Psychology Degree Guide

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A psychology degree seeks a scientifically-driven understanding of the social, biological, cultural, and neurological factors that influence human behavior and interaction.

They include courses like sociology, childhood development, family structure, sexuality, and addiction. Offered at a variety of levels, psychology degrees provide graduates with a deeper understanding of human behavior and the mind.

A relatively modern field, psychology was founded when scientists first set up an experimental psychology lab in the late 19th century. Today, the umbrella of psychology covers many areas, including memory, learning, communication, and emotion. Psychology is popular among college students, with over one million learners taking introductory courses each year. If you're interested in psychology, this page provides the resources and information necessary to earn a psychology degree.

What Kinds of Psychology Degrees Are There?

Colleges and universities offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology. Each degree includes different requirements and offers varying levels of coursework. Each degree also has a unique purpose, like preparing students for further education or equipping them with skills for specific careers. Consider your own career and educational goals before deciding which degree to pursue.

Associate Degree in Psychology

Most associate degrees take two years to complete, covering many introductory and foundational courses in psychology. Most psychology careers require at least a bachelor's degree for entry-level positions, and thus students often use an associate degree as the first step before transferring to a four-year university.

That said, job seekers with this degree can pursue a few different career options. They could become a psychology technicians, psychiatric aides, or social and human services assistants.

Bachelor's Degree in Psychology

A four-year undergraduate degree prepares psychology majors for entry-level jobs in the field. A bachelor's degree in psychology can also be a stepping stone to a master's degree in psychology, which is usually a necessity to become a licensed counselor. However, about 57% of graduates go straight into the workforce, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Potential psychology jobs include case worker, child development specialist, career counselor, and market researcher.

A bachelor's degree includes general education courses, foundational psychology courses, and a few advanced courses. Sometimes students can also choose a concentration. Many degrees require a culminating experience before students can graduate, like a research project, capstone course, or comprehensive exams.

What's the Difference Between a BA and a BS in Psychology?

Generally speaking, a bachelor of arts (BA) degree requires more general education in the liberal arts, while a bachelor of science (BS) focuses more on the scientific and technical aspects of psychology. BA students may need to take foreign language or philosophy courses along with their psychology requirements, while BS students may take more research, lab, and biology courses.

Both BS and BA students can find jobs working in psychology. They can also both apply to graduate programs in psychology, though a BS student might be better qualified to pursue a career in psychology research.

Master's Degree in Psychology

This graduate degree usually lasts 2-3 years. Master's programs typically go beyond foundational courses, which students already completed in their undergraduate coursework. Instead, the curriculum focuses on psychological theory and therapy or counseling techniques. Students must also take practicum courses, where they can observe professionals in clinical settings and work under supervision.

In addition, some master's degrees focus on a specialization, like educational psychology. They can also concentrate on research to set the foundation for a doctorate. Aspiring counselors need state licensure in order to see patients, and most states require at least a master's degree for licensed counselors.

Doctoral Degree in Psychology

There are two types of doctoral degrees in psychology: a doctor of philosophy in psychology (Ph.D.) or a doctor of psychology (Psy.D.). Both degrees can last anywhere from 4-7 years.

Individuals who opt for a Ph.D. usually go the academic or research route, completing years of original research through a dissertation. Graduates might become faculty members at colleges or universities, or they could carry out psychological research for a private company or government organization.

In contrast, Psy.D. students focus more on clinical work. They often need to complete a year-long internship as part of the doctoral program, preparing them to become clinical psychologists.

What Can You Do With a Psychology Degree?

Psychology students usually choose a specialization based on their intended career path. They might work as clinical psychologists, substance abuse counselors, marriage and family therapists, mental health counselors, rehabilitation counselors, or school counselors. The list below delves deeper into these psychology jobs.

However, not all students choose to get licensure and work in clinical or counseling settings. A psychology degree can prepare for other careers, such as pursuing a double major in education and becoming a high school teacher. Graduates could also use their knowledge of human behavior to become marketing researchers or managers for businesses and other organizations. The criminal justice industry also often hires psychology graduates to work with incarcerated people or as forensic psychologists.

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychologists assess and treat patients with mental health issues. These professionals tend to work with more high-risk or specialized populations than counseling psychologists, and they may also work with more moderate to severe types of mental illness. Clinical psychologists usually need a doctoral degree to earn licensure.

Counseling Psychology

Like clinical psychologists, counselors guide people facing mental or behavioral health obstacles. These professionals tend to work with a broader population of clients. This could include people who aren't officially diagnosed with mental health disorders, but still live with stress or low self esteem. They may also specialize in marriage and family therapy, helping couples and families overcome internal problems. Licensed counselors usually need at least a master's degree.

School Psychology

Students pursuing school psychology become educational or school counselors. They work in elementary and middle schools, helping kids contend with mental health issues or difficult home lives. These professionals also might work as high school counselors, helping teens decide on a potential career or choose colleges. Most states require school counselors to hold a master's degree.

Rehabilitation Psychology

People with mental, behavioral, physical, and developmental disabilities often need extra support to adjust to independent living. Rehabilitation counselors take on this role, providing counseling services, treatment plans, and other resources for their clients. Rehabilitation counselors typically need a master's degree, and they work at community centers, vocational rehabilitation services organizations, state government departments, and private practice.

What Kind of Salary Can I Earn With a Psychology Degree?

Psychology salary rates can vary significantly, depending on factors like location and specialization. Psychologists earn the highest rates, as shown below. Rehabilitation counselors, marriage and family therapists, school counselors, and mental health counselors bring in median annual earnings ranging from about $36,000-$57,000.

Position Median Salary Job Growth
(2018-2028)
Psychologists $80,370 14%
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $46,240 22%
Marriage and Family Therapists $49,610 22%
School Counselors $57,040 8%
Rehabilitation Counselors $35,950 10%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Psychology Professional Organizations

American Psychology Association

With over 121,000 members, the APA is one of the most prominent groups for psychologists and other psychology workers. Students and experienced professionals alike can access resources through APA, including education materials and career guides. Members can also access academic publications and databases.

International Council of Psychologists

This group connects professional psychologists from all over the world. It offers a discounted rate for students, who can access members-only publications and subscribe to the group's newsletter. Aspiring psychologists can also attend council conferences in countries like Mexico and Japan.

American Counseling Association

Founded in 1952, this nonprofit professional organization represents counselors in various specializations. Student members can search for jobs through the career portal, read about licensure requirements through the knowledge center, and keep up with the industry through journals and a newsletter. ACA also hosts an annual conference, where students can network and learn more about the profession.

Accreditation for Psychology Programs

When researching potential psychology degrees, make sure to look for accredited programs. Accreditation agencies evaluate colleges and academic programs to make sure they offer students a quality education. On top of that, state boards require counseling and psychology candidates to have accredited degrees in order to obtain licensure. Employers look for job applicants who studied at accredited programs as well.

It's best to choose a program that has two types of accreditation: regional and programmatic accreditation. Regional accreditation agencies, like the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, evaluate entire schools. Programmatic accreditation focuses on programs within a specific subject area; for psychology, this includes accreditation from the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council. The APA accredits psychology doctorates.

For more information, read about the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and visit this in-depth accreditation guide.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Do People Study Psychology?

Many students opt for a psychology degree because they want to learn how human minds work. Some graduates choose to become psychologists and help patients, while others prefer to carry out research.

What Does a Psychologist Do?

A counseling psychologist works with individuals, families, or groups, guiding them to better understand their cognitive processes and their behaviors. Other psychologists conduct research.

Is Psychology a Good Major?

For anyone who wants to become a professional psychologist or counselor, studying psychology is a necessary first step. It can also be a good second major or minor for people pursuing a different career where understanding psychology is a benefit, like executive leadership or marketing.

What Degrees Can You Get in Psychology?

You can earn a psychology degree at every academic level: associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral. You can also specialize in one specific area, like clinical psychology or child development.

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