Types of Psychology Degrees

Jennifer King Logan

Written By: Jennifer King Logan

Published: 6/27/2022

Psychology consistently ranks as one of the most popular subjects to study in college, most likely because it is both fascinating and versatile. Degrees in psychology are available at every level from associate through doctoral degrees, as well as in a variety of different specializations.

Bachelor's degrees are the most common, and graduates often use their psychology degrees to enter a wide range of sectors, especially healthcare and sales, or as a springboard to more advanced degrees in psychology, counseling, or other fields, such as medicine and law. Each psychology degree has distinct characteristics and may lead to different career options.

Types of Psychology Degrees

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Associate Degree in Psychology

Many community colleges, universities, and vocational schools offer associate degrees in psychology. These programs usually require the completion of about 60 credit hours of both general education courses and major-specific courses. Some of the topics covered in core courses may include general psychology, human development across the lifespan, addictions, and disorders, as well as counseling and intervention techniques. Full-time students usually complete an associate degree program in two years, while part-time students may require about three years.

Community colleges and vocational schools typically welcome most applicants, while universities may have more stringent admissions criteria. In general, however, the application process is the same for all schools. Prospective students must have a high school diploma or a GED. They are required to submit transcripts from their high school along with their application, and they may be asked for a personal statement or essay, letters of recommendation, and a list of extracurricular activities or resume.

Although an associate degree in psychology will not qualify you to work as a psychologist or counselor, it does offer several benefits besides job opportunities. First, you'll be introduced to the subject in a general way, enabling you to determine if psychology is something you'd like to study in greater depth and possibly pursue as a career. Second, you may become better qualified for volunteer positions in mental health facilities, which will give you real-world experience that may help you advance your career in the field.

With an associate degree in psychology, you could become a…

  • Social and human services assistant
  • Administrative clerk in a healthcare facility
  • Administrative support staff for a mental health advocacy group

Bachelor's Degree in Psychology

Almost every four-year college offers a bachelor's degree in psychology, behavioral psychology, or applied psychology. Most programs require the completion of 120 credit hours of both general education courses and courses related to the major, and some may require internships and research projects. Students often need four to five years to graduate.

Although bachelor's programs do not prepare graduates for work as practicing psychologists or counselors — a master's degree or doctorate is required for those roles — they do equip students with valuable insights into how people think and interact as well as useful skills in research, critical thinking, and communication.

There are two types of psychology bachelor's degrees, and the curriculum is slightly different for each one:

Bachelor of Arts in Psychology (BA)

The typical curriculum for a BA in Psychology is a mix of liberal arts general education courses and psychology courses that introduce basic aspects of this science. BA enrollees gain exposure to a broad cross-section of disciplines, from history, literature, and languages to behavioral, cultural, and social psychology. Coursework is also designed to build strong interpersonal skills, which means that graduates are prepared to continue on to graduate school or to enter the workforce in a variety of occupations in human services as well as business, education, and more.

Bachelor of Science in Psychology (BS)

The curriculum for a BS in Psychology is usually more weighted toward coursework in the science of psychology, including introductory and intermediate courses in clinical psychology, research, and statistical analysis. These programs also tend to require fewer general education courses, but with a greater emphasis on math and physical science. Given the focus on applied psychology and research methods, a BS is perhaps the better choice for those students who intend to pursue advanced degrees and careers in psychology, healthcare, and community service.

There are many benefits to earning either type of psychology degree, but regardless of which one you choose, it's important to enroll in an accredited program. Accreditation is required to qualify for federal financial aid and for acceptance into most master's programs. It may also be required if you decide to change schools and transfer credits at some point. The school you plan to attend should be regionally or nationally accredited by one of the agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education or by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

The admissions criteria for bachelor's programs vary by school, but most colleges only accept students who earned a GPA of 2.8 or higher in high school. Some schools also require applicants to submit their ACT or SAT scores. Along with your application, you'll probably need to submit your high school transcripts, a personal statement or essay, letters of recommendation, and a list of extracurricular activities or resume.

With a bachelor's degree in psychology, you could become a…

  • Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor
  • Community health worker
  • Health education specialist
  • Social and community service manager
  • Clinical laboratory technologist
  • Probation officer
  • Teacher
  • Business manager
  • Wholesale and manufacturing sales representative
  • Marketing specialist
  • Public relations/media specialist

Master's Degree in Psychology

Most jobs in the field of psychology require at least a master's degree, if not a doctorate. There are two types of master's degrees you can pursue at most universities, so it's helpful to have some idea of the job or role you'd like to obtain in the future before choosing one:

Master of Arts in Psychology (MA)

MA programs generally prepare students for counseling and behavioral analysis roles in human services or mental health facilities. Coursework may include clinical psychology, social work, and child psychology.

Master of Science in Psychology (MS)

MS programs are geared toward students interested in science and research occupations. Topics addressed in these courses include brain function and cognition, cultural psychology, and forensic psychology.

Earning a place in a psychology master's program can be somewhat competitive. In addition to a fairly high college GPA, you may also be required to show an impressive score on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). When submitting your application, you will most likely need to submit your college transcripts, a personal statement explaining why you want to pursue this degree, a resume, and one or more letters of recommendation. You don't necessarily need a bachelor's degree in psychology, but if you majored in some other subject, you may be required to take a number of prerequisite courses before starting your program.

Once you're enrolled, master's degrees in psychology often require 30-36 credit hours, and you may be required to complete an internship, a thesis or capstone project, and a certain number of clinical hours. Full-time students may be able to complete the requirements in two years, but many grad school students have full-time jobs and other commitments, so they may need three or four years to graduate.

With a master's degree in psychology, you could become a…

  • Mental health counselor
  • Marriage and family therapist
  • Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselor
  • School and career counselor
  • Market researcher
  • Data analyst

Master's Degree in Psychology

Students who are interested in pursuing the highest degree in psychology may choose between a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) program, available at select universities. Both types of doctoral degrees focus on the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of patients with mental illness, and both are designed to prepare graduates to work in clinical or research settings. However, they each have a different emphasis, so you may want to factor in your career goals before selecting which type of degree to earn:

Doctor of Psychology (PsyD)

PsyD programs are primarily aimed at students who plan to practice psychology in clinical settings, caring directly for individuals, families, and groups. PsyD students often specialize in one particular branch of psychology as they prepare for their careers as practitioners. Most PsyD programs require fewer classes on statistics and research, but graduates with this degree may still be able to move into research or academic roles in the future. A PsyD in Clinical Psychology usually takes four to six years to complete, and the program may involve a thesis or capstone project.

Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (PhD)

PhD in Psychology programs are designed for students interested in research as well as practice. Psychology PhD graduates often work toward careers in research and academia, although they are still qualified to become licensed practitioners as well. Most take five to eight years to complete all of the requirements, which may include teaching experience and a written dissertation.

Many students who earn bachelor's degrees in psychology skip earning a master's degree and go directly into a doctoral program, preferably one that's accredited by the American Psychological Association. Entry into doctoral programs is competitive, and admissions criteria are stringent, especially for PhD programs.

With a doctorate in psychology, you could become a…

  • Clinical psychologist
  • Psychology researcher
  • College professor of psychology

Psychology Specializations

While many schools offer broad-based general psychology programs, some schools offer specialized degrees or concentrations. For example, a school might offer a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a concentration in counseling or perhaps a Bachelor of Arts in Counseling. Either way, the curriculum will emphasize counseling techniques and practice and include fewer courses in research. The following are some of the more common branches of psychology addressed in specialized programs.

Clinical psychology focuses on the provision of ongoing, comprehensive behavioral and mental healthcare for individuals, families, and groups. Using evidence-based research, clinical psychologists work directly with patients and in consultation with other healthcare professionals. They may work in private practice or in mental health facilities and governmental agencies. Some may also provide training and education to other professionals.

Industrial-organizational psychology is the study of human behavior within organized groups, such as corporations, political parties, and teams. I/O psychologists often work directly for large organizations or as consultants to all sizes of organizations. They help people understand the dynamics within the group and how to improve efficiency and communication.
Developmental psychology looks at the changes in brain function, motivation, social, and physical changes humans typically experience as they progress through their lifespan. Often specializing in working with children or older adults, developmental psychologists help patients understand and adapt to these changes. Clinical psychologists with this specialty focus on diagnosing and treating mental, emotional, behavioral, and social disorders that may result from the inability to adapt to life changes.
Experimental psychology is concerned with researching the scientific basis for psychological processes such as cognition, memory, and learning. Experimental psychologists are typically PhDs who work in academia or laboratories and conduct research into mental processes and their resulting behavior.
Forensic psychology lies at the intersection of psychology and the law. Forensic psychologists often work in some part of the justice system — police departments, rehabilitation centers, law firms, universities, and so forth — either as employees or consultants. They typically apply the principles of psychology to specific criminal cases in an attempt to understand the accused perpetrator's motives and behavior.

Which Psychology Degree Is Right For Me?

Determining the best type of degree in psychology for your needs comes down to establishing your career path. If you intend to practice psychology as a therapist, counselor, or clinical psychologist, you'll need a master's degree or a doctorate. With this goal in mind, you can opt to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology as well, or you may consider earning a bachelor's in a related subject, such as counseling or sociology.

If you're not yet sure about your career goals, an associate or bachelor's degree in psychology is still a smart choice as they both open doors to many other occupations.

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