Study Health Psychology: Master's Degrees, PhD & Course Info

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Master's and PhD's in health psychology can lead to careers as a health psychologist. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and career options, and find out what you can do with your training.
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Master's and Doctorate in Health Psychology at a Glance

Health psychology is a subfield of psychology that looks at the impact of behavior on patient health. Applied psychologists, whether they're counseling or clinical psychologists, work with patients who are experiencing mental or emotional disturbance. While counseling psychologists are trained at the master's level, clinical psychologists generally must have a doctorate for practice. Most applied health psychologists will need to seek out licensure in order to work independently in private practice. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the psychology field is predicted to grow 22% in the years 2010-2020, which is faster than average for all job growth.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in studying and applying biopsychosocial models to improve patient or community health Individuals who are looking to work as clinical psychologists, researchers or university professors in the health psychology subfield
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary or range) - Mental health counselor ($29,000 - $51,000)**
- Licensed professional counselor ($33,000 - $52,000)**
- Clinical therapist ($30,000 - $43,000)**
- Marriage and family therapist ($30,000 - $76,000)**
- Higher education counseling psychologist ($60,000)***
- Health psychologist ($90,000 - aggregate salary for non-clinical psychologists)*
- Clinical psychologist ($67,000)*
Time to Completion 1-3 years, full time 4-5 years
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 12-30 courses
- Master's thesis or capstone project
- Master's exams
- Roughly 25-30 courses
- PhD qualifier exams
- Dissertation proposal
- Dissertation
- Clinical hours for licensure tracks
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree in psychology or related field Bachelor's or master's degree in psychology or related field
Online Availability No No

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures), ** (retrieved Dec. 2012), *** (retrieved Dec. 2012)

Master's in Health Psychology

Some master's programs in health psychology prepare students to take positions as counseling health psychologists, while others may focus more specifically on areas of study and research. Within these programs, students may focus on various topics, such as clinical counseling or community health and research. Those seeking opportunities for research in community or public health psychology may want to focus on tying their educational choices to larger topics, and on selecting electives that tailor the program to their career goals.

Pros and Cons


  • Health psychology master's programs can prepare students for careers as counseling psychologists or be used as a step toward doctoral programs
  • Programs may have thesis and non-thesis options, allowing students to tailor their educations for their career goals
  • Some students may earn a master's and begin working while preparing for PhD programs


  • Counseling health psychologists generally earn less than those who have completed clinical psychology training
  • Master's programs are never accredited by the American Psychological Association
  • Not all programs offer master's degrees independent of PhDs

Courses and Requirements

Health psychology concentrations within master's programs fulfill the same requirements as more general psychology master's programs, but go further and add a layer of specialized courses that develop a working knowledge of the subfield. This can assist in developing specific areas of research and competency where behavior and health meet. Course topics may include:

  • Biological aspects of health psychology
  • Health psychology statistics and research methods
  • Ethics in health psychology
  • Institutional review and research
  • Epidemiology

Online Degree Options

While there are no online programs focusing on health psychology available at this time, students may be able to find online and blended programs in general psychology that could fulfill their career needs. These programs have asynchronous delivery of coursework, but may also have attendance requirements in a blended online environment.

Stand Out with This Degree

In order to stand out with this degree, students with an interest in health psychology may want to focus within their program on specific areas of research to assist in developing applied areas of expertise. The selection of a focus on narrow band of research topics, especially in consultation with recognized health psychology experts, may lead to research and publication opportunities. Additionally, students who choose to focus on clinical aspects of training may want to seek out opportunities to begin applying their knowledge as soon as possible, developing skills and knowledge that may help lead to clinical training employment after graduation.

Doctorate in Health Psychology

Perhaps because of the demand for clinical psychologists, most doctoral programs offer clinical tracks, and may additionally offer programs in the other areas, especially community health psychology. Doctoral programs may offer either Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) academic degrees or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) professional degrees. Both are recognized degrees which can lead to clinical licensure. Clinical programs require supervised clinical training hours beyond coursework as part of the professional credentialing process. Clinical training requirements are generally part of the program, and tracks for licensure are generally established.

Pros and Cons


  • Health psychologists may work both as independent practitioners and in larger medical settings
  • Having completed a doctoral degree program, health psychologists may work in teaching and research positions
  • Health psychologists who have completed clinical training and fulfilled licensure requirements may choose to open their own practices


  • Unlike psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, including those specializing in health, do not have the authority to prescribe psychotropic medications in most circumstances
  • PsyD and PhD programs require significant time and financial commitment before entering the workforce
  • Clinical psychologists are only one of several professions that all serve similar functions regarding mental health, including clinical social workers, counseling psychologists and psychiatrists

Courses and Requirements

In addition to clinical training for those in clinical health psychology programs, coursework in health psychology doctoral programs covers the intersection of health and behavior, examining such topics as the social influences of health-affecting behaviors such as exercise and smoking, as well as pain management and other aspects. Further attention is given to the requirements of psychological research and ethical considerations. Course topics may include:

  • Health and behavior
  • Health disparity in social context
  • Psychological pathology
  • Research approaches and methods
  • Research ethics in psychology
  • Statistics in the psychological sciences

Online Degree Options

As of December 2012, American Psychological Association (APA)-approved doctoral programs in health psychology are not available online. Because of both the clinical aspects of the training and the face-to-face mentoring requirements as outlined by the APA, it seems unlikely that these programs will soon make the move to full online availability.

Stand Out with This Degree

In order to stand out with a doctorate in health psychology, you may want to begin by seeking out programs recognized for their research in this subfield. Research and clinical training projects that focus on the specific aspects of health in which you are professionally interested may strengthen the utility of your program. Discussing your long-term career goals with your mentors in the program may guide your coursework and research, as well as assist you in developing close professional relationships with professors and colleagues.

Alternative Degree Options

If you're interested in working as a psychiatrist rather than a counselor or a psychologist, you'll need to complete a 4-year medical degree program through an accredited medical school, as well as a 4-year residency program. Medical degrees are typically available in a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree format, and residency programs commonly allow you to focus on a particular area of medicine, such as psychiatry. Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists are qualified to prescribe medication to patients with psychological problems. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicated that physicians and surgeons overall would see an employment growth of 24% from 2010-2020, which is faster than the average for all occupations. In May 2011, the BLS stated that psychiatrists earned a mean annual salary of about $174,000.

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