Our personal health and the health of those we love is a primary concern throughout our lives. We want to be happy and healthy, and we want those we care about to be happy and healthy as well. Unfortunately, health is not something everyone enjoys. Some people have severe illnesses, like AIDS or leukemia, which greatly diminish their ability to lead a normal life. Others have severe mental health issues, like a personality disorder, that negatively impacts their ability to function. These health-related issues can, in turn, cause increased levels of stress, strain relationships with loved ones, and diminish one’s ability to maintain a job or an independent home.
Students pursuing a degree in health psychology seek to address these kinds of health-related problems by learning about various aspects of mental and physical health. From psychological disorders like schizophrenia to physical illnesses like cancer, students explore how illnesses of all kinds impact an individual’s mental functioning.
Degrees in this field come in many forms, with a Ph.D. or Psy.D. the highest possible degree available. Much time is required to complete a health psychology degree. Graduate programs typically take 2-3 years to complete after a bachelor’s degree program is finished. A Ph.D. or Psy.D. program takes an additional 4-6 years to complete after a graduate degree is obtained.
There are many different types of careers that a student with a degree in health psychology can pursue. Some work in a clinical setting with individual clients while others are employed in a hospital to provide support to patients and their families. Still others work as a community health psychologist who promotes positive interventions that improve mental health in the community at large.
What is a Health Psychology Degree?
Health psychology degree programs are designed to inform students about important issues related to mental and physical health. There are many components to a health psychology degree, including psychological studies, coursework related to physical ailments, and an examination of health policies and procedures. These studies give students insight into psychological, social, and cultural factors influence one’s health.
There are many different degrees one can obtain in health psychology, from entry-level bachelor’s degrees to highly advanced degrees that culminate with a Ph.D. or Psy.D.
Undergraduate programs in health psychology are a popular option for students that seek to enter the field of psychological research or health care in an entry-level position. Bachelor’s degrees offer an introduction to health psychology topics, including a broad overview of the following:
- Epidemiology – In epidemiology, students learn about the frequency and distribution of health events, how and why health events occur, and develop a working knowledge of how to direct the public in terms of taking action to protect themselves from illness and promote good physical and mental health.
- Social health issues – Coursework in social health issues centers around exploring social, cultural, or economic influences on physiological and psychological health. For example, students might examine the frequency of obesity and diabetes among poor populations, or evaluate the increased risk of eating disorders among teenage females.
- Mental health care delivery – Typically, mental health care delivery courses focus on how health care systems are both successful and unsuccessful in delivering services to individuals in need. Also of interest are the disparities in access to and delivery of mental health care services to various populations.
- Health informatics – Health informatics courses help students develop an understanding of record keeping, coding, and information systems used in psychology applications. Basic research and evaluation methods may also be included.
At the bachelor’s level, students are required to complete approximately 120 credit hours of coursework, of which about half is specifically in the field of health psychology, such as the courses outlined above. The remaining credits are comprised of general requirements that all students must fulfill, such as English and science, in addition to elective courses taken in a variety of subjects.
To gain admittance to a bachelor’s degree program in health psychology, students typically must have a high school diploma or a GED. Additionally, colleges may examine a student’s GPA, which, depending on the school, could be as low as 2.0 on a 4.0 scale, or could be far higher if the school is highly competitive. Some schools, especially those with a competitive admissions process, may add additional requirements as well, including the type and rigor of high school coursework, recommendations from teachers, administrators, or counselors, and an admissions essay.
Like undergraduate studies, graduate studies in health psychology help students develop the knowledge and skills they need to enter the workforce as a health psychologist. However, because coursework at this level is more advanced, students that obtain a master’s degree are qualified to enter more advanced careers. Graduate coursework typically includes the following classes:
- Behavioral epidemiology – Coursework in behavioral epidemiology centers around behavioral and social influences on morbidity. Students also usually investigate mortality patterns and seek to develop prevention measures to reduce mortality among specific populations.
- Multivariate statistics – Multivariate statistics focuses on data research, analysis, and interpretation. Students learn how to undertake an analysis of covariance, multidimensional scaling, profile analyses, and path analyses, to name a few.
- Health promotion – Students in health promotion courses learn how to develop programs that enhance the mental and physical health of individuals. Intervention and prevention strategy design is commonly included in these courses as well, including strategies used to promote health in diverse populations.
- Behavioral medicine – Behavioral medicine explores the causes and treatments of behavioral disorders that negatively impact an individual’s health. Research, data analysis, and developing preventative measures for diseases in high-risk populations are common components of these courses as well.
A significant portion of master’s studies in health psychology focuses on research as well, and many programs require a thesis or capstone project that serves as a means to integrate the knowledge and skills students have acquired over the course of their studies. Both thesis and non-thesis options tend to be in the 33-37 credit hour range, which can be completed in 2-3 years of full-time study.
To gain admission to a graduate program in health psychology, one must first have a bachelor’s degree in a related field and have high enough scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). Additionally, students may be required to participate in an interview process with departmental faculty members and may have to submit a personal statement or essay to be considered for admission.
The terminal degree in health psychology is a doctorate. The studies at this level will either focus heavily on research (in a Ph.D. track) or on clinical practice (in a Psy.D. track). These programs are multidisciplinary in their approach, offering students opportunities to develop advanced skills in behavioral health, social science, and research methods, among others. There are many courses common to both types of doctorate programs in health psychology:
- Research design – Courses in research design focus on experimental research design, carrying out research, and analyzing results of research. There is an emphasis on ethical research practices, data collection, and statistics as well.
- Cognitive psychology – Cognitive psychology courses explore the processes of thought and how they relate to language production, sensation and perception, memory, and reasoning. Students also explore the connection between cognition and health.
- Internship – Many doctoral programs include an internship requirement that must be completed prior to students obtaining their degree. Internship placements for health psychology students are typically completed in a healthcare setting, such as a hospital, mental health facility, or health related non-profit organization, where students spend a year of supervised practice in a number of health psychology-related job duties.
- Fellowship – Postdoctoral fellowships might be offered to students after they have been awarded their Ph.D. or Psy.D. Like internships, fellowship placements are often in medical or healthcare settings. However, fellowships are usually highly specialized and allow students to conduct clinical work or research in their particular area of interest of health psychology.
Admission to doctoral programs is dependent upon several factors. First, students typically must already have a master’s degree in a closely related field. However, some programs allow student’s with a bachelor’s degree to be admitted and work directly towards their Ph.D. or Psy.D. Other common admissions requirements include experience in research and statistical analysis and submission of an academic resume and transcripts.
Once admitted to a doctoral program, students usually spend 4-6 years completing their studies. There is much less coursework at this level than at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but the required research and/or clinical training, which can include pre-doctoral and post-doctoral placements, takes up most of a student’s time.
What is an Online Health Psychology Degree?
Online health psychology degrees are increasing in popularity as students seek more convenient ways of completing their college education. Usually, online coursework is available at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level. Undergraduate courses in psychology are extremely popular online, and some graduate and doctoral coursework in health psychology can be completed online as well.
However, fully online programs in health psychology are typically only found at the graduate level. These programs are almost exclusively designed for students that wish to enter the field of research, enter academia as a teacher, or work in a healthcare setting in a non-clinical role. Programs that have a clinical focus generally have an on-campus requirement to receive supervised practicum or internship hours.
One advantage of online health psychology degree programs is that sometimes an accelerated option is available, allowing students to complete work at their own pace and submit an entire course’s worth of work by a specific date. Naturally, online programs are also highly flexible, allowing students that have work, family, or other obligations to work at their own pace and complete their studies during the time of day that is most convenient for them.
Online programs and on-campus programs share many other commonalities. The admissions requirements for online programs are often the same for on-campus studies, and the types and number of required courses are often the same as well. However, as mentioned above, many online degree programs, especially at the doctoral level, do have some on-campus requirements, such as to defend a dissertation or complete a residency requirement.
What Does it Take to Get a Degree in Health Psychology?
There are a variety of skills, aptitudes, and personal qualities that will help a student successfully complete a degree in health psychology:
Interest in health-related topics – Health psychology students don’t just study human behavior. They also spend a bulk of their time learning about health-related issues including physical ailments, health management, and health administration. Having an interest in health-related topics is required for students pursuing a degree in this field.
Commitment to studies – Working in the field of health psychology typically requires at least a master’s degree, and for many positions, a doctorate is required. Furthermore, in many states, without a doctorate and licensure one cannot call him/herself a “psychologist”. This means that students must be committed to their studies for many, many years.
Aptitude for research – Health psychologists conduct a lot of research both during their schooling and in the workplace. Students in health psychology programs must have a particular interest in conducting research, analyzing data, and writing research reports.
Effective communication skills – Whether a student is on a research or clinical track, excellent communication skills are a must. Health psychology students must be able to communicate in written and verbal forms, in one-on-one situations with clients, and they must also be comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people.
What Degrees are Similar to Health Psychology?
Clinical health psychology – Clinical health psychology degree programs focus on understanding the relationship between behavior and mental health. Coursework includes biological, cognitive, and social psychology. There is also an emphasis on helping students develop the mental health training to engage in clinical treatment of mental disorders through therapeutic means, such as psychotherapy and behavior modification. Clinical health psychology is an area of study at the master’s and doctorate level, although a doctorate is usually required in order to be licensed.
Public health psychology – Degrees in community health psychology prepare students to work with the public to improve their mental and physical health. Common coursework includes public health behavior, behavioral research, health promotion, and health education. Public health psychology programs are available as both graduate and doctoral degrees.
Occupational health psychology – A mix of health psychology and industrial-organizational psychology, occupational health psychology degree programs focus on work-related health issues. Coursework in this field of study revolves around biological psychology, physiological psychology, and social psychology, as well as topics that revolve around business and industry, social psychology, and workplace safety. There are graduate and doctorate study options for students that wish to enter this field of work.