THINKING ABOUT A PSYCHOLOGY DEGREE? START HERE.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapist
Senior Researcher, UCLA Children’s Digital Media Center
At its core, the field of psychology is a science studying the behavior and processes of the mind with the goal of better understanding complex social and biological dynamics for both individuals and groups. The discipline is rooted in using the scientific method. Ultimately, its advances help society to better cope with a variety of social challenges and mental disorders. As the American Psychological Association notes succinctly, it is “the understanding of behavior.”
Psychology Degree 411 is a comprehensive informational resource for prospective students interested in pursuing a degree in psychology that can lead to a wide range of career paths. In addition to pursuing a doctoral degree to become a psychologist, psychology students go on to start careers in every sector of the economy from business to healthcare to education. In fact, a majority of graduates utilize their acquired knowledge and analytical skills in careers not directly related to psychology. Continue reading to explore popular psychology degree options, find schools with psychology programs, and learn about some of the top careers in psychology. If you’re interested in earning an online bachelor’s degree in psychology, you may also be interested in our guide to top online psychology programs.
What Can You Do With a Psychology Degree?
There are various psychology degree options at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but only those with a doctoral degree in psychology and the necessary licensure can become psychologists. One of many reasons why psychology is a popular undergraduate degree is because it produces well-rounded, analytical students who are able to work in a variety of fields that require a comprehensive understanding of human behavior like social services, management, administration, marketing, sales, social work, and more.
Even though the number of psychologists employed in the United States is expected to increase by 22% by 2020, which is much faster than the average occupation, job prospects are best for graduates who hold a specialized psychology doctoral degree, especially those with a doctoral or specialist degree in school psychology.1
Job Opportunities for Degree Holders
Different career choices require different degree levels, but regardless of the area of study, practicing psychologists need to have a doctoral degree.
A clinical degree is a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), which is earned as a result of practical work, while a PhD in Psychology is the culmination of an original research dissertation and an extensive examination. As part of a doctoral program, students specializing in counseling, health services, school, or clinical psychology will typically fulfill a one-year internship.
Either a master’s degree in psychology, a doctoral degree in school psychology, or an EdS degree is necessary for those students planning to become school psychologists. Sixty graduate semester hours are required in order to earn an EdS, which is a specialty degree that prepares graduate students for a career in education and mental health.
Students seeking a master’s degree in psychology often have successful careers as industrial-organizational psychologists or as psychological assistants when working under the direction of a doctoral psychologist in research, counseling, or clinical settings. Psychology PhD programs often feature courses in research design, statistics, and industrial-organization.
Getting into a graduate program in psychology is competitive. While most master’s degrees don’t require an undergraduate degree in psychology, they do typically require applicants to have completed classes in introductory psychology, statistics, and experimental psychology. While some doctoral degrees will require a master’s in psychology, a bachelor’s degree in psychology is sometimes sufficient.
Those who earn bachelor’s degrees in psychology are typically employed in a wide range of industries. Graduates are well-rounded, analytical thinkers who understand human behavior and succeed in jobs that require strong social and communication skills. See PD411’s Job Board for openings in your state.
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Psychology Degree Levels
Associate’s in Psychology
Typically completed in two years, an associate’s degree in psychology is usually offered at most community colleges. After completion, students will often transfer to a four-year program to earn a bachelor’s degree. Because more education is required to work in psychology, an associate’s in psychology is usually a stepping stone degree that offers an educational foundation for further studies. Consider pairing a psychology associates degree with other courses in social or health sciences, business, or education to become more employable. Graduates may find rewarding careers working with children, teens, or adults in residential treatment programs, mental hospitals as psychiatric technicians, or helping people who call crisis hotlines.
Bachelor’s in Psychology
As one of the most popular four-year, undergraduate programs in the nation, a bachelor’s degree in psychology is offered by most schools as a BA or as a BS with a major in psychology. A Bachelor of Arts degree generally requires more liberal arts and general education classes, while a Bachelor of Science focuses on the general education science courses. Students should choose a BA or BS depending on their interests and career aspirations.
Much of the popularity of a bachelor’s in psychology is due to the fact that it prepares graduates for a wide range of career opportunities. Those jobs within the mental health and social services industries include career counselors, rehabilitation specialists, psychiatric technicians, and case managers. A bachelor’s degree in psychology serves as a solid foundation for a career in business, sales, management, marketing, human resources, or any industry where understanding human behavior is a critical component to success. A growing number of bachelor’s degree programs in psychology are being offered online.
Up to 95% of psychology bachelor’s degree holders end up working in careers non-related to their degree. In fact, while nearly 100,000 students graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology in 2008, most graduates had no intentions of pursuing careers as psychologists.2
For those seeking a career as a psychologist, a bachelor’s in psychology is the perfect stepping stone to a graduate degree in psychology.
Master’s in Psychology
As the standard level of education for practicing psychologists, a master’s degree in psychology is a two- to three-year graduate degree. Offered as a Master of Arts or Master of Science, the job outlook for those holding a master’s in psychology is highly positive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of psychologists is projected to grow by 22% before 2020.3
Clinical psychology, industrial/organizational or business psychology, and counseling psychology are the three top master’s degree programs for students planning to start their careers in psychology immediately after graduation.4
Typical careers for master’s in psychology degree holders include data analysts and collectors, researchers, counselors working in the private sector, academia, or government. Those with significant working experience can have successful careers in market research and consulting. Master’s in psychology degree holders commonly work under a doctoral psychologist’s direction.
Not all master’s degree in psychology programs are designed to ready graduates for the workforce. Instead, they are focused on developing students for doctoral degrees.
PhD in Psychology
A research-oriented, doctoral-level degree, a PhD in psychology typically requires somewhere between five and seven years of graduate study.
The best career options with the highest pay are available to individuals who earn doctorates in psychology.5 Leading employment opportunities for PhD in psychology holders include universities and four-year colleges, as well as hospitals, outpatient clinics, community health centers, primary care offices, and college counseling centers.
According to a 2011 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, 72% of psychologists receiving a doctorate in psychology between 2008–2009 landed the top job of their choice.5
Finding Accredited Psychology Programs
An important consideration when choosing a psychology program to enroll in is whether the school is accredited by a regional or national accreditation body. The US Department of Education recognizes a handful of accreditation bodies who are trusted to determine whether a school provides an acceptable level of quality. Accreditation is important for students for several reasons. A school must be accredited for students to receive federal student aid and credits from an unaccredited college or university may not be accepted by other schools when transferring or applying to graduate school. Additionally, employers may not recognize your degree if it is from an unaccredited school. Both online and on-campus schools are accredited by the same accreditation bodies. To find whether a school is accredited, you can look it up in the US Department of Education’s searchable database.
In addition to school accreditation, the American Psychological Association is recognized by the US Department of Education for accrediting doctorate level psychology programs. This includes doctorate programs in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, and school psychology. The APA does not accredit psychology programs at the bachelor’s or master’s level. You can learn more about APA accreditation at the American Psychological Association website.
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Psychology Degree Specialties and Proficiencies
The APA recognizes certain specialties and proficiencies in the field of professional psychology. The Commission for the Recognition of Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology (CRSPPP) was formed in 1995 to review, define and designate specialties and proficiencies in the field, which had previously been done on an informal, de facto basis. A specialty is “a defined area of psychological practice which requires advanced knowledge and skills acquired through an organized sequence of education and training,” and examples include clinical psychology, family psychology, clinical neuropsychology.6 A proficiency is “defined by a core of psychological knowledge and skills, and includes specific methods for how psychologists typically acquire its knowledge and skills,” and examples include psychopharmacology, treatment of alcohol and other psychoactive substance use disorders, and personality assessment.6 Advanced degree paths, up to the doctorate level, exist in both specialties and proficiencies in professional psychology.
Individuals with business psychology degrees, or industrial-organizational (I/O) psychology degrees, are trained in the science of labor and employees in any environment to maximize profitability and effectiveness. By conducting research and implementing new procedures to improve work spaces, work conditions, recruitment, training, and operations, business psychologists play a critical role in the total well-being of an organization’s human resources. A degree in business psychology prepares students to use the proper scientific research modalities and methodologies necessary to track, monitor, and analyze people, procedures, and profits.
Made a popular psychology degree by television dramas, and recognized by the APA as a specialty in psychology in 2001, a forensic psychology degree is an ideal area of specialization for students interested in law enforcement and legal settings. Forensic psychologists work with criminal offenders and victims to determine which individuals are credible witnesses; guilty or innocent. In contrast with criminal psychology, forensic psychology focuses on the mentality of the suspect, as well as the emotional well-being of the victims. By earning a degree in forensic psychology, students will learn to determine whether a defendant is mentally insane, mentally handicapped, and identify various personality disorders and sociopathic behavior. Forensic psychology degrees also teach body language and handwriting analysis, as well as criminal profiling.
Earning a school psychology degree prepares graduates for a career helping students who are experiencing challenges at school or at home. School psychologists play an important role in children and adolescent’s lives who are struggling to do their best. A degree in school psychology, first recognized as a specialty by the APA in 1998, creates educational leaders who are committed to improving their students’ lives in a caring and constructive environment through teaching study skills, accountability, and time management, while working to resolve behavioral and emotional problems. According to O*Net Online data, 47% of school psychologists hold a master’s degree and 32% hold a post-master’s certificate.
After earning a degree in child psychology (first recognized by the APA as a specialty in 1998), graduates typically go on to become school psychologists with the proper degree level and licensing, as well as counselors or educators. Child psychology degree coursework focuses on language, learning, cognition, and other areas of child development. Individuals majoring in child psychology will learn to identify and address potential behavioral or emotional problems, cultural insensitivity, bullying, and developmental disabilities. Child psychology degree holders are especially qualified to become authors, especially of children’s books.
The primary focus of a health psychology degree (recognized by the APA as a specialty in professional psychology in 1997) is on the assessment of the various biological, social, and psychological factors contributing to, or impacting, human health. Therefore, a health psychologist considers a wide range of issues or processes that might be adversely affecting or improving health. Such processes might include viruses, physical abnormalities, stress, emotions, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, culture, and more. Students earning a health psychology degree learn to identify and cure illness and disease, and also understand how to provide better safety and overall health for their patients. Students may choose to specialize in one of the four subfields within health psychology, which include community health psychology, clinical psychology, occupational health psychology, and public health psychology.
Counseling psychology degree programs blend psychology and counseling studies, while teaching effective intervention skills for clients across diverse cultural and demographic backgrounds. Undergraduate students interested in becoming a psychologist, professional counselor, social worker, or psychotherapist must first obtain the proper licensure after obtaining a graduate degree in counseling psychology. Counseling psychology was first recognized by the APA as a specialty in professional psychology in 1998, and the degree provides a foundation for understanding and developing strategies for how social, spiritual, emotional, and mental needs are impacted by each individual’s personal experience. As researchers and practitioners of counseling psychology, graduates should have a strong practical and theoretical understanding of counseling theory, group and individual counseling, child and adolescent psychology, human development, couples therapy, and intervention strategies. According to O*Net Online data, 27% of counseling psychologists hold a master’s degree, 25% hold a doctoral degree, and 40% attain post-doctoral training.
Sport psychology degrees prepare students for careers helping athletes and/or teams through mental strength and well-being. The field of sport psychology was first recognized by the APA as a proficiency in 2003. Licensed graduates are prepared to work as sports psychologists in athletic consulting, research, and patient counseling in professional, amateur, and youth athletics. Many people with advanced sports psychology degrees teach at colleges and universities.
Other Psychology Degrees
The following are well-known psychology degrees that have not yet been designated either a specialty or a proficiency by the APA.
Students pursuing social psychology degrees learn a basic and applied understanding of research methodologies, advanced statistics, as well as theoretical and practical social psychology research techniques. Primarily interested in better understanding the impact a person’s environment has on their behaviors, a social psychology degree focuses heavily on people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Graduates who decide not to pursue an advanced degree often work in advertising, marketing, education, health care, or criminal justice.
Students who are in a criminal psychology degree learn about the role psychology plays in the legal system, preparing them for clinical and forensic responsibilities, including therapy and counseling. A criminal psychology degree teaches students how to evaluate offenders and develop treatment plans. Additionally, earning a degree in criminal psychology addresses crisis intervention, psychopathology, victimology, and personality assessment. Understanding the theoretical and practical applications of various research methodologies are important parts of a criminal psychology degree program, as well as the process of jury selection and the nuances of a rehabilitation program. While there are an abundance of career opportunities in forensics, most criminal psychology graduates work in social service, mental health, government, or criminal justice.
Human factors psychology (also known as human factors & engineering psychology or ergonomics) degree programs teach students about how humans and machines coexist, examining how humans interact with machines and how to improve systems and products so that the human interaction experience is a better one. Subjects common to a human factors degree include engineering, motor learning, design, and statistics. Most ergonomics majors have an undergraduate background in psychology, industrial engineering, occupational therapy, or industrial design.
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Psychology Links and Resources:
Top Psychology Blogs – A comprehensive list of the best blogs in the field of psychology currently found on the web.
Association for Psychological Science – News and information about the advancement of scientific psychology.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm
2. US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2009 Digest of education statistics (Table 315): http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d09/tables/dt09_315.asp
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm#tab-6
4. American Psychological Association, Careers in Psychology: http://www.apa.org/careers/resources/guides/careers.aspx#
5. American Psychological Association, 2009: Doctorate Employment Survey: http://www.apa.org/workforce/publications/09-doc-empl/
6. American Psychological Association, Specialties and Proficiencies: http://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/index.aspx