Introduction to psychology programs and career options

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Introduction to psychology

Psychology is the study of the mind, brain, and behavior. Aspiring and practicing psychologists can usefully be divided into 2 groups. The first group are health psychologists who use – or intend to use – their psychology degree in an applied setting to work with people, groups, and organizations. Second, are the research psychologists who engage in basic science to help better understand the relationship between mind, brain, and behavior. Of course, many psychologists apply what they have learned to other fields, like marketing, teaching, or managing teams, rather than working in either of the 2 main domains. Psychology is one of the most widely studied subjects at both undergraduate and graduate levels, and it provides a wide range of employment opportunities. This page introduces the field, describes what it takes to get various types of degrees and to become a practicing psychologist, and discusses work opportunities for people with psychology degrees.

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Psychology

Undergraduate degrees and requirements

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.)

Most undergraduate psychology programs are part of Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) programs in colleges of arts and sciences. These are the same colleges where students study the humanities, the sciences, and mathematics, and where students receive a B.A. degree when they graduate. Increasingly, however, larger universities also offer Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees in psychology which may carry slightly more prestige and have slightly more rigorous requirements, including a greater focus on upper-level courses, on research, and on scientific methods. These B.S. degrees target students who intend to continue to graduate school. That said, a B.A. is not a disadvantage for students who wish to continue to graduate school. Most undergraduate programs only offer this option, and most graduate students, even at the most prestigious programs, will have applied with a B.A. degree.

Prerequisites and degree requirements

Most undergraduate psychology degrees are general degrees, in that your final degree will just be in psychology, without further specialization. Undergraduate students are generally not required to choose their major until the start of their third, or junior, year. As such, the prerequisites for an undergraduate degree in psychology are the same as the prerequisites for getting accepted to any university: good SAT scores, good grades in high school, good letters of recommendation from high school teachers, impressive performance in extra-curricular activities such as in sports or music, a solid college application essay, and attention to detail when applying. Of course, how good these various parts of a college application need to be will depend on the university you are applying to.

As with other undergraduate degrees, the decision to major in psychology will relate to the many specific requirements demanded for this major. First, are the general requirements for all college students, whether they’re studying psychology, physics, or something else entirely. Usually this includes a year or 2 of college-level English, a couple of science courses, a year or so of college-level math, and a year or 2 of a foreign language, along with a certain limited number of total credits and idiosyncratic requirements depending on the school. Second, is a certain minimum number of course credits specifically in the field of psychology. Finally, there will be certain specific classes, or categories of classes required. For example, every student may need to take introduction to psychology; a class or 2 in developmental, cognitive, and social psychology; and statistics for a year or more. The specific number of credits and required courses varies by school, whether you seek a minor or a major, and whether the degree is a B.A. or a B.S. The B.S. generally has a higher number of required credits and a greater focus on scientific psychology.

Graduate degrees and requirements

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Most psychology graduate degrees, especially in the research psychology domain or at large research universities, are Ph.D.s. This is almost considered as being the universal standard for practicing research psychologists who go on to scientific psychology careers or psychology teaching careers at science or higher-education institutions. Ph.D.s are also the most common degree among clinical, school, or counseling psychologists, particularly if these psychologists received their advanced degrees from a university, and not from a professional school.

Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)

Psy.D.s are usually limited to the practical health psychology fields rather than scientific psychology programs, and they are more often offered by professional schools specifically offering advanced degrees in psychology. The American Psychological Association (APA) must certify programs that offer doctoral degrees in clinical, counseling, or school psychology, especially as most students wish to become certified psychologists after graduating. It is crucial that before signing your enrolment papers, you look at the Psy.D. or Ph.D. program to ensure that it has been accredited by the APA. Since Psy.D.s are often associated with professional schools rather than universities, acceptance rates are often higher, but they are also far less likely to offer tuition breaks or stipends that are standard for research university programs.

Terminal Master’s Degrees (M.A. or M.S.)

Although most psychology graduate programs are doctoral programs, many universities and private professional schools offer terminal master’s degrees in psychology. In the research psychology domain, this can be useful as a stepping-stone for acceptance into a Ph.D. program, especially if your application is not strong enough on its own. For health psychology programs, a master’s degree is generally not sufficient to become a licensed practicing psychologist.

Yet, there are many health-related fields that do have a minimum master’s requirement, where professional licensing is not required, and a psychology master’s degree would be sufficient. For example, to be a licensed social worker requires a master’s degree, and there are many clinical social work programs that combine advanced training in clinical psychology with advanced training in social work that are highly esteemed for this career. Similarly, since APA certification is not required to be a consultant, consulting firms that work with organizations may hire psychologists focused on organizational psychology with terminal master’s degrees.

Further, some research companies welcome graduates with a master’s in psychology who have advanced training in research methods, statistics, and a firm understanding of psychological science. Just as most doctoral degrees in psychology are Ph.D.s, most master’s degrees are Masters of Arts (M.A.). A Master of Science degree (M.S.) will be more common at private professional schools or at the same large research universities that have both B.S. and B.A. psychology undergraduate degrees. Regardless of what you intend to do with your master’s degree, it is not important whether you get an M.A. or an M.S.; it is the quality of the program that matters. That said, if you want to work with clients and call yourself a psychologist, most states will require a Ph.D. or Psy.D. from an APA accredited program as a minimal first step to becoming certified to work with clients.

Prerequisites and degree requirements

In contrast to undergraduate degrees, most graduate degrees, particularly at the Ph.D. level, are specialized from the start. Psychology departments are often specialized or have subfields with dedicated faculty and labs. This means that when you apply to a psychology department, your application may be accepted by the people you want to work with in a specific subfield. Alternatively, for larger programs, you may need to apply directly to the specific subfield, meet a set of specific course requirements, and anticipate receiving your future degree in the subfield’s name.

Prerequisites

Most prerequisites are similar to those for applying to undergraduate programs. You will need good letters of recommendation and grades from your previous education, the more recent and the more psychology-related, the better. You will again need a strong application essay, usually called the Statement of Purpose at the graduate level. You’ll usually need to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), the equivalent of the SAT but for graduate school. The GRE has a subject test in psychology, which some graduate programs request.

Programs will often require an undergraduate degree in psychology. If this is not the case, a degree in psychology helps establish credentials, yet many top-quality programs will also consider students with non-psychology backgrounds who can demonstrate aptitude or relevant training. Work and volunteer experience in psychology-related jobs, psychology publications from your undergraduate education, or anything else demonstrating advanced training or potential will be highly prized with an application. Lastly, reaching out directly to people, who work in the department you are applying to, can increase the likelihood of your application being accepted.

Master’s degree requirements

Even if you are in a Ph.D. program, generally the first step is to meet the requirements for the master’s degree. This will often include mandatory coursework for the Ph.D., that includes specialized courses based on your focus. For clinical psychologists – as well as counseling and school psychologists – there will be additional coursework specifically related to therapeutic approaches and psychological assessments.

Students at this point are still exploring, and they will often be expected to work in the labs of various faculty members to learn different research approaches. Requirements for a master’s thesis depend on the program but usually require original research, sometimes even multiple publications in peer-reviewed journals on a single theme, with a chair and committee that evaluates the thesis and approves it. Many programs also have teaching assistantship or other teaching requirements, especially as part of the required work for tuition waivers and stipends.

Ph.D. and Psy.D. requirements

After all the master’s-level requirements have been met, students are ready to write a Ph.D. proposal. Often a continuation of the master’s thesis, this proposal can also be on a new topic. The proposal is a long and laborious project requiring an extensive literature review, and the complete design of research methods to be used for the dissertation research.

The student will need to organize a dissertation committee which is comprised of a group of internal and external faculty members with expertise on the topic. Once the dissertation proposal is approved, the student must conduct the proposed research and then write the dissertation, which will include the initial proposal as background, research methods and results. For research psychologists, the dissertation might incorporate a collection of published, or at least submitted, papers that address different aspects of the dissertation topic.

One of the nice things about psychology Ph.D.s is that the work tends to be with an established advisor with a research laboratory and an existing body of research already recognized within the field. Students often join these labs because they already have shared interests and ideas for what they can contribute. Their advisors often play a strong role guiding their choices of what to work on, and serve as coauthors on the individual studies. Consequently, the process is not as overwhelming as it may sound here.

Additional requirements for clinical psychology and associated fields

Students wishing to become licensed practicing psychologists – such as clinical, school, or counseling psychologists – in programs accredited by the APA, generally have additional requirements that go along with the APA accreditation and that involve practical training, additional assessment, and practicum courses.

Earlier training, usually part-time, unpaid and located at the university, is called an externship or a practicum and can be done during the first several years of studies. Later, often after completing the Ph.D., students will need complete an internship. This is full-time and is usually paid, but still involves regular supervision from an experienced licensed psychologist. According to the APA, most states require between 1,500 and 2,000 internship hours to be eligible for licensure.

Becoming a licensed psychologist

Only health psychologists who work directly with clients require licensure. Scientific research psychologists do not. Developed in close cooperation with the APA, licensure requirements vary state by state. Requirements generally include a Ph.D. or Psy.D. from an APA accredited clinical, counseling, or school psychology program. As mentioned, that accreditation ensures certain minimum training and coursework, including the required internship hours needed for state licensure. Often a postdoctoral fellowship is a standard part of the process which includes applied psychology training to accrue additional hours of supervised therapy. This is paid work at a university after earning a Ph.D., for a period of 1-2 years to gain experience before going on the job market. Finally, there is the licensure exam, the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). In many cases it is the job graduating students find that determines which state they apply for licensure in. Luckily this can be solidified from the internship, so that the state requirements can be determined and met during the Ph.D. or Psy.D. This APA article provides some great personal accounts, details, and advice regarding the process to licensure.

Psychology subfields, areas of specialization, and courses

The distinction between whether you train to become a research psychologist or a health psychologist is often central to where you go to graduate school, what you specialize in after making that choice, the kinds of courses and training you get. Research psychologists identify as scientists and get extensive training in scientific methods, including statistics and experimental design. Health psychologists work directly with clients or groups, usually to address psychological disorders and dysfunction, though often also to help bring out people’s best performance. The former is largely theory and hypothesis driven.

The latter is largely practical and applied. There are many outstanding research psychology programs that do not have clinical psychology programs; the most common and rigorous of the accredited health psychology Ph.D.s, and often the default term for graduate-level programs in health psychology. Similarly, there are many outstanding clinical programs that do not have scientific psychology. The 2 kinds of psychologists may interact very seldomly after an undergraduate degree.

On the other hand, it is possible and not uncommon for psychologists to both engage in basic research while being trained and certified as clinical psychologists, and in research directly focused on more practical applications of psychology for mental health and well-being. Below is a summary of the main subfields in each of these 2 types of psychology programs, along with specific examples of courses that are often required for that subfield. That said, there are many distinct courses offered in psychology departments due to the specializations of the faculty members and the schools they work in.

Health Psychology

Clinical Psychology

The most common applied psychology degree is the clinical degree. Clinical psychologists are trained to work with individual clients or small groups in intimate settings. They must receive doctoral degrees, spend more than 1000 hours in closely supervised therapy sessions with clients, and pass a test to be certified by the state in which they wish to practice. Clinical psychologists usually specialize in a particular school of psychotherapy and may require additional training and certification depending on their practice, such as to work with children, to use particular assessment tools, or to establish their credentials in a particular school of psychotherapy.

Courses in clinical psychology correspond directly to these various specializations and types of psychotherapy. There are also courses devoted to the use of specific assessment tools, such as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) where clients look at different pictures and interpret them, the Rorschach Test which is commonly known as the ink blot test, or on theories about human development and psychological health, such as attachment theory and the more refined adult attachment theory. Common psychotherapeutic approaches include the following:

CBT focuses on current patterns in thinking and behavior, specifically patterns recognized by the client and the therapist as irrational and dysfunctional. It uses a variety of approaches to interrupt these patterns of behavior. It has been found to be particularly effective with phobias, with impulse control disorders and addictions, and generally with breaking bad habits or forming good habits.

Psychodynamic approaches focus on uncovering unconscious and subconscious processes that drive certain behaviors. These approaches tend to focus attention on childhood and on early relationships with one’s parents. The most well-known approach is psychoanalysis, pioneered by Sigmund Freud, the father of psychodynamic approaches. His student Carl Jung is another well-known psychodynamic psychologist. Another psychodynamic approach is Carl Rogers’s person-centered therapy, well represented in popular culture by the therapist who sits and listens silently as the client speaks and rarely says a word except to rephrase what the client has said. Gestalt therapy is another psychodynamic approach.

Many clinical psychologists today borrow from many approaches and try to customize their approach to the client and their needs, often with trial and error. Eclectic approaches avoid the sometimes-doctrinaire commitment to a single perspective and recognize the fact that different approaches suit different therapists, different clients, and specific challenges.

Clinical psychologists often focus on specialized problems, people, or relationships. Some focus on intimate relationships, some on children, some on older adults. Others work specifically with groups or couples, some work specifically on addiction or on phobias or on more specific disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Other health psychology programs

In addition to clinical psychology, there are several related health psychology fields, many of which require similarly rigorous training and certification. Counseling psychology has a large overlap with clinical psychology, although counseling psychology focuses less on extreme dysfunction and disorders, and more on a healthy counseling role, often in school or coaching settings. School psychology is a specialization specifically for work in school settings. School psychologists evaluate the impact of a particular school context or program on student well-being. They are often hired by schools or by external supervising authorities to evaluate schools.

Several psychology programs are a closer to a hybrid of science-based psychology and health-based work. Industrial-Organizational (I/O) Psychology focuses on psychological issues related to organizational dynamics. Instead of one-on-one clinical work, this domain often involves consulting work with organizations to assess their culture and relationships between employees and management. You can become an I/O psychologist without clinical training in an APA accredited program or state certification or client work. This expertise is primarily science driven, even though I/O psychologists generally work in applied settings. Forensic psychology involves the application of psychology to criminal and other legal settings. It requires fluency in scientific understanding and communication, an understanding of the law, and specialization and training in clinical psychology. Forensic psychologists will often consult or testify on the relationship between clinical psychological disorders to explain or excuse a potentially criminal act. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are literally hundreds of therapeutic approaches and specialized applications of psychology to almost any applied domains that involves the relationship between human behavior and mental states.

Scientific research psychology

Most practicing psychologists are clinical psychologists, but most psychologists working at large research universities where students are study psychology are scientific psychologists engaged in basic research to better understand the relationship between the mind, the brain, and behavior.

Classes that might be taken in psychology correspond to the variety of topics or specializations, with the most common courses corresponding to the most common subfields, such as cognitive, social, or developmental psychology. Courses can also be far more specialized than even the most specialized subfields, depending on the research interests of the faculty members. Along with subject area courses, research psychology students take courses in methodologies, including multiple courses in statistics, experimental methods, and other research methods relevant to the study being conducted. The most common subfields and specializations in research psychology include the following:

CBT focuses on current patterns in thinking and behavior, specifically patterns recognized by the client and the therapist as irrational and dysfunctional. It uses a variety of approaches to interrupt these patterns of behavior. It has been found to be particularly effective with phobias, with impulse control disorders and addictions, and generally with breaking bad habits or forming good habits.

This domain of psychology is particularly concerned with how social relationships impact psychology and vice versa. Do people behave differently in groups and how? What is the impact of other people on how we think or behave? Also, what is the impact of individual psychological processes on group dynamics? Social psychology is one of the most popular subfields in psychology.

This subdiscipline focuses on human development, most commonly during the earliest stages before children can talk, and up until adulthood. Developmental psychologists also focus on changes across the life span. It is concerned with how the mind, brain, and behavior change and develop as the human organism grows over time, with respect to both internal biological processes and external shared contexts that correspond to certain ages or stages or orders of events.

Most research psychology seeks to uncover universal mental processes that are shared by all people. Psychologists who focus on personality and individual differences tend to look for aspects of human biology or experience that make some people psychologically different from others. These variations can be in personality, gender, race, ethnicity, age, or something else that distinguishes one group of people from another.

Biological psychology is particularly focused on the biological substrates that impact the mind and behavior, most notably the nervous system (brain cells), but also hormones and other aspects of human biology that influence thinking, feeling, and behavior. Often the work of biological psychologists has greater affinity to biology than to psychology. Behavioral neuroscience is a subdomain of biological psychology that has taken off in the past couple of decades thanks, in large part, to innovations in brain scanning technologies, especially functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) that allow researchers to observe the activity inside the brain relatively non-invasively while the individual engages in various activities.

Even more than in clinical psychology, there is an essentially unlimited number of subfields in research psychology, growing and changing over time as the field of psychology evolves. Many of these programs are interdisciplinary, in that they borrow from other disciplines outside psychology.

Evolutionary psychology focuses on how human biological evolution has impacted psychological processes. Increasingly popular over the past 30 years, it combines expertise in biological evolution with expertise in psychology.

Comparative psychology focuses on the psychology of non-human animals, often to better understand more universal aspects of human psychology, or what sets us apart from other animals.

Cultural psychology and cross-cultural psychology concerned either with (a) how practices, values, beliefs, and other cultural characteristics that differ by group impact basic psychological processes such as perception or the experience of emotions, or with (b) using cross-cultural comparisons to test hypotheses about human psychological universals.

Environmental psychologists are focused on how the built or natural physical environment impacts psychological processes, or vice versa.

Political psychology examines how psychological processes impact political preference and politics more generally. These are all fields of psychology, but many fields also apply psychological science to create their own subdisciplines.

Behavioral Economics, for example, applies psychological experimental methods to economic theories to test the extent to which people actual behave according to economic models. Experimental philosophers use experimental methods in psychology to explore the extent to which philosophical assumptions about shared intuitions are shared by people, other than just philosophers. Cognitive anthropology and psychological anthropology are subfields in social-cultural anthropology that apply psychological analyses to the study of human culture. The list goes on and on.

Costs and time requirements for a degree

Undergraduate psychology degree

BA degrees are generally earned in 4 years, although this can take less or more time depending on how efficient students are with their requirements. The costs for an undergraduate degree in psychology are the same as the costs for any other undergraduate degree that might be offered by a college or university.

These costs vary widely across the United States, depending on whether the school is public (funded in large part by the state where the school is located using taxpayer dollars) or private (funded in large part by the tuition paid by students), by the reputation of the school, by whether the student can establish long-term residency in the state (for public schools), and by whether the student is eligible for tuition discounts or fellowships, which tend to be offered on a financial needs basis or because the student has particular specialized skills, such as being an accomplished athlete who can play in a school’s competitive sports.

Costs can be divided between tuition, room and board, and additional fees, although even this does not include the costs for books or incidental living expenses. According to the Times Higher Education (publisher of the World University Rankings), tuition costs range from $5,000 to $50,000, with the typical in-state tuition at a public university costing $10,230, the typical out-of-state tuition costing $26,290, and the average private non-profit school costing $35,830.

That doesn’t include room, board, and fees. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provides average tuitions for the 2017-2018 for everything (tuition, room, board, fees). The average 4-year public institutions charged $20,050 / year. The average 4-year private institution (for-profit and non-profit combined) charged $43,139 / year. These are averages and from the 2017 academic year. Statista.com gives a list of the most expensive 4-year programs for the 2020 academic year. Harvey Mudd College tops the list at $75,000 / year, or $300,000 for a 4-year education. No wonder the average undergraduate student debt is more than $100,000.

Graduate psychology degree

Master’s programs usually take 2 years, although some are designed to take just one year. Ph.D. programs usually take a minimum of 4 years for someone entering the program with a bachelor’s degree. Entering with a master’s degree often will not save any time unless the master’s degree was from an almost identical program. Ph.D. programs can take much longer, sometimes more than twice as long.

Since psychology students often work closely with their advisor in a research lab that helps guide and structure the student, many Ph.D. psychology programs are reliable at graduating their students in 4 or 5 years and with a solid publication record. Clinical programs, however, usually take 6 years or longer because of the additional requirements for eventual licensure.

Fees for graduate degrees can be completely different from the notoriously expensive undergraduate degrees. Terminal master’s degrees are usually similar in cost to undergraduate degrees. Private professional schools offering a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree charge lower tuitions than most private university master’s degree programs, but higher than many public universities, especially with in-state tuition. Ph.D. programs, however, almost universally offer tuition waivers and stipends to help students during their doctoral education, so that the advertised tuitions do not apply.

For details about tuition waivers and stipends and why you will generally get paid to get your PhD. Again, what you’ll need to pay varies widely and it is worth looking into not only the published tuitions but also opportunities for waivers and stipends.

Career opportunities and salaries

Employers seeking professional psychologists or skills that come from a psychology education will generally require at least a master’s degree and often a Ph.D. A terminal bachelor’s degree in psychology will not be that different than any other bachelor’s degree for the job market.

That said, a psychology degree is a useful general degree for almost any job that only requires undergraduate-level education, since it suggests a general interest in people and perhaps greater social intelligence which is increasingly valued in the workplace. Some exceptions could be psychology research labs or health psychology programs looking for extra non-specialized help.

They may hire you because of your undergraduate background with the understanding that you are passionate about the topic. This kind of work often pays poorly, and the jobs themselves may be advertised as psychology internships or practicums, with the expectation that you are getting additional training that may help you get into a graduate program.

If you are not seeking to work as a licensed clinical, counseling, or school psychologist, and you are not seeking to work as a university teacher or scholar in the field, then a master’s degree is often all you need to establish professional credentials as a psychologist.

Students with a master’s degree have usually been trained in statistics and other research methods and have a solid foundation in the field that can be beneficial across a wide range of research, business, and health domains concerned with human behavior as it relates to psychological processes. Jobs in marketing, with consulting firms, with human resources, or with research methods are all suitable for psychology students, and they will often offer additional training to establish specialist psychology skills.

If you wish to become a university lecturer or scientist, or if you wish to work with clients in any capacity as a licensed professional psychologist, you will need a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. This is also relevant to many specialized professions where you would be identified as a psychologist, such as for forensic or I/O psychology. Salaries vary widely depending on specialization, the job, and the location.