Psychology remains a career for people with curiosity and a passion for learning about the human mind. Students often enter the field because they want to help people improve their lives. In that way, jobs in psychology feel both fulfilling and challenging. Students who enroll in master's programs in psychology are entering a growing field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of psychologists will increase by 14% from 2016 to 2026.
This guide helps explain the processes for earning a master's in psychology. The differences between online versus on-campus programs and concentrations that lead to various career paths are just a few of the topics covered. Also included are the graduate application process, the structure of psychology master's degree programs, and the benefits of earning a master's degree.
Should I Get a Master's in Psychology?
Students frequently earn master's in psychology degrees before earning a doctoral degree, as many states require psychologists to hold doctorates before they apply for licensure. Some positions, like school psychologists, allow professionals to practice with a master's degree. Either way, a master's degree remains valuable for people pursuing a career in psychology. Students should also decide whether they want to enter an online program, which is beneficial for busy people with full-time jobs, or a more traditional on-campus program.
Programs may offer concentrations, but students focus most of their coursework on either experimental or applied psychology. Students interested in furthering psychological research, either as a university faculty member or a researcher for a nonacademic organization, should find master's programs with an experimental focus. On the other hand, future psychologists, therapists, or counselors should look for applied psychology programs.
Master's programs in psychology typically require students to earn practical experience in the form of a practicum, internship, or professional placement. For those pursuing an emphasis in research, this often includes working in a lab and publishing studies in academic journals. These opportunities help students meet peers and professionals already working in the field. The networking students do in graduate school can help them discover more opportunities for the future and create professional connections.
What Can I Do With a Master's in Psychology?
If you want to become a psychologist, oftentimes a master's in psychology does not count as a terminal degree. Most states require a doctoral degree in psychology before you can apply for licensure. Certain positions do allow students to work with a master's degree, such as teaching psychology at a high school or a community college. Clinical psychologists can set up their own independent practice or they can work at hospitals or clinics.
In short, psychologists study people. They observe and analyze people's behaviors and cognitive processes. They assess a person's shortcomings or struggles. Then, they work with patients to improve those shortcomings. While clinical psychologists diagnose and treat patients through cognitive therapy, psychology students can also specialize in other fields, like developmental psychology or forensic psychology.
Median Annual Salary: $77,030
Projected Growth Rate: 14%
Professors teach courses at colleges and universities, preparing lesson plans, holding office hours, and grading student work. They also often carry out research projects and publish findings in scholarly publications. A job seeker with a master's in psychology may find a job as a professor at a community college.
Median Annual Salary: $76,000
Projected Growth Rate: 15%
- Marriage and Family Therapist
Marriage and family therapists evaluate familial relationships and meet with them over several sessions. Unlike licensed psychologists, marriage and family therapists typically do not need doctorate degrees to find employment.
Median Annual Salary: $48,790
Projected Growth Rate: 23%
- Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, or Mental Health Counselor
Some people suffer from behavioral disorders, mental health problems, or addiction, requiring professional guidance to help them work through these challenges. Mental health counselors often need a master's degree and internship experience.
Median Annual Salary: $43,300
Projected Growth Rate: 23%
- School or Career Counselor
These professionals help students confront educational challenges, find career paths, and apply to colleges. School and career counselors may also help students identify social and behavioral problems that hinder them in their schoolwork. They may work with elementary, middle, or high school students.
Median Annual Salary: $55,410
Projected Growth Rate: 13%
How to Choose a Master's in Psychology Program
The process of applying to a master's program consists of research. You should choose a program with opportunities to learn and network with other professionals in the field.
Multiple factors affect choosing a program, including cost. The price tag for any given psychology master's program not only includes tuition expenses, but also textbooks, technology fees, laboratory fees, matriculation fees, and even parking fees if you live off campus. All of that adds up to a sum larger than you might expect. Several schools offer scholarships, grants, assistantships, and other financial awards which may help offset the bill.
Speaking of living off campus, if you work full time, have a family, or must meet other demanding obligations, you may think about in applying to an online psychology master's program. If you prefer learning in the classroom, enroll in an on-campus program. Some programs also offer hybrid formats wherein the majority of coursework is completed online with certain components, such as an internship, completed on campus. Pick the program best suited to your learning style and time commitment.
Psychology master's degree programs often require students to complete research, or they offer opportunities to work on research with faculty. This may help you as you apply to doctoral programs, so keep your eyes open for those opportunities too. Other factors affecting your decision include how long you want to stay in school, the cost of living, and whether the program offers concentrations.
Programmatic Accreditation for Master's in Psychology Programs
You should also search for master's in psychology programs with accreditation. Since many people who earn master's degrees go on to pursue doctoral degrees, graduating from an accredited program ensures that your degree will be accepted at other schools.
Accreditation agencies visit schools and evaluate coursework and professors to ensure your education meets set quality standards. When it comes to applying for doctoral programs, many do not recognize degrees from unaccredited schools. The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation provide fully online lists of regionally and nationally accredited colleges.
Programmatic accreditation refers to an accrediting body that focuses on one particular area of study, and only accredits programs falling within that subject. Students should look for psychology programs accredited by the American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation or the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council.
Master's in Psychology Program Admissions
After you decide which direction you'd like to take your career, it's time to narrow down your list. Choose schools that offer coursework or a specialization that matches your career goals. You should also choose schools that are affordable.
Applying to one school may seem risky. The admissions department may reject you, and then you must start the application process over again. At the same time, applying to 15 or 20 schools decreases the amount of time you invest in each application, which means that the quality of your applications may suffer. In general, apply to at least two or three schools, but no more than seven.
- Bachelor's Degree: Master's programs in psychology expect applicants to have a bachelor's degree. Some schools do not require students to have studied psychology during their undergraduate years, but most demand students earned a bachelor's degree in psychology.
- Professional Experience: Master's in psychology programs typically do not require students to have professional experience before they apply; however, spending some time working in the field strengthens your resume.
- Minimum GPA: Most schools require applicants to have at least a cumulative 3.0 GPA during their undergraduate studies. Some schools may consider GPAs under a 3.0 if students have strong GRE scores, a compelling personal statement, or professional experience.
- Application: Schools usually ask prospective students to fill out online applications, including biographical information, educational history, and past work experience.
- Transcripts: Graduate schools ask for applicants' transcripts from their undergraduate degrees. Students can obtain these transcripts from the registrar's office at their undergraduate college for a small fee.
- Letters of Recommendation: Master's programs often ask for two or three letters of recommendation. Ask someone who can speak about your work ethic with a sense of authority to complete a recommendation.
- Test Scores: Some master's programs require students to submit Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores along with their applications. If your undergraduate grades are not quite up to par, you may want to submit your GRE scores regardless.
- Application Fee: Most schools require an application fee around $50. Sometimes schools waive this if you demonstrate financial need. Call the admissions departments at your potential schools to see if you can bypass the application fee.
What Else Can I Expect From a Master's in Psychology Program?
Given the numerous specializations within the field of psychology, master's in psychology programs vary greatly. Colleges offer different curricula, and therefore a different selection of courses and concentrations. The following table lists a few of the concentration found in different master's in psychology programs.
|Educational Psychology||The concentration in educational psychology prepares students to work in schools with kids and adolescents. Coursework focuses on human development throughout early stages of life, as well as the psychological theories behind learning. This concentration trains students to understand what motivates learning and what hinders it.||School or career counselor, professor|
|Research||While every master of psychology program requires students to conduct some degree of research, this concentration focuses on it. Classes and labs train students on different statistical skills, methodologies, and experimental designs. This concentration especially prepares students who wish to earn their Ph.D. and stay in academia, or students who want to conduct independent research for companies or governmental agencies.||Professor, researcher|
|Clinical Psychology||Students of clinical psychology learn how to test, diagnose, and treat patients struggling with psychological conditions. Courses that fall under this specialization train students to consult patients and evaluate their progress.||Psychologist|
|Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience||An emphasis in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience teaches students about the underlying biological processes that affect human behavior. In other words, students who concentrate in this area learn about the brain and its neural mechanisms. They study concepts including decision making, memory, perception, cognition, and how aging affects the brain.||Researcher|
|Industrial/ Organizational Psychology||Companies and other organizations must often deal with conflicts from employees. Sometimes, they hire psychologists to help them understand the motivations, actions, and behaviors of those employees. The industrial and organizational psychology concentration prepares students to apply their psychological knowledge in the workplace to examine issues like leadership and personnel selection.||Consultant, psychologist|
Courses in a Master's in Psychology Program
Master's programs in psychology offer different courses, depending on the concentrations offered and the professors' areas of expertise. Some schools design their master's in psychology programs with a more research-based, clinical focus. Other schools present curriculum grounded in psychological theory. Below, you will find a selection of commonly offered courses.
- Social Psychology
Students enrolled in social psychology courses learn about how societal factors affect human thought processes and behaviors. The course covers theoretical concepts like interpersonal attraction, altruism, antisocial behavior, social norms, and conformity. The course also examines how social conditions create, reinforce, or challenge stereotyping and prejudice.
- Developmental Psychology
In this course, students learn how human brains, cognitive processes, and behaviors develop over time. The course material starts at birth and continues through childhood and adolescence into late adulthood. Professors sometimes also delve into physical, social, and emotional factors which affect developmental psychology.
- Evolutionary Psychology
This course looks at how evolutionary processes molded the way humans think and interact with one another today. It reviews how ancestral behaviors led to practices such as parental nurturance or negligence, sexual jealousy, aggression, and courting and mating strategies.
- Research Methods
As with any sort of science, psychology involves experimentation. Schools typically require at least one research methods course. These courses train psychology students how to approach their clinical or market research using the scientific method. Students learn about experimental and correlational designs, as well as concepts like reliability, and internal and external validity.
- Theories of Personality
This course takes a deep dive into current research and theories concerning personality development. Those concepts include self-esteem, biological determinants, abnormal development, and anxiety. Students examine these constructs through cognitive, psychoanalytic, and humanistic perspectives.
How Long Does It Take to Get a Master's in Psychology?
Master's programs in psychology require anywhere from 30 to 48 credit hours to graduate. This means that the length of time it takes to finish a degree varies. Most commonly, master's programs take around two years to complete. Some programs offer accelerated tracks, which allow students to complete the program in just one year. Other schools design accelerated programs with seven-week semesters, which can also help students finish their degrees.
A few programs require students to complete two years of coursework plus one year of field work. Sometimes students complete their classwork within two years, but then extend their thesis work over a semester or more for in-depth research. In addition, students who enroll part time may take up to four or five years to finish their degrees.
How Much Is a Master's in Psychology?
You can usually calculate the cost of a master's degree in psychology by taking into account three different factors: the number of credit hours required to graduate, the cost of each credit hour, and additional fees.
Master's in psychology programs usually require students to complete 30 to 48 credit hours in order to graduate. The cost per credit hour can fall into a rather large range, from about $600 to almost $1,000. This means, for tuition alone, students may pay anywhere from $18,000 to $48,000 annually.
As for the third factor, schools require students to pay fees not directly relating to tuition. Students may have to pay a technology fee, laboratory fees, and buy or rent textbooks. Students enrolled in online courses may also pay an additional distance learning fee for every course they take. Indirect costs, such as living expenses including rent, utilities, transportation, and groceries, also affect the overall cost of your master's program.
Given these costs, you should search for potential ways to lessen the financial burden. Scholarships, grants, loans, or fellowships are available through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or through the university itself. Many graduate programs also offer assistantships, which allow students to work for professors on campus while getting paid.
Certifications and Licenses a Master's in Psychology Prepares For
- Licensed Psychologist
In order to practice as a psychologist, you must first earn licensure. Licensure requirements vary by state. State boards typically require candidates to hold a doctorate in psychology. Candidates must also pass the examination for professional practice in psychology. To check your state's requirements, visit the website for the Association of State and Provincial Psychology boards.
- School Psychology Certification
Future psychologists who wish to work in education organizations can opt to pursue the school psychology certificate. This certification allows psychologists to work with kids struggling with schoolwork, difficult family lives, or learning disabilities.
- Counseling Psychology Certification
Professionals with this certification may help someone with mental health problems, or someone battling substance abuse, in overcoming their difficulties. These psychologists usually meet with clients or groups over an extended period of time.
- Couple and Family Psychology Certification
The couple and family psychology certification gives psychologists expertise in assessing challenges in relationships. These professionals evaluate the psychological health of couples or parents and children and then provide professional guidance through strategies in overcoming those difficulties.
- Organizational and Business Consulting Psychology Certification
The American Board of Professional Psychology offers the organizational and business consulting psychology certification to graduates who want to work in professional organization settings. Companies hire these psychologists to analyze employees' workplace motivations and behaviors in order to increase productivity and workflow.
Resources for Psychology Graduate Students
The American Board of Professional Psychology operates as a nationally recognized organization providing specialized certifications to licensed psychologists. The board's website offers lengthy explanations of what each certification encompasses, as well as how psychologists can pursue those certifications.
A sub-group of the American Psychological Association, the APA of Graduate Students allows master's students in the field to connect with one another. The organization also offers educational and career resources for students.
As a member of the American Psychological Association, you have access to a multitude of journals either published by or offered through the APA. Scholarly journal articles help students with their research and coursework.
The American Psychological Association specifically designed an online laboratory for students and educators for simulating experiments in digital lab demonstrations.
Published since 1967, the magazine Psychology Today now posts several articles online for free. It covers topics such as adolescent attention span and the relationship between college drinking and students' mental health.
Professional Organizations in Psychology
Professional organizations in the field of psychology provide continuing education opportunities and keep members up to date on the latest research. Students in these organizations can network with professionals at conferences and gain access to members-only job boards or career services.
One of the most well known professional associations within the field of psychology, the American Psychological Association funds research and offers career resources. It provides multiple continuing education and networking opportunities, including the annual APA conference.
As the title suggests, this professional association specifically caters to psychologists who work in schools. The organization offers the Nationally Certified School Psychologist credential. It also includes directories for books, journals, and podcasts on its website.
A group meant for researchers rather than clinical psychologists, the Association for Psychological Science funds and publishes research on topics such as autism, childhood adversity, and unethical behavioral patterns.
African-Americans who work as psychologists may consider applying to the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPSI). This group approaches psychology from black and African-centric cultural perspective. ABPSI hosts an annual conference and publishes the Journal of Black Psychology.
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy helps family therapists build their careers, advance in their profession, and engage and network with other professionals in the field.