Master's in Psychology Degree Program Guide

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Updated May 2, 2024 · 3 Min Read

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Master's in psychology programs allow students to specialize in areas of psychology that interest them most. Learn about degree requirements and job opportunities for master's in psychology degrees.

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A master's in psychology can open up new career paths and prepare you for advanced study at the doctoral level. This degree guide explains admission standards, curricula and specializations, financing, and post-graduation options. Use it to help you decide whether a master's degree is right for you.

Popular Online Psychology Master's Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Pros and Cons of Getting a Master's in Psychology

While a master's in psychology offers many benefits, it is not necessarily the right path for everyone. Consider the following pros and cons to help you decide:

Pros

  • A master's in psychology is an important stepping stone to a doctoral degree and a psychology licensure.
  • An advanced degree may help you access a broader set of job opportunities with growth and advancement potential.
  • Master's programs can offer more specializations than undergraduate degrees, making it easier for you to pursue targeted areas of interest.

Cons

  • A master's degree alone does not qualify you for psychology licensure. You will need a doctorate to practice as a psychologist, which entails additional years of study.
  • Advanced careers in psychology can create serious emotional burdens for practitioners. You should carefully consider this before committing your time and money to a graduate program.
  • Master's programs can be expensive, and limitations on open federal funding for graduate students push many advanced learners toward costly loans.

What to Expect from a Master's Degree in Psychology

Master's in psychology programs typically lead to a master of arts (MA) or a master of science (MS) degree. MA tracks emphasize the theoretical and qualitative aspects of psychology, while MS programs focus more on research-oriented and quantitative elements.

Standard MA and MS programs usually comprise 30-36 credits and about two years of full-time study. However, some schools offer intensive clinical tracks that specifically prepare students for doctoral studies. These programs take longer and may require 60 credits or more.

Some programs require internships and/or field placements in clinical settings. Others make practical components optional or do not include them. If practical training and licensure preparation ranks among your priorities, you will need a program that specifically offers practicum.

The following subsections introduce common courses, admission requirements, and typical costs.

Master's in Psychology Courses

  • Advanced Research Methods: Building on undergraduate knowledge, this course explores advanced aspects of qualitative and quantitative research design.
  • Cognitive Neuroscience: This course examines the neuroscientific basis of cognitive processes in the human mind. It explores the nature and origins of conscious experience along with high-level functions, such as language, memory, and creativity.
  • Foundations of Psychopathology: Psychopathology is the study of abnormal cognitive processes. In this course, students investigate the origins and developmental paths of mental disorders and illnesses.
  • Psychology of Personality: This course reviews both historical and contemporary theories of personality, emphasizing personality development and its ties to a person's sense of self.
  • Psychopharmacology: More commonly found in MS programs, this course introduces the scientific study of drugs and medications on brain functions, including mood, cognition, judgment, and behavior.

Master's in Psychology Concentrations

  • Clinical Psychology: Clinical psychology tracks emphasize research and psychological testing methods. They prepare students for doctoral studies, mental health counseling careers, and careers in lab-based settings.
  • Educational Psychology: This emphasis focuses on cognitive development across the lifespan. It examines the psychological processes associated with learning, memory, motivation, and cognitive development.
  • Health Psychology: Health psychologists draw on the scientific aspects of professional practice to help prevent illnesses and improve health outcomes for targeted populations.
  • Industrial-Organizational (I-O) Psychology: I-O psychology examines how structured organizations like workplaces impact human behavior. This specialization may lead to advanced careers in areas, such as human resource administration.
  • Social Psychology: This concentration focuses on how people function within and interact with groups, institutions, and large social structures. Some schools offer consumer psychology as a sub-specialization in this emphasis area.

Master's in Psychology Admission Requirements

To qualify for a master's in psychology, you need a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited institution. While an undergraduate major in psychology may strengthen your application, some schools do not firmly require it. However, you should demonstrate mastery of foundational concepts in psychology through your bachelor’s-level psychology prerequisite coursework.

If you lack the necessary academic prerequisites but otherwise meet admission standards, you may still have a path to entry. Some schools allow applicants to complete foundational course sequences to earn full program standing.

In addition to an institutional application and academic transcripts, expect to provide:

  • A statement of purpose
  • Multiple letters of recommendation
  • A resume or CV

Graduate schools typically look for undergraduate grade averages in the B range. Academic performance standards may apply to all college courses, or only to psychology components. Some schools have two different academic performance standards: one for overall coursework and one for psychology coursework. It depends on the school.

Learn more by consulting this application guide for graduate psychology students.

Paying for a Master's in Psychology

Graduate school comes at a high cost. At the median, tuition fees reached $11,766 per year at public institutions and $24,534 per year at nonprofit private institutions in 2021-22. Mean averages were even higher, as detailed in the table below.

The best financial aid options take non-repayable forms, such as scholarship programs, fellowships, and grants. It will also help to follow best practices for student budgeting.

As a last resort, consider federal or private loans to help you cover remaining funding shortfalls.

Average Annual Tuition and Fees for Graduate Study, 2021-22

$12,596
Public Institution

$28,017
Private Institution

Source: NCES

What You Can Do with a Master's Degree in Psychology

With a master's in psychology, you can pursue doctoral degrees and licensure opportunities. You may also elect to enter the workforce. To that end, consider these career options:

Careers with a Master's Degree in Psychology

Mental Health Counselors

Mental health counselors evaluate and advise clients going through challenges related to addiction, behavior, and mental illness. They design and implement treatment plans, track client progress, and guide the recovery process. States require addiction and behavioral counselors to obtain and maintain a license.

Median Salary (2023): $53,710

Marriage and Family Therapists

Marriage and family therapists assist couples and families in examining and addressing problematic behavioral dynamics. They strive to help clients overcome differences, bridge gaps, and build healthier relationships. Marriage and family therapists typically train by pursuing specially accredited degrees in psychology, counseling, or similar mental health disciplines.

Median Salary (2023): $58,510

Industrial-Organizational Psychologists

These professionals typically work for businesses, where they apply psychological science to organizational functions. Many focus on boosting employee morale and maximizing organizational potential and productivity. Beyond human resource management, I-O psychologists may also perform organizational analyses or help guide operations, management, marketing, and/or sales initiatives.

Median Salary (2023): $147,420

Additional Education After a Master's Degree in Psychology

After completing a master's in psychology, you may qualify to pursue a doctorate. A doctoral degree opens a path to psychologist licensure — a major goal for many graduate psychology students.

Doctoral Degree

  • Typical Duration: 4-7 years
  • Median Weekly Earnings: $2,109
  • Potential Careers: Clinical psychologist, counseling psychologist, forensic psychologist

Is a Master's in Psychology Right for You?

To figure out if a master's in psychology is right for you, take stock of your academic goals and long-term career plans. If you plan to pursue a doctorate one day, a master's is an essential step.

The same is true for many counseling careers. State credentialing boards typically consider a master's the minimum level of educational attainment to qualify for licensure.

Master's programs also help students develop advanced and focused skills for specialist practice areas such as I-O psychology. This career path represents one of the best-paid options available to professionals with a master's degree.

However, you might want to consider other options if you are unsure whether you want to pursue a psychology-focused career. Undergraduate degrees in psychology and similar fields translate well to graduate programs in human resources, marketing, business administration, and many other areas.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Master's in Psychology

Is a master's in psychology useful?

A master's in psychology leads directly to doctorate programs, licensure-track counseling careers, and paths in industrial-organizational psychology. If these or similar educational or professional pursuits are part of your future plans, a master's degree may well prove very useful.

Standard MA and MS programs in psychology typically demand about two years of full-time study. Some schools offer clinical psychology tracks in their master's programs, which may involve higher credit requirements and greater time investments.

Students typically find master's programs in psychology academically challenging. Curricula cover highly technical and complex concepts that engage both qualitative and quantitative reasoning skills. You need a combination of academic ability, commitment, and tenacity to succeed in your program.

It depends on your post-graduation plans and career goals. In general, MA programs emphasize applied theory and qualitative aspects of psychology that benefit counseling and advocacy careers. MS programs have a stronger science focus, which makes them more relevant for clinical career tracks and further study at the doctoral level.

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