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Psychology Degrees

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.

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Masters of Science in Psychology (MS)

Where It All Began

Have you ever wondered what those letters in BS, BA, MA, MS, and PhD stand for? The short answer is they differentiate academic degrees by both level of expertise and general field of study. The "B" in a Bachelors 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 Masters 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.

Once upon a time academic degrees were restricted to the Doctoral level but there has been a gradual shift from the purely theoretical to the pragmatic and as a result, many Masters Degree programs are now sufficient for immediate entry into professional work, instead of merely a step on the PhD path.

In the United States, the first Masters level degree was awarded at the University of Michigan way back in 1850 and Masters degrees have been growing in popularity ever since. The number of Masters Degrees awarded almost doubled in the last 25 years of the twentieth century. In some fields, a Masters Degree is an absolute essential for entry into a profession. Psychology is one of those fields.

What's The Difference Between An MS Degree and Ph.D. Degree?

The most obvious difference is the time it takes to complete the requirements for the degree. While some MS programs can be completed in as little as one year, most take two years. Depending on the field of study, a PhD can take as much as 7 years to finish, reflecting the higher level of expertise of the holder of a PhD. Another difference is the opportunities available to degreed individuals. PhDs offer limitless opportunities, while the options available to a person with an MS in psychology are more limited.

What Are The Requirements For An MS Degree In Psychology?

An MS in Psychology will typically offer fields of concentration in more "scientific" areas than an MA but there is no "one size fits all" M.S. in Psychology. Degree requirements and courses of study vary across educational institutions. Typically you'll find specializations in experimental psychology, developmental psychology, and learning and cognition under an MS program. But even here there are differences across institutions, with some schools offering an MA in developmental psychology instead of an MS.

While there are some schools that grant an MS as a terminal degree, many only offer it as the first step toward the ultimate attainment of a PhD in Psychology.

As a general rule, a Master of Science in psychology does not stress counseling or the practitioner side of psychology. Consequently an MS is not as frequently used as a first step towards licensure, as is the case with some MA programs in Psychology.

However, there are exceptions, and some institutions do offer terminal MS in Psychology degrees in applied courses of study like counseling psychology, school psychology, clinical psychology, or industrial psychology. Some programs have a "non-thesis track" - no thesis is required for graduation. Others offer a thesis track, which provides better preparation for students who plan to pursue a PhD at some poin

The non-thesis option at certain schools may require the completion of an additional 15 credit hours over and above the 32 credit hours, which is the minimum degree requirement at most schools. Some schools with practitioner preparation curricula may require as many as 60 credit hours.

As mentioned earlier there are some MS programs in psychology that can be completed in a year, most require a minimum of 2 years. At many schools, maintaining a GPA of 3.0 is another degree requirement. The curricula for an MS will invariably contain greater emphasis on research methodology and advanced statistical analysis than will an MA program.

What Can You Do With An MS Degree In Psychology?

For some programs, the MS is a prerequisite for entry into a PhD program at a later time, with few opportunities to immediately enter a career in professional Psychology. However, a terminal MS degree in a practioner field of study does provide training for entry level careers in mental health, schools, private industry, and some forensic psychology careers, but there simply aren't as many practioner offerings as there are with the MA degree.

If at this point in your life you're simply not sure whether your interests lie in the rigorous science of Psychology or in its practical applications, there is an alternative. There are a few schools that offer generalist degrees where you are exposed to both the theoretical and the practical. The best sources for finding them are the Graduate Study in Psychology, by the APA (American Psychological Association), and of course, the Graduate School Search Engine here at, which lets you search by specific school, topic of study, and geographic location.

Typically, programs like these provide a broad base of both the scientific methodologies of psychology and how they are applied to behavioral, cognitive, and societal issues. These generalist degrees are not designed to qualify students for independent practice in psychology, but rather as a means of clarifying career options or as a first step in a path towards a doctoral degree.

Next Steps

Now that you know all about the MS Degree in psychology, what should you do next? Here are the three most appropriate next steps: