MS vs PhD: Which Psychology Degree Should You Get?

An undergraduate degree proves a great starting point for people interested in careers involving psychology. To advance into occupations involving greater responsibility and pay, however, generally requires a graduate degree.

For instance, a master’s degree in psychology is one of the necessities for licensure as a marriage and family therapist – a career the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts to grow a whopping 22% between 2019-2029.1 And becoming a psychologist – a position with an average median annual salary of $82,1802 – requires earning a doctorate in psychology.

What Are MS and PhD in Psychology Degrees For?

The MS (Master of Science) in Psychology and the PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) in Psychology are degrees for people interested in advanced study in the discipline. Students obtain a greater understanding of human behavior and how to help others. Degree earners are often interested in careers as therapists, licensed psychologists, researchers, or professors.

Choosing Between a Master’s Degree in Psychology vs. a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology Program

The choice between pursuing a Master’s Degree in Psychology vs. a PhD in Psychology boils down to individual interests and career aspirations. Many students find a MS in Psychology sufficient for the types of jobs they want. Others discover a doctorate necessary for the occupations to which they aspire.

What Is a MS in Psychology?

A MS in Psychology is a graduate degree that prepares recipients for a variety of careers. It also can serve as a building block to entering doctoral studies, and programs typically take about two years to complete. Online MS in Psychology programs sometimes offer accelerated options in which ambitious students can finish in around 18 months.

While coursework varies by institution and personal interests, students in psychology master’s programs often take these classes:

  • Ethics
  • Lifespan development
  • Diversity
  • Statistics
  • Research methodology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Personality

Some students focus on general psychology. Others gear their master’s program to a specific area. Some niche choices include:

  • Educational psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Clinical psychology
  • Industrial-organizational psychology
  • Sport psychology
  • Child and adolescent development
  • Applied behavior analysis

Who Should Get a MS in Psychology?

Students who want to expand their knowledge of psychology beyond the undergraduate level often seek a master’s degree. Some students pursue a MS to become a more attractive candidate to schools when they apply to doctoral programs. 

Others enter the workforce after receiving their MS in psychology. They find careers in the following fields:

  • Education
  • Business
  • Advertising
  • Marketing
  • Human resources
  • Advocacy
  • Criminal justice
  • Social services
  • Mental health

What Can You Do with a MS in Psychology?

Individuals who have earned a Master’s in Psychology find their degree a gateway to various types of jobs dealing with people and what influences their behavior. A sample of possible occupations are listed below.

Substance abuse counselor – These counselors work with people experiencing problems with alcohol or drug addiction. They help individuals understand their situation, cope with stress in healthier ways, and rebuild relationships damaged by substance abuse behavior. The BLS reports that substance abuse counselors earn a median yearly salary of $47,660.3

Market research analyst – Companies that want a greater understanding of consumer behavior and how to market products to the public hire market research analysts. They utilize their extensive experience to design and interpret research to find answers about how people think. The BLS projects employment of market research analysts to grow an impressive 18% between 2019-2029. In 2020, the median annual salary for the job was $65,810.4

Training and development specialist – Another career with a strong job outlook is a training and development specialist, which has expected growth of 9% between 2019-2029, according to the BLS.5 Organizations employ these professionals to improve the skills and knowledge of their workers. Through surveys, interviews, and consultations with employees and management, they figure out what people need to know to do their jobs and the best ways to obtain this information. Per the BLS, the median annual wage for a training and development specialist in 2020 was $62,700.

What Is a PhD In Psychology?

A PhD in psychology is the highest-level degree within the discipline. Earning it signifies academic excellence and dedication to the field. In addition to mastering psychological theories and concepts, PhD candidates learn how to advance scientific knowledge through their own original research.

Who Should Get a PhD In Psychology?

Obtaining a PhD in psychology is a rigorous process. It involves classwork, passing an oral exam demonstrating competency, and completing a dissertation. Practicums, internships, and teaching experiences may also be part of the program.

Students thinking about entering such a program should possess a strong background in psychology, such as a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree. They also should look closely at their career goals and decide whether a PhD puts them on the right path.

What Can You Do with a PhD In Psychology?

The expertise obtained from earning a PhD in Psychology opens doors to a variety of careers. Three sample positions include:

  • Professor/researcher – Many PhDs remain in academia. They teach classes at colleges and junior colleges as well as perform research in their area of interest within the field of psychology. The BLS lists the mean annual wage for postsecondary psychology teachers as $85,050.6
  • Clinical Psychologist – Clinical psychologists diagnose and treat a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral problems. Some specialize in certain areas, such as treating depression or eating disorders. Others work with specific populations, such as children or the elderly. The median yearly salary for a clinical psychologist in 2020 was $79,820 per the BLS.7
  • Industrial-Organizational Psychologist – These professionals apply their knowledge of psychology to the workplace. Companies and governmental organizations hire them to examine issues such as productivity, morale, teamwork, hiring, and organizational development. Their suggestions lead to workplace improvements. The BLS reports the median annual salary for an industrial-organizational psychologist in 2020 as $96,270.7

PsyD Vs PhD at a Glance

Individuals wishing to earn a doctorate have another option besides a PhD in Psychology. They may pursue a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology). Selecting which to earn depends on the student’s educational and career interests.

In general, PsyD programs:

  • Focus heavily on applied psychology
  • Take 4-6 years to complete
  • Attract students interested in pursuing careers as therapists or counseling psychologists

By comparison, PhD programs in psychology:

  • Focus extensively on generating new knowledge through scientific research
  • Take 5-7 years to complete
  • Attract students interested in remaining in academia as professors and researchers, though many do seek licensure and become practicing psychologists

What to Look for in Psychology Graduate Degree Programs

Online vs. On-Campus Learning

Whether a student wishes to pursue a master’s degree or a doctorate, choices exist regarding the learning format. Some schools offer graduate-level psychology programs online. Choosing such a route can prove beneficial in terms of access, flexibility, and cost. 

Online studies remove geographical barriers when selecting an institution, which opens up a greater pool from which to choose. Remaining at home eliminates expenses related to travel and campus housing, and students with spouses or children do not need to upend their family’s lives to further their education and careers.

Students seeking online degrees should check the terms, however. Some programs include short residency requirements. Likewise, individuals may need to go to campus or other physical sites to complete research projects, internships, practicums, or other hands-on experiences.

Of course, regular on-site programs remain an option for students preferring traditional graduate school. A consistent schedule and the social aspect of attending classes physically alongside others still appeals to many students.

Psychology Certification and Licensure

Psychology-related occupations often require state licensure. Knowing the specifics for the state in which one hopes to find employment can guide educational and career choices and prevent unwelcome surprises down the line.

Psychologists, for example, typically need to complete the following:

  • A PsyD or a PhD in Psychology
  • An internship
  • At least 1-2 years of supervised professional experience
  • A passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology 

States usually require marriage and family therapists to complete the following:

  • A master’s degree
  • A range of 2,000-4,000 hours of post-degree supervised clinical experience
  • A successful exam score

Applying to Psychology Doctoral Programs

Acceptance into a Doctoral in Psychology program involves applying to individual institutions. Competition for spots can be substantial, so candidates should apply to several schools in order to increase the chances of getting in. 

Some places are more selective than others and may present harder entrance requirements. Someone who has not completed an undergraduate degree in psychology or a sufficient number of psychology courses will likely need to address this gap before seeking admission.

Admissions Requirements for PsyD and PhD Programs

Depending on where a student applies, the prospective school may ask for the following::

  • Official transcripts from past collegiate studies at the undergraduate and graduate level, including classes taken, GPA, and degree(s) awarded with date
  • Proof of any internships, certifications, or licenses
  • A resume of work history, including dates and duties
  • A description of other relevant activities, such as volunteer work or participation in professional associations
  • Scores from the GRE Psychology Test
  • 2-3 letters of recommendation that support the candidacy
  • Responses to essay prompts
  • A personal statement explaining why the student wants to pursue this degree
  • Interviews with faculty

Note that some programs look only at candidates who already possess a Master’s Degree in Psychology or a closely related field. Others accept students with a bachelor’s degree into a combined master’s/doctoral program.

Accreditation

Selecting a school with regional accreditation ensures the institution has met certain educational standards. Choose one approved by the U.S. Department of Education or the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Your school’s specific graduate psychology program also should be accredited by one or both of these organizations.

Another important factor is checking if the program is accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).8 Satisfying licensure requirements in some states can be problematic without APA accreditation. Likewise, employers will often look at only job candidates who graduated from an APA-approved program and completed an APA-accredited internship.

Graduate Psychology Career Resources

The following organizations provide further information on licensure for different careers:

FAQ

Is a PhD in Psychology a doctor?

Someone possessing a PhD is not a medical doctor. A PhD is a doctor of philosophy. In recognition of the expertise obtained from completing this rigorous course of study, holders of a PhD are entitled to use the title “Doctor” if they so choose.

Is a MS or PhD in Psychology better?

One isn’t better than the other, just different. Which degree to pursue depends on individual interests and career aspirations. Aspiring therapists and counselors often choose a master’s program. Those wishing to become licensed psychologists must complete a doctoral program. Also, PhD programs focus heavily on research and often lead to working in an academic setting or consulting.

What careers can I have with a psychology graduate degree?

Some career options for people who earn a graduate degree in psychology include marriage and family therapist, mental health counselor, substance abuse counselor, counseling psychologist, researcher, and psychology professor.

Can a PhD write prescriptions?

A person holding a PhD in psychology is not a medical doctor and usually cannot write prescriptions. A few states do allow psychologists with training in psychopharmacology to prescribe a limited number of psychiatric medications. The majority of prescriptions, however, are written out by psychiatrists since they are MDs.

Sources:

  1. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/marriage-and-family-therapists.htm#tab-1
  2. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-1
  3. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm#tab-1
  4. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/market-research-analysts.htm
  5. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/training-and-development-specialists.htm
  6. https://www.bls.gov/oes/2017/may/oes251066.htm
  7. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-5
  8. https://www.accreditation.apa.org/accredited-programs