While years of training and advanced education are needed to become a clinical psychologist, such an investment often pays off, with clinical psychologists earning an average salary of more than $74,000 in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While there are several possible paths to becoming a licensed clinical psychologist, an online undergraduate degree in psychology is one way of beginning the process. Students should ensure that a program is accredited by an established educational organization, offers sufficient scheduling flexibility, has an excellent reputation, and provides access to research opportunities.
Clinical psychology is a specialized branch of psychology that draws upon multiple disciplines to provide comprehensive care to individuals dealing with intellectual, social, mental or behavioral health issues. These problems range from short-term work or personal stress to severe chronic conditions such as depression or schizophrenia.
The American Psychological Association (APA) regulates clinical psychology education at the graduate level, but does not do the same at the undergraduate level. In turn, there are few, if any, clinical psychology programs at either the associate or bachelor’s degree level. This lack of online clinical psychology degree options is not a problem for future clinical psychologists, however. A broad undergraduate education in general psychology is recommended by both the APA and some graduate schools. The breadth of coursework offered at the undergraduate level is considered vital to preparing future graduate students for the challenges of studying clinical psychology in master’s and doctoral degree programs.
Because of the nature of the subject matter, an online environment can enrich the learning experience of psychology students. Undergraduate psychology programs are foundational in nature, exposing students to the core fundamentals of the field, including the biological framework of human behavior, the principles of psychotherapy, and the philosophical underpinnings of psychology.
Online approaches generally lend themselves well to situations in which students are learning fundamental precepts instead of specific clinical skills, and where a greater degree of independence allows them to take a more individual approach. Still, it is important to note that as students progress into graduate programs, face-to-face instruction is critical to their training; these experiences are essential for building mentor relationships with faculty, developing competency in assessment techniques, and acquiring clinical skills that are specific to their future careers.
Distance learning programs are designed to meet the same academic standards as those of their traditional on-campus counterparts. The instruction is not watered down, and students are not expected to deliver less rigorous effort. Indeed, online classes are just as challenging, and in some cases even more demanding than classroom-based courses.
The difference lies solely in the way the material is delivered. Traditionally, online psychology programs are offered in two formats: fully online and blended. Fully online programs allow students to complete an entire degree online, without requiring their physical presence in a classroom, while blended programs combine online and face-to-face instruction. With either format, students can complete their education largely on their own schedule. However, online classes may be delivered in asynchronous (self-paced) or synchronous (real-time) formats, with the latter requiring a commitment at a specific time. Both fully online and blended options share many of the same components; the list below offers an overview of elements of an online program in psychology:
Also known as a Learning Management System (LMS), these are software applications responsible for the administration, delivery and reporting of online education. They allow students to access course materials, turn in assignments, respond to other students’ queries, or check grades. Common content management systems include Blackboard, Moodle, and Edmodo.
Online classes use standard classroom instructional materials (books), along with supplementary readings, online assignments, and online lectures. Lectures may be delivered in text-based or video format. In most cases, students may download or access their course materials through the school’s course management system.
All online classes use computers and an Internet connection for course delivery. However, specific technology requirements (e.g. Mac versus Windows) vary from program to program.
Online psychology courses are typically instructor-led, not self-paced. Assignments have certain deadlines, and students are expected to meet other requirements for interaction, such as responding to peers’ work or having online discussions with the instructor. Classes are usually divided into modules that last two or three weeks each and are contained within a traditional school semester, trimester or quarter.
Online psychology bachelor’s programs generally include an in-person training component that takes the form of an internship or field experience. Students work with a placement coordinator or faculty member to arrange an internship opportunity in their local area.
As noted above, a doctoral degree is the typical minimum educational requirement to legally practice as a clinical psychologist. For many students, the associate degree is the first step in the journey to earning a doctorate. Curriculum at the associate level is designed to give students a basic understanding of the foundational theories and concepts of psychology and prepare them to transfer to a four-year institution. Although the specific curriculum varies by program, students should look for one that does the following:
Curriculum is generally divided between general education courses, electives, and classes that satisfy the major requirements in psychology. Although the psychology courses are introductory in nature, the breadth of instruction lays an important educational foundation for future clinical psychologists. Taking classes in abnormal psychology, social psychology and applied psychology can be beneficial as students prepare to transfer to a bachelor’s program. The table below outlines common courses students may encounter in an online associate program in psychology:
|Introduction to Psychology||
Offers an introduction to the major methods, concepts and theories of modern psychology. A range of topics is covered, including the history of psychology; human development; applied psychology; and the foundations of behavior.
|Introduction to Biological Psychology||
Provides an overview of the biological underpinnings of human behavior, including emotions, memory and perception.
|Critical Thinking in Psychology||
Teaches students how to write and think critically, developing technical skills in analysis and evaluation as they relate to psychological principles.
|Introduction to Research Methods||
Explores the principles of research and the methods psychologists use to study human behavior. Common topics include the scientific method; designing experimental research; research reporting; and experimental instrumentation.
|Introduction to Social Psychology||
Examines the concepts of social psychology, and how they govern how people interact, think and behave in a social context.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 1,400 universities offer bachelor’s degree programs in psychology, with the number that provide online options increasing each year.
Students majoring in psychology may use bachelor’s degrees as launchpads for graduate school, and the APA recommends that students with this goal seek out undergraduate classes that introduce them to a wide array of psychology-related topics. Although curricula vary by program, upon completing an online bachelor’s in psychology students should have gained a solid understanding of the foundations of the field of psychology, as well as research methods, data analysis and statistics.
Online classes are divided into general education courses, electives, and major requirements. Students should take foundational courses in psychology-related areas, such as anatomy and physiology; biology; communications; mathematics and statistics; anthropology; and sociology.
Major requirements are generally divided into lower- and upper-division courses, getting more in-depth as students progress. The table below provides a sampling of courses that future clinical psychologists can expect during their undergraduate education:
|Introduction to Psychology||
Serves as an introduction to the important principles of psychology, including research methodologies, the various sub-fields of the science, and the history of psychology.
|History of Psychology||
Examines psychology from a historical perspective and introduces students to central concepts in psychology, its various branches, the development of psychology as a scientific system, and trends in the field.
|Introduction to Human Behavior||
Teaches students about fundamental theories of human behavior and management.
Explores the social, cognitive, emotional and physical factors that impact the development and growth of children, from birth to adolescence.
|Statistics for Psychology||
Provides an introduction to statistics, their role and use in psychology, and their importance for understanding scientific research and reports.
Explores the basics of social psychology, including social variables, how social factors impact the behavior of individuals, and the methods used in studying social psychology.
|Introduction to Applied Psychology||
Typically presented as a survey, this class teaches students about the practice of clinical psychology, including the nature of the work and the types of clients served.
Offers an overview of various mental, social and behavioral issues and disorders, such as mental deficiency or alcoholism, including causes, symptoms and treatment plans.
Provides an introduction to research methodologies and principles of both qualitative and quantitative research.
Investigates the basics of cognitive psychology, such as problem solving, language development, memory and perception, and brain research.
Helps students develop the professional skills needed in psychology practice by completing a minimum number of hours of fieldwork experience under the supervision of an instructor.
According to the latest data from the National Center of Education Statistics, the number of students graduating with a bachelor’s in psychology increased by 27% between 2005 and 2012. While there has been a rapid increase in the number of undergraduate degrees awarded, completion rates at the graduate level have largely remained flat. The chart below outlines the number of psychology degrees conferred by level between 2005 and 2012:
Getting into a graduate program in psychology is a competitive process, with clinical psychology being the single most difficult subfield in terms of admission to graduate programs at both the master’s and doctoral levels. According to the most recent research from the APA, only 37% of applicants are accepted into master’s programs and 8% to clinical psychology doctorate programs.
Further research from the National Science Foundation finds that 72% of clinical psychology students are female, with an average age of 31 when they complete their doctoral degrees. Prospective bachelor’s degree students should be prepared to commit several years to mastering the field—on average it takes almost 8½ years from starting a bachelor’s program until graduating with a doctorate degree in clinical psychology.
Beyond the subject matter itself, it’s important for students to feel comfortable with the format of online learning. In addition to familiarizing themselves with the course delivery system and related technology, students should also make sure the university, department and faculty offer appropriate support (both educational and technical) and that class scheduling can be balanced around other personal or work commitments. Consider the following checklist when selecting an online psychology degree program:
Do you understand the mission and objectives of the department and program? Does the faculty have a desirable mix of professional and academic experience? How large is the program, and how does that translate into the faculty-to-student ratio? What’s the reputation of the university overall, as well as the specific online program? In short, would you feel comfortable taking classes in that program?
The APA notes that research experience is a vital criterion when considering applicants to psychology graduate programs. Prospective students should think ahead to their graduate education and ask about the research opportunities offered by the program.
How is the curriculum structured in the program? In general, online undergraduate programs in psychology provide an introductory curriculum that broadly touches on psychology, research methods, and other fundamental areas such as statistics and biology. Graduate schools want students with solid preparation, so be sure to select a program that offers the appropriate classes.
Investigate the overall success of the program. What’s the program’s graduation rate? How many years does it take the average student to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree? What percentage of students get accepted to graduate school?
For online programs that require a professional practicum, what type of support does the university provide? Does the department assist students in finding an approved placement in their local area? What is the variety of opportunities? How competitive are they?
Online students often have slightly different access to student services than campus-based peers. When reviewing a university and program, students should look into the extent of the services offered, including library privileges, tutoring and academic counseling.
The APA only accredits psychology programs at the doctoral level, but other educational organizations offer accreditation for undergraduate degrees. Students should look for programs that have been recognized by a reputable organization.