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Hey everyone,

I made a post earlier regarding WFU's masters program in particular, but I wanted to make a thread about the general experience of what people have chosen to do when they're not going to a PhD straight from undergrad. I'm new here so I'm still learning the posting etiquette on gradcafe, but I apologize if this topic is too closely related to the other thread. I feel that this is a different question though, whereas the other thread was about WFU specifically. Hopefully this is OK.
Basically, I was wondering what people's experiences have been with doing a non-PhD grad program or a gap year. Specifically, has doing a masters program before applying to PhD in clinical and non-clinical disciplines ever worked against you in the admissions process? I hear some things about how doing a gap year is better because it's very independent, whereas masters programs are often very structured. However, I definitely see a lot of people successfully going to great PhD programs after completing a research masters, so I'm sure this is just unfounded/hearsay. What's everyone's experience with this? Does anyone do any applied masters programs (like MS or a licensing program)? I also hear things about Post Bacc programs, although rare. Or alternatively, has anyone tried to do a paid job or internship for their gap year before reapplying?
Thanks in advance!!

Edited by DippinDot
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I did a clinical psychology master (Marriage and Family Therapy) after undergrad. Because I was worried that if I am still unable to get accepted by the PhD program afterwards, at least I can get a master-level license. During my master year, I was very involved in research, and my CV is full of research experience. I manage to get 6 posters, and a manuscript (currently under review). I get accepted by a Counseling Psychology PhD program this application cycle:) Based on my interview experience, I see many candidates with master degree. I am not sure if it is true about clinical psychology program. If you are gonna take a gap year and want to maximize your opportunity to get into a PhD program, focus on research, get paper published. There are some lab manager and paid research assistant jobs. 

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Hey @FutureResearcher, thanks for your input and for sharing your experience! :) congrats on the acceptance. Sounds like you really did a lot during your marriage and family therapy masters. I usually don't hear about people doing an applied masters and still pursuing research experience/posters at the same time, so that's cool to hear that you were able to do both. It's also reassuring to hear about many candidates doing interviews with a masters degree. Thanks for the advice about gap year too!

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I have been working a full time research job the last two years. It's given me the experiences I need for applications that I didn't fully get as an undergrad RA and has also given me the opportunity to explore my own research and career interests. In clinical psychology, having evidence that you are committed to this type of program (often 5 years plus an internship year) as well as evidence that you can succeed as an independent researcher are key. I think taking time out of school but still doing work related to my ultimate goals helped me in this application cycle.

Regarding post-baccs, I know some programs have formal post-baccs (e.g., a former roommate attended a post-bacc in math at the college we lived near) but from what I understand talking to fellow applicants this cycle, post-baccs for clinical applicants tend to be research positions that expect a two year commitment but in return they prepare you for acceptances into PhD programs. This is often a good route because your mentors are familiar with entrance qualifications and will help get you the experiences and preparation you need.

I am not applying with a Masters so I can't speak fully to that or how it could be detrimental. However, there are a few reasons why pursuing a masters would be useful. If you have a low undergrad GPA, if you were not a psychology major, if you do not have any research experience, or if you don't yet have a defined area of interest particularly for research pursuits would all be reasons that taking the master's route may be beneficial. I met a number of applicants as well who are applying to PhD programs as they are completing their masters. From what I hear, like post-baccs, masters also allow for help in interview prep, letters of rec, and advice on statements and general application questions. One major downside to this is that the majority of masters programs are not funded (with a few notable exceptions).

My experiences are all geared toward clinical applications, so I can't speak to how applicable this is to non-clinical programs. There were plenty of applicants applying out of undergrad, but there is no reason to fear taking time off and working on your CV and understanding exactly what you want--this application process is grueling and the more prepared you are the better off you'll be.

Edit: Just saw your other post. Congrats on getting into Wake Forest! I met an applicant in that program at one of my interviews. Sounds like you already have a handle on the masters info I wrote about above.

Edited by b_l91
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Hello @b_l91! Thank you so much for the detailed response! I keep getting blown away by how organized and helpful people are on GC. :) 

Yes, I keep hearing about how taking time off through work, research opportunities, or other cool stuff has really helped people. I totally see why people have such positive things to say about it. I don't think I've met anyone that's regretted taking time off-- most of the time it's people that went straight from undergrad to grad school that wish they did things differently. 

Yeah, I was thinking about applying to a formal post-bacc program that emphasizes neuroscience or bio-psych as I wasn't able to take too many classes on these topics. In my case, I'm thinking of applying to clinical and non-clinical programs that allow me to do research on interdisciplinary topics related to mental health/well-being. That's why I thought doing more formal courses through a post-bacc on things like bio-psych might be helpful for admissions. The drawback is that I don't see a whole lot of funded opportunities in post-bacc because it's typically not a certificate/degree granting program. Apparently, something about this makes it hard for universities to establish federal/state grants or stipends and other publicly funded assistance. I'm not in a position to embark on opportunities that are out-of-pocket as a means of bettering my application, so I didn't look into post-baccs after realizing that. (But maybe I'm wrong about the funding/tuition waiving).

I heard a lot of the same stuff for masters programs too! And yes, I agree that masters are usually not funded. I applied to WFU and W&M because they were the 2 programs that were known for preparing students in getting to psych PhD programs, and usually offer funding. Thank you for the congrats! :) It's reassuring to hear that someone in your cohort/interview group came from WFU's masters program! I think the main thing that I hear against a MA is that some PhD programs are particular about training students in a certain way that's specific to their program/their own philosophy of research (or practice), so they prefer people that haven't already been in a graduate program and received formal training/influence in that sense. I think the thing about gap years being more independent/showcase people's initiatives is coming more from students themselves rather than admissions. I've actually had grad students in my undergrad school tell me that a person with good enough stats (meaning reaching the threshold for being considered/getting foot in the door) and good enough research experience would be wasting their time/money at a masters program. I take this with a grain of salt though because their concerns were specific to non-funded MAs. I also get that research MA doesn't add much novel employment value to your CV, so if you do the masters and you don't go into a PhD program, it might not be much of an asset to you outside of the PhD and higher education space. When they say this they're usually comparing the MA to other non-PhD degrees, like an applied M.S. or licensing program.

To give more background info about my situation, I had lukewarm stats that got me through that first round of immediate rejections (3.6 gpa, above 155 on Q and V GRE scores), and I had 1 year of research experience. However, the research experience I had wasn't always directly related to the programs I applied to this cycle. I also didn't get to do any posters/presentations, which I know is something admissions really likes to see. I think along with not enough research experience/unspecific research interests, I just didn't have a good handle on a lot of stuff surrounding the whole application process. Including how to pick schools and professors to apply to/assessing match. All in all, there's definitely a lot to work on before I reapply. I should work on getting a higher GRE score, perhaps make use of a MA or postbacc to help out my UG gpa with a high graduate GPA, and narrow down my interests through (directly related) projects and posters.

It seems like the general consensus is that any option will give me opportunities to do research and build my application-- it's just a matter of what works best for myself and really using those resources to the fullest. Hopefully those things I hear about how an MA could work against someone is wrong haha.
Thanks again for your help!! It reassured me that there's multiple paths to my goals. And if anyone else has insight on how one path might be "better" in a certain situation than another, please let me know! 

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I'm not in clinical, but I can tell you about my experiences.

After undergrad I took a year off. I've always had a strong interest in cultural psych so I ended up moving to Asia. At the same time I wanted to be sure I wanted to pursue research, so I took some classes at a local university in terms of applied psych (advertising, UX design, etc.). It made me even more convinced I wanted to do research and certainly helped me through difficult times in my Master's when I wanted to give up. It also certainly helped me develop my research interests a lot more (rather than cross-cultural psych, I'm now doing more 'socio-ecology').

So after this year, I went back home to pursue a Research Masters in Social Psych. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot. My experiences abroad have also helped me in developing research questions and so on. I felt my experience abroad at least made me a lot more focused on what I wanted to pursue in terms of topics and the time I used to read also had given me a bit more depth.

I'm currently on a gap year again (maybe even 2 depending on whether I get in now), partly because my thesis expanded way to big in size (finishing it this week) and I got involved in too many things during my Master's. Yet, I expect 2-3 papers up for publication by the summer, so regardless, I feel even this year is not wasted. I may even set up a cross-cultural project and work with some people here sometime soon, which I personally view as a big achievement (Yep, I'm back in Asia). So again, I don't feel like I'm wasting time. I'm learning so much - both about my research interests, and am getting valuable experience and knowledge (both about the topics I'm interested in as well as about myself). I'm also using this year to profile myself more, which I believe will help me regardless of which point I am in my career.

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Hey @Psygeek! Thanks for replying! :) Wow, your experience sounds so cool! I'm glad you've been able to do all of these interesting things and work on some papers that are up for publication!! The cross-cultural project sounds super awesome, I concur that that's a big achievement. I don't think anything you've done is a waste of time at all, both in a professional sense and in the sense of your self development/understanding. It seems like you've done a lot of work and gone through a lot of growth.
It's really good to hear that your experience with an MA has been so positive and made you (and your ambitions) stronger. I hope that I'll also have a positive experience, should I do the MA. I'm sure that like many others, and like yourself, my research interests will shift and narrow during the course of a MA.  
I really can't express how appreciative I am of all of this input. It really puts into perspective how valuable time and experience outside of a PhD is. I'm feeling a lot better about where I am/where I might be.

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@DippinDot thank you :) For me, having a broad idea of what I wanted to study when already entering my Master's had been incredibly helpful in choosing what to learn and achieve. Plus if you got a good story on why you did something - I always built upon my experience and relate it to my interest in macropsychology. It's been so helpful.

That being said - another addition - I believe it's important to really know what you like and how you want to approach it during your PhD. Although this works a bit different in Europe (you sign up for a specific project and RQ really), I've seen a bunch of my classmates end up on projects that do not actually have their true interest and passion and they're just doing the PhD for the sake of the PhD. For me, I want to build a line of research I'm passionate about! If that means I will get my degree a lot later, so be it. In the long run I'd see myself in a happier place.

BUT - if someone has a fairly good idea where they want to head and where they want to be directly after undergrad, that's of course also fine! If I had stumbled upon a project in the last phase of my Master's that I'd really like I may also be pursuing a PhD now.

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@DippinDot In my understanding of the field, the only time the issue of having a masters & PhD programs wanting to train you in their own way would come up is if it's a counseling degree, which yours is not (and even if that were so, you'd still get the training and still go through the masters process en route to the PhD, so I'm not convinced how sound that advice is). I think that pursuing a research masters where you could get two more years' experience as well as stats work, writing some papers/posters, having more options for LOR, and upping your GRE scores and statements could be really beneficial. If you're concerned about your coursework, you could look into taking a class or two at a local college or community college. Additionally, you can always be reading up on the latest literature and getting a feel for the knowledge base in your area of interest. PhD programs love self-starters.

In terms of having a MA and that not really being applicable to jobs, I don't think that's the case given that it's a paid program. It's not like you'd be shelling out 50k and still winding up with a BA level job.

I really am of the mind that you can get out of most situations as much as you put into it, and whether you accept the MA, go for a job, or find a postbacc, you'll be making progress, adding to your CV, and showing that you're committed to this path. It's a lot of delayed gratification but whatever you end up doing will be worth it once you get that PhD acceptance. Best of luck!!

Edited by b_l91
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