I am in a terminal Master’s program in counselor’s education with the goal of being a school guidance counselor. My career goal has always been to work with high schoolers, especially those at-risk. For now, a Master’s is all I can manage due to time, money, and my sanity, but I would eventually like to go back and get a PhD in School Psychology. My program requires a capstone project, which is essentially a professional issues seminar with a major writing assignment, or a traditional thesis in order to graduate. Obviously, the capstone would be much easier to do, but would I be hurting my chances of getting into a PhD program by not completing a thesis?

–Capstone or Thesis?

Dear Capstone or Thesis?

It sounds like you’re already aware that—all other things being equal—doing the thesis would be in your best interests if you’re serious about eventually going back for your PhD. That being said, it’s difficult to say whether or not it would make-or-break getting into a PhD program, and only you can weigh all the pros and cons, taking into account everything you have on your plate right now, both personally and professionally.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you weigh your options:

1. PhD programs, even those with a scientist-practitioner model, want to know that their prospective students are truly interested in doing research. Period. If they think that you’re not really motivated to do research (or that you see it as only a means to an end), they will be less likely to accept you into their program. For one thing, the PhD was designed to be a research degree, and there are other degrees you could pursue if that’s not what you want to do. In fact, you can already be a high school guidance counselor with only your Master’s. Also, you’ll have to do quite a bit of research to complete your PhD, so they want to know you’re really serious—and that you can actually do it. Doing a thesis now would not only demonstrate your interest in doing research to future programs, but it would also show them that you already have a little bit of experience doing it, which could, perhaps, give you a leg up on some other candidates later.

2. More prestigious PhD programs with more rigorous research training, which is where the faculty more regularly get published in highly respected journals, care more about this topic than less prestigious programs do. However, it’s important to keep in mind that “more prestigious” does not necessarily mean “better” because it really depends on your long-term goals. If you want to go on to become a tenure-track faculty member at a top, Research 1 University, prestige, and what that represents, matters. So if that’s your ultimate goal, you’d probably be shooting yourself in the foot not to do the thesis now. However, if your goal after getting the PhD is to go into some sort of clinical practice or even work as a faculty member at a more teaching-focused college or university, this may not be quite as important.

My question to you would be what is your eventual end goal? It sounds like you want to work with at-risk high schoolers, but in what capacity, and in what setting? What is motivating your choice to go for the PhD, when you could work with these students after your Master’s program? There are many great reasons, but depending on what your particular reasons are, they might influence the type of PhD program you’d be trying to get into, which, in turn, might influence how important it is to have completed the thesis.

3. You might be serious about the PhD and be motivated to do research, but various things going on in your life might make it hard to see how doing the thesis will be feasible right now. Therefore, it may be possible to find other opportunities to get involved in research later on, and these could help your chances of getting into PhD programs if you find that not completing the thesis was standing in your way (e.g., volunteering as a research assistant in a lab). Of course, that means more work for you later on, but it is helpful to keep in mind that these are rarely now-or-never types of situations.

That being said, if you can pull it off now, things could be much easier for you down the road. It may be worth putting in that extra work now, if it’s feasible to set yourself up to be in a better position later.

4. If you’re hesitant to doing a thesis, it might be worth reconsidering how you’re going to feel about doing a dissertation! I’d recommend reflecting on your career goals and really thinking about whether the PhD is necessarily the best track for getting where you want to go.

As you consider your ultimate goals, you might find it helpful to take a look at this resource from the National Association of School Psychologists, which discusses different degree types and the types of careers typically associated with each: http://www.nasponline.org/students/degreefactsheet.pdf.

You might look into whether or not your current university has a career counseling service. Many do, and this could be a great resource for you as you consider these next steps.

Good luck!

–Dana Nelson, PhD


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