4 Types of Psychology Degrees: Picking the Right Program

Key Takeaways

  • Psychology offers many career options and levels of education to pursue.

  • Each degree offers specific opportunities within a given field. You should choose your degrees based on your career goals.

  • It’s important to understand the educational programs, degree levels, and specialties you need to earn in the different positions in the industry.

Thanks to an increase in mental and behavioral health awareness, psychologists are looking to break down barriers that have previously impeded people’s ability to access effective mental health services. This trend is particularly prevalent in the mental health support of young people.

School psychology addresses some of these challenges by focusing on students’ educational and emotional well-being within schools. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in school psychology—or any career in this field—it’s important to understand the educational programs, degree levels, and specialties you need to earn in the different positions in the industry. Here’s an overview of how these factors are important in deciding what career path is right for you.

Psychology Degree Levels

Psychology offers many career options and levels of education to pursue. As with most industries, each type of degree offers specific opportunities within their given field. This means prospective students should choose their degrees based on their career goals. There are five degree levels that a psychology student can earn. Here’s a list of programs as well as the requirements for each degree level.

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Associate Degree

An associate degree in psychology, which is typically completed in two years, offers quick but extremely limited entry into the industry. In fact, those who earn their associate degree often only work in entry-level or support positions in social, mental, or human services. This is why obtaining this degree is often considered the first step to earning a more advanced degree.

Most associate degree programs require 60 completed credits of general education and introductory psychology courses on cognitive theory, human development, and analytical skills.

Bachelor’s Degree

Earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology is viewed as base-level education for most professionals in this industry. Even though it’s seen as a “requirement” for some career paths, it does offer more career opportunities than an associate’s degree. Most bachelor’s programs consist of about 160 credits that are typically completed over a ‌four-year span.

Although bachelor’s programs vary by institution, most psychology degrees focus on psychology theory and research methods, developmental psychology, human behavior, child development, and clinical experience. These courses are meant as prerequisites to the curriculum of a master’s-level program rather than specialized training for a career post-graduation.

Those with a different major, who find their love of psychology during their undergraduate years, can still position themselves for an MS in psychology as long as their degree is in a closely related field (e.g., child development, sociology, or education).

Graduates with a bachelor’s degree can work in social, community, and rehabilitation services, as well as pursue non-psychological fields. However, these roles often require working long hours with little pay, especially when compared to careers that require more advanced degrees and higher levels of education.

Master’s Degree

If you’re looking to pursue challenging and incredibly rewarding career opportunities that offer higher salary potential, it’s recommended you earn a master’s degree in psychology from an accredited program. For many, obtaining a master’s is the best course of action.

Earning a master’s degree requires an additional two to three years of study and provides the minimum education qualifications for counseling, administrative, and research positions in a wide range of work settings. Earning a master’s also enables you to pursue a doctoral degree and, depending on the program, may even give you specialized training in areas that reflect your personal and professional interests.

A typical master’s-level curriculum can include some, if not all, of the following courses:

  • Introduction to Cognitive Assessment
  • Behavior Management
  • Child and Adolescent Psychopathology
  • Understanding Culture and Diversity

While MS requirements may vary, Northeastern University’s Master of Science (MS) and Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in School Psychology is a three-year, fully accredited program through the National Association of School Psychologists and the Massachusetts State Department of Education. Their program requires students to complete 62 semester hours and at least 1,200 internship hours (half of which must be completed in a school setting).

PhD Degree

One of the highest levels of education you can earn within psychology is a doctoral degree. This degree isn’t always required to work as a psychologist, but individuals who pursue a PhD typically do so for the opportunity to conduct research, work in private practice, and/or pursue a career in academia.

Earning a PhD in psychology can take 5 to 6 years to complete, depending on your program. PhD curricula typically focus on statistical methodologies and conducting scientific research, and require the completion of a dissertation alongside a year-long internship approved by the American Psychological Association (APA).

PsyD Degree

PsyD program is best suited for students looking to pursue a career in clinical practice, administrative roles, or in a specialized field. While PhD programs are research-oriented, PsyD programs focus heavily on clinical applications, assessment strategies, and intervention techniques. Therefore, PsyD students typically pursue careers in clinical practice areas (e.g., therapy, school psychology, gerontology, and counseling).

It’s important to note that these positions don’t explicitly require a PsyD, but this additional education does open more doors to specialized positions within a given industry.

If this line of work interests you, you’ll be required to complete a year-long internship in your chosen area of expertise, regardless of the specialization you choose. Depending on your curriculum, you may also need to complete a capstone project. Many PsyD programs are completed in four to six years, but this depends on numerous factors (both personal and professional).

Understanding‌ Psychology Graduate Programs

Because many high-paying careers within psychology only require a master’s degree, it’s important to learn about the various programs and specializations available to you in order to identify which one will fit your personal and professional needs.

Clinical Psychology (MS)

A master’s in clinical psychology is one path you can choose from. This program is an excellent stepping stone toward the position of a clinical psychologist, who provides comprehensive mental, emotional, and behavioral health care to both individuals and families. They also act as consultants to agencies and communities by providing training, education, and research-based practice to best serve their diverse populations.

Within their patient pool, clinical psychologists can expect to handle a range of issues, from minor maladjustments to severe psychological disorders. As a clinical psychologist, you will need:

  • In-depth understanding of psychopathology
  • Ability to assess patient personalities
  • Experience with diagnostic and intervention strategies
  • Knowledge of human psychology across lifespans
  • Effective communication skills with both patients and other healthcare professionals
  • Excellent research skills
  • Critical knowledge of clinical psychologist methods

Unlike school psychology, this career path requires a PhD or PsyD to truly enter into the field, and you’ll also need to obtain licensure for your state and given field post-graduation if you hope to qualify for a job immediately after earning an advanced degree.

Counseling Psychology (MS/CAGS)

Earning a master’s in counseling psychology is a wonderful option for those who are interested in the broader field of psychology. Mental health counselors counsel individuals and groups to promote optimum mental health. If you choose to further your education beyond a master’s degree in counseling psychology, there are many career paths and specialties you can pursue, including:

  1. Child and Adolescent Psychology: Focuses on providing mental health counseling to support young people with biological, developmental, and social issues that may arise. Most child and adolescent psychologists work in schools, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and juvenile detention facilities.
  2. Health Psychology: Specializes in the different ways human health is affected by psychological, biological, and social factors. Psychologists working in this field implement psychological frameworks to improve the well-being of their patients. Hospitals, rehabilitation centers, private practices, and clinics employ most health psychologists.
  3. Forensic psychology: Applies clinical psychology to the legal system. For example, forensic psychologists may interview a witness to better understand their reliability. They are often employed by criminal and family courts, police stations, law firms, and prisons, and can even work as consultants or expert witnesses.
  4. Cultural Psychology: Studies the way culture both impacts and is impacted by the psychology of individuals. It’s important to note that this specialization is often grouped together with the lower two fields as well.
  5. Gender Psychology: Examines how gender affects psychology and human behavior.
  6. Political Psychology: Applies psychological frameworks to political activities, such as voting and the public perception of elected officials.

Master’s in Counseling Psychology (MS/CAGS) prepares you for a wide range of job titles, such as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Mental Health Specialist, or Rehabilitation Psychology Therapist.

Applied Behavior Analysis (Certificate/MS/CAGS)

Applied behavior analysis is a field of study within Applied Psychology, which uses scientific psychology methods and techniques to solve problems surrounding human behavior. Applied behavior psychologists can provide a range of services, such as lab work, field studies, and direct services to patients.

Within this field, you can pursue a career in education, human factor, law, sports, occupational health, and health psychology, which focuses on how psychological, social, and biological factors can influence the prevention and treatment of human health.

School Psychology (MS/CAGS)

School psychology is another career avenue you can pursue. School psychologists are behavioral and mental health experts who conduct psychological and educational assessments of young people to improve both their mental health and academic performance.

They work closely with school administrators to provide counseling to children and parents, monitor the mental health and performance of their students, teach social and behavioral skills, and act as a liaison for the school community. School psychologists are also tasked to identify problems that exist within the school system, then implement intervention and behavior management programs accordingly.

One benefit to being a school psychologist is the ability to work with a diverse population of students, all dealing with various mental health, educational, and life experiences.

If you enjoy working with children, working as a school psychologist is extremely rewarding because you can shape the lives of young people and help them achieve success academically and in their future careers.

The Best Fit For You

Psychology provides several career options across various settings and industries as the demand for mental health workers continues to rise.

For example, school psychology is a growing field that offers an opportunity to work closely with children and adolescents. Northeastern University (NEU) offers a Master of Science (MS) and a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in School Psychology, which is a three-year, fully accredited program through the National Association of School Psychologists and the Massachusetts State Department of Education. It requires 62 semester hours and a one-year internship consisting of at least 1,200 hours, half of which must be completed in a school setting.

There, you’ll learn the sector of preventative action in mental health, rather than reactive. If this closely aligns with your interests in the field of psychology, check out our ebook “How To Become A School Psychologist” to see if this career path is right for you. No matter which psychological degree you choose to pursue, working as a psychologist offers a stable and gratifying career.

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About Lauren Saalmuller

Lauren Saalmuller is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Northeastern University.