WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PSYCHOLOGY DEGREES?
Masters and Doctoral Degrees
All graduate psychology programs require that a person first completes a 4-year undergraduate degree in psychology. A Master?s Degree typically involves another 2 years of training, after which a person will have earned either a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (M.Sc.). There is not much difference between the two, though an M.Sc. is intended to be more "science" versus "arts" oriented. Terminal master's programs in clinical psychology are becoming exceedingly rare. The first year of a master's program will typically involve a lot of coursework, while the second will emphasize clinical supervision and usually a research thesis.
Doctoral degrees in clinical psychology include the Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology or Psychology Doctorate (PsyD). The PhD is the most common, and will involve 5-8 years of post-undergraduate training. It assumes a "Scientist-Practitioner" model of clinical training. This model assumes that a psychologist should learn how to do research, and that this is a very important part of being a clinical psychologist. The PsyD degree, in contrast, tends to be more of a "Practitioner-Scientist" model of training, and has become increasingly popular due to the many criticisms of the PhD approach to clinical training. This model also values the importance of research, but puts clinical expertise and training first and foremost. It is primarily designed for those looking to do clinical work and not those looking to work in academic or research settings. A PsyD is also shorter, usually taking between 4-6 years to complete.
The title of "psychologist," unlike more ambiguous terms such as "counsellor," "therapist," or "psychotherapist," is regulated by each province. A registrant must therefore meet certain academic and supervisory requirements before they are permitted to call themselves a psychologist. In Canada, a little less than half of the provinces allow one to practice at the master's degree, while just over half require a doctoral degree for registration. In Nova Scotia, a psychologist can be registered with a master's degree, though the Nova Scotia Board of Examiners in Psychology (NSBEP) has recently announced that they intend to change the registration to a doctoral degree pending legislative approval; NSBEP has stated that those currently registered with master's degrees will maintain their titles.
What Kind of Training do you have?
After my undergraduate degree, I attended a CPA/APA accredited program, where I earned a M.Sc. in Clinical Life-Span Psychology. My graduate education involved 3 full years, including doctoral level coursework and supervised practicums, in addition to a master's Thesis.
Is There a Difference in Competence?
This is a very difficult question to answer, and one that is hotly contested and often professionally divisive. In one camp are those who argue against master's-level registration. These arguments are usually based on what they consider to be an insufficient amount of coursework and supervised experience, which presumably leads to the training of less competent clinicians (e.g. Robiner, Arbisi, & Edwall, 1994). A doctoral-level psychologist, for example, will typically include at least two supervised practicums, followed by a full-year supervised internship. Although a masters-level clinician will often have comparable hours with regard to supervised practicum, they will have taken fewer courses and they do not have that full-year of clinical supervision within their program. Doctoral-degree advocates also point out that the PhD is the standard recommended by the American Psychological (DeLeon, 2000) and Canadian Psychological Associations (Cohen & Caputo, 2006), which at the very least, puts greater political weight behind the doctoral degree designation.
In the other camp are those who argue that the master's degree should be the standard for psychologist licensure. They argue that in most parts of the world, the master's degree is the standard of psychological practice (Kennedy & Innes, 2005), and that North America is an anomaly in advocating for doctoral registration. They also suggest that the length of training (5-8 years) is unnecessary, especially compared to medical doctors who complete their training in less time, and compared to clinical counsellors and social-workers, whose 2-year degrees seem to prepare them adequately for a similar line of work (Olvey, Hogg, & Counts, 2002). These advocates also point out that much of the doctoral-level training is based on research, and that being a good "scientist" does not necessarily translate into being a competent clinician (Jones, 2008). Finally, defenders of the master's degree point out empirical studies that seem to suggest that there is no difference in therapeutic competence between master and doctoral degree clinicians (e.g. Yeasts, 2007; Faust & Zlotnick, 1995)
Additional Thoughts on Degrees
I think there are good points on both sides of the debate. My own opinion is that a 2-year program might not be long enough to get the training and hands-on experience one needs, while a 5 or 8-year PhD program is excessively long and likely overemphasizes the "researcher" component as a necessity for clinical practice. This last point has been one of the main criticisms of the PhD model of training (Craighead & Craighead, 2006). It is obviously important to be an intelligent consumer of research, and psychologists should likely be familiar with statistical measures and data analysis, in order to critically assess the validity of new research that might relate to clinical practice. However the PhD model of training emphasizes the need to train a scientist first and clinician second. Graduate students can often spend years engaged in research projects that have little or no relation to the clinical practice of doing therapy. Having a keen interest in philosophy and deductive argumentation, it also became apparent to me that the field of psychology is often overconfident in its "empirical research," and is slow to question the many theoretical assumptions we take for granted in our field. For example, it is almost taboo to question the many assumptions underlying the DSM, the "medical model" of mental illness, or the process of standardized psychological assessment. While critical thinking is not outright discouraged in mainstream psychology, it is by no means regarded as a virtue; this somewhat dogmatic approach to "science" and "research" has been a criticism of the social sciences in general (Spencer, 1987).
One of the most basic assumptions of the PhD model of training is that a "good scientist" will make for a good clinician. It might be a tough case for advocates to prove that point, but even if it were true, a good scientist, in my estimation, is not only someone who can design studies, run statistical analyses, and collect and interpret the data, but also someone capable of questioning the theoretical assumptions used to interpret the research findings. But a psychologist might go their entire career without ever taking as much as an introductory course in basic logic, critical thinking, or theory development. It is important to note that the so-called "research evidence" will always be interpreted by some speculative theory. Note however that theories are not tangible facts: they are simplified abstractions based on human reasoning. More often than not, theories are taken for granted in the investigative process and are often assumed correct even if they are wrong, which is why it is so important to take the time to rationally critique them. But most psychology training programs would seem to minimize or ignore that need - focusing its efforts instead on empirical research while taking the theories for granted. It is therefore unsurprising that the most vicious critics of psychological theories are not psychologists, but philosophers or critical thinkers outside of our field.
So it seems to me, and indeed many others, that there is something very important missing from the current model of training. And while the assumption is that an accomplished researcher makes for a good clinician, I think one could make an equally compelling case for the opposite conclusion: that an exceptionally productive researcher could perhaps make for a bad clinician. How could this be? Well, after nearly a decade of training within a DSM-oriented model of mental illness, where one is taught to think in terms of unnaturally standardized research programs that seldom reflect reality or the true complexities of most clients, and after one becomes all too comfortable scientifically objectifying what can only ever be subjective human thoughts and feelings, it could very well create a professional who is conceptually inflexible and "out-of-touch" with the subjective experiences of those who seek our help.
I should note that the aforementioned points are based on my own understanding of the critical literature regarding the theoretical assumptions of our field and psychology credentialing. While I do think that education, training, and supervised experience is important, I am convinced that the traditional model of PhD training is not the way forward for those looking to become clinical psychologists. The PsyD training model seems to be a step in the right direction, but at the present time there are less than a handful of graduate PsyD programs in Canada. It is the consumers of psychological services who will ultimately decide what kind of training will best suit their needs. For now, it might be just as well to ensure that no matter what degree a psychologist has within Nova Scotia, they should have the training and supervised experience to meet your individual needs, and practice a therapeutic approach that you feel comfortable with.
Cohen, K., & Caputo, A. (2006). Terminal master?s programmes in professional psychology. Psynopsis: Canada?s Psychology Newspaper, 28(4), 16.
Craighead, L. & Craighead, E. (2006). PhD training in clinical psychology: Fix it before it breaks. Clinical Psychology: Science & Practice, 13, 235-241.
DeLeon, P. (2000). President's column: An era of exciting opportunities. APA Monitor on Psychology, 31(1), 7.
Faust, D., & Zlotnick, C. (1994). Another dodo bird verdict? Revisiting the comparative effectiveness of professional and paraprofessional therapists. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 2(3), 157-167.
Jones, C. (2008). From novice to expert: Issues of concern in the training of psychologists. Australian Psychologist, 43(1), 38-54.
Kennedy, B. & Innes, M. (2005). The teaching of psychology in the contemporary university: Beyond the accreditation guidelines. Australian Psychologist, 40(3), 159-169.
Olvey, C., Hogg, A., & Counts, W. (2002). Licensure requirements: Have we raised the bar too far? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 33(3), 323-329.
Robiner, W., Arbisi, P., Edwall, G. (1994). The basis of the doctoral degree for psychology licensure. Clinical Psychology Review, 14(4), 227-254.
Spencer, M. (1987). The imperfect empiricism of the social sciences. Sociological Forum, 2(2), 331-372.
Yeatts, W. (2007). The competency of masters psychologists as mental health professionals: A literature review. Journal of Psychological Practice, 14(1), 21-34.