Psychology is the study of thought patterns, brain functions, and emotional responses that allows us to gain a better understanding of the human experience. Psychology is a popular subject of study, in part because there are applications in nearly every sector, from creating user-friendly technology to guiding effective marketing campaigns. There are also a range of concentrations within the field, and the demand for professionals in many of these specializations is growing. For example, the need for marriage and family therapists is projected to grow by 22% in the next decade and the need for substance abuse, behavioral, and mental health counselors will grow by 25% through 2029.
Online Psychology Degree Overview
Can You Study Psychology Online?
Yes, you can study psychology online and earn a bachelor's degree from one of more than 200 accredited colleges. As a field of undergraduate study, psychology has grown in popularity since the 1970s and reached a high of 117,000 degrees conferred in 2016 before leveling off.
More undergraduates are also enrolling in fully online programs (14% in 2018 compared to 11% in 2014), so it's unsurprising that many schools offer bachelor's degrees in such a popular subject. Graduate students can also earn online master's and doctoral degrees in psychology, though these programs usually require an in-person experiential learning component in addition to online coursework.
Applying to an Online Psychology Program
Applying to an online program or school can be a confusing process with many steps. Some colleges are more selective than others, but most require prospective psychology undergraduates to provide similar documentation at the start of the admissions process. In addition to an online application, students will often submit:
- Official high school or GED transcripts, usually with a minimum GPA between 2.5 and 3.0
- SAT or ACT scores
- An entrance essay on a designated topic
- Letters of recommendation from teachers, coaches, or volunteer coordinators
- Official transcripts from any postsecondary institutions (transfer students only)
Once admitted to a school, students may need to apply separately to the psychology major program in their second or third year, after completing general education requirements. If this is the case, they'll first need to complete specified prerequisite courses with minimum grade requirements. This may include an introductory psychology course and an introductory math or statistics class. The program may also require a separate reflective essay.
Bachelor's programs in psychology take about four years to complete with a total of approximately 120 units of coursework. Psychology degrees at the bachelor's level may also include some fieldwork, which plays an important role in the education program; fieldwork allows students to see how psychology works in offices and healthcare facilities.
How Long Does It Take to Earn a Psychology Degree Online?
Most institutions design online bachelor's degrees on the traditional 120-credit model that's meant to take four years of full-time study to complete. It's possible to finish a degree in four years, though many college students take longer. Graduation rates are highest at the most exclusive institutions, which may reflect the greater availability of high-quality academic advising and student services that these schools tend to provide.
Some online colleges offer accelerated tracks allowing full-time students to earn their bachelor's degree in less than four years. These programs generally feature back-to-back terms lasting eight weeks, allowing students to take more courses per year. However, it is difficult to complete a program in just two years unless you've earned credits you can transfer toward your bachelor's degree. Always check that a school offering an accelerated program is accredited by a recognized agency.
Is It Better to Get a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts in Psychology?
Choosing between a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology will depend on what your personal goals and interests are. B.A. programs usually focus on providing students with a strong foundation in psychology from the social sciences perspective. These programs give students a wide range of options for future career paths and specializations as the course load allows for some flexibility. B.S. programs focus on mathematical, statistical, and scientific courses related to psychology. These programs are a better fit for those looking to pursue a career in science, or who plan to go on to medical or graduate school.
Common Psychology Courses
The curriculum for a psychology bachelor's degree needs to cover certain subjects in order to prepare students with a solid foundation in the field. Below are some common courses that most colleges include in their psychology programs.
- Abnormal Psychology: In this course, students learn the most common psychological disorders and familiarize themselves with the evolution of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Subjects include anxiety and mood disorders, eating disorders, addiction, and schizophrenia and dissociative disorders. Professors lecture on causation and diagnosis, along with treatment options for each case.
- Behavioral Analysis and Modification: Professors introduce the theory and practice of treating psychological problems by modifying patient behavior. Students examine positive and negative reinforcement, clinical and nonclinical treatment settings, and ethics in intervention. Concepts of addition and substance abuse counseling may be explored further in other courses.
- Cognitive Psychology: Faculty introduce human cognition and its processes, such as perceiving the world, solving problems, and making decisions. This course may cover the history of cognitive theory alongside the latest technologically driven research. Some subject matter may reinforce concepts from Neuroscience, such as the physical changes that can affect judgment and reason.
- Human Language Acquisition: This course builds on concepts from Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology to describe the development of language over the lifespan. Faculty discuss the physiological structures that produce language and the mental processes behind word finding and retention. Students may find this course cross listed as a linguistics class.
- Neuroscience: Neuroscience examines the physiology of the brain as the basis for human psychology. Topics include the chemical makeup of the brain, sensory and motor processes, and the physical and cognitive effects of neurotrauma. Students also interrogate the physiological foundations of emotions and psychological disorders.
- Research Methods in Psychology: Students learn how to design and propose studies and experiments, collect data, and formulate conclusions. Faculty will cover ethical research, the difference between causation and correlation, and how to write and present papers in APA format. Because it's a foundational topic, most programs require this course early in the degree path.
The Importance of an Accredited Online Psychology Degree
Accreditation is a qualification that a school earns by meeting a set of curricular and instructional quality criteria set by a recognized accrediting body. Students should ensure that the schools they apply to are currently accredited because this impacts whether they can receive federal aid, transfer credits to a graduate program, and become eligible for licensure, among other factors.
There are a few different types of accreditation, with regional accreditation usually considered the most prestigious. Regionally accredited schools will accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited schools, but may not accept those from nationally accredited schools. Some professional organizations offer programmatic accreditation in specific fields. However, there are currently no organizations accrediting individual bachelor's degree programs in psychology. The American Psychological Association only accredits on-campus doctoral programs, not bachelor's or fully online programs of any kind. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) each offer a current list of accredited schools.
Are Online Psychology Degrees Respected?
Online degrees in psychology are generally respected if they're earned from accredited institutions. There may still be some lingering stigma attached to online degrees, but this seems to be improving. In a 2018 survey of 750 HR specialists, 71% said they had hired an online-degree graduate in the previous year. Employers also usually won't know if you earned your degree online or in person unless you studied at a fully online college; most schools issue identical diplomas and transcripts to on-campus and online students.
Licensing and Certification Requirements for Psychologists
A bachelor's degree in psychology provides access to some entry-level jobs within the field and to careers in other fields, but students should be aware that many psychology specializations require further licensure, in addition to schooling beyond a bachelor's degree.
The path to becoming a psychologist is a long one, requiring many years of education and several more years of internships and professional development. It also mandates earning and maintaining a valid license. The type of psychology a person practices and the state in which they wish to practice may have some effect on the exact course a person takes to become a psychologist.
There are some general licensing requirements that apply to all or nearly all states, such as a doctoral degree, an internship, a number of years of professional experience, and a passing score on a state examination. Many states require students to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), administered by the The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards, or a variation of this test.
Licensed psychologists who specialize in a particular area of psychology, such as clinical neuropsychology, clinical psychology, cognitive and behavioral psychology, or counseling psychology, may also choose to earn professional certification. Certification is offered by several different professional agencies, such as the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), which issues credentials in many different areas. Although board certification is voluntary and not legally required for most specializations, many employers prefer hiring candidates with these credentials.
Board-certified professionals are held accountable for their experience and knowledge, as candidates must fulfill extensive education, work experience, and continuing education requirements to earn these marks. Psychologists who have a specialized certificate will find it easier to market themselves to clients, and they will become part of ABPP's database of certified professionals.
Before beginning a specific educational or career path, it is recommended that students investigate the requirements for psychology practice in their particular state.
The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards provides helpful information about licensure and psychology education that an aspiring psychologist in the United States needs to know, as well as information for consumers who utilize the services of licensed psychologists. It is especially helpful for people who are still in school because there is information about which schools are accredited and the scores earned on licensing examinations by graduates of different doctoral degree programs. People who are already licensed will find resources to help them complete required continuing education hours.
How Much Does an Online Psychology Degree Cost?
According to the NCES, the average annual cost of tuition and fees for a bachelor's degree is $16,318. Note that this is for all institutions and types of program, both in-person and online. While this average rate can be a helpful metric, online students should be aware that tuition rates are sometimes substantially different for online programs. On our list of the 25 best online bachelor's degrees in psychology, the average cost is $18,291 per year, ranging from about $8,000-$48,000.
A program's upfront cost doesn't necessarily indicate its quality or the effect it has on alumni careers, which is why it's important to consider more than tuition and fee prices when selecting a college. Each school's ROI score considers both the median salaries that real graduates earn along with the debt they carry after earning their degrees. Graduates with greater earnings and less debt can start saving more money per paycheck at an earlier point in their careers.
Careers for Online Psychology Graduates
Can You Get a Job With an Online Psychology Degree?
Yes, you can get a job with an online degree in psychology. Fifty-seven percent of bachelor's graduates in psychology enter the workforce instead of immediately pursuing graduate studies. Psychology is a versatile discipline, so many of the jobs that bachelor's graduates secure aren't directly related to psychology. However, bachelor's graduates have also earned jobs as psychiatric aides, child welfare caseworkers, career counselors, psychological stress evaluators, and substance abuse counselors.
Psychology graduates earn a median annual salary of $48,000 a year, and about 25% work in either management or healthcare (which is a fast-expanding field with 15% job growth projected through 2029).
About one in four psychology alumni pursue graduate studies in the field, including those who pursue the doctoral education and licensure needed to become psychologists. If you're considering this path, you may be interested in a degree with a concentration that allows you to specialize, such as addiction studies, counseling, or industrial-organizational psychology.
Specializations in Psychology
There's a big difference between studying psychology and training to be a psychologist. Prospective online students should be aware of these differences and evaluate their own career goals before enrolling in a program. While those with an understanding of psychology can act as consultants in a variety of capacities, only those with the proper training and credentials can become licensed psychologists.
Psychology is a broad field, and a psychologist's job responsibilities will depend upon their chosen specialization. The following list represents just some of the areas in which professional psychologists can specialize, and all of these specializations require a doctorate and additional licensure. Salary and job growth data is provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The job market for each specialty is projected to grow 2-3% through 2029.
- Clinical Psychology: Clinical psychologists listen to patients to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders. They may work with different populations, such as children, families, or individuals with developmental disabilities. Clinical psychologists earn a median yearly salary of $79,820.
- Developmental Psychology: These psychologists study the ways in which behaviors and thoughts change as people age. Some study the psychology of children and teens, while others focus on elderly people. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups developmental psychologists with clinical psychologists, so the data on their pay is the same.
- Health Psychology: Health psychologists work with people and families who are experiencing illness and help patients learn coping strategies. Some health psychologists educate doctors, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners on behavioral aspects of illness. The median wage for this specialty is about $106,000 a year.
- Industrial Organizational Psychology: IO psychologists apply their understanding of psychology to business. They help firms become more productive and healthy places to work. IO psychologists may work with managers to interview job candidates, create company policies, or make the workplace more enjoyable. They earn median annual salaries of $96,270.
- Rehabilitation Psychology: Rehabilitation psychologists help people cope with the aftermath of a serious illness or injury, especially when the illness or injury has resulted in a serious mental or physical disability. Rehabilitation psychologists support their patients so that they can accept and understand their new abilities and limitations and improve their quality of life. The BLS groups these psychologists into the "all other" category that earns a median $105,780 per year. However, some older but more specific data suggests that their wages tend to be below that median, with employees of insurance companies earning the most.
- School Psychology: School psychologists work with students to help them succeed in the classroom by administering assessments and performing interventions. They also work with teachers to make the classroom a better learning environment. These psychologists earn median annual salaries of $79,820.
- Social Psychology: Social psychologists examine how individuals act within a group. They study the ways in which social interactions affect people, and they may offer advice to improve group dynamics. BLS classes social psychologists in the group that garners median wages of $106,000 a year.