Psychology Graduate Programs

by Genevieve Carlton
reviewed by Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D.
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Graduate study in psychology builds strong analytical, research, and treatment skills. A master's or doctorate in psychology leads to careers in mental health, education, social services, and business.

A psychology degree opens the door to many exciting, lucrative careers. During a specialized master's in psychology, degree-seekers can focus their training in child psychology, social psychology, and forensic psychology, among other specialties.

Psychology graduate programs train students for careers in research, counseling, therapy, and consulting. Graduates with a master's in psychology can work as behavior therapists, mental health counselors, psychometrists, research assistants, and psychological consultants. Graduates with a doctorate can pursue licensure as psychologists.

Doctoral programs in clinical psychology, educational psychology, and counseling psychology lead to in-demand careers. A graduate student typically spends two years earning a master's degree and 4-7 years in a doctoral psychology program.

Prospective students must consider their specialization options, interests, and professional goals before applying to psychology graduate programs. This guide walks through the available options for graduate study in psychology.

What's the Difference Between an MA and MS in Psychology?

Some psychology graduate programs offer master of arts (MA) and master of science (MS) degrees in psychology. Both options include core psychology courses that provide advanced training in psychology research and practice. However, an MA typically emphasizes therapeutic approaches, while an MS focuses on research. Both programs may require clinical hours, a master's thesis, or master's exams, depending on the university.

Master's Programs in Psychology

A master's degree in psychology offers graduate-level study in a focused specialization. Master's students take courses in theoretical foundations of psychology, ethics, research methods, statistics, human development, psychopathology, social psychology, counseling and interviewing skills.

They also explore special interest topics in the field, such as child psychology, organizational psychology, clinical or counseling psychology, marriage and family therapy, and addiction counseling. Each specialization can lead to different psychology career paths.

Before applying to master's programs, each applicant should possess a bachelor's in psychology or a related major. Some programs set prerequisite courses for graduate study in psychology. Other common requirements include GRE scores and a minimum GPA.

Applied Behavior Analysis

Behavior analysis examines the link between the mind and behavior. In a behavior analysis concentration, graduate students examine human behavior, social pressures on behavior, and behavioral patterns. The specialization also emphasizes therapeutic approaches to changing behaviors and developing healthier habits.

After earning a master's in behavior analysis, graduates can pursue careers as behavioral disorder counselors, cognitive behavior therapists, and researchers. The degree also prepares students for doctoral study in psychology.

Post-Grad Careers

Child and Adolescent Psychology

Child and adolescent psychology examines human development, emotional growth, and social relationships from birth through young adulthood. Graduate students consider biological and environmental influences on child development, social dynamics in families and school environments, and personality development. They may also explore cognitive development, diversity factors, and childhood mental health disorders.

This concentration strengthens research and clinical skills through coursework, research papers, and supervised practicums. With master's degrees in child psychology, graduates can work in schools, community organizations, social services facilities, and private practice.

Post-Grad Careers

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology focuses on applied mental healthcare and research. Graduate students in clinical psychology programs strengthen their assessment and intervention skills. They also study mental health disorders and treatment approaches. The degree covers diagnostic and intervention practices, psychological consultation, and clinical research.

After earning a master's in clinical psychology, graduates can work as counselors and therapists. They can also pursue careers as case managers in diverse social services settings. Many choose to enter doctoral programs to pursue roles as clinical psychologists.

Post-Grad Careers

Counseling Psychology

Counseling psychology focuses on applied psychology and its therapeutic applications. This concentration builds strong assessment, diagnosis, and treatment skills. Graduate students learn to identify emotional or behavioral concerns, provide individual and group therapy, and help clients resolve issues in their lives.

Students can focus on different client populations, such as children, couples, or groups. They may also pursue specialized training in mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, or social justice.

Post-Grad Careers

Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology examines individuals' emotional, cognitive, and behavioral development across their lives. Graduate students in developmental psychology research typical and atypical development patterns. They learn about human growth from social, personality, and physical perspectives. Developmental psychology programs also train students to evaluate and treat developmental disabilities.

The concentration prepares graduates for careers in research, education, and healthcare. They help people of all ages with developmental disabilities, cognitive issues, or mental health disorders.

Post-Grad Careers

Educational Psychology

Educational psychology examines the process of learning and understanding. Graduate students explore human development, effective instructional methods, and individual learning. The concentration builds strong assessment and analytical skills. Educational psychology students must evaluate learning strategies and approaches.

With a background in educational psychology, graduates work in schools, learning centers, research facilities, and community organizations. They can help teachers improve instructional strategies and evaluate how people process information.

Post-Grad Careers

Experimental Psychology

Experimental psychology focuses on the research and data collection aspects of psychology. Programs encourage students to evaluate psychology research to strengthen their skills. Students also build strong quantitative research skills and conduct experiments in various subfields of psychology.

The research skills gained during an experimental psychology program prepare graduates for careers in labs, research facilities, and businesses.

Post-Grad Careers

Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology blends psychology with the legal system. The concentration provides legal and forensic training while emphasizing clinical abilities. Forensic psychology graduate students learn to conduct psychological assessments of defendants and victims. They also develop experience conducting interviews, writing legal reports, and acting as expert witnesses.

With a master's in forensic psychology, graduates work for law firms, legal advocacy groups, victim support services, and courts. Some work closely with the correctional system in counseling and assessment roles.

Post-Grad Careers

Industrial-Organizational Psychology

Industrial-organizational psychology examines people's behavior at work. Students explore individual behavior within organizations, how teams make decisions, and assessing individual employees. They also study ethics in the workplace.

After completing a master's in industrial-organizational psychology, graduates can pursue roles within organizations to improve employee performance, create productive work environments, and solve business problems. A doctoral degree qualifies graduates for employment as industrial-organizational psychologists.

Post-Grad Careers

School Psychology

School psychology examines mental health, behavior, and academic performance in educational settings. Master's students learn to support children managing emotional or behavioral challenges. They also study how to work with teachers, administrators, and parents to create supportive learning environments.

During a school psychology degree, learners strengthen their assessment, analysis, and data collection abilities. They also study mental health interventions, academic interventions, and instructional support approaches.

Post-Grad Careers

Social Psychology

Social psychology examines the behavior of individuals in group settings. Social environments shape people's emotions and thoughts. Psychologists who specialize in social psychology can research the influence of social environments on individuals.

Within the field, master's students study group dynamics, leadership in social settings, social justice issues, and social perception. They also explore topics such as aggression, bigotry, and bullying. The concentration prepares graduates for careers that involve group behavior, including influencing behavior through political or public relations messaging and organizing groups in business settings.

Post-Grad Careers

Sports Psychology

Sports psychology applies psychological research and theories to athletes. Grad students learn about improving mental performance and the social aspects of sports. In addition to focusing on athletes, sports psychology also examines coaches, team dynamics, and the role of parents in youth sports.

Graduate students explore sports at the professional and amateur levels, in youth leagues, and at the Olympic level. This specialization emphasizes psychological assessment, mental skills development, and exercise science.

Post-Grad Careers

Specialist Degrees in Psychology

Educational specialist and psychology specialist degrees provide focused training for careers in education. A specialist degree typically requires three years, including two years of coursework and a one-year internship.

During a specialist program, graduate students explore organizational psychology and school psychology coursework covering assessment and treatment. During the internship, degree-seekers gain practical experience in educational settings. Graduates can pursue work as school counselors and school psychologists.

Doctoral Degrees in Psychology

At the doctoral level, psychology graduate students pursue several different types of degrees. Each of these degrees, including a doctor of philosophy, a doctor of psychology, and a doctor of education, prepare graduates for different career paths.

A career as a licensed psychologist or a psychology professor requires a doctorate. Most doctoral programs do not require a master's degree for admission. This section explains the doctoral options in psychology and possible career pathways for each degree.

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Psychology

Purpose

A Ph.D. in psychology emphasizes research and academic career paths rather than clinical roles. During a Ph.D., doctoral candidates can specialize in applied behavior analysis, organizational psychology, or developmental psychology. Students conduct research and write dissertations. After earning a Ph.D., a graduate can pursue careers as a psychology professor, researcher, or earn licensure as a psychologist.

Post-Grad Careers

Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)

Purpose

A Psy.D. emphasizes psychology practice and trains graduates for careers as psychologists. During a Psy.D., doctoral candidates complete supervised clinical hours and coursework in their specializations. The degree meets the requirements for psychologist licensure.

Post-Grad Careers

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)

Purpose

An Ed.D. degree applies psychology in educational settings. During an Ed.D. program, graduate students explore educational psychology and school psychology, completing research in their specializations and writing dissertations. After earning the degree, graduates can pursue employment in schools and other educational facilities.

Post-Grad Careers

How to Choose a Psychology Graduate Program

Psychology graduate programs feature many enrollment options, degrees, graduation requirements, and specializations. Applicants must consider which program best fits their unique needs and professional goals.

Prospective graduate students should always choose accredited universities. The American Psychological Association (APA) grants accreditation to doctoral programs that meet high standards for training psychologists. In many states, psychologists must hold APA-accredited doctoral degrees to receive licensure.

Common Questions About Psychology Graduate School

true What GPA Do You Need to Get Into Grad School for Psychology?

Many graduate-level psychology programs set a minimum 3.0 GPA for admission. Some programs offer provisional admission for applicants who do not meet the GPA requirement.

true Can You Work While Getting a Doctorate in Psychology?

Yes. Some psychology graduate programs design their courses for working students. Online and part-time programs offer greater flexibility.

true Can I Get a Doctorate in Psychology Without a Master's?

Yes. Many doctoral programs admit applicants who possess bachelor's degrees. A master's degree can help candidates specialize their skills and demonstrate success at the graduate level.

true Can I Open My Own Practice With a Master's in Psychology?

Professionals with master's degrees in psychology can work under supervision or open practices as counselors or therapists once they have achieved the appropriate level of independent licensure in their state. However, a master's degree does not meet the requirements for psychologist licensure.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

Megan Pietrucha, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who currently practices in the Chicago area. She holds a bachelor's in psychology from Illinois Wesleyan University and a master's and doctorate in clinical psychology from the Illinois School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University. Her clinical interests include the treatment of eating and body image concerns, college student and student-athlete mental health, mood disorders, health and wellness, mindfulness, sport and performance psychology, and consultation. In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Pietrucha has served as the training director for an APA-accredited internship program and has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in psychology. She has also worked with high school and college athletes and teams, as well as recreational fitness programs, to provide mental skills training for athletic performance and fitness adherence.

Header Image Credit: PeopleImages | Getty Images

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