Online Psychology Degree & Program Options

Finding the right online psychology program requires a big investment in time and energy. However, students don't have to go it alone. The following page help prospective students interested in pursuing a psychology degree through distance education locate those programs that best suit their needs. First, it provides a convenient way to search for online psychology degree programs from accredited colleges and universities across the country. Second, the page includes an in-depth guide to online learning in psychology, with focus on the degree progression and how to spot a quality opportunity. Find programs and learn more.

A Complete Guide to Online Psychology Degrees

The American Psychological Association defines psychology as the “study of the mind and behavior.” That’s a pretty broad definition. Given the breadth of the subject matter, and the depth of the mind, it’s no wonder that so many people find it a compelling choice as an occupation. With a few notable exceptions, the market for psychologists in the United States today seems well-stocked, with job growth through 2012 expected at just about the same rate as for all jobs in general, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s not to say that good psychology professionals won’t be in demand, but anyone planning to enter the field should be well aware of the importance of a quality post-secondary education, the kind that will provide the necessary foundation for career success. Individuals interested in working in the psychology field must be well armed with the information necessary to make the right career prep decisions.

The Online Psychology Degree Timeline

The psychology field encompasses a broad range of occupations, each with its own set of knowledge and skill requirements. Meeting those requirements takes a formal post-secondary education, and for working professionals or other students who need a flexibility, that could occur online. The key to success, then, starts by matching the right online psychology program to the right career path. The timeline is designed to help students determine what type of online degree best suits their needs and how long they can expect to spend earning it.

Online Associate Degree in Psychology – Two Years

If you are looking to become an actual psychologist the reality is that you will, at minimum, need to earn a graduate degree, most likely a doctorate. There are, however, plenty of individuals gainfully employed after earning either a bachelor’s or associate degree in psychology. Be aware, though, that your options in the field will be severely limited. Most graduates will find themselves applying their educations to jobs outside of the psychology field in areas such as business or education. Those earning a psychology associate degree online do have the option of continuing on up the education ladder by transferring to a four-year college or university, earning a bachelor’s degree and then moving on into a graduate program.

Online associate degrees typically require a two-year time commitment at a local community college. Students complete as much coursework online as possible, and interact with professors and peers in-person on an as-needed basis.

Online Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology – Four Years

The path to a master’s or doctoral degree, however, runs directly through a quality bachelor’s degree program. Fortunately for the distance learner, there are plenty of online psychology degree options available offered by some of the best public and private colleges and universities in the nation. Online bachelor’s degrees in psychology, like most subjects, will require a four-year time commitment, although many distance-learning programs are flexible and allow students more time if needed. Some programs are also flexible at the other end of the time spectrum, offering accelerated coursework that leads to degree completion in three years or less. No matter what the length of the program, all bachelor’s psychology students should expect to encounter coursework in a number of core subjects, such as:

Clinical psychology: Generally speaking, clinical psychology has to do with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness. Courses in clinical psychology cover subjects such as the theories and practices of the major schools of psychology, assessment of intelligence and personality, primary prevention and the effectiveness of treatment.

Developmental science: Developmental science deals with the changes that occur over the course of a lifetime, beginning with birth and infancy and ending with old age and death. Topics include social and emotional development, language and cognitive development and psychobiology.

Cognitive psychology: Cognitive psychology concerns the mental processes. It is the study of how we think, perceive, remember and decide. Course topics will include learning, reasoning, attention and language.

Social psychology: Social psychology studies the way individual human beings think, feel and behave in the real or imagined presence of others. Specific topics include social influence and attitudes, interpersonal processes and group processes and relationships.

Online bachelor’s degree students in psychology will additionally be required to complete a core general education curriculum and courses in math, chemistry, physics, computer science and others.

Online Master’s in Psychology – Six Years

At the master’s level, students will notice that degree titles begin to become more specialized. For example, schools may offer an online master’s degree in clinical psychology, school psychology or other specialized fields. Other schools title all master’s degrees under the general heading of psychology with students picking a specific area of study. Common specializations include child & adolescent development, forensics, industrial or organizational psychology, consumer psychology, applied psychology and many others.

Online master’s degrees are another staple of the distance-learning world. There are lots of them, offered by well-established schools and primarily online providers alike. A number of these programs can be completed fully online while others are offered in a hybrid format that requires some on-campus participation. A master’s in psychology prepares graduates to seek employment in a wide range of areas including education, healthcare, technology, sales and advertising, conflict management, government and human resources.

Online Doctoral Degree in Psychology – Eight Years +

As discussed earlier, most individuals with the professional goal of becoming a licensed psychologist will need to complete a doctoral degree program. There are two basic degree options: the PhD in psychology and the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). Both options take approximately four to seven years (beyond an undergraduate degree) to complete and require an internship component. All PhD and most PsyD programs require submission of a dissertation. Most importantly, both PhD and PsyD holders are eligible to obtain licensing as psychologists in all 50 states (with the successful completion of other state licensing requirements, of course.) The major difference between a PhD in psychology and a PsyD is that the PhD curriculum focuses more on research while the PsyD curriculum is focused more on clinical training.

Online doctoral degree programs in psychology are fewer in number than bachelor’s or master’s programs, but there are a number available offered by both traditional colleges and universities and primarily distance education for-profit schools.

Online Psychology Programs That Stand Out

A simple online search will not help in separating the quality online programs from the less-than-quality ones. To do that will take a little digging. The following is a list of some of the elements that make up a quality distance-learning program in psychology and a few tips on how to locate them:

Accreditation

Accreditation is among the most important elements to consider when choosing any post-secondary degree program. Accreditation assures students that the school and degree program they choose lives up to the rigorous standards set by the accrediting agency.

Colleges and their programs seek two different types of accreditation: institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation assesses the quality of the college as a whole and is administered in the United States by six independent regional agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Programmatic accreditation looks at specific academic programs within a school’s curriculum and is administered in most cases by private non-profit professional accrediting organizations. The most prestigious accrediting agency of post-secondary psychology programs in the U.S. is the American Psychological Association (APA). Many schools offering distance learning degree programs in psychology enjoy full institutional accreditation. Regarding programmatic accreditation, however the APA only accredits doctoral degree programs. Additionally there are no APA-accredited programs that use exclusively online methods of instruction.

Student Support and Resources

Success in an online degree program is much more likely when the sponsoring school provides a variety of important outside-of-class resources and services. Support services that all distance-learning students should insist on include career, academic and financial aid counseling, online tutoring, online library services and disability access. Of particular importance to distance education psychology graduate students is access to quality internship opportunities in a student’s geographical area. Some form of internship or other practical experience is almost always a prerequisite to state licensing, so prospective online psychology students should always look for an internship/experience component in their degree program.

Professional Licensure

In almost all cases, professionals in the psychology field will need to acquire some form of state licensure in order to practice in their jurisdiction. License requirements vary widely from state to state. Licensure for mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists, for example, is mandated for practice in most states. Such licensure typically requires completion of a master’s degree in psychology, counseling, marriage and family therapy or a related subject area as well as 2000-4000 hours of post-degree clinical experience. Additionally, prospective counselors and therapists will need to take and pass a state-mandated examination.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia require licensure of anyone practicing independently as a psychologist. Licensure requirements for most clinical and counseling psychologists will normally consist of a doctorate in psychology (from an APA-approved degree program, in some jurisdictions), one to two years of professional experience and passing of the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology.

The Importance of Psychology Certification

Not to be confused with state licensure is professional certification. While state licensure is an absolute requirement for practicing as a psychologist or other field-related professional, certification is voluntary and not legally required for practice. Obtaining professional certification is often very important to a successful practice, however, and may be required for practice by specific hospitals or clinics.

Certification is typically administered by private non-profit professional organizations and provides acknowledgement of expertise in a particular area or specialty. The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) is a major provider of professional board certification in the psychology field offering certification in specializations that include Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, Clinical Neuropsychology, Cognitive & Behavioral Psychology, Counseling Psychology, Forensic Psychology, School Psychology and nine others. Certification in most ABPP specializations requires that an applicant submit his or her credentials for review, submit practice samples for peer review and pass an oral examination. Forensic and clinical neuropsychology applicants must additionally pass a written test.

Other organizations that provide certification in the psychology field include the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Board of Professional Neuropsychology.

Interview with an Online Psychology Degree Holder

One of the best ways to learn about distance education in general and psychology programs in particular is to speak with someone who has been there. Students who are currently in or recently graduated from an online degree program can offer real-world insight into the practicalities of distance education. The following is a brief interview with an online bachelor’s degree in psychology student currently finishing up her senior year at the University of North Dakota.

What drew you to psychology in the first place?

I didn’t start out leaving high school knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I took a year off and worked in human resources and then I went to school for criminal justice. I actually have an associate’s degree in that. I noticed in my criminal justice courses that I was more interested in what motivated offenders and what was happening mentally with the victims, so I decided after finishing my associate’s degree that I would go for my bachelor’s in psychology.

Did you go straight from you associate program to your bachelor’s program?

Yes.

Did you begin your search for a bachelor’s degree course by looking at online programs?

I actually began my bachelor’s degree program in an on-campus course at a small liberal arts college. A family matter caused me to move back closer to home and to begin looking to finish my degree online. I wanted to look for an excellent program in psychology and I found a couple of different programs but ultimately decided on the University of North Dakota.

Was there anything in particular that put UND over the top for you?

The reputation of the school and coupled with the fact that at UND, whenever you take your degree online, they offer in-state tuition. And being able to save a little money that way meant a great deal.

What was the hardest adjustment that you had to make doing online coursework compared to being in a classroom?

One of the biggest adjustments is that you don’t have the network of peers to fall back on that you have with an on-campus institution. When you have an online class, you can rely on emailing or calling your professor and they’re very outstanding about getting back to you. But you don’t have that network of people that sit in the desks around you and that you can look over and say, “I didn’t quite understand that. What do think they meant?”

What’s your study routine?

Mine is probably a little different than a lot of people. I have a two-year-old daughter, so I’m with her during the day. Then whenever she goes to sleep at night, I spend all evening before I go to bed doing as much of my coursework as I can get done. It’s very important for me to schedule out times and deadlines that I plan to have things done by so that I can ensure that things are done early because, as people know, with a toddler it’s very hard to plan for the unexpected.

What has been the most beneficial quality of online coursework for you personally?

The flexibility has probably been the most beneficial thing I’ve found within the program.

How do you communicate with your classmates?

Most classes I’ve been in communicate in a discussion group through Blackboard and through blog posts. They even do a thing called a wiki page where you can develop information and classmates can comment back and forth on.

Do you intend to continue on with your education after you’ve completed your bachelor’s degree?

Yes, I’m intending to go on to graduate school and my master’s in social work. I intend to go online for that, also. I’ve applied to a few different schools but I haven’t really narrowed it down yet. My goal is to go into clinical counseling as a licensed clinical social worker.

If someone came to you and was thinking about earning a degree online, what would be your advice to them?

I would tell them to make sure that they are self-determined and self-reliant. If you have those qualities, I would recommend online education for anyone.