Psychology Degrees: Choosing What’s Right for You
If you are considering a degree in psychology, below you can find what types of degree levels are available, how to enter the programs, what to expect while learning, and information about what you may be able to do after graduation.
Doctorate in Psychology
There are two types of doctoral psychology degrees: Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). Either degree will enable you to work as a psychologist, researcher, or professor. Both types generally require a one-year internship prior to completion, and students must complete a dissertation (an extensive research project), a capstone project (hands-on use of theory, which may be called a case study), or a combination of the two to graduate. Unlike undergraduate studies, general psychology is rarely an option at this level—students are expected to choose a specific topic on which to focus, so be sure to know where your passion lies before going for this degree level.
While the American Psychological Association (APA) accreditation makes some people feel more comfortable with their chosen schools, it is not a must-have for achieving a degree that can lead to a successful career. Simply make sure your school is accredited by a reputable organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (such as CACREP or NASP). If you are dedicated to achieving an APA-accredited degree, know that there are no APA-accredited, online-only doctoral programs, but there are some APA-accredited hybrid online-campus options.
A unique aspect of doctoral degrees in psychology is that many programs do not require a master’s prior to enrollment. Those institutions instead offer comparatively lengthy programs you can enter immediately after completing your bachelor’s (somewhat like a combined master’s and doctoral degree program). It may be wise to look into such programs while still earning your bachelor’s degrees if you know a doctorate is your ultimate goal.
Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs have similar admission requirements, though it is essential that you thoroughly research the expectations of your chosen program as their needs will vary. These requirements generally include:
- Transcripts from your bachelor’s and, if applicable, master’s programs
- A statement of purpose
- Letters of recommendation, with three usually required
Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)
A Psy.D. program will focus on treating patients. If you enroll in such a program, you can choose a specialty and prepare for your career working directly with patients, clients, or government entities in fields like cognitive psychology or even criminal physiology. Psy.D. programs can take between four and six years to complete.
Programming will vary based on your chosen specialty—e.g., if you focus on evolutionary psychology, you may take before courses in biology, while clinical psychology students will not—but here are some basic things to expect:
- Advanced assessment techniques: Coursework will expand upon psychological assessment methods learned in previous education, potentially including working directly with patients or volunteer case study members
- Advanced psychopathology: This course will go in-depth into the study of mental illness or impairment, including common indicators/symptoms.
Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (Ph.D.)
A Ph.D. program is more focused on academics than practice. A Ph.D. can take a little longer than a Psy.D.—usually five to seven years. Students in this arena tend to pursue careers in research and education, including professorships or examination of large groups of people, e.g. those in particular cultures or with specific mental health issues, to help build the field’s knowledge base through research findings.
Like a Doctorate in Psychology, your coursework will lean heavily on your chosen specialty as opposed to general studies. Some general expectations include:
- Advanced research methods: This course will go deeply into how to effectively conduct and present research on psychology topics.
- Advanced diversity studies: It is expected that psychologists can work with people from all walks of life, so they learn about multicultural backgrounds, LGBTQ+ issues, and other topics relating to diversity
Master’s Degree in Psychology
After completing undergraduate work, you may choose to pursue a master’s degree in psychology. There are two types of degrees available: Master of Arts and Master of Science. M.A. degrees will lean toward liberal arts pursuits, while M.S. programs will focus more on scientific, statistical, and mathematical coursework. M.A. degrees often result in careers with a more human focus, such as school counseling, while M.S. degrees focus more on quantifiable subjects like developmental psychology.
Degree programs are available on-campus, online, or in hybrid formats, with both degree types taking two to three years to complete if studying full time. During your education, you may study subjects like abnormal psychology (behavior patterns), ethics (professional standards), and statistics, though coursework will vary based on your chosen specialty.
In order for you to graduate, both tracks will generally require the completion of a capstone project or master’s thesis. Capstones typically entail using theory in the real world, sometimes in the form of a case study, followed by sharing and defending your findings to a committee. These are research-based, ending with publishable documents that will also require committee defenses.
Master of Arts students often end their educations at this point, moving on to full-time work, while Master of Science students will frequently move on to their doctoral studies. Though careers in many psychology fields are open to those with master’s degrees, many choose to work in counseling or social work.
Note that many schools offer doctoral programs that begin after completely solely a bachelor’s degree. If you hope to ultimately become a doctor, it may be worth looking into those options, as they may cost less than achieving two degrees after a bachelor’s and get you into your career faster.
For admission, both the M.A. and M.S. degrees typically require the following:
- A minimum of a 3.0 GPA from undergraduate studies
- Transcripts from any previous college programs
- Up to three letters of recommendation
- A personal statement
- Your resume or curriculum vitae (C.V.)
- Graduate Records Examination (GRE) results
In addition to having common admission requirements, Master of Arts and Master of Science degrees in psychology often have coursework in common:
- Ethics: Psychologists have an ethical code of conduct they are expected to follow. This coursework should prepare students to face ethical conundrums in the “real world.”
- Statistics and research methods: These courses ensure students are able to not just obtain data, but also compile and present it effectively.
Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology
Psychology majors can obtain Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degrees, depending on their individual schools or areas of interest. Bachelor’s programs usually require students to take coursework that seems unrelated to their chosen fields, with B.A. candidates taking more liberal arts courses—such as sociology or even arts—while B.S. candidates will focus on math and science courses. While you are not always required to stick with arts or science for more advanced degrees, you may need to do so, so be sure that you have chosen the experience that excites you more.
While there are careers open to those who achieve their bachelor’s degrees, most graduates who have only completed this level are working in fields outside of psychology itself. If you want to work directly with patients or other people who need help, you will likely need to move on to a more advanced degree. You can only be called a “psychologist” with a doctorate, but if you are interested in being a counselor or similar, a master’s will do.
You generally can earn a B.A or B.S. in four years. You may choose from a variety of in-person, online, or hybrid (a mixture of both) programs.
Each program will have unique paths of study, but since undergraduate studies tend to be generalized, there are some similarities in coursework:
- Introduction to psychology: This course is generally open to any student at an institution and provides a broad overview of psychology. If you are unsure that a psychology degree is right for you, it may be handy to take this early in your educational career.
- Psychological assessment: This class will teach students how to examine and assess patients in order to reach a diagnosis and method of treatment.
Associate Degree in Psychology
You can earn an Associate of Arts (A.A.) or Associate of Science (A.S.) degree to begin your education in psychology. The curriculum for both programs most likely will be similar; however, as the names imply, the former may incorporate more social science or liberal arts courses, while the latter usually emphasizes math and science. Be sure to choose the path that interests you more, as some advanced programs require you to continue the science or arts path.
Typically, you can finish an associate degree program in two years. These short psychology programs can often be found at community colleges and through online programs at various universities.
An associate degree in psychology can be a steppingstone to additional education or prepare you for nonclinical jobs. While you can’t work as a psychologist or counselor, you can perform some entry-level jobs with this training, including psychiatric technicians and aides or social and human services assistants.
Each program will be different, but there are some common courses offered in associate degree programs:
- Personality: This course will examine personality types, disorders, and influences.
- Human development: Students will learn about typical paths of cognitive, social, and emotional development, from birth to old age, and how to identify variances.
Certificate in Psychology
A student can earn a certificate in psychology while completing a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree program, or after having completed one. These programs allow you to further tailor your education to your needs. The three types of certificates are undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral. There are campus-based, online-only, or hybrid certificate programs available.
You may need to provide college transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and meet other requirements to be accepted into a certificate program.
As opposed to having typical curricula, all certificate levels will focus exclusively, or nearly so, on your chosen topic. Topics will vary by institution, but may include:
- Abnormal psychology: This specialty focuses on mental illness itself; that is, it explores deviations from the norm, such variations in behaviors, thoughts, or emotions.
- Cognitive psychology: Cognitive psychology is, at its core, the study of how people think. You may focus on attention spans, a person’s perception of the world, or learning strengths and challenges.
- Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is talk therapy, wherein people with and without mental illnesses can talk to a professional to improve their mental health.
Why Get a Psychology Degree?
Psychology degrees may prepare you for careers both in and outside of traditional psychology. Though there is some focus on quantitative research and interpretation of statistics, the heart of psychology is about understanding humans and their behaviors.
Psychology majors often graduate highly skilled in empathy, critical thinking, and ethics. Those traits are highly valued by employers of all stripes, and the degree can prepare you for work in virtually any field.
“Soft skills” are becoming increasingly valued in every career field. Ninety-six percent of employers believe that recent graduates must be able to communicate and solve problems with people who are different from themselves, with 78% of them desiring intercultural understanding. However, they often find that recent grads are not skilled in their needed soft skills. Psychology degrees may put you ahead of the pack, as these abilities are directly taught during coursework.
FAQ: Psychology Degree Programs
If you have questions about psychology and psychology degree programs, this section is for you. Here are answers to some commonly asked questions.
How do you become a psychologist?
It takes several years of dedicated work and schooling to become a psychologist. You need to complete undergraduate and graduate programs, possess a doctoral degree—either Ph.D. or Psy.D.—from an accredited program, pass all required exams, accrue clinical hours, and fulfill state licensure requirements to practice legally.
What psychology colleges are near me?
There is a variety of psychology college programs in the United States, from the associate to doctoral level. Additionally, depending on what you’re looking for in a program, you can choose among in-person, online-only, or hybrid schooling options.
What is the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist?
Psychologists and psychiatrists are both doctorate-level careers that work to improve patients’ mental health, but the approach is different.
Psychologists have doctoral degrees and focus on patients’ behavioral, emotional, and personality development. They can diagnose and treat patients, but only a few states allow them to prescribe medications—and even then, they are limited to certain drugs and must have completed specific training. On the other hand, psychiatrists are trained medical doctors who specialize in mental health. They evaluate and treat disorders medically and can prescribe medication.
How are psychologists and therapists different?
While the titles of “psychologist” and “therapist” are often used interchangeably, and both professions exist to offer support and guidance, the titles don’t refer to the same career. These roles require different types and lengths of experience and education level; in fact, psychologists require a doctorate, while therapists solely need a master’s
A psychologist can diagnose disorders and problems in clients and then treat them. They need at least a master’s degree to practice.
A therapist provides rehabilitation and treatment to clients with behavioral health symptoms or issues. This career requires at least a bachelor’s degree to practice.
What psychology jobs can I get?
Depending on your career aspirations, you have a lot of options to choose from.
Careers in psychology can be found at any education level. Whether you prefer to work one on one with patients or behind the scenes on a new research study—or something outside of mental health entirely—you have many choices. Jobs include psychiatric technicians and child psychologists but also encompass far-ranging roles in sales, marketing, and research, too.
There are innumerable jobs in psychology, and 10 are experiencing especially high growth and offering competitive salaries. Psychology majors are also highly desirable in other fields.
Resources for Psychology Students
You don’t have to embark on your professional journey alone. Here are five educational and community-oriented resources to help you excel in this field.
- The American Psychological Association (APA): The APA is a professional organization with a great deal of information on the industry, news, events, a psychology help center, and more.
- How to Get a Psychology Internship: This page provides a foundation on what to expect when it comes to securing, working, and looking for psychology internships.
- The Organized Therapist: This private Facebook group has over 11,000 members who support each other in matters of organization relating to mental health and similar fields.
- PESI, Inc.:A nonprofit that provides continuing education courses, seminars, and educational products for continuing education in behavioral health.
- “Therapy for Therapists”:This Psychology Today article outlines different specialties and makes the case that practitioners themselves should also go to therapy.
A psychology degree can provide you with many different and fulfilling career options, as well as develop your interpersonal skills. Regardless of if you want to be a psychologist or simply study the subject on your way to a different career, a degree in psychology can help you on your way.
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