How to Choose a Program

When you are trying to find the best psychology program for you, it is integral to go through the proper steps in researching multiple schools and programs to compare minimum graduation requirements, available concentrations, program and school accreditation, and the cost of attendance. You should also be familiar with school specifics such as how many people are admitted into a program per term, whether programs are available online, if internship opportunities are available, and how long it takes the average student to graduate. The following guide will help answer these questions and outline some of the crucial factors that should be taken into consideration when you decide to start looking at psychology programs.

One of the first factors to consider is whether you are looking to take classes online or on campus. On-campus learning is more traditional and comes with many benefits, including face-to-face interaction with faculty and fellow students, access to a school's full library, on-campus research opportunities, and honor societies. Students who learn best through working with course materials find the most success in traditional brick-and-mortar settings.

Over the past decades, online programs have become increasingly more common and sophisticated. Many online programs can be taken from anywhere in the country, regardless of a student's state of residence. Online classes are often offered at a lower cost than their on-campus counterparts. However, since taking classes online relies entirely on an individual's ability to self-motivate and complete coursework, this requires a great deal of discipline and organization -- though many students thrive in being able to choose their own schedule.

It is a common misconception that online programs are simpler than their on-campus counterparts. However, as online and on-campus programs often follow the same curriculum and are taught by the same faculty, earning your degree online will prove just as difficult as earning it on campus.

Factors to Consider When Choosing an Online Psychology Program

Hybrid/Blended Learning

For students residing in the same state as the school they are attending, many programs offer what is known as a hybrid/blended program. These programs are offered through a variable blend of online classes and on-campus learning. On-campus time is usually flexible for students working while earning their education; classes are often offered during nights or on the weekend and only on certain days throughout the week. Other hybrid programs are primarily online with on-campus learning restricted to a number of meetings throughout a term or an on-campus orientation at the onset of the program. These hybridized programs have the benefits of a distance education while also offering opportunities for students to meet each other, as well as professors and faculty.

Synchronous or Asynchronous

Programs are offered either synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous programs follow a model similar to traditional, on-campus courses. Students are required to attend classes at a predetermined time by logging into a school's online education portal through streamed lectures, live chat rooms, or video conferences. These courses allow students to ask questions and communicate with one another directly and are beneficial to individuals who may have trouble independently motivating themselves to complete online coursework. Asynchronous courses have no set class time, which can be beneficial for those with careers, families, and other daytime commitments. Students are able to access pre-recorded lectures, assignments, reading materials, and course discussion boards at any hour. It is common for teachers of asynchronous programs to require students to check in periodically and confirm that readings are being done and assignments are turned in according to schedule.

Class Size

Many prospective online students do not think of class size when considering a distance program, but these classes are far from one-size-fits all. Schools may limit course enrollment similarly to on-campus classes by capping admission at 15 or 20 students, but other schools may not have any limits at all. It is common for larger schools to have thousands of students, both nationally and internationally, completing the same course. In choosing the best psychology program for you, consider how much hands-on interaction you may need from your instructor. Teachers of these uncapped classes will almost certainly not be able to offer as much feedback as those responsible for only 20 students. According to the U.S. News & World Report, the most successful online programs had only 15 to 20 people enrolled, allowing teachers the optimal interaction with their students.

Personal Learning Style

Related to considering your optimal class size, it is important to determine your own personal learning style. Individuals with strong organizational skills and the ability to self-motivate will do better with online, asynchronous coursework than students who need to interact with course materials directly. Various programs have different methods to overcoming the pitfalls of an online education. For example, hybridized courses provide a bridged option for students who need some hands-on learning, but are otherwise capable of completing coursework independently. Other programs mandate students communicate with one another over discussion boards and chat rooms in order to share ideas. Most distance learning programs have live/pre-streamed lectures available online for students to watch at any time for study purposes.

Clinical Components or Internships

Many psychology programs require internship or clinical hours prior to graduation, particularly at the master's or the graduate level. These upper-level programs often require students to gain on-the-job experience through supervised clinical training or an internship at an approved facility. Clinical hours are often supervised and signed off by a licensed, clinical psychologist. In some cases, your school may accept internship or clinical hours in place of some college credit. Online programs that mandate internship completion provide students with a list of acceptable facilities -- such as clinics, hospitals, and research centers -- from which to earn credit. It may be more complicated to meet regional internship standards if you are enrolled in an out-of-state distance program, so it is important to determine a school's credit requirements prior to application or enrollment.

Accreditation is a form of educational validation for universities and colleges and the standards are set by peer review boards composed of faculty members from a number of accredited institutions. Institutions that uphold these standards guarantee a minimum level of education and are considered more esteemed than unaccredited institutions. By attending an accredited school, you guarantee that your education will cover the necessary requirements to entering your chosen career field post-graduation.

Accreditation of specific schools and programs can vary by region, so it would be beneficial to research your state's educational requirements of psychological professionals, especially if you are attending an out-of-state, online program. Graduates and transfer students from accredited schools are more likely to be admitted by other accredited institutions.

In many cases, a school's online degree follows the same curriculum and is taught by the same faculty, therefore most online and on-campus programs typically receive the same accreditation. That said, it is still important to be sure that any given online program is accredited prior to enrollment.

National vs. Regional Accreditation

There are two primary forms of accreditation: national and regional. Regional accreditation is generally considered more common and more prestigious than national accreditation. The majority of all universities in the U.S. have been regionally accredited. There are six regionally accrediting bodies, and each of these bodies are associated with a specific division of the country and may have slight variances in their educational requirements. National accreditation agencies are not organized by or limited to geographic areas and may have a broader standard of what the criteria is for an acceptable curriculum. These national agencies more commonly focus on vocational, career, and trade education.

Regionally accredited credits are considered the easiest to transfer because regionally accredited programs are more common. In many cases, transfer students from nationally accredited institutions have a hard time transferring their credits because there are few other schools in the country that offer particular classes or that can verify the validity of a curriculum.

Programmatic Accreditation

Programmatic accreditation is also referred to as professional or specialized accreditation. It is designed for specialized programs, schools, and colleges within a larger university that have already received overall accreditation. Agencies responsible for programmatic accreditation look at specialized areas of a college or department that make it unique. Specialized accreditation is awarded to programs that have superior curriculums and faculty members, and these programs can be professionally accredited at either the national or regional level. Most programmatic accreditation for psychology programs comes from the American Psychological Association (APA). The APA is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council on Higher Education and primarily dictates the quality of internships, doctoral training programs, and postdoctoral residencies.

Another key part of choosing where to earn your degree is to have an idea of where you would like your career to go, as what you plan to do after graduation may heavily influence the school or program you attend -- there are as many psychology specialties as there are programs. Students who know what they would like to do with their psychology degree benefit from attending a school with specialities and concentrations in their area of interest. Those who are unsure may be better off searching for a school with a reputable, general education in psychology prior to entering a specialized program. Below are some program outcomes and factors that may help students determine the best path to their desired career.

Degree Level

Careers in psychology are often heavily influenced by the level of education a professional has earned. As psychology careers often involve healthcare and working with patients, many careers in this field require a minimum of a bachelor's in psychology or a related field from an accredited institution. The below chart offers an outline of psychology careers accessible at various levels of education and their corresponding salaries.

Associate Degree

Associate degrees in psychology usually require 60-65 course credits. Coursework covers general psychology, child psychology, statistics, theories, and terms typical in this field.

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Bachelor's Degree

Bachelor's in psychology provide a generalized education in this field while also offering various concentrations and specialties. Many employers in psychology fields require applicants to hold at least a bachelor's.

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Master's Degree

Advanced positions in psychology frequently require applicants to hold a master's. Most master's programs consist of 36 credits comprised of STEM topics and advanced coursework in psychology.

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Doctoral Degree

Doctoral degrees often lead to the most advanced, high-paying careers in psychology. These degrees may take 5-7 years to complete, and programs frequently require supervised clinical and internship credits.

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Psychology Specialities

Students interested in pursuing a career in a specific area of psychology will benefit from attending a program that offers a concentration in their area of interest, and many colleges offer concentrations at the bachelor's level. Students looking to pursue a master's in psychology will almost always have the option to specialize their degree. Determining which specializations are available at any given school should be a prime factor when selecting the best school to meet your academic needs.

  • Clinical Psychology
    One of the largest psychology fields, clinical psychologists work in hospitals, clinics, counseling centers, and group practices in assessing and treating mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders.
  • Counseling Psychology
    Counseling psychologists utilize numerous techniques, such as testing and interviews, to advise patients how to deal with their everyday problems.
  • Developmental Psychology
    Developmental psychologists study cognitive, physiological, and social development that occurs throughout an individual's lifespan. These professionals can specialize in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and geriatric study.
  • Educational Psychology
    These psychologists conduct research in classrooms to determine the cognitive effects of teaching style, classroom dynamics, and learning variables on childhood development.
  • Forensic Psychology
    Forensic psychologists primarily study crime prevention, rehabilitation programs, the psychology of law, and courtroom dynamics.
  • Social Psychology
    Social psychologists study interactions between people and their social environment. These professionals often work in consulting firms, marketing offices, and in systems design.

Explore Psychology Careers

The chart below offers an outline of potential attainable careers with various levels of psychology degrees. Follow the links for a more comprehensive look at the educational and training requirements. Many careers in this field require a master's degree. Knowing what concentrations are available at any school will help in choosing the best graduate program in psychology for you.

Child Psychologist

Child psychologists may concentrate their work in developmental, adolescent, or abnormal psychology. Frequently, these professionals work as counselors, researchers, and advisors for educators and parents of children with psychological abnormalities.
Degree Required: Master's or Doctorate

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Clinical Psychologist

Clinical psychology refers to the diagnosis, assessment, and treatment of psychological abnormalities. These professionals are not considered medical doctors, though they may offer counseling and referral advising.
Degree Required: Master's or Doctorate

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Counseling Psychologist

Counseling psychologists teach patients how to live with and/or to overcome emotional, mental, and physical health problems.
Degree Required: Bachelor's Degree

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Educational Psychologist

Educational psychologists evaluate the various methods of teaching on student learning in order to determine how to best improve classroom instruction.
Degree Required: Master's Degree

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Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists typically work in prisons, jails, police departments, and law firms. Psychological assessment of individuals involved in the legal system is the primary focus of these psychologists.
Degree Required: Master's or Doctorate

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Health Psychologist

A further concentration of clinical psychology, this field is the study of how social, psychological, and biological factors affect wellness and overall health of an individual or group.
Degree Required: Master's or Doctorate

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Industrial Organizational Psychologist

These professionals are focused on group and individual satisfaction, health, and safety of employees in any number of fields. They observe, analyse, and interpret human behavior in professional environments.
Degree Required: Master's Degree

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School Psychologist

School psychologists work closely with school administrators, teachers, and parents to help students strengthen their emotional, behavioral, academic, and social skills.
Degree Required: Master's or Doctorate

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Sports Psychologist

Sports psychologists study the link between physical and psychological factors as they affect performance in athletic activities and competitive sports. These psychologists also must have also received training in physical medicine in addition to their psychological training.
Degree Required: Master's Degree

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The cost of a psychology degree depends heavily on the program in question. Accordingly, the higher the degree in question, the more likely an individual may be to receive financial aid or scholarship opportunities. Other key factors in determining one's financial aid eligibility are income, status as part-time or full-time student, and place of residence. Scholarships and financial aid are sometimes limited to tuition fees, but other grants may extend to cover lab fees, course materials, room and board, required immunizations, and various registration fees. Below, we go over different schools and how psychology programs may vary from institution to institution.

Public vs. Private Schools

Perhaps the largest contributing factor to the cost of a school is an institution's status as public or private. Public schools tend to be larger, and they offer more degree options due to increased interest and a higher student population -- though there may be fewer specialization opportunities.

Alternatively, private schools often come with higher prestige and a reputation for advanced, specialized programs. Private colleges have lower rates of admission, meaning that the student-to-faculty ratio is small, leading to a more hands-on learning environment. Due to their smaller populations and fewer broad-spectrum degrees, private school students may have more opportunities to concentrate their degree.

Public schools are typically less expensive overall because a great deal of funding is subsidized by the state. While public schools are generally less expensive, the smaller population of students at private schools allows for more generous scholarship opportunities. Those who attend public school are more likely to receive state-sanctioned financial aid while private school attendees receive more funds from alumni and school-specific scholarship programs.

In-State vs. Out-of-State Schools

Another factor in determining cost of tuition is a school's location. Individuals who attend school in state will pay, on average, half as much as a student attending the same program from out of state. Without factoring financial aid opportunities, students attending a public school in their state of residence will pay the least in tuition while students attending out-of-state private schools will likely pay the most. Public schools are more likely to admit residents of their state, and many scholarship opportunities at the public and private level take a student's place of residency into account. Out-of-state online learners may face less financial duress as many distance programs are offered with in-state tuition to all students.

The table below shows average in-state and out-of-state tuition for both public and private institutions.

In-State vs. Out-of-State College Tuition Prices
  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public Four-year In-State College $9,670 $9,970
Public Four-Year Out-of-State College $24,820 $25,620
Private Four-Year Nonprofit College $33,520 $34,740

Source: CollegeBoard

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Schools

Opting to complete a two-year degree prior to enrolling in a four-year institution may be another way to save on overall tuition costs. Public, two-year colleges often offer degrees for less than half the cost of a similar program at a four-year school. Even individuals looking to earn their bachelor's in psychology may benefit by earning their associate degree and transferring those credits to a public, four-year college. Students who complete college credits at a two-year school often find that these credits are easily transferred to a four-year school; this is especially common amongst in-state colleges. Some two-year schools even offer programs specifically designed for transfer into a bachelor's program.

The below table outlines the average costs of public two-year vs. four-year college programs.

Two-Year and Four-Year College Tuition Prices
  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public Two-Year In-District College $3,470 $3,570
Public Four-year In-State College $9,670 $9,970

Source: CollegeBoard

Online vs. On-Campus Programs

Opting to take an online program instead of earning a degree on campus may also be a factor in saving money. Tuition for distance education is often lower than traditional brick-and-mortar programs, and online degrees are often available at in-state tuition regardless of a student's state of residence. Schools that are solely online will have lower rates than those with campuses because of fewer associated facility fees. Additionally, many online colleges offer financial aid to full-time students.

Even without discounted tuition, an online education may still be more affordable than a traditional education. Attending college on-campus often requires a student to pay additional fees for parking, commuting, and room and board. The below table covers the average cost of room and board at public and private, on-campus programs.

Room and Board Fees
  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public Four-Year In-State/Out-of-State College $10,480 $10,800
Private Nonprofit Four-year College $11,850 $12,210

Source: CollegeBoard

Finally, a student may benefit from considering a program's academic reputation prior to committing to a school. While not the most important factor in selecting a school, an institution's reputation may help graduates attain prestige and assist in landing their ideal career or gaining admission to another highly reputable school in the future. Each of the following factors may be considered in determining the prestige of a school or program.

Graduate Job Placement Rate: Graduate job placement displays how many graduates of a program or school are employed and in what field. Many schools offer the percentage of graduates employed overall and the percentage of graduates employed in a relevant field. The latter qualification is more important for individuals looking to work in their field of study.

Teacher Credentials: Teacher credentials include information such as where faculty members attained their degrees, the level of degree faculty members hold, how long a teacher has held tenure, and whether or not faculty members are active in pursuing research and/or publishing their work. An active faculty indicates that a school is not offering a stagnant program.

Accreditation Status: As previously discussed, schools with regional accreditation are held in higher esteem. Accreditation indicates that a high standard of education is upheld by a given school or program.