necessary, he advises.

Find a faculty sponsor to help you navigate these issues, adds Sheila Woody, PhD, director of clinical training at the University of British Columbia. The sponsor can help you figure out courses you must definitely retake, apprise you of funding opportunities and tell you what the admissions process entails for someone in your circumstance, she says. If you're applying to a research-oriented program, it makes sense to contact the person who would be your research mentor; if you're applying to a clinically oriented one, ask the training director whom to tap, she advises.

Talk with students

A doctoral program may look good on paper, but find out for sure from people in the program before committing to one, suggests Keida Robertson-Borgella. She finished a dual master's degree in counseling psychology and forensic psychology at Marymount University in the fall of 2008 and is applying to a doctoral program at The George Washington University.

Robertson-Borgella searched out current and former students using professional and psychology student networks such as LinkedIn and studentdoctor.net. She asked them about the quality and content of the program as well as how they juggle coursework and practica with work and a family, because she and her husband are considering having children. She's also asked students about their success rates in getting APA-accredited internships in the Washington, D.C., area.

"Knowing things like how many hours a week are required for practica and whether students are able to work outside the program while they are in school are important so I can plan accordingly," she says.

Strut your stuff

Programs will be vetting you at least as much as you're vetting them, so consider what will make you most competitive in their eyes, recommends Robert deMayo, PhD, Pepperdine University associate dean of psychology.

One mistake master's students make is focusing exclusively on grades. Programs look for much more than a good GPA, because most master's students do well in that realm, he notes. To stand out, demonstrate that you've gotten clinical or research experience, he advises. In the clinical arena, for example, that might mean getting supervised experience at a suicide prevention center or training in applied behavioral analysis with developmentally disabled children. In the research realm, it could mean volunteering as a research assistant on a faculty member's project. Be sure to collect recommendation letters from your research or clinical supervisors, deMayo adds.

In your interview, discuss your involvement in these areas in a sophisticated way, noting the larger impact of a project—not just your day-to-day duties, he also urges.

"Do your best to demonstrate that you're someone who takes initiative and will be a psychological professional who represents the program well for many years to come," he says. 

Consider retaking the GRE

Redo the test if your scores weren't stellar the first time, deMayo advises. "If you have two students who look exactly the same on all the other criteria, and one is in the 90th percentile of the GRE and the other is in the 50th percentile, you can guess who has the competitive advantage," he says.

Keep the faith

Don't be discouraged by the complexity of the process. Getting into the right program can set you on the right career path for life, say those who've done it. After following a circuitous path from bachelor's to master's at two institutions and checking out a few different program areas, Burman is now happily ensconced at a York University psychology doctoral program, where he is using historical texts to inform psychological research.

"There are so many different programs, so many professors, so many different areas of research, and so many different approaches, that if you don't feel like you're in a place that fits, you can probably find it elsewhere," he says. "You want to be in a program where you stay up late and forget to go to sleep because you're so excited about what you're doing."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

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Percentage of students who enter a doctoral program from a master's program

Counseling psychology PhD programs: 67%    
Clinical psychology PhD programs: 20%    
PsyD programs: 30%   
  
Source: Norcross, J.C., Ellis, J.L., & Sayette, M.A. Getting in and getting money: A comparative analysis of admission standards, acceptance rates, and financial assistance across the research-practice continuum in clinical psychology programs. Training and Education in Professional Psychology (in press).