Degrees in Psychology - Overview
In this section we'll cover many different elements of the psychology degree, focusing primarily on Graduate Psychology Degrees. We'll discuss the different types of psychology degrees, what you can do with a graduate degree in psychology, careers in psychology, and more. And don't forget to use our fantastic Graduate School Search Engine to find the graduate school that fits your needs!
There are three main career paths in Psychology: 1) Mental Health; 2) Applied areas including Industrial (Business) and Organizational (Non Profit) work; and 3) Academic Research and Teaching.
Graduate psychology degrees are offered at both the Master's level and the Doctoral level, but do you know what kind of degree you need for a career in each of these fields? We'll cover that in this section.
Master's level degrees include Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) or Master's in Clinical Social Work (MSW). A Master's Degree derives its name from the idea that a holder demonstrates a mastery of a body of knowledge, both in a theoretical and applied sense, as well as a high level of critical thinking, empirical analysis, and problem solving.
Attaining a Master's degree in psychology will offer opportunities to work as a professional in several areas of psychology. In the mental health fields you will have opportunities to practice as a licensed mental health counselor, social worker or school counselor. Other areas include applied practice and research in Industrial and Organizational, human factors engineering, consumer, health and other areas of psychology. A Master's degree can also serve as a foundation for further career exploration and Doctoral study.
The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is the granddaddy of all graduate level degrees - the highest and most prestigious degree the world over. PhDs in Psychology are offered in a variety of specialized fields of study with wide ranges in their area of focus and career intents. Mental health fields include PhD's in clinical or counseling psychology. Applied PhD's include Industrial/Organizational, Human Factors Engineering, Sports Performance and Forensic among others. Research Psychology PhD's are offered in almost every subfield such as social psychology, developmental psychology, cognitive psychology and experimental psychology. The level of empirical research required during a program varies by field of study. However, in all cases you will be required to present a dissertation involving some type of original research. With a PhD in Psychology, all career paths in Psychology are open to you.
The Doctorate of Psychology Degree (PsyD.) is a relatively new offering, geared for those who are more interested in the practice of psychology and will have less emphasis on research and more focus on applied topics. The degree was born as an alternative to the traditional PhD and is very attractive to those whose career interests are limited to applied practice of the profession. A PsyD degree will allow you to work and practice in almost all mental health fields and there is at least one new PsyD program specializing in Industrial and Organizational Psychology.
The Doctor of Education (EdD) degree is a doctoral degree awarded by a department of education. Given this fact many programs are focused on education and related areas. However, there are programs such as counseling psychology EdD's, that will be very similar to PhD programs. EdD programs tend to have a more practitioner-oriented focus but still provide strong grounding in research and theory, particularly in applied research. With an EdD you can still be eligible for licensure as a psychologist if your program is APA accredited. In a sense this degree can be viewed as a kind of mix of the PsyD and educational psychology PhD.
Although graduate programs in psychology vary widely in focus, typically the minimum criteria to apply are similar. An undergraduate major in psychology will be favored, but not always required. However, several core courses in psychology will usually be required. The required courses will usually include research methods and statistics courses along with some upper level elective courses.
Most programs will require a minimum score on the GRE (Graduate Record Exam), although there are some that may not. Most programs will also require a “personal statement.” This is a paper outlining why you are interested in the program, why you are a good fit based on your experience and what you want to get out of the program in terms of career. These, of course, would be the minimum admission criteria. Most programs will look favorably on expanded experience in psychology such as research or work in a psychologically related setting, particularly areas closely related to the program you are applying to. For more competitive programs these extra areas of experience will, essentially, be required to actually gain admission along with a strong academic record.
For more information on becoming a good candidate for admission to graduate school please read our section on "How to get into graduate school."
In addition to the great information provided on this site another good resource is the APA (American Psychological Association) publication "Graduate Study in Psychology" which you can buy at better bookstores or find at your local library.
Advanced academic degrees were first awarded in European universities during the middle ages and were restricted to Doctoral degrees. The PhD was the only degree conferred and it was meant for scholars interested in furthering the study of knowledge in the field. Over time there were concerns expressed about the lack of practical applications of knowledge versus the "knowledge for the sake of knowledge" orientation of the PhD.
As a direct result of this expressed need for practitioners, the University of Michigan offered the first Master of Arts degree in the United States in 1850. Master's Degrees have been the subject of disagreement within academia as some felt they should be nothing more than a step towards the ultimate prize, the PhD.
Education in contemporary society has seen an even more dramatic shift from the purely theoretical to the pragmatic and as a result, many Master's Degree programs are now sufficient for immediate entry into professional work, instead of being merely a step on the PhD path.
Perhaps as a result of this shift, the number of Master's Degrees awarded almost doubled in the last 25 years of the twentieth century. In some fields, a Master's Degree is an absolute essential for entry into a profession; a Bachelor's Degree is insufficient. Psychology is one of those fields.
Before getting into the requirements for earning a graduate degree, let's briefly review the "alphabet soup" that now describes most contemporary degrees, both graduate and undergraduate.
The letters used to differentiate academic degrees indicate both level of expertise and general field of study. The "B" in a Bachelor's degree indicates a basic level of expertise while the "M" denotes additional expertise gained from an additional 1 - 2 years or study, the time range it takes to complete a Master's Degree. The "A" or "S" indicates expertise in the fields of liberal arts or the natural/empirical sciences.
The "D" in PhD or the newer EdD and PsyD indicates the highest level of expertise available in academia - that of Doctor.
The letters "EdD" differentiate this academic degree from other well known conferred degrees like the BA/BS, the MA /MS degrees, and the traditional PhD or the newer PsyD At the doctoral level the "P" stands for philosophy and the "E" stands for education. You may already know you can get a doctorate in a field like counseling psychology as either a PhD or an EdD.
While it is easy to comprehend the meaning of the "A" or "S" in the MA or MS designations -- which indicates expertise in the fields of liberal arts (i.e., Master of 'Arts') or the natural/empirical sciences (i.e., Master of 'Science') -- what about that pesky "P" in the PhD? The "P" stands for Philosophy, which on first glance doesn't make sense. Why are Doctorates in Molecular
Biology denoted in the same way as Doctorates in Sociology or Psychology? And why Philosophy? After all, when you study to be a psychologist, you're not interested in becoming a philosopher, are you?
Going all the way back to the time of the ancient Greeks helps us to understand this odd situation, as the Greeks saw philosophy as a body of knowledge seeking to explain the basic principles and causal relationships of the universe. Thus, back then, any academic discipline was seen as a subset of Philosophy.
So it was, that when European Universities began conferring academic degrees in the Middle Ages, they used the term, Doctor of Philosophy. By then the fields of theology, law, and medicine were seen as independent entities but everything else was still considered a part of Philosophy. As an interesting side note, the first recognized application of clinical psychology, attributed to Lightner Witmer in 1896, took place in an educational context: poor spelling as evidence of learning disabilities. Now you know!