What are the Differences Between a Masters and PhD in Psychology?

Last Updated: June 10, 2024

Choosing a path in psychology can be a bit like picking a route for a big journey. Should you stop at a master’s or go all the way to a PhD? While both are advanced degrees, they serve different purposes.

A master’s in psychology usually takes less time and provides a general overview, helping you get into various career paths within the field. A PhD, however, is a longer journey, focusing on specialized research and allowing you to become an expert in a specific area.

So, whether you are dreaming of counseling, teaching, or groundbreaking research, understanding the distinctions between these degrees is crucial. Let’s explore both options to find which suits you best!

psychology phd vs masters

Masters Vs. PhD in Psychology

A master’s in psychology typically takes 2-3 years and provides foundational knowledge and skills for various psychology-related careers. On the other hand, a PhD in psychology, taking 4-7 years, emphasizes research and advanced expertise, preparing graduates for academic, research, or specialized clinical positions.

To work in the field psychology, you need to have a minimum of master’s degree in psychology, and if you want to become a licensed psychologist, then a PhD will help you do that.

Master’s and Ph.D. degrees come under the heading of graduate studies. As mentioned above, a master’s degree in psychology typically takes between 2 to 3 years to complete in addition to an undergraduate in the same subject.

There are different types of psychology master’s degrees with the two most common being a Master’s of Art (M.A.) and a Master’s of Science (M.S.). Without a master’s degree in psychology you cannot get licensed and hence you cannot begin practicing freely.

If your focus in psychology is more towards the applied side, you will need to complete an internship as well. Depending on the program, students may also need to prepare a thesis report towards the final months of a master’s program.

When it comes to a psychology doctorate degree, there are essentially 2 options – a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or a Psy. D (Doctor of Psychology). A PhD in psychology is more research oriented, whereas a Psy. D is more focused towards the practical and clinical sides. However, we are limiting our discussion to a PhD in psychology.

Typically a PhD can take between 4 and 7 years depending on how you approach it and on your work schedule. A few years of course work and a final dissertation are almost always required in a PhD program. Some PhD programs even require students to complete an internship which formally marks the end of their doctorate program.

The Road to Get There

To get into a master’s level program in psychology, it is preferred that candidates possess an undergraduate background in psychology. At the undergraduate level, students are presented with the opportunity to choose their majors which is then carried forward in the master’s program.

The undergraduate degree is necessary for creating a strong background and laying the right foundation for students. Some masters programs prefer that candidates have gone through some practical training which usually takes the form of an internship.

A master’s degree in psychology can also serve as an inroad to a PhD in psychology. Many top university PhD programs require students to have a master’s degree in psychology under their belt as a pre-requisite.

However not all PhD programs have that requirement. Some programs offer students a terminal master’s degree in the process of a PhD. This is basically a specialized master’s program that prepares students in their area of expertise and professional practice.

It is often required by PhD level psychology programs for students to have some kind of prior practical experience. This could be an internship or an assistant level position to a senior psychologist. With added practical experience, the concepts taught at the doctorate level are easier to understand and make more sense.

After Graduation

Psychology is a vast and quick expanding field of science which means that demand for qualified psychologists is high. With a masters level psychology you may land some entry level jobs such as a research assistant, assistant to a supervisor, teacher’s assistant and so on. You may work with other psychologists and learn from them on the job.

Opportunities may also exist in mental health institutes, schools and the like. You may also sit-in some sessions with a senior as they treat other patients. Initially there will be a lot of interaction with seniors in a controlled environment.

With a PhD in psychology under your belt you may be exposed to a more challenging and dynamic work environment. You may be part of an experiment where patients are kept under closely monitored situations. Pharmaceutical companies may contract your services to work on drug trials for instance.

Depending on your chosen niche, you may spend time with patients at correctional facilities, detention centers and even prisons.

Which One is Right For You?

There is no right answer for this question. Both degree options have their own merits, requirements and results. What matters is your drive and motivation as well as your career aspiration. For starters, you need to have an interest in the subject of psychology, otherwise there may not be any point in doing a masters, let alone a PhD.

A masters can only take you so far career-wise, sooner or later you will need to rely on a PhD to take your career to the next level – therefore you need to consider your vision. The best way to answer this question is from a timeline point of view – you must prioritize your goals at the given time.

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