Getting a Master’s Degree in Psychology

| Staff Writers

A master’s in psychology prepares graduates to contribute new research to the field and provide direct care to individuals to improve their lives.

The interdisciplinary study of psychology at the graduate level covers applied research methods and behavior analysis interventions. The degree also prepares graduates to pursue a Ph.D. and become a psychologist through internships and residency work. Concentrations in marriage and family therapy, addiction studies, and applied behavior analysis further prepare students for their specific career interests.

Graduates work in research, academia, and clinical settings. They earn certifications in specific subfields and licenses for master’s-level graduates.

Employment in psychology should continue to grow as employers have a greater need for psychologists in all settings, especially in schools, where administrators hold a greater appreciation for mental health services. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects occupations to grow by 3% through 2029.

Learn more in this guide about what you can do with a master’s in psychology and how much you can earn.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What's the difference between a master of arts and a master of science in psychology?

    Future psychologists can choose from a master of arts (MA) or a master of science (MS) degree. The MS degree offers courses that concentrate on the sciences, such as quantitative analysis. Conversely, an MA degree features classes dedicated to the humanities, such as counseling psychology. Both degrees focus on psychology theory, research, and applied psychology.

  • What is the best master's degree in psychology?

    It depends. The degree a student chooses depends on their career ambitions and interests. Schools offer various graduate degrees, including master’s in clinical psychology, master’s in counseling psychology, and master’s in industrial organizational psychology. Students can also choose from online, hybrid, or in-person classes depending on their personal needs.

  • What is required to get a master's degree in psychology?

    A master’s in psychology comprises about 36-48 credits. Programs may require a minimum “B” average to graduate in addition to internships completed under the supervision of psychologists. Before graduation, students complete a thesis or a capstone project.

  • How long does it take to get a master's in psychology?

    The average master’s in psychology degree takes two years to complete. Students attending part-time generally take 3-4 years to graduate. Accelerated programs feature shortened semesters that allow graduate students to take more courses throughout the academic year and graduate quicker than two years.

Admission Requirements for a Master’s in Psychology Program

To apply for a master’s degree in psychology, applicants need at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college. Most graduate candidates hold a degree in psychology, sociology, social work, or a related field. A bachelor’s in psychology comprises about 120 credits, a four-year process for full-time students.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychology graduate programs may prefer applicants who also have experience working in research.

Other application materials include letters of recommendation from professional references, a letter of purpose from the student, and an application fee. Supplementary materials include official transcripts that show a minimum 3.0 undergraduate GPA. Schools may also require GRE scores.

Be sure to check your chosen program prior to applying, as some applicants may need to take prerequisite classes in statistics or psychology. Psychology schools may require a critical reading and writing test.

Core Concepts in a Master’s in Psychology Degree Program

The classes students take for a master’s in psychology degree vary by school and degree. The curriculum covers psychological theory and research as it concerns the functions of the brain, behaviors, and attitudes.

Graduate students may take courses in statistics, abnormal psychology, theories of cognitive behavior, and applied research methods.

Electives in child development, quality of work life, and consumer behavior offer the chance to tailor a degree. Learners can further hone their knowledge and skills by pursuing concentrations the APA reports as commonly offered, such as clinical neuropsychology, psychoanalysis, school psychology, and clinical child and adolescent psychology.

While students need a Ph.D. to become a psychologist, a master’s in psychology prepares graduates for positions as career counselors, child protection workers, and rehabilitation specialists. Through clinicals and internships, students can gain the experience to work in social services, education, and research.

Specialty Areas for a Master’s in Psychology Degree Program

To prepare students for their specific career paths, a master’s in psychology degree offers specialties in subareas. Taking a concentration or specialty lets students gain specialized skills and knowledge through classes tailored to their interests and the field’s needs. Below are some common specialities. Be aware that concentration offerings vary by school.

  • Clinical Psychology

    Clinical psychologists deliver behavioral and mental health care to diverse age groups. Their work settings include hospitals, private practices, and colleges. Many work in specialized fields of child psychology or neuropsychology. They conduct assessments by interviewing clients, diagnose emotional and behavioral issues, provide psychotherapy, and create intervention plans. A core part of the job also includes conducting research and contributing to the field of psychology by publishing work.

  • Counseling Psychology

    Using psychotherapy techniques, professionals who work in counseling psychology enable individuals, couples, and families to overcome daily stresses and crisis situations. They work to help children, adolescents, and seniors. As part of the job, they may also organize group work to improve employee relations at corporations. The job requires a deep understanding of external influences that affect people, such as work, culture, and societal pressures.

  • School Psychology

    School psychologists work in schools and directly in homes to ensure all students have equal access to safe learning spaces and academic and psychological care services. The occupation requires a solid understanding of state and federal laws that regulate schools. School psychologists must understand how to maintain sensitivity to cultural differences and diverse learners. Additionally, they may lead professional development programs for teachers and administrators on how to create safe learning environments.

  • Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology

    Clinical child and adolescent psychologists specialize in delivering psychological services to clients from infancy to adolescence. This job requires making assessments and implementing behavior management or psychotherapy interventions. They also conduct preventative measures through programs that raise awareness on issues like cyberbullying or drug use.

  • Industrial-Organizational Psychology

    Psychologists who work in industrial and organizational psychology help organizations create better work environments. Improving performance, work life, and productivity remain key issues they address in the workplace. This job requires a solid understanding of laws and regulations that protect employees. By analyzing research, they can aid the human resources department in creating training programs and measuring the success of existing services.

  • Behavior and Cognitive Psychology

    You can find behavior and cognitive psychologists in settings like hospitals, schools, and corrections facilities. Behavior and cognitive psychologists have the training to provide evidence-based psychological care to help people from a variety of age groups and backgrounds. They use cognitive and behavioral therapy techniques to address issues of substance abuse, depression, trauma, and relationship problems.

  • Forensic Psychology

    Forensic psychologists assist officials working in the courts or in law enforcement. Their clients include those involved in civil court cases, such as child custody litigation or defendants in criminal cases. They may determine whether a person can stand trial or diagnose a defendant as criminally insane. Employers need forensic psychologists to work at all levels of the courts. Insurance companies and attorney offices also hire forensic psychologists.

  • Couple and Family Psychology

    Couple and family psychologists use systems psychology, or the knowledge of how systemic and relationship factors influence behavior, to do their work. Their clients include individuals, couples, and families from a variety of ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Besides addressing daily problems, couple and family psychologists also address issues of substance abuse, developmental disorders, abuse, and infidelity.

Online Master’s in Psychology Programs

Colleges use remote learning platforms that offer many advantages, especially to students who do not have the time to commute to school due to work or family life. Flexible asynchronous classes let students log on their devices and attend class wherever they can access the internet. Asynchronous courses offer added convenience by offering deadlines students meet on their own time.

However, online psychology master’s programs also pose challenges. Video conferencing takes away from the intimacy of the classroom experience. Learning online also requires greater independence, self-discipline, and time management.

Licensure Requirements for a Master’s Degree in Psychology

Most, if not all states, require a minimum of a doctorate to practice psychology. However, some states and U.S. territories offer psychology licenses to individuals with a master’s in psychology. Each state sets its own requirements.

Candidates need to hold a degree from a program accredited by the APA. They also need to complete supervised work experience. Exact internship or residency hours vary by state. Once prospective psychologists meet these standards they can sit for the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology.

The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards offers licenses for future psychologists, school psychologists, behavior analysts, and psychological associates. In some states, holding a master’s degree meets the standards to become a licensed school psychologist or behavior analyst.

Certifications for Psychologists

Certification offers a professional recognition of a psychologist’s expertise in specialty areas, whereas a license permits a professional to practice in psychology in a specific state.

Unlike a state license, psychologists can practice for years without a certification. In fact, the time and money to earn a certification may detract some psychologists from pursuing the professional credential. However, as certified psychologists discover, the long-term benefits often outweigh the short-term cons.

Many psychologists obtain certification for financial reasons and to gain respect among their colleagues. Credentials, such as forensic psychology and couple and family psychology can provide advancement in the field and a more lucrative paycheck.

Professionals can find certifications through organizations, such as the American Board of Professional Psychology. The National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists also offers the certified cognitive behavioral therapist and diplomate in cognitive behavioral therapy credentials for master’s degree-holders.

What Can You Do With a Master’s Degree in Psychology?

A master’s in psychology, while not the highest degree one can earn in psychology, opens the doors to careers in a variety of different settings. Professionals with a master’s degree hold positions as rehabilitation counselors, school and career counselors, and marriage and family therapists.

Responsibilities and pay vary depending on the occupation. Psychologists with a master’s-level education can administer therapy directly to individuals, couples, and groups. Rehabilitation counselors help clients deal with physical and mental disabilities and access services. According to the BLS, these professionals make a median annual wage of $35,950. School and career counselors, who provide counseling advice on academic or behavioral matters to students earn a median annual salary of $57,040.

As explained above, some states permit individuals to work in school psychology with only a master’s in psychology. Without a Ph.D., employers limit the roles and responsibilities of individuals. Outside of clinical or school settings, those with a master’s degree can find work at corporations where they provide human resource management and consulting work.

Some future psychologists begin with a master’s in psychology before earning a Ph.D. to gain supervised clinical experience or advanced research skills.

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