The Servant of Two Masters

…..or rather of one Masters and one PhD. As per the play by Carlo Goldoni, is attempting to tame two beasts simultaneously (the combined Applied Psychology Masters and PhD program) going to satisfy your hunger or cause all parties to be left wanting more?

[I want to start with a disclaimer to remind everyone this is a personal blog-post so therefore merely representative of my subjective opinions and does not necessarily represent any objective “truth”. The post is meant to facilitate some critical thoughts or discussions about one post-graduate pathway.]

This post is written as a reflection (or rather ‘light-musings’) about undertaking the combined PhD/clinical Masters program. Even though I will make some conclusions, realistically, I probably wouldn’t have taken my own advice. When you start a PhD you’re (hopefully) enthusiastic, head-strong, and completely naïve to the reality of the current academic work-force. You are (well I was) definitely sure that I needed to complete as much as I can in as little time as I can. The combined program sounded amazing: a two-for-one deal which costs $0 (on the HECS bill) – just another four measly years of my life. I believed I would get to choose whether I’m an academic or a clinician. In fact, I imagined I’ll be beating away the offers from both sides as they try to take advantage of my broad skill-set. But now….I’m not so sure. I want to make clear that I think it is a positively wonderful idea to complete both an applied psychology Masters (such as a clinical psych Masters) AND a PhD – my question is whether it is worthwhile doing them at the same time?

So, first I am going to start with some of the potential benefits of completing the combined program. Of course the benefits are exactly the same as those completing an applied Masters and a PhD separately. For one, you will be a registered psychologist at the end of the degree with the ability to enter a registrar program for endorsement in one of the Australian Psychological Societies (APS) colleges. You should also have a broad array of research skills to increase your capacity to become a scientist-practitioner. The combined program will then, hypothetically, give you access to two job markets: the academic/research market as a well as the applied psychology market, which will hopefully mean you’re never out of employment. Realistically though, the applied psychology market is booming at the moment so if you want to become a clinician, I’m not sure a PhD will be that much of an advantage. I certainly do not believe having “Dr” in front of your name is worth all the extra effort and time.

An additional benefit for some may be that you don’t have to pay for the Masters components. This only applies to universities which have a true combined program and not the universities who allow you to consecutively roll over from an applied Masters into a PhD. At Griffith University (where I am enrolled) there is a formal “Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology” program which incorporates the applied clinical Masters into a 4 year F.T.E PhD. This is (currently) a saving of about $12500 from your HECS bill.

It should technically also be quicker to do the combined program than it is to do them separately. On the whole, I think this is mostly true when you look at the full-time equivalent stats. As there are many people competing PhDs in psychology, the quality of PhDs is very high, which (unfortunately?) means even research-only PhDs take around 4 years to complete. If you want to do the two programs separately/consecutively, I imagine with some strategic planning with your supervisor you could design a study in your Master’s degree which lends itself to evolve into a three-year PhD after the Masters is completed though.

Last, when you have completed a PhD and Masters, you should be at an advantage compared with research-only PhDs to be employed and undertake clinically-related research in universities and other research teams (e.g., at hospitals). I have spoken to a number of hospital researchers who reported they would only employ researchers who have applied training as their research focus is mostly treatment driven.

There are undoubtedly a number of costs to undertaking the combined route though – more so if you want to be a researcher or academic at the end of your PhD.

First, IT’S BLOODY STRESSFUL. The Masters and PhD are both exceptionally stressful and when you combine them it exponentially compounds into a catastrophic calamity of cosmically cursed cadavers ripping out all that is good in the world *breathes in*. Or at least it sometimes it feel like that :-). I regularly feel like I am being pulled in every direction and am so thinly spread I’m not completing any of my tasks particularly well or making anyone happy. N.B This is of course only my perception; this imposter syndrome is pretty normal in a research-only PhD and in an applied Masters too I’ve been told. What has been wonderful is that through this difficulty (but still definitely rewarding) journey, I’ve been surrounded by an astounding team of peers and supervisors who can collectively support me and reduce my anxiety (and hopefully I do the same for them).

Now this next one is probably the most significant cost IF you want to be a researcher/academic after the PhD. By doing the combined program you may have half the opportunities to build a track record in research and teaching which could put you at a disadvantage when competing against other early career researchers (ECRs). When I am in lectures or on placement three days a week some of my other PhD colleagues are undertaking extra research outside of their PhD, tutoring or lecturing, and doing research assistant (RA) work for other academics. So even though I believe I have the same research skills as most other ECRs, I may have fewer opportunities to demonstrate those skills prior to writing job applications. I may also have fewer networking opportunities because I do not have the same amount of time to do RA work for other academics. And while we might like to think universities are bastions of meritocracy by all accounts of people like the Thesis Whisperer this just isn’t the case (who you know>what you know). I would like to point out that as I haven’t completed my studies I am yet to see this first hand and I am secretly (naively) hoping that future employers will assess my skills and track record on the balance of opportunities and research quality (over quantity)…

There are a number of other things I could speak about but I’ll leave my last con as I’ve heard some academics view the combined PhD/Masters as “lesser” than a research-only PhD. This is hopefully/likely an idiosyncratic belief of only some researchers but it is worth considering. As previously mentioned though, this is unlikely going to matter if you want to be a clinician.

So overall, I wholeheartedly believe that completing a PhD AND an applied Masters in psychology is an amazing and useful thing to do. The two areas provide highly transferable skills which complement each other whether you’re a clinician or a researcher. As I’m nearing the last stages of my combined degree I’m just not convinced I should have completed them together – particularly as I want to be a researcher. While the combined program is cheaper and quicker it has potentially limited my ability to take advantage of some opportunities and thus reduced my ability to demonstrate the breadth of my skills in teaching and research.

I would love to hear what you think about this and whether your opinion/experience is (dis)similar to mine.