Psychology is the scientific study of the human experience. It encompasses how we behave, think, and feel, covering everything from the functions of the human brain to memory, personality, language, reasoning, and mental health. Psychology has such an extensive reach that it is difficult to find an area of contemporary society it doesn’t touch.
Therefore, psychology degrees open the door to a vast array of jobs in an equally vast number of industries and settings. Depending on their level of education and academic focus, psychology majors now go on to become market research analysts, labor relations managers, victim advocates, neuropsychologists, counseling psychologists, forensic psychologists, and domestic violence counselors—among many others.
Degrees with a psychology major are available at all levels, from undergraduate to doctorate, each preparing students to take on different professional roles in different industries.
Psychology Degrees at the Undergraduate Level: Associate and Bachelor Degrees in Psychology
Associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in psychology expose students to the basic principles of psychology, effective research, critical thinking, and personal development. Students of these programs typically use them in preparation for graduate study in psychology, or in similar fields like sociology, counseling, addiction rehabilitation, and social services.
In August 2013, the American Psychological Association (APA) developed the APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major, which represents the national effort to develop high-quality undergraduate programs in psychology. The APA Guidelines outline five goals and corresponding learning outcomes that every undergraduate program should strive for.
The learning outcomes identified by the APA represent two levels of development:
- Foundation (at the associate degree level)
These specified levels of development are meant to ensure that coursework is progressive so as to facilitate a smoother transition from community college programs to bachelor’s program.
The APA’s framework for undergraduate degrees in psychology includes the following goals:
Goal 1: Knowledge Base in Psychology
An undergraduate degree in psychology should include content that encourages students to demonstrate fundamental knowledge and comprehension of how psychological principles apply to behavioral problems through a survey of:
- Major psychology concepts
- Theoretical perspectives
- Historical trends
- Empirical findings
Students completing foundation courses in psychology should be able to demonstrate breadth of knowledge and apply psychological thought to simple problems.
Goal 2: Scientific Inquiry and Critical Thinking
Students in an undergraduate psychology program should develop scientific reasoning and problem solving skills, including research methods. Through the completion of foundation-level courses, students learn basic concepts in the following:
- Interpreting behavior
- Studying research
- Applying research design principles to drawing conclusions about psychological phenomena
Further, bachelor degrees programs in psychology should focus on theory use, as well as designing and executing research plans.
Goal 3: Ethical and Social Responsibility in a Diverse World
Psychology programs at the undergraduate level allow students to develop ethically and socially responsible behavior in diverse professional and personal settings.
Foundation-level courses in this area allow students to become familiar with formal regulations that govern professional ethics in psychology.
Goal 4: Professional Development
Professional development in psychology undergraduate programs involves:
- Applying psychology-specific content and skills
- Achieving effective self-reflection
- Attaining project management skills and teamwork skills
- Career preparation
At the foundation level, students learn about the work habits and ethics required to succeed in academic settings, while at the baccalaureate level, students prepare for post-baccalaureate employment, graduate school, or professional school.
Goal 5: Communication
Psychology degrees at the undergraduate level prepare students to demonstrate competency in writing and in oral and interpersonal communication skills.
Students at the foundation level should be able to:
- Write a scientific argument
- Present information using a scientific approach
- Engage in the discussion of psychological concepts
- Explain the ideas of others
- Express their ideas with clarity
Students at the baccalaureate level should be able to:
- Produce a research study or other psychological project
- Explain scientific results
- Present information to a professional audience
Psychology Degrees at the Graduate Level: Master’s and Doctorate Degrees in Psychology
While some pursue graduate programs so they can contribute new knowledge to the discipline of psychology, others pursue it so they can provide services to individuals or groups.
Therefore, graduate degree programs in psychology prepare students to study:
Psychology as a Discipline – Psychology is a broad discipline that is intricately interwoven with many of the social, natural, and physical sciences, such as sociology and anthropology. Many individuals pursue graduate studies in psychology so as to go on to engage in research meant to advance the field of psychology.
Students interested in research usually pursue a Master of Science (MS) or research doctorate (PhD) for careers in academic or basic research. Students of these programs learn about the core scientific principles of psychology, statistics and experimental procedures.
Psychology as a Profession – Many students pursuing graduate degrees in psychology have an interest in providing direct psychological services to individuals and groups. Like students that pursue psychology as a discipline, these students study the basic scientific principles of psychology. However, their education allows them to learn the skills necessary to serve clients and patients. Students interested in psychology as a profession usually pursue a master’s degree (MA or MS) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).
Master’s Degree Programs
Master’s degrees may be stand-alone (terminal) degrees, or they may be part of a doctoral program. Master’s degrees allow students to:
- Acquire the training and credentials required to enter a doctorate program
- Acquire the skills and knowledge to enter the workforce
According to the APA, the top three areas of study for psychology master’s students are:
- Counseling psychology
- Clinical psychology
- Industrial/organizational psychology
Many colleges and schools of psychology offering terminal master’s degree programs place a heavy emphasis on research and statistics. Core coursework in these programs typically include:
- Program evaluation
- Personality-related topics
Graduates of master’s degrees in psychology may work in a variety of settings, such as:
- Private business
- Mental health
Doctoral programs allow students to further explore a specialized subfield of psychology. PhD programs allow students to prepare for scientific research in psychology, although some PhD programs also offer training in providing psychological services. Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) programs prepare students to provide a service to individuals or groups through the application of psychological science.
Students interested in serving patients as a healthcare provider must achieve a doctorate and state licensure to practice. Most states require candidates for licensure to earn a doctoral degree through a program that has been accredited by the APA Commission on Accreditation (CoA) along with additional supervised training experiences.
The CoA accredits programs at the doctoral level in counseling, clinical, and school psychology, but does not accredit programs in other areas of psychology. The CoA does not accredit master’s degree programs.
Just some of the subspecialties in psychology that can be studied at the graduate level include:
- Clinical psychology
- Counseling psychology
- School psychology
- Industrial-organizational psychology
- Rehabilitation psychology
- Forensic psychology
- Behavioral and cognitive psychology
Admission Requirements for Graduate Programs
Students need not major in psychology in their undergraduate studies to gain admission into most master’s degree programs in psychology. Instead, most colleges and schools of psychology look for a general background in introductory or general psychology, experimental psychology with a laboratory course, and statistics. Many institutions, however, consider a candidate’s undergraduate grade point average and GRE scores.
At the doctorate level, however, admission requirements tend to be much stricter, with many institutions looking for candidates who have a master’s degree in psychology and preparation in the natural sciences or mathematics.
Other doctorate program admission requirements often include:
- Previous experience
- Clinically related public service
- Research/volunteer experience
- Admissions essay/interview
Most doctoral programs take between 5 and 7 years to complete. The sequence of education and training at the doctoral level varies depending on the area of psychology studied and the emphasis placed on research. Doctoral students would typically be expted to write and defend a dissertation or other scholarly project before graduation.
Graduates of doctorate programs in psychology interested in becoming a clinical, counseling, or school psychologists must then complete an internship of at least one year that directly relates to their psychology subspecialty.