MA/MS -> PhD, or SCS -> PhD?

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Sep 28, 2007
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As I navigate through the cosmos of options open to me as a future PhD student, I'm finding myself a little dizzied ... I find that I have some great qualities (good GRE, a 3.9 GPA in 18 credits of Psych, two glowing LORs, graduate work in linguistics), and some not-so-great qualities (no statistics or research design classes, trouble getting a third LOR, no clinical experience). I feel like I'm on the brink of being a successful candidate. So, to round myself out, I've been considering going for an MA or MS in "General Psych," but that means two years and who knows how much $?

At the same time, I've just begun looking into taking undergrad classes (specifically at Northwestern's SCS--School of Continuing Studies--program) instead--something to fill in the gaps, instead of getting a whole other degree (one that I'll attain anyway, through most PhD programs). I need to do this just for some of the Master's programs I'm looking into, but I wonder: All else being equal (i.e., my research interests remain the same, I have the same goals, my grades are still very good, etc.), would taking a handful of classes at the undergrad level--maybe even enough, added to my current 18 credits, to equal having majored in Psych--make me as attractive a candidate for PhD programs as getting a Master's degree would?

My list of pros and cons is this:

Master's pros: more recent LORs when it comes time to apply to PhD, a thesis (possibly a publication, which is nice, but I'm not looking at a purely academic career).

Master's cons: going $25-40k in the hole, having to apply for 2010 PhD admissions, probably not having time to work in a clinical setting, would still have to take some SCS classes to be considered for some programs.

SCS pros: relatively inexpensive, not as time-consuming (can apply for 2009 PhD admissions), can offer me time to work somewhere in the field.

SCS cons: probably can't get an LOR (or can I?) out of it, there might not be enough classes to keep me intellectually occupied for the next two years.

Am I missing something? Has anyone else gone the SCS route?

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If you are missing research experience and stats about taking a couple classes (non-degree seeking) in stats and research, and pick up some volunteer work on a research team? You most likely won't be able to get a paid position because of your lack of experience, but money should be a secondary concern to you at the moment. If you don't have research experience (and solid research experience at that) you are pretty much guaranteed you will not get into a PhD program, since many people WITH some pretty good research experience don't even get interviews. The rest of your application looks solid (you just need your GREs)

This route would also take are of your 3rd LOR, since schools will be looking for someone (or multiple people) to speak to your ability to work on a research team, etc.

Funny-- I was about to post almost the same thing as T4C. Do you have research experience? It is really the most important factor in admissions. If you can take classes while simultaneously working somewhere doing research, you'll both get classes, research experience, and an LOR out of it. I'm sure there are plenty of research opportunities at Northwestern, although they may be unpaid. If that's not feasible, you may consider looking into the few funded master's programs that are out there-- the ones i know of are all on the east coast.
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how about taking a couple classes (non-degree seeking) in stats and research?

Yeah, that's what the SCS program appears to be--in fact, it's recommended for those who "have a college degree and are preparing for graduate school or seeking professional growth." Good to know it looks like a good route from your angle, and not a scam :)! I'll look into research opportunities as well. Thanks, T!
I am in a similar predicament as wdd, but leaning more towards getting an MA prior to the PhD, as it seems like a more realistic choice given my background (I have worked in a health-related field for the past two years, but have taken very few psych classes and my BA is in a completely different discipline). What are the funded master's programs that you referred to in your posting? I am looking for clinical or general psych programs. Any recommendations would be much appreciated!
Well, I know some people are tired of me pushing the masters alternative, but its what I know. ;D

Anyways, I'm proof of someone who had decent creds, applied to Ph.D. programs straight out of undergrad, didn't get in, but managed to get into a top-ranked general M.A. program. Additionally, I have full funding--full tuition waiver and a stipend. So if you hunt for it, you can find some masters programs that do provide funding (although yes, they are rare).

I agree that getting the masters first limits your clinical experience, but it does show that you can handle graduate level work and research. Yeah, I am not looking forward to reapplying next fall, but I know my chances will be better this time around. For me, going for my masters for the chance of getting into a better Ph.D. program is worth it.

Good luck! :luck:
Well, I know some people are tired of me pushing the masters alternative, but its what I know. ;D

I think it is great to hear from all sides. I couldn't spare the extra time, but after hearing about some of the research and experimental MS's out there, I wish I had the time. :D

Can you apply to both? I know a couple people who didn't think they had strong PhD applications for the places they wanted to go to - but they ended up applying to a couple of them as well as a Masters Program or two. Both of them ended up getting a PhD program. I have a feeling they might be the exception rather than the rule but it is worth a shot... Perhaps... If you don't get in you can always apply again (and they don't hold it against you given how competitive it can be)
Well, I know some people are tired of me pushing the masters alternative, but its what I know. ;D

Oh, yeah, of course! And to anser Toby, sure, I can apply to both. In fact, I'm going to have to take some SCS classes anyway, just to be considered for any competitive MA/MS program, so I'm not losing anything by taking classes and applying to MA/MA. I just like the idea of doing all of this in one fewer year (not gettin' any younger), and--if I can't get into a funded program--not going into steep debt.

Thanks, all, for your advice. As always, you're all extremely helpful.
My comment was meant that I'm always yapping about my master's program, not picking one over the other. As I said, I applied to both--and even though this was originally my backup, things worked out well. :D

And I agree T4C, I would have never guessed that I would be doing my current research with experience sampling methodology using palm pilots!
Yeah no worries, you're definitely on your way!!
Now...are you straying from the M.A. because it's 2 years? There are quite a few M.A. in General Psychology programs that are ONE year (and they re-teach all that not so fun research/stats stuff anyway when ya first start).

I go to a University that offers a 1-year M.A. (8 months actually). Private me and we can chat

Hi Jon,

I am looking for Master's programs in general or clinical psych. You mentioned that you knew of a bunch of schools with one-year programs. Could you share the names of those schools with me? I've only been able to find a few so far (NYU, BU, William and Mary, etc.). Any additional advice on the quality of these programs would be very welcome as well!

St. John's in Philly. Thought they might be experimental.


That's St. Joe's, not St. John's. St. John's is in Queens. They might have a Master's program, too, actually.