Is an Online Master's in Psychology Program For You?
In today's job marketplace, most positions in the field of psychology require applicants to possess advanced degrees. In turn, if you've completed a bachelor's degree in psychology, chances are that you're considering pursuing a master's degree. If you're a self-motivated and disciplined learner looking to advance in the field, you're wise to consider completing your master's in psychology online.
Now is a great time to consider these options: today you'll find many more online master's programs in psychology available than ever before, allowing you to choose the option that best reflects your priorities and learning style.
What Should I Expect from an Online Master's in Psychology Program?
How Long Does it Take to get a Master's Degree in Psychology?
While they vary in credit hours and completion time requirements, the average online master's in psychology programs hovers around 36 credit hours and takes about two years to complete. As a general rule of thumb, the more specialized or tailored the program (or the higher number of hours for field work or research activities required), the longer students can expect to take to finish the online psychology master's degree. Depending on the program or track, students earn either a master of arts degree, which employs a liberal arts-focused curriculum, or a master of science degree, which places more of an emphasis on STEM-related topics.
Online psychology master's degree programs generally offer only a full-time student option, but some offer part-time options as well. Schools that view interpersonal engagement as a valuable resource use a cohort model — meaning students move through online courses as a group so they can bond together and work on projects as a team. Students otherwise complete program courses individually and at their own pace.
What Classes Will I Take in an Online Master's Program?
As highlighted above, online master's programs in psychology courses may vary due to several factors, including whether a program yields a master's of arts or a master's of science, and whether a student decides to pursue a specialization. Most of these differences may be attributed to differences in elective requirements from institution to institution.
Core courses in many of the psychology master's programs online teach students theories and principles of human thought and behavior, how those change through different life phases, and how professionals use that information to assess mental competency. Below are descriptions of three common core courses:
A study of human development through life stages from conception to death. Content covers the normal developmental phases of the physical, mental, emotional, social, and cultural facets of humans, (along with topics such as personality development). Learners also assess factors that may impede normal development (and their impacts).
Skills Gained: Understanding and assessing developmental milestones from conception to death
Skills Gained: Research design, information gathering, and analytical thinking.
Skills Gained: Use of ethical codes and cultural sensitivity.
Concentrations Available for an Online Master's Degree in Psychology
Why do athletes experience performance slumps and what helps them get back on track? What guidance do high school students need to chart paths to meaningful careers? Why do people do what they do? A desire to better understand how people think and behave in specific situations plays a major role in why so many students choose psychology concentrations. Pursuing a specialization allows learners to develop useful expertises. Common concentrations in psychology master's programs online include:
- Forensic Psychology
- Forensic psychology exemplifies the overlap of the study of psychology and the criminal justice system. Forensic psychologists examine defendants and witnesses, provide their findings to attorneys and judges, and often testify as experts in courtroom trials.
- Educational Psychology
- Students who pursue a focus on educational psychology examine why students learn, what motivates them to learn, and how to assist them in the learning process. Educational psychologists research and develop instructional curriculum and educational technology for different types of student groups, including gifted learners and students with disabilities.
- Sports Psychology
- Sports psychologists work with athletes and coaches to maintain mental health and ensure high-level performance. They explore factors including injuries, self-perception, and motivation to assist athletes in their pursuit of peak mental, emotional, and physical condition.
- School Psychology
- School psychologists work with parents, students, and teachers to promote an environment conducive to successful learning. Taking a holistic approach, they focus on factors including family relationships, social interactions, and personal perceptions that can directly impact a student's capacity, desire, and willingness to learn.
- Clinical Psychology
- Clinical psychologists diagnose and treat clients with mental deficiencies and behavioral disorders, diseases, and addictions. They may specialize in the treatment of children, teens, or adults in settings including mental health facilities, schools, and private practice.
What's the Difference Between a Traditional and Online Psychology Degree?
Students completing an online master's degree in psychology qualify for the same employment opportunities as those with a traditional master's degree. Online and on-campus programs typically include the same curriculum and degree requirements, and differ only in the delivery format and, in some cases, faculty dedicated to online programs. Students should choose to pursue an online or traditional program based solely on their preferences and priorities.
Online: Among the most significant benefits of an online program, enabling students to choose the program and delivery format that suits their needs. Online schools offer more diverse program options that allow you to attend classes while working full time and maintaining personal obligations.
Traditional: Campus programs limit themselves to local and commuter students. Course schedules are set, though some schools also offer evening and/or weekend classes to accommodate working students. Students who prefer face-to-face interaction with instructors and peers benefit from the traditional learning environment.
Online: Students can access course materials and learning resources, and communicate with instructors through learning systems like Blackboard and Desire2Learn. Most libraries now operate a virtual database system for distance learners. Some online courses require a short on-campus residency or in-person component.
Traditional: Students use the same virtual tools as online students to access materials and resources, and communicate with instructors, but not as extensively. While students may contact instructors and use facilities in person, their work schedule and availability may conflict with regular office and operating hours on campus.
Online: Online learning requires self-motivation and discipline for success. Students should take advantage of the many resources available to them while studying online. A student who works full time with a family must prioritize activities to meet both personal and academic obligations in an online program.
Traditional: Completing coursework according to a set schedule makes it easier for some students to practice effective time-management. Students lacking self-motivation may benefit from engaging with classmates and instructors in person. Face-to-face interaction may also help deepen some students' understanding of the curriculum.
Are Online Psychology Master's Programs Cheaper than Traditional Programs?
Many factors affect the cost of an online graduate program, often discounted compared to a traditional program. Tuition and textbooks typically cost the same for students in both types of programs, though some schools offer reduced tuition for online students. Others offer compound savings for in-state students completing their degree online. Auxiliary fees account for the majority of the cost difference between online and traditional programs, potentially increasing a student's overall expenses toward earning their degree.
Traditional students incur additional fees for room and board or rent, whether they live on or off campus, respectively. They may also need to budget for transportation, fees for student activities or use of facilities on campus, technology fees, liability insurance fees, and childcare, if applicable. While online students qualify for exemption from fees for campus-based services, they may incur additional charges in technology fees, academic service fees, and exam-proctoring fees.
Overall program expenses also vary, depending on the type of graduate degree conferred. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the American Psychology Association, students who received a master's degree in psychology incurred an average debt of $60,000; those completing a Ph.D incurred an average debt of $78,000, compared to $146,000 for a PsyD.
How are Online Psychology Courses Different from Campus-based Programs?
Online and traditional classes offer the same course content, but differ in their method of delivery.
Online classes require access to a high-functioning computer and the internet, which students should expect to supply for themselves. Each online class lasts roughly six to seven weeks, condensing course content and, thus, shortening completion time of the degree. Classes may be asynchronous (non-structured, allowing students to move at their own pace), synchronous (students meet with instructors and classmates online at specific days and times), or hybrid (a combination of asynchronous and synchronous formats).
Traditional campus-based courses convene in a classroom on pre-scheduled days and times. Mandatory attendance often factors into a student's overall grade for the course. Classes usually follow a 15-week semester system, with classes meeting two to three times a week, or a 10-week quarter system with classes meeting daily. Both allow a longer period than online courses for students to absorb course content and complete assignments. Students still use technology, but can access it on campus if unavailable at home.
Do Online Psychology Master's Programs Require Students to be On-campus?
Do any of the Programs Have Labs or Clinical Work?
Online master's in psychology programs rarely require campus visits, if at all. Many programs meet exclusively online, while others require students to visit the campus for one or two weeks at a time. In-state students may take course exams on campus, while out-of-state students make arrangements to take exams at approved proctoring locations. Some online programs offer on-campus courses, though usually optional for distance learners.
Research-based master's programs in psychology do not require clinical hours because the degree does not prepare graduates to pursue state licensure. Certain specialties require that students complete practicum, internship, or field work hours, varying from 100 to 600 hours. Students may complete these hours at professional mental health locations pre-approved by the supervising faculty member or program director. Some programs offer students the option to substitute field experience for the capstone project, thesis, or comprehensive exam.
Do Online Students Still Qualify for Financial Aid?
Online and traditional students qualify for the same financial aid. The applications and deadlines for FAFSA and student loans apply to all students. Both types of students also qualify for applicable state scholarships. Some programs offer tuition discounts to in-state students.
Many schools award graduate students additional financial aid in the form of special scholarships or assistantships. Students with qualifying undergraduate GPA and GRE scores can apply for a faculty-led research or teaching assistantship. As a university employee, graduate assistants work roughly 20 hours per week, their tuition paid, and they receive a small stipend.
For more information on psychology scholarships, click here.
What License do I Need to Practice Psychology?
Generally, most online master's in psychology programs do not prepare students for state licensure because graduates at this level do not require licensure to practice psychology. However, students who specialize in certain concentrations, like clinical psychology, do need a license to practice. Though varied by state, the licensure process usually requires a doctoral degree and passing the examination for professional practice in psychology (EPPP). The EPPP measures a student's knowledge, understanding, and experience in the practice of psychology. Study guides and practice exams, widely available at varying prices, can help candidates prepare. Actual exam fees differ according to individual states.
Each state also determines its regulations and requirements for psychology licensees. Some states license master's level graduates, but only with verification that the school's curriculum included courses required by the state. Some states limit licensure to APA-accredited programs, others require more supervised training and experience beyond what school programs provide.
Students should contact the psychology board in their state of practice to learn what that state requires. For detailed licensure requirements, visit The Association of State and Provincial Board.
Careers for Graduates of Online Psychology Programs
Explore Psychology Careers
Choosing an Accredited Online Psychology Program
The online psychology program you choose should maintain accreditation—the process through which an outside regulatory group evaluates the quality of higher education against their own high standards. Four-year institutions voluntarily submit to the regional accreditation process, evaluating institutional operations and facilities, faculty credentials, degree curricula, and graduate preparedness. Institutions that meet or surpass regional standards receive accreditation status. Among the many benefits of accreditation, students can transfer course credits from one accredited institution to another.
Specific degree programs also receive additional accreditation status. The American Psychology Association (APA) evaluates both traditional and online master's programs in psychology. The largest member organization for professionals who practice and teach psychology, the APA sets policies that govern and advocate for ethical practice. This includes accrediting degree programs that meet the APA's standards of training to ensure that graduates can effectively and safely serve the public.