Going to graduate school and earning a master’s degree takes years of study, great perseverance, and a whole lot of money. Students that go to graduate school do so to gain advanced skills and knowledge. The skills and knowledge gained qualifies students for good jobs in which they can work for many years. One of the most popular graduate degree programs is psychology. With various degree options available, and dozens of areas of concentration, master’s degree programs are excellent options for students that wish to work in a field that can bring them a significant amount of job satisfaction.
What is a Master’s Degree in Psychology?
Master’s degree programs build upon the knowledge and skills learned in bachelor’s degree programs, and in many cases, serves as a terminal degree in the field, meaning, once the master’s degree is completed, there is no further degree offered or required. In these instances, students are fully prepared to begin work. In other cases, the master’s degree is another stepping-stone to completing a higher degree, such as a Ph.D. or Psy.D. Whatever the case, a master’s degree in psychology prepares students for many different career and educational possibilities.
There is wide variability in terms of the number of credits required and the length of time required to complete a master’s degree in psychology. Some programs require as little as 30 semester credit hours while others include more than 50 semester credit hours. Still others require 60 credit hours. Obviously, shorter programs of study can be completed much more quickly, usually in one to two years, depending on how many credits one takes each semester. Longer programs can take between two to five years, depending on the number of credits required and the number of hours of practicum and/or internship that are required.
Shorter programs tend focus on preparing students for further studies and training, such as they would get in a doctoral program. These 30-credit hour programs usually do not include any clinical training, so students would not be prepared to work in a clinical setting upon graduation. However, longer programs, such as those in the 50-60 credit hour range, usually include an integrated practicum or internship, or both. There may be a specialization offered as well, such as an emphasis in school psychology or clinical psychology. These longer programs prepare students to begin work (under supervision) upon their graduation.
What is the Difference Between an M.A. and an M.S. in Psychology?
Put simply, the difference between an M.A. and an M.S. in psychology is in the overall focus of the program. Master of Arts programs tend to have a stronger emphasis on the liberal arts, meaning, students in these programs undertake more classwork in the application of psychological theory. As a result, the M.A. degree is a popular option for students who wish to become practitioners of psychology, such as a school psychologist, industrial-organizational psychologist, or counselor.
Conversely, in a Master of Science program, courses tend to be more scientifically focused with the bulk of studies emphasizing research methods, brain functioning, cognition, and psychological processes. Students that plan on a career in academia as a professor or in research often opt for the M.S. degree because of this emphasis on the scientific bases of psychology. The M.S. degree is also a popular option for students that wish to continue their education in a Ph.D. or Psy.D. program. Again, this is because of the heavy emphasis on research at the graduate level, which prepares students for the continued emphasis on research at the doctoral level.
What Do You Learn in a Master’s Degree in Psychology?
The coursework involved in master’s degree studies will depend on the emphasis of the program. For example, a program that prepares students to be school psychologists will have more coursework in the child and adolescent and educational realms. Conversely, a program that is focused on marriage and family work will have more courses on those subjects. However, there are core classes that are generally common to most master’s degree programs:
- Assessment and diagnosis – This course trains students to assess and diagnose psychological disorders. Specific studies might involve intelligence testing, personality testing, or testing for the presence of a behavioral issue, such as ADHD. Some courses in this realm focus specifically on children and adolescents while others emphasize assessment and diagnosis of adults.
- Developmental psychopathology – In this class, graduate students investigate psychological issues that typically present themselves in childhood or adolescence, such as autism, oppositional-defiant disorder, or a developmental disability. Students explore the common symptoms of childhood psychological disorders and learn the most effective methods of treating those disorders.
- Neuropsychology – The study of the brain, it’s systems, and it’s influence on how humans behave is a course common to most graduate degree programs in this field, but particularly so in M.S. programs. In studying the anatomy and physiology involved in human behavior, students gain a better understanding of how physiological processes can impact psychological outcomes.
- Social psychology – Many graduate programs offer courses on the social aspect of human behavior. These courses explore the dynamic between the individual and the group, focusing especially on how groups can exert pressure on individuals to think or behave in a certain manner. These courses often include an examination of organizational behavior as well, such as the dynamic between employers and employees in a business or industry setting.
- Clinical skills – Psychology programs that prepare students to be clinicians will include a clinical skills component. In these courses, students learn how to apply their knowledge of psychology to help clients effectively deal with a psychological issue. Students learn how to engage with clients through active listening and specific therapeutic techniques. Students also learn how to work in one-on-one, small group, and large group settings with clients.
What is an Online Master’s Program in Psychology?
There are many online programs available to get one’s master’s degree in psychology. Both M.S. and M.A. options are available, although there are very few online graduate programs in psychology that have a clinical focus. This is because of the difficulty for online students to get the practical experience working with clients in a therapeutic setting that on-campus students are more easily able to obtain. Instead, online programs tend to focus on the application of psychological knowledge and skills in other settings such as industrial-organizational psychology, health psychology, forensic psychology, and sports psychology, to name a few.
Because most online programs are not clinically focused, they tend to be shorter in terms of their required credits. A 30 credit hour program is common in the online environment, which can be completed in one to two years if a student is taking a full load of courses each semester. Naturally, online learning is more flexible than on-campus programs, so students can more easily complete their studies in a shorter timeframe if they so desire.
Like on-campus graduate programs in psychology, online programs have a common core of classes that give students more advanced knowledge and skills than they received at the bachelor’s degree level. Common classes may include developmental psychology, psychopathology, educational psychology, research methods, and statistics.
Courses offered at this level may be more independent than those at the bachelor’s degree level. Online undergraduate classes often have requirements for students to participate in some sort of online environment, such as a weekly group chat room. However, because graduate students are older and have a greater set of skills and deeper knowledge of psychology, online graduate programs may give them more freedom to complete their studies at their own pace.
What are the Requirements for a Master’s Degree in Psychology?
Individual schools establish admissions requirements for graduate degrees. While there is some variability in terms of what those requirements are, there are some basic, common prerequisites students must meet:
- A bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Sometimes a bachelor’s degree in psychology is required, but most often a bachelor’s degree of any kind is sufficient.
- A minimum acceptable score on the Graduate Record Exam.
- A minimum acceptable undergraduate GPA.
Many graduate programs in psychology have additional requirements, such as a personal statement or essay that provides faculty members with insight into who you are as a person, what, if any training or work experience you have that is related to psychology, and what your specific interests within psychology might be.
Other colleges and universities require students to participate in an interview process, in which the faculty members of the psychology department evaluate applicants in an interview setting. Yet other graduate programs may require applicants to have significant experience in research.
What Does it Take to Get a Master’s Degree in Psychology?
Getting a master’s degree takes a significant amount of time, effort, and dedication to one’s studies. A bachelor’s degree must be completed first, which typically takes four years to complete. Depending on the length of the master’s degree program, it could take an additional 1-5 years of education beyond the bachelor’s degree. Being in college for that long requires students to devote an incredible amount of time and energy to completing their coursework to a level that is satisfactory.
Getting a master’s degree sometimes requires completing practicum or internship placements as well. These learning experiences are a part of the graduate program, and students get credit for completing them. However, there is a significant time requirement involved that goes above and beyond the normal scope of work for a graduate degree. For example, an internship might be upwards of 600 hours of time devoted to working in a specific setting, such as school psychology or marriage and family therapy.
Graduate studies in psychology often involve developing a strong sense of self-awareness as well. This is especially critical for students that intend to become clinicians. As a result, it will usually involve many activities in which students engage in self-reflection, ponder their strengths and weaknesses, and develop a better understanding of how they view the world and the manner in which people live in it.
Additionally, students will begin to develop a personal theory of psychology that will inform how they approach helping others. For example, students may study many psychological theories and therapeutic techniques, and as they do, they will identify which theory and techniques best fit their worldview and personality.
How to Find the Right Psychology Graduate Program?
Finding the right graduate program in psychology will depend on a number of factors:
- Cost of attendance – The average graduate degree from a public university costs around $30,000. At a private university, the cost rises to $40,000. As a result, cost of attendance is often the primary factor students use to determine which graduate program is right for them.
- Location – Some graduate students need to study close to home. This might be because of family needs, demands from work, or simply a desire not to pick up and move. In these situations, the location of a graduate school may be the most important factor in determining which school is the best fit.
- Career aspirations – Not all graduate programs in psychology prepare students for the same types of employment. Some graduate programs have a clinical focus for students that wish to become a practitioner, like a clinical psychologist. Other programs focus on the application of psychology in other settings, such as in sports, law enforcement, education, or business and industry. As such, finding the right program for you will depend in large part on what you want to do as a career.
The American Psychological Association offers several other guidelines to consider when determining which graduate program is right for you. The APA suggests investigating the following questions:
- What are the objectives of the program?
- Is the program accredited?
- What degree options are offered?
- What is the academic profile of students already admitted into the program? Are their characteristics in terms of education, training, and work experience similar to yours?
- What is the program’s graduation rate, and what is the average length of time it takes students to complete the program?
- If the graduate program is focused on research and academics, what is the program’s track record of finding post-graduate internship or fellowship placements for its students?
What Can You Do With a Master’s Degree in Psychology?
A master’s degree in psychology certainly opens many more career pathways than having just a bachelor’s degree. With dozens and dozens of areas of emphasis, from research to education to clinical practice, graduates have the ability to work in all sorts of settings. Some common occupations include:
Licensed professional counselor – A licensed professional counselor (LPC) offers therapeutic services to clients of all ages. Counselors often rely on talk therapies to assist their clients, although they may utilize other interventions if the situation warrants it. LPCs may work in community-based settings, such as a mental health clinic, in a school, in a rehabilitation facility, or in a residential treatment center, just to name a few.
Marriage and family therapist – As the job title implies, marriage and family therapists focus on issues related to couples relationships and family issues. Rather than working with clients in a one-on-one setting, which is typical of LPCs, marriage and family therapists tend to be much more focused on couples and family sessions. Talk therapy is a common approach in this field, as are solution-focused methods that are brief and seek to get right to the issues causing problems in couples and family relationships. Most therapists in this particular specialty work in private practice or community mental health settings.
School psychologist – A specialist graduate degree in school psychology is good preparation for a career as a school psychologist. This career entails working with children in elementary, middle, and high school. School psychologists may engage children in individual or group counseling, but much of their time is spent addressing school-wide issues, like bullying. School psychologists also work closely with teachers and administrators to develop programs that help students learn and help teachers teach.
Industrial-organizational psychology – Individuals in this field apply their knowledge of psychological processes and principles to the work setting. Their primary task revolves around resolving workplace and organizational issues that are detrimental to the performance of the business or organization. Industrial-organizational applications of psychology will include work in the areas of human factors, decision-making, intergroup relations, job and task analysis, and assessment.
Forensic psychology – Graduate-level professionals working in the field of forensics apply their knowledge of human behavior in judicial and criminal justice settings. Individuals in this field engage in a variety of job duties, from developing profiles of criminals to offering their expert testimony in court to helping law enforcement investigate certain crimes, such as domestic violence or child abuse.
How Much Can You Make With a Master’s Degree in Psychology?
As noted above, there are many areas, both within and outside of the field of mental health, in which one can work. This means that there is rather wide variability in terms of the potential income one can make with this particular degree.
Therapists, counselors, and psychologists that work in a clinical setting can make, on average, between $30,000 and $80,000 per year according to PayScale. The type of setting in which one works and professional experience will greatly determine the salary earned. For example, clinicians that work for a non-profit community mental health center will earn wages toward the bottom of the pay scale, while clinicians that work in private practice will earn salaries at the top of the pay scale. In fact, clinicians that are in private practice can earn well over $100,000 per year.
Workers that apply their graduate training in psychology in the business realm stand to earn high incomes as well. According to PayScale, executive directors, who oversee operations of businesses or non-profit agencies, can earn over $125,000 per year. That is at the very top of the pay scale, however. Workers in this field can earn as little as $32,000 per year. Other business applications of psychology, like industrial-organizational psychology, have high earning potential as well. PayScale estimates that the median annual salary for licensed IO psychologists is just over $73,000 per year, with the potential of earning over $110,00 per year.