“If I Already Have a Master’s Degree in a Mental Health Field, Should I Get a Ph.D.in Psychology?” by Jim Nolan
I get asked this question many times a year, and have become the resident expert in helping people answer it. The answer is never the same. Everything depends on who you are, what your situation is, and what your goals and values are.
There Are Many Ways of Looking at a Doctorate:
There are some jobs you simply are not getting without a doctoral degree, conversation over. Like what? Like my last 15 jobs. President of a college, online faculty for Ph.D. programs, Director of Training for Psychology, Director of a University Counseling Center (probably), etc.
The older you are, the harder it is going to be to justify the economics. If money is no issue, disregard this point.
If you just want to work in an agency, you don’t need a Ph.D. If you want to be Director of the agency, it helps.
In New Mexico, a Ph.D. in Psychology can supervise other Ph.D. students and other Ph.D.’s, as well as professionals holding an MA. An MA probably will not often supervise the clinical work of a Ph.D. (And sometimes, they simply can’t.)
All of the clinical advantages of a doctorate fade a little (maybe a lot) in rural or underserved communities, and are amplified in competitive markets like Santa Fe, San Francisco and Austin, Texas,
There’s a story that some people seem to like, which says that insurance companies prefer master’s level practitioners because they’re cheaper. I have not found it to be true. I don’t think the insurance companies care, especially since nowadays they often just tell the practitioner what they are going to pay, not the other way around.
What Else Will I Get From All Those Additional Years of Study?
Some people think that the only thing a Ph.D. got from the extra 4-5 years in school, that the MA did not get, is more research courses and research experience. That is so far off it is laughable. I did probably 3-4 years of practicum and a 2,000 hour internship. In a master’s degree program, you do 2 quarters of practicum and a 600 hour internship. Plus you take 4-5 more years of coursework. That doesn’t necessarily mean more classwork is better, but the effort some people make to dismiss the scope and value of a 6-7 year graduate education compared to 2 years is at least uninformed, and sometimes insulting. Look into it honestly, if you really think you might be interested. Don’t make up stories about why you are not going to pursue it, if the reality is that it is just too much time and money to spend, for you. That is a legitimate reason to not pursue a doctorate.
In terms of “doing therapy”, is a doctoral level person “better” than an MA? Decidedly not. And there are people with no degrees who may be better than many Ph.D.’s and MA’s. Experience is valuable, but you can get worse too, with experience. No doubt about that. I think “how good you are” is about something else completely, not about degrees, and not even, necessarily, about experience.
It costs a lot of time and money to get a Ph.D., and if you do a licensure track program (Counseling, Clinical, or School Psych, as discussed above), there is a 2,000 hour internship. That is 40 hours times 50 weeks. Can you and your family afford that? (Some do 20 hours times 100 weeks, or the half-time, two year internship.)
Do you gain prestige with a doctorate? I would say yes. Is it fun to be a Doctor of something? My higher self says “I am who I am, regardless of meaningless titles”, and my non-higher self says “Hell yes, it is, you gotta be kiddin’ me.”
Can you get preferential treatment in certain settings for being a Doc? Yeah, about 3 times a year, if you don’t work at it. Probably more if you do. I do not play that card much. Some do. It has made a difference at my bank, and, occasionally, with an airline company or a hotel. I actually find that amusing, and was NOT even playing the Doc card at those times.
What about online Ph.D.’s/Doctorates? Nowadays, I think they are pretty well regarded unless you’re trying to get a faculty job with a traditional university, and the higher the prestige of the university, the less value the online Ph.D. will have.
How good are the online Doctorates? Typically, as good as you decide to make them. You can make the educational experience really great, or you can do it half-heartedly and make it a half-baked experience. The latter is MUCH harder to do in a traditional, APA Psych Ph.D. or PsyD program.
What About APA Approved vs. Non APA Approved Programs?
Oh, yeah, APA (American Psychological Association). What about “APA Approved” Psych programs? You probably can’t get in. Statistically, it almost seems like nobody can get in. Everybody applying has a 3.9 and everybody kicked the pants off the GRE (Graduate Record Exam). It is ridiculous. Go ahead and try if you want. If you do not have a stellar undergraduate record, or a great master’s degree with research, you might be wasting your time. The system is constructed to make sure not too many people can get a piece of the pie. This is allegedly about “quality control”, and I do not believe that for two seconds. It is about scarcity consciousness, and them being afraid that too many people will crowd the market. They are creating an artificial shortage, in my opinion.
Advantages to an APA approved program? It’s an elitist club. They give internships and jobs to each other, and it is a fairly powerful fraternity. I have a notion that they will elite themselves right out of power one of these days, but for now, they own a lot of territory.
Will any accredited Ph.D., online or otherwise, give you the “Transformational” experience that Southwestern College offers at the MA level? Not a chance in the world. Sorry. That’s just the way it is. I have taught or worked at a dozen different graduate programs, and they cannot touch Southwestern for the Consciousness/Transformational Education piece. It is not even close. You can call me homeboy on this one, if you want, but I feel very certain about this one, and have the professional experience to back it up.
So what do I recommend? You have to know why you want a doctorate, what jobs or careers you think it will enhance for you, what doors open. You have to know what it means to you, for you. I had a 70 some year old African-American woman for a Ph.D. student some years back, and she was very clear. “This will never make sense economically, but my grandchildren and great grandchildren will have the motivation of knowing that I was a Doctor of Psychology. That’s worth the world to future generations of my family. They will know it can be done.” I vote for her to get the Ph.D., no matter what. I had another friend, at the time about fifty years old, and he just wanted to be a clinician, and he mostly wanted to know that the doctorate would pay off financially. We walked through the whole process, and he decided there would not be enough return on investment for him to pursue it, and I think he was right.
What If I Want To Be a “Doctor” But Cannot Afford to Do the Practicum and Year Long Internship?
You want to be a Doctor, but you do NOT want to do, or cannot afford to do, the practicum and internship experiences. This happened a lot at such schools as Walden and Capella (I taught for both of these universities for a long time.) One solution was this: Assuming you already have a professional license under which you can bill for third party (insurance) payments, you can pursue a doctoral degree in “General Psychology” or at CIIS you can do “East-West Psychology”, or any number of other possibilities. This would leave you in the position of being “Dr. McGillicuddy, Ph.D. in Psychology”, while billing as an LPCC, MFT, LISW or Art Therapist, or what have you. I do not know of any clients who ask “Under what kind of license are you billing me?” Presumably you have pretty good reasons for wanting to be a Doctor, but that is up to you. Northcentral University, all online, does not even offer licensure-track doctorates, so that is an option too. I taught for them for many years.
I happen to have the APA pedigree, for both doctoral program and internship. I am proud of it, but also feel uncomfortable with the privilege, kind of along the lines of being a “Straight White Male”—I know there is White privilege and Straight privilege and Male privilege, and I benefit from those, while remaining uncomfortable that those who do not match one of those descriptors might not have the same opportunities. I have a similar feeling about the APA pedigree.
What if I want to open a private practice?
Anybody with an independent license can open a private practice, so an expensive Ph.D. is not necessary for this career goal. Many, many master’s level practitioners open successful practices (though “successful” is defined by the individual, based on personal goals and life circumstances). If this is your major goal, you would have to really question the increment of value to be gained by getting a Ph.D. I am guessing some people make referrals to Ph.D.’s rather than MA level practitioners (probably mostly Ph.D.’s, I would guess), but as has been suggested earlier, your primary concern in Private Practice should be that you be GOOD. And get KNOWN for being good. And network like crazy. And write books, and do talks, and develop areas of expertise, and get professional training certificates, and be really active in Social Media, and, and, and….
There are exceptions to every single thing I could say about Ph.D.’s, PsyD’s, Master’s Level practitioners, APA programs, and online programs So you should know that everything I write here is in the way of guidance, and is based to some extent on my own experiences. If there are any errors of fact, I apologize, and to my knowledge, there are not. Some of my opinions are my opinions, and I recommend you receive them as such.
I sincerely hope you found this useful…
Jim Nolan, PhD
President, Southwestern College, Santa Fe