Child psychologist complete career guide

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How to become a child psychologist 

Child psychology is an evolving field that can be essential to the well-being of children and their families. Entering this field exposes students to diverse coursework exploring all areas of behavioral, developmental, and abnormal psychology. This field also shows a consistent annual growth rate of 13%, which is much higher than average

Graduates can work directly with children and their families to develop adaptive learning plans that teach children to cope in any environment. Child psychologists can work with children to process issues at home or work in a school setting to help children cope with school and life events. 

Introduction to child psychology 

A child psychologist can help children in any age group process difficult emotions or life events impacting their daily lives. Child psychologists can work with students who struggle in school, diagnose students with learning differences, and help teachers construct adapted learning plans to help these students succeed. 

Students often major in child psychology because the career options are so diverse. In the private sector, graduates can work with individuals as adolescent psychologists who help students throughout their development. In the government sector, child psychologists can work for local government agencies as social workers who help children that have been placed in government custody. Child psychologists can also work in the public or private school systems to support students with both home and educational difficulties. 

Many of these opportunities are considered public service fields in clinical and healthcare environments. Students interested in working with children and their families often choose this area of study. 

Child psychology education requirements 

To become a child psychologist, graduates must at least hold a bachelor’s degree in either psychology or social work, with an additional state-specific license to work in the field with adolescents and their families. With this coursework, students can work field as licensed social workers as they complete their master’s and doctorate. Once this higher coursework is complete, graduates can call themselves child psychologists. 

Most states require students to complete a master’s in psychology to become child psychologists. Entry into most graduate institutions calls for a minimum 3.0-grade point average (GPA), successful completion of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), and an entrance essay, which often includes a personal statement focusing on the intended career path after completion of graduate school. 

Applying from high school or community college 

Depending on the college or university, students should have completed the SAT, the application at the specific institution, and provided letters of recommendation and college application essays. 

If applying from a community college, students should check the specific institutional GPA requirements, as this varies from school to school. Students entering a 4-year institution with an associate degree are considered transfer students, so many of the application requirements are waived. Check that your transfer credits carry over to the institution you wish to attend. 

Many colleges offer a psychology major or track because it is a popular field. Whether you choose a community college depends on many factors such as your high school performance, financial status, scholarship status, student loan applications, and school proximity to your residency. 

Depending on the institution, there are specific application periods to understand before applying. While missing an application period does not disqualify you for acceptance, it can mean that you might have to wait an additional term or academic year before enrolling. Check with each institution before applying to plan your application timeline. 

Online

As psychology continues to increase in popularity and the field continues to grow in demand, there are many opportunities to pursue a child psychologist career in an online environment. 

Regardless of physical or distance learning, the education requirements remain the same. Most institutions that offer a physical degree have adapted their curriculum to fit the needs of online students. 

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Hybrid

Hybrid classes are especially popular. When planning on entering the field as a social worker or clinical psychologist, hybrid programs often require the completion of clinical hours, which can only happen in-person. Consider your traveling distance from the institution and whether you can meet the hybrid courses’ in-person requirements. 

The ability to complete these programs entirely online, completely in-person, or in a hybrid capacity allows for maximum flexibility for non-traditional students who often juggle work and family while trying to advance their education and maintain their lives outside the classroom. 

Accreditation and its importance 

Accreditation is essential to completing your degree in most fields, but especially in psychology. A college that has received and maintains its accreditation shows that it meets the standards of education needed for students to enter the career of their chosen major successfully. These standards are reviewed every few years to ensure that each program of study is meeting the strictest standards of education. 

Regardless of the field of interest, attending an accredited college or university is often a requirement to receive financial aid, scholarships, or grant money to help offset tuition costs. In attending an unaccredited university or college, you may find that the degree you earn is not transferrable for degree completion at another college or acceptance into graduate school. 

Attending an unaccredited university may provide a barrier to career advancement after graduation. Most organizations, government institutions, and patients are interested in working with a child psychologist who earned a degree from an accredited university. 

Most institutions display their accreditation status on their website. You can also use accreditation databases to find this information, such as on the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the Department of Education websites. 

Coursework and program length 

Each program is different depending on your specialization and the institution of study. However, for careers that require a bachelor’s degree, you can expect to attend school for about 4 years. To become a licensed child psychologist, plan on at least 6 additional years above the bachelor’s degree to complete your master’s and doctorate programs. 

Courses include a focus on normal and abnormal psychology, child development, and behavioral psychology. These essential courses teach you the skills you need to help your clients in any field of specialization in child psychology. Depending on your education path, you may wish to take a variety of courses during your bachelor’s program so you can explore the focus for each concentration. For example, if you enjoy abnormal psychology work, you may want to make this your focus so you can work in a clinical setting with children who have abnormal psychological conditions. 

Depending on your specialization, you may be required to complete clinical work or internships to reach specific licensure requirements in your state. These requirements vary from one institution to another, so it’s essential to check the program guide and follow up with an academic advisor before deciding on a school. 

How does this knowledge benefit my future as a professional in this field? 

The knowledge you gain from the specific requirements and coursework prepares you to identify and address the unique needs of every client you encounter. While the licensing standards are rigorous, they are in place to ensure that every client can receive practical and personalized treatment. 

Program concentration options 

There are many areas of concentration in child psychology including: 

  • developmental 
  • behavioral 
  • abnormal psychology 

Choosing a concentration can help you focus your career outlook on a specific area of child psychology. Child psychology is broad enough that you may have many areas to choose from with ample opportunities for advancement. 

Certificate programs versus a master’s degree  

A postgraduate certificate in child psychology can help to start your career as a child psychologist. This certificate can be earned after obtaining a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Obtaining a certificate differs from state-specific requirements of possessing a master’s degree to act as a psychologist, so check with your state’s requirements before choosing this path. 

Earning a certificate in child psychology allows you to work with children in a clinical or educational environment without having to complete a master’s program. A certificate may advance your academic expertise to increase your career outlook and earning potential. 

You could learn the skills necessary to address children’s behavioral, developmental, and educational needs, just like you would if you were completing a master’s degree. A certificate only takes about 1 year (on average) to complete. 

Most colleges that offer an online master’s program in psychology offer certificate programs in those same areas. Certificate programs allow you to return after completing your initial master’s program and learn an additional specialization to expand your expertise. 

Costs of the degree 

The school you choose could make all the difference in cost. On average, online degree programs are cheaper than in-person degree programs. Before you commit to a college, understand the cost, how you might pay for it, and your ability to repay your loans. 

The average cost of bachelor’s in psychology can range from $42,000 to $150,000, depending on the school and learning format. The average cost of a master’s degree is about $15,000 to $60,000, again depending on whether you choose to attend a public or private institution. The price for undergraduate and graduate degrees may also vary depending on your residency. You may also find additional fees related to room and board, books, lab fees, or living expenses. 

Financial aid opportunities 

Financial aid may be available for those who qualify through both the Department of Education and private lending institutions. Deadlines are based on the calendar year for certain types of aid, so check with each lending organization to identify the deadline for the year you are seeking financial aid. 

Other financial aid options include scholarships and grants. These forms of aid are available through the state and federal government, academic institutions, and private non-profit organizations. When applying for enrollment, contact the college’s financial aid department to find out more about the opportunities. 

What licensing or certifications do I need? 

Depending on the career path you choose, you may need a license. A license is often required when working with the government in family and social services. An additional certificate might be required as well if you are working in the public school system. These requirements vary from state to state. 

To earn your license, you need to sit for an exam. Most students who need to take the licensing exam can study for and take the exam while in their second year of school. This timing helps students begin their careers immediately after graduation. 

Salary and demand data for child psychologists

Alaska and California remain in the top two states for the highest salaries for both real and nominal salaries.  

Child psychologists with doctorate degrees make an average of $10,000 more annually compared to those with master’s degrees. Regardless of education, 8 years seems to be the magic number in terms of experience, with salary increasing pretty substantially on average afterward. 

Child Psychologist salary information by state
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Payscale is a salary survey service meant to provide employers and employees with salary data at local levels to benchmark and compare. While Payscale has a much smaller sample size than BLS, Payscale does update more frequently so data may be considered fresher. Payscale also indicates salaries at a wider range of roles whereas BLS sometimes aggregates numerous professions into one category which may skew salary data. For this reason, we find Payscale to be a good secondary salary indicator. All information received from payscale is via a paid API. You can read more about payscale and their data methodology here.

Nominal
Real salary
future outlook tooltip icon

The nominal salary is the unadjusted salary paid.

The real salary is adjusted to consider the purchasing power by state. We multiply the nominal salary by a state purchasing parities index to indicate the relative value of salaries by state. For instance, while New York or California might pay the highest nominal salary, these states are relatively expensive and so the real value of the salary is often less than a cheaper to live in state with a lower nominal salary.

Highest salary states

1.

California

$96,803

Average salary

2.

Alaska

$88,732

Average salary

3.

New Jersey

$87,823

Average salary

4.

District of Columbia

$85,787

Average salary

5.

Washington

$85,613

Average salary

6.

Massachusetts

$83,450

Average salary

7.

Connecticut

$82,448

Average salary

How experience affects earnings
future outlook tooltip icon

Payscale aggregates all employee salaries into experience and degree cohorts and charts out the average salaries accordingly. While this is interesting information, it is simply an indicator and should not be considered as a definitive accounting.

Master's Degree (non-MBA)

Timeline Salary
Less than 1 year $63,194
1 year $65,058
2 to 3 years $67,375
4 to 7 years $71,259
8 years or more $90,961

Career options 

Upon completion of your degree, postgraduate education, and licensing, you can find a variety of career opportunities in either the government or the private sector. While some students go as far as earning a Ph.D., career opportunities can begin at the completion of a bachelor’s degree. Many students start working in their field while they work toward their master’s or doctorate. 

Once you complete your bachelor’s and licensing requirements, you can work as a social worker for your state to help families and children work through life issues and create learning plans to accommodate children with developmental needs. The annual salary for a social worker is about $60,000. 

With a master’s degree, you can work as a school psychologist or open a private practice in which you can diagnose and treat children with a variety of developmental or emotional issues. You can work one-on-one with these children and their families to teach them coping skills that could help them to succeed. The annual salary for a family therapist averages $50,000. 

Should you choose to continue to a doctorate, you can continue working with children and families or teach at any level of education. You can also enter the research world to complete scientific studies that focus on developing new treatments for children’s psychological needs. 

Continuing education 

No matter your educational goals, there are always opportunities to grow in psychology because it is a constantly evolving field. There are regular conferences, certificate programs, and continuing education credits that you can complete to maintain your licensing and to learn new strategies for treating patients. 

Once you complete a master’s program, you can begin teaching in higher education. This program can prepare you by teaching you the history of psychology and the latest strategies for patient treatment and diagnosis. As an educator, you can pass on this knowledge to the next generation. 

Completing a master’s program prepares you for higher education and also opens new career opportunities in your practice. Advanced programs teach the latest innovations in the field and may make you better prepared to treat and diagnose your patients. Most master’s programs also include coursework that prepares students to teach in higher education. 

The American Psychological Association fosters education about psychological science. Learn more in their complete guide to education for current and future psychologists. 

The Society of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology aims to serve children and their families with quality clinical care through education and practice. 

The Occupational Outlook Handbook provides an overview of the field of psychology, including educational requirements, career options, and average pay.