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Master’s in Psychology: Degree Requirements and Career Guide

male student working late at night on his masters in psychology thesis in an empty and quiet university library

Are you interested in exploring the human mind and understanding why people think, feel, and behave the way they do? If so, a master’s in psychology may be the perfect fit for you. This degree can open doors to a variety of career paths and allow you to specialize in areas such as clinical psychology, counseling psychology, or industrial psychology.

This article will guide you through the ins and outs of a master’s degree in psychology, including the academic requirements, what you can expect to study, and additional areas of specialization. We’ll also take a look at the various jobs available to people with this degree and discuss the pros and cons of further education.

In This Article

Whether you’re just starting your academic journey or you’re considering a career change, a master’s program in psychology is a great option for inquisitive minds and allows graduates to specialize in areas of psychology most interesting to them.

Overview of a master’s in psychology

At a glance

Degree Type:

Master of Arts or Master of Science

Location:

Online, classroom, and hybrid

Duration:

Typically 2 years

Total Credits:

Between 36 and 54

Pre-requisite:

Bachelor’s degree

Aid Eligible:

Yes, for accredited programs

What is a master’s in psychology?

A graduate degree in psychology is an advanced degree that provides students with a deeper understanding of the field, including research methodologies and statistical analysis techniques, as well as the theoretical underpinnings of psychology.

These degrees are a pre-requisite for certain jobs and are also a strong and necessary foundation for those looking to pursue their doctorate, which many states require if you want to hold a license in psychology. It can be earned through a variety of different programs, such as a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Arts (MA) in Psychology, and can take roughly 2 years to complete.

What’s the difference between a MA and MS in Psychology?

The MA vs MS in Psychology confusion is worsened by the fact that different schools often offer the same types of specializations in either arts or science. But there are some key differences you’ll often find between arts and science psychology master’s programs:

Master of Science (MS) in Psychology: Typically focuses on the scientific and research aspects of psychology. More math and research-oriented classes that emphasize statistics, data, and applying the scientific method of experimentation to psychological theory.

Master of Arts (MA) in Psychology: Typically focuses on the theoretical and applied aspects of psychology. More social and cultural-oriented courses, and emphasizes incorporating societal and cultural issues when approaching psychological problems.

Additionally, an MS program often requires students to complete a thesis or research project, whereas an MA program may require a final exam or capstone project. You should choose which program you want based on how the overall curriculum aligns with your career goals.

Terminal masters vs. non-terminal masters in psychology

A terminal master’s in psychology is a program that is designed to be the final degree in a student’s education. It is intended to prepare you for a specific career and prepare you to enter the workforce.

A non-terminal master’s in psychology, on the other hand, is a program that is intended to serve as a stepping stone to further education, typically a PhD or PsyD program. They tend to be more research focused and are meant to prepare students for research-heavy doctoral degrees in psychology.

Where can you work with a master’s in psychology?

With a psychology master’s degree, you can open up many opportunities for employment in a variety of settings such as mental health clinics, hospitals, schools, research institutions, business and industry, government agencies, and social service agencies. Certain settings may require additional certification or licensure, and each comes with its own demands and rewards.

How much can you make with a master’s in psychology?

Your master’s degree in psychology salary can vary widely depending on factors such as your location, the type of job you pursue, the employer in question, and your level of experience. According to the BLS, the pay for various jobs you can get with a master’s in psychology ranges from $40,000 to as high as $120,000 and above—with the bulk of jobs being in the $60,000 to $90,000 range.

Who are graduate degrees in psychology for?

A master’s degree in psychology is often a good choice for individuals who have completed an undergraduate in psychology or a related field, and wish to either expand their knowledge and skills in the field or are interested in meeting the educational requirements in pursuit of a doctoral degree.

This degree is best suited for individuals who want to work in positions such work as therapists, counselors, or case managers to apply psychological principles and help people with a wide range of social, behavioral, and emotional issues.

Is a graduate degree in psychology for you?

An MS and/or MA in psychology requires a significant amount of time, effort, and financial investment. It’s a good fit if you are interested in helping people in a more meaningful way by studying the mind and behavior, and want to pursue a career in therapy, research, or consulting. Additionally, it’s a great option if you’re considering more advanced education further down the road.

Weighing the pros and cons

Variety of specializations and career opportunities

Pro

A master’s degree in psychology allows students to explore different areas of the field and choose a specialization that aligns with their personal interests and career goals.

Con

Some students find the options overwhelming and difficult to choose one area to focus their education and training.

The ability to directly help people

Pro

Pursue careers in fields such as therapy, counseling, and social work and directly help people to improve their mental health and well-being.

Con

Not all careers involve direct helping, some are research heavy. Additionally, providing help on a daily basis can be emotionally taxing.

Higher earning potential than a lower-level degree

Pro

Many programs offer work-experience opportunities that subsequently allow you to enter the workforce with tangible skills and unlock higher-paying job opportunities and career paths.

Con

The earning potential of a master’s in psychology can vary due to many factors and some students find that their salary is not as high as they expected.

More flexible than a PhD

Pro

Does not require as much time and effort as a doctoral degree and it can be completed in less time through weekend, evening, and hybrid courses. Some schools offer dual-degree options to combine bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Con

Not all psychology master’s programs are equally flexible, some schools are more rigid than others. A doctoral -level offers more expertise and professional recognition.

Choosing a master’s program that’s right for you

Deciding on the most suitable master’s psychology program for you can be a challenging task, as there are many schools available with different specializations, formats, and requirements.

Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Do the program and the offered research topics align with my personal interests, career goals, and qualifications?
  • What formats are available and which format would be most convenient and feasible for me?
  • Do I meet the prerequisites for the program and am I prepared to meet the academic and practical requirements?
  • Does the school offer financial aid and/or scholarships and can I cover tuition and other associated expenses?
  • Do I have all the information about the program and about the opportunities and resources available to students?
  • Should I visit the campus and meet with students and faculty, and tour the facilities?
  • Does the school offer job placement services? What types of jobs do the graduates typically go into?

Note: Choosing an accredited graduate school ensures that your program meets quality standards and can properly prepare you to enter the workforce or pursue a doctoral degree. You can check accreditation through the U.S. Department of Education database.

Joining a professional organization within the field can be extremely beneficial as you work on earning your master’s. It can offer excellent opportunities to connect with others in the field and to earn from their experiences. Some prominent groups include:


Earning your master’s degree in psychology

Academic requirements for this degree

Minimum education level:

Undergraduate degree with at least 120 credits

Minimum GPA:

Typically 3.0 (some require 3.3)

Writing sample:

Personal statement of intent

Evidence of specific courses:

Some require specific prerequisites

Transcripts:

Undergraduate and/or graduate transcripts

Standardized tests:

Schools may require GRE or MAT

Letters of recommendation:

Many programs require it

Resume and work experience:

Some may require volunteer experience and/or a resume

Can you get in if your bachelor’s isn’t in psychology?:

This depends on the program, but there are many schools that allow you to pursue a master’s in psychology without a bachelor’s specifically in the field. Some schools offer “bridge” programs where students with non-psychology backgrounds can take foundational courses before applying to their master’s program.

What it takes to complete this degree

Do you need to take the GRE or MAT?

For many programs, you’ll need to take the Graduate Records Exam (GRE) or Miller Analogies Test (MAT) but this isn’t always the case. Some schools require alternate tests, while others don’t ask for scores at all.

Number of required credits

Master’s programs typically require between 36 and 54 credits. Some students, especially those who won’t be attending on a full-time basis, may evaluate schools on a cost-per-credit basis. Working on a dual bachelor’s/master’s degree may reduce your overall number of credits and therefore reduce cost.

How long does it take

A master’s degree program typically takes between 2 and 4 years to complete. If working on a dual bachelor’s/master’s degree, you’ll likely be able to complete both programs in less time than they would take separately.

Culminating experience project or paper

Many psychology graduate programs require students to complete a thesis, capstone project, or research paper. This experience is designed to demonstrate the student’s mastery of the material and the ability to apply it in a real-world setting.

Internships/practicums

Most psychology graduate programs require fieldwork and residencies for 100-600 hours, but this varies by school. Fieldwork is an opportunity to apply knowledge in a real-world setting as an intern under the supervision of licensed psychologists. Some programs also require 2 residencies, which involve mock counseling sessions to demonstrate abilities before working with actual clients.

What you’ll study in MA & MS psychology programs

If you’ve graduated with a bachelor’s in psychology, you’ll enter your master’s with foundational knowledge covering human behavior, personality, sociology, health, and more. You will then build upon and deepen these concepts, going further into topics like lifespan development, research methodology, and diversity.

Theoretical psychology

These courses cover the core tenants and disciplines of psychology and are designed especially for students who are entering the program without an undergraduate degree in psych.

Developmental psychology

In these classes, you’ll study how people change and grow throughout their lifespan, and how this knowledge can be applied in different fields such as education, parenting, and aging.

Ethics in psychology

These courses dive into the current ethical codes and how they impact both mental health and legal regulations. They also cover topics involved in the issues of diversity and cultural sensitivity.

✍ Research methods and statistics

In these classes, you’ll learn how to design and conduct both quantitative and qualitative research methods such as experimental, observational, and survey research—and evaluate the findings. You’ll also learn statistical techniques used to analyze data such as descriptive, inferential, and multivariate statistics.

Communication

These classes guide you through how best to communicate with different types of patients, patient populations, and the general public, both verbally and in writing.

✍ Cognitive psychology

These classes focus on how our minds process information, including how we perceive things, our attention, memory, problem-solving, and language capabilities. You’ll learn the different theories and methods used to understand the everyday behavior and mental processes of humans.

Can you specialize in an area of interest?

Yes. There are concentrations available in a wide variety of subjects, some that are more versatile and some that are more specific. These concentrations are often studied through a mix of classroom work, fieldwork, and research.

Popular psychology concentrations include:

  • Child psychology: Students learn about factors that influence the cognitive, emotional, and social development of children.
  • Clinical psychology: Focuses on the diagnosis, assessment, and treatment of mental disorders and emotional problems.
  • Consumer psychology: You’ll learn about consumers, their motivations, and how they make decisions. As well as how external factors such as advertising, packaging, and branding influence consumers.
  • Counseling psychology: Focuses on helping individuals, families, and groups deal with everyday issues and problems.
  • Educational psychology: Focuses on how students learn and how to improve educational experiences and outcomes.
  • Engineering psychology: Focuses on the application of psychological principles to the design and evaluation of technology, products, and systems. Examines how we interact with technology and how it affects us, such as the psychology of social media.
  • Forensic psychology: Focuses on the application of psychological principles to legal issues including criminal and civil trials, child custody, and corrections.
  • Military psychology: Explores the application of psychology to military personnel, veterans, and their families.
  • Organizational psychology: Focuses on the application of psychological principles to the workplace, covering topics such as motivation, leadership, and team dynamics.
  • Research psychology: This specialization focuses on the conduct and interpretation of psychological research.
  • School psychology: Focuses on the design and implementation of programs to promote student well-being and success. School psychologists work closely with parents and educators to promote and achieve the academic success of students.
  • Social psychology: This specialization focuses on how individuals interact and influence each other.
  • Sports/exercise psychology: Focuses on the psychology of physical activity, covering topics such as motivation, anxiety, and the effects of stress on performance in sports.

Are online options available?

You can find master’s degrees that are entirely online, but read these FAQs about online graduate psychology degrees first. These cover the same curriculum as on-site programs and offer flexibility to those who are working or taking care of children. Keep in mind, however, that online programs still require hands-on experience in the form of lab work or internships.

Meeting state requirements

A graduate school for psychology can prepare you for various certifications and licenses, depending on the program and state requirements. However, it is important to note that these requirements for psychology, counseling, and social work vary by state and program.

A master’s doesn’t automatically lead to licensure as a psychologist, which typically requires a PsyD or PhD. Start by reviewing our guide on state licensing requirements and explore the rules in place for your state.


What can you do with a master’s in psychology?

A master’s in psychology can lead to job opportunities in both psychology and adjacent fields such as clinical and school counseling, human resources, and social services. It’s an incredibly versatile degree and can take you down a variety of career paths, including:

Genetic counselor

Salary

The median annual salary for genetic counselors is $80,150, according to the BLS’ most recent data. With the top earners making a median of $121,070 and the projected job growth for the profession is 18.2%

Other requirements

Certification by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) and a state-specific license.

Source: BLS

Human resources manager

Salary

The median annual salary for human resources managers is $126,230, as recorded by the BLS’ most recent data. With the highest earners making a median of $163,360 and the forecasted job growth for the profession is 7.3%

Other requirements

Many jobs will require related work experience to take on a managerial role.

Source: BLS

Marriage and family therapist

Salary

The median annual salary is $49,880, as reported by to the BLS. With the highest earners making a median of $96,520 and the forecasted job growth for this career is 13.9%

Other requirements

You must have undergone a period of supervised clinical practice and hold a state-issued license. Requirements vary by state but will include passing a national exam.

Source: BLS

Mental health counselor

Salary

According to BLS data, the median annual salary for mental health counselors is $48,520. With the top earners making a median of $77,980 and the projected job growth for this career is 22.1%

Other requirements

You’ll likely be required to complete supervised clinical hours before you can begin practicing on your own. You’ll then need to become certified through the National Board for Certified Counselors. Your state may also require its own certification.

Source: BLS

Rehabilitation counselors

Salary

The median annual salary is $38,560, according to the BLS’ most recent data. With the top bracket making a median of $65,880 and the forecasted job growth for the profession is 10.5%

Other requirements

A state-issued license, and supervised professional experience.

Source: BLS

School and career counselors

Salary

The median annual salary for educational and career counselors is $60,510, according to the BLS’ most recent data. With the highest earners making a median of $98,190 and the projected job growth for the profession is 9.6%

Other requirements

State certification and supervised professional experience.

Source: BLS

Social and community service manager

Salary

The median annual salary is $74,000, according to the BLS’ most recent data. With the highest earners making a median of $118,650 and the projected job growth for the profession is 11.7%

Other requirements

Many roles will require that you’ve completed a set number of supervised hours of fieldwork.

Source: BLS

Substance abuse counselor

Salary

The median annual salary for substance abuse counselors is $48,520, according to the BLS’ most recent data. With the highest earners making a median of $77,980 and the projected job growth for the profession is 22.1%

Other requirements

State certification and supervised professional experience.

Source: BLS


Going beyond a master’s level in psychology

Though most psychology professionals pursue advanced education, the usual path begins with a 4-year bachelor’s degree in psychology. Starting with a 2-year psychology associate’s degree can also save you time and money if you transfer those credits into a 4-year program.

Related master-level degrees

Master-level degrees in fields adjacent to psychology include:

🎓 Master’s in counseling psychology

Learn about the theory and practice of counseling, through a master’s in counseling psychology. Covering topics such as assessment, diagnosis, treatment planning, and ethical and legal issues in counseling.

🎓 Master’s in human services

Acquire the management, research, and written communication skills necessary to effectively address the needs of communities with a master’s in human services.

🎓 Master of social work (MSW)

Centered on social and economic justice, an MSW degree offers advanced knowledge and skills in areas such as social welfare policy, human behavior, and the social environment.

Some schools may even offer dual degrees that let you work on your master’s at the same time as your undergraduate. But what to do after getting a master’s in psychology?

Degrees above the master’s of psychology

Specialist/Graduate Certificates

The most popular types are PsyS in School Psychology and EdS in School Psychology degrees. Some programs offer the option to combine such specialist degrees and certifications with a master’s degree.

Doctoral

If you’re planning to pursue a doctorate, you may be able to find a school that lets you enter a PhD, PsyD, or EdD program with just your bachelor’s if you’ve met the prerequisites. By skipping over your master’s, you can save yourself years of time and money.

Depending on your concentration and degree type, this may take anywhere from 4–8 years to complete. While this could mean spending more than a decade of time in school, those who hold these degrees have the potential to find the highest-level, highest-paying psychology jobs.

Can you apply master’s degree credits toward doctoral degrees?

Depending on the specific program and institution, students may be able to transfer relevant coursework up to a certain number of credits from their master’s degree program.

Related: PhD vs. PsyD in Psychology: What’s the Difference?


Ready to get started?

Are you ready to earn a degree that can open doors to a variety of rewarding and fulfilling career opportunities? With the right education and experience, you can help people of all ages and backgrounds to overcome their challenges and improve their mental health and well-being.

Get started by utilizing our find programs widget to search our database for psychology master’s programs near you.

Updated on: January 25th, 2023