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Master’s in Psychology: Degree Requirements and Career Guide
For those with a passion for understanding human behavior and helping others overcome challenges, earning a master’s degree in psychology is an ideal step for entering the field. It opens up the possibility for a wide variety of careers and can be a stepping stone for earning your doctorate later.
How do you pursue this degree and what can do once you graduate? Use the guide below to get answers to these questions and more.
What Is a Master’s Degree in Psychology?
A master’s degree in psychology prepares students with the principles and theories of human behavior, teaching them how to use these tools to elevate and create treatment plans for various issues that affect mental health. These degrees are 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.
Though they have many similarities, a master’s in psychology is different from the degrees for fields such as social work, human services, and other related areas. Each field has its own distinct focus and methodology. For example, students in social work will study how to help individuals in a more holistic way, identifying the services and treatments they need across various parts of their life. A psychology degree, on the other hand, teaches you how to act as one of those services by focusing specifically on the internalized mental and emotional health on your patients.
A degree in psychology is also different from a degree in psychiatry. Psychologists focus on the emotional and mental suffering of patients while providing behavioral intervention. Psychiatrists attend medical school and work to identify and monitor patient treatment plans using medication.
What’s the difference between a MA and MS?
Programs vary based on the institution you choose, but there are no major differences between a Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS) in Psychology. What you study across the field of psychology will be largely similar. The titles of these degrees are most often influenced by the emphasis of the other course requirements.
For instance, with an MA, you may focus more on analysis and research, while an MS might put more of an emphasis on behavioral sciences. You should choose which program you want based on how the overall curriculum aligns with your career goals.
Who should pursue this degree?
Master’s degrees in psychology are designed for students who have already earned their bachelor’s in the same or a related field. In most cases, students use the master’s program to meet the educational requirements prior to pursuing their doctoral degree.
Terminal vs. non-terminal degree programs
Terminal degrees refer to programs where that level of education is the highest you can complete. In non-terminal programs, it’s often expected by the school that you’ll go on to earn a higher degree. In the case of a master’s in psychology, choosing a non-terminal program means you should be dedicated to pursuing your doctorate.
The type of program you choose should both align with your career goals and the requirements of the state where you live. While there are plenty of jobs that allow you to work in psychology with a master’s, some states require a doctoral degree to gain your license in a certain concentration.
Academic Requirements Before Starting a Master’s in Psychology
To enter a master’s program in psychology, you’ll need to have completed the equivalent of a bachelor’s-level education with at least 120 course credits.
Is there a GPA requirement?
In general, most master’s programs require at least a 3.0 GPA for admission, with many requiring a minimum of 3.3.
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. That said, you should certainly have done previous coursework or training in areas such as psychological statistics or research methods.
Do you need to take the GRE?
For many programs, you’ll need to take the Graduate Records Exam (GRE), but this isn’t always the case. Some schools require alternate tests, while others don’t ask for scores at all.
The Master’s in Psychology Curriculum
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.
What core classes are involved?
Core classes will most likely fall under a variation of the following categories:
- Theoretical psychology: These courses cover the core tenants and disciplines of psychology and are designed especially for students who are entering the program without a bachelor’s degree in psych.
- Development psychology: In these classes, you’ll study social, abnormal, and organizational psychology to learn to identify and evaluate treatment plans.
- 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.
- Statistics and research: In these classes, you’ll learn how to design and conduct both quantitative and qualitative research and evaluate the findings.
- 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.
Number of course 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.
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 specializations include:
- Clinical psychology: In settings such as a mental health facility or private practice, work to evaluate, diagnose, and create treatment plans for patients with mental or behavioral disorders, addiction issues, relationship problems, or disease.
- Educational psychology: Research why and how students learn and what keeps them motivated in order to better support them through the development of curriculum and technology.
- Forensic psychology: Examine defendants and witnesses involved in criminal cases, report findings to judges and lawyers, and testify as an expert in court.
- Organizational psychology: Work with companies to conduct screenings, training sessions, and performance assessments in order to implement policies and procedures that help employees best work toward company goals.
- School psychology: Collaborate with students, teachers, and parents to address issues such as learning styles, social interactions, and family problems that can impact the level of education a student receives.
- Sports psychology: Work with athletes and coaches to examine factors like self-perception and motivation to help them maintain optimal mental health, performance, and condition.
Is Fieldwork or a Practicum Required?
Most master’s programs require both fieldwork and residencies for anywhere from 100–600 hours, though the length of these will vary by school. Through fieldwork, you put the knowledge you’ve learned to use out in a real-world setting. Serving as an intern, you work directly with patients under the supervision of licensed psychologists.
Many schools will also require you to complete at least 2 residencies. This involves participating in mock counseling sessions to demonstrate your abilities. This is typically done before any fieldwork begins with actual clients.
Can I Choose an Instruction Method That’s Best for Me?
Yes, you can study psychology online, in a classroom or in a hybrid program that combines the best of both worlds. Accelerated program are also available, however, a master’s in psychology will still require practical, in-person experience regardless of the instruction format you choose.
You can find master’s degrees that are entirely online. 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.
You may be able to find an online program that lets you move at your own pace, meaning you might be able to earn your degree more quickly.
Students who want a more traditional college experience can find plenty of programs that allow them to take all of their classes on campus. You might still be able to have flexibility if the school offers courses at night or on the weekends.
An increasingly popular option for degrees of all levels is the hybrid program. This blends a mix of online and on-campus courses. You may take most of your classes online and go to campus just 1 or 2 times a week. As with entirely online courses, you might be able to accelerate your degree if classes can be taken as your own pace.
If you’re planning to earn your master’s but haven’t yet gotten your bachelor’s, a dual degree can let you work on these simultaneously. You’ll first focus solely on your bachelor’s education and then begin work on your master’s once you’ve earned a certain number of credits. You can then finish your bachelor’s and complete the master’s you’ve already started, allowing you to shorten the timespan by 6 months to a year.
How to Pick a Degree Program
When researching schools, consider what aspects of the program are most important to you. These might include cost, admission requirements, curriculum, and flexibility. Ask yourself questions such as:
- Does this program offer classes in the concentration I’m interested in?
- Does the school offer part-time or online programs?
- What kind of fieldwork or research will I be required to do?
- Does the school offer job placement services?
- What type of financial aid is available?
It’s also important to remember that any school you choose should be accredited. This 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.
Careers with a Master’s in Psychology
There are many jobs you can consider with a master’s in psychology. The degree is incredibly versatile and can take you down a variety of career paths.
Human resources manager
HR managers can be found in nearly every industry. These positions coordinate administrative functions within an organization, oversee recruiting and hiring, handle issues that arise among staff members, and act as a link between employees and management.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), HR managers earn an average annual salary of $123,510.
Many jobs will require related work experience to take on a managerial role.
Marriage and family therapist
These therapists work with couples and families to identity, address, and overcome problems facing their relationships.
The BLS reports the average salary to be $53,860 per year.
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.
Mental health counselor
Mental health counselors work with individual groups to promote the best possible mental and emotional wellness. They might deal with issues involving family or marital troubles, behavioral disorders, stress and anxiety, substance abuse, personality disorders, and more.
According to the BLS, the average salary for a mental health counselor is $46,050 per year.
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.
Social and community service manager
These roles coordinate and supervise social service programs for nonprofit organizations or government agencies, while overseeing the workers who provide these services to the public.
The BLS reports the average annual salary to be $70,530.
Many roles will require that you’ve completed a set number of supervised hours of fieldwork.
Social workers help their clients cope with aspects across various parts of their lives by helping to identify the services they need. These may include things such as therapy, rehabilitation, home healthcare, financial assistance, foster care, and more.
According to the BLS, social workers of all kinds earn an average annual salary of $60,900. Those with particular concentrations, such as child social workers or healthcare social workers, may make more or less.
You’ll likely need to have at least 2 years of post-master’s experience in a supervised setting. Each state has its own requirements for licensing social workers of various kinds, however clinical social workers will always need to hold a license. You can find more information through the Association of Social Work Boards.
Typical Degree & Career Paths
Though most psychology professionals pursue advanced education, the usual path begins with a 4-year bachelor’s degree. Starting with a 2-year associate’s degree can also save you time and money if you transfer those credits into a bachelor’s program.
Following completion of your studies at the bachelor’s level, you can then begin your master’s. Some schools may even offer dual degrees that let you work on your master’s at the same time as your bachelor’s. A master’s program typically takes 2–4 years to complete, though this can be shorter with a dual degree.
If you’re planning to pursue a doctorate, you may be able to find a school that’s 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.
No matter the path you take, continuing on to earn your doctorate might be required to gain a license for your chosen career. 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 jobs.
Financial Aid for Psychology Students
There are several different types of financial aid available for students seeking a master’s degree. The first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student (FAFSA), which determines how much assistance the U.S. government thinks you’re qualified to receive. Only students at accredited schools are eligible to receive federal aid. This aid can come in the form of loans, grants, or work-study stipends. You can also apply for private loans through banks and other institutions.
You may also qualify to receive scholarships based on academic merit or other criteria. You can find scholarships that are open to all types of students, as well as ones designed for particular people based on things such as ethnicity, background, military service, and more.
Fellowships are also a great way to fund your education. Given to full-time graduate students, these financial awards may be short- or long-term and often come with additional stipends and benefits. Teaching or research assistant positions are also an option, allowing you to earn income while getting education that supports your degree.
Does Psychology Qualify for Student Loan Forgiveness?
There’s a variety of forgiveness programs that can help you lower or erase some or all of your loans, though you must meet certain criteria. Through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, it’s possible to relieve direct loans if you’ve secured full-time employment at a government or nonprofit agency. Many states also have their own loan forgiveness programs with their own unique requirements.
Professional Organizations for Psychology
Becoming a member of a professional organization can provide great opportunities to network, gain new education, and obtain special certification. Some prominent groups include:
- The American Psychological Association (APA): As the largest organization of psychologists in America, the APA provides professional development opportunities, publishes educational magazines and journals, and offers chances to attend conferences and other events.
- The Association for Psychological Science (APS): The APS fosters the advancement of scientific psychology across multiple disciplines and geographic borders. They advocate for the increased use of psychological science in public policy and provide members with the latest research through journals and conventions.
- Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP): The SPSP strives to advance the science, teaching, and application of psychology behind the way we think, feel, and behave toward others and as a whole. They offer awards, grant, and opportunities to study, teach, and work.