Earning a health psychology degree can lead to a career as a clinical health psychologist or open the door to other healthcare and community-oriented occupations. The field serves students at all levels of education and experience and individuals seeking a fulfilling career helping patients live their best lives. Read on to learn more about the many benefits of earning a degree in health psychology.
What is Health Psychology?
As a speciality of clinical psychology recognized by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), health psychology focuses on the social, psychological, and biological factors contributing to an individual's overall mental and physical health. Some health psychologists pursue specializations within the field such as pain management, healthcare reform, or behavioral assessment/intervention.
The origin of health psychology dates back to World War II, when several prominent psychologists began exploring the intersection of mental, physical, and public health concerns. The American Psychological Association (APA) established Division 38: Society for Health Psychology in 1978. Today, the division serves clinical psychologists, researchers, and educators in the field.
How to Become a Health Psychologist
While specific requirements vary by state, clinical health psychologists typically need a master's or doctoral degree — either of which should include an internship experience — and a state-issued psychology license. Generally, additional certification in health psychology is optional and not required by law. Students with a bachelor's degree in health psychology may pursue related occupations such as rehabilitation specialist or mental health counselor.
While all 50 states require a Ph.D. or Psy.D. for unencumbered licensure as a clinical health psychologist, some states recognize a master's-level education as adequate for select specialities or limited licensure in the field. Many schools offer health psychology as a concentration within a clinical or counseling psychology program.
All graduate psychology programs prepare students for clinical practice through an internship requirement. Students must typically complete a one-year residency or internship as part of a doctoral degree. Depending on their individual career goals, Ph.D. or Psy.D. candidates can complete internships at government institutions, human services agencies, and community clinics.
Aspiring clinical psychologists must obtain licensure in their state to practice lawfully. In this specialization, students should pursue a state license in general psychology, with optional board certification in health psychology.
The process of applying for licensure requires students to complete a doctoral degree in psychology, accrue 1,500-6,000 supervised practicum hours (depending on the state), pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), and potentially pass a jurisprudence exam, if required by the state. Certification typically requires additional professional experience.
While licensure is mandatory in all states, certification through the ABPP in clinical health psychology is optional. However, many professionals pursue ABPP certification to expand their opportunities in the field.
To obtain certification in clinical health psychology through the ABPP, a student must complete an APA-accredited doctoral program in professional psychology, including a one-year or two-year internship. Additionally, students must complete an APA-accredited postdoctoral fellowship in clinical health psychology to qualify for certification one year after graduation.
Students may apply for certification after two years if they meet one of the following criteria:
Complete an accredited postdoctoral fellowship in an area other than clinical health psychology and one additional year of clinical health psychology professional experience; or
Complete an Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers-listed (but non-accredited) clinical health psychology fellowship and one additional year of clinical health psychology professional experience.
Applicants may seek certification after three years if they complete a one-year professional psychology postdoctoral supervised experience and two additional years of clinical health psychology experience.
Health Psychology vs. General Psychology
With so many specializations recognized by the APA, general psychology encompasses a broad set of career options; however, health psychology specifically targets psychologists aspiring to a more nuanced position in healthcare and/or social services. To further compare and contrast the two fields, explore their commonalities and differences below.
Health psychology and general psychology share many of the same core concepts, as illustrated through graduate-level curricula. Many general psychology programs offer a concentration in health psychology but require all students to complete a foundations sequence in universal field subjects like psychological theory, ethics, and research.
Additionally, the licensure process serves graduates with a broad education in psychology. Aspiring health psychologists must apply for a general psychology license to become a clinical practitioner through APA and may opt to pursue additional health psychology certification through ABPP.
Generally, undergraduate psychology programs provide a broad psychology curriculum to prepare graduates for entry-level jobs. Though rare, a school may offer a bachelor's degree in health psychology that provides essentially the same career preparation as a general psychology degree. A bachelor's degree in general psychology or health psychology can prepare graduates for positions such as psychology assistants/interns, psychology technicians, and human services coordinators.
At the master's level, students can explore many areas in psychology. In contrast to a general psychology program, a health psychology degree emphasizes coursework in topics including nutrition, wellness, pain management, and substance abuse treatment. Many schools offer the health psychology specialization as part of a health, behavioral medicine, or social services program.
While all clinical psychologists need the same state licensure in general psychology, aspiring health psychologists can set themselves apart with specialty certification. In general, employers do not require health psychology certification; however, many prefer candidates who exceed the expectations of general practitioners by pursuing additional certification in health psychology.
Becoming a health psychologist can open the door to unique career opportunities. While clinical and counseling psychologists enjoy multiple options for work settings, health psychologists are uniquely qualified to work for a hospital, nonprofit agency, or community organization rather than a private practice.
What Can You Do with a Health Psychology Degree?
Health psychologists study the impact of behavioral, social, and physical conditions on one's overall health and well-being. This specialization draws from holistic and occupational medicine to help practitioners provide their patients with a well-rounded treatment plan for preventing illness, coping with stress, and maintaining mental and physical stability in life.
Professionals may work in clinical or non-clinical areas of health psychology. Graduates of a doctoral health psychology program typically pursue licensure to become clinical psychologists, though students may pursue other career paths. Aspiring health psychology professionals with a bachelor's or master's degree may qualify for roles in mental health counseling, community health advocacy, public health, and marriage/family therapy.
The following section outlines job opportunities for students at all education and experience levels.
Health Psychology Degree Programs
Undergraduate Health Psychology Programs
Most bachelor's degrees in health psychology require 120 credits and span four years. Schools may offer undergraduate programs in health psychology through social science or health studies departments. Others only offer bachelor's-level programs in general psychology and do not yet offer health psychology concentrations. Undergraduate programs may include an optional internship or practicum and typically culminate in a capstone or final project.
Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For
- Mental Health Counselor Mental health counselors treat patients with behavioral disorders and addiction issues using talk therapy. The education and experience requirements for counselors vary by state, though most states require mental health counselors to hold at least a bachelor's degree in psychology, social work, or counseling. Counselors in private practice who specialize in substance abuse or behavioral disorders must hold licensure in their state, which typically requires a master's degree.
- Rehabilitation Specialist Rehabilitation specialists help individuals living with a mental illness or disability adapt to daily life. Tasks include developing plans and setting goals for patients to practice grooming skills, appropriate communication with others, and social interaction. Professionals typically require at least a bachelor's degree in a field like psychology and excellent communication skills.
- Community Health Advocate These professionals act as patient advocates throughout the healthcare process. Community health advocates liaise between patients, healthcare providers, and insurance companies to ensure that patients understand the treatment and billing options available to them. This position requires a bachelor's degree in a field such as health psychology or social work and field experience.
Health Psychology Master's Programs
Most health psychology master's degrees require students to complete 30-36 total credits, typically over a two-year period. Depending on whether the state requires professionals to hold a master's or doctoral degree for licensure, a school may require an internship as part of a pre-doctoral health psychology program. Master's degrees with a concentration in health psychology typically include a culminating capstone or final project requirement.
Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For
- Public Health Analyst Public health analysts supervise public health programs and assess public and community health issues on behalf of their employer. Public health analysts work for agencies like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. While a bachelor's degree is the entry-level education requirement, most employers prefer candidates with a master's degree.
- Clinical Therapist Clinical therapists treat patients with mental health issues, including drug addiction and codependency. Treatment may include counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and cognitive intervention. Clinical therapists must obtain a state license for private practice, which requires at least a master's degree in psychology, counseling, social work, or a related field.
- Marriage/Family Therapist These professionals specialize in treating couples and families through counseling and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Therapists help patients explore and improve family relationships, especially those involving addictive behaviors, divorce, and codependency issues. Marriage/family therapists must earn a master's degree and obtain a state license for private practice.
Health Psychology Doctorate Programs
Health psychology may be a concentration within a clinical or counseling psychology program. Credit requirements vary, as most doctoral programs enable students to work with advisors to develop their own curriculum tailored to their career goals and personal needs. Many programs offer faster completion times to students who hold a master's degree in the health psychology concentration. The majority of schools allow students a maximum of eight years to complete a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree.
Careers This Degree Can Prepare You For
- Clinical Health Psychologist Students with a Ph.D. or Psy.D. can pursue a state license to practice as a clinical health psychologist. Additionally, these professionals must pass the EPPP and complete field experiences to meet APA licensure requirements. Some licensed practitioners pursue additional certification in clinical health psychology through ABPP.
- Public Health Psychologist A subspecialty of health psychology, public health psychology focuses on promoting illness prevention and health awareness within low-income groups and at-risk populations. Professionals study both public health and psychology at the graduate level. Practitioners require a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in health psychology and a state license.
- Occupational Psychologist Another concentration within health psychology, occupational psychology works within a corporate setting to help improve the relationships between employers and employees. Professionals apply clinical psychological methods to practical workplace issues to increase efficiency and morale. Like all health psychologists, professionals in this specialty require a doctoral degree and state licensure.
Online Health Psychology Programs
The process of becoming a clinical health psychologist requires a lengthy education and years of experience in the field. For many college students looking to advance their career by earning a higher degree, enrolling in a full-time program while managing work and family obligations can put a strain on their time and finances.
Many schools today offer online psychology degrees, some at an accelerated rate, enabling students to complete their degree in less time and at a lower cost than a traditional program. Students can often pursue a bachelor's degree in psychology fully online, and most master's degrees and Ph.D. and Psy.D. options offer online coursework with minimal on-site practicum requirements.