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About Graduate Programs in Psychology

Heidi R. Riggio
California State University, Los Angeles

There are many different kinds of graduate training programs (for earning Master's and Doctoral degrees) in Psychology. Some focus on training you to be a practitioner (therapist, counselor, school psychologist) who works in an applied setting (e.g., hospital, clinic, private practice, other service organization). Other programs focus on research and are designed to train you to be a college professor who teaches and conducts research in a university setting. Some professional research psychologists work outside of universities at private or public research institutions. Programs vary depending on whether they offer a Master's or a Doctoral degree, and whether they are offered by a traditional academic institution or a "professional school."

 

Ph.D. Programs in Psychology

The graduate training for ANY Ph.D. in Psychology (including Clinical or Counseling Ph.D.s) is based very heavily on research. All Ph.D. degrees (regardless of field) are about training you to become a researcher. Because most researchers work at universities (the main institutions that support such work), many Ph.D.s are college professors (including people with Ph.D.s in Clinical Psychology). Professors with Ph.D.s in Clinical Psychology do sometimes work directly with clients/patients, but many do not. If you don't want to be a researcher and/or college professor, Ph.D. programs are not a good choice.

Ph.D. programs in psychology, especially Clinical Ph.D. programs, are EXTREMELY competitive; they can attract hundreds of applicants and often select only two or three. Clinical Ph.D. programs are mainly interested in people who want to become researchers, particularly programs at large public and private universities (e.g., all of the Universities of California ). Research will always be emphasized over practice in such programs. So, if you are not interested in doing research as a career, then Ph.D. programs are probably not the route you want to go.

Typically, Ph.D. programs (in any field of Psychology) require GRE scores that are at the very least 1100. They prefer applicants who have research experience (work done directly with a faculty member who is conducting empirical research). For Clinical/Counseling Ph.D. programs in Psychology, applied work (in a mental health, social service, educational setting) is also valued, but research experience is more strongly emphasized. If you do not have research experience, it is very unlikely that you would be accepted into a Ph.D. program. Ph.D. programs also require superior undergraduate grades; if your overall undergraduate GPA is under 3.5, it is unlikely that you would be accepted into a Ph.D. program in Psychology.

 

Professional School Doctoral Programs in Psychology

PsyD (Doctor of Psychology, as opposed to the Ph.D., Doctor of Philosophy) programs are growing in popularity. They are much less research focused, not designed to train you as a research professor, and much more applied (focused on teaching you to work with clients/patients). PsyD programs (like Argosy, Alliant, etc.) are very expensive because they are only offered by private "professional schools" (not traditional universities). These programs are less competitive than Ph.D. programs at universities, meaning they accept many more applicants each year.

There is a big difference between Ph.D. programs at large universities and PsyD programs offered at professional schools. Ph.D. programs at large universities involve research, even for Clinical Ph.D.s. These degrees are designed to train you as a scholar/researcher/professor. Students are likely to receive funding as a graduate student.

At professional schools, students pay very high tuition, and are trained as practitioners more than researchers (although all Ph.D.s require a dissertation, a research project). Ph.D.s from professional schools are about being a practitioner. Ph.D.s from professional schools are less valuable in attaining a tenure-track academic job (a tenured position as a college professor), but you may be able to teach part-time with such a degree. These degrees train you to be a clinician; they are well-regarded degrees in the clinical world. Ph.D.s from professional schools are very much like PsyDs.

 

Master's Programs in Psychology at CSULA

The Master of Arts in Psychology (MA), and the Master of Science in Forensic Psychology are research-based degrees that do not focus on clinical practice (and will not help you earn a therapist license). They require a thesis (a research project) and many courses in research methods and statistics. If you don't want to be a college professor, these are not the degree programs for you. You may teach with an MA or similar degree at the community college, but such degrees are usually not sufficient for tenure-track (permanent) jobs as a college professor. The MA in Psychology is offered at many CSU campuses.

The MFT degree (Marriage, Family Therapy) is a Master's degree in Psychology that is designed to train you as a therapist/practitioner. It does not involve a thesis project but a comprehensive exam. It is designed to move you toward licensure as a practicing therapist. Other Master's programs in other disciplines (e.g., Master's of Science in Counseling, Master's of Social Work or MSW) are also designed to train/educate students as practitioners/counselors. If you want to be a therapist, all three are viable options. Master's programs in School Psychology are also available. These Master's programs are offered at many CSUs. The MS in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) is designed for students who plan to work as behavior analysts, specialists, or consultants with a Masters degree (often working with individuals with developmental and other disabilities, including autism), and for those who plan to pursue doctoral training in behavior analysis with the goal of being a college professor. Because of these two options, students in the ABA program either take a comprehensive exam or conduct a research thesis.