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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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.
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.
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: