Psychology deals with the inner workings of the mind and explores the key factors that impact or motivate human behavior.
Psychology is a broad discipline, and the diverse assortment of career options could leave you wondering what things you can do with a psychology degree. Here are 10 key points to consider as you weigh your options.
10 Things You Should Know About Getting a Psychology Degree
1. Career Opportunities Depend on Education Level
Studying psychology can lead to a variety of different job prospects within the psychology field and beyond. That said, professional outcomes largely depend upon your level of education, and not every degree is created equal. It's important to consider the available options alongside your career goals before you enroll in a psychology degree program.
An associate degree in psychology will qualify you for entry-level roles in human services or as a rehabilitation technician. Digging a bit deeper with a bachelor's degree in psychology will open up more opportunities in areas like social work and mental health or behavioral disorder counseling. More specialized or licensure-dependent positions in counseling, psychology, or education usually call for a master's degree in psychology or a doctorate in psychology.
2. Salaries Fluctuate Quite a Bit
Most psychology graduates receive above average earnings, but salary prospects vary widely depending on your credentials and desired position. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, clinical psychologists earn $79,820 on average with most roles requiring advanced education. Family therapists and mental health counselors need further training as well. While they earn less than clinicians — $51,340 and $47,660, respectively — they still enjoy higher salaries than most other occupations.
Entry-level positions see lower starting salaries, but still offer plenty of room for growth and advancement. For instance, the median annual wage for human services assistants with a bachelor's or associate degree is currently $35,960. However, top earners could bring home over $56,000 with gained experience.
3. Accreditation Is Key
Institutional accreditation ensures that schools offer rigorous programming with high standards of excellence. Quality psychology programs will hold further, more specialized accreditation that provides additional backing specific to the discipline.
Earning your degree from a program recognized by organizations like the American Psychology Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, or the Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System can further solidify your professional status. Accreditation can also affect your eligibility for licensure. The next section explores licensure more in-depth.
4. Licensure Requirements Are Not Universal
Most states require licensure for applied roles in clinics or private practice. School psychologists, rehabilitation counselors, and other mental health professionals all need state-issued credentials in order to practice. If you plan to pursue a licensure-dependent role, familiarizing yourself with the process can help you prepare for exams and other steps.
Eligibility for licensure depends on educational requirements that vary by state. You will need to complete a board-approved program at the very least and likely fulfill individual course requirements in key content areas like professional ethics, cultural competency, and state regulations. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards keeps a useful directory where you can find more information on your area's requirements.
5. You'll Need Strong Math Skills, Especially for Research Roles
Earning a psychology degree will involve math and applied statistics in particular, so it's worth brushing up on those areas before you begin. Most psychology graduates are not professional mathematicians, but they do rely on quantitative reasoning and social science research methods to design experiments, interpret data, and measure results.
If you plan to study psychology, you can expect to take classes in descriptive or inferential statistics, regardless of your degree level. Courses in these topics can be challenging, even for degree-seekers with an interest in higher mathematics. You can get a head start by taking classes that fill in the gaps or by participating in a summer program to further your math skills.
6. Employers Value Hands-On Experience
Hands-on experience plays a vital role in any applied field and psychology is no different. Earning a degree will help you build out a solid knowledge base in psychology, but ultimately employers want to see that you have the practical know-how necessary to succeed.
In most cases, you can accomplish this by completing an internship, which gives you the chance to integrate classroom skills and knowledge into your work. Some degree programs may require an internship component, especially if preparation for licensure is involved.
Volunteer opportunities can also help. If you plan to become a therapist, for example, volunteering at a local clinic or treatment center will give you additional experience.
7. Know Your Strengths and Develop New Human Skills
Psychology work requires technical training that only formal education can provide, but human skills matter too, especially if you plan to work directly with clients on a regular basis. Counseling and psychotherapy professionals need strong interpersonal skills in persuasion, negotiation, and active listening, in addition to conceptual foundations.
Taking stock of your interests in advance will help you select an appropriate path. Honing new skills throughout your studies will put you in a good position to advance after you graduate. Critical thinking, creative problem-solving, and a strong sense of patience, empathy, and social perception are all key human skills needed in psychology professions.
8. Master's Degrees Develop Transferable Qualifications
Most psychology professionals pursue careers that follow one of two paths: clinical roles or non-clinical roles. Clinical psychologists need a state-issued license and usually work directly with clients in hospitals, treatment centers, and other healthcare facilities. Non-clinical professionals take core insights from psychology and use them to inform their work as researchers, educators, and business consultants.
Earning a master's degree in psychology positions you for success in either path. Clinical and non-clinical roles may require different technical competencies, but when it comes to the core fundamentals, both areas share some overlap. Quality graduate programs emphasize those fundamentals, preparing you for work as an industrial-organizational psychologist or a skilled clinician.
9. Specialization Sets You Apart
Master's programs in psychology not only build a broad-based set of skills applicable in clinical or non-clinical settings, but they also give you the opportunity to specialize in key areas that you hope to work in. Concentrating your studies in areas like forensic psychology or industrial-organizational psychology could give you a leg up on the job market by building the additional expertise employers desire.
If you already know where you want to work, you can take initiative by selecting a psychology graduate program with specializations that support those goals. If you don't, choosing a program with a generalist course of study will give you time to explore the possibilities and weigh your options.
10. Doctorates Take Time, But You Can Start Early
If you plan to earn a doctorate, it could take a while to complete, as it's dependent on the school and your specialty. Professors, school psychologists, and practicing clinicians all need a psychology doctorate, which takes 4-7 years to complete on average. Most programs require an original dissertation project in addition to fieldwork and classroom instruction.
Despite the time commitment, some doctoral programs accept students with only a bachelor's degree. In those cases, you can skip the additional degree before applying. Qualified candidates typically need some background in psychology, either a bachelor's in psychology or a substantial amount of coursework.
Blake Huggins is a Boston-based writer and researcher with roots in north Texas and southern Oklahoma. He holds degrees in religion and philosophy and writes widely on higher education, healthcare, and the humanities broadly conceived. He earned a PhD from Boston University and has taught college courses in philosophy, writing, and composition.
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