Master's Degrees in Psychology (MA/MS)

Why pursue a Master's degree in Psychology? You need to have a clear understanding of why you are pursuing a Master's degree or any graduate degree. When you decide to pursue a degree in any field beyond a Bachelor's your reasons need to be much more focused. A Bachelor's degree can be a foundation for work in many different fields. However, a graduate degree is the foundation for a more specific career path. When you chose to pursue graduate study you are choosing a career path. This decision should be made only after a great deal of careful thought and research.

MS vs. MA degrees
Technically speaking the “science” vs. “arts” degree insignia is supposed to reflect more of a focus on quantitative and “hard sciences” like neuroscience, while the arts more broad and theoretical. In practice, at least in psychology, the differences are minor and most MA programs will offer a great deal of research and quantitative focus as well. In terms of job or license requirements both degrees will function the same. So, too much weight should not be given to the MS designation.
You will see MA and MS programs offered in most of the subfields of psychology such as counseling or I/O psychology. This difference could reflect differences in curriculum but you will find plenty of MA programs that are just as quantitatively and “scientifically” rigorous as any MS program. You really have to look carefully at the curriculum and quality of the program, as these will have more impact than the letter designation.

If your goal is more focus on research and quantitative skills then you could start your search with MS programs as a way to narrow a search initially. You will still want to look into MA programs as well. Many will have a very similar curriculum and often some of the more established programs just use the MA as a matter of convention.

Types of Master's Degrees in Psychology

Mental Health

If you want to pursue graduate study in psychology the first question to ask is do you want to work in mental health? This role could include both directly with clients or indirectly in research or administration? If so, then you should pursue a degree that will lead to being license eligible, which could include a degree at the Master's or Doctoral level. Psychologists (PhD's) and mental health counselors (MA's) are both mental health practitioners. Individuals in both fields are state licensed. They provide services that are reimbursable by insurance companies. In fact, they often have overlapping duties. However, there are some distinctions, both in their training and their scope of practice.

Types of licenses vary by field and from state to state. It will be important to understand the different types of licenses, what they are, what type of practice you can do with each and how they vary by state. All licenses are managed at the state level, so if you move states or want to practice in multiple states you'll need to transfer or add a license. This process may be relatively easy or hard depending on your particular license and degree. As a general rule PhD-level degrees and licenses provide for mobility and flexibility while MA level ones can be more restrictive. However, this process can vary widely and is becoming more standardized. There is certainly more variability in the types of Master's level degrees and licenses.

While the names for licenses do vary by state and even within states, there are three main types at the Master's degree level:
“Mental health counselor” - focuses on working with individuals with mental health issues or concerns.

“Social worker” - more broadly focused in working with people and could work in government or institutional settings in roles such as case manger or directly with clients.

“School counseling” - in general less focused on individual mental health and more on working with people helping in a particular school or vocational setting, such as primary school counselor or career counselor.

The large range of names and labels for different licenses and fields can make for a very confusing process of deciding which to pursue. In practice, most of these different titles are really names for the same position - that of a “mental health counselor” - and generally offer some level of transferability between states.

If you pursue an accredited Master's degree in a counseling field you can expect to be eligible to be licensed and practice in all or most states in a similar capacity. Of course, you should make sure to check on each specific program and state.

Designations of School Counselors and Social Workers do differ in the training and scope of practice from the other mental health licenses and may have some additional restrictions on scope of practice.

State designations for Master's level mental health licenses include the following (this list may not be exhaustive):

  • LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor)
  • LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker)
  • LMFT (Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist)
  • LAT (Licensed Addictions Therapist)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor-Mental Health (LPC-MH)
  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
  • Licensed Professional Counselor Intern (LPC-I)
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors (LCPC)
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).
  • Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW)

Use of the any of these initials represents that the person has met the minimum of a Master's degree level of education, supervised experience, and examination requirements established. Lower levels of licensure require formal supervision. At higher levels of licensure practitioners are licensed for independent practice in the mental health profession. These areas of practice all have considerable overlap in scope of practice.

For the most part, all license-eligible mental health Master's programs will be eligible for a similar license and to practice in a similar setting and capacity. For example, at least in some states, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists and Licensed Clinical Social Workers can also pursue the LPCC license.Specific Master's programs may offer training more focused in specific areas such as marriage and family counseling, but all programs will have some similar basic training in individual counseling.

Some things to know about mental health counseling Master's degrees

Getting a Master's in counseling psychology is the quickest path to becoming a licensed clinician. You will receive thorough training and be able to offer effective mental health services to those who need it. For many, a Master's degree starts a fulfilling career in mental health. However, compared to a doctoral degree, those who hold only a Master's are more restricted in terms of the type of clients they can work with and what they can do with clients. Although there is a good amount of overlap with what a “psychologist” does, in terms of treating mental health issues, there are also limitations.
Some general guidelines are that as a counselor you will work with people experiencing issues of a less severe nature and more in the normal range of function. These problems might include coping with events, moderate depression, or anxiety. However, you will not get opportunities or be allowed to treat more severe psychoses like schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder. You may also be more limited in the types of treatments or variability of treatments you can offer clients along with the assessments you can use. These are questions you want to explore carefully when considering Master's versus Doctorate training.
A Master's in counseling is best viewed as final educational step and not a needed stepping stone to a Doctorate. Of course, you can still go on to earn a Doctorate degree, but your Master's degree may not shorten the time to get a Doctorate or earn credit toward it. You may, at best, be able to transfer some class credits or work hours toward a license. Generally, it would not make sense to pursue a Master's in mental health if you plan to pursue a Doctorate soon after.
Since Master's programs are, in general, easier to get into than Doctorate programs, it might be tempting to pursue a MA if you do not initially get into a PhD program. However, if this is your ultimate goal, it may make more sense to pursue work related to mental health you are able to do with a Bachelor's degree, while working towards entry into a Doctoral program. There are exceptions, so you'll want to look into specific programs carefully to compare all options. Also there are some Master's programs geared toward developing experience toward a PhD are discussed more below.

Time commitment of a Master's degree in mental health counseling

Counseling psychology Master's degrees often take longer to complete than other Master's degrees. Expect 2-3 years of full-time study. Upon completion, you will then need to complete supervised work, usually the equivalent of 2-3 years of full-time work, before you can be fully licensed to practice independently by your state. Some programs offer part-time study options. This will add flexibility but also will add to the total time to become a practitioner.
Finding opportunities to get these hours can be competitive and you will get paid less than a licensed counselor. Sometimes you may even need to work hours without pay. This means it may take 4-7 years of work from starting your degree until you are a fully licensed practitioner. This may sound daunting but all career choices have learning curves and pros and cons - If you want to practice mental health you just need to be aware of the process you are beginning and what to prepare for. Also, keep in mind that very few careers sound appealing when focusing on the first few years of work and training, especially ones that require graduate school. Every career requires hard work to achieve a more senior level.

Some sources of additional information for masters level mental health counseling and related professions.

Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs -
National Association of School Psychologists -
American School Counselor Association -
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association -
American board of professional psychology -
American Mental Health Counselors Association -
National Association of Social Workers -
The Association for Addiction Professionals -
Behavioral Analysis Certification Board -

If your primary interest is simply to work with people, you may also consider programs in areas like speech pathology, occupational therapy, special education or even nursing. There are also focused therapy programs in art therapy, music therapy and likely others. A new, but quickly growing field is animal-assisted therapy. The professional outlook for such programs will vary but it is something to look into if it is of interest.

The American Occupational Therapy Association -
American Art Therapy Association -
American Music Therapy Association -
Animal-Assisted therapy-

Non-Mental Health Master's Degrees

General MA/MS in Psychology- PhD Preparation Degrees.
There are many Master's programs that offer a more generalized focus in psychology, particularly in research. They may be titled “experimental psychology,” “general psychology,” or just “psychology”. For some students these programs can be very useful but they have limitations. Typically, programs will have core courses in research methods, statistics and major subareas of psychology along with completion of an independent research project. The major purpose of completing this type of Master's program is to develop skills and experience that will enhance one's ability to be admitted and succeed in further graduate training. As a standalone degree the benefit of this type of program is more limited and variable.

Advantages: If you think you want to pursue graduate school in psychology but are unsure of what area you want to focus on, these programs can be great in helping you refine your interests while developing fundamental skills in psychology. Once you are in a Doctoral program it is much harder to shift the focus of your training.

If you want to pursue Doctoral level training, or another very competitive area, but you are not admitted or feel your credentials are not competitive, these programs can offer an opportunity to develop experience that will make you a much more competitive applicant. Some programs may offer financial support and tuition remissions while working as a teaching or research assistant similar to PhD programs.

Disadvantages: If you go on to Doctoral or other graduate study do not expect to shorten the length of time to complete the degree by getting a Master's first. At best you may be able to transfer some of the core classes which, if you're lucky, may shave a year off the Doctorate - but you should still expect it to take 4-7 more years to complete.

As a terminal degree these programs will not enhance your career options that much beyond a Bachelor's degree. While you will gain a great many useful skills and experience, as far as a resume builder these programs will not open many more career doors. This is mostly true because there are just not that many job tracks that specifically require a MA in experimental psychology - meaning, you're likely to get lumped in with other “general” applicants.

There are some select jobs where it may be an advantage such as some types of consulting, or applied fields such as consumer, I/O, or human factors psychology but you will still be in line behind those with a degree specifically in these areas.

Applied MA/MS Degrees in Psychology

The last major class of Master's programs is the applied area of psychology, which includes Industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology, forensic psychology, consumer or marketing psychology, human factors or engineering psychology, and possibly general applied programs.

Programs and jobs in applied psychology are still research-based career tracks. The primary focus will be research and understanding an applied area of human behavior. Areas of focus could include topics such as: factors that influence purchase decisions, job performance or job satisfaction measures, eye witness memory studies. Much of your graduate training and career development will involve developing quantitative and research methods skills along with a focus in a specialized area of research application.

An important point to realize is that applied psychology is not necessarily a people intensive area of work. Your focus will, of course, be about people, but your job will be primarily to understand behavior rather than working directly with people intensively. There are exceptions and some jobs in this area may involve more direct people work. Some areas of I/O psychology practice may be more focused on workplace issues like complaint management and dealing with employee issues. But, if your interests and goals involve more people contact you may want to consider counseling-focused programs.
When evaluating programs it will be vital to look into what specific areas and types of research projects you will have an opportunity to work on. Most good programs will offer a solid foundation in applied topics and research methods. However, the specific research projects, along with whom you work with, can make a huge difference in your career development and prospects.

Types of areas of research vary widely within applied areas such as I/O. You could do research on personality and work performance, product marketing strategies, workplace safety, computer usability or many other areas. Typically, this specific area of research experience will greatly influence your career initially. This experience will both shape your interests and give you specific experience you can market to employers. A big part of your screening of graduate programs should be the faculty - you are interviewing them (to make sure there's a good fit) as much as they're interviewing you. You will want to ask questions about the types of research they do and the opportunities you will have to work on specific projects.

Most programs will require at least one formal Master's research project. If a program does not have this requirement it should be a red flag for you. Although it may seem like a bonus to have an easier time finishing the degree, research is not an area you want to skimp. Your research skills will be needed in the work world, so skimping in graduate school could lead to serious job-related deficiencies later.

A word of caution regarding forensic psychology programs - Typically forensic psychologists who testify in court and are considered experts are Doctoral level clinical psychologists who specialize in a forensic area. Working in the field with just a Master's degree may limit your opportunities and may not provide as many career options as you may want. Be very careful when researching these programs and keep in mind that further Doctoral level training may be required. With this in mind you may want to focus on pursuing a Doctoral program initially.

The following are some professional organizations and sources of additional information about graduate training in applied psychology fields.

The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology -
Human Factors and Ergonomic Society-
The International association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology -
Association for Applied Sport Psychology -

Next Steps

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