Ask the Director: Can I Get a Ph.D. After Earning My MPS Degree?

by Barbara L. Watters, Ph.D. published Feb 28, 2018 03:50 PM, last modified Oct 22, 2020 02:40 PM
by Dr. Barbara Watters

Barbara Watters

I get a lot of great questions from MPS students, so I thought I would share the most common questions and my answers in the Leadership Café blog.  One common question has been: can I go on to earn a Ph.D. after earning my MPS degree?

The answer to that question is not a simple "yes" or "no."  Like many other universities, Penn State distinguishes between research-focused master’s degrees and professional master’s degrees.  Research-focused master’s degrees include the Master of Arts and Master of Science.  These degrees are academic in nature and are focused on the creation of new knowledge.  Often a master’s thesis is required, and it involves conducting original research that contributes to the body of knowledge in the field (

Professional master's degrees include our own Master of Professional Studies in the Psychology of Leadership, as well as many others.  Professional degrees focus on the practical application of knowledge for solving problems (  As stated on our program web site: "The MPS in the Psychology of Leadership is designed for working professionals who seek advanced education in leadership to enhance their careers, support organizational goals, and apply strategies for leading, influencing, and motivating diverse work groups" (  Professional degrees like ours require some sort of capstone experience that demonstrates the ability to apply knowledge to a real-world problem.  In our case, you will take PSY 894 and design an intervention to address a leadership issue in your organization.

The Ph.D. is a research degree at the doctoral level, just like the M.A. and M.S. are research degrees at the master's level.  Typically students who earn professional master's degrees like the MPS in Psychology of Leadership do not seek Ph.D. degrees because the two types of degrees have very different career trajectories.  Those who earn professional degrees intend to advance in their careers and solve problems in their organizations.  Those who earn research degrees intend to seek faculty positions at universities to teach and continue their research. 

The admission requirements and degree requirements for research degrees versus professional degrees are very different because they appeal to different students with different educational and career goals.  The knowledge, skills, and abilities developed in research degrees versus professional degrees overlap somewhat, but not a lot; again, the degrees are intended for students with different goals.

Again, few students who seek professional master’s degrees are planning to go on to doctoral programs, although some might be.  An appropriate progression might be to seek a professional doctoral degree such as the Doctor of Management (D.M.), Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), Doctor of Business Administration (D.B.A.), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) or other similar degree.  Interestingly, it also is possible to earn a Ph.D. in Human Resources.  Be careful, though: just because you have earned a professional master’s degree does not mean you would automatically be accepted into a professional doctoral program.  It depends on the admission requirements for that degree and for that university.

Another consideration is whether you would want to attend an online doctoral program or a more traditional, resident (in-person) program.  You may find it easier to gain admission to an online doctoral program rather than a traditional program.  But again, that depends on the admission requirements for any given degree and university.  

The bottom line if you seek to continue your education beyond the MPS:  Do your research, examine many different programs and options, and if you can, talk with faculty at your desired universities before deciding what's best for your goals.

Here are links to a few resources to get you started on your doctoral program search: 

These resources are good, but sometimes the best approach is just to do an internet search with Google or your favorite search engine on keywords such as "online doctoral programs."  I strongly encourage you to focus your search on non-profit universities, especially those that also have a bricks-and-mortar presence and have a strong reputation.  Penn State is a good example of what I mean.  (Keep in mind, though, the only online doctoral degree offered by Penn State right now is in nursing.)

The strongest message I want to convey is that you should feel extremely proud of the MPS Psychology of Leadership that you will earn at Penn State.  Penn State's online programs are ranked consistently as among the best in the country (  Your MPS degree from Penn State, combined with your talent, drive, and skill, will help you make a positive difference in your organization.  

Some students ask me if it is "necessary" to go on to earn a doctoral degree.  My answer is: no, definitely not!  Do it if it's right for you, not because of some vague expectation about what is expected.  Remember what you wrote in your statement of purpose when you applied to the MPS program.  You chose Penn State and the MPS degree for a reason, so earn your degree and work hard to achieve your goals.  You have unique talents and you should pursue the life you desire.  


Dr. Barbara Watters is Professor of Practice and the Director of the MPS program.