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Specialist-level psychology degrees

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When you think about the types of college degrees out there, the big four probably come to mind: associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. What you may not know is that there’s a fifth tier between master’s and doctoral degrees which are called specialist-level degrees. These degrees are less common but are mostly found in the fields of education and psychology. Many specialist-level degrees are designed for prospective school psychologists.

“Usually there’s just some kind of institutional policy for what they’re going to name their degree. A specialist-level degree is defined by the credit hours and the internship experience, and the hours of that internship experience, rather than the name of the degree,” said Eric Rossen, the director of professional standards for the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). “This is why we’re not calling it a specialist degree, we call it a specialist-level degree.”

In This Article

At a glance

Degree Type:



Online, classroom and hybrid


About 3 years

Total Credits:

At least 60 semester credit hours (90 quarter hours)

Aid Eligible:

Yes, for accredited programs

Examples of specialist-level psych degrees

Specialist-level degrees can go by several different names, including:

  • EdS (Education Specialist)
  • PsyS (Specialist in Psychology)
  • CAS (Certificate of Advanced Study)
  • CAGS (Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study)
  • MA (Master of Arts)
  • MS (Master of Science)

You read that right—schools may call a specialist-level program a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS), which makes it seem like they are master’s degrees. You should be able to tell the difference by checking their credit hours. Master’s degrees are less than 60 graduate semester hours, while specialist-level degrees in school psychology are a minimum of 60 graduate semester hours.

Specialist-level degrees are intended for professionals who want to advance their credentials past a master’s degree but perhaps don’t want to invest the time and money it takes to complete a doctorate. Specialist-level degrees for school psychology are typically completed in about three years, whereas doctoral degrees typically take four to six years of full-time study.

Furthermore, specialist-level degrees may be more appropriate for people who want to apply their knowledge in K-12 settings. Doctorates, on the other hand, are more often intended for professionals who wish to teach in academia, conduct research or qualify for advanced, senior-level positions.


For prospective school psychologists, a specialist-level degree may be necessary to even enter the field.

“This specialist-level degree is considered the entry-level degree for school psychology,” Rossen said. In the majority of the country, a master’s degree does not qualify you to be a school psychologist. “There are of course exceptions, and states have some different pathways that occasionally divert away from an agreed upon national standard.”

How to choose your degree

If you know you want to pursue a specialist-level degree, you may be wondering which one is right for you. The answer is simpler than you may realize: the difference between these is in name only, which is why you should compare and contrast individual programs rather than try to narrow them down by their name. These names do not indicate anything about a program other than the fact that it is a post-graduate, specialist-level degree.

“Usually if you look at their curriculum and syllabi, there’s really no difference there either,” Rossen said.

Instead, start by researching your state’s licensing requirements may help determine what type of degree you need. For example, some states require that you graduate from a NASP approved or accredited program, and/or the program must qualify you for NASP’s national certification. Many programs explicitly state on their website that completion of their program makes you eligible for national certification through NASP.  

From there, research the individual program outcomes, curriculum, faculty interests and internship experiences and more to see what each program can do for you and your career. NASP also collects and posts information and data from each program related to admissions and enrollment, financial support, focus on equity and diversity and student outcomes that can help in making informed decisions.

To make matters more confusing, some specialist-level psychology degrees may award you a formal master’s degree after completing part of the program (typically after year two in a three-year program). You would still end the program with your specialist-level degree (PsyS, CAS, etc.) but you’d have a master’s to show for it as well. If this appeals to you, consider programs that award dual degrees.

Academic requirements before starting a specialist-level degree

Keep in mind that the title of the specialist-level degrees offered by different institutions can vary and each school’s program can dictate their own unique admission requirements. That said, these are some common admission requirements for specialist-level psychology programs.

Minimum education levelMust have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some programs may require that you also have a master’s degree.
Transcripts and minimum GPAMost programs require you to submit transcripts of all your previous education and that your cumulative GPA be at least 3.0 on a four-point scale during your baccalaureate education (or master’s degree, if applicable).
Writing sampleMost specialist-level degree programs require applicants to submit one or more personal essays.
Standardized testsSome graduate schools may require that applicants submit scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
Letters of recommendationTypically two to three letters of recommendation from professors and/or professional supervisors are required.
Additional required materialsSome schools may require applicants to submit scores from an English language proficiency exam if they are a non-native English speaker.

What it takes to complete a specialist-level degree

Every program’s curriculum and graduation requirements may vary slightly, but there are a few similarities you may be able to count on when completing a specialist-level degree in psychology.

First, specialist-level degrees consist of a minimum of 60 graduate semester hours, but individual programs often require more. That translates to about three years of full-time study which includes an internship that often lasts one year, typically the third and final year.

Many programs also require practicum experience before the internship during the second year. It takes longer to complete a program if you are not a full-time student or if your particular program has a greater amount of credits.  

What you’ll study

For many three-year specialist-level programs, you take courses that build a scientific foundation for school psychology during the first year. Some of the core concepts you may learn during this time include the following:

Concept: Research and statistics

Example courses: Introduction to educational research; Statistics.
Learning outcome: Student understand the principles of psychological research and how to conduct statistically informed research themselves.

Concept: Human cognition and development

Example courses: Childhood and adolescent development; Development and foundations of early learning.
Learning outcome: Student understands how humans develop physically and psychologically from birth through adolescence, how humans begin to learn and how to create environments that are conducive to learning and healthy development.

Concept: Special populations and individual differences

Example courses: Child and adolescent psychopathology; Culturally responsive practice; Social, communication and developmental disabilities.
Learning outcome: Student can identify different disabilities or other individualized conditions that children and adolescents may have and understands how to serve these special populations in a school context.

Concept: Assessment

Example courses: Educational assessment and intervention; School psychology assessment; Social-emotional assessment.
Learning outcome: Student knows how to assess the educational and social-emotional needs of children and how to draw conclusions from these assessments.

Concept: Intervention

Example courses: Counseling theories in school psychology; Behavioral and therapeutic interventions; Collaborative problem-solving.
Learning outcome: Student understands how to apply the principles of psychology and counseling to improve outcomes for students and promote healthy development.

In the second year, you may take more advanced courses that build upon the knowledge gained during year one and/or you may complete your practicum. Practicums are usually less hands-on than internships and you are supervised more closely.

The third year for three-year programs is typically reserved for an internship out in the field, often working in public schools. You are still supervised during an internship, but you may have more autonomy and responsibilities during this time.

Are online options available? 

Some specialist-level degree programs may be available online. That being said, practicum and internship requirements must be conducted on-site and in-person, therefore, you likely cannot complete a specialist-level psychology program entirely online.

State requirements

The requirements to get licensed as a school psychologist–or any type of psychologist—vary by state.

NASP approves and accredits degree programs in school psychology and also offers national-level certification. To get licensed as a school psychologist, some states require graduation from a NASP approved or accredited program, but most do not. However, many states align their licensure requirements after NASP’s National Certified School Psychologist (NCSP) credential. To qualify for this credential, you must:

  • Graduate from a school psychology program that consists of at least 60 graduate semester/90 quarter hours. Also, at least 54 graduate semester/81 quarter hours must be credit that is not granted as part of a supervised internship experience.
  • Complete a supervised practicum experience prior to and exclusive of the internship requirement. This is built into most program curriculums.
  • Complete a 1,200-hour internship of which at least 600 hours must be in a school setting. This is built into most program curriculums.
  • Pass the Praxis Exam for School Psychologists.

Specialist vs. specialization—what’s the difference?

“Specialization” is a term used frequently in psychology, but this should not be confused with specialist-level degrees. Specialization means you study and work within a particular psychological domain, rather than being a generalist. School psychology is just one example of specialization. When someone says they are a specialist, that refers to their specialization—the kind of work they do—and not necessarily the type of degree they hold.

List of psychology specialties

The American Psychological Associatioin (APA) officially recognizes 17 specialties in the field of psychology. In addition, they recognize one subspecialty and three proficiencies.

The APA states that specialties are, “a defined area of psychological practice which requires advanced knowledge and skills acquired through an organized sequence of education and training” and consist of the following:

Subspecialties are, “a concentrated area of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that exists within at least one recognized specialty.” There is currently only one subspecialty, psychoanalysis, which was first recognized in 2022. 

Proficiencies, the APA says, are, “defined by a core of psychological knowledge and skills, and includes specific methods for how psychologists typically acquire its knowledge and skills.” The three psychological proficiencies recognized by the APA are addiction psychology, sport psychology, and biofeedback and applied psychophysiology.

Going beyond a specialist-level degree in psychology

Some people choose to advance their education even further and pursue a doctoral degree in psychology such as a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy), PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) or EdD (Doctor of Education). These degrees are often intended for people who want to teach in academia, focus on research or qualify for senior-level roles.

Doctoral degrees usually require at least 90 graduate semester hours and therefore can take anywhere between four and six years to complete. These programs also include an internship which is typically between 1200—1500 hours, but can go as high as 2000 hours.

Ready to get started?

If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you may be eligible for a specialist-level degree. This type of degree is considered the entry-level education for becoming a school psychologist, and can usually be completed in much less time and with less cost to you than a doctoral degree. If you want to find out more about specialist-level psychology programs, consult the National Association of School Psychologists to find out more about the academic options available to you.

kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

Reviewed by and with professional insight from:

Eric Rossen, PhD, NCSP

Director of Professional Standards, National Association of School Psychologists

Published: March 31, 2023