Doctorate Degrees: Worth the Cost?

 It’s a common dilemma: How much education should you get on your path to helping people? Pursuing a doctorate is expensive and time-consuming. If you want to be licensed as a clinical psychologist in the US, however, it’s necessary to get your doctorate. 

It’s natural to ask whether that massive investment of time and money will be worth it. The answer isn’t the same for everyone. I’ve encouraged some folks to do it, and others to pass. Here are some things to consider when weighing a doctorate versus a master’s degree in mental health care.

Degrees vs licensure

Everyone’s situation is different, and you’re in a better place to assess your own needs and desires than anyone else. In addition, it’s easy to conflate degree and licensure, but those are different things. While a doctorate is typically required to license as a psychologist, it’s fully possible to get a doctoral degree while still licensing at the master’s level. 

it’s easy to conflate degree and licensure, but those are different things. While a doctorate is typically required to license as a psychologist, it’s fully possible to get a doctoral degree while still licensing at the master’s level.

That’s what I did. I have a PsyD in Marriage and Family Therapy because I wanted to teach. I didn’t want the specific additional scope of practice that would come with being a licensed psychologist. That’s why I licensed at the master’s level, as an MFT. 

Do you want to teach?

If you want to teach full-time at the graduate level, most universities will require that you have a doctorate. Adjunct positions are a little more flexible, especially at the undergraduate and community college levels. But even there, a doctorate will help get your foot in the door.

Do you want to do psychological evaluations?

For clinical work, psychologists can do some things (like psychological testing outside of the context of therapy) that master’s-level therapists typically cannot. So this becomes a question of (1) whether those things appeal to you, and (2) whether it’s worth the added effort—not just in the degree, but also the post-doctoral supervised experience that many states require for psychologist licensure.

This part can get a little tricky. The specific tasks that fall within the scope of practice of master’s-level professionals vary a bit state to state. They vary even among license types within the same state. If there are specific tasks or functions you want to be able to perform as part of your professional work, it’s worth making sure that they fit well within the scope of practice of the license you’re pursuing in the state where you’re pursuing it.

Do you want to perform counseling or psychotherapy?

If what you fundamentally want to do with your career is counseling or psychotherapy, a doctorate isn’t likely to meaningfully expand your scope of practice or your professional opportunities beyond what a master’s degree offers. It might open a few doors, but it typically isn’t enough of a difference to be worth it.

Do you want to write books or give presentations to share your knowledge with the public?

Having “Dr.” in front of your name can feel good. And it’s fair to say that the public may take you more seriously  when you’re able to call yourself “doctor.” However, there’s no minimum qualification to write a book or give a speech. You don’t even need a bachelor’s degree to do either of those things. If you want to share your knowledge with the public, you can start working on that today.

Do you have the time and money for a doctorate?

Not everyone can afford to be a therapist. And not everyone can afford to get a doctorate. It’s important to account for the reality of your circumstances. Here in California, many of those who complete their master’s degree and register with the state as an associate clinical social worker or family therapist never make it to their license exams. For those who don’t make it, money often seems to be part of the reason why.

Completing a graduate degree and then not getting the financial benefit of licensure can be an extremely negative outcome. You would have all the expense of a graduate degree with none of the payoff. Of course, it also can be just fine. As I mentioned, I have a doctoral degree, but didn’t pursue a psychologist license. Several of my colleagues from graduate school (at both degree levels) went on to use their education outside of the world of therapy and licensure. 

What’s important is that you know what it is you want to pursue, and why you want to pursue it. If you’re clear on those things, then it can get easier to figure out how to get there.

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