Different Types of Psychology Degrees & Specializations
The growing field of psychology remains a very popular degree option at all levels of the educational landscape, from bachelor’s degrees through doctorates. In fact, psychology degrees accounted for more than 6% of all bachelor’s degrees, making psychology one of the most popular majors for all undergrads.
Which psychology degree is right for each learner depends on what job they want to have and what areas of psychology interest them most. For instance, if you want to work directly with patients, you’ll generally need to earn a doctorate of psychology, but if you’d rather use your psychology background to work in fields other than direct therapy, a bachelor’s degree in general psychology could be perfect.
Here’s a look at what you need to know when deciding which type of psychology degree is right for you.
What’s On This Page
- Psychology Degree Levels
- Psychology Concentrations
- Licensing & Certification
Psychology Degree Levels
Psychology degrees are available at all levels of the higher education ladder, though the ideal degree may depend largely on which eventual career or job title you’re seeking. Here’s a look at the main educational levels that are possible within psychology:
- Associate degree: Most often a two-year degree, an associate degree in psychology can provide a good first step for students who aren’t entirely sure what exactly they want to do within psychology or for people who already have obtained a bachelor’s degree in another field and are hoping to make the transition. For some people, an associate degree in psychology may qualify them for their ideal job, such as some law enforcement jobs and assistant-level functions in the mental health or social workspace.
- Bachelor’s degree: For most jobs in psychology, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree is required, and the undergraduate level is ideal for helping students identify an area of focus within psychology, such as substance abuse, family therapy or other areas. While most learners who want to provide counseling or therapy services will continue on to earn either a master’s or doctorate, many more jobs will become available with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, such as career counseling or case management.
- Master’s degree: Successful completion of a master’s degree in psychology will open up many popular psychology career options within the field, as it provides the foundation of the necessary licensure to become a school counselor as well as a mental health counselor. Program specifics vary widely at this level, and most students will need to closely examine both course options and internship requirements to determine the ideal program.
- Doctorate: At the highest levels of psychology are a pair of similar but specific degree options, a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) and a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) see also PsyD vs PhD degree differences. While both are considered doctoral degrees and can provide the foundation for licensure as a clinical psychologist, a Ph.D. program will have a more aggressive focus on research and academia, while a PsyD is more often focused on the hands-on practice of psychology. For this reason, in general, individuals who are certain they do not wish to teach psychology at the college level or higher and who only want to work with patients or clients may be better suited to a PsyD. A Ph.D. will usually be required to teach at post-secondary levels.
- M.D.: One important distinction to make is between psychiatry and psychology. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in the assessment and treatment of mental health disorders. While their day-to-day work may seem similar, individuals who want to be able to prescribe medication may want to consider medical school, as only five states currently grant psychologists prescribing authority — Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico and Louisiana.
For most students, the deeper they get into their educational journey, the more they’ll find one area or another to be most compelling. Here is a look at some of the potential degree concentrations students could consider as they progress up the higher education ladder:
- Developmental: Studying the unique stages of development that take place throughout life, and learners can focus on all the stages or just one, such as child psychology or teen therapy.
- Behavioral: Identifying patterns of behavior and modifying behaviors that may be problematic.
- Counseling: Helping people improve their emotional and psychological well-being.
- Engineering: Studying human behavior as it relates to the design and function of products, systems, and technology:
- Health: Assisting individuals as they interact with the healthcare system and/or go through long-term chronic disease care.
- Industrial/Organizational: Applying principles of psychology to large-scale systems, such as workplaces.
- Neuropsychology: Studying the connection between the physical state of the brain and resulting behavior.
- Social: Studying the way people interact with each other and often helping clients to improve their interpersonal relationships.
- Forensic: Assessing the mental health fitness of defendants, helping investigators develop criminal profiles and providing other psychological assessments to support the criminal justice system.
- Clinical: Assessing and treating mental, behavioral and emotional disorders.
- Cognitive-Perceptual: Studying perception, memory and thinking.
- Sports: Studying the behavioral benefits of physical activity and often helping athletes develop methods of coping with competitive stress.
- Experimental: Researching the nature of the brain and how it impacts human behavior and conducting experiments into mitigating or taking advantage of that connection.
- Quantitative: Studying and applying the principles of scientific measurement of various psychological attributes.
- Abnormal: Studying, assessing and treating acute mental health and behavioral disorders
- Educational: Researching the impact of education on human mental development and vice-versa.
- Gerontological: Studying the unique effects of aging on mental health and working with individual clients to improve their mental well-being into old age.
Psychology Licensing & Certification
The process for becoming certified or licensed for particular jobs will depend on the state where you intend to work as well as the occupation you’re seeking, but there a few jobs in psychology that generally require some additional steps beyond your degree:
- Clinical psychologist: In most states, it’s a legal requirement for anybody who wishes to practice using “psychologist” in their job title to first earn state licensure. Specific requirements vary by state, but generally, that means a doctorate, an internship, a one- to a two-year period of supervised professional experience and potential passage of board certification exams.
- Mental health/substance abuse counselor: All states require substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors in private practice to be licensed by the state, and this generally includes a master’s degree, between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of supervised experience and passage of a state exam. Some counselors outside of private practice can bypass some of these requirements, but those rules vary by state.
- School counselors: Counselors working in public schools must first obtain a state license to work in a school, which typically requires a master’s degree in school counseling, an internship, and completion of a certification test. Additionally, some states require counselors to have a teaching license as well as a background check.
- Marriage and family therapist: Every state requires a master’s degree, up to 4,000 hours of supervised experience and completion of a certification exam to legally practice as a marriage and family therapist.
The field of psychology is expanding all the time, and today’s psychology students study areas that weren’t even possibilities 20 years ago thanks to technological and scientific advances. With such exciting developments, psychology degrees are possible in almost every conceivable area.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Psychologists. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
- National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics: 2017. Bachelor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions, by field of study: Selected years, 1970-71 through 2015-16. (2018.) Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_322.10.asp