July 30, 2017

Degrees Needed for a Psychology Career

There are several paths one can take to pursue a psychology career. While some may start at a four-year college or university earning bachelor’s degrees, others may first obtain associate’s degrees. For most occupations, completion of a graduate program is required. This can be accomplished either through a master’s degree program or a doctoral program depending on one’s desired occupation.

An associate’s psychology degree should be viewed as more of a stepping stone toward a psychology career than a degree useful for pursuing a future position. None of the traditional jobs in the psychology field can be pursued with an associate’s psychology degree alone. This is not to say that this degree has no value. Many times, credits earned during the pursuit of an associate’s degree can be used toward pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

While most psychology positions require a master’s or doctoral degree to practice, there are some exceptions. With a bachelor’s degree, one can work as an assistant to a psychologist in many work settings, including community mental health centers, correctional programs, and vocational rehabilitation centers. In addition, entry-level positions within the federal government require only a bachelor’s degree. Because it is one of the few places that a bachelor’s-level psychologist can practice, competition for these positions can be fierce.

Completion of a master’s psychology degree opens the door to additional job opportunities. The field of industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology is one in which individuals can work with a master’s degree only. Another option is working as an assistant to a doctoral-level psychologist.

It goes without saying that individuals with doctorates in psychology have the most diverse career choices, including patient care, research, and teaching. Most individuals pursue doctorates in psychology in order to see patients, but these individuals may also conduct research or teach at the college level.

While there are many routes one can take to complete the education necessary to become a psychologist, not all degrees are necessary or sufficient for practice in a particular area. For the interested student, it is important to first consider what type of work one desires to do and then to investigate the degrees necessary to achieve those goals.

Associate’s Degree

An associate’s degree is an undergraduate degree that is typically completed in two years. Institutions that grant associate’s degrees include community colleges, junior colleges, and technical colleges. Some colleges and universities will also grant associate’s degrees after completion of two years of study in a specific course track.

There are several types of associate’s degrees that one can be awarded. Those that may be relevant to someone interested in a psychology career include an associate of arts or an associate of science. These degrees are designed to help someone transfer from a two-year institution to a four-year college or university and serve to fulfill the more general requirements for a four-year degree. For those interested in psychology, associate’s degrees in psychology and related subjects are available.

The advantages of an associate’s degree include the relatively low cost of completing courses at a community college and the flexibility of course scheduling. Individuals may be able to work full-time jobs and complete this course of study, though that may extend the amount of time required for completion. For a student seeking a degree enabling him or her to directly enter the workforce following graduation from an associate’s degree program, this may help to save money and avoid accruing large student loan debt for college and graduate school.

Admissions to an associate’s degree program are similar to those for a four-year undergraduate degree and often include a minimum high school grade point average of 2.75 or higher, standardized test scores in the form of either ACT or SAT scores, passing grades in any prerequisite courses, an admission essay, and letters of recommendation.

Courses for an associate’s degree in psychology might include an introduction to psychology, developmental psychology, family systems, personality and behavior, and research methods.

An associate’s degree, while not adequate alone for an independent career as a psychologist, can be a stepping stone toward a final degree and enables one to work as an assistant to a psychologist.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is required for graduate school admission and, therefore, required to pursue psychology careers.
Bachelor’s degrees typically take four years to complete and have a wide variety of course offerings. There are generally two main types of bachelor’s degrees available: Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science. In the United States, some colleges and universities award a bachelor of arts for most majors (e.g., biology, English, etc.) and only award a bachelor of science degree to those completing course work toward a specific profession (e.g., nursing). Others award the Bachelor of Arts for liberal arts majors and the Bachelor of Science for studies in fields like biology and psychology. Still others offer students the choice of a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science for the same major course of study. In this situation, the difference between the degrees is defined by the core courses for a bachelor of arts versus Bachelor of Science instead of the core courses for the major itself.

While there are additional bachelor degrees available (e.g., engineering, business, or nursing), most students looking to become psychologists will graduate with Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degrees.

Individuals who major in psychology can expect course work to include:

  • Learning and Behavior
  • Social Psychology
  • Personality Psychology
  • Child Psychology
  • Psychology of Adolescence
  • Sensation and Perception
  • Biological Psychology
  • Multicultural Psychology
  • Abnormal Psychology
  • Cognitive Processes
  • History of Psychology
  • Psychotherapy and Counseling
  • Psychological Assessment
  • Psychology of Women
  • Child Psychopathology
  • Psychopharmacology

Additionally, students may be expected to complete clinical internships.

Prerequisite course work may vary widely from one undergraduate institution to another. Most admissions committees will evaluate a student’s high school grade point average, standardized test scores (either ACT or SAT), admissions essays, and letters of recommendation. Some schools may require interviews for admission, placement tests, or more specific standardized tests geared toward specific subjects.

One of the major advantages of a bachelor’s degree is that it can prepare one to work as an assistant to a doctoral-level psychologist or can qualify one for entry-level positions within the federal government.

In most cases, individuals will need to pursue graduate study to work independently as a psychologist. There are some exceptions, as discussed above, but this degree will, for most, act as a stepping stone to graduate school admissions.

Master’s Degree

Following a bachelor’s degree, a student may choose to enter into graduate school and seek a master’s degree. While this degree is insufficient for many psychology career openings, it has many benefits to those interested in the field.

The two most common master’s degrees are the Master of Arts and Master of Science, but most master’s of psychology programs award individuals a Master of Science degree. If one has decided that psychology is one’s field of interest and does not desire to be a clinician, stopping at a master’s degree could be appropriate. Those who are interested in becoming clinicians will use the master’s degree as a prerequisite for doctoral programs. Master’s degrees, typically, can be completed in two years.

Course work at this level is typically more advanced than that at the undergraduate level with more specific classes offered in different subject matters. For example, while a psychology class might be offered in a bachelor’s degree program, a master’s degree program might offer courses in the psychology of learning, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and so on. The goal of a master’s degree is to demonstrate mastery of a specific area of study.

The primary prerequisite for admission to a master’s degree program is a bachelor’s degree. The bachelor’s degree may not need to be in the same field as the master’s program one is applying to, but schools will likely expect to see that one has taken some introductory psychology courses. Like undergraduate schools, graduate schools are interested in standardized test results in the form of the GRE. College transcripts, admission essays, and letters of recommendation are also likely to be required.

A master’s degree can be completed immediately following college or at any point in one’s life. Individuals can practice in the field with a master’s degree alone. An individual interested in industrial-organization (I-O) psychology, for example, can typically find a job without having pursued a doctoral degree. Individuals who are interested in continuing their educations to pursue doctoral degrees will find that many programs first require the completion of master’s level programs.

Depending on one’s career path, a master’s degree in psychology may be the terminal degree required. Others, who are interested in becoming clinicians, will be required to continue their studies toward earning doctoral degrees.


Doctoral degrees in psychology are required for most clinical and research positions. Individuals who are interested in these areas will need to pursue either a PhD in psychology or a doctor of psychology (PsyD) degree.

The major difference between the two degrees is the focus on research versus a focus on clinical intervention. PhD programs in psychology have a much stronger research focus. Individuals with PhDs can also become clinicians or clinician researchers. If one thinks one might prefer to teach or do research in the field, the PhD is probably the better degree to pursue.

Typically, a master’s degree is not required for admissions to a PhD-level program. Most entrance requirements include a bachelor’s degree, GRE scores, college transcripts, letters of recommendation, admissions essays, and interviews.

PhD programs can take four to six years to complete. First-year course work may include:

  • Clinical Research Methods and Psychometrics
  • Psychopathology
  • History and Systems
  • Computer Application in Statistics: Laboratory
  • Developmental Issues in Clinical Psychology

This sampling shows the mix of clinical course work and research practice that is typical of a PhD program. Subsequent years of study are focused on more advanced course work and research activities.

The PsyD is a doctoral degree earned in clinical psychology. These degree programs can take between four and seven years to complete and include clinical practicum hours in addition to classroom learning. First-year courses may include:

  • Sociocultural Bases of Behavior
  • Ethical, Legal, and Professional Issues
  • Interviewing and Intake Evaluation
  • Cognitive Assessment
  • Advanced Clinical Psychopathology
  • Personality Assessment
  • Psychoanalytic Developmental Psychology
  • Behavioral Assessment and Intervention
  • Social Bases of Behavior
  • Cognitive Bases of Behavior

Courses in the second and third years of study are more advanced and prepare one for clinical rotations. The additional time required to complete the degree is typically focused on one’s dissertation activities.

In addition to the prerequisites for admission discussed above for a PhD program, individuals applying to a PsyD program will find that many require the completion of a master’s degree program first.

Individuals considering a psychology career as a researcher or a clinician will find themselves looking into a doctorate-level program in psychology. Before investing years in this education, it is first important to determine which degree, the PhD or PsyD, is the most appropriate degree for what one wishes to do.