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Graduate School Options for Psychology Majors

This page is about graduate programs in psychology, education, and social work that will prepare you for work in psychology and psychology-related careers.

Note: If you want to help people with problems (do "counseling"), you are not limited to careers that require graduate degrees in psychology. Psychology-related graduate programs such as education and social work are typically happy to have students who majored in psychology as undergraduates. In my experience, they often have less stringent admission standards than do psychology programs.

If you are like most undergraduates who will not have the necessary GRE scores and GPAs to be admitted to master's or doctoral programs in clinical or counseling psychology, don't despair! You should definitely consider these alternative educational pathways to the counseling "mountaintop."

At the master's and doctoral level, education becomes increasingly specialized. To do the work you want to do, it is essential to obtain the proper degree. This means getting clear about the distinctions between various degree options. You need to know for sure that the degree you pursue will prepare you to do what you want. (If you get in the wrong degree program, you can waste time, money, and also end up unprepared to do what you had hoped to do.)

There are many factors to be considered as you make decisions about your graduate school options. You will probably have to review the information in this section a number of times before it begins to make sense. Nonetheless, your future happiness and income are riding on it, so stick with it.

Choose a graduate program on the basis of considerations that are important to you, not others. Just because your faculty mentor has a PhD doesn't mean that you need to get one, to be happy or to earn your mentor's respect. Get the degree that meets your needs.

Choose a program that offers the level of education you want (master's, doctorate), that is compatible with your orientation (scientific, practical, behavioral, cognitive) and that offers coursework and training to prepare you to do what you want to do (individual, family, group therapy; testing; working with adults, children, etc.).

I will provide some general guidelines to help you understand some of the major degree programs and their similarities and differences. Nonetheless, because of the detailed and technical nature of this information and because so much is riding on your making informed decisions, I strongly advise you to work with a faculty member who knows about the various degree options that are relevant to the work in which you're interested.

At almost any school, students can change advisors if they ask to. As you may have learned, some faculty know more than others about particular areas of study, and some may have a manner or style better suited to your needs than others. Keep your eyes open, talk to other students in the program, and shop around if it is necessary.

MA, MS, MEd, MSW, PhD, PsyD, EdD: What Does It All Mean?

To understand the various degree options, you need to know some important points about academic degrees. You're probably aware that degrees have different "names" (the technical name for this is degree nomenclature). Just as there are a number of degrees offered at the undergraduate level—e.g., bachelor of arts ( BA) and bachelor of science (BS)—there are a number of different types of graduate degrees.

The nomenclature for degrees contains two important pieces of information. One tells you the educational level of the degree: B for a bachelor's degree (beginning level; 4 years); M for a master's degree (intermediate level; 1-2 years beyond the bachelor's degree); and D for a doctoral degree (highest level; 3-5 years beyond the bachelor's degree).

The second piece of information contained in degree nomenclature is the discipline in which the degree is awarded. Here things can get complicated, so I'll try to keep to the essential points. Those academic disciplines (majors) that deal with basic principles vs. the applications of knowledge are classified as the liberal arts (and sciences). These include psychology, sociology, political science, history, biology, physics, and English.

Disciplines (majors) such as education, nursing, and business teach the applications of the basic principles of knowledge. Because the various disciplines and their educational requirements are different, it is important to distinguish between them.

All masters degrees in the liberal arts and sciences disciplines give degrees titled master of arts (MA) and/or master of science (MS). Often, an MA indicates that a thesis is required, whereas an MS indicates that it is not; however, this is not always so. The same is true of the bachelor of arts and the bachelor of science degrees at the undergraduate level.

All doctoral degrees in liberal arts disciplines (psychology, biology, etc.) give the doctor of philosophy degree (PhD). The PsyD degree is awarded only in psychology and only in the "professional" areas of clinical and counseling psychology—not, for example, in subfields like social or developmental psychology.

The major difference between the PsyD and the PhD is the PhD's emphasis on research. The PhD degree prepares clinical psychologists to be researchers (as well as practitioners). The PsyD prepares clinicians to be consumers of research but not to produce research for publication in journals.

PhD programs require students to take more courses in research design and statistics and to produce original research written up in a PhD dissertation. PsyD programs usually do not require research or a dissertation; they emphasize training for providing psychological services.

To further complicate matters, there are distinctions between various degrees in the applied disciplines. We will consider only those fields of greatest interest to psychology majors.

In social work, there is a master of social work degree (MSW) and more rarely a doctor of social work degree (DSW). Some social workers have a PhD in education or educational psychology, obtained through a School of Education but not through a Psychology Department.

The master of education degree is either the MEd or the EdM; the doctor of education degree is the EdD. In business, the master's degree is the master's of business administration (MBA). If you want to explore this further, you can use your college catalog to see how the degrees of your instructors match their disciplines.

A Master's Degree or a Doctoral Degree?

Are there any practical reasons for choosing a master's degree or a doctoral degree? Yes! Doctoral degrees will enable you to earn more money, to work in positions with more responsibility (and status), and to have more independence.

Of course, doctoral programs are also harder to get into. They take more time and effort to complete—typically at least 4-6 years beyond the bachelor's degree. A master's degree gives you more occupational advantages than a bachelor's degree, but fewer than a doctoral degree. On the other hand, master's programs are easier to get into than doctoral programs; they are also less difficult and take less time to complete (typically 1-2 years beyond the bachelor's degree).

To determine the relative difficulty of the various degree programs (and departments), you need to consider several factors. First, you need to compare admissions standards (how hard is it to get in). Second, you need to compare the graduation requirements in the programs that interest you (how hard is it to graduate?). Is there a foreign language requirement? Is there a written comprehensive and/or oral exam? A thesis? A dissertation?

Some Useful Distinctions

To help you determine whether you lean toward a degree in psychology, social work, or education, I'll try to make some distinctions among the graduate programs in these fields.

In a psychology graduate program, you will learn a lot about research methods and statistics and specialize in a subfield of psychology: developmental, social, personality, neuropsychology, clinical, health, etc. (See "Areas of Specialization in Psychology." If your sub-field is clinical or counseling psychology, a graduate program will also give you practical experience in conducting psychotherapy and psychological testing.

Typically, what distinguishes psychology from education and social work is the strong research focus. Most master's and doctoral psychology programs in clinical psychology require coursework in research. This research emphasis serves two primary functions. First, because psychology is an empirical discipline, psychologists must understand research methodology to keep up with developments in the field (by reading professional journals). Second, psychologists and psychology students conduct research to advance knowledge in the field.

Doctoral programs require a dissertation (a major research project of publishable quality) and some master's programs do as well. If you select a master's program that requires a thesis, you will need these skills to conduct the research for your thesis. (A master's thesis is a research project that may or may not be of publishable quality and is highly desirable if you are planning to go on for a PhD.)

In a non-thesis program such as most PsyD programs, you will need the research skills to understand the research articles you read for your classes and papers and to keep up with developments in the discipline after you graduate. Thus you should become literate in scientific research, even if you do not conduct it yourself.

In my experience, most psychology majors have relatively little interest in research. (I don't mean this as an indictment, only a description of reality as I see it.) If you are one of these students, you should think seriously about going on in a field other than psychology (and should definitely rule out a PhD in psychology—although a PsyD may be an option. Graduate programs in education and social work may be much more to your liking.

An essential resource on graduate programs in psychology is an APA publication found in most Psychology Department libraries: Graduate Study in Psychology (see "Books on Graduate School for Psychology Majors"). At the back of the book, there is an alphabetical list of all of the subfields in psychology. Under each heading, you will find listed almost all of the institutions that offer degrees (both master's and doctoral) in that subfield.

Once you locate the schools you are interested in, you can read the details about admission requirements, application deadlines, degree requirements, program goals, faculty/student statistics, tuition costs, and financial aid. Among the useful data are typical GRE scores of students admitted to the program. This can be very useful in determining the general level of difficulty of a program. Programs with high entry requirements (or high average GRE scores among accepted students) are more likely to be the highest-quality programs. They are also the hardest to get into.

Some subfields in psychology publish their own directories. These directories include the Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology, Graduate Training Programs in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Related Fields, and Neuroscience Training Programs in North America(see "Books on Graduate School for Psychology Majors").

Graduate programs in counselor education place less emphasis on research than do psychology programs, including those in clinical and counseling psychology. At the master's level, you probably will not have to do a thesis; at the doctoral level, you may have to complete a dissertation, although some programs allow students to substitute a major theoretical review paper. (For this level of detail, you will need to review the degree requirements for individual programs.)

In education programs, students typically get less coursework and practical experience in psychological assessment than do students in psychology programs. School psychologists specialize in educational testing. Educational psychologists may do some forms of educational testing such as occupational interest inventories.

Counselor education programs will require you to take courses and have supervised experiences in the appraisal and treatment of psychological problems. Thus, if you want to do counseling, but are not interested in doing psychological testing or research, a degree in counselor education (agency counseling or school counseling) might be just what you want.

If you are interested in learning to use a battery of psychoeducational tests to determine why a child is performing exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly in school, school psychology may be the career for you. School psychologists also usually design programs to help children perform better (based on the results of testing and interviews with the child, teacher, and parents), but they may also be responsible for identifying gifted students who can be given advanced programs.

School psychologists may take courses in counseling and behavior modification as well as in educational, intellectual, and personality assessment. An independent research project (thesis) is typically not required for a school psychology degree.

A minimum of a master's degree is required to become a school psychologist, but many states require school psychologists to have training beyond a master's degree (EdS or education specialist's degree); some require the doctorate (PhD). To practice as a school psychologist in a particular state, a student with credentials from a school psychology program may have to pass a certification test. Degree programs in school psychology are designed to prepare students for such tests.

The APA publication, Graduate Study in Psychology (see "Books on Graduate School for Psychology Majors") lists APA-accredited programs in school psychology, educational psychology, and counseling psychology. It covers education degrees as well as psychology degrees.

Clinical Social Work

Unlike graduate programs in counselor education, school psychology, and clinical/counseling psychology, social work programs will not prepare you to conduct psychological testing. Otherwise, clinical social workers take coursework and practica in the diagnosis and treatment of psychological problems, among other topics.

Training in social work enables a student to work in a variety of settings such as hospitals, schools, and community mental health centers. One can obtain a license in clinical social work at the master's level in all states of the U.S. (See next section, "What Are Licenses and Certificates?")

If you want to know what institutions offer graduate programs in social work, consult the booklet, Summary Information on Master of Social Work Programs, published by the National Association of Social Workers. (See "Books on Graduate School for Psychology Majors"). You can order a copy by contacting the National Association of Social Workers at the address given in the section, "Master's- and Doctoral-level Careers in Psychology and Related Areas."

What Are Licenses and Certificates?

A license is a "quality control" credential awarded by the state—not an educational institution. A license gives you legal authority to work independently—i.e., you don't need to be supervised by someone else. This means that you can have a private practice—see clients on your own, receive insurance payments, and so forth.

Physicians, dentists, and veterinarians are licensed. Similarly, the use of the title "psychologist" is regulated by state licensing boards. Only individuals who have met the requirements for a psychology license may put themselves forward to the public as psychologists.

Similarly, licensed psychologists are prohibited by law from putting themselves forth to the public as a licensed social worker and vice versa. A major reason for these regulations about the practice of psychology and social work is to protect the public from those who are not competent to treat those in need of assistance.

Although the requirements for a psychology license vary from state to state, they typically involve the following: (1) a doctoral degree in a field of study that is "primarily psychological in nature," (2) one year of supervised clinical work during graduate school, (3) one year of post-doctoral supervised clinical work, and (4) a passing score on a standardized examination.

Some states also require an oral examination once the written exam is passed. Some have continuing education requirements to keep practitioners up to date on their fields after completing their degrees and entering the workforce.

For many people, the fact that clinical social workers with only a master's degree can be licensed in all 50 states is a major advantage of the MSW degree. You should note, however, that managed health care is driving many licensed mental health workers out of private practice because they cannot compete with health maintenance organizations (HMOs).

To learn more about this, talk with a clinical psychologist in your department. In many states, individuals with master's degrees in clinical psychology (MA/MS) and agency counseling (MEd) cannot be licensed. And even in those states where they are licensable, they are never licensed as a "psychologist" because they don't meet the minimum requirement of a doctoral degree. Rules are different in Canada and other countries, so you have to do research on the regulations in the area where you hope to work.

When individuals with master's degrees in psychology are licensed in the U.S., they usually carry a title like "psychological associate" or "psychological assistant" to distinguish them from licensed psychologists. Their work is limited to certain activities such as psychological testing. In Georgia, those with a master's degree in psychology are eligible for two licenses: one for a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and one for a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC).

Individuals with master's degrees who are not licensed can work in a variety of mental health settings such as community mental health centers where supervision from licensed individuals is available. In our state each county has a network of mental health centers, usually staffed by psychological associates or assistants, with regular visits by psychiatrists to assist in prescription medications.

Of course, these centers can consult with local PhD level clinical psychologists when necessary or helpful. An example of a service provided by such organizations is Day Treatment programs for schizophrenic individuals who are not dangerous but need assistance during daytime hours when family members may be unable to supervise them.

In some states, master's degrees holders in clinical psychology and agency counseling may be eligible for certificates. Certificates are quality-control credentials awarded by professional organizations, not states or educational institutions. A certificate is intended as proof that individuals have taken necessary courses or demonstrated necessary knowledge or gained necessary experience in particular areas such as drug addiction or family therapy. In Georgia, one has a much better chance at getting a job in the addictions area if one is a Certified Addiction Counselor (CAC).

Because a certificate is the gateway to a salaried job, people often resort to specialized for-profit programs to try to pass certification exams. In some specialities, certificate training courses abound. These are similar to SAT training programs used by many American high school students. Customers are given sample items (often taken from previous years' exams) and practice tests as well as practical advice. The objective is to improve their chances of doing well on the official exam.

Individuals may try several times to obtain certification, like law students trying to pass the bar exam so they can practice law. Eventually people succeed or they give up. The health of a degree program or training facility may be measured by the percentage of its graduates who obtain certificates. That is like judging a college program by the percentage of its graduates who obtain satisfactory jobs. Other things are important, too, but most students expect their education to help them get a good job, if they go through the whole process and obtain a degree.

Programs are themselves subject to certification. Certifying organizations are well publicized, and information about certification is often displayed prominently on a program's web page. If it is not, a bit of internet research is in order, to find out why. Online programs sometimes lack important forms of certification, or have poor job placement records. This requires research before a commitment.

Prospective students should find out, at minimum: (1) how many graduates of a program obtain jobs, (2) what those jobs are, and (3) whether the program is certified in the manner required of the best schools (e.g. the American Psychological Association certifies the best clinical psychology programs). When making decisions about degree programs, careful research and planning increases the chance of a happy outcome.

APA-style reference for this page:

Lloyd, M. A. and Dewey, R. A. (2016, November 20). Graduate school options for psychology majors. Retrieved from:

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