Can I get into a doctoral program with an online master’s in psychology?

BY Sydney LakeMay 31, 2022, 12:56 PM
Graduates during commencement ceremonies for Cal State University Northridge, as seen in May 2022.(Photo by Hans Gutknecht—MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News/Getty Images)

During the next decade, the outlook for psychologist jobs is projected to grow 8%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These jobs pay more than $80,000 per year, , on average, but they require at least a master’s degree to fulfill. However, with some jobs in the field—such as becoming a clinical psychologist—you’re often required to have a doctoral degree. 

Students who earned a master’s degree in psychology often pursue careers in industrial and organizational psychology, which includes jobs such as human resources management and management consulting, while other graduates go into social psychology to do research. Practicing psychology typically requires earning a Ph.D. or Psy.D., and some states also allow master’s graduates to earn licensure for clinical, counseling, or social psychology, according to the American Psychological Association

Because of the additional opportunities further education brings, some current and future master’s students may be interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology. Fortune sat down with Catherine Grus, the chief education officer of the American Psychological Association, to find out what it takes to get into a Ph.D. program—and whether earning an online master’s degree in psychology will be enough to get into a doctoral program or land your dream job. Grus earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Nova University.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What to know about Ph.D. programs in psychology

Fortune: What does it take to get a Ph.D. in psychology?

Grus: Each program decides what requirements they are going to set for admission and what value they put on those different requirements. So there’s not really one formula that I could say applies to everyone. But in general, the practice now is to look at holistic admissions practices. Programs will consider a number of different factors: letters of recommendation, some programs still require the graduate record examination, and look for some coursework that people might have taken before.

Do Ph.D. programs typically require a master’s degree?

It really varies. Some individuals will get master’s degrees and then decide they want to go on and get a doctoral degree and other individuals jump right into it. It’s not typically the norm that programs would require a master’s degree to be admitted to a doctoral program. But obviously sometimes it’s beneficial certainly to the student because they might have some of that coursework count for credit towards their doctoral degree and it helps them graduate a little bit faster.

Do online master’s degrees in psychology carry the same weight in admissions for Ph.D. programs?

I think it probably matters less for people that have a master’s degree. The doctoral program is looking at a number of different factors when they’re admitting a student. If they’re not even requiring a master’s degree in psychology or maybe not even requiring a lot of training in psychology, it’s certainly going to matter much less to that program. Other things might carry more weight in that case. Maybe the interview is an opportunity to gauge the interpersonal skills of that individual, because that’ll certainly be an important part of training to be a psychologist. Letters of recommendation can speak to the individual’s character.

A lot of programs, for example, will evaluate what type of research skills the individual has. So did they get a lot of research experience in their undergraduate program? And if they didn’t, did they take some time off between their undergraduate and applying for graduate school to do some research activities? That’s one that comes up quite a bit.

Application requirements for doctoral programs in psychology

What are some of the key elements of psychology Ph.D. applications?

There’s a formal application process where candidates will submit required pieces of material to the programs. Obviously they’re going to ask basic demographic information about the candidate. They’ll probably want the candidate to submit transcripts from their undergraduate program—and if they did a master’s program to submit those as well so they can have a way to evaluate the academic history of that individual. Letters of recommendation are a very common required element. They may require a personal statement from the candidate that talks about their goals and their interests, and identifies why that candidate wants to be accepted by that program. Standardized testing is required by some programs, particularly the graduate record examination.

And then a final piece of that would be an interview with the candidate—usually after the paper application materials have been reviewed and there’s been some initial screening. An individual would be asked to either come to the campus to do an interview, or in some cases do a virtual interview where they would meet with the program director, or typically several of the faculty members, just to understand that there’s a fit between the goals of that program and the goals of the applicant.

Are there application elements that are more important than others?

If I were talking to somebody that was interested in applying to graduate school, I’d advise them to look at the strengths of the program. If the program is one where the faculty have a lot of federal grants, they do a lot of research, they emphasize students getting publications or research presentations—well, then I’d say to the applicant, ‘Evaluate your prior research training, how much have you had, what types of research training have you had, does the research areas that you’re interested in match with the research interest of the program?’

Or if it’s a program that’s training people to go on for careers where they are a licensed psychologist and they’re providing healthcare services, then the program wants see that you’ve had maybe an internship in a healthcare setting, or they want you to have a strong goal statement that speaks to how you want to have a career that’s consistent with what the program trains people to do.

This is really getting at this concept that I call goodness of fit. You’re going to spend a lot of time in a doctoral program getting a doctoral degree. So, it makes a lot of sense on the front end to do some research, to make sure that the program is going to help you meet your goals.

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in psychology programs, public health programsbusiness analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.