Masters Degrees in Psychology

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Whether as a stepping stone for students with their sights set on doctoral work in psychology, or for those entering or advancing careers in counseling, education, human resources, social work, or research, master’s degrees in psychology prepare students to affect change while working with individuals, organizations and communities.

Master’s degrees provide students with the opportunity to pursue a psychology subspecialty, whether for future doctoral work or to enter the workforce. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), about 30 percent of students who graduated with a master’s degree in psychology in 2012 enrolled in a doctoral or other professional program, while the majority entered the workforce, finding employment in a wide array of settings, such as:

  • Private business
  • Government
  • Schools
  • Mental health settings

Choosing a master’s degree program in psychology can be a rather dizzying endeavor, given the sheer number of options available. However, there are a number of ways to break down these options to gain a better understanding of how to approach earning a master’s in psychology:

The Difference Between a Master of Arts (MA) and a Master of Science (MS) in Psychology

In general, master’s degrees in psychology are available as either a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Arts (MA) in general psychology studies or in a recognized subspecialty of psychology, such as:

  • Clinical neuropsychology
  • Clinical psychology
  • School psychology
  • Clinical child psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • Industrial-organizational psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Family psychology
  • Behavioral and cognitive psychology
  • Rehabilitation psychology
  • Geropsychology
  • Sleep psychology

The Master of Social Work (MSW) is also often categorized as a master’s degree in psychology.

MA and MS programs in psychology tend to be fairly fluid, allowing students to focus their graduate program on more than one area of psychology or a combination of two or more areas.

In general, MA degrees in psychology place a stronger emphasis on advanced statistical analysis and research methodology, whereas MS degrees often focus more heavily on counseling and the behavioral sciences. Still – there are exceptions to these general rules when it comes to master’s degrees in psychology.

The major difference among master’s degree programs in psychology is whether they prepare students to enter the workforce upon graduation or whether they serve as a stepping-stone to doctoral work:

The Differences Between Terminal and Doctoral Preparatory Master’s Degrees

Master’s degrees (whether MA or MS degrees) are structured in one of two ways:

  • Terminal stand-alone degrees that prepare graduates to enter or advance in a specific psychology specialty
  • Doctoral preparatory master’s degrees

Terminal Master’s Degrees in Psychology

Terminal master’s degrees in psychology prepare students to pursue applied psychology careers. Terminal master’s degrees are most often designed as Master of Science (MS) programs, although there are exceptions to this rule.

Completing a terminal master’s degree prepares students to serve as counselors, therapists, and educators in a variety of settings. Terminal master’s degree programs in psychology prepare graduates with:

  • A solid foundation of knowledge in theoretical and empirical research
  • A mastery of skills required to address maladaptive behaviors
  • An understanding/sensitivity of multicultural issues in the community and in counseling
  • A comprehensive knowledge of professional ethics and responsibilities

Terminal master’s degrees often require students to complete a supervised experience through approved internship sites. Some programs also require the completion of a thesis project.

Terminal master’s degree programs prepare students for immediate employment in applied psychology settings. Many graduates of terminal master’s degrees work in community mental health centers or treatment facilities where they are involved in assessment, behavior management, the provision of intervention services, and counseling, among others.

Master’s-prepared professionals in psychology may be:

  • Counselors
  • Social workers
  • Marriage and family therapists
  • School counselors

Graduates of terminal master’s degrees in psychology also often pursue industrial-organizational psychology positions in private business and government settings, where they lend their expertise in any number of areas, including human resources, employee assistance, personnel management, and employee relations.

A recent job search (January 2016) reveals a wide array of job opportunities for professionals that possess a master’s degree in psychology. Although the following jobs are not a guarantee of employment, they do provide insight into the many opportunities for master’s prepared professionals in psychology:

  • Intensive Case Manager: Community Housing Partnership, San Francisco, CA
  • School-Based Therapist: Headway Emotional Health Services, Savage, MN
  • General Counselor: Los Angeles Community College District, Los Angeles, CA
  • Mental Health Counselor, Head Start Program: Jefferson-Franklin Community Action Corporation, Hillsboro, MO
  • Organizational Effectiveness Partner: Alameda Health System, Oakland, CA
  • Manager Therapy Services: Harris County, Houston, TX
  • Service Coordinator, Supporting Housing: Goodwill of Southwestern PA, Pittsburgh, PA
  • Brain Trainer/Clinic Coordinator: Abbey Neuropsychology Clinic, Palo Alto, CA
  • Drug and Alcohol Counselor: Axiom Family Counseling Services, Greensburg, PA

Doctoral Preparatory Master’s Degrees in Psychology

Doctoral preparatory programs, most often designed as Master of Arts (MA) degrees, generally follow the Scientist-Practitioner Model of Clinical Psychology. Schools that offer doctoral preparatory master’s degrees in psychology also typically offer PhD/PsyD programs in psychology. Therefore, students entering these programs are often expected to progress to the PhD/PsyD upon completing their master’s degree.

Most of these programs emphasize research in psychology and therefore require the completion of a thesis for graduation. Research opportunities in these programs may also be available as independent research projects completed under the direction of a faculty member. Doctoral preparatory master’s degrees allow students to build their own research agenda. Research mentorship in a master’s degree program is designed to prepare students to take on an increasing level of independent work in preparation for their doctoral program.

Coursework in these master’s programs in psychology usually include specific research methodology and statistics courses and study in psychology foundation areas, such as:

  • Cognitive
  • Neuropsychology
  • Developmental
  • Social
  • Clinical
  • Community/cultural psychology

A large portion of these programs is spent deciding on and being approved for a thesis research topic, and then subsequently completing a thesis. A doctoral preparatory master’s degree program usually culminates with the student petitioning for admission into the school’s PhD/PsyD program.

Admission Requirements for Master’s Degree Programs in Psychology

The admission process for a master’s degree program in psychology can be rigorous, requiring students to have completed specific undergraduate courses in psychology, one or more psychology labs, and a research methods/statistics course. Many programs also require students to display a comprehensive sampling of undergraduate courses related to learning, development, biological psychology, and cognition.

The majority of master’s degree programs in psychology do not require students to possess an undergraduate degree in psychology.

It is commonplace for institutions to require candidates to also possess the following:

  • Minimum GRE scores
  • Minimum undergraduate GPA
  • Letters of recommendation
  • A curriculum vita or resume

Online and Part-Time Master’s Degree Programs in Psychology

In addition to deciding which type of master’s degree best aligns with their professional goals (terminal vs. doctoral preparatory, general degree vs. specialized degree), students often choose a master’s degree program that best fits with their lifestyle and professional demands:

  • Online Programs: A number of institutions now offer either partially or fully online programs, which provide students with the flexibility they need to complete their master’s degree program in psychology through web-based coursework. The growth of online master’s degree programs have created new opportunities, allowing students to complete programs they may not have otherwise had access to due to being limited only to the programs available within commuting distance.
  • Part-Time Programs: Part-time programs allow working professionals to complete their master’s degree in psychology through a less time-intensive program. While traditional master’s degrees in psychology take about two years to complete, part-time programs can take between 3 and 5 years to complete.
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