Which Psychology Graduate Degree Is Right for You?

psychology grad student considering her masters degree options

There are many options for earning a graduate degree in psychology but choosing the right one ultimately depends on your goals. The graduate degree you complete not only determines the area of psychology in which you work, but your eligibility to be licensed and the amount of responsibility you can assume.

It can sometimes be confusing to distinguish the pros and cons of each degree, but deciding what you want to study and how you want to use that knowledge can help you find the degree that’s worth your investment. Whether you want to become a licensed psychologist, family therapist, or work in another specialty, our guide to exploring the different graduate psychology degrees available—and which career opportunities they can lead to—can help you navigate through the process.

Master’s Degrees in Psychology

A master’s degree in psychology is the first level of graduate study in the field. The degree is a key credential for entry-level positions that allow you to make meaningful contributions in nonclinical areas. It can also help you expand on your general psychology knowledge to prepare you for a doctoral degree.

Most master’s degrees in psychology require roughly two years to complete. Since much of the coursework involves the study of principles and theory, many of these master’s programs offer classes online. This option can be especially convenient if you’re juggling other obligations such as work or family.

Master of Arts vs. Master of Science

Depending on your school, you can choose to pursue either a Master of Arts (MA) or a Master of Science (MS) in Psychology. Some schools offer one of these programs, while others offer both.  

Traditionally, an MA emphasizes a liberal arts approach, while an MS aligns its studies with the sciences and research. In most cases, however, there’s very little difference in the education you’ll receive, though curriculum varies across programs.

No matter which degree you choose, you should graduate with a solid understanding of the principles and theories of human behavior and development. Some programs have requirements for supervised clinical practice, while most require the completion of a capstone project.

Jobs for a master’s degree in psychology

Except in the case of school psychology, which requires only a master’s for licensing in most states, a doctoral degree is needed to work independently as a psychologist. However, there are many other paths you could take with a master’s degree, and they all depend on your specialization, career goals, and state licensing requirements.

With an MA or MS in:

You could qualify to work as a:

Family and child therapist

Psychological associate, clinical associate, substance abuse counselor

Correctional counselor, police consultant, victim advocate, trial and jury consultant

HR administrator, business consultant

School psychologist

Rehabilitation counselor, performance enhancement specialist, instructional sports counselor

Specialist Degrees in Psychology

A specialist degree is an educational option between a master’s and a doctorate. Within this field, a specialist degree is typically geared toward a concentration in school psychology. It qualifies you to work with children, parents, teachers, and administrators to establish environments that enable student learning and support those who teach.  

A typical specialist degree requires two years of academic study plus a one-year internship. It requires more coursework than a master’s degree but doesn’t include a doctoral dissertation or thesis. Though a master’s degree is the minimum requirement for licensing in most states, there are currently 13 states that require school psychologists to have a specialist degree. Even if your state doesn’t, earning this degree could open you up to more leadership positions and potentially higher pay.

Educational Specialist vs. Psychology Specialist

There are two primary degrees at the specialist level—the Educational Specialist (EdS) and the Psychology Specialist (PsyS). Both degrees prepare you for the same types of roles, though from a slightly different perspective.

An EdS degree is considered an education degree. You’ll typically find an EdS offered in the education departments of colleges and universities and, as such, many students have teaching backgrounds and experience.

A PsyS degree is typically offered in the psychology department of colleges and universities. With its origin in the field of psychology, students who have education experience may have worked as school counselors rather than teachers.

With both types of specialist degrees, you can tailor your curriculum to include:

  • General psychology principles
  • Best practices for learning
  • School organizational studies
  • Assessment techniques
  • Methodology and research
  • Practicum and internship requirements

Jobs for a specialist degree in psychology

A specialist degree can help you meet the qualifications for licensing as a school psychologist, but it can also help you reach many other professional goals. Some common career paths include:

  • School principal
  • School district superintendent
  • Business educator
  • Curriculum specialist
  • Postsecondary instructor
  • Education administrator

Doctoral Degrees in Psychology

A doctoral degree is the highest level of education in the field of psychology. These degrees make you eligible to work without supervision and with the legal title of psychologist.

Depending on the degree you choose, earning a doctorate in psychology could take anywhere from 4 to 8 years. Research, publication or presentation, and/or a dissertation is usually required. In addition, most doctoral programs require a full-time internship of about 1,500 hours.

Doctor of Philosophy vs. Doctor of Psychology

Most psychology doctoral students pursue one of two degrees—the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. While both programs should meet your state’s educational requirements for licensing, there are differences in the approaches of these degrees.

According to the American Psychological Association, “PhDs are intended for students interested in generating new knowledge through scientific research and/or gaining teaching experience.” The curriculum puts a focus on critical thinking, methodology design, and analytical techniques. Graduates more often pursue roles in research and academia.

On the other hand, “the focus of a PsyD program is to train students to engage in careers that apply scientific knowledge of psychology and deliver empirically based service.” The curriculum emphasizes using current knowledge to assess, diagnose, and improve the lives of individuals, families, and groups.

Beyond the focus of each degree, there are other differences to consider such as admission rates, program length, and potential financial aid.

PhD

Average acceptance rate: 10–15%

Program length: Usually 5–8 years

Funding: Most schools offer at least partial tuition remission to students who assist with research and teaching

PsyD

Average acceptance rate: 40%

Program length: Usually 4–6 years

Funding: Tuition remission isn’t common, but stipends for assistantships are possible

Doctor of Education

While the PhD and PsyD are undoubtedly more popular, you might opt to pursue a Doctor of Education (EdD) depending on your goals. Psychologists with this degree usually go into the fields of school or educational psychology. The former work directly with students, teachers, and administrators to address issues that affect the learning environment, while educational psychologists study how people learn in order to create better teaching materials and techniques. They more frequently work outside the school and classroom setting, instead using their skills within state-level education departments, government research institutions, or educational testing companies.

Which doctoral degree is right for you?

With personal factors such as how much you can afford and the amount of time you’re willing to invest, only you can decide which doctoral degree is right for you. That said, while these degrees can prepare you for many of the same types of roles, one degree might give you an advantage over another if you have a certain goal for your career.

If your career goal is:

You might prefer a:

Licensed independent practitioner

PsyD or PhD

Researcher

PhD

Psychology professor

PhD

Industrial-organizational psychologist

PsyD or PhD

Professional mediator

PsyD

School or educational psychologist

PsyD or EdD

Administrative roles in education, healthcare, or government

PhD

What’s Next?

Deciding upon your long-term goals is a key step toward determining which graduate degree is right for you. If you’re ready to start your search, compare programs that can help you reach those goals by clicking the button below.

FIND A SCHOOL TODAY

Tell us a little about yourself and we’ll connect you with schools that offer psychology degree programs.