For those who want to become a psychologist or psychiatrist, a master’s degree brings you one step closer to a doctorate or professional degree which is required to hold such a title. However, a terminal master’s degree can still provide the necessary knowledge and credentials for a number of other mental health careers. Learn more about online master’s degrees in psychology, including top colleges, what to expect in a program and potential career paths after earning the degree.
In crafting this year’s rankings for the best online master’s in psychology programs, we gathered data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, the U.S. Department of Education, and published materials from the universities highlighted on the list. The American Psychological Association only accredits doctoral-level programs, so each of the ranked schools below maintains regional accreditation to ensure all learners get a quality education. A list of regional accreditation agencies can be found via the U.S. Department of Education.
An online master’s program in psychology gives students a more comprehensive set of skills and also offers them an opportunity to gain specialized skills and knowledge to work or conduct research in a particular area. The majority of psych programs require between 30 and 60 credits; however, those seeking a counseling-related degree may be required to complete more than that. Some of the skills gained by completing a master’s in psychology include:
Specific course titles will vary by school and program but in general, some of the most common courses cover topics such as:
This course introduces students to the frameworks used in designing and evaluating psychology research. Students also learn how to use cost-effective analysis measures within mental health treatment.
Students in this class set out to learn why people behave and think in such different ways. Coursework looks at how to assess individuals as well as how evolutional psychology and neuroscience can be integrated.
This course takes a look at how the nervous system affects behaviors while also examining the psychological processes at play. In addition to reviewing various approaches to understanding behavior, students study things like action, cognition, motivation, perception and behavioral disorders.
Learners receive a full review of the various research methods employed in the discipline during this class. Specific topics include developing research frameworks, conducting experiments, and the necessary writing and presentation skills needed to effectively convey research findings.
This course focuses on the various development stages throughout the lifespan, with specific emphasis on how humans develop biosocial, cognitive and psychosocial competencies. Students also delve into abnormal development and how to accurately diagnose behaviors and issues.
After reviewing the many approaches to providing counseling and psychotherapy services to clients, students in this course put their learning into action. Degree seekers engage in counseling role-play in order to hone their skills in listening, analyzing and communicating.
Aside from the core curriculum and electives, all programs require students complete some type of culminating project to cap off their educational journey and gain hands-on experience. Some may also require students to pass a comprehensive examination. Common examples of culminating projects include:
Lasting one to three semesters depending on the program, practicums provide a space where students can use what they’ve learned in the classroom about growth and development, human services and assessments to help clients in a real-world, supervised setting. Depending on their interests, students partner with organizations ranging from hospitals or long-term care facilities to substance abuse homes or domestic violence shelters. After finding a site approved by their school, students work under the supervision of a licensed psychologist to gain real-world experience.
A great fit for those planning to work in a research capacity, theses allow students to engage in primary, independent research about a topic within psychology that proves interesting to them. As an example, those interested in cognitive and behavioral therapy (CBT) may explore how this method can be applied to a new area of the field, while others may want to develop a community-sourced research study. Regardless of topic, each student partners with a psychology professor who acts as a mentor and advisor throughout the research and writing process.
Capstone projects can be used to numerous ends and suit the needs of both future clinicians and researchers. Working alongside a faculty member, those completing capstones use all the skills and knowledge gained in their psychology program to address a timely topic. Examples include writing a literature review about a significant piece of field-specific research, designing an experimental method, preparing a case study or conducting and analyzing independent research.
When considering the type of mental health professional to become, students should review available specializations at prospective colleges to get a fuller sense of the possibilities. The following section highlights just a few of the available specializations at colleges and universities throughout America.
Offering an approach to the field that combines both experimental and clinical therapies, this concentration teaches students how to use the behavioral and cognitive sciences to help clients better their lives. Courses taught in this specialization include cognitive neuroscience, advanced behavioral statistics and sensation and perception.
Students who choose this specialization typically aspire to fill the traditional role that pops into most people’s minds when they learn someone is a mental health professional. In this concentration, students learn how to work with individual populations, including children, the elderly, couples or those with specific psychological disorders to provide treatment plans. Common courses include biological aspects of behavior, psychometrics and social behaviors.
The work of counseling and clinical mental health professionals overlaps in many ways, but a key difference exists. Clinical psychotherapists treat patients dealing with abnormal psychological or mental issues whereas counseling psychotherapists work with clients experiencing normal emotions and reactions to changes experienced across the lifespan. Common coursework in this specialization includes psychology of cognition and emotions, psychology of adulthood and aging, and vocational behavior.
Developed for students wanting to work with older populations, geropsychology give students the tools needed to work with clients dealing with the cognitive, emotional, physical and psychological changes that come with aging. Classes included in this specialization range from geropsychological assessments and interventions to adult development and aging.
Unlike other psychology specializations, this area is typically offered through a college’s School of Education. In this concentration, students study aspects of human growth and development, creation of preventative programs and intervention strategies with an eye toward supporting students as they make their way through primary, secondary and postsecondary educations. In addition to working with students, school psychotherapists convene with teachers, administrators and family members to determine the best ways to support each student.
According to APA, other specialties to consider include:
When considering an online master’s degree, prospective psychology students should research differences between online and campus before making their decision. While coursework offered in online and campus-based programs mirror one another, learners interact with the materials – and their peers and professors – differently. While those enrolled in a campus-based program may engage in face-to-face role play when discussing various modes of counseling, students enrolled online either schedule virtual video sessions or they watch prerecorded sessions to get a sense of how to provide services. Campus-based students give in-person presentations of final projects and capstones, while online students may create an interactive slideshow or video to demonstrate their knowledge. Those enrolled at a brick-and-mortar campus typically choose from a list of pre-approved practicum sites based on their interests, while students studying from afar often need find a suitable location within their community and receive approval from the school.
Though online master’s in psychology students need to do extra legwork, they benefit from the ability to set their own schedules, listen to lectures at their own time, converse with peers and professors at times best suited to their needs, avoid the additional costs of transportation, on-campus housing and meal plans, and work from any location in the world with a reliable, high-speed internet connection.
Another thing to consider is the type of practice you wish to pursue. While most of this guide focuses on traditional forms of counseling psychology, some programs offer a more integrative mental health approach, which focuses on more than the neurobiological and clinical perspectives of psychology and incorporates alternative/holistic frameworks and therapies.
Regardless of whether students decide to study virtually or in-person, most master’s in psychology programs take between one and three years of full study – with part-time options offered by most colleges – to move from matriculation to graduation. Depending on the state, and the desired job post graduation, a student will typically need an additional two to three years of licensure work, with supervised clinical hours. The number of supervised clinical hours varies per state, with California having some of the most rigorous licensure rules.
Online master’s degrees in psychology provide many pathways for graduates, with the majority of positions based in research, academia and client services. Becoming a general psychotherapist might seem like the most obvious route, but the following section highlights a few of the other careers available to those with a master’s degree in psychology.
Due to the heavy use of scientific methods in criminal justice, most forensic psychologists have at least an M.S. in psychology. Whether working as an independent consultant, a member of the military or as an employee of a social service agency or public safety organization, forensic psychologists use their skills to inform legal proceedings. They evaluate suspects and witnesses and make assessments about motives and truthfulness, testify in court cases, help select juries, organize focus groups and assess data surrounding criminal justice and the legal system.
After completing a master’s in psychology, undertaking supervised clinical work and receiving licensure in their state, marriage and family therapists use their skills to help children and families understand family systems dynamics and learn more effective coping strategies when they are struggling. Some work in private practice, while others take up positions at counseling centers, hospitals, substance abuse organizations or mental health agencies. MFTs provide both individual and couples/group therapy to help clients understand emotions of themselves and their loved ones, create strategies to change behaviors or circumstances and provide references for additional services when necessary.
The vast majority of states require school counselors to hold an M.Ed. in school counseling and take part in a practicum before receiving their license or endorsement. If working in an educational setting, some counselors may be required to have classroom experience. These professionals are found at the primary, secondary and postsecondary levels, working for both schools and education-related agencies. Common tasks include working one-to-one with students to understand their interests and abilities, identifying causes of poor behavior, helping students focus on their goals, supporting them in coping with stress and trauma, and conferencing with school staff, teachers, and parents.
Survey researchers help corporations, nonprofit organizations and private agencies alike in designing and carrying out surveys about specific topics, collating the data and analyzing the results. Many psychotherapists work in this profession as their skills in data, analytics and human behavior make them excellent fits. These positions typically call for an M.S. in psychology but some advanced roles may need a Ph.D. Licensure isn’t required, but additional certification in specific areas of research methods or survey methodology can help candidates stand out.
Individuals hoping to work as I/O psychologists typically need at least an M.S. in psychology to compete for jobs, although fewer states require these types of psychologists to be licensed for employment. I/O psychologists use their skills and knowledge to observe employee behaviors in various workplace settings and then use frameworks and methodologies to improve environments, overall performance, satisfaction and communication between employees and employers.
Even while still in school, professional organizations provide value to students. Many of the associations listed below offer special membership discounts for psych students, alongside access to career advice, job listings, opportunities for networking, information on practicums and admission to annual conferences. After reviewing the organizations highlighted in this section, students should do additional research to see if an association for their specific area of the field exists.
ABPP works to validate psychotherapists and provide consumer confidence by offering examinations and certifications in specialty areas. Aside form providing endorsements, ABPP is a great resource for learning more about available specializations and accessing up-to-date research.
ABPSI formed in 1968 and continues to fulfill its mission of bringing together black mental health professionals 50 years later. Membership provides access to local chapters, publications, regular programming, job details and the annual national convention.
ISPA has served mental health professionals who work at schools across the globe since the early 1970s via worldwide conferences and workshops, cutting edge research on child psychology and development, job postings, reference works and publications.
As the leading organization for mental health professionals in America, the APA counts more than 115,000 students and trained psychologists amongst its ranks. The association provides divisions for different subsets of the field, job listings, publications, research and career information.
Providing membership for professionals, students and educators, SIOP serves the needs of I/O psychologists through a range of benefits. Some of these currently include publication subscriptions, opportunities for networking, member savings, job listings and an annual conference.
Many states offer membership organizations for psychologists living and working in the area, with the Massachusetts Psychological Association offering just one example. Benefits include regular events, continuing education credits, student groups, lists of places where practicums can be done and an active listserv.
|Career||Entry-Level Salary (0-5 years)||Mid-Career (5-10 years)||Late Career (10-20+ years)||Job Growth, 2016-2026|
|Marriage & Family Therapist||$50,000||$55,000||$73,000||23%|
Many prospective students wonder about the differences between M.S. and M.A. programs. Generally speaking, psychotherapists and psychologists who focus more on the research and scientific aspects of the field and complete a master of science tend to earn more than their peers who pursue a master of arts to hone in on the counseling aspect of the field. Exceptions to this rule exist, so students should do their research to learn about projected salaries for roles that interest them.
As seen in the job growth column populated with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, regardless of degree type, jobs for psychotherapists and mental health professionals are predicted to grow significantly in the coming decade. Reasons for this growth include aging populations that are living longer, greater awareness of mental health issues and people turning to mental health professionals for support, an increase of veterans suffering from PTSD and other conflict-related traumas, and more access to mental and emotional health resources. The BLS expects the highest concentration of jobs to be found in hospitals, mental health centers, schools and social service agencies.
Some individuals who already hold a bachelor’s degree in psychology question whether they need to complete a master’s degree. The quick answer – it depends on the career they aspire to. If an individual wants to directly use their psychology degree within the field, they will need at least a master’s degree to move beyond an entry-level role. If their goal is to use their psychology skills and knowledge in a related field, a bachelor’s degree may be all they need.
In addition to types of careers, it’s also important to consider compensation. For comparison, the following table takes a look at a few common jobs that undergraduate psychology graduates are qualified for.
Many students hear the term “accreditation” used in reference to colleges and universities, but may not be well-versed in its nuances when picking an institution. For a school to receive accreditation, it must go through a peer-review process in which representatives of the accrediting body visit the school, observe classes, speak to stakeholders and ascertain whether the school adequately prepares students for life after college. Regional accreditation is considered the best type of status as the process for receiving it is extremely thorough. Students who don’t attend regionally accredited schools will likely have trouble receiving federal financial aid, transferring schools, receiving licensure and even finding a job, so it’s well worth it to find a properly accredited institution.
The other type of accreditation is programmatic, meaning discipline-specific accrediting agencies review individual departments and/or programs to ensure coursework meets requirements for the field. Within psychology, the accrediting agencies to know are the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System (PCSAS); however, these bodies only accredit doctoral level programs. Bachelor’s and master’s students should aim for regional accreditation. When in doubt, review the database of accredited postsecondary institutions, provided by the U.S. Department of Education.
When figuring out whether to complete a master’s in psychology degree, the question must be considered from multiple angles. One of the most important factors for many students is money, and for good reason. According to Peterson’s, annual graduate tuition for public and private institutions ranges between $30,000 to $40,000 and doesn’t cover additional expenses such as transportation, housing (for campus-based students), books and supplies.
Fortunately, numerous options exist to help students lessen the cost of college and avoid substantial student loan debt. Some places to find money include:
The first thing students should do when considering financial assistance is fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Learners can find more in-depth information about this process by checking out ACO’s various financial aid guides via the College Learning & Resource Center.
Many psychology departments provide discipline-specific scholarships for graduate students working towards a master’s in psychology. As an example, check out Missouri State University’s departmental scholarship page to get a sense of what to look for.
In addition to funding provided via colleges and universities, many public, private and nonprofit organizations offer discipline-specific scholarships to psychology students at the graduate level. The American Psychological Association is a good place to start when looking for this type of financial assistance.
In exchange for working as a teacher’s assistant during the school year, lots of colleges offer tuition remissions to help cut costs. Other programs provide research/travel stipends for students completing a thesis. As just one example, review the options provided at Ohio University to get a sense of what these look like.
Thanks to the flexibility of online master’s in psychology programs, many students find it possible to juggle both their academic and professional responsibilities. By keeping their jobs and paychecks, students can actively offset costs while still in school. And if you work at a psychology-related organization, you may even be able to receive tuition assistance. Talk to your human resources department to find out.
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