By Bob Werber
Getting a master’s degree in psychology is a critical step if you want to get a more senior position in industry or education, or if you have a longer-term goal of getting a doctoral degree to become a practicing psychologist. However, it can be complicated figuring out exactly what type of job you’ll qualify for with a psychology master’s degree in the area where you live, because licensure and certification rules vary a great deal from one state to the next.
In almost every state, a person with a master’s in psychology can work in private business as an industrial or organizational psychologist, a career path that can provide good earnings over the long run even if you never receive a Ph.D. There are also a few states where a psychology master’s degree will qualify you to work as a psychotherapist or a counselor for social agencies, schools or other organizations. Almost everywhere, however, a full Ph.D. is required to practice as an independent psychologist, a professional title you must be certified for by your state board of psychology.
Picking a Specialization
Master’s degree programs can focus on generally psychology or very specific subsets of the specialty. The degree generally requires two years of full-time study, involving a mix of core and elective courses. Typical core courses cover basic topics like developmental psychology, social and emotional development, cognitive development and research techniques.
In choosing a psychology master’s degree program, you want to be clear about whether you are aiming to work after you get the degree or continue your education and get a psychology Ph.D. Some master’s programs in this field are very research oriented, and are designed entirely to get you ready for doctoral level study rather than a job.
Your choice of the more specialized elective courses will depend on which type of psychology graduate degree you are pursing, and on your career goals. They can include subjects like:
- Clinical & Social Work
- Marriage Family and Child Counseling
- Addiction Studies
- Human Sexuality
- School Psychology
- Cognitive Psychology
- Social Psychology
- Aging and Long-Term Care
- Ethics and Multicultural Issues in Psychology
- General or Advanced Statistics
- Arts Therapy
- Family, Group and Individual Therapy
- History and Systems of Psychology
- Advanced Biological Psychology
How long will getting a Master’s Degree take?
A master’s degree in psychology typically takes two years of full-time study, though it can obviously take longer if you going to school and work at the same time. Schools tend to have rather confusing ways to quantify the course load, but either 60 “semester hours” or 36 “semester hours” – which amount to the same thing – are usually required. Most psychology master’s degrees also require you to pass an oral exam for completion.
Career Opportunities & Salaries with a Master’s Degree in Psychology
Professional psychologists work in many, many different settings in healthcare, criminal justice, marketing, business management, government and education. Below are some of the most popular careers and salaries open to you with a masters in psychology
Salary estimates are based on information from many different sources. Most jobs have wide pay ranges that depend to a large extent on whether you are working in a private company setting for a government agency, what part of the country you are working in and how long you have been practicing in the specialty.
Estimated Salary: $40,000 – $108,000
This specialty attracts the largest number of master’s degree holders, and it can involve working in many different settings. Clinical psychologists can work with people who are truly mentally ill, assessing, diagnosing and treating them in hospital and mental health clinic settings. But many others work with people who are coping with a psychological crisis – bereavement over the loss of a loved one, alcoholism– or a learning disability. Company counseling centers, schools, nursing homes, research centers, government social services and even law enforcement organizations all employ clinical psychologists. You need a license to open a private office as a clinical psychologist, and in most states you will need a Ph.D. to get that license. A few states, however, will give you a license with only a master’s degree. Most clinical psychologists cannot prescribe medicines.
Vocational or Career Counselor
Estimated Salary: $31,000 – $86,000
Vocational or career counselors work most often in school environments to help people make career decisions. The work involves assessing each individual’s personality, talents, interests and other attributes to map out the best possible education path towards a career goal (this job is often described as simply being an employment counselor). Vocational counselors can work with students who have unique social or academic challenges. A state certification is required to get this job in almost any school setting. A board of examiners made up of professional counselors sets each state’s testing and certification requirements.
Estimated Salary: $39,000 – $108,000
School psychologists help children at all grade levels deal with emotional, social and academic issues. This job shares certain characteristics with that of a vocational counselor, but a school psychologist is generally more focused on dealing with mental health issues that create learning and social problems in school, and a bit less focused on directing students’ career path. Demand for school psychologists has grown in recent years, as laws such as “No Child Left Behind” have required schools to come up with ways to help students with a variety of disabilities. This job generally requires you to have a master’s degree with some additional training in education an internship in the field and certification from either a state psychology board or the National School Psychology Certification Board (NSPCB).
In some large universities, psychology master’s degrees are actually awarded by the School of Education with specialties like applied educational development, mental health counseling and early childhood educational psychology.
Estimated Salary: $31,000 – $86,000
Counselors work in all sorts of different private and government settings, and specialize in handling many different types of problems. State, city and local governments employ many counselors to work on health-related or social welfare issues. As a counselor, you may specialize in dealing with emotional, family, substance abuse or educational issues, or you may work in a position where you deal patients or “clients” who have multiple needs.
Marriage and family specialists are sometimes referred to as counselors and sometimes as therapists. Being licensed as a marriage and family therapist requires master’s degree in clinical psychology and a specified number of hours practicing family therapy under supervision in virtually every state. This is a job where you can work everywhere, from an upscale suburb to a poor city neighborhood, and where your work may seem, at time, to go beyond dealing with family problems. Some difficult patients who should be handled by a clinical psychologist or even a psychiatrist are sometimes handled by a marriage and family specialist, partly because insurance companies would prefer to avoid treatment by the more expensive types of practitioners. Some schools offer a master’s degree in counseling psychology specifically for this career track.
Estimated Salary: $41,000 – $119,000
Forensic psychology is a unique specialty for professionals who have a background in both psychology and criminal justice. The forensic psychologist (not to be confused with a forensic scientist who analyzes physical evidence in criminal cases) is often called on to help a judge determine whether or not a defendant is insane. He or she may also work on everything from design of correctional facilities to helping the police improve their methods of interrogation.
Estimated Salary: $41,000 – $190,000
Engineering psychology is an unusual specialty that can allow you to combine your psychology background with an interest in product design. It involves using testing techniques to help companies design everything from scissors to software programs that are ergonomic and easy to use. It’s all about assessing how people interact with machines and technology. Specialists in this field conduct focus groups and interviews to find out how a product should be created to serve a particular market, and to understand how customers perceive its usefulness. A relatively small number of schools offer master’s degree programs in engineering psychology.
Estimated Salary: $60,000 – $90,000
Sports psychologists focus on the mental aspects athletic performance, and counsel athletes on motivation, performance and dealing with injury. The certification requirements for this career are a bit vague because you can wind up working as anything from professor to a coach for a professional golfer. While this used to be a glamorous specialty but one with very few actual jobs, it has expanded considerably in recent years. College and sometimes even elite high school athletic programs now employ sports psychologists, as do the various Olympic sport associations.
Estimated Salary: $49,000 – $138,000
Industrial psychologists (sometimes called “organizational” psychologists) focus on addressing the problems that arise around the employee behavior in the workplace. Practitioners sometimes work for a company’s human resources department. In this job you may conduct employee seminars on sexual harassment, and spend a good deal of time counseling individual employees on issues that affect both their work and private lives. Other duties include assessing job applicants, designing training programs for new hires, or reorganizing the physical workplace or various procedures to make employees more efficient. Large companies, in particular, have taken to hiring more industrial psychologists over the years, as concerns about avoiding lawsuits by employees for discrimination of various types has grown. There are also considerable opportunities to work as an independent consultant in this field.
Salary estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.