What Type of Psychology Degree Will I Need?
Different levels of study are available to match your interests and career goals.
The discipline of psychology is so wide and varied, it’s impossible to find a one-size-fits-all degree to cover every possible career path.
You can pursue different levels of undergraduate and graduate study to match your interests and career goals.
Here is a quick run-down of the types of jobs that can be found for each major degree level:
Associate or Bachelor’s Degrees
If you’ve completed a standard associate or bachelor’s degree in psychology, you may find work as the following:
- Data analyst
- Case management specialist
- Career counselor
- Psychiatric technician
- Teach psychology at the high school level (but keep in mind many states also require a teaching certificate)
- Marketing research
In these types of settings:
- Correctional institutions
- Mental health facilities
- Vocational rehabilitation clinics
- Federal government agencies, provided that you’ve completed either 24 semester hours in psychology, or have a combination of classroom work and in-field experience
However, because these degrees are the least expensive in the psychology field and take the shortest amount of time to earn, competition for these jobs is expected to remain intense for the foreseeable future.
Undergraduate Degree Learning Goals
With your undergraduate degree, you’re expected to have a solid understanding of the foundational framework of psychology. The American Psychological Association has outlined five learning goals that are key outcomes of completing a psychology major. These goals are laid out to let you know what is expected of you by the time you finish your degree.
Goal 1: Knowledge Base in Psychology
Students are expected to have a fundamental understanding of major concepts, theoretical perspectives, historical trends and empirical findings. With this knowledge, students should be able to apply psychological principles and frameworks to behavioral problems and other problems of great complexity.
- Describe key concepts, principles and overarching themes in psychology
- Developing a working knowledge of psychology’s content domains
- Describe applications of psychology
Goal 2: Scientific Inquiry and Critical Thinking
Students should build skills for interpreting behavior, studying research and applying research design principles to draw conclusions. Through this, those studying psychology will have strong scientific reasoning and problem solving skills. There is also an emphasis on using and designing and executing research plans.
- Use scientific reasoning to interpret psychological phenomena
- Demonstrate psychology information literacy
- Integrate innovative thinking and problem solving
- Conduct and interpret research
- Incorporate sociocultural factors in scientific inquiry
Goal 3: Ethical and Social Responsibility in a Diverse World
This goal entails becoming well-versed in the professional ethics of psychology to develop ethically and socially responsible behaviors. These behaviors should translate into familiarity with formal regulations and values that promote diversity, responsiveness to global concerns and community relationships and contributions.
- Apply ethical standards practices
- Build interpersonal relationships
- Adopt local and global community-building values
Goal 4: Communication
In addition to a strong foundation in writing, oral and interpersonal communication skills, students should have a solid understanding of how to present a scientific argument, using information translated in a scientific approach. By explaining ideas to others, students will exemplify their ability to properly research, display results and speak to an audience.
- Write effectively for different purposes
- Present effective for different audiences
- Interact with others well
Goal 5: Professional Development
On a foundational level, students are required to be able to demonstrate ethical behavior in academic and professional settings. Project management, self-reflection, teamwork and strong planning skills are all necessary for a successful career in the psychology field.
- Exhibit self-efficacy and self-regulation
- Enhance management and teamwork skills
- Develop meaningful professional direction
These skills are applicable to new students and trained professionals alike. Aim to develop them fully as you study so you can apply them while in school and in your future career.
To earn a master’s degree in psychology, students are generally required to devote at least two years to full-time graduate study to complete an original project for a master’s thesis, and spend a predetermined number of hours gaining practical experience in an applied setting, such as a clinic.
There are generally fewer jobs options for those with master’s degrees, but there is demand in the industrial-organizational sector of psychology, which is the study of human behavior in the workplace. Master’s degree holders may find corporate jobs in the following professions:
- Psychological assistants or counselors
- Providing mental health services under the direct supervision of a licensed psychologist
- Work as a research assistant at a university or government agency.
Specialist Degrees (EdS or PsyS)
One option that’s available between the master’s and doctorate degrees is the specialist degree in psychology (EdS or PsyS). Those who pursue specialist degrees often enter the school psychology field. To reach this level, most students complete a minimum of two years of graduate study (that’s equivalent to at least 60 semester hours) in education and psychology courses, plus a one-year, full-time internship. Most states require school psychologists to hold a specialist or doctoral degree, although some require only a master’s degree.
And Two Different Doctorates: PhD and PsyD
Here’s where the rubber hits the road for psychology work. To operate an independent practice as a clinical psychologist—those who can assess, diagnose, treat and prevent mental disorders—a doctorate degree is virtually essential. Earning a PhD in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree can open doors to a wide range of career options:
- Clinical and counseling positions in universities
- Health care services
- Elementary and secondary schools
- Private companies
- Government agencies
A doctorate generally requires about five to seven years of full-time graduate study, often culminating with a dissertation based on original research. Clinical, counseling and school psychology students typically need an additional year of post-doctoral supervised experience before they can be certified. Many PhD courses in this field are research-intensive, involving quantitative experimental methods and often complex computer-based analysis (a love of statistics can be very helpful!). The similar PsyD degree, however, is focused more on applied clinical work and professional practice, and may not require a dissertation project.
Keep in mind that the critical-thinking and creative problem-solving skills required for a psychology degree can be applied to any number of fields.
Graduate Degree Learning Goals
In addition to the learning goals outlined for undergraduate students, graduate students should fine-tune their theoretical knowledge and research analysis practices. No matter your graduate degree specialization, there are high-level skills expected of master’s or doctorate students.
- Demonstrate knowledge of foundational concepts including the history and systems of psychology
- Demonstrate an understanding of professional issues and conduct in the practice of psychology
- Appreciate different tools of inquiry by understanding quantitative and qualitative research methods and analysis
- Produce research to inform others
- Maintain core values of psychology that allow for ethical practices, healthy skepticism and the limits of applicability
Depending on your personal and professional interests, it’s also necessary to think ahead about what area of psychology is most applicable to your life goals. By doing so, you can help decide what type of psychology degree you need. Here are some major health career paths for those in the psychology field:
A very influential specialty, cognitive psychology focuses on memory, learning, reasoning, perception, language and the human thought process.
This area is dedicated to helping people in their everyday lives through mental and physical health. It also encompasses helping those with negative thinking, difficult life events and some mental disorders.
Clinical psychology also incorporates counseling patients, however there is also an expectation for research, teaching and focusing on serious mental and behavioral disorders.
If you’re interested in how humans change over time, this area is for you. This covers everything from brain development to social and cultural interactions.
In this sector of psychology, there is a heavy focus on research methods and scientific data to explore questions and make new discoveries.
Industrial and Organizational Psychology
This specialty looks at the inner workings of the workplace and organizations. Psychologists look at human behavior in terms of motivation and workplace satisfaction.
Athletics are more than just using your body. Sports psychologist study the mental aspects of performance and recovery.
There are many more specializations in psychology and many people who are study more than one. By thinking about what interests you, you’ll have an easier time deciding which degree path to choose and what you’ll focus on along the way.
Even after you’ve completed your degree, there are plenty of opportunities for professional development through continuing education courses and exams. It’s important to hone your skills and learn updated theories and techniques to stay relevant in your field. There are a number of ways in which psychologists and mental health professionals can build on their education.
- Article-Based Exam: Complete an exam based on a research or field-relevant article.
- Book-Based Exam: Complete an exam based on a topic-specific book.
- Newsletter-Based Exam: Use a field-specific newsletter issue to complete an exam.
- Online Course: Use online course material for a particular topic to show competency,
- Video On-Demand: Show your understanding of learning objectives after viewing video workshops.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016-17 Occupational Outlook Handbook.
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