Earning a Master's in Psychology Online

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Online master's in psychology programs build on foundational concepts in personality theory, lifespan development, and human-environment interaction. As one of the most versatile fields of study, general psychology enables students to pursue careers in education, research, counseling, and even business. It is no wonder, then, that enrollment in this field continues to rise. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the number of graduate students pursuing psychology degrees increased by nearly 1,600 between 2013-2015.

This guide contains in-depth academic information students need to find the colleges and universities that best suit their academic interests and career goals. Distance learners also gain insight on admissions processes, career opportunities, program structure, and professional resources.

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

Students who pursue online psychology master's degrees typically possess undergraduate credentials in the same field. They may also hold relevant work experience. Graduate programs enable learners to specialize in exciting subfields and engage in research projects that align with their interests. Through practicum experiences, degree candidates develop the invaluable professional relationships necessary for career entry and advancement. Master's credentials also help students earn and maintain industry-specific certification/licensure.

Why Get a Master's Degree in Psychology?

Pursuing Specialization

Online psychology masters degree programs build on the core skills students develop during undergraduate training. Graduate students can prepare for careers as counselors and therapists by specializing in clinical psychology, child development, and addiction. They can also work as dedicated researchers and educators with a specialization in social psychology, experimental psychology, or behavioral neuroscience. With an engineering psychology specialization, students may occupy roles as product developers. With a focus on industrial-organizational psychology, students can work for private companies as trainers and consultants.

Career Advancement Opportunities

By earning their graduate degrees, psychologists access higher pay and better job stability. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that master's degree holders earn, on average, $12,000 more in annual salary than professionals who hold only undergraduate credentials. They also benefit from significantly lower unemployment rates. A master's degree plan emphasizes leadership training and professional development opportunities, empowering students to pursue positions as program managers and board certified behavior analysts.

Online Learning Technology

From video conferencing software to interactive learning management platforms like Moodle, Canvas, and Blackboard, technology powers online learning. Because of the integrative nature of their education, distance learners master communication skills that allow them to clearly and persuasively present information. Specific to the psychology training, graduate students develop the ability to gather, aggregate, and analyze statistical data.

Prerequisites for Online Psychology Programs

Admissions requirements differ by online master's programs in psychology. However, graduate applicants can generally expect criteria such as standardized test scores, prerequisite coursework, and letters of recommendation.

    • Work Experience: Colleges and universities typically require students who enroll in accelerated or degree-completion programs to have at least two years of paid, relevant work experience. Candidates demonstrate their career achievements through a resume and professional recommendations. Even if learners do not enroll in an intensive degree track, they can turn their job experience into transfer credits through prior learning assessment methods.
    • Exams and Test Scores: Many online master's programs in psychology still ask students to submit GRE general and, occasionally, subject scores. According to the Princeton Review, the average social science major earns 153 on the verbal reasoning section, 151 on the quantitative reasoning portion, and a 3.9 on analytical writing. Applicants should confirm testing minimums with their prospective institutions.
    • Coursework: Graduate schools commonly require students to complete designated prerequisite coursework as part of their undergraduate training. In psychology, these preparatory courses consist of applied statistics, introduction to psychology, and abnormal psychology. Students also need to display knowledge of fundamental research methodologies and practices. Candidates who do not hold the necessary prerequisites may need to complete a bridge program before they can continue their master's studies.
    • Recommendations: Program applicants should prepare 2-3 letters of recommendation. These letters usually come from employers, mentors, and other professional sources who can attest to a student's academic skills, career accomplishments, and personal qualities. Some schools prefer to contact recommenders directly. In any case, students should give their sources enough time to prepare detailed testimonies.
    • Essays: Also called a personal statement, this short document allows prospective students to elaborate on their academic and work histories. The essay of 1-2 pages also lets applicants show that their goals, interests, and general worldview align with those of the school. Some programs provide a general prompt, while others require students to answer specific questions.
    • Interviews: Although less common than other admissions criteria, some graduate programs prefer to speak with potential students in person or through digital conferencing. Like a personal essay, the interview allows students to detail their professional accomplishments and goals. These meetings also help the school determine if a student can effectively collaborate with their peers. Interviews are integral to scholarship and fellowship application processes.
    • International Students: Applicants who reside outside the U.S. go through additional steps to obtain their F1 Student Visa. Depending on where they come from, international learners may need to demonstrate English language proficiency by submitting IELTS or TOEFL scores. Lastly, international students must seek multifarious funding opportunities, since they cannot access government aid.

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

Graduate programs provide students with the crucial hard skills needed for advanced careers as researchers, instructors, and program managers. According to the BLS, psychologists earn an annual salary of $77,030. Professionals who work for private companies and government agencies benefit from the highest pay. For example, industrial-organizational psychologists earn approximately $10,000 more than the average professional in the field. With a medical degree, psychologists can pursue psychiatry positions, earning over $200,000 per year. Salary potential differs drastically based on employer, location, and individual experience and qualifications.

Traditional Careers for Master's in Psychology Graduates

Career Stats Description

Psychologist

Median Pay: $77,030

Job Growth: 14%

Psychologists observe human interactions and apply cognitive, social, and developmental theories to improve processes and behaviors. These professionals also exist outside counseling and clinical settings. School psychologists help students tackle emotional challenges and develop academic skills. Forensic psychologists work within the criminal justice system, helping law enforcement convict and rehabilitate offenders.

Ideal for: Highly analytical individuals who can draw and present conclusions from complex information.

Marriage and Family Therapist

Median Pay: $48,790

Job Growth: 23%

Working in either public health facilities or private practices, marriage and family therapists help patients identify and overcome relationship problems. They typically apply cognitive behavior therapy, a goal-oriented approach that helps individuals replace harmful thoughts and behavior with positive ones. Marriage and family therapists hold licenses from the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards.

Ideal for: Compassionate professionals who possess exceptional listening and interpersonal communication skills.

School and Career Counselor

Median Pay: $55,410

Job Growth: 13%

These professionals predominantly work in schools but also seek employment in government agencies and community organizations. School counselors help students develop social, emotional, and job skills. When working with adults, career counselors prepare clients for independent living and career entry.

Ideal for: Empathetic psychologists who work well with young clients and in potentially fraught situations.

Postsecondary Teacher

Median Pay: $76,000

Job Growth: 15%

With an online master's degree in psychology, professionals can teach at colleges and universities. On top of classroom instruction, postsecondary educators help students master laboratory techniques and find internships and research opportunities. College professors also engage in their own research and publication.

Ideal for: Experienced psychologists with exceptional critical thinking and pedagogical skills.

Nontraditional Careers for Master's in Psychology Graduates

Career Stats Description

Market Research Analyst

Median Pay: $63,230

Job Growth: 23%

With credentials in industrial-organizational psychology or a related field, professionals can pursue business careers. Market research analysts examine economic conditions and consumer behavior to discern the potential success of a product or service in the marketplace. They use statistical software to gather, analyze, and present complex data to clients and stakeholders.

Ideal for: Detail-oriented professionals who want to pursue certification from the Marketing Research Association.

HR Director

Median Pay: $86,413

Job Growth: 9%

These business leaders ensure their organization's actions comply with industry standards and government regulations. They oversee departmental budgets and employee compensations. Human resource directors also work directly with staff, hiring skilled professionals and developing team building programs.

Ideal for: Professionals with excellent organizational and communication skills who can keep abreast of industry changes and compliance issues.

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

Paying for an Online Master's in Psychology

Distance learners invest substantial time and financial resources to earn their online master's degree in psychology. Fortunately, graduate students can access grants and low-interest loans through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Colleges and universities also provide financial support, including psychology fellowships and scholarships. Furthermore, students save money by enrolling in accelerated classes and degree plans. These intensive options require full-time commitment but let students earn their credentials in as few as 12 months.

Subject-Specific Financial Aid, Grants, and Scholarships

In addition to seeking out affordable tuition and federal aid, students can pay for their graduate degree with private scholarships and grants. This section contains five scholarships available to psychology majors.

What to Expect from a Master's Online Psychology Program

To earn an online master's in psychology, students complete at least 30 credits of coursework, which generally takes two years. Most colleges and universities deliver asynchronous courses through software like Blackboard or Canvas. These schools also allow online students to individually pace their degree plan, taking as few or as many classes as they want each semester. However, some institutions use cohort learning to emphasize student collaboration. Here, distance learners take one class at a time, advancing through the curriculum at the same pace as their peers.

Major Milestones

  1. Practicum

    Through internships, fellowships, field research, and other practicum experiences, graduate students apply clinical skills in real-world settings. A university partner usually facilitates supervised practicums. Depending on where they work, distance learners can fulfill this requirement with their current employer.

  2. Capstone Requirement

    Capstone experiences can come in forms like senior seminar or thesis research and defense. Students may also complete an integrative capstone project under the guidance of a faculty adviser. Here, students apply theoretical knowledge and social scientific research skills to tackle a pertinent challenge in the psychology field.

  3. Comprehensive Examination

    Some programs require graduate psychology students to pass a comprehensive exam that covers key skills and concepts learned in the program. These tests may contain written and oral components. Distance learners complete the comprehensive exam through a school-certified proctor.

  4. Professional Certification

    Depending on their career interests, professionals may require industry-specific certification after completing a master's program. Even if their occupation does not require it, optional credentials allow professionals to display skill mastery. This guide details certification programs in a later section.

  5. Continuing Education

    To work as a clinical psychologist, students earn a doctoral degree and apply for state licensure. For other professionals in the field, continuing education may include optional certification and keeping up with emerging theories, practices, and programs.

  6. Clinical Licensure

    Depending on the state, prospective clinical psychologists must complete postdoctoral training to bring their total supervised work experience to 3,000 hours. Candidates then sit for the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), which the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards facilitates.

Coursework

Master's in psychology online programs contain required classes in topics such as lifespan development, social psychology, and quantitative reasoning and analysis. Students pursue advanced topics through specialized coursework and electives. The list below details five popular classes in this field.

Lifespan Development

This perfunctory course provides an overview of human development, from prenatal, childhood, and adolescence, to adult and late adult phases. Students apply core psychological theories to each developmental milestone. Additional topics include diversity, social change, and global perspectives.

Research Theory, Design, and Methods

Another required topic, this class trains students to design and analyze graduate research projects. Learners delve into philosophy of science and the role of theory in developing research processes, including quantitative/qualitative research methods and data collection.

Psychology of Personality

Psychologists study personality to better understand an individual's psychological framework. In this course, students examine major personality theories and assessment techniques. Additional topics comprise social-cognitive approaches to personality, existential consequences, and differences caused by culture and gender.

Theories of Learning

A crucial class for educational psychologists, these theories strive to explain how students approach knowledge in diverse learning environments. Learners explore major paradigms like gestalt, constructivism, and humanism. They also examine how cognitive changes throughout the lifespan affect learning.

Changing Health Behavior

This advanced course offers an in-depth examination of behavior change models and systems of disease prevention and management. Students learn to analyze behavior within specific populations, including cognitively impaired persons. Health topics comprise safe sex practices, dietary restrictions, and drug abuse.

Licenses and Certifications

Not all psychologists need a doctoral degree to legally practice, but this does reflect the highest level of academic training. As previously mentioned, students must earn and maintain a state license to work as clinical psychologists. Certain states require additional ethics and medical training. Additionally, specialty credentials exist for certain psychology subfields. For example, school psychologists (not to be confused with school counselors) must gain the official support of their state's board of education.

    • Professional Psychologist License: To work in settings like hospitals and physicians clinics, psychologists must earn a doctoral degree and state license. Upon meeting the standard criteria, candidates sit for the EPPP, which costs $600. The exam contains 225 test items in eight content areas, including biological bases of behavior, assessment and diagnosis, and research methods and statistics.
    • Nationally Certified School Psychologist: To earn this credential, candidates must graduate from an accredited graduate program that holds an official school psychology title. They should also complete supervised practicums and at least one 1,200-hour internship. Lastly, candidates must pass the Praxis School Psychologist test #5402.
    • Forensic Psychology Board Certification: Like the clinical psychologist license, this advanced credential requires a doctoral degree. Candidates must accumulate 100 hours of qualified specialty training and adequate postdoctoral work experience. The certification process also includes written and oral examination. The former consists of 197 multiple-choice questions, while the latter focuses on two main areas of forensic practice.
    • Rehabilitation Psychology Board Certification: Like other board credentials, the rehabilitation psychology certificate necessitates a doctoral degree and postdoctoral training. Latter requirements include a recognized internship program and three years of postdoctoral supervised experience. Candidates also submit practice samples and complete an oral exam.

Professional Organizations and Resources

By earning an online master's in psychology, students gain the advanced skills, research knowledge, and hands-on experiences to access leadership positions in academic, clinical, and business settings. They can further bolster these opportunities by engaging with professional organizations. Members usually pay an annual fee but benefit from academic scholarships, research grants, and travel funding. They also enjoy professional development opportunities like national conferences and training programs. For example, the American Academy of Forensic Psychology delivers in-person and online workshops.

  • National Association of School Psychologists: NASP is a leader in professional development, offering summer conferences, annual conventions, and a public policy institute. The association also delivers webinars and videos through its Online Learning Center.
  • Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Affiliated with the APA and APS, SIOP supports I-O educators and practitioners. Members can take advantage of webinars, workplace best practice guides, and research grants. The society also operates internship placement programs and a job network.
  • American Board of Professional Psychology: ABPP represents the primary organization for specialty board certifications in the psychology field. Members can access information on 15 subfields, including group psychology, psychoanalysis, couple and family therapy, and organizational and business consulting.
  • American Educational Research Association: Founded in 1916, AERA promotes research and outreach that improves education and serves the common good. Scholars and researchers across multiple disciplines benefit from training programs, fellowships, and an online job board. The association also operates a virtual research learning center.
  • Association for Behavior Analysis International: Established in 1974, ABAI promotes behavioral inquiry, education, and application. Psychologists connect with diverse professionals through national conferences, regional chapter meetings, and special interest groups. The association helps users find work through its Career Central.
  • Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers: APPIC connects psychology students with internships and postdoctoral employment. Learners can find opportunities online and request a personal mentor. The association also offers in-depth guidance on topics like early career development and multicultural training.