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Health psychology education & degrees

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The mind-body connection has been studied and documented time and again. It’s no secret, therefore, that our physical health and mental health have a distinctly symbiotic relationship, where illness—or wellness—in one area can affect the other. This is a defining point of interest for health psychologists who study how behavior affects our physical health and how to prevent, treat and manage illnesses and disabilities, among other topics.  

Clinical health psychology has been a psychological specialty recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) since 1997, the second oldest specialty behind clinical neuropsychology. Clinical health psychologists often work alongside other health care professionals to improve health outcomes by providing psychological treatment as a way to help people affected by a physical ailment. Other health psychologists may focus more on research than clinical interventions directly with patients.  

In most cases, you need a doctoral degree in psychology if you want to be a licensed psychologist, but there are many other roles in the health care field that could benefit from an educational background in health psychology. Continue reading to find out more about health psychology degrees and what they could do for you and your career.  

Why study health psychology? 

Psychology degrees in general can be incredibly versatile and lay a foundation for many different types of careers. A health psychology degree, on the other hand, provides that extra emphasis on the relationship between mental and physical wellness, making it an excellent option for people who are interested in applying the principles of psychology to improve health outcomes.  

“It is one of the fastest growing niches or areas of psychology right now,” said Dr. Sylvie Shuttleworth, Professor and Chair of the Department of Counseling & Health Psychology at Bastyr University.  


“[It] is one of the fastest growing niches or areas of psychology right now.”

“Health psychology really looks at people that have ailments and physical diseases or illnesses and people that have mental health concerns going on. But it really asks, ‘How are these two worlds intersecting?’ Looking at the mind-body connection and not trying to treat these in specific isolations or silos. It’s like, okay, you’re struggling with migraines, but then on this other side you’re also saying that you’re struggling with symptoms of depression. We’re not seeing it as two separate and isolated conditions, but that they may be feeding off each other and exacerbating one other.” 

Shuttleworth also said that some people earn a degree in health psychology to get on a pre-med track.  

“It isn’t necessarily always lined up with the mental health side specifically, but I would say people are really looking for more of that. They have an interest in integrative and holistic care, so we’ll see them going into work settings or fields that have that interdisciplinary model. That could be at an outpatient clinic, an inpatient psychiatric hospital or a medical hospital, so you can see this playing out in different settings as well.”

Becoming a health psychologist: Prerequisite education and skills 

The prerequisites for pursuing a health psychology degree depend on which type of degree you’re applying to.  

For psychology bachelor’s degrees, you need a high school diploma or equivalent education and must submit an application that typically includes personal essays, letters of recommendation and test scores from the SAT and/or ACT.  

In most bachelor’s degree programs, you don’t declare your major immediately unless you are applying for a direct-admission major. Instead, you must take a certain number of general education courses in subjects such as math and English before you can apply to the major of your choice. For health psychology degrees, that also usually means taking one or two introductory psychology classes (and earning a certain grade in those classes) before you can apply to the health psychology major.  

For graduate degree programs, you typically need a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a similar major to be admitted to the program. Many doctoral programs also require that you have a master’s degree. In addition, applications to graduate programs often include a personal essay, letters of recommendation, a resume/CV and possibly test scores from the GRE. Psychology programs may also require a minimum score on the GRE’s psychology subject test.   

No matter what degree program you’re applying for, it’s important to bear in mind some of the more innate skills that can be essential to your success as a health psychology student: 

  • Strong written and verbal communication skills 
  • Empathy and interpersonal relationship skills 
  • Aptitude and interest in research 
  • Integrity and confidentiality when necessary 

Undergraduate studies in health psychology

Psychological specialties like health psychology are often studied at the graduate level when prospective psychologists and other mental health professionals begin to develop their areas of interest within this vast field. Plus, since bachelor’s degree programs are more general degrees which typically require taking classes in many subjects, there aren’t a ton of bachelor’s degree programs in health psychology specifically. Many people who go on to have a career in health psychology get their bachelor’s degree in general psychology.  

However, just because there are fewer programs doesn’t mean there are none—some schools do offer bachelor’s degrees in health psychology for those who know they want to go into this subfield, or they may offer it as a concentration within a general psychology program.  

Although every program’s curriculum is going to be unique, health psychology majors should expect to take classes in the following core topics as part of their degree program:   

  • Health psychology (some programs may have a sequence of classes, such as Health Psychology I, Health Psychology II, etc.) 
  • Developmental psychology 
  • Abnormal psychology 
  • Psychological statistics or biostatistics 
  • Research methods 
  • Social psychology 
  • Interpersonal communication 
  • Introduction to Public Health 
  • Learning, memory and cognition 
  • Professional ethics 

On top of these core classes, health psychology majors may be able to take elective courses in relevant subjects including, but not limited to:  

  • Human sexuality 
  • Addiction studies 
  • Psycho-oncology 
  • Nutrition and health 
  • Positive psychology 
  • Stress management 

Shuttleworth said that a bachelor’s degree in health psychology versus a bachelor’s degree in general psychology is going to have a lot of overlap but with a few key differences.  

“You’re going to have the same general education classes and then you’ll have your core psychology classes, but what you’ll notice is you’re going to have additional coursework and emphasis in what way we’re coining ‘health psychology,’” Shuttleworth said. “You’ll keep hearing this message about how [mental and physical health] are inseparable, you can’t treat one without looking at another, so you might take classes in mind-body approaches to healing, or whole person healing or things like that.” 

Although conducting research is often associated with graduate-level programs, undergraduate science degrees often include some sort of research-based thesis or capstone project to finish up the degree. It is common for this project to be completed in a class (or series of classes) in the student’s final year, and typically takes the form of a research paper. These kinds of opportunities can be especially valuable to students who plan to go on to graduate school and are often specifically designed for such.  

Graduate and post-graduate studies 

Health psychology degrees are also available at the master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral levels. If you want to become a health psychologist, you’ll most likely eventually need a doctoral degree to get a license. Degrees at the graduate level may be called health psychology degrees, or they may be a general psychology or clinical psychology degree with a health psychology concentration or “track.”  

Master’s degree programs in health psychology

Master’s programs in health psychology can be a great option to prepare students for later graduate studies or for those who want to pursue other roles in the field that don’t require a doctorate. If you want to become a health psychologist, a master’s degree might not be necessary since some doctoral programs only require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree. A master’s degree could make you a more competitive doctoral candidate, however, and it may be possible to count some of your master’s degree credits towards a doctoral degree later, but that depends on each program’s policy.  

Master’s programs cover many of the same topics in a bachelor’s degree program but take these concepts further and expand upon them.  

“I think the big piece there is going to be depth and exposure of curriculum because when you’re getting the bachelor’s degree, you have all these other pieces of curriculum and coursework you need to take. Once you get into a master’s level, basically every single class is psychology-based,” Shuttleworth said. 

Some classes you may take as a student in a master’s program include:   

  • Research methodologies 
  • Advanced psychological statistics 
  • Biopsychology 
  • Neuropsychology 
  • Behavioral neuroscience 

Master’s programs also require students to complete a research project such as a capstone and/or thesis. This is a major part of the program where students get to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and explore a topic that interests them, which usually takes the form of a research paper.

“It depends on their own journey and desires, but I would highly encourage people to consider license-eligible master’s degree programs,” Shuttleworth said. “That is different when you’re getting into the master’s degree world, now you have the ability to practice as a licensed independent health care professional with a master’s degree and then put these skills into place, which is a little different from graduating at the bachelor’s level with this type of health psychology degree.” 

Doctoral programs 

If you intend to become a licensed health psychologist, you almost certainly need a doctoral degree. There are many schools that offer health psychology as a concentration within a clinical psychology doctoral program.  

At the doctoral level, you’ll find two primary types of programs for psychology students: the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree and the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. Either one of these programs are acceptable for licensure—so what’s the difference

A PhD is a research degree where students focus on generating new knowledge in their field through empirical studies and other research methods. PsyD programs also usually include research, but classes in these programs tend to focus more on applying knowledge in the field toward actual clinical practice. A PsyD program, therefore, may be better suited for people who wish to be practicing psychologists rather than focus their career on research and academia.   

It’s always a good idea to consult with program advisers directly to learn more about their specific program and whether it is a good fit for you and the intentions you have for your career. 

Postdoctoral opportunities and fellowships  

Many graduates choose to pursue additional research opportunities after they complete their doctoral degree. In many states, postdoc hours are required for licensure. Postdoc positions, which may also be referred to as postdoc fellowships, are offered by academic research institutions, the government, nonprofit organizations and more. They last a finite amount of time and can be full or part-time roles.  

Existing and prospective health psychologists may be able to find postdoc positions at the academic institution where they earned their doctoral degree, but they can also seek out positions elsewhere through the National Postdoctoral Association, the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers and the Society for Health Psychology.

Certifications and continuing education

One of the best ways you can show your commitment to the field as a health psychologist is to get board-certified in health psychology through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). The ABPP certifies psychologists in 13 specialty areas. The certification process consists of three phases:  

Psychologist submits an application to demonstrate their eligibility for candidacy (requires completion of a doctorate, internship, postdoctoral fellowship and possession of an active psychologist license) 

Once eligibility is established, the psychologist submits a practice sample 

Once the practice sample is reviewed and approved by the Board, the psychologist must take and pass an oral examination

Although the process of obtaining board certification is extensive, having a specialty certification can improve your credibility as a practitioner and possibly lead to greater job prospects and a higher salary.  

As with many other licensed professions, continuing education (CE) is an important part of a health psychologist’s career. Participating in CE opportunities helps you remain knowledgeable about the latest science, technologies and methods within your profession. In fact, psychologists are usually required to submit proof of completing a certain amount of CE each time they renew their license with their state or jurisdiction’s licensing body. Licensing bodies usually have a list of approved CE providers where practitioners can search for verified CE opportunities to fulfill their requirements. These often include things like professional workshops, seminars, online courses or teaching in academia.

Career opportunities with a degree in health psychology

Depending on how far you take your education, a health psychology degree can prepare students for a wide breadth of careers in fields such as social and human services, health care, public health, business, academia and more.  

“There is such a variety of settings you can go into, and you’re probably using the same basic skills and knowledge like counseling and psychoeducation. But if you’re going into psychology, maybe you are doing that one-on-one patient work but maybe you’re the one that’s doing trainings for the nursing staff, or you’re the one talking about work-life balance or vicarious trauma or burnout. There are a lot of potential options with different work settings, be it community clinics, hospitals, alcohol and other drugs services, hospice work or terminal illnesses,” Shuttleworth said.  

“Working with patients that have terminal illnesses and diagnoses is another one that really draws people that have an emphasis in health psychology, because you’re looking at the psychological side of all the end-of-life questions coming up—meaning and reflection on life—but then you also have this huge biological component when someone’s battling with a terminal diagnosis.” 

Consider some of the following roles and their qualifications to see if a health psychology degree is right for you. 

Clinical health psychologist

Education needed: Doctoral degree in most cases 

Clinical health psychology is an obvious choice for people who are interested in delving into the field, but becoming a psychologist takes a lot of work. You’ll need at least a doctoral degree and several thousands of hours of clinical practice before you can earn a license. However, a doctoral degree likely opens up the most career options for you. As a clinical health psychologist working with patients, you can work in a variety of health care settings providing psychotherapy to patients to help them manage, treat or prevent physical ailments. You may choose to focus on a particular population or health concern, such as weight/obesity management, pain management, stress reduction, tobacco use or something else entirely.  

Median annual salary for clinical and counseling psychologists: $90,130 (BLS) 

Health psychology researcher

Education needed: Doctoral degree  

Some health psychologists choose to focus their careers on research and generating new knowledge within the field. This usually involves seeking out postdoctoral research opportunities for people who have already completed their doctoral degree. These usually last a finite amount of time but often have the chance to be renewed depending on the status of the research. Postdoc appointments may be offered by universities and other academic research institutions, government agencies, health care facilities and more.  

Median annual salary for medical scientists: $99,930 (BLS)  

Health promotion specialist

Education needed: Bachelor’s degree or higher 

Health promotion specialists implement and manage health education programs to improve public health outcomes. They may work for healthcare facilities, nonprofit organizations, public health departments and more. A degree in health psychology could be especially useful for health promotion specialists who wish to address disease prevention and management through psychology and other mental health services.

Median annual salary for health education specialists: $59,990 (BLS)

Health care consultant

Education needed: Bachelor’s degree or higher  

Healthcare consultants can represent many different roles of people who help healthcare organizations run their business. They usually have one or more specific goals in mind, including improving patient care, improving employee satisfaction and retention, reducing costs, increasing revenue, improving efficiency or something else.  

Median annual salary for medical and health services managers: $104,830 (BLS) 

Teaching role in academia

Education needed: Doctoral degree in most cases  

As an academic professor, you get to be a part of teaching the next generation of health psychologists. Through teaching classes and assisting students with their research, people in this role have their finger on the pulse of the latest in health psychology theories and methodologies. To qualify for this role, most teaching positions at postsecondary institutions require that you have a doctoral degree, especially within the sciences.

Median annual salary for postsecondary psychology teachers: $78,810 (BLS)

Challenges and rewards in health psychology 

Health psychology is a vast field with many different areas of interest and research opportunities. Health psychology professionals have the chance to work with diverse populations and various health conditions, but no matter what you choose to do, working with people who are ill can be incredibly challenging at times.  

“I think one of the big challenges that many people in this field or in the arena of health psychology face is that compassion fatigue,” Shuttleworth said. “Being there so much for people, going through their pain, their suffering, but then yourself taking on that weight and having such a deep level of empathy to the point where you’re feeling this as well.” 

Like two sides of the same coin, Shuttleworth said that this also why the job is so gratifying.  

“What a gift to have this as my career and job. It’s one of the most rewarding and meaningful things. I feel like I have such a deep purpose in life to sit with someone in their hardest moments and have them tell you things they’ve never told anyone else and trust you, and then feeling better, having that catharsis and letting go. I’m so privileged every day, it’s such an honor that people let you into their lives in that way.” 

As a scientific discipline, the field of health psychology is continually evolving. The COVID-19 pandemic alone has transformed the healthcare industry in many ways, including the proliferation of telehealth and virtual care services. This has not only changed the way health psychologists do their jobs, but it has become a research topic for many health psychologists as well.  

“I can tell you just for myself as a mental health professional that it was a bit taboo that you would just do virtual work and not have seen someone in person, where now we can reach so many more people, especially if you’re in more rural areas or don’t have the same accessibility,” Shuttleworth said.  “I think there’s a lot of beauty to that in terms of equity of care.” 

Cultural factors are also being studied more closely in healthcare disciplines, including health psychology. Shuttleworth said that it’s important to have a greater cultural awareness so that practitioners can make sure they are tailoring their treatment to each individual’s circumstances. 

Shuttleworth herself is currently studying a topic that has emerged on the mental health care scene in the last several years.  

“A cutting-edge project I’m working on right now that ties into health psychology is the incorporation of psychedelic-assisted therapies. That’s something that’s very new. I even noticed the other day that Netflix has a new series on it, and you’re seeing it more and more in peer-reviewed journals and the academic world. When I first started 25 years ago, that was very taboo. No one would talk about it because your whole reputation could be tarnished,” Shuttleworth said. “Now there are FDA studies being approved to look at these different benefits and we’re hearing some really promising results. I think there’s just so much that’s going to come out of that.”

Selecting the right health psychology program 

Choosing to enroll in a degree program of any kind can be overwhelming. The type of program you are pursuing—undergraduate, graduate and beyond—can also change how you approach your search. No matter what kind of health psychology degree you’re going for, here are a few starting points to kick off your search for a program that’s right for you: 

This is probably the first thing you’ll want to look at when searching for health psychology programs. You must determine how far you are willing to commute to a school or whether you are willing to relocate for a given program to know what your geographical limitations are when selecting a program. Online programs may be a good option for people who don’t have any health psychology programs near them.  
Any program you enroll in should be accredited by some accrediting body. Accreditation means that the program has been reviewed for certain quality standards set forth by the accrediting body. Accreditation is also important because it’s required to receive any federal funding. For doctoral degrees, doctoral internships and postdoc positions, they should be accredited by the APA
Curriculum and research opportunities:
Check out the program curriculum to get a feel for the classes they offer and the projects you may have to complete. Explore what research opportunities and/or internships are included in the program, especially for graduate-level degrees. Ask yourself whether these opportunities not only interest you but could help you progress in your career.  
Faculty and program reputation:
It’s worthwhile to take some time to research the reputation of the schools and programs you’re interested in. This may include finding out their graduation rate, reading up on the faculty and their qualifications or even speaking with alumni to find out if they would recommend the program to others.  
Getting a degree is expensive, but there are lots of resources available to help offset the cost. After you determine your overall budget for school, you can begin to calculate a program’s total cost by researching federal aid, scholarships and other opportunities that can help reduce the price tag. Graduate programs in particular often have assistantships available, paid teaching positions for graduate students that also reduce the cost of their program.

Tips for applying 

Transcripts from your prior education are a huge part of any college application, but even though having good grades are important, they are not the only thing that admissions panels look at. Besides, there isn’t much you can do about your grades after the fact, but you do have control over other components of the application like a statement of purpose, letters of recommendation and admissions interviews.  

Most undergraduate applications include one or several essay questions. These are usually more open-ended prompts that provide more room for creativity and expression. Graduate degree programs, on the other hand, typically require a more direct essay that is often called a statement of purpose.  This writing sample should clearly include why you are applying to their program, what you can bring to their program, the research questions you are interested in exploring and any prior academic or professional achievements that demonstrate your knowledge and commitment to the field.   

For most applications, you may be asked to submit two to three letters of recommendation with your application. These should come from trusted teachers, professors and professional colleagues that can speak to your work ethic and achievements. Applications usually specify who exactly should write your letters of recommendation, such as former college professors only. If you are unsure if someone would be a good fit, speak with them directly to ensure that they are willing to write you a strong recommendation letter.  

Admissions interviews are more common for graduate-level programs. They allow an admissions panel to get to know you beyond what your paper application alone can convey. Practice professionalism like you would for any job interview and do your research on the program. This shows the team that you are truly interested and it can give you the chance to prepare any lingering questions you may have as well. After all, an admissions interview is your opportunity to see if the program is the right fit for you, too.  

What’s next?

If the principles of health psychology excite and inspire you, now could be an excellent time to jumpstart a career in this growing field. As a health psychologist or similar professional, you could be a part of bridging the health care gap between mental and physical health care treatment. With degrees available at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels, the possibilities are practically limitless.

Resources and further reading 

To learn more about the field health psychology and its professional practice, be sure to check out the following resources:  

Published: November 14, 2023

kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

dr sylvie shuttleworth

With professional insight from:

Dr. Sylvie Shuttleworth, PhD 

Professor and Chair of Bastyr University’s Department of Counseling & Health Psychology