Psychology Degree Guide
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A psychology degree can provide you with a variety of career choices and professional opportunities.
Since 1970, psychology degrees have been a popular choice. The discipline provides graduates with useful skills and prepares them for in-demand careers. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the workforce will add nearly 350,000 community and social service occupations between 2019 and 2029.
With such a wide-ranging field, the choices can be overwhelming. To help you narrow it down, this guide covers psychology degree types, program options, and popular career pathways.
What Kinds of Psychology Degrees Are There?
Each psychology degree level offers unique career options. Associate programs can lead to entry-level careers; bachelor's programs can launch graduates into social service occupations; and psychology graduate programs can lead to clinical, counseling, research, and academic opportunities.
Associate Degree in Psychology
An associate psychology degree covers psychology foundations, historical developments, core concepts, theoretical knowledge, and practical applications. These programs typically take two years, but some online associate degrees in psychology offer accelerated options.
Associate degree graduates can pursue entry-level careers in social services, such as human service assistant. Graduates can also channel psychology knowledge into another field or industry, such as criminal justice or education. Finally, associate degrees allow graduates to continue on to a bachelor's degree in psychology or social work.
Bachelor's Degree in Psychology
Bachelor's psychology degrees provide more comprehensive training than associate degrees.
A bachelor's in psychology may divide the training into upper- and lower-level studies. Lower-level courses offer general overviews of the major psychology subdisciplines, such as cognitive and behavioral psychology. Meanwhile, upper-level courses delve into advanced topics like social, developmental, and forensic psychology.
Programs typically run for four years, though some online bachelor's in psychology programs offer reduced study times. Learners often specialize at this level, giving them greater control of their eventual careers. They can choose pathways like substance abuse counseling or probation specialist, for example.
What Is the Difference Between a BA and a BS in Psychology?
Both types of bachelor's degrees in psychology lead to good careers, but students should keep their goals in mind when choosing between them. Usually, these programs offer different electives, with the BA focusing on humanities and the BS being mostly science-based.
BS degrees tend to focus more on the field's clinical side, while BA degrees emphasize interdisciplinary training. Though some clinical graduate programs may prefer candidates with BS degrees, the American Psychological Association reports that most schools accept all psychology graduates.
Master's Degree in Psychology
Psychology degrees at the master's level provide advanced theoretical training and practical application. These graduate degrees take two years and often focus on research, analysis, and clinical preparation. Specializations allow learners to pursue subdisciplines like behavioral psychology, child psychology, and forensic psychology.
A master's in psychology can lead to many clinical careers. Career options may include counseling careers and certain psychologist roles. Graduates may also continue their studies with a doctoral degree.
Doctoral Degree in Psychology
Psychology degrees at the doctoral level provide the most advanced training available in the field. They cover advanced research, quantitative methods, and analytical techniques. While many psychology doctorates allow students to create their own study plans based on their research interests and career goals, specializations like behavioral psychology and educational psychology may also be available.
Students also choose between Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs. Both degrees can lead to the same careers, but their curricula differ. Psychology doctorates typically run between 4-7 years, and careers include postsecondary teacher, licensed counselor, and psychologist.
What Is the Difference Between a Ph.D. and a Psy.D?
Psychology offers two doctoral degrees: a Ph.D. and a Psy.D. A Ph.D. focuses on research and statistics, leading to careers in advanced clinical and teaching positions. Psy.D. programs emphasize psychological services, most often leading to licensed psychologist positions.
Students usually complete the Psy.D. in 3-4 years, while a Ph.D. usually takes 5-7 years.
Browse the Best Psychology Programs
Differentiating between degree levels, types, and specializations can be challenging. Moreover, each school offers its own focus, leading to advantages and disadvantages.
To help you find the best options, the following links include the top psychology programs. You will find rankings of the programs at each education level and learn what makes them special.
Popular Psychology Fields
Psychology has plenty of subdisciplines with different professional approaches and requirements. Specializing in one of these fields can lead to better learning experiences and career opportunities. Some tracks have more in-demand career options, such as marriage and family therapist or substance abuse counselor. Others, like psychologist, provide more financial stability.
Before specializing, students should understand their career options to avoid limiting themselves. For example, prospective students should research differences between psychiatrists and therapists and between psychologists and psychiatrists.
Check out the following links for information about the most popular psychology fields.
Paying for a Psychology Degree
Paying for a psychology degree can be difficult. Most students start by filling out a FAFSA, which can lead to federal and state financial aid. They can also pursue scholarships from states, schools, and organizations. Finally, students can work while studying or apply for student loans from federal sources, banks, and private lenders.
Students can also keep costs down. They can pursue online degrees to minimize travel and room and board costs, or they can buy used books. Learners can also attend in-state programs that offer reduced tuition for residents, or they can start at a community college, where the per-credit rates are lower.
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What Kind of Accreditation Should My Psychology Program Have?
Accreditation validates a school and qualifies graduates for employment and licensure. Regional accreditation is the standard for institutions, ensuring they meet the educational and service standards of their specific region.
Programmatic accreditation covers discipline-specific curriculum and instruction. In psychology, the American Psychological Association (APA) provides accreditation for psychology doctoral programs. You can learn more about regional and programmatic requirements in our accreditation guide.
What Kind of Licensing or Certification Do You Need?
To practice in a regulated field like psychology, professionals usually need board certification or licensure. Licensing is done at the state level and usually requires the appropriate degree, supervised clinical experience, and a passing score on the board certification or state licensing exam.
Requirements vary, but most counselors need a master's degree. However, some counselors can qualify for board certification with a bachelor's degree. Substance abuse counselors typically need both board certification and licensure, while school counselors may only need one, depending on the state. Psychologists usually need a doctoral degree and state licensure to practice, but industrial-organizational psychologists typically need only a master's degree and licensure.
Each state has its own licensing requirements, but some states offer reciprocity agreements that allow professionals to practice in other states. For experienced professionals, the American Board of Professional Psychology also offers board certifications for specializations. Both certifications and licenses expire every 2-5 years and must be maintained through continuing education credits.
What Can You Do With a Psychology Degree?
Psychology degrees provide students with skills they can apply to many fields, including community services and human relations. Students can also influence their career paths by specializing or gaining professional experience. This next section examines popular psychology degree jobs.
Popular Psychology Career Paths
Counseling is the main avenue for psychology majors. Many graduates become therapists or counselors, which typically requires a graduate degree, supervised clinical hours, and a certification or licensing examination.
Professional counseling options include school counseling, family counseling, and mental health counseling. Learners can also specialize in related fields like psychotherapy, neuroscience, or behavioral disorders. These professionals may work in schools, family services, healthcare settings, or government facilities.
The widely applicable training of a psychology degree can lead to other opportunities. For example, adding a specialty in forensic psychology may qualify graduates for criminal justice careers, such as probation officer or government consultant.
Educational requirements vary for this field, though clinical professions typically require a master's degree and certification or licensure. Students can choose a formal concentration or pick courses in data analysis, behavioral disorders, and forensic mental health.
In addition to the healthcare and family services industries, psychologists can work in business as industrial-organizational psychologists. These professionals study organizational behavior and performance to help businesses overcome personnel and culture challenges.
In some states, I/O psychologists can find entry-level positions with a bachelor's in organizational psychology. However, many states require a master's in organizational psychology or an organizational psychology doctorate and state licensure. Interested candidates should take courses in organizational development, psychology of training, and negotiations.
Social Services Careers
Psychology majors often pursue social services careers since the fields overlap. Aside from counseling professions, the social services sector includes community services and human services careers. Psychology graduates can lend their skills to developing community programs and outreach campaigns.
Education requirements vary by career, but bachelor's and master's graduates should qualify for many of the available positions, especially with training in program development or group counseling. There are often no licensure requirements in these careers.
See All Psychology Career Guides
What Kind of Salary Can You Earn with a Psychology Degree?
Because there are so many psychology degree jobs, expected salaries vary. According to the BLS, the median annual salary for community services occupations is $47,520 — more than $5,000 higher than the median annual salary for all occupations. Psychologists make some of the highest wages in the field, earning median annual salaries of $82,180.
The BLS projects 12% growth for community service occupations between 2019 and 2029, which is three times the rate of all occupations. The BLS also projects 3% growth for psychologists overall during that same period. Specializations like school psychologist are projected to have faster growth rates.
Advice From a Psychology Graduate
Of all the advice available to prospective students, guidance from someone in the field may be the most beneficial. The interview below, from a former psychology graduate, explores the required training, the profession in general, and things all students should know.
Andréas RB Deolinda, BA, BSc is an educator, writer, poet, and advocate for children with special needs, especially those on the autism spectrum. She also serves as an editorial assistant for Autism Parenting Magazine. Deolinda holds a BSc degree in psychology and biochemistry, plus two postgraduate BA honors degrees in drama therapy and psychology. Professionally, Deolinda has taught at two remedial/special needs education schools and run workshops for children in neurotypical schools in South Africa.
What degrees and licenses in psychology do you hold? What did you specialize in?
In psychology, I hold an undergraduate degree in psychology and a postgraduate degree from South Africa. I am presently pursuing a master's degree in psychology.
In 2018, I completed my undergraduate BSC degree, majoring in psychology and biochemistry, from Wits University.
In 2020, I completed a postgraduate BA honors degree in psychology (UNISA).
My postgraduate discipline is clinical psychology, but for my master's I am pursuing research psychology in the field of child development.
What do you do for a career now?
Currently, I work as an editorial assistant at Autism Parenting Magazine. Previously, I worked as an education facilitator at both neurotypical and neurodivergent schools.
I initially wanted to pursue a career as a clinical psychologist, but I later realized that I have a knack for research and a passion for writing, so I decided that research psychology is my destined path.
What advice do you have for someone considering pursuing an educational path in psychology?
My advice for anyone pursuing an educational path in psychology is to prepare for a long journey. It requires a lot of reading time, from case studies to the various theories that encompass psychology — as long as you stay on top of your work, stay organized, and find a study group, you should be fine!
The field of psychology is so popular and the entry pool is large, so expect competition and aim to chart on the top achiever's list.
Most of all, if you're unsure of which discipline in psychology to pursue, don't fret! Most of us didn't know until the third year. Even then, your interest may change. But while you're at it, give it your best and enjoy the journey.
What degree do you recommend for people interested in an entry-level career in psychology?
I would recommend that you do your research! I believe that knowing your strengths and weaknesses will help you get an idea of where you would thrive most. For instance, if you'd like to help clients through therapy, perhaps clinical psychology is your route. Or if you would like to work in organizations, then organizational psychology is the route for you, and so on.
For example, early on in my undergraduate studies, I was always fascinated by clinical psychology because of the depictions of psychologists portrayed on television. As I progressed into my postgraduate studies and realized my talent for writing and research, I became drawn to research psychology.
An important note to consider is that specialization in psychology takes place at postgraduate level. In undergraduate level, you're really just learning everything about psychology, which helps to inform your journey as you progress.
What degree do you recommend for people interested in advancing their career in psychology?
There's no rule book that says you can't press restart on your career or advance the one you're currently at. I've met a few individuals who were successful in other career paths, such as lawyers or designers, who left their safety nets to go back and pursue psychology. I mention this because I want people pursuing psychology to know that you may not have started a career in psychology right after high school, but that doesn't mean you can't press restart.
If you're in a situation where you'd like to advance your postgraduate career in psychology — such as a master's or Ph.D. — go for it! The rewards are endless (just like in any degree).
What do you wish you knew before you started your pursuit of a psychology degree — and career?
I wish I knew that my journey would not be straightforward. In medicine, by the end of your final year, you know that you will be a medical doctor and begin practicing. By contrast, in psychology, you have to increase in levels. From your undergraduate degree, you have to apply to enter into postgraduate studies. Even at postgraduate level, you have to apply for entry into a master's or doctorate program.
Let's not even get into the chat about career. A career in psychology is challenging. Most employers seek a psychologist with a master's qualification in psychology. That means that even though you have a four-year degree in psychology or an honors degree in psychology, you're not a psychologist until you've obtained your master's degree AND passed the board exam to be a certified psychologist.
So when I say prepare for a LONG journey, I don't say it half-heartedly.
Some people are privileged to get into internship programs that help to boost their practical experience portfolios. But if that's not you, I would recommend doing community service to help you boost your portfolio.
If I can give you a top secret: At master's level, they want to know about that portfolio, because that practical experience tells the review board whether you can survive the emotional and physical demands of the career you're entering.
What assumption do people have about psychology that you'd like to correct?
"Psychology majors can read your mind and diagnose mental illness."
No way! Even board-certified psychologists can't read minds. Psychology is not the ability to read minds and figure out your experiences for you. A psychologist can learn about human behavior, learn about diagnostic illnesses, and learn how to diagnose them, but that applies to knowledge, not the ability to know what's in your head.
Through the knowledge we gain, we can make conclusions based on the guidelines provided. But at the end of the day, we're just humans with the knowledge to do what we do in practice.
"Every psychologist is a counselor."
I can't tell you the number of times someone has said, "oh, you're a counselor," when I told them that I am pursuing a career in psychology.
Psychology is so diverse and has many disciplines, but somehow television has portrayed psychologists as counselors in an office on a couch that just listen to your problems.
Popular Questions About Psychology Degrees
No. Psychologists do not have formal medical training and are not doctors. Psychologists are sometimes confused with psychiatrists, who do attend medical school.
Yes, psychology degrees can lead to well-paying careers. For example, psychologists make median annual wages of $81,180. The top 10% of earners in the field make more than $137,590.
Psychology students spend 9-13 years in higher education, depending on their chosen pathway. Most psychologists have a doctorate — either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. — and those programs typically take 4-7 years, after earning a bachelor's.
Latest News and Resources for Psychology Students
The psychology world is always evolving, so staying on top of the latest developments can be tricky. For the newest information about psychology in higher education, check out the following links. They include details about psychology courses and psychology graduate programs, along with helpful resources like things psychology students should know.
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