A master's in psychology is a graduate-level degree designed to prepare you for a career in psychology or a related field, including education, business, and criminal justice. The degree may be a Master of Arts or a Master of Science. For some people, it is a terminal degree. Others use it as a foundation for pursuing a doctorate.
A master's degree in psychology is often a step toward a career in psychology or counseling. Some states require this graduate degree for candidates to qualify for licensure. With this advanced degree program, you'll gain specialized knowledge of the principles of human behavior.
The courses you take in a Master of Psychology program will vary from school to school but might include research methods, psychology theories, and human development. Many programs feature courses in the following key areas:
Cognitive psychology: Explore the ways concepts like memory, language, learning, and decision-making influence the field of psychology.
Ethical practice: Examine the influence of moral principles on the field of psychology and instruction in conduct standards.
Personality theories: Learn about the concept of personality, including past and current theories.
Research methods: Learn how to collect and analyze data for research.
Social psychology: Study the ways people interact with each other and the societies in which they live.
You also take courses that relate to your area of study. For example, if you pursue a master's degree in experimental psychology, you may see classes like advanced statistics and research. The curriculum for a degree in forensic psychology may include courses that touch on the relationship between law and psychology and psychology in the courtroom.
Some schools have a list of prerequisite courses for students who do not have an undergraduate degree in psychology. These courses may include statistics, research methods, experimental psychology, or an advanced research course.
Compared to undergraduate degrees in psychology, graduate-level psychology degrees become more specialized. Depending on the program, you may be able to choose a concentration:
Clinical psychology: The study of the assessment, treatment, and prevention of mental illnesses and disabilities
Child and adolescent psychology: The study of the developmental needs of children and teenagers, including how to assess and interact with them
Consumer psychology: The study of consumer marketing, including perception, motivation, and market research methodology
Counseling psychology: The study of evidence-based intervention strategies to help individuals, couples, and families improve developmental and mental health issues
Forensic psychology: The study of the motivations and pathologies of criminals and their victims
Industrial and organizational psychology: The study of how people interact with and behave in the workplace
School psychology: The study of the relationship between child development and the school environment, including factors that affect a student's ability to learn
When choosing a concentration, consider your career goals and interests. Talking to someone who already works in the field can be helpful. Someone working in the field typically understands the nuances of the work that you may not find in a career guide.
In most cases, it takes around two years of full-time study to complete a master's in psychology program. However, how long you will spend working toward the degree depends on several factors, such as program requirements, specialization options, and status (full-time or part-time). Requirements like prerequisite courses or a culminating thesis can extend your time to earn the degree.
You may decide to get a master's in psychology if you have an interest in the field or have plans to pursue a job that requires the degree. All US states regulate the practice of psychology and have rules outlining the requirements for people who want to work in the field. In most states, you need a doctorate to open your independent practice. In that case, a master's degree in psychology can be a step toward a PhD or PsyD. If that's your career path, you'll be pleased to know that many schools connect their master's in psychology programs with doctorate programs, so you can often easily transition from one to the other.
At the same time, a master's degree may be sufficient for an entry-level position in a specific field. For example, some states will allow you to work under the supervision of a licensed psychologist if you have a master's degree. Although you will likely need at least a specialist degree to work as a school psychologist, you may be able to work as a psychometrist or diagnostician in the field.
A master's in psychology is a versatile degree, and people who have earned this type of degree work in various fields. You may decide to work in private practice as a counselor, but you have other options. The skills and knowledge you learn as you work toward your degree prepare you to work in many different fields, including:
Business: Project manager, data analyst, business consultant, industrial/organizational psychologist
Counseling: Addiction counselor, marriage and family therapist, mental health counselor, child counselor, grief counselor, school counselor
Education: Teacher, researcher, assessment coordinator, school psychologist, research assistant
Health care: Counselor, family services
Human resources: Employee trainer, recruiter, manager
Government: Family services, data analyst, project manager, mediator
Law enforcement: Mediator, recruiter, trainer
Marketing: Data analysis, advertising manager
For any job that involves interacting with people and understanding how they behave, your master's in psychology can come in handy. You have many other options if you're not interested in pursuing work as a psychologist.
Read more: What Can You Do With a Psychology Degree?
Explore whether a career in psychology could be a good fit by enrolling in a free course from a top university, like Introduction to Psychology from Yale University, Social Psychology from Wesleyan University, or The Science of Success from the University of Michigan.
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A key difference between a master's in psychology and a master's in social work is the perspective on the way people behave. A master's in psychology curriculum typically emphasizes the role of biology in explaining human behavior. A master's in social work curriculum tends to focus more on the history of social welfare and theories of human behavior. People who earn a master's in psychology often seek careers in research, human services, or forensics. Those who earn a master's in social work may work for social services agencies to assist people in stressful situations or in private practice.
Read more: Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree Guide
You may have to write a thesis to earn a master's in psychology if your chosen program requires it. Some schools give graduate students the option of writing and presenting a thesis. Completing a master's thesis can be beneficial if you plan to pursue a doctorate. It can help prepare you for your work as a doctoral candidate and may be useful as part of your admission packet.
You may not need a bachelor's degree in psychology before earning a master's degree. However, some schools may ask you to complete prerequisite courses in psychology before you can officially begin taking the classes you need to earn the master's degree.
A doctorate in psychology may be a better degree if you want to work as a clinician or teach at the college level. In some states, you need a doctorate to work as a psychologist in private practice. For some people, a master's degree is a cheaper and more practical choice. If your career plans don't require a doctorate and you aren't interested in doctoral-level work, a master's may meet your needs.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.