Earning a Master's in Behavioral Psychology Online

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Earning a degree in psychology prepares graduates for numerous career paths. Professionals may provide counseling to help individuals or groups overcome depression or addiction, they may assist special needs children in schools, or they can work with companies to develop better hiring strategies or reach potential customers more effectively. While an undergraduate degree in psychology is suitable for some professionals, others may find that a master's degree opens the door to exciting career opportunities in a fast-growing field.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14% growth rate in clinical, counseling, and school psychologist jobs through 2026, with an 11% projected growth rate for social scientists and other psychology specialists. This guide explores some of the common and not-so-common careers graduates may find, along with in-depth information to help you apply and complete an online behavioral psychology degree.

Student Profile: Who Earns an Online Master's Degree in Behavioral Psychology?

Many entry-level jobs in behavioral health require applicants to hold at least a master's degree. Students considering an advanced behavioral psychology degree online often already have an undergraduate degree in psychology, social work, sociology, or a related field. Teachers looking to add endorsements to their teaching certification or move into counseling positions also need the psychological knowledge and practice gained through a master's degree. Some states may even require this graduate degree to apply for licensure.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Behavioral Psychology?

Pursuing Specialization

A subset of general psychology, behavioral psychology prepares graduates to become board-certified behavior analysts. This is a professional designation for those who diagnosis behavioral problems and develop interventions to change behaviors. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board requires a master's degree in psychology or related subject that provides instruction in applied behavior analysis, research methods, and professional and ethical conduct. A degree qualifies graduates to work in schools, hospitals, or government agencies, while learners may specialize further in working with children with developmental disabilities or assisting in the rehabilitation of those with traumatic brain injuries.

Career Advancement Opportunities

Professionals may begin working in the field of behavioral health without a master's degree, though they may be limited to technician or assistant jobs. In the field of education, an advanced degree may also prepare classroom teachers for supervisory roles within their school or district. Progressing to supervisory or practitioner positions in one's field not only leads to greater responsibility, but often increased earning potential.

Online Learning Technology

Technology creates more opportunities for expanded counseling services, such as telemedicine. Learners who complete an online behavioral psychology degree enjoy a flexible education, and they also demonstrate an ability to use technology to collaborate and communicate.

Prerequisites for Online Behavioral Psychology Programs

The application process varies with each school and individual program, including many of the prerequisite requirements. Be sure to pay attention to specific curriculum, work experience, and test requirements for each school and meet all application deadlines.

    • Work Experience: Most psychology graduate programs welcome students directly from undergraduate study, with no prior work requirements; however, field experience or internships may boost your application by showing hands-on work with behavioral providers. Some educational psychology programs may require teachers to have some work experience in behavior services, such as serving as a special education teacher or paraprofessional.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Some graduate schools require applicants to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE); this exam features verbal and quantitative reasoning sections, and many programs expect students to scores between 130-170 on each section. Scores remain valid for five years before students must retake the exam. Many schools do not require GRE scores for admission; rather, these schools base admission decisions on academic history, work experience, and recommendations.
    • Coursework: All graduate school applicants should hold an undergraduate degree from a regionally accredited four-year university. Psychology graduate programs often accept students who studied psychology, sociology, or social work, though students who complete a curriculum focused on human development and education may meet most curriculum requirements. Students should also complete coursework in statistics and experimental methods.
    • Recommendations: Schools usually require 2-3 professional references per applicant. Be sure to identify your references early and give them plenty of time to complete the recommendation ahead of application deadlines. Look to former supervisors, professors, or internship directors to provide an assessment of your professionalism and aptitude for psychology. Some schools may also require students to complete a background check to fulfill safety requirements for practicums, field experiences, and supervised work placements.
    • Essays: An admissions essay allows schools to evaluate an applicant's writing and reasoning ability to determine whether their professional goals align with the program's outcomes. The essay also offers an opportunity to explain any application weaknesses -- such as a low undergraduate GPA or resume gaps -- or share personal reasons for choosing to study psychology.
    • Interviews: An interview often serves as the final step in the graduate school admissions process. Not all schools require an interview, but many admissions teams find it useful to evaluate a candidate's fit with the program. Just like a job interview, an admissions interview helps a student assess if the program meets their needs and expectations. Expect to discuss why you want to study behavioral psychology and your future goals, and be prepared to address possible weaknesses in your application.
    • International Students: International students must meet the same admission requirements as other students, including completing an appropriate undergraduate degree or any prerequisite classes. Schools also want to ensure students have the resources to study in a foreign country and may require additional financial disclosures. Many international students must also submit a TOEFL score to demonstrate English proficiency.

How Much Can I Make with a Master's Degree in Behavioral Psychology?

Graduates of an online behavioral psychology degree can advance to new positions, qualify for board certification or licensing, and increase their earning potential. According to Payscale, behavior analysts earn about $50,000 when they enter the field, while experienced behavioral analysts earn about $62,000 annually. Completing a behavioral psychology degree can lead to work in multiple fields -- such as counseling or social work -- while also preparing graduates for careers they may not have considered, such as working in correctional facilities or schools.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Behavioral Psychology Graduates

Career Stats Description

Behavior Analyst

Median Pay: $56,679

Job Growth: 10.3%

Analysts evaluate client behavior and develop intervention plans. They often work with teachers, counselors, and physicians as part of a team to communicate support strategies. They collect data and write reports, and they often work with children and parents to resolve behavioral problems and overcome learning challenges.

Ideal for: Highly organized individuals with good interpersonal skills and problem-solving abilities.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, or Mental Health Counselor

Median Pay: $43,300

Job Growth: 19.4%

Mental health counselors in these specialities help clients overcome substance abuse addiction and other behavioral challenges through one-on-one sessions and group counseling. They often work in outpatient or residential mental health facilities, hospitals, or private offices. Work hours vary depending on the facility and client needs. Most states require these counselors to obtain a license.

Ideal for: Individuals with compassion and the ability to work with people from all walks of life; those with patience and superior interpersonal skills.

Psychologist

Median Pay: $77,030

Job Growth: 10.3%

Psychologists may work directly with patients in a clinical setting or choose a research-focused career. They must receive state license before diagnosing or treating clients for a variety of mental health concerns. Their workplace depends upon their specialties, and may include hospitals or healthcare settings, government services, or public schools.

Ideal for: Individuals need keen observational and communication skills, as well as analytical and problem-solving abilities.

Social Worker

Median Pay: $47,980

Job Growth: 8.3%

Social workers not only help clients address mental health or behavioral concerns, but also connect them to other services and resources in their community. They take a holistic approach to working with clients in an attempt to alleviate barriers to self-sufficiency. They often work in government service, hospitals, or healthcare facilities.

Ideal for: Individuals should be compassionate and empathetic, and work as part of a team; they also require strong organization and communication skills, and the ability to identify solutions to problems.

Nontraditional Careers for Master's in Behavioral Psychology Graduates

Career Stats Description

Correctional Officer

Median Pay: $43,510

Job Growth: -7.7%

Correctional officers ensure the safety and discipline of individuals in law enforcement custody. They may work in local, state, or federal correctional facilities, with the federal government offering the highest median wages for the field.

Ideal for: Physically fit individuals with excellent interpersonal and negotiating skills, as well as the ability to make difficult decisions while enforcing rules.

Postsecondary Teacher

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 9.4%

Many universities and community colleges look for master's degree holders to teach introductory courses in their field. These teaching assignments may be part-time to allow a teacher to supplement their behavioral health practice, or they can be full-time.

Ideal for: Individuals must be able to communicate verbally and in writing, and have excellent interpersonal skills.

Marriage and Family Therapist

Median Pay: $48,790

Job Growth: 23.4%

These therapists work with couples and families to address relationship challenges, adjust to life changes, or make decisions for the future. Many work in private practice and set their own office hours, but they may also find employment with physicians or other health professionals, in hospitals, or outpatient care centers.

Ideal for: Individuals with empathy and compassion for those experiencing difficult situations, listening skills, and exceptional communication skills.

School Counselor

Median Pay: $55,410

Job Growth: 14.2%

School counselors may help students decide on a career path and design class schedules to support their goals. They may also teach character education, implement programs to improve school wide behavior and climate, or work individually with students experiencing behavioral problems. They work in public and private schools at the elementary, high school, and postsecondary level.

Ideal for: Individuals who are organized and can analyze a variety of data; they must have compassion and excellent listening and communication skills.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, PayScale, 2017-2018

Paying for an Online Master's in Behavioral Psychology

Earning a master's degree requires dedication and a significant investment of time and money. Students must also consider the cost of technology and class resources, along with any lost wages they may incur by returning to school. The cost of online behavioral psychology degree programs may depend on whether the school is a public institution, a private nonprofit university, or a private professional preparation school. Students may be able to save money by accelerating the number of credits they take each term, applying for behavioral psychology scholarships, or working while taking classes.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants, and Scholarships

Numerous organizations offer financial support to prospective behavior analysts, counselors, or social workers. Also consider any financial assistance you may qualify for from your current employer, or scholarships offered by local nonprofit organizations within your community.

What to Expect from a Master's Level Online Behavioral Psychology Program

An online behavioral psychology degree requires 30 or more credits, and can be completed in 1-3 years. Coursework emphasizes behavioral analysis and assessment, human growth and development, and professional ethics. Below we list common milestones and possible courses you may take. Consider whether your school requires attendance during scheduled class times, or if the online platform supports asynchronous participation. Often students must complete a research project or thesis, and participate in a supervised practice to meet certification or licensing requirements.

Major Milestones

  1. Advisement

    Once accepted into a master's program, students meet with their adviser prior to enrolling in classes. They discuss career goals and areas of research interest, and the adviser acts as a mentor on thesis or capstone projects. Usually a faculty member, they also ensure the student makes timely progress on their degree.

  2. Practicum

    Students must complete a practicum or supervised field experience if they plan to seek professional certification. These experiences may require 20 or more hours per week in a real-world workplace, supervised by a qualified behavioral analyst.

  3. Thesis

    Students may take 3-6 credits for their thesis, usually across 1-2 terms. Students must submit a research proposal and complete a written paper that evaluates the research outcomes, then present their work to a panel of faculty members.

  4. Comprehensive Exam

    The exam evaluates student knowledge of core and specialty curricula to ensure a student has met all learning outcomes. Schools may award credit for the course, or simply require students complete and pass the test before conferring the degree.

  5. Graduation

    Students must apply to graduate the semester before they intend to complete their degree requirements. The school's graduation office reviews the student's transcript to ensure they meet all requirements. Many universities invite their online students to participate in on-campus graduation activities.

  6. Certification

    Students must complete 750 to 1,500 hours of supervised fieldwork before they can apply for board certification through the Behavioral Analyst Certification Board. Students begin to accrue their hours once they enter a degree program, but they must complete all fieldwork within five years. Once finished, they may sit for the exam.

Coursework

The curriculum for an online behavioral psychology degree varies by school and particular program. The courses below; however, offer a sample of subjects you can expect to study in a psychology master's program.

Principles of Behavior

Students review theories and concepts of behavior analysis, as well as the supporting research for each. Topics include the impacts of nature versus nurture on behavior and development, and behavior modification methods such as positive and negative reinforcement and punishment.

Ethics in Psychology

Studying ethics gives students the ability to discern the right course of action, and to comply with professional standards and legal requirements related to their scope of practice, patient confidentiality, and required reporting.

Behavior Analysis

This course offers an introduction to behavioral analysis terminology and principles of behaviorism in parenting, education, and interpersonal relationships. The course also discusses common interventions and treatments for individuals with developmental or intellectual disabilities, mental illness, or traumatic brain injuries.

Social and Cultural Psychology

Students explore the larger psychological questions of culture and society on human development and decision making. They examine how behavioral norms differ by culture, and how societal expectations may impact behavioral counseling.

Functional Assessment

Students learn to apply the theoretical concepts of behavioral analysis when conducting a client assessment, along with the proper assessments to use for different populations, such as children in a school setting or adults in addiction treatment programs.

Licenses and Certifications

Licensing requirements for behavioral psychologists vary by state and profession. For example, some states require behavioral analysts earn professional certification before they begin their practice. Conversely, school counselors must meet the standards of their state department of education. It is important to note: many licenses and certifications require educational and supervised practice experiences, coupled with exams, background checks, and various fees. Completing these requirements not only ensures you comply with the law, but demonstrates your professionalism and expertise to potential employers and clients.

  • Behavior Analyst Certification:

    Applicants must have a master's degree from an approved program or complete specific course requirements, complete 750 to 1,500 hours of supervised fieldwork, and pass a national exam. Many states require this certification to practice as a behavioral analyst. First-time applicants pay $245; the certification lasts two years and professionals must meet continuing education and supervised training requirements.

  • School Counselor Certification:

    Some states may require these professionals to earn a standard teaching license before applying for a school counselor endorsement. Conversely, other states allow graduates of master's counseling and psychology programs to complete an internship as a path to certification. Check specific state requirements for more information.

  • Addiction Therapist License:

    Counseling and therapist licensure requirements differ by state, but many require applicants to complete at least a master's degree and supervised work experience, and then pass a licensing exam. Addiction counselors and therapists often obtain specialized certification from a professional credentialing organization such as the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals.

  • Social Worker License:

    States may offer different levels of social worker licenses. A master's degree in psychology must meet your state's educational requirements for the license, and you must pass a national social work exam. The license also requires supervised practice and fieldwork.

Professional Organizations and Resources

Most certifications and licenses require ongoing education and professional development. Professional organizations offer sessions throughout the year at workshops, conferences, and online. They also provide networking opportunities, the chance to learn about new career opportunities, and access to the latest information on behavioral research and practice. These organizations advocate for the profession in local communities, state governments, and federal regulations, and they give professionals an opportunity to serve on various committees or boards.

  • Association of Professional Behavior Analysts: Members enjoy discounted subscriptions on organization publications and research journals. The organization also offers continuing education and networking opportunities through its workshops, annual convention, and webinars. The website includes job listings, a career center, and a variety of contract and consent form templates.
  • American Psychological Association: The association represents more than 115,000 researchers, clinicians, consultants, and educators in psychology. Members may access exclusive reports and data collections, information on the latest psychological research, and access to professional liability insurance. The organization also offers continuing education for practitioners and resources for teachers and students.
  • National Alliance of Professional Psychology Providers: Members can be listed in this organization's searchable database of providers, receive free classified advertising and continuing education, and free tools to enhance their practice. Members also get discounts for malpractice insurance and electronic health records management.
  • NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals: The association provides addiction professionals with ongoing professional education, certification opportunities, and career resources. The group also conducts numerous advocacy campaigns on legal and public policy issues. Members enjoy attending an annual conference, access to professional liability insurance, and discounts for journals and research publications.
  • American School Counselor Association: The organization brings together school counselors to share their best practices through in-person meetings and an online community. Members can take part in webinars and workshops and enjoy complimentary subscriptions to the industry magazine. Members can also access free sample lesson plans and educational resources.
  • Behavior Analyst Certification Board: Professionals can keep up with requirements for certification and recertification, including continuing education requirements. The board also provides guidance on accredited behavior analyst education programs, professional ethics, and practice guidelines for various patient groups.
  • Autism Speaks: This organization advocates on behalf of individuals with autism and their families. They also advance research efforts and support public understanding of autism spectrum disorders. Their efforts have led to earlier identification of children with autism, which allows for early intervention services and the creation of transition plans to provide for independent living as an adult.
  • Center for Mental Health Services: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides information on research findings, and operates the Center for Mental Health Services. The center encourages improved intervention in emotional, behavioral, and mental health for children and adults. Practitioners and the public may access multiple fact sheets, toolkits, and publications related to mental health issues.
  • Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies: This nonprofit organization brings together behavioral scientists to develop solutions for home, school, and community issues. Topics of inquiry include autism, brain and spinal injuries, organizational behavior, safety, and animal behavior. Practitioners may access continuing education resources through on-demand webinars.