Competition for doctoral programs is intense, and each year many well-qualified students (who quite likely would succeed in graduate school) do not get admitted into Ph.D. programs. They may have excellent, but not exceptional qualifications. One alternative for such students is to obtain a master's degree from a non-Ph.D. granting institution in general psychology and then to apply to a specialized doctoral program. A master's program will give the student an opportunity to strengthen credentials (particularly in research and applied areas), to demonstrate an ability to do graduate level work, and to work closely with a faculty member.

The merits of this strategy have been debated in recent years in the American Psychologist. Howell and Murdock (1972) and Saccuzzo and Schulte (1978) conclude from surveys of graduate schools that a terminal master's degree may actually decrease a student's chances for a doctoral program. Annis, Tucker, and Baker (1978) agree that this is especially true for students seeking programs in clinical and community psychology. On the other hand, students with master's degrees are generally regarded as more qualified than bachelor-level applicants and more likely to complete the doctorate (Annis, et al., 1978). Moreover, although about 20% of doctoral students in clinical and nonclinical programs enter with master's degrees (Saccuzzo & Schulte, 1978), very high rates of acceptance (80-100%) into doctoral programs from master's programs have been reported (Mealiea, 1973a, 1973b; Ward & Ziegler, 1973). It should be noted that each year there are fewer master's level than bachelor's level applicants for doctoral programs. Therefore, although the acceptance rate for those with master's degrees may be higher, they still constitute a minority of doctoral students. The most recent research on this debate (Perlman & Dehart, 1985) supports the value of master's level training.

Prospective graduate students are advised to discuss this issue with several faculty members. A pragmatic strategy is to select several master's programs which have good records of sending their graduates on to doctoral programs. The student should then apply to both master's and doctoral programs at the same time--avoiding last minute applications to master's programs in April or May if not accepted into a doctoral program. The May issue of the A.P.A. Monitor, available from any staff member, lists the institutions that still have openings in graduate programs for the Fall. In addition, the December issue each year of the American Psychologist lists the A.P.A. approved doctoral programs in clinical, counseling, and school psychology.


Annis, L.V., Tucker, G.H., & Baker, D.A. (1978). What happens to PhD program applicants who have masters degrees? American Psychologist, 33, 703-705.

Howell, R.J., & Murdock, M.L. (1972). The questionable value of a master's degree for the PhD-pursuing student. American Psychologist, 27, 647-651.

Mealiea, W.L., Jr. (1973a). MA and/or nothing? Comment on Howell and Murdock's article. American Psychologist, 28, 357.

Mealiea, W.L., Jr. (1973b). The unquestionable value of a master's degree for a PhD-pursuing student. American Psychologist, 28, 938-939.

Perlman, B., & Dehart, P. (1985). The master's-level clinician: Application and admissions to doctoral programs. Teaching of Psychology, 12, 67-71.

Saccuzzo, D.P., & Schulte, R.H. (1978). The value of a terminal master's degree for PhD-pursuing students in psychology. American Psychologist, 33, 862-864.

Ward, D., & Ziegler, D.J. (1973). On Howell and Murdock. American Psychologist, 28, 91.

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