If I want a doctoral degree, should I apply to a masters program first?

In some parts of the world it is common for students to complete a masters program prior to applying to a doctoral program in psychology, but this is not currently the case in the US. Here most students enter doctoral programs in psychology directly after their bachelors degree, and do not complete masters programs first.  In addition, because doctoral programs in psychology rarely count transfer credits from masters programs, completing a masters program first is usually not your most cost-effective or efficient route to a doctorate.

Yet there are some circumstances in which it would make sense to enter a masters program first:

  • If you are unsure about what you want to pursue for your doctorate, masters level courses can give you the training, experience, and time you need to figure that out.
  • If your undergraduate grades aren’t as high as you would need to impress a doctoral program, being able to demonstrate that you got good grades in a masters program can help boost your application.
  • There are a few doctoral programs in the US that first admit a large number of students to their affiliated masters program. These programs will use your performance in their masters program to decide whether or not they’ll accept you to continue on for the PhD after your masters degree. (And if they do accept you for their doctoral program, they will count the masters level credits you completed in their affiliated masters program.)
  • The path to doctoral/professional degrees varies all around the world. If you are planning to study and work outside the US, realize that starting with a masters program might be the norm in some places.
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