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Making the Transition From Master’s to PhD:  Reflections From a SIOP Conversation Hour

Katharine Ridgeway O’Brien Bachman
Rice University

Marcus W. Dickson
Wayne State University

Paul J. Hanges
University of Maryland

Mikki Hebl
Rice University

Cary Lichtman
Wayne State University

Eliza Wicher
Roosevelt University


Author note:
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Katharine Bachman, Department of Psychology MS-25, Rice University, 6100 Main Street, Houston, TX 77025; Email: bachman@rice.edu.

Abstract: This article is the result of a conversation hour that took place at the 25th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) in Atlanta, Georgia, held April 7–10, 2010. This forum was presented as a way to foster communication between contingencies from Master’s and PhD programs. During the session, entitled “From Terminal Master’s to PhD: Answering the Basic Questions,” attendees posed questions to a panel of four faculty members from terminal master’s and PhD programs. As the popularity of industrial-organizational psychology has grown in recent years, so too have the number of programs offering degrees in the field. The purpose of this article is to present common questions that students have and to provide a starting point to answering those questions, as well as questions about what happens when someone changes their mind (e.g., decides to pursue a PhD after completing a terminal master’s degree program).

Keywords: graduate programs, graduate degree, terminal master’s, doctoral

 

As the popularity of industrial-organizational psychology has grown in recent years, so too have the number of programs offering degrees in the field. However, there may be some confusion as to which program might be best: master’s or doctorate for any particular individual. The purpose of this article is to present common questions that students have and to provide a starting point to answering those questions, as well as questions about what happens when someone changes their mind (e.g., decides to pursue a PhD after completing a terminal master’s degree program).

This paper is the result of a conversation hour that took place at the 25th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) in Atlanta, Georgia, held April 7–10, 2010. During the session, entitled “From Terminal Master’s to PhD: Answering the Basic Questions,” attendees posed questions to a panel of four faculty members from terminal master’s and PhD programs. As stated at the beginning of the hour, this forum was presented as a way to foster communication between contingencies from master’s and PhD programs. This talk reached an audience of more than 75 attendees, including students currently in terminal master’s programs, faculty members, and those researching their graduate school options. In a room filled beyond capacity, we heard insights from four panelists and audience members.

The panelists in this conversation hour hold a wide variety of unique experiences that cover many aspects of education in I-O psychology. As such, they offer an assortment of opinions related to the requirements and expectations that students do or should have when attempting to transition from a terminal master’s degree program to a doctoral program. In the first part of this paper, we review the panelists and their credentials. In the second part of the paper, we review the questions posed during the conversation hour along with the responses given by the panelists, as well as additional insights contributed by audience members. In the third and final section of this paper, we respond to questions posed during the SIOP meeting that the panelists did not have time to answer.

The Panelists

The first panelist and host of the conversation hour, Dr. Michelle (Mikki) Hebl, is an associate professor of psychology at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Rice’s program only offers admission to doctorate degree-seeking candidates, although a master’s degree is awarded during the course of study. Dr. Hebl is the chair for SIOP’s Education and Training Committee and a former director of graduate studies at Rice University. During her time at Rice, Dr. Hebl has worked with several students who have made the transition from a terminal master’s program to Rice University’s doctoral program.

The second panelist in attendance, Dr. Paul Hanges, is the associate chair and director of graduate programs from the Psychology Department at the University of Maryland. Like Rice, Maryland accepts students for a doctorate in I-O psychology with a master’s degree granted during the course of study. Dr. Hanges formerly was the head of the I-O program in the Psychology Department at Maryland. In a selective environment like Maryland, he saw 80–120 students apply for 3–5 available places in each entering class.

The third panelist, Dr. Cary Lichtman, directs Wayne State University’s terminal master’s program in I-O psychology. Wayne State has both a terminal master’s and PhD program, which run parallel. Although some of the faculty members teach in both programs, students from one program do not overlap with students in the other. The courses of study are very different between the two programs, with the master’s program aimed at preparing students for applied work and a focus on personnel psychology, employment testing, and psychology-related statistics.

The fourth and final panelist, Eliza Wicher, is assistant professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago where she teaches in Roosevelt’s master’s program in I-O psychology. Before her appointment at Roosevelt, Dr. Wicher was on the faculty in San Francisco State’s terminal master’s program in I-O psychology. Roosevelt is currently developing a PhD program scheduled to admit students for fall 2011.

Finally, we also want to acknowledge the creator of this session, Dr. Marcus Dickson, a full professor from Wayne State University.  Dr. Dickson is the outgoing chair of SIOP’s Education and Training Committee and decided that the session was important as a result of the 2009 SIOP Program Director’s Meeting in which program directors expressed a lack of communication between people from master’s and PhD programs.

Questions Presented and Responses Given During the Conversation Hour

The following questions were collected from the audience during the conversation hour.  It is important to note that the responses of the panelists, also indicated below, may not be scientifically based but represent the cumulative years of experience that the panelists brought to the SIOP session.

What kind of jobs can I get with just my master’s?
The panelists answered this question with a simple “quite a lot.” A master’s degree offers holders a wide variety of career options, particularly within the applied field. Although master’s degree holders likely will not be academicians, panelists suggested that a master’s degree provides solid preparation for a career in I-O consulting, market research, quantitative work, performance management, quality control, human resources, compensation, and government and organizational research. A master’s degree trains a student in practical skills such as establishing and managing employment testing programs, designing and evaluating training and development efforts, and generally orients students to I-O psychology’s unique systematic approach to looking at the world and addressing organizational problems. The real value of a master’s degree is in the problem solving and quantitative skills in which students are trained. As such, master’s of I-O psychology are able to work their way up the organizational hierarchy with a degree that will open doors.

What are the advantages, if any, of not pursuing a PhD after completing one’s master’s degree?
Master’s and doctorates prepare students for different careers within I-O. A doctoral degree is a research degree and, as such, prepares students to think more conceptually, conduct scientific research, and analyze resulting data. For students who are not interested in advanced research or statistics, a master’s degree may be the highest amount of education students wish to pursue. The master’s is an applied degree and, as stated previously, prepares students for a wide variety of applied careers. This focus on practical skills can be an asset on the job market, as some organizations favor the master’s over a PhD. In I-O consulting firms, individuals with PhDs tend to take on more managerial roles, with those who have MA/MSs becoming project leaders. The work might be similar between the two levels, but PhDs tend to have more supervisory responsibility.

Why should a master’s student pursue a PhD?
In the current economy, more education can set an applicant/employee apart from competitors in getting a job/promotion. However, this in itself is not a good reason to pursue a PhD. A good doctoral student tends to have the “itch” of curiosity and be able to take initiative and work autonomously. In transitioning between a terminal master’s and PhD program, a master’s program will tend to give the student exposure to the field with less of a time commitment (e.g., 2–3 years for a full-time student) than does a traditional doctoral program (e.g., 5–7 years for a full-time student). One of the most important considerations that an individual should make before transitioning to a PhD program is the type of work that the individual wants to do. Within consulting work specifically, there are a couple of advantages that should be considered. First, in many consulting firms, an individual will be unlikely to make partner unless s/he holds a PhD. This sets a definitive limit on the amount of vertical movement one can make in the organizational hierarchy. Second, a PhD is useful for independent consulting work. If the consultant resides in a state that requires licensure for practicing consultants, a PhD is often necessary to obtain the proper credentials. Third, under most ordinary circumstances, an individual must hold a doctorate to be hired as a tenure-track faculty member. Should an individual want to become an academician, pursuing a doctorate is not only advisable but often necessary.

What does a PhD program look for when evaluating an applicant from a terminal master’s program?
The primary focus when searching for incoming doctoral students is for evidence of true interest in research. Markers such as presentations and involvement in research and publications can be evidence that the student is interested in and able to conduct quality research. Experience in the workplace can also be a valuable asset to a program candidate. Also, strong letters of recommendation are critically important in a successful application to a PhD program.

Of less interest to a doctoral program is the number and types of courses that a master’s student has completed. High standardized test scores, a strong GPA, and faculty connections certainly are benefits in an application packet; however, a student who has not had any research experience will sink to the bottom among a sea of other applicants who do have such experience. PhD programs are interested in students who will be able to complete a dissertation, which is a very involved and individual pursuit, so previous exposure to research is critical in providing a signal that the student will be able to do the necessary work.

Why am I repeating classes? If I would have skipped the MA, I would have saved $30,000!
Deciding on the classes that transfer between a master’s and doctoral program occurs on a case-by-case basis. At the heart of this decision is the quality of the master’s program and the overlap with the philosophical orientation of the doctoral program. Each program tends to have its own orientation and will want to put its “stamp” on students coming out of that program. In making students retake classes, PhD programs are able to maintain the quality of education for which they are known.

In determining which classes will transfer, there are several steps that master’s students typically take. Transfer credit is often determined by a committee, informed by the faculty member teaching each respective course for which a student hopes to get credit. The student often submits a syllabus to the course instructor, who tends to look for overlap in content and quality between the course that is offered by the doctoral program and the one that the student took. Under some circumstances, the instructor may require the student to take a version of a final exam to prove competency in the subject matter. In general, courses more directly related to I-O are the hardest to transfer because the orientation and relevant information tends to be unique to each school. Other programs may limit the number of courses that transfer to a finite number (e.g., only two courses will transfer despite additional overlap).

Students transitioning from a master’s to PhD program should be aware that they will most likely have to repeat courses. As stated previously, there are important differences between master’s and doctoral programs. Master’s programs tend to focus on practical or applied I-O skills whereas doctoral programs tend to be more theoretical and/or research based. As such, courses covering similar matter will likely not be equivalent. Any courses that a student feels should transfer should be brought to the attention of the PhD faculty as early in the transition as possible. In fact, students may consider inquiring about this before accepting an offer from a doctoral program, although the process often happens after students matriculate.  Most likely, a master’s student will take about the same amount of time in completing doctoral coursework as students who came directly from undergraduate programs, although this may vary slightly from program to program. 

How are graduates of terminal master’s degree programs viewed by PhD selection committees? Is a terminal master’s degree an advantage, disadvantage, or neither? Can earning a master’s degree compensate for a “negative” in an application (e.g., low undergraduate GPA)?
Yes, a master’s degree can compensate for deficiencies in an application (e.g., a lackluster undergraduate career), but it can also serve to reinforce positive attributes about the applicant. A master’s degree can show that a student has a strong interest in and knowledge of I-O psychology and the persistence required to pursue such a degree. Any evidence that a student can do the work required in a doctoral program is looked upon favorably. However, it may not be enough to just have a master’s degree void of research experience. A student should have some indicator of research interest and skill as well.

If you did not get into a PhD program, what’s the benefit of getting a master’s degree versus taking a year to retake the GRE or do research?
Similar to the previous question, a master’s degree is a good choice if a student has something negative to overcome (e.g., low GPA or GRE). A lot of students from master’s programs are disappointed that they will need to retake classes after transitioning from a terminal master’s to PhD program, but retaking courses is often not a waste. The time spent working on a master’s degree often gives students the skills they need in a doctoral program. A master’s degree with a strong involvement in research is an excellent way for a student without stellar credentials to pursue an advanced degree.

Questions Not Presented During the Conversation Hour

Is there a list of all the PhD programs in I-O?
SIOP maintains a searchable list of many current PhD and master’s programs. We also recommend interested students look at back issues of TIP journals for periodic rankings of top I-O PhD programs. These Society resources may be more informative than rankings done by popular magazines. The network of I-O psychologists is relatively small, so interested students are especially encouraged to seek information from faculty mentors about programs that might provide a good fit.

What can faculty of terminal master’s programs do to best help prepare students who would like to get into a PhD program?
Get them involved in as much research experience as possible! Students often get little hands-on experience with statistics, especially with entire data sets they really understand. Doing a thesis project is a great way to get more practice with stats and also to develop project management skills.