In-Depth Guide: Differences Between an MA and an MS in Psychology

Last Updated: June 23, 2024

MA Vs MS in Psychology

An MA in psychology focuses on the actual application of psychological and counseling concepts and techniques in clinical settings, whereas an MS in psychology focuses on the research, scientific methods and the science behind psychology rather than the application of psychological techniques in clinical settings.

If you are considering attending a graduate psychology school, you are almost immediately faced with a decision – should you pursue a Master of Arts (MA) in Psychology or a Master of Science (MS) in Psychology?

In many ways, these degrees are extremely similar. In fact, you will find that there’s likely much more overlap between the two than differences. Yet, there are some features of these programs that make them unique, and those features could have an impact on your choice of program.

This guide offers some insights into the differences between these popular psychology degree options. Use it to inform yourself about each program’s unique qualities so you can make an informed decision about your educational future.

What is an MA in Psychology?

An MA in psychology is a Master of Arts. These programs are typically two to three years in length and require the completion of 30 or more semester credits of coursework. The number of credits needed to graduate varies significantly, though.

In most cases, MA programs follow a liberal arts curriculum. In psychology, this means focusing less on research and focusing more on the application of psychological theories and techniques, such as in a therapeutic setting.

For example, an MA in psychology might require that you take courses that expose you to social or cultural applications of psychology, like multicultural psychology or the psychology of racism. Moreover, you might be more likely to learn counseling and therapeutic skills in a Master of Arts program.

Moreover, you may find that certain psychological specialties tend to be MA programs rather than MS programs. For example, clinical psychology and counseling psychology programs frequently culminate in a Master of Arts degree.

Additionally, MA programs are usually structured to be stepping stones for licensure as a practicing psychologist. So, if you want to pursue a career as a psychologist who helps clients with mental health issues, a Master of Arts program might be a better fit than an MS program.

What is an MS in Psychology?

An MS in psychology is a Master of Science. Like an MA, an MS in psychology is also a two or three-year program, though you will find great variability in the length of MS programs, with some requiring 33-36 credits to graduate and others requiring more than 60 credits.

Generally speaking, MS programs focus much more on the science of psychology rather than the application of psychology in a therapeutic setting. This means that coursework often includes psychological statistics, psychological research methods, and experimental design, to name a few.

With this focus on the scientific bases of psychology, an MS degree in psychology might be a good fit if you want to work in psychological research. For example, you might specialize your MS education to focus on Alzheimer’s research, then work as a research assistant in an Alzheimer’s research lab. Similarly, an MS might be more appropriate if you want to study animal behavior in a comparative psychology setting.

As such, if you don’t want to work in a therapeutic setting or pursue licensure, an MS program might be a better fit for your needs.

Overlap in MA and MS Programs

It’s important to note that despite the general differences outlined above, there is a lot of overlap between MA and MS programs.

For example, while MA programs might focus more on liberal arts studies, you will likely find that most MA programs also have psychological research components. Likewise, many MS programs include theoretical coursework.

In other words, it might be prudent to focus less on the type of master’s degree and more on the program’s requirements. This includes any specializations that are offered as part of your studies.

For example, if you want to be a counseling psychologist, you will find many MA programs that might suit your interests. However, it might surprise you to find that the best fit is actually an MS program that includes studies in both psychological science and the application of psychological theories in a therapeutic setting.

Conversely, if you want to become a research psychologist, the likeliest path you will take is in an MS program. But, you may discover that an MA program with a specialization in psychological research offers a better fit for your career goals.

As mentioned earlier, most MA programs lead to licensure, while many MS programs do not. This is not always the case, though. There are some non-licensure MA programs, just like there are some MS programs that prepare you for licensure.

The overlap between these two programs can be extremely confusing. Yet, this is all the more reason to pay closer attention to the specific training a program offers rather than the type of degree you will earn.

Can I Earn MA and MS in Psychology Online?

Yes! Online learning is far more common than it used to be. You can earn an MA or an MS in psychology at hundreds of different colleges and universities around the nation. This includes well-known and high-ranking schools like Arizona State University, the University of Oregon, and Harvard University, to name a few.

When choosing an online psychology graduate program (or an on-campus one, for that matter), take care to choose one that’s accredited. You can consult the programs accredited by the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC). Alternatively, you can select a program accredited by the National Association of School Psychologists if you specialize in that field.

Accreditation is critical for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that accredited programs are held to a higher standard of academic rigor.

Likewise, licensure may depend on holding a degree from an accredited program. Graduating from an accredited program is a must if you intend to become a professional psychologist.

Differences in Career Opportunities

Ultimately, the career opportunities available after graduation have more to do with the specific studies in your program rather than your degree saying Master of Arts or Master of Science.

For example, suppose you want to work in community mental health as a counseling psychologist. In that case, employers will be more interested in the coursework you completed and your field experiences rather than whether you have an MA or an MS. Likewise, if you apply for a job as a psychological researcher with a governmental agency, they will look more at your research experience than they will at the type of degree you earned.

Having said that, the course of study of your degree can greatly impact the type of jobs for which you qualify.

For example, a Master of Arts that has a 1,000-hour internship in psychology prepares you to be a clinical psychologist much better than a Master of Science with a required thesis. On the flip side, if your goal is to become a psychology professor, a Master of Science degree with a required research component might open more doors for your future career than a Master of Arts in general psychology.

Which One is Better? MA or MS?

MA and MS programs in psychology are both excellent routes for achieving your academic and occupational goals. One isn’t better than the other, per se. Rather, the best degree program for you is the one that best prepares you for your future. In some instances, this will be an MA program. In other instances, an MS program will be more appropriate.

As you search for a graduate program in psychology, it’s worth consulting with psychologists for guidance about how you should proceed. For example, if you want to become a developmental psychologist, reach out to someone that practices developmental psychology and ask them if an MA or MS program is more appropriate.’

It’s also worth contacting department chairs to ask questions about their degree programs. University faculty are typically very open about helping prospective students determine the best course of action.

Can You Get a Masters in Psychology with a Different Bachelor’s?

Though it’s often easier to go into a graduate program in psychology with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, it isn’t always required. In many cases, psychology graduate schools accept students with related degrees, such as human services, social work, or sociology. You might even find that you can be admitted to a graduate program in psychology with a completely unrelated bachelor’s degree, too.

If your undergraduate degree isn’t in psychology, you might have to complete some prerequisite courses before being fully admitted to a psychology graduate program. Usually, schools outline what these prerequisites might be on their websites.

If need be, contact the school’s psychology department to obtain more information about the admissions requirements and what you need to do to meet them without a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

What is the Difference Between an MS and MA in Forensic Psychology?

An MS in Forensic Psychology emphasizes scientific research, quantitative methods, and data analysis. In contrast, an MA in Forensic Psychology offers a broader approach, focusing on theory, counseling techniques, and qualitative research. The MS is research-oriented, while the MA leans towards practical application within the criminal justice system.

MS in Forensic Psychology

  • Emphasis: Strongly oriented toward the scientific and research aspects of forensic psychology.
  • Coursework: Prioritizes quantitative research methods, statistical analysis, and empirical study.
  • Career Trajectory: Geared towards students interested in research roles, policy development, or further academic pursuits like a PhD.
  • Project Requirement: Generally mandates a research thesis.

MA in Forensic Psychology

  • Emphasis: Takes a broader, more holistic approach, often focusing on the theoretical and practical application aspects of the field.
  • Coursework: May highlight counseling techniques, qualitative research, and a socio-cultural understanding of individuals in legal contexts.
  • Career Trajectory: Suitable for those aiming for counseling, therapy, or practical roles within the criminal justice system.
  • Project Requirement: Might offer options such as capstone projects, fieldwork, or practical experiences instead of a traditional thesis.

When choosing between an MS or MA, consider your long-term goals, whether they lean more towards research or practical application, and always investigate specific program offerings of individual institutions.

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