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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2000
Master's and Myth:
Little-Known Information
About a Popular Degree

Tomme R. Actkinson, BA, MA, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (TX)

Undergraduates and their advisors often know little about the master's degree in psychology. This leads to misinformation and myth about the master's alternative. Seven common myths are discussed.

Undergraduate psychology majors are often advised as if there were only one route to follow professionally. This traditional model assumes that persons will pursue a PhD or PsyD. Nontraditional alternatives, such as obtaining the master's degree as an interim educational step or for employment purposes, are discouraged as inappropriate or unprofessional.

Students may have also heard the value and professionalism of the master's degree questioned. Quereshi and Kuchan (1988) noted that, "The master's degree in psychology continues to be the subject of considerable controversy" (p. 594). Trent's (1993) opening statement in a more recent article followed the same vein when he said, "When the topic of master's-level training in psychology is broached, controversy abounds . . ." (p. 586) and, citing Woods (1971), that ". . . Wilhelm Wundt raised questions about subdoctoral training even as psychology was establishing itself as a scientific discipline" (p. 586).

The American Psychological Association (APA) does not actively discourage pursuing the master's degree. APA, instead, tends to ignore it. For example, whereas APA's publication Getting In: A Step-By-Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School (1993) does discuss some pros and cons of a master's degree, there are only two pages of text devoted to the topic in this 221-page book. Students heading for master's programs and their advisors are left to cut and paste through the rest of the information, much of which only applies to doctoral programs.

The fact that there is a lot of myth and misinformation about the master's degree is illustrated by some of the questions and comments addressed to me in the 8 years I was director of the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor's (UMHB) master's program. Typically, questions arose after a student had talked either to a faculty advisor or other students at a doctoral-granting institution. On occasion, the questions and comments were spurred by a discussion with a professional psychologist. What follows are examples of some of the myths that seemed to underlie the questions and comments.

Myths and Misinformation

  1. Everyone should go directly for the doctorate. There is seldom, if ever, a good reason for getting a master's.

  2. A good master's program will be APA-approved/accredited.

  3. You cannot do counseling/ psychotherapy with only a master's degree. Alternatively, you cannot get licensed with only a master's.

  4. If you first get a master's, then decide to get a PhD, you will have to start over. None of your work will transfer. An allied view is that getting a master's first will hurt your chances of getting into a PhD program in the future.

  5. Not many people get master's. Almost everyone goes directly to the PhD.

  6. You cannot get a job with only the master's.

  7. People with the master's are not really psychotherapists/counselors. "Even plumbers can get the LPC."

Taking these in order:

1. Everyone should go directly for the doctorate. There is seldom, if ever, a good reason for getting a master's.
As with any good myth, this may sound plausible, but it is too simplistic an explanation. Students may choose to do a master's degree in preference to a doctorate for a variety of reasons. For example:

Time. The time needed to achieve the degree--1 to 2 years for a master's as opposed to 6 to 7 for a doctorate.
Money. This includes both the cost of the program and the money lost while attending school. Even a person on full financial aid has lost several income-producing years. The doctorate is an expensive degree.

Program Availability. A doctoral program may not be available in the student's immediate geographic area. If not, can the student relocate to a doctoral location?

Family Considerations. Similar to the point above, can the family relocate? In addition, can the family afford the stress levels associated with graduate work over a protracted period of time? With more nontraditional students seeking advanced degrees, these considerations become of major importance.

Lower Admission Requirements. APA's book Getting In (1993) notes that PhD programs require, on the average, a GPA of 3.2 and a GRE minimum total of 1200 on the Verbal and Math portions, with a minimum of at least 550 on each test. Master's programs on the average require lower scores.

Part-Time Study. Some (perhaps many) master's programs offer part-time study; most PhD programs do not. Work, family considerations, etc. may make this a desirable alternative.
Night Courses. Again, these are not typical of doctoral programs. If a person must work during the day, this may be a consideration.

Flexible Initial Enrollment. Most doctoral programs only allow initial enrollment in the fall. For a fall graduate, this may mean a long wait.

Employment. "Most important, a master's degree provides sufficient training and credentials for a large number of employment arenas; there are many career opportunities of master's degree holders, particularly in nonclinical areas" (Getting In, 1993, p. 53). Further, as Humphreys (1996) noted, under managed health care systems, the trend may be to hire master's-level psychotherapists in preference to more expensive clinical PhDs.

2. A good master's program will be APA-approved/accredited.
Although there has been much written and debated over the proper role of the master's degree, APA has not been able to resolve the issues (Trent, 1993; Woods, 1971). APA has not even been able to agree on what to do about accrediting master's-level programs. There is no "accrediting" by APA of master's programs.
Woods (1971), in a delightful 20-year review of APA's concern with master's-level training, noted:

  • About every 2 years APA would become concerned with subdoctoral training.

  • A committee would be formed, which would meet, report, and be "discharged with thanks."

  • Nothing would come of the recommendations.

  • Time would pass, APA would once again become concerned, appoint a new committee, etc.

Woods further noted that several studies had found:

  • A need for more subdoctorally trained individuals, as there was a real social need for master's-trained individuals in professional practice. (Note: This is still true today, as evidenced by the ready employability of master's-degreed individuals.

  • Resistance on the part of doctoral-granting programs to instituting master's programs at their universities because they feared that efforts along these lines might weaken doctoral programs.

Woods' 1971 report is still applicable today. Murray (1995), writing in the APA Monitor, had an article expressing concerns of high-ranking APA officers over the large number of master's degrees given and how these individuals are trained and utilized. APA is once again studying the matter.

Since APA does not approve /accredit master's-level programs, the idea that good programs will be "approved" is obviously a myth. It is, however, a persistent one. One of the most frequently asked questions by prospective students (and even some who have been in our program awhile) is: Is your master's program APA-approved? While this may be an important consideration in choosing a doctoral program, it has no relevance at the master's level.

3. You cannot do counseling/psychotherapy with only a master's degree. Alternatively, you cannot get licensed with only a master's.
This myth is in keeping with APA's views on who should do psychotherapy. As former APA President Ron Fox has stated, "APA asserts that a PhD is the minimum degree required to prepare a practitioner for independent psychology practice. Master's-level training is less clear. . . ." (in Murray, 1995, p. 47). Part of the question, then, becomes whether you can be licensed to do psychotherapy (supervised or not) with only a master's degree.

Since licensure varies so much from state to state, I will primarily address this issue as it pertains to Texas. There are several forms of licensure in Texas for master's-trained individuals. The most common are the Psychological Associate (PA) and the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). In addition, Texas now recognizes master's-level licensure as a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology (LSSP). Other master's-degreed persons are also engaged in counseling, e.g., individuals with a Master of Social Work (MSW), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT), and persons certified by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT).

Of these, the most restrictive is psychology's PA--these license holders must be directly supervised, and this supervision continues as long as one works as a PA. Perhaps the fact that no PA may work unsupervised is where the myth originated. It may also be why many people seek alternative forms of licensure outside of psychology. Holders of master's degrees have actively lobbied state legislatures to recognize their professional status through various forms of licensure. Twenty states now recognize the LPC, and it is pending in several others. Cummings (1995) stated, "Psychology's failure to find a place for the master's-level practitioner has resulted in the formation of a subdoctoral psychotherapy profession that now has statutory recognition in almost all of the 50 states" (p. 13).

4. If you first get a master's, then decide to get a PhD, you will have to start over. None of your work will transfer. An allied view is that getting a master's first will hurt your chances of getting into a PhD program in the future.
Whether the foregoing statements are true or not depends in large part on which doctoral program one might later attend. A survey by Tarver, Mesecke, and Actkinson (1994) of all doctoral-granting programs in the Southwestern Psychological Association region found a wide variance in the number of transfer credits accepted. A majority of schools responding (67%) would accept at least 15 hours in transfer. Thirty-three percent accepted 30 or more hours. One school required the master's for consideration for the doctoral program.

For most schools studied, having a master's would be worth about 1 year off of the doctoral program time, but since this varies so widely, students who plan to obtain a doctorate later need to check with the school(s) to which they might later apply. Perhaps another key question would be how soon after they finish the master's will they be entering a doctoral program? The question of transfer obviously has more relevance if the transfer is to be immediately after completing the master's than if it is to occur 5 or 10 years in the future.

In terms of master's training hurting acceptance, we have found primary criteria such as grades and GREs to be stronger predictors than master's training. Several of our graduates from the UMHB master's degree program have applied for admission and been accepted to doctoral programs. One recent graduate of our master's program was accepted to six doctoral programs, including APA clinical ones. Apparently, obtaining the master's first was not a hindrance. Further, in some cases, graduate work may show evidence of increasing maturity and help offset poor undergraduate grades.

5. Not many people get master's degrees. Almost everyone goes directly to the PhD.
While APA has not been able to resolve the issue of master's-level training, the number of universities offering master's degrees has steadily increased, as has the number of graduates. Strickland (1987) indicated there were 8,000 master's degrees awarded in psychology as compared to only 3,000 doctorates. Murray (1995) reported that studies by APA's research office show that, in 1993, 3,000 students received the doctorate, while about 9,000 earned master's degrees. Norcross, Hanych, and Terranova (1996) found that, between 1973 and 1993, the number of doctoral programs almost doubled (566 to 1,089) and the total number of master's programs quadrupled (178 to 931). Having come into psychology during the behaviorist reign, I cannot help but speculate if all of this growth does not imply some reinforcement.

Students who are thinking about pursuing a master's should realize that they are not alone and, despite comments to the contrary, if they earn a master's degree, they will have a lot of company. As advisors, we should be aware that there is a far greater number of students who get master's degrees than doctorates and, if we take our advising role seriously, we should be prepared to advise them correctly.

6. You cannot get a good job with only the master's.
One place where this statement is no myth is in academia. If a person wants to teach at the college level, that individual should obtain the doctorate. While part-time employment is often available at the community or junior college level, chances for full-time employment (at least in psychology) are slim to nonexistent. Of course, college teaching opportunities are not all that good, even for holders of the doctorate.

Other than in teaching, the employment picture for the master's-degreed individual is good. As was noted earlier, the APA publication Getting In (1993) states, "Most important, a master's degree provides sufficient training and credentials for a large number of employment arenas; there are many career opportunities of master's degree holders, particularly in non-clinical areas" (p. 53). In addition, several studies have shown that the master's-degreed practitioners find work that is relevant to their field of study (Dale 1988; Perlman, 1985).

In accord with these findings, a survey by Cronin, Wentzel, and Statz (1995) of graduates of UMHB's master's program in psychology and counseling found that 98% of the respondents had either obtained relevant employment (72%), advanced in their current job (23%), or were enrolled in a doctoral program (3%). All respondents were employed in the mental health field or in education counseling except the 3% who were enrolled in doctoral programs.

Further support for the employability of master's-level psychotherapists is given by Humphreys (1996), who noted that under managed health care the emphasis will be on subdoctoral therapists because they are cheaper. The thrust of Humphrey's article was the need for doctoral clinical psychologists to start to focus on other areas of employment because, in the future, psychotherapy will primarily be done by master's-level practitioners.

7. People with the master's, even those who are licensed, are not really therapists. "Even plumbers can get the LPC."
This elitist view is somewhat unique to psychology. Other fields, such as education and social work, have found master's-level counselors to be quite adequate. Indeed, the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is not only a highly respected degree, but forms a major employment competition group to those holding the MA in psychology.

One might question where the elitism reflected in the above views came from historically and if, in fact, the views are justified. Historically, psychology developed along two fronts: the scientific and the medical.

On the scientific side, one did research and made contributions to scientific knowledge. Employment was often at large colleges and universities and required the doctorate. Traditionally, a person receiving a PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, was a learned scholar. Usually, this person was employed at a university as a teacher and researcher. A master's-level individual was a highly trained practitioner or applier of knowledge.

At the university level, which followed the scientist/scholar model, one was not considered a full scientist until he or she had done an important initial piece of research (the dissertation) and had earned the Doctor of Philosophy degree. Indeed, there was often a side controversy which occurred between "pure" scientist scholars and unscientific professional practitioners, especially clinicians. The author still remembers one of his professors, an experimental psychologist, referring to clinicians as "chicken bone rattlers," implying that they practiced voodoo or medicine-man magic, rather than engaging in science.

Psychology's clinical side has drawn its roots from the field of medicine, most notably psychiatry. Schultz and Schultz (1992) noted that clinical psychology was not the major area in psychology until after World War II. Then, with the need to treat many returning soldiers, there occurred a tremendous growth in the number of Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals. Concurrent with this growth was an increased need for mental health practitioners, primarily doctors, psychiatrists, and clinical psychologists. As Humphreys (1996) noted, this meant that clinical psychologists were now to start doing psychotherapy. Since psychotherapy had previously been the domain of medical doctors (psychiatrists), the new psychotherapists would also have to be doctors.

In the medical model of health care, there has always been a major distinction between "DOCTORS" and lower level staff. Following this medical model, it is not surprising that a distinction has emerged in psychology between doctors (i.e., the clinical PhD or PsyD) and a subdoctoral class of second-class citizenry which, no matter the level of skill and experience attained, is never granted the right to practice. Indeed, the author has been told by clinical psychologists in his region that persons holding the master's degree should never do counseling or psychotherapy, but should limit their endeavors to administering psychological tests, and then only under direct supervision of a PhD.

As further evidence of this second-class status, consider the following: Murray (1995) quoted APA President Robert J. Resnick, PhD, who said, "Because the doctoral degree requires much more training and a one-year internship, it is the credential needed to call yourself a psychologist," and Fox, who stated, "APA asserts that a PhD is the minimum degree required to prepare a practitioner for independent psychology practice. Master's-level training is less clear . . . ." (p. 47). Further support for the idea that, in psychology, the practitioner status of the master's degree has never attained high professional recognition, is found in APA's guide to graduate school admission which states, "Indeed a person with a master's degree cannot even call him/herself a psychologist" (Getting In, 1993, p. 53).

Over the years, I have developed a kind of hazy status, caste, pecking order, hierarchy of degrees:

The Psychological Pecking Order

PhDClinical APA-approved school
PsyDClinical, APA
PhDClinical, Non-APA
EdD Counseling
MA or MS Psychology
(Actually, for proper spacing, this goes about a half page lower)

[*Perhaps a better way would be to have the PhD in experimental psychology out to the side, equivalent to clinical doctorates. For the most part, however, if one were to look at beginning university salaries, number of advertisements for a particular type of doctorate, etc., I believe the above would hold.]

Is there really this degree of snobbery in the psychological ranks? If so, is it justified? While these questions are debatable, consider the following:

  • Only doctors can be licensed as psychologists.

  • In Texas, persons with the master's degree, who become licensed as psychological associates, must forevermore be supervised by a licensed psychologist. No matter how skilled or experienced the PA becomes, this supervision must continue.

  • While APA's publication Getting In (1993) does discuss some pros and cons of a master's degree, there are only two pages devoted to the topic in its 221 pages.

  • Annis, Tucker, and Baker (1978) reported an anti-master's bias by clinical and community psychology programs.

  • Quereshi and Kuchan (1988) report several studies in which there is an anti-master's bias by PhD programs, especially APA-approved clinical programs. They also indicated that their programs' graduates who had remained at the master's level rather than pursuing a PhD were less satisfied, perhaps because they were ". . . haunted by the stigma of being little more than second-class citizens in most professional settings . . ." (p. 598).

  • "No master's-level person should ever be engaged in individual counseling/psychotherapy." (comment by a Temple, Tex., psychologist)

  • "Even plumbers can become LPC's." (Comment made at the 1994 SWPA meeting in Tulsa, Okla.)

Having said all of the above, one might wonder if the snobbery in the ranks is justified.

Perhaps, following the scientist/scholar model, rank distinctions are justified due to contributions made to science. If we look at traditional distinctions between master's-degreed individuals as practitioners and doctoral-trained persons as scholars or learned individuals, this argument would no longer seem to apply. After all, professional clinicians and counselors are currently arguing for the PsyD, a nonresearch professional practitioner designation. They base their arguments on the belief that there should be a distinction made between professional practitioners and those engaged in purely scientific or scholarly activities. (Fox, 1994; Shapiro and Wiggins, 1994). If these arguments are allowed, the major difference in master's-trained individuals truly becomes not one of scholarship, but rather (excuse the pun), one of degree. As noted in the earlier mentioned pecking order, social work has made good use of the master's for professional practitioners. Why can't psychology?

Perhaps the pecking order is based, however, on differences in terms of proven capabilities. After all, a 4-to-7-year PhD or PsyD program should produce a more qualified professional than, say, a 2-year master's degree. Criteria, however, are hard to establish. For example, as Christensen and Jacobson (1994) pointed out in their survey of the literature, there is nothing to indicate that therapists at the PhD level are more effective than those at the MA or even lower levels. Indeed, nonprofessionals were sometimes the most effective. While I cannot help but believe that the clinical doctorate training must be worth something, it is hard to prove what the additional training actually produces in the therapeutic arena.

PhDs and MAs take the same licensure exam. MAs have a lower cutoff score. It would seem that, if the licensure exam has predictive validity, an MA who passed the exam at the doctoral level would be entitled to be certified at that higher level (i.e., psychologist), rather than be held to the lower level of psychological associate. Some would argue that the written exam is not all that is required to be a licensed psychologist in Texas. In addition, they would say, an oral exam is required of all doctoral candidates who pass the written test. Perhaps, but how many persons actually fail the oral portion? In 1996 only 7% failed to pass the orals (Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, 1996). The oral examination does not appear to account for much of the variance.

Finally, I believe that status distinctions should be questioned in terms of skill and experience. Despite the results reported in Christensen and Jacobson (1994), I cannot help but believe that a person with 4 to 7 years of graduate school should possess capabilities that no 2-year-level master's degree can produce. On the other hand, I find it doubtful that a new PhD with no experience (other than internship) can match a skilled practitioner with 10 or 15 years' experience, even though the latter has only the master's degree. Psychology's decision to allow only persons possessing the doctorate to do independent private practice seems unjustified.

I have spent rather more time with this issue than any other because it will be the hardest with which to deal for many at the master's level. There is a pecking order in psychology and, though it may be unjustified, it will have to be faced. Knowing that it is unjustified may be enough for some. If status, however, is a major concern, the MSW may be a more attractive route than the MA. Alternatively, the master's in psychology might serve as an interim step to the PhD.

Summary and Conclusions
How should faculty advisors sum this up to their advisees who are contemplating graduate programs and want information about the master's degree? I would say, "If you want a doctorate and have the resources needed, the time, money, family support, etc., by all means, go for it!" Justified or not, there are status distinctions between having the master's and the doctorate. Unfortunately, there is snobbery in our psychological ranks. On the other hand, there are also a lot of good reasons why people go for the master's, not the least of them being professional employment. Besides, with three times as many people getting master's every year than getting doctorates, one will have lots of company!

American Psychological Association. (1993). Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology. Washington, DC: Author.

Annis, L. V., Tucker, G. H., & Baker, D. A. (1978). What happens to PhD program applicants who have master's degrees? American Psychologist, 33, 703-705.

Christensen, A., & Jacobson, N. S. (1994). Who (or what) can do psychotherapy? The status and challenge of nonprofessional therapies. Psychological Science, 5, 8-14.

Cronin, C., Wentzel, L., & Statz, R. (1995, April). Is there life after the master's degree? Paper presented at the 41st annual meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association, San Antonio, TX.

Cummings, N. A. (1995). Impact of managed care on employment and training: A primer for survival. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 26, 10-15.

Dale, Robert H. I. (1988). State psychological associations, licensing criteria, and the "master's issue." Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 19, 589-593.

Fox, R. E. (1994). Training professional psychologists for the twenty-first century. American Psychologist, 49, 200-206.

Humphreys, K. (1996). Clinical psychologists as psychotherapists: History, future, and alternatives. American Psychologist, 51, 190-197.

Murray, B. (1995, April). Master's program growth spurs educational concerns. APA Monitor, p. 47.

Norcross, J. C., Hanych, J. M., & Terranova, R. D. (1996). Graduate study in psychology: 1992-1993. American Psychologist, 51, 631-643.

Perlman, B. (1985). Training and career issues of APA-affiliated master-level clinicians. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 16, 753-767.

Quereshi, M. Y., & Kuchan, A. M. (1988). The master's degree in clinical psychology: Longitudinal program evaluation. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 19, 594-599.

Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (1992). A history of modern psychology (5th ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich.

Shapiro, A. E., & Wiggins, J. G. (1994). A PsyD degree for every practitioner: Truth in labeling. American Psychologist, 49, 207-210.

Strickland, B. R. (1987). On the threshold of the second century of psychology. American Psychologist, 42, 1055-1056.

Tarver, J., Mesecke, A., & Actkinson, T. R. (1995, April). Going on: Acceptability of the nontraditional doctoral student. Paper presented at the 41st annual meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association, San Antonio, TX.

Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists. (1996, Fall). Newsletter, 9(3), 8.

Trent, J. T. (1993). Issues and concerns in master's-level training and employment. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 49, 586-592.

Woods, P. J. (1971). A history of APA's concern with the master's degree: Or "Discharged with thanks." American Psychologist, 26, 696-707.

Tomme R. Actkinson, PhD, earned his BA in psychology at the University of Texas and his MA from St. Mary's University. Following four years in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, he went on to earn his PhD in experimental psychology at Texas Christian University with an emphasis in cognition (most notably cognitive learning strategies). Following graduation he was employed at the Army Research Institute's Fort Hood Field Unit where he was engaged in new systems development and human factors research. In 1981, he accepted a position as chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor where he initiated a master's degree program in 1987. He has continued his interest in student development and cognitive learning strategies to this day.

Copyright 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



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