What You Should Know About Earning a Master's Degree in Psychology

How Long It Takes, Career Options, and Alternatives

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Are you thinking about earning a master's degree in psychology? A master's degree can open up a whole new world of career opportunities. Start by exploring what's involved in order to determine if it's the right educational choice for you: how long it will take, your career options after graduation, and alternative degrees that you might want to consider.

A master's degree in psychology is a graduate-level degree that generally involves two to three years of study after you complete your undergraduate (bachelor's) degree. The two most common types of psychology master's degrees are the Master of Arts (M.A.) and the Master of Science (M.S.).

An M.A. degree may indicate a stronger liberal arts focus, while an M.S. usually means there's a stronger concentration on research and the sciences. The type of degree offered depends on the school and program, however, since the academic requirements are often very similar.

Some master's programs in psychology offer what is known as a terminal degree. This type of degree is designed to prepare graduates for professional practice in their specialty area. In other cases, a master's degree may serve as preparation for further study at the doctoral level.

Specific requirements can vary considerably, so take a careful look at the course outline of any program you are considering. You may also choose between a thesis and non-thesis option. Completing a thesis is a good choice if you're interested in further graduate study, while the non-thesis alternative might be ideal if you are more interested in entering the workforce immediately after graduation.

Master's Program Types

While there are generalist programs available, many students elect to focus on a particular specialty area. Some of the different types of master's programs available include:

  • M.A. or M.S. in experimental psychology
  • M.A. or M.S. in industrial-organizational psychology
  • M.A. or M.S. in forensic psychology
  • M.A. or M.S. in clinical psychology
  • M.A. or M.S. in social psychology
  • M.A. or M.S. in child development

In addition to traditional master's programs, there are a variety of online master's degrees in psychology available.

Master's Degree Before a Doctorate

One of the biggest questions facing students interested in earning a graduate degree in psychology is whether or not they should earn a master's degree before applying to a doctoral program. Many Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs do not require a master's degree, and students are able to begin these doctoral programs immediately after completing their bachelor's degrees.

If you're unsure if doctoral study is right for you, a master's degree can be a good option. Spend some time talking to your college advisor and faculty members to determine which option is the best choice based on your educational interests and career goals.

Job Opportunities

While having a master's degree means you'll find more job opportunities than you will at the bachelor's level, job options are still limited if you're interested in entering the field of professional psychology. A terminal master's program, however, does open the door to entry-level jobs in fields such as mental health, industrial-organizational psychology, and forensic psychology. Other potential sectors of employment include colleges, universities, private businesses, and government.

Preparing for a Master's Program

If you're interested in pursuing a master's degree in psychology, it pays to start planning early. Check the requirements of a few programs you're considering, and then be sure to schedule all of the prerequisite courses during your years of undergraduate study. Statistics, experimental methods, and developmental psychology are just a few of the common courses required by psychology graduate programs.

Before you apply to a master's program, you may also be required to take the Graduate Record Examination or GRE. In addition to taking the main test, you might also need to take the GRE psychology subject test.

Once you've been admitted to a master's program, take note of the required courses, and check out your school's class offering schedule. Some classes are only offered every other semester or every other year, so plan carefully to ensure that you are able to take all the classes you need during your two- to three-year program.


If you determine that a master's degree in psychology is not the best choice to help you fulfill your academic and career goals, there are a number of related alternative programs to choose from. If you know that you want to work in the field of mental health, counseling, social work, school psychology, education, and health sciences are other academic options that might also appeal to you. Possible alternative degrees include:

1 Source
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  1. Michalski DS. Master's careers in psychology. Psychology Student Network.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.