There are two types of master’s degree in psychology, both with very similar programs:

  • Master of Arts (M.A.): Has a stronger liberal arts focus
  • Master of Science (M.S.): Has a stronger focus on research and science

Whether students pursue a graduate degree in psychology as a step towards doctoral-level study, or as a way to explore masters-level careers, there are many on-campus and online programs from which to choose. One outcome all programs share is providing students with the knowledge and skills to apply principles and standards of psychology to academic and professional activities.

The following guide provides a comprehensive overview of on-campus and online master’s degrees in psychology, including curriculum, areas of specialization, and resources for graduate students.

Who Earns Master’s Degrees in Psychology?

Students in master’s in psychology programs come from a variety of backgrounds for different reasons. Here are three of the most common reasons why students pursue psychology master degrees.

New career/career advancement

Employers in a wide range of industries may look to hire individuals who hold master’s degrees in psychology.

Industry Positions
Local, state, and federal governments Drug and alcohol specialists, human resource analysts, parole officers
Healthcare/Mental Health Rehabilitation specialists, group home coordinators, child protection workers
Marketing/Sales Human resources managers, employee trainers, project managers
Licensure

Although it is not possible to become a licensed psychologist without a Ph.D., graduates of master’s degree programs can become licensed counselors. Terminal degree programs specifically state that they are not intended to qualify students for the independent practice of professional psychology.

Path to Doctoral Degree

Doctoral degree programs in psychology do not require students to hold master’s degrees. However, earning a master’s degree can provide invaluable experience for individuals who either lack formal training in their area of interest or need to strengthen their credentials to be competitive for doctoral programs. In addition to preparing students to become licensed psychologists, doctoral degree programs prepare students to pursue careers in research.

Getting into a Master’s Degree in Psychology Program

Once students decide to earn a master’s degree in psychology, they need to review the individual requirements for the schools where they’d like to apply. Here are some of the common steps students must complete to get into a masters-level program:

Step 1: Evaluate graduate schools

Students should devise a list of their preferred schools.  Because prerequisites vary among master’s degree in psychology programs, students should make sure they qualify to apply. It can also be helpful to visit on-campus programs, meeting with faculty when possible. In the case of online programs, students should research each institution and speak with enrollment advisors.

Step 2: Complete the application

Each school sets an own application deadline. Students should jot down relevant dates and keep a running list of when all parts of each application are due, including transcripts, test scores and letters of recommendation.

Step 3: Submit GRE scores

Although not all psychology degree programs require GRE test scores, many do. In some cases, students also need to take the GRE Psychology Subject Test, which is offered only in October and November.

Step 4: Gather recommendation letters

Most psychology programs ask students to submit three letters of recommendation with their application. The best people to approach for recommendations are professors from a student’s undergraduate program. For better responses, students should provide each professor with a copy of their resume, undergraduate transcript, and a list of accomplishments.

Step 5: Log on to FAFSA

By filling out the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA), students can find out how much funding will be available to them from graduate grants, loans, and scholarships for a master’s degree in psychology program.

Step 6: Statement of Purpose  

A statement of purpose is an integral part of most applications. These statements are typically 500 words explaining how a master’s degree in psychology will prepare students for their personal and professional goals. The statement should also discuss how the student’s previous academic, work, and volunteer experiences have contributed their career path.

On-Campus and Online Master’s in Psychology Program Requirements

At most colleges and universities, it takes approximately two years to complete an on-campus or online master’s degree in psychology program. However, the total time commitment varies depending on the school and the amount of time a student can invest. Some online schools offer fast-track programs for students to finish their coursework more quickly, sometimes in as little as 15 months.

Regardless of the program, the first year is generally spent on core and elective courses. Then, during the second year, students take courses in their specialization and complete a thesis or independent project. The following section examines the goals, coursework, and other components in master’s degree in psychology programs.

Goals of the Master’s in Psychology Degree

Graduates of a master’s degree in psychology program should be able to meet the following objectives:

  • Describe the foundations of psychology.
  • Apply ethical concepts, principles and standards of psychology in real-world situations, such as in academic, social, organizational, and health settings.
  • Determine the scientific merit of professional theory, research, and practice and apply it to academic and professional activities that promote positive social change.

Sample Core Curriculum

Principles of Learning Examination of major theories of learning. Topics include Pavlovian conditioning, motivation, affect and behavior modification.
Theories of Personality Overview of contemporary theories, research, approaches in personality psychology, with connection to classical theorists like Freud.
Child Development Study of the physical, social, and cognitive factors of growth and development of children birth through adolescence.
Cognitive Processes Discussion of what modern cognitive psychology says about problem solving and reasoning, memory, language, imagery, and pathology of language/thought.
Foundations of Psychopathology Examination of several broad categories of disordered psychological functioning. Emphasizes the formal, structural, and experiential factors that serve as a foundation for understanding such behavior.
Social Psychology Exploration of the prevailing theories and empirical methods in the study of social psychology. Topics include social self-concept, social judgment, attitudes, persuasion, conformity, aggression, helping behavior, prejudice, and interpersonal relationships.
Research Methods I and II Introduction to methods commonly used in psychological research as students learn how to gather and organize data across a variety of settings. Second course builds on these methods with new skills and techniques including advanced research design and use/interpretation of higher-level statistics.

Psychology Concentrations and Areas of Emphasis

Child & Adolescent Development Psychology

The online Child and Adolescent Psychology specialization is designed for anyone interested in better understanding how children grow, think, and behave. During the program, students gain an understanding of a variety of mental health issues children and young people face today while learning about the physical, social, psychological, and cognitive needs of this population.

Advanced Developmental Psychology Research and theoretical perspectives are used to help students understand contemporary topics central to child and adolescent psychology. Topics include cognition, biology, social factors, and emotions.
Cognitive Neuropsychology Examines the neuropsychological approach in examining the connection between the brain and cognitive processes, as well as dysfunctions, from birth to adolescence.
Intervention Strategies Introduction to the major intervention strategies in child and adolescent development. Topics include contemporary strategies and traditional approaches.
Introduction to Addictive Disorders Explores the fundamentals of the addiction filed utilizing a bio-psychosocial model. Focuses on specific scenarios related to child and adolescent psychology.
Child and Adolescent Psychopathology Focuses on disease etiology, epidemiology, phenomenology, nosology and diagnosis of common child and adolescent psychopathology.

Forensic Psychology

The Forensic Psychology specialization is designed for individuals with an interest in understanding its role in the field of criminal justice. Students learn how psychology and the criminal code interact together to solve criminal acts, clinical aspects of psychological disorders, the use of psychology during the interview process, and the function of forensic psychology within the court system.

Social Bases of Behavior Overview of social influences on behavior, including group processes, person perception, and attitude formation.
Advanced Statistics Introduction to basic psychological statistics combined with an overview of research methodology including experimental, quasi-experimental, field approaches, and measurement issues from advanced perspective.
Criminal Behavior Foundation in historical and contemporary biological, psychological, and sociological theories of criminal behavior. Exploration of theoretic issues that result from attempts to explain criminal behavior in forensic populations.
Forensic Mediation and Dispute Resolution Overview of emerging issues in mediation and mediation techniques for managing conflict. Includes strong focus on dispute resolution techniques
Treatment of Forensic Populations Overview of the foundational knowledge necessary to evaluate and subsequently treat many different forensic populations, such as sex offenders, substance abusers, and white-collar criminals. Topics include individual psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, and restorative justice.

Industrial Organizational Psychology

The curriculum in the Industrial Organizational specialty focuses on conduct and the application of psychological research in work settings. Students learn skills helpful in an array of fields affected by Industrial Organizational Psychology, including teams, leadership, quantitative analysis, work/family issues, and organizational health issues.

Survey of Industrial Psychology Surveys the application of psychological principles and methods to work. Includes employee selection, motivation, performance and behavior; the structure and function of occupational positions and activities; and the nature, processes and development of organizations.
Psychometric Methods Examination of psychological measurement with emphasis on predictor test and criterion development. Focus on reliability, validity, and specialized techniques to develop tests of ability, interest, and personality.
Behavior in Small Groups and Teams Exploration of practical application of problem-solving skills, discussion techniques, task and social roles including leadership.
Social Psychology Contemporary social psychology issues and research related to people’s interactions with the environment, technology, and society. Topics include studies and theories related to conformity, obedience, identity, and attitudes.
Organizational Consulting Examination of research, case studies, and real-world situations to illustrate how psychological practices can be used in assessing and improving leadership in organizations.

Additional Requirements

Depending on the school and specialty area, students may be required to participate in one or more of the following:

A. Capstone Project

Students use the skills, attitudes, and knowledge acquired from the program curriculum to address an important issue or problem in their chosen specialty area. For example, with a forensic psychology, students may launch a program initiative related to the administration of criminal justice.

B. Thesis

Students complete and defend a thesis on an approved research topic, usually beginning work during the first year of study.

C. Fieldwork

These training experiences are designed to provide off-site instruction and experience under the close direction of a site supervisor and/or college faculty instructor and take place in applied, school, or agency settings.

D. Comprehensive Exam

A comprehensive exam covers information learned over the course of the entire program.

The Online Master’s Degree in Psychology

One of the main draws to an online master’s degree program is the flexibility that it offers. Online degrees are beneficial for working professionals with busy schedules who need the convenience of taking classes from home or anywhere they have an Internet connection. In many cases, an online education is also the most cost effective option.

Are courses delivered entirely online?

Most online master’s degree programs in psychology use a combination of the synchronous and asynchronous formats. The synchronous format involves real-time course delivery, such as through live-streaming lectures and participation via teleconferencing and interactive videos. On the other hand, the synchronous format has regular deadlines but students work at their own pace by watching prerecorded lectures and participating in online discussion boards or blogs.

Residencies

While there are some masters in psychology programs available completely online, it is not unusual for schools to require students to participate in 1-2 residencies spaced throughout the program. These residencies allow students to connect with peers and faculty mentors in a face- to-face environment.

Field Experiences

Depending on the institution, students may participate in fieldwork experiences. During these experiences, students are provided with appropriate learning experiences to ensure that core theories and skills are well understood and effectively put into practice.

How long does it take to graduate?

Although most master’s in psychology programs take two years to complete, one of the highlights of many online programs is the accelerated path option. Students who choose the accelerated path can graduate in as little as 15 months. Some schools also offer an accelerated path to a doctoral degree by offering courses that satisfy the requirements for both degrees.

Who are the instructors in an online master’s degree program?

In a non-traditional setting such as the virtual classroom, it is essential that the faculty have online teaching experience. Reputable institutions hire licensed professionals with substantial work experience in the mental health field as a whole as well as in each specialty area. Students should look for schools with a distinguished faculty of scholars and researchers that blend academic theory with firsthand knowledge.

What types of student services do online programs offer?

Because students can’t access traditional on-campus services in an online setting, virtual student services are important. Most online programs provide access to library/research resources, academic advisors, career counseling, and technical assistance.

Psychology Master’s Degree Q&A

Does the American Psychological Association (APA) recognize online programs?

The APA Commission on Accreditation does not review or accredit or master’s programs. However, it’s important for students to make sure the school they choose is accredited by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. According to the APA, “all accredited programs must meet certain guidelines and principles, including eligibility, curriculum/training plan, program resource, diversity, student-faculty relations, self-assessment, public disclosure and relationship with accrediting body requirements, regardless of the method of instruction they may use.”

Is the academic quality the same?

In many cases, online courses have the same academic rigor as on-campus courses. Because academic quality varies among institutions, it’s essential that students research programs before making decision and always choose an accredited institution.

How do I get the face-to-face experience required for this degree?

Face-to-face interaction is important in online master’s degree in psychology programs. Interpersonal communication is a foundation for careers in the mental health field and other fields. In addition to providing opportunities for interactive learning, most programs require students to participate in an internship, practicum or residency prior to graduation.

How do I collaborate with other students?

Collaborating with other students is easy with the use of advanced technologies. For example, students interact with peers and faculty through chat rooms, email, videoconferencing and other similar opportunities.

Finding the Right
Online Master’s Degree in Psychology Program

As with any graduate program, students should carefully consider their career goals and evaluate how each program matches with them. With so many programs from which to choose, how do students decide which program is best for their needs? Here are some issues to consider.

Accreditation

Students should only choose programs with accreditation from an accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. There are six regional agencies as well as various other agencies that provide accreditation.

Curriculum

While many schools offer a basic master’s degree in general psychology, others allow students to specialize in areas such as Child & Adolescent Psychology, Forensic Psychology, or Industrial Organizational Psychology. In addition, there are online masters in psychology programs that prepare students for licensure as well as terminal degrees designed for students who will enter the workplace without counseling credentials.

Access to Student Resources/Faculty Resources

Students benefit from programs that offer access to as many resources as possible. Does the program allow students 24/7 access to student and faculty resources? Is there an online student orientation program?

Communication

A quality program allows for a constant exchange of ideas, insights, and experiences. Do faculty members make efforts to ensure every student participates? Are students provided with opportunities to meet face-to-face with peers and faculty in residency experiences?

Fieldwork Placement Assistance

Ideally, programs with an internship or practicum requirement should assist students in the placement process. Is there placement assistance? What percentage of students does the school place?

Success Rates

One way to determine whether a program adequately prepares students for the workplace is by the percentage of students who find work after graduation. Is there a job placement program? How many students go on to earn doctoral degrees?

Psychology Master’s Degree Resources