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The Master's Degree in Psychology

Baron Perlman
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

Almost 150 departments in the United States and Canada offer the master's degree in psychology as a terminal degree (APA, 1999). If you are interested in an advanced degree in psychology and employment in the field after graduation, you need to decide if this terminal degree fits your needs.


While masters and doctoral programs in psychology share some similarities, one of the biggest dissimilarities is the time needed to complete the degree. Generally the master's takes two years while a Ph.D. or Psy.D. requires four or five years of study and an additional year of internship in some applied subdisciplines (the next chapter provides information about these two types of doctoral degrees). Master's programs can vary in the breath and depth of what you learn, but a good master's program can be as demanding--and as rewarding--as doctoral study.

My experience, supported by independent research, indicates that there are many opportunities for bright, energetic, skilled MA's or MS's in psychology. Geography can influence these opportunities, with employment requirements varying widely from state to state, and even within states.

This chapter discusses four areas pertinent to the master's degree: (a) the strengths and weaknesses of the degree; (b) educational opportunities for undergraduate majors and nonmajors; (c) admission standards for master's programs; and (d) professional concerns such as employment, supervision, and licensing/certification.

My goal is to provide practical information. A better understanding of the master's degree will help you make a better decision about continuing in school or seeking employment. While the bachelor's program is typically broad based, graduate school requires a narrow, more focused curriculum. Graduate school can be exciting, but it is also time consuming and rigorous. You'll be more likely to succeed if you have a clear understanding of your motivation and some idea of what to expect.

Strengths and Limitations of the Master's Degree in Psychology

Students usually apply to master's programs in psychology for one of two reasons: they have enjoyed psychology as undergraduates and want to further their knowledge, and/or they are seeking a job that requires a graduate degree (but not necessarily a doctorate). Masters and doctoral degrees are different career options. As you learn about the differences and how they affect your career options, the choice between a master's and a Ph.D. or Psy.D. will become clearer.

My first recommendation is to choose the career and graduate education that makes the most sense to you. Study your alternatives. You may decide to opt for a terminal master's degree and seek employment, or a terminal master's with the option to go on to doctoral work. On the other hand, you may decide you want to work toward a doctoral degree from the start. Capable, motivated students who know that the work and responsibilities they want require a doctoral degree, and are willing to make the four to five year commitment, should be encouraged to seek admission to doctoral programs.

Many departments offering a terminal master' s program of study do not offer a doctorate, recognizing that the master's degree is the appropriate and recognized degree for some areas in psychology. For example, elementary and secondary schools recognize the master's as the appropriate degree for their counselors and psychologists. Likewise, a master's in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology allows graduates to work in personnel, training, and organizational development. A recognized terminal master's degree (e.g., counseling, education, I/O) allows recognition as a professional. The master's experimental degree is often aimed at preparing students for doctoral admission, but the private sector also employs graduates with this degree.

Many students are interested in working in clinical psychology with a master's degree, but there is controversy about practicing at this level. Psychologists, state licensing boards, and the health care industry often view the doctorate as the appropriate degree for clinical work. Anyone wishing to be a clinician should learn about the career at both the master's and doctoral level. Some students may be pleased with master's clinical work, others may seriously consider admission to an American Psychological Association (APA) accredited doctoral program.

Opportunities Outside Psychology

Many excellent master's degree choices exist outside of psychology. The master's of social work (MSW) degree may be the finest mental health/human service degree offered nationally. Certain emphases in MBA programs are similar to some I/O curricula. Departments other than psychology may offer master's degrees in school psychology, physical therapy, and counseling. Innovative interdisciplinary programs in health, sports, rehabilitation, geriatrics and other areas are appearing.

Students must do their homework. Many students I have advised have negative attitudes towards social work even though they know little about the value of this degree and the quality of training in many MSW programs. Students are well advised to make graduate school, career, and employment decisions based on facts, not biases.

Good Reasons for Choosing Master's Programs

Master's programs offer many advantages and some disadvantages. One advantage is that the master's degree allows a choice of options for employment.

Proper Level. Some mature, realistic students recognize a master's education as the proper level for their interests and abilities. Some of my greatest joys as a teacher have come from working with students who had no aspirations to a doctorate. They worked hard, were pleased to be getting a graduate education, grew professionally and personally, and became responsible, competent mental health professionals.

The nature of the education. Master's programs can provide an excellent education. Compared to doctoral programs, they can provide smaller, more individualized classes, practicum placements, and instruction. Some students find large universities intimidating, and good master's programs are often found in smaller institutions.

Insurance Policy. Many competent students apply to doctoral programs each year, and some are not accepted. Some of these individuals apply to master' s programs as backups. Enrolled in good master's programs, these students can raise their Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores, gain additional academic, research (e.g., completing a thesis and conducting other research), practical experience, and secure letters of recommendation from graduate faculty. Enrollment in a master's program demonstrates motivation for advanced study and personal maturity. A well-conceived and executed master's thesis also aids in subsequent doctoral applications.

But I offer a word of caution. If you do not want a master's program, do not waste your time and resources or those of the faculty. Some of my most unpleasant teaching experiences occurred with students in our master's program who were angry about being rejected for a doctoral program.

Is this what I want to learn about? Some students want to study developmental psychology, others want to learn more advanced laboratory skills, still others want to be clinicians. For students unsure of their ultimate goals, a master's program may be the ideal way to test their interests and commitments to a career or to doctoral study.

Prelude to Doctoral Study. Students who obtain a master's degree in psychology are not precluded from admittance to doctoral programs (Bonifazi, Crespy, & Rieker, 1997; Perlman, & Dehart, 1985; Quereshi & Kuchan, 1988). A master's degree can be an asset in gaining admission to doctoral study by improving a student's strength in desirable admission criteria. Eighty-one percent of doctoral counseling programs, 74% of doctoral school programs, and 67% of clinical PhD and 64% of clinical PsyD programs surveyed (Bonifazi, Crespy & Rieker, 1997) stated it would be beneficial for applicants to have a completed master's thesis but there was no consensus among programs on what courses, activities or other criteria which make master's students attractive for admission. For any student, master's or not, Graduate Record Exam scores, undergraduate grade point average, recommendations, and research involvement are important admission criteria. A master's education can improve three of the four (students' undergraduate GPAs remain constant once they graduate).

Many students leaving the clinical program in which I worked moved directly to a doctoral program in counseling, I/O, developmental or social psychology, or some Psy.D. clinical programs. Students who applied for admission to an APA accredited clinical doctoral were rarely admitted without additional work experience, usually two to four years. When they then applied to doctoral programs with this experience on their resumes, 86% (24 out of 28) gained acceptance (Perlman & Dehart, 1985); 17 (61%) had been denied admission before master's training.

Some professional schools of psychology offering the Psy.D. degree prefer students with master's degrees. They have demonstrated the ability to do graduate-level academic work, usually have practical experience in the field, and because they are often older and more mature than recent college graduates, they may have more to offer their clients and the graduate faculty working with them.

Nonpsychology majors. These students may have good grade point averages (GPAs), good GRE scores, and good work and/or volunteer experiences. In a master's program, these students can obtain the necessary background and better their chances of finding work or going on for doctoral study in the area.

Take less of my life to educate me. Four or five years in graduate school can seem like eternity. Some undergraduates are simply burned out and cannot face another four years in school. Adults returning to school may not have the time to devote to a doctoral program. A master's allows students to get an education and then move on to a job in less time than a doctoral program.

Foreign students. Some foreign students cannot gain admission to a doctoral program because of limited language skills. A master's program may admit and educate these students, preparing them for doctoral study or giving them skills they can utilize when they return to their home countries.

Geography. Some students have family responsibilities, jobs, or other valid reasons for needing stay close to where they now live and work. An

in-state institution may offer these students the only viable alternative for graduate school, and master's programs may then need to be considered.

Poor Reasons for Choosing a Master's Program

I want to do something and here I am. Some applicants simply want to change jobs either voluntarily or because of layoffs or downsizing. Some find that the academic world protects them from the reality of having to find work, so they want to extend their stay. Such individuals have little understanding of the work and commitment needed for an advanced degree. They apply because it is the path of least resistance; their chances for success are slim.

I want to make more money. "I'm in it for the money" is a common statement faculty hear from students They've heard that a master's in I/0, for example, can lead to a good paying job. If money is the primary motivation, students are likely to lack the commitment and motivation to do well in a graduate education.

Reluctance to move. Some students opt to do their graduate work at the same school they attended as undergraduates, even if they can gain admission to a higher quality program elsewhere. Or they limit their choices for graduate work to schools near their homes when competitive for higher quality programs elsewhere. A word of advice: if you want a high quality graduate education, be prepared to go where it is offered.

Master's Program Opportunities

The 1998-99 APA Graduate Study in Psychology lists 148 departments offering a terminal master's degree. The most frequently listed applied emphases are Clinical (n = 66), Counseling (n = 48), I/O (n = 36), and School Psychology (n = 30). This is comparable to the 67 departments listed as offering clinical training in the 1976-77 guide, but down from the 97 programs listed in 1982-83. Ten departments offered an applied emphasis, often clinical. Additional professional schools offering the Psy.D. degree, some psychology departments moving from master's to doctoral degree status, and changes in health care have contributed to the decline in master's clinical training.

Some subspecialties in psychology offer more opportunity for admission than others. For example, the most common degree listed in the 1998-99 Graduate Study in Psychology was General-Experimental or General Psychology (n = 79). Only three programs offer terminal master's degrees in neuroscience; two programs offer Health Psychology, one Biopsychology, and Psychopharmacology. Few graduate programs exist to meet students' interests in these areas.

Learning About Alternatives

Two questions will help you learn about graduate school opportunities both in and out of psychology. Always ask faculty members, supervisors at a volunteer placement, and peers who else you should talk with about your graduate school and work plans. And when you meet with these people, again ask them who else you should talk with. Secondly, when you talk with individuals about your graduate school plans, ask them if there are additional issues and questions you should have raised.

Make good decisions based on your abilities and interests. For example, if you struggle, and do not believe you can earn a passing grade in statistics courses, perhaps a MSW program makes more sense than a master's psychology program with two semesters of graduate-level statistics. Know what is available.


Applicants to graduate psychology programs need constructive guidance from friends, faculty, professionals in the field, and directors of programs to which they apply. Read some of the materials in the recommended reading section at the end of this chapter. The APA directory of graduate programs lists extensive information about master's and doctoral programs, including number of students admitted and their characteristics (e.g., average GPA and GRE scores). You have a variety of options open to you and should explore these before you complete your applications. You will make better decisions and save time and money.

Each program has its own criteria for judging applicants. Typically, admission to doctoral programs is highly competitive. GRE scores and GPAs must be extremely high, and the student must be active in the science of psychology (publishing in jury reviewed forums), and must show a high activity index (volunteer work, campus extracurriculars). With many applicants for few openings, faculty choose to work with the most qualified. Many of the same criteria are utilized in master's program admissions, although cutoff points are not as severe. Keep in mind that different programs apply different admission criteria. A clinical program may look for volunteer or work experience; an I/O program will typically require high GRE scores and research abilities. Let me use the program in which I worked, and more specifically its clinical emphasis, as an example of admissions standards.

GPA was important with 3.2 to 3.5 being desirable but was not required to be considered competitive. Students gained admission with less than a 3.0 (B) average when other data indicated they had the potential to become competent, master's educated psychologists. For example, nontraditional students were highly valued for their maturity, motivation and life experience, and were often accepted with a somewhat lower GPA.

The GRE was required. Again, students were admitted with low scores, sometimes even below the 500 average, if an interview indicated they had potential. This may not be true of other clinical programs, and in some subdiscipline areas such as I/O, GRE scores may be a critical admission criterion. Letters of recommendation were important. Because past behavior if often an indicator of future behavior, admission committee members were interested in the writers of these letters had to say about a candidate's past performance in an academic and/or work setting.

Other considerations also came into play. A personal statement of intent about why a student wanted advanced training in clinical psychology (one to two pages long) was required. Admission committee members were interested not only in how well thought out such statements were, but also in how well they were written. Graduate education in psychology entails endless hours teaching students to communicate orally and in writing, and students who communicate poorly when they apply may not have skills perceived as crucial to success in the field. Published or prior research carried medium weight (other master's programs, especially Experimental or I/O may be much more interested in these skills). In our program, students had to attend full-time. While program literature stated schooling was full-time many applicants assumed they could enroll as part-time students

Work or volunteer experience in the field were important. Students with such a background demonstrated motivation to learn firsthand about their future career, and the more experience students brought to the program, the better use they made of coursework and practica experiences. Finally, students were interviewed either by telephone or in person. Faculty wanted to get to know students and how articulate they were. Questions revolved around reasons for wanting to attend graduate school, volunteer or work experience, and the strengths and relative weaknesses each student would bring to graduate training.

Students Denied Admission

Students most likely to be denied admission fell into three categories. The first group consisted of students who desired an education in areas outside the program. The fit between student interests and the curriculum was poor, and to admit such students was a disservice to them.

A second group of students had application materials that were weak both across the board and in comparison with other applicants. GPAs and GRE scores were relatively low, they had no volunteer or work experience, and their statements of intent were poorly written.

The third group consisted of students who displayed strengths in some but not all areas (GPA, GRE scores, letters of recommendation) and also were perceived as difficult to train or as having limited potential to work as master's level clinicians. More specifically, such students were described in letters of recommendation or perceived by clinical faculty during interviews as immature, belligerent, hostile or having poor interpersonal skills. Some students were unlikeable individuals with whom clinical faculty did not want to spend time, and who they were adverse to trust with clients in professional situations. Students with a high sense of entitlement (e.g., narcissistic, not wanting to work hard) were turned down.

Students' personalities are a factor that needs to be considered in many programs, although other reasons (e.g., "it was a difficult decision and the program had many qualified applicants for a limited number of openings") are given for denied admission. For example, while I/O psychology may demand greater quantitative skills than clinical, I/O graduates work closely with others in organizations, often in teams, and excellent interpersonal skills are necessary.

Applicants perceived as having the potential to learn and grow in their graduate education are desirable. Thus, for many experimental programs students who want to help faculty in the laboratory, are enthusiastic when asked to do research to learn different methodologies, and have a strong spirit of cooperation, are much more likely to be admitted than peers with equal academic credentials and a weak spirit of cooperation.

Professional Issues

There are a series of professional issues students need to be aware of if they want to obtain a terminal master's degree in an applied area. These issues are most relevant to those entering the helping professions because of national and state regulations of health coverage and providers.

There is tradition for master's applied psychologists. A master's degree need not be a truncated doctorate or a consolation prize and a competent professional psychologist can be trained in two years. Many departments of psychology and doctoral psychologists are committed to master's level education. More philosophically, societal needs exist for service providers at the master's level, who are willing to work with others with salaries or job responsibilities which may not interest those with doctorates.


Employment opportunities exist for those who hold a master's degree in psychology. A master's degree with experimental training gives a person advanced skills in research and use of statistics, and more generally in analytical reasoning and critical thinking. Jobs exist in a wide variety of public and private sector organizations and companies for people who are literate and can read and write critically, problem solve, analyze data, do research, and use computers and software programs.

The master's degrees in school counseling and school psychology are a logical stepping stone to specific types of jobs and starting salaries are usually adequate. Holders of a master's degree in I/O training often find positions in corporate personnel or training departments and may earn a salary equal to or slightly below the faculty who trained them, with the potential to earn substantially more in the future. Specific, technical tool sets (e.g., job analysis, development of the validity of tests, employee opinion survey work) and practical experience lead to better employment opportunities for these master's I/O psychologists.

The Clinical Master's Degree

The controversy lies mostly with terminal master's programs training students in clinical skills. Since school and counseling degrees, and the MSW are well established, state certification rules and regulations usually recognize such master's professionals. I/O psychologists typically work in organizations where no certification is necessary.

The title psychologist. The APA has defined a psychologist as someone with a doctorate, the only person who can use the title psychologist and practice independently. States differ in how they treat master's psychologists but in 48 states, a doctoral degree is required for psychology licensing (Sleek, 1995). Your title may be determined by the state in which you work.

Master's degree viewed as a consolation prize. The APA has studied the issues involved with a terminal master's degree in clinical psychology since the late 1940's and early 1950's when master's degrees were often regarded as a consolation prize for those who could not stand the rigors of doctoral preparation. To some extent this attitude still exists today. Additionally, there are concerns that master's level people are filling positions that would ordinarily go to doctorate psychologists.

Employment. Descriptions of clinical master's programs testify to some fairly intensive and broad-based training. The skills learned and demonstrated in these programs can be applied in a variety of work settings. The responsibilities of the master's level clinical psychologist appear to be those of a professional journeyman -- counseling, psychotherapy, consultation, some psychodiagnostic testing, perhaps program evaluation and research, and administrative work. They work throughout the country in a variety of applied, service-delivery settings such as mental or general hospitals, outpatient clinics, and in private practice engaged in professional clinical activities, primarily psychotherapy (Perlman, 1985a). These responsibilities are congruent with the length, depth, and type of training offered by most terminal clinical master's programs. But is someone trained like this suitable for certain positions and can they function with professional competence? A qualified "yes" seems appropriate (Perlman, 1990; Perlman & Lane, 1981; Richert & Fulkerson, 1987).

Most master's clinicians find their work and careers satisfying (Perlman, 1985b). Their roles and responsibilities continue to provide challenge and variety, they remain committed to the occupation and profession, their salaries rise commensurate with experience, and they report being respected and valued members in the organizations in which they work. They work within the mainstream of mental health service. It may take two years of longer to obtain an outpatient position. Because of both the (a) work experiences insurance companies demand (e.g., 3000 supervised hours in Wisconsin) before they will reimburse for an outpatient therapist's work, and (b) state certification rules, employment may begin in an inpatient hospital or other setting to develop one's credentials. Then more and different employment opportunities are often available.

Objections to master's training are communicated infrequently to them by other professionals in human services. Much of the discourse and debate about master's training seems to lie within organized Psychology and has little apparent effect on those working in the field except as it influences licensing and certification at the state level.

Licensing or certification. This is necessary to hold a title, to have credentials validated, and to be eligible for reimbursement by insurance companies. Some states have a mechanism for master's mental health graduates' certification. If you know you will be seeking a job in a certain state, learn the number of hours of direct client work and other criteria for certification and/or licensing. For example, in Wisconsin a person with a master's clinical psychology training cannot easily become certified, making it difficult to offer services in an agency and be reimbursed by third party payment. Those with a MSW or Master's of Counseling degree are much more easily state certified in Wisconsin.

Supervision. The APA has adopted a recommendation for supervision of the master's persons, and it is a sound policy. Anyone seeking employment in direct client work must receive supervision by someone who meets the state's criteria (e.g., licensed doctoral psychologist).

Be informed. My advice to people interested in an applied terminal master's education, especially in a clinical program, is to go into such training with their eyes open. Talk with program faculty about the job placement of program graduates, and state regulations for licensing or certification of master's clinical psychologists. A sound knowledge of this side of professional practice will serve you well in the decisions you make.


Master's programs in psychology provide a viable option and, for some students they are the education leading to the career of choice. Students considering advanced education in psychology are urged to think and learn about the following:

The information provided in this chapter should aid individuals wanting more knowledge about the master's degree in psychology and help in the above considerations.

References and Recommended Readings

American Psychological Association. (1999). The 1998 with 1999 addendum graduate study in psychology. Washington, DC: Author.

American Psychological Association. (1994). Getting in: A step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology. Washington, DC: Author.

Bonifazi, D. Z., Crespy, S. D., & Rieker, P. (1997). Value of a master's degree for gaining admission to doctoral programs in psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 24, 176-182.

Buskist, W., & Mixon, A. (1998). Allyn & Bacon guide to master's programs in psychology and counseling psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Buskist, W., & Sherburne, T. R. (1996). Preparing for graduate study in psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Fretz, B. R., & Stang, D. J. (1987). Preparing for graduate study in psychology: Not for seniors only! Washington, DC: APA.

Keith-Spiegel, P. (1991). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology and related fields. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Perlman, B. (1985a). A national survey of APA-affiliated master's-level clinicians: Description and comparison. Professional Psychology, 16, 553-564.

Perlman, B. (1985b). Training and career issues of APA-affiliated master's-level clinicians. Professional Psychology, 16, 753-767.

Perlman, B. (1990). Our plate is full: The state of applied master's psychology. Invited keynote address presented at the 1990 National Conference for Applied Master's-Level Programs in Psychology, Norman, OK.

Perlman, B., & Dehart, P. (1985). The master's-level clinician: Application and admission to doctoral programs. Teaching of Psychology, 15, 67-71.

Perlman, B., & Lane, R. (1981). The clinical master's degree. Teaching of Psychology, 8, 72-77.

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.

Richert, A. J., & Fulkerson, F. E. (1987). Master's-level training and employment in community mental health. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 18, 479-480.

Sayette, M. A., Mayne, T. J., & Norcross, J. C. (1998). Insider's guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology: 1998/1999 Edition. New York: Guilford.

Sleek, S.(1995, January). Managed care sharpens master's-degree debate. APA Monitor, pp. 8-9.

Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Inc. (1998). Graduate training programs in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and related fields. Bowling Green, OH: Author.

Stevens, J., Yock, T., & Perlman, B. (1979). A comparison between master's clinical training and professional responsibilities in community mental health centers. Professional Psychology, 10, 20-27.

www.apa.org/ed/gradschool/ (A site for undergraduate students who plan to pursue an advanced psychology degree.)

Brief Author Biography

Baron Perlman is a Rosebush Professor at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. He holds an endowed professorship. Trained as a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from Michigan State University he was Graduate Coordinator and Director of Clinical Training at UW Oshkosh for 15 years. He has published widely on the master's degree.


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