Psychology Student’s Success Guide: Online Learning & Degrees
The following experts contributed to our guide:
Cheryl Cyr, licensed mental health counselor, former online student
Natalie Mica, licensed professional counselor, former online teacher
Richard A. Singer Jr., psychotherapist and adjunct professor
If one word could sum up the many advantages of getting a psychology degree online, that word would be “flexibility.” At a glance, it might seem that the most obvious advantage is that you don’t have to drive to a campus, but that convenience is actually secondary in importance to the unrivaled flexibility in scheduling that you can experience learning online.
Advantages of Online Learning
If you’re strongly considering online education at the undergraduate level or for more advanced degrees such as master’s and doctoral degrees, you’re likely to be a working adult who’s juggling responsibilities and family obligations, which can make rigid class schedules difficult or impossible to follow. When you pursue a psychology degree—or any degree—as a distance learner, on the other hand, you’ll be able to work your education into your schedule instead of having to structure your life around your classes.
Students with disabilities or mental health challenges that might prevent them from attending or succeeding in classes on campus may find new opportunities with online learning. It’s much the same for those with mobility issues who don’t drive, who share cars, or don’t have good access to public transportation. Even those with ready transportation are almost certain to save money on commuting costs.
Online degree programs are sometimes less expensive. In some cases, schools charge reduced in-state tuition fees to out-of-state online learners. In almost all cases, distance learners avoid fees related to on-campus education, such as student center and other facility fees.
Distance learners receive most of the same support services, including academic and personal advising, tutoring, mentoring, and library services. Most important: Many industry professionals insist that the level and quality of education are identical to what you’d get on campus. The American Psychological Association (APA) interviewed a Ph.D. psychology professor who stated, “You’re not dumbing down anything simply because it’s online. It’s just a different delivery format.” Online programs are often developed and taught by the same instructors who teach on campus, and you have access to the same financial aid and scholarships.
Disadvantages of Online Learning
Distance learners sometimes go into online programs believing that those will be easier than face-to-face instruction, but they aren’t. In fact, many online learners find the format to be much more challenging. That’s because the flexibility that makes distance learning so attractive demands a level of self-discipline that isn’t required when classes follow a set schedule.
Although online learning is certainly more convenient, there’s something to be said for the classic on-campus school experience. The tradeoff for earning a degree at home in your pajamas, if you like, is that you miss out on face-to-face interaction with peers and professors, which has long defined the higher education experience. And just as you benefit from not having to pay for on-campus facilities like student centers, gyms, and computer labs, you also miss out on having access to them.
There are also drawbacks that are specific to psychology degree programs. First, advanced training at the master’s or doctoral levels usually requires internships, externships, and other practicum experiences that simply can’t be taken online. Online degree programs in psychology will still have these requirements, but there may be more coordination necessary to ensure that your practicum experience is an effective part of your training. Also, pretty much any psychology-based job is a face-to-face occupation. Despite the rise of online therapy services such as Talkspace and BetterHelp, most therapy is conducted in-person in incredibly intimate environments, and some in the industry believe that traditional, face-to-face instruction is the best preparation for a career in psychology.
6 Tips for Success for Students in Online Classes
Earning a psychology degree online requires immense self-discipline. Many programs don’t require you to log on at a certain time and, provided you complete assignments by deadline, allow you to work at your own pace. This puts the onus on you to set and strictly follow your own schedule.
Tip #1: Figure out what you need to hold yourself accountable.
“Know your level of self-discipline and time management skills,” says our panelist Natalie Mica, who took many of her graduate courses online. “These are essential skills to have when committing to online coursework. While you will have the benefit of flexibility in an online program, it will also require additional personal discipline and responsibility in order to stay focused and on schedule.
“I would encourage students who are looking into online programs to take a personal inventory to honestly assess what they need in terms of personal accountability and external support, and to make decisions that will accommodate these factors,” Mica concludes.
Tip #2: Make an effort to forge relationships with fellow students.
When learning online, you communicate with your peers remotely, but you lose the benefit of face-to-face contact with other students. That means it’s up to you to get the most out of your critical web-based relationships.
“For students who are considering an online education, I suggest you make friends with people in your courses and form a study group,” says panelist Cheryl Cyr, who completed most of her undergraduate and graduate psychology study online.
Tip #3: Create a routine.
Set a defined schedule for logging on, watching lectures, receiving updates, and working on assignments—and stick to it. Ideally, you’d at least log on and check in once a day, and stay in at least weekly contact with instructors and peers.
Tip #4: Think outside of your courses.
Utilize all the resources at your disposal, including academic advising and library services.
Tip #5: Have the IT helpdesk at the ready.
Prepare for tech issues by familiarizing yourself with your school’s tech services department so you’re not scrambling when the inevitable technology glitch arrives.
Tip #6: Do a pilot.
Before you commit, take a free practice course—most programs offer one to new distance learners—to make sure the format is right for you.
Q&A: What’s It Like to Get an Online Psychology Degree?
Meet our Panel:
Cheryl Cyr is a licensed mental health counselor and the founder of the Power Within psychotherapy practice, where she treats patients and also employs and manages several other counselors and mental health professionals. She completed both her undergraduate and master’s degrees mostly online.
Natalie Mica is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Houston. Not only did she take many of her graduate courses online, but she taught online courses at the University of Houston Victoria.
Richard A. Singer Jr.
Richard A. Singer Jr. is a psychotherapist, adjunct professor, and the author of several award-winning books. Singer created and taught online courses at Pennsylvania’s College Misericordia.
What were some of the benefits of studying psychology online?
Cyr: “My favorite part was that I found a program that accommodated my needs and life. I didn’t have to be on campus three to five days a week, every week. I had the flexibility to schedule the time I would go to campus. The one major drawback is most of my now-colleagues are located all over the place and we aren’t able to get a coffee as often as we would like to, but we do meet online.”
|Mica: “For me, the flexibility of online education was essential and ideal. This was a second career path for me, and I was a mother with four very active children. I also held several roles in the community and worked two part-time jobs. I enjoyed being able to work my studies around my daily schedule and the benefit of being able to work on and submit coursework after the traditional in-person education hours. I also appreciated that my program provided sufficient structure in that there were clearly defined and incremental deadlines for coursework. This helped me maintain a steady focus and flow of work toward completion.”|
How about any drawbacks?
Mica: “I did not encounter any significant drawbacks. A few times, I had to contend with some technical difficulties that occurred during crucial examinations or when trying to submit assignments with a deadline.”
|Singer: “I believe students can learn much more and develop important skills in the online classroom—or at least the students I taught with the information contained in my courses. The most challenging thing for me [as an instructor] was to meet the number of hours that were required by the accrediting bodies and make it feasible for the students. The number of hours was stringent and the course material had to be in-depth. Thus, I had to be flexible and really help the students be efficient and manage their time.”|
Did your online program sufficiently prepare you for your career?
Mica: “I think my online coursework prepared me just as sufficiently as in-person courses. I will add that in most cases, your coursework is just the first of many trainings, workshops, and clinical consultations you will need to be successful and to provide effective, ethical, and evidence-based therapy and/or research.”
|Cyr: “My online program not only prepared me for my career but I also passed the NMHCE [National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination] exam on the first try. My online program was the absolute best educational experience I’ve had. It was challenging, rewarding, and more in-depth than some of the face-to-face courses I’d taken in the past.”|
How/why did you choose your program?
|Mica: “I wanted a program that offered both in-person and online offerings so that I would have the opportunity to attend some classes on-site both to socialize and build networks with fellow students and faculty. This helped narrow my search significantly to a particular geographical location so travel would be affordable and practical. I also looked at the potential schools’ accreditation, course offerings, and past schedules. Finally, I reached out to speak with the department head, outreach coordinator, and other graduate students in the program.”|
Do students who earn psychology degrees online face any challenges in getting hired, and does the credential carry the same weight as degrees earned on campus?
Cyr: “At this time I don’t have any staff who earned their degree online but I have a student who will be starting with us in a few weeks who has earned her degree online. I would absolutely hire and work with other professionals who earned their degrees online. It really makes no difference to me—you’re either a fit or you’re not. I look at the degree because I’m required to make sure they have one, but where it came from has no impact on my choice.”
|Singer: “I think there are definitely challenges that exist. This is shown in some of the recent research on the perception of online degrees, as well. One study that I looked at called the people doing the hiring ‘gatekeepers,’ which is exactly what they are. These gatekeepers often do perceive online degrees differently than traditional degrees and do sometimes allow this perception to affect hiring decisions. In general, the answer is that the online degree will not hold the same weight in many instances but I think in the average workplace there will not be any issue getting hired.”|
Are online degrees respected when it comes to grad school admissions?
|Singer: “Online degrees and credits will be able to be transferred to any accredited college or university one applies to if the person is accepted. At that time, students may have to prove that the courses were adequate, but generally, the degrees and credits can be transferred.”|
Spotlight on Innovative Online Courses in Psychology
Here’s a look at some of the most innovative and unique psychology classes in American higher learning today—and all of them (and many others like them) can be taken completely online.
Harvard University—Positive Psychology: This course holds the distinction of being the most popular course in the history of Harvard, which is one of the most famous and respected universities in the world. It’s been so popular, in fact, that they’ve made portions of it available to the general public and uploaded lectures onto YouTube. Taught by professor Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard Ph.D. graduate himself, the course focuses on the psychological aspects of human emotions like love, friendship, empathy, humor, happiness, and spirituality.
Stanford University—Love as a Force for Social Justice: This online offering explores the psychological underpinnings of the human emotion of agape love and how people harness it as a tool for social change. The six-week online course examines kindness and compassion as foundations for social justice and ethics. It explores how the emotion of love plays a role in communities and religious groups, and how groups (and the engaged individuals who constitute them) work toward social justice, and it examines the psychology that drives those actions.
UC Berkeley—Psychology of Personality: This popular course offers a contrast to the many online classes that examine clinical or abnormal psychology. The coursework examines the evolution of the field dating back to the work of Freud, the most famous personality psychologist in history and the father of psychoanalysis. If you take this course, you’ll conduct a deep examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the central theoretical approaches to personality psychology.
The University of Michigan—Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age: A course designed for budding psychologists in the digital age, this offering is a unique online course that examines how people collect, gather, and process data. It uses real-world situations to examine this branch of psychology. Some examples include asking why athletes tend to have bad seasons after making the cover of Sports Illustrated the year before, why economists walk out of movies more frequently than the general public, why people work differently in their own offices than in another office location, and why people who enjoy their first meal at a new restaurant believe that their second meal was just as good, even when it wasn’t.
Getting a Doctoral Degree in Psychology Online
A doctorate is the highest academic degree you can earn, and although some schools offer online doctoral degrees, the options are limited compared to online bachelor’s and master’s programs. When considering online doctoral degrees in psychology, you’ll first have to choose between Ph.D. programs, which prepare students more for careers in research and academia, or Psy.D. programs, which are designed for students who plan for clinical careers in the field.
Aside from the subject matter, concentration, and coursework, consider that doctoral programs come with culminating academic work such as dissertations and research projects, as well as hands-on practica like internships and externships. Also, keep in mind that some doctoral programs require you to first earn a master’s degree, some do not, and some include a master’s degree as part of the program.
Does APA Accreditation Matter for Psychology Doctoral Degrees?
The American Psychological Association (APA)—which is a programmatic accreditor specifically for doctoral programs in psychology—does not accredit any fully online doctoral programs. This means that all accredited online doctoral programs earn their accreditation from regional or national accreditation agencies at the institution level, not specifically for their psychology program.
If you’re considering an online psychology doctorate, how much does not having an APA-accredited Ph.D. or Psy.D. matter? It’s possible that it matters to your future career or employment prospects, especially if you plan to practice as a licensed psychologist. Some states require that your doctoral degree be APA-accredited in order to earn a license, but some do not, so it’s critical to understand your state’s requirements before enrolling.
The following state boards explicitly require all applicants for psychologist licenses to complete APA-accredited doctoral programs: Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, and Oklahoma.
Almost all states that allow alternatives to APA-accredited doctoral degrees in their psychologist licensing requirements erect additional barriers to licensure, with some states using language like “programs should be accredited by the APA” or “the burden lies on the applicant to prove equivalency.” Others require an APA retraining program or a program “deemed substantially equivalent to an APA-accredited program.” In such states, applicants without APA-accredited doctorates are considered on a case-by-case basis, making licensure a possibility—but not a guarantee.
It’s also important to note that without an APA-accredited doctoral degree, it might be harder to land an approved internship, which could then make it more challenging to get a license, whether your state insists on APA accreditation or not. In the end, only APA accreditation satisfies all state boards granting psychologist licensure.
However, if you either plan to not practice—and plenty of people earn a psychology doctoral degree but do not go on to become a psychologist—or live in a state that doesn’t require APA accreditation for psychologist licensure, you are more likely to consider non-APA-accredited doctoral programs, including online doctoral programs in psychology.
Online Learning for Bachelor’s and Master’s Psychology Programs
In many cases, you can earn a psychology degree completely online at the undergraduate level, meaning both those who want to stop after an associate or bachelor’s degree and those who want to pursue graduate-level education have an excellent opportunity to complete their foundational coursework online.
When choosing your program, make sure it meets the requirements for the career you plan to pursue or the graduate program you plan to attend.
An associate degree in psychology can qualify you for certain occupations in the psychology field. If you continue your studies, the associate degree will satisfy the first two years of a bachelor’s degree, provided your credits transfer successfully. Although you need to complete a doctoral program to earn the coveted title of “psychologist,” an online psychology bachelor’s degree can prepare you for dozens of careers, many completely unrelated to psychology.
An online master’s degree in psychology can also prepare you for many psychology-related careers, including social worker, counselor, therapist, or teacher. You can earn a master’s in preparation for a doctorate, but many doctoral programs require only a bachelor’s degree for admission. Some master’s programs might require online learners to earn their degrees in the hybrid format, where some in-person instruction is required.
Regardless of degree level, it’s critical to choose an accredited program. Accreditation from a recognized governing body such as a regional or national accreditation organization ensures educational quality. Programs that aren’t accredited will likely not satisfy the requirements of future employers or graduate admissions officers.