What are the Differences Between a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Psychology? [2024]

Last Updated: June 10, 2024

Working in psychology requires that you get a college education first. But how much education do you need to start your career? The answer is simple: it depends.

While there are many jobs you can get with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, many more career opportunities await if you have a master’s degree. This isn’t unique to psychology, though – this is typical of most occupations.

The differences in career opportunities aren’t the only thing that separates a bachelor’s from a master’s in this field, though. As we explore in this guide, there are significant differences in the educational experience as well.

What are the Differences Between a Bachelor's and Master's in Psychology?

Bachelor’s Vs. Master’s in Psychology

A bachelor’s in psychology offers foundational knowledge, preparing students for entry-level roles. A master’s degree offers specialized knowledge, essential for advanced roles and research positions. Bachelor’s typically takes four years, while a master’s requires an additional two years of postgraduate study.

A bachelor’s degree in psychology is a general, entry-level degree that introduces you to a broad spectrum of psychology topics. A typical bachelor’s degree in psychology is about 120 semester credits, which takes four years to complete, provided you attend school full-time.

A master’s in psychology, meanwhile, is an advanced degree that greatly narrows the curricular focus. On the one hand, there are fewer credits – anywhere from around 33 to more than 60, depending on the program. On the other hand, the breadth of graduate studies is smaller, while the depth is significantly greater. In other words, you will study fewer things but in more detail in a graduate program.

Differences in Coursework

Since a bachelor’s psychology program is a general, entry-level degree, the bulk of your coursework will be in introductory courses. For example, you will likely take courses like Introduction to Psychology, the Psychology of Learning, and Physiological Psychology. You might also take courses in the History and Systems of Psychology, Abnormal Psychology, and Social Psychology.

You will also have an opportunity to take elective psychology courses. Where the courses outlined above form the framework of your general psychology education, the electives you take help you specialize your psychology education, albeit in a relatively low-level form.

For example, let’s assume you’re interested in psychology as a research science. That being the case, you might take electives in Research Psychology, Experimental Methods, and Psychological Statistics beyond what’s required for your degree. To further the focus on experimental psychology, you could apply to be a research assistant for one of your professors and gain real-world experience helping them conduct experiments.

While working as a research assistant gives you out-of-class experience in this field, your coursework will mostly occur in a typical on-campus or online classroom setting. You will take part in lectures with your professors, work on group projects with your peers, and complete independent projects, papers, and exams, too.

A master’s degree in psychology offers a different coursework experience. As noted earlier, graduate-level work is much more focused and offers a depth of study that often isn’t possible at the bachelor’s degree level. For example, let’s say you’re interested in abnormal psychology, a field you might have studied during your undergraduate degree in one or two courses. But as a graduate student, you might take three or four courses relating to this subject:

  • Adolescent Psychopathology
  • Diagnosis and Assessment of Mental Disorders
  • Psychological Theories of Abnormal Behavior
  • Psychopharmacological Treatments for Mental Disorders

And using our research psychology example from earlier, your ability to dive deeper into this niche of psychology is far more robust as a graduate than an undergraduate. For example, rather than assisting one of your professors with one of their psychology projects, you might devise and implement your own original research (under the guidance of one of your professors, of course). Furthermore, you would be in charge of analyzing and disseminating data about your research, too.

Beyond the difference in the depth of learning, undergraduate and graduate studies in psychology are also much different from an independence perspective. That is, undergraduate studies are much more guided than graduate coursework. As an undergraduate, you are essentially learning the ropes of psychology. While you gain greater autonomy as you progress into your junior and senior years of studies, your work as a graduate student will be far more independent. You will still have professors to lead classes and supervise your research activities, but they won’t hold your hand along the way, either.

Differences in Learning Outcomes

Given that undergraduate programs in psychology are one’s first exploration of this field and graduate studies are much more advanced, it makes sense that the learning outcomes are different between these programs.

For example, undergraduate learning outcomes typically focus on building basic skills, such as identifying and describing key concepts in psychology or learning how to critically evaluate psychological research. Other common learning outcomes for bachelor’s degree programs might include the following:

  • Describe how psychology can be applied and the situations in which it might be applied.
  • Develop an understanding of the potential careers one can pursue in psychology.
  • Discuss the major theories and perspectives in psychology.
  • Identify major historical trends in psychology.
  • Demonstrate information literacy in psychology.
  • Design and conduct basic psychological research.
  • Develop a working understanding of ethical behavior.
  • Develop effective oral and written communication skills.

Once you reach graduate school, the learning outcomes become much more detailed and specific. For example, you might be asked to apply ethical psychological standards while conducting psychological research. Note the difference between this and the undergraduate learning outcome listed earlier.

In a bachelor’s program, the goal is to “develop a working understanding of ethical behavior.” But in a graduate program, you might be asked to apply that knowledge in a real-world setting.

Here’s another example. As an undergraduate, you’re expected to “develop effective oral and written communication skills.” As a graduate, though, you’re expected to use those communication skills to write research-based scientific papers of publishable quality. Again, you can see how a graduate program helps you take a step beyond your undergraduate training by applying what you know and demonstrating your knowledge and skills.

Other common graduate school learning outcomes for psychology students might include the following:

  • Demonstrate competency in counseling theories and their application in a therapeutic setting.
  • Build expertise in developing hypotheses and the methods used to test them.
  • Gain competency in advanced statistical methods.
  • Demonstrate best practices as a professional in psychology.
  • Show a commitment to multiculturalism and interact effectively with others of diverse backgrounds.
  • Pursue leadership opportunities that benefit the community and profession.
  • Gain the necessary skills to teach and mentor undergraduate psychology students.

Differences in Career Opportunities

Yet another major difference between a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in psychology is the career opportunities that await you after graduation.

With a bachelor’s degree, you can pursue a wide range of entry-level careers, from working as a probation and parole agent to serving as a research assistant in a psychology research laboratory. You can use your basic understanding of human behavior to get a job in sales or retail, work as a human resources assistant, or perhaps work as a psychiatric technician in a hospital setting.

Working in social services is one of the most common avenues for psychology undergraduates to take. For example, you could work as a case manager for a social services agency like the Department of Family Services or Child Protective Services. Jobs like these require you to have a solid grasp of psychological principles, but because they aren’t clinical jobs, you need not have an advanced degree.

By contrast, a graduate degree in psychology opens many more doors for advanced careers. You can work in therapeutic and non-therapeutic settings, too. For example, if you complete a graduate program in clinical psychology or counseling psychology, you might be eligible for licensure as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). An LPC works directly with clients to provide counseling services for a range of psychological disorders.

With a master’s degree, you can also seek advanced careers in areas like human resources, marketing, or vocational rehabilitation. For example, where a bachelor’s degree might qualify you for an entry-level position as a human resources assistant, a master’s degree might qualify you for a managerial position, like Director of Human Resources.

As another example, a graduate degree might qualify you to work in academics. Many master’s-level psychologists teach at colleges and universities while they work on their doctoral degrees. Others work as career counselors, academic advisors, and recruiters for institutions of higher learning.

It should be noted that most states require you to have a doctorate and state licensure to be called a “psychologist.” If you wish to be a psychologist in the traditional sense of a mental health care provider, you will have to complete an approved doctoral program and satisfy the requirements for licensure in the state in which you wish to practice.

Is It Worth Getting a Master’s in Psychology?

A master’s degree in psychology is absolutely worth the time, money, and effort. As noted above, a master’s degree not only opens up career opportunities in more areas but also opens doors in different areas compared to a bachelor’s degree. Likewise, with more education comes a greater likelihood of making more money.

Getting your master’s degree also offers benefits for you on a personal level. It’s a significant achievement to get a graduate degree and is something in which you can take a lot of pride. At the same time, the advanced skills you acquire better equip you to help others. This, in turn, can lead to a high level of job satisfaction.

Can You Get a Master’s in Psychology If Your Bachelor’s is Not in Psychology?

A bachelor’s in psychology is helpful if you intend to get a master’s in this field. However, it is not required. For example, you might be admitted to a graduate program in psychology with a bachelor’s degree in education, but you would likely need to take prerequisite courses (especially those in experimental psychology and statistics) before gaining full admission to the graduate program.

Can You Make Money With a Bachelor’s in Psychology?

Yes! As discussed earlier, you can work in a wide range of occupational areas with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. As of February 2024, according to Indeed, a bachelor’s in psychology could qualify you for a sales management position, which pays an average of $64,401 per year. You might also find employment as a marketing manager, which pays $63,373 each year.

A bachelor’s in psychology is also enough to work as a social services director, which pays an average annual salary of more than $51,000. You could also be a parole officer and earn more than $46,500 per year. These are just a few examples, though. The salary you earn with your degree depends largely on your specific knowledge and skills, the geographic area in which you work, and the industry in which you work.

Which Degree is Best For Psychology?

All else being equal, a master’s degree in psychology is a better option than a bachelor’s degree. With a master’s, you have a higher level of education, more specific skills, and a greater depth of knowledge that allows you to work in higher-paying professions. In some instances, you can also work in client-facing careers with a master’s degree, like the LPC option discussed earlier.

This isn’t to diminish the value of a bachelor’s degree, though. You can pursue many different careers with a bachelor’s degree, and as noted above, you can earn a very good living, too. Ultimately, the best degree comes down to what fits your needs and career goals the best. For some, a bachelor’s degree is the perfect option. But for many others, a master’s degree is the better bet.

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