Study Psychology: PhD, Master's Degree & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a graduate psychology degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of master's and doctorate degrees, online options and potential careers.
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Psychology Master's and Doctoral Degrees at a Glance

Graduate degrees in psychology prepare students for hands-on research and clinical careers through an in-depth study of human behavior and the mind. Master's degree programs are offered as either terminal programs or as preparation for pursuing a doctorate degree. These programs are offered as both Master of Science and Master of Arts programs.

Individuals applying to a master's degree program do not usually need a bachelor's degree in psychology, but most programs will require a basic academic grounding in the principles of psychology. Career opportunities for graduates will vary between states. Some states require all practicing psychologists to have doctoral degrees. In other states, the educational requirements for positions such as school or industrial-organizational psychologist can be fulfilled with a master's degree (and supervised internship).

Doctoral degrees are offered in both the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree formats. The differences between these two types of programs can vary between institutions, although in most cases, the PhD is more research focused, while the PsyD is more clinically focused. One way to think about it may be that the PhD trains you to be a scholar-practitioner while the PsyD trains you to be a practitioner-scholar.

Master's PhD PsyD
Who is this degree for? - Individuals wishing to increase their employment opportunities within the mental health field
- Students wishing to pursue a career path that calls for a graduate degree
- People who want to teach and conduct research at the university level
- People who want to work as a health-service psychologist
- Those interested in working as a professional psychologist in a clinical environment
Common Career Paths and Salaries - Human resource specialist ($60,000)*
- Industrial-organizational psychologist ($124,000)*
- University professor ($68,000)* - Clinical psychologist ($73,000)*
Time to Completion 1.5-4 years, full time 4-6 years beyond the undergraduate level 4-6 years, including 2-year internship, if entering program with no previous graduate training
Common Graduation Requirements - 12-15 graduate level courses
- Master's thesis or comprehensive examinations
- 20-25 graduate-level courses
- Dissertation
- Internship
- 20-25 graduate-level courses
- Internship
- Research project
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in psychology or related field Bachelor's or master's degree in psychology or related field Bachelor's or master's degree in psychology or related field
Online Availability Some individual electives may be offered online. Not at this time Not at this time

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's in Psychology

Master's degree programs in psychology often feature a competitive admissions process. Some programs require a bachelor's degree in psychology, while others require bachelor's degree holders to have completed specific courses, such as introduction to psychology and behavioral statistics. Additional undergraduate courses may be required depending on the focus and specialization of the applicant's studies.

Most often, the curriculum of these programs is structured so as to allow the student to specialize in one particular area of psychological research and learning. Examples of these areas include industrial/organizational psychology or forensic psychology. Nearly all programs will require a mental-health internship or original psychological research and graduate thesis as part of the degree requirements. If you're interested in clinical psychology, you'll want to be certain that the program you've selected offers clinical internships and isn't a purely academic program.

Pros and Cons


  • Your program will most likely feature an - often paid - internship, which will provide you with valuable work experience
  • Graduates will be eligible to pursue jobs in a range of fields, including education administration, sales or business
  • Could pave the way for you to enroll in a doctoral program if you're approaching psychology from another academic field


  • Admission to these programs can be competitive
  • Most practicing psychologist career paths require a doctorate
  • These programs can be expensive and funding may be difficult to secure

Common Courses and Requirements

These programs usually require completion of 12-15 graduate-level courses. A minimum grade point average is often required. Owing to the varied forms and structures of psychological study, program requirements differ greatly. These requirements might include a supervised clinical internship, original research or both. Sample core courses may include:

  • Psychology statistics
  • Psychotherapy
  • Personality theories
  • Intelligence assessment
  • Cognitive neuroscience
  • Gender roles

In addition to coursework, successful degree candidates may also need to submit a master's thesis or take comprehensive examinations. This will be determined by the student's specialization and future academic or career plans.

Online Degree Options

You may find a course or two available online, but for the most part, if you want to study psychology at the graduate level, you'll have to do it the traditional, on-campus way. Be careful when researching graduate psychology programs, since there might be non-accredited programs offered online. The American Psychological Association ( has additional information on degree program accreditation.

Stand Out With this Degree

If you're planning on pursuing a doctorate after graduation, you'll want to tailor your coursework carefully, to be an attractive candidate for your desired institution. PhD programs will want students with proven research skills, while PsyD programs will look closely at your clinical experience.

Graduates seeking immediate employment in a psychological field will most likely need to satisfy specific licensure or certification requirements. These requirements vary between states but may include an internship or residency, previous supervised work experience or completion of a comprehensive examination.

PhD in Psychology

Most PhD programs are research focused (as opposed to clinically focused). In their first year students are expected to choose a concentration - within the broader field of psychology - that will then determine the coursework as well as the scope of their research. Examples of areas of concentration include neuroscience and social, personality or developmental psychology. This research culminates in the final year with the writing and defense of a doctoral thesis.

Financial assistance is often offered to PhD students. This assistance can take the form of assistant teaching, research assistance or stipend. The admissions process for doctoral degree programs in psychology is very selective, with most programs admitting fewer than ten students per academic year.

Pros and Cons


  • As a practicing psychologist, you'll have the chance to help people deal with their mental-health issues
  • Funding for these programs is often available in the form of a stipend or teaching responsibilities
  • Job prospects for clinical, counseling and school psychologists were expected to increase by a faster-than-average rate (22%)* over the coming decade


  • The program can take up to six years to complete
  • The process of earning a PhD is intense and difficult, with high attrition rates
  • Because this is a research degree, it may leave you less qualified for certain careers than a more clinically focused degree

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Common Courses and Requirements

After you complete the coursework, you'll be working on your dissertation. This research project will likely occupy a large part of your academic commitment. Below are listed some sample courses.

  • Psychopharmacology
  • Human neuropsychology
  • Group dynamics
  • Research design
  • Cognition and behavior

Online Degree Options

Accredited PhD programs in psychology that are entirely online do not exist. Doctoral programs that utilize distance-learning technology - such as electronic blackboards - are rare. Be extremely cautious when researching online programs in psychology; there are programs available that offer unaccredited degrees.

Stand Out with This Degree

Because graduates entering the college professor job market can expect stiff competition, a history of having been published within the focus of your research would be beneficial. You should also try to be fluent in the latest educational software and electronic teaching resources.

If you're planning on practicing as a clinical psychologist, you'll have to go through a licensing process, which varies by state. It will most likely include residency or internship requirements, along with comprehensive exams and degree program requirements. To maintain your license you'll need to earn continuing education credits.

PsyD in Psychology

This degree is similar to the PhD but it is generally more clinical and involves less research. This means you'll be spending more time working in a clinical environment, such as an on-campus clinic or other health-service environment. Often, the curriculum is divided evenly between traditional classroom instruction and practical experience.

Because less of the focus is on research, there is often no research thesis featured as a degree requirement. If there is a research requirement, it's often conducted in your fourth or fifth year. In addition to the coursework, you'll experience a series of internships or residencies, designed to familiarize you with a wide range of clinical dynamics.

Pros and Cons


  • May provide you with broader internship options than a PhD program
  • Graduates are qualified to work in clinical environments
  • As a mental-health practitioner, you'll be able to influence the mental wellness of your patients


  • Less funding is traditionally available for students in these programs
  • You may be less qualified for jobs involving psychological research
  • As a psychologist, you may have to work evenings and weekends to accommodate your clients, and any potential emergencies that they may have

Courses and Requirements

The coursework in a PsyD program is similar to the coursework found in PhD programs, except for the reduced emphasis on research for the PsyD. Degree candidates can expect to experience a large amount of individual training spent in a range of functioning clinical environments. Didactic instruction will balance out the curriculum, instructing the student in areas such as intervention and treatment, psychological assessment and consultation.

Online Degree Options

As stated earlier, doctoral programs in psychology that utilize online learning tools are very rare. When conducting your degree program research, be aware that there are unaccredited institutions that offer these and similar online degrees.

Stand Out With This Degree

With this degree, you'll most likely be entering the field of clinical psychology. This means that you will face licensing and certification requirements based on the state(s) in which you seek employment. These requirements most often include completion of an accredited program, internship or other supervised experience, in addition to comprehensive exams.