Are you interested in learning about how the human brain works? Do you ever wonder about how people perceive the world or about how children learn? Are you curious about what it means to have a mental illness? Have you thought about a career in counseling and therapy? Do you like the idea of studying scientific concepts in an applied field?
Psychology is the scientific study of the brain, cognitive function, emotion, learning, and behavior. It involves scientific observation and experimentation, including the study of human and animal behavior within a laboratory setting. Across academia, psychology is considered a social science. Psychology programs and associated degrees may be found within both the liberal arts and natural sciences.
As a student in psychology, you will experience a number of different areas within the field. These areas may include: developmental psychology, clinical psychology, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, abnormal psychology, forensic psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, sports psychology, cognition, counseling, language, neuroscience, and perception.
Psychology students may also need foundational coursework in biology and statistics.
What is psychology? Is it different from psychiatry?
Psychology is the scientific study of the brain, cognitive function, emotion, learning, and behavior. It involves research through scientific observation and experimentation. Psychiatry is a medical specialty within psychology focused on patients with mental illnesses, and requires a medical degree rather than a PhD.
What can I do with a degree in psychology?
You can pursue many careers, such as counseling and mental health services. You may also want to work in state agencies, schools, or human resources or program management offices. People with psychology degrees can provide expertise within the court system and can provide counseling and therapy services.
Can I become a licensed psychologist through online programs?
No. To become a psychologist you will need a PhD in psychology from an accredited program, and at this time there are no such programs available online.
What can I do with a master’s degree in psychology? Can I become a therapist?
While there are some career fields open to people with a master’s degrees in psychology, including positions in forensic psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, human resources and mental health, this degree is not sufficient to work with clients as a psychologist or psychotherapist. For that type of work, you need a PhD. Alternately, to become a licensed counselor (a job which does not include treating mental illnesses directly) you would either need to get a PhD. in Psychology or a Master’s Degree in Social Work.
Do I need to study a lot of science and math?
Psychology involves an understanding of the human brain and of physiology, so there is some science involved. Research also involves statistical analysis. If you plan to pursue a graduate degree or medical school, you will need additional science coursework.
There are quite a few degree options within the psychology field. If you wish to pursue a career as a counselor or therapist, have the goal of becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist, or want to become a psychology researcher, you will need a graduate degree. More specifically, to become a counselor, you will need a master’s or doctoral degree and professional licensing. For careers that involve medical treatment or pharmaceuticals, you will need to complete a medical degree (M.D. or O.D).
- Associate of Arts (AA): A foundational degree that leads either to a bachelor’s degree or to entry-level employment in a psychological setting. Not sufficient to pursue a professional career in psychology.
- Bachelor of Arts (BA): This degree is best suited for those who wish to study the field of psychology and then pursue non-psychological careers, attend law school, enter an MBA program, or pursue graduate work in fields such as education, educational psychology, or social work.
- Bachelor of Science (BS): This degree is the best choice if you want to become a psychiatrist, as it is a precursor to medical school, which is the necessary degree for psychiatry, as well as allied health professions including physical therapy, physician assistant, dentistry, occupational therapy, and optometry.
- Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS): Some professional occupations open up with a terminal master’s degree (including entry-level positions in mental health, occupational psychology and forensic psychology), but generally speaking, a master’s degree is not sufficient to become a practicing psychologist. If your goal is to become a professional counselor, you might consider a Master’s in Social Work, which, unlike psychology master’s degrees, is sufficient to become a licensed professional counselor (LPC). Most LPC programs will accept students with bachelor’s degrees.
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Psychology (PsyD): In order to take the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology (EPPP), the licensing exam required to practice psychology and become a clinical psychologist or therapist, you must have a doctoral degree from an accredited psychology program. These degree programs generally require only a psychology bachelor’s degree to apply.
- Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.): These are degrees that allow you to practice medicine, prescribe medications, and practice psychiatry. If you are interested in this career path, consider pursuing the BS degree in psychology and completing all pre-med coursework required for the degree program(s) of your choice. Only students graduating from accredited medical programs will be licensed to practice medicine in the US.
- Doctor of Educational Psychology (EdD): This degree focuses on learning and development, and usually leads to careers in teaching or research, instructional design and curriculum development, or special education.
Online Degrees and Accreditation
There are a number of online BA and BS psychology degrees that are equivalent to those found at traditional brick and mortar universities. These online entities provide similar career and graduate school opportunities as degrees earned in traditional university settings.
Beyond the bachelor’s degree, it is crucial that you consider your intended career as you make graduate school decisions. Licensing is mandatory for many careers in psychology, and in order to sit for the required licensing exams, you must graduate from an accredited program.
While there are a number of online undergraduate psychology programs, there are no accredited graduate programs that are fully online. Even online master’s degree programs will require some in-person/on-site work as a student transitions from the study of psychology to actual practice with patient care. To become licensed as a psychologist, you must graduate from an APA-accredited doctoral program, and at this time there are no such programs available online.
If your goal is advanced study in psychology but you do not wish to become a clinical psychologist, counselor, or doctor, there are a few online options. For example, Michigan State University does offer a hybrid doctoral program in educational psychology and educational technology that is “substantially online”. This program allows graduates to serve as college faculty and work within state institutions and private corporations.
Additional Resources for researching psychology accredited programs of study:
- APA’s list of Accredited Programs
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s Database of Institutions and Programs Accredited by Recognized United States Accrediting Organizations
Organizations that provide accreditation for specialized degrees:
- Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
- Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE)
- Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE)
- National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
Course of Study
To study psychology at the undergraduate level, generally you only need to be eligible to be admitted at the university of your choice. Some programs may have additional internal admission criteria for the major.
For a psychology major, you will need to complete general education coursework in humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and arts and culture, as determined by the institution and state. BS degrees will require additional science and math classes.
Once admitted to a psychology program, an Introduction to Psychology course will be your first class in the major. You will also need to take statistics, and possibly an Introduction to Psychology Research course before moving into advanced level coursework.
Within the psychology major, expect to take courses in a number of different areas within the field, in areas such as cognitive psychology, perception, behavioral psychology, or social psychology. Some of these courses may involve a laboratory component in which you participate in scientific psychology experiments and write up the results.
Careers With A BA or BS Degree in Psychology
- High school or college academic counselor
Help students plan coursework, interpret degree plans, identify possible careers.
- Special education program coordinator
Lead initiatives to provide appropriate learning environments for students with special needs and ensure compliance with local and federal laws.
- High school social science/psychology teacher
Teach psychology, Sociology and other social sciences at the secondary level; may require teacher’s certification, as well as degree.
- Entry-level statistician or data analyst
Collect and analyze data used in city planning, marketing, academic research, and various business needs.
- Marketing researcher
Collect and use data to understand current sales trends and recommend new avenues for promotions and revenue generation.
- Governmental agency eligibility/caseworker
Assist members of the public with accessing social services, government assistance, and ensure compliance with local and federal law.
- Employee relations/human resources coordinator
Work in personnel and human resource offices for companies or state agencies; ensuring worker compliance with institutional policies; provide assistance to employees.
- Law Enforcement and Correctional officer
Serve as an officer for police, federal agencies, and juvenile justice or prison systems.
- Education researcher
Investigate ways to improve education delivery systems using an understanding of how people learn.
- Political campaign worker/researcher
Assist with the operations of a political campaign; political outreach; strategic research.
- Urban planner
Research and report on the needs of city residents to local government officials; future planning.
- Usability testing (UX)
Test websites to find out how people use them and provide recommendations to website developers based on results.
Careers Requiring Advanced Degrees or Degrees in Other Fields
While there are a wide range of careers open to individuals with associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, many common career fields for psychology graduates will require degrees at the master’s or doctorate level, and may also require additional state certification to practice the profession. These fields include:
- Licensed professional counselor (requires either a MSW or MSSW in social work or a PhD in psychology)
Counsel families and individuals in private settings as well as in counseling centers at educational institutions, companies and agencies, usually with a focus on interpersonal relationships, marriage, learning and behavioral issues rather than severe mental health issues. Receiving a BA in psychology and then a MSSW in social work is an ideal route to becoming a licensed counselor.
- Therapist (MSW or MSSW, MA, MS, PhD)
Includes fields such as life coach, music/art therapy, career counseling, and other traditional and nontraditional therapy fields. Most of these fields will require some form of graduate education, and some of these specialties may require additional certification or licensing.
- Psychiatrist (MD or DO)
Medical doctor that can provide both counseling services and prescribe medication. Often focused on severe mental issues such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
- Psychologist (PhD, PsyD, or EdD)
Provide counseling services to people with severe mental health issues, but generally cannot prescribe medication. May also serve as faculty at universities or engage in psychology research.
- Forensic psychology (Master’s or PhD in forensic psychology)
Provide psychological expertise within the legal system. May assist with criminal investigations and serve as expert witnesses in court. May provide recommendations to judges concerning sentencing and treatment.
- Professor/researcher (PhD, PsyD or EdD)
Engage in teaching and research within a specialized field of psychology at the university level.
Licensing, Certifications and Exams
To become a licensed psychologist, you need to be licensed through your state’s licensing board. Although requirements vary from state to state, the minimum requirements include:
- Doctoral degree in psychology (PhD, PsyD or EdD), ideally from an APA-accredited, or an ASPPB or National Register designated program.
- Completion of between 3,000-6,000 hours of supervised practice.
- Passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) and other exams as required by the state. For more information on the exam, see the website for the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.
- Approval from state licensing board.
- In some states, you need additional credentials if you provide health care services, especially those related to mental health issues.
Some psychology specializations may require additional certifications in the specialized field.
Additional Resources for Certification Information
- What you need to know to get licensed (from the American Psychological Association)
- American Board of Professional psychology
- Gaining Specialty Certification (APA)
Future Outlook for Primary Career
The good news is that the job market in psychology is strong, and many related career fields are experiencing growth. A 12% growth rate in jobs is expected over the next ten years.
However, it is worth noting that psychology is also a very popular field of study. The number of psychology master’s degrees increased 54% from 2004 to 2013; the number of awarded doctorate degrees increased 32% in the same period. This means that while there is job growth in the field, competition for available jobs is also increasing. In fact, the increase in the number of degrees awarded outpaces the projected outlook for the field of psychology, which is average across all occupations.
How can you improve your chances of finding a career using your psychology degree in this increasingly competitive job market? Individuals with advanced degrees in applied psychology and in school psychology face the best career prospects. Other careers that draw on psychology training that have higher rates of growth include: marketing research analysts (32% growth), social work (19%), statistician (27%), and operation research analysis (27%). You should also consider internships and other hands-on learning opportunities at the undergraduate level, and seek out a highly ranked graduate program with a good job placement rate.
For licensed Psychologists, the median annual wage for licensed psychologists is $70,000-$85,000. Psychiatrists can expect salaries significantly higher, with the 2015 median salary expected to be $203,000. Other careers within psychology, particularly master’s level counseling positions, generally fall in the range of $30,000-$50,000. Salaries will be higher for those people working in medical fields and in private practice than with those working for state government and education institutions, who receive lower salaries but stronger job security.
As a psychology major, you will become exposed to a variety of research techniques and other skills that can be extremely valuable in the job market. These skills include:
- Experimental design
- Use of technology and computers
In today’s job market, employers are interested in what students can do, as well as what they have learned. Developing skills and applying them to real-life situations can be extremely valuable. While in school, the best way to gain hands-on experience is through career-related internships.
The following is a list of internship possibilities for a psychology major:
- Working at a hospital or hospice/long-term care facility
- Serving as a mentor or after-school counselor in schools
- Volunteering at a crisis hotline
- Being a camp counselor
- Acting as a youth mentor, participating in Big Brothers/Big Sisters, etc.
- Internships within marketing or involving customer behavior
- Working within the criminal justice system
- Dealing with mental health issues, juvenile issues, and the elderly within state or local agencies
- Doing research internships, usually through universities
Suggested online programs
- Penn State: Offering online courses since 1998, Penn State was an early adopter of online degrees. This psychology program is fully online yet holds the same clout as any other degree from Penn State.
- Columbia College: Columbia College has regional accredited by NCASSTHLC and its online psychology degree is relatively inexpensive compared to other programs.
- University of Florida: This online program is APA accredited and offers specializations in many fields.
- UT Austin psychology Department Job Prospects
- APA’s What you need to know to get licensed
- APA’s list of Accredited Programs
- Occupational Outlook Handbook
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s “Database of Institutions and Programs Accredited by Recognized United States Accrediting Organizations”
- Association of State and Provincial psychology Boards