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Master's Degrees in Clinical Psychology

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As a profession and a discipline, clinical psychology pretty much dates back to the very beginning of psychology as a formal area for research and inquiry. Indeed, the emergence of clinical psychology as a discrete area of study more or less paralleled psychology's first movements away from pure research into the workings of the human mind, and into the application of psychological principles to the treatment of patients in the early 20th century. Using the scientist/practitioner model associated with the medical profession, the earliest clinical psychologists studied theories of human thought, behavior, and emotional development, furthered those theories through research, and met with patients suffering from various psychological ailments in a clinical setting. Thus, the designation "clinical psychology." Indeed, it's not going too far to say that a clinical psychologist, or a clinical counseling psychologist, is what most people have in mind when they picture a prototypical psychologist.

In other words, clinical psychology is a foundational discipline, with applications in almost every area of the larger field of psychology. The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) defines its practice this way: "Clinical Psychologists provide professional services for the diagnosis, assessment, evaluation, treatment and prevention of psychological, emotional, psychophysiological and behavioral disorders across the lifespan." The ABPP goes on to say that, "Clinical psychologists may provide services directly or support and facilitate the provision of services through supervision, teaching, management, administration, advocacy and similar roles."

The American Psychological Association (APA) offers an even broader summation of clinical psychology: "Clinical psychology is the psychological specialty that provides continuing and comprehensive mental and behavioral health care for individuals and families; consultation to agencies and communities; training, education and supervision; and research-based practice. It is a specialty in breadth -- one that is broadly inclusive of severe psychopathology -- and marked by comprehensiveness and integration of knowledge and skill from a broad array of disciplines within and outside of psychology proper. The scope of clinical psychology encompasses all ages, multiple diversities and varied systems."

Master's in Clinical Psychology Concepts

  • Foundational theories and practices of clinical psychology
  • Assessment and treatment procedures
  • Clinical interviewing
  • Intervention methods
  • Testing procedures
  • Research methodology
  • Psychopathology
  • Lifespan development
  • Ethics
  • Multicultural issues
  • Inferential statistics
  • Biological basis of behavior
  • Theories of psychotherapy
  • Firsthand opportunities to apply your education in a clinical setting

Benefits of Earning a Master's in Clinical Psychology

One of the most obvious advantages to earning a master's degree in clinical psychology is that it remains so central to the professional practice of psychology. Unlike more specialized areas of concentration in the discipline, clinical psychology can, as the APA points out, function as a portal to any number of careers in the realm of psychology, from research and training, to direct patient care, to consulting with businesses, government agencies, and other large organizations. Clinical psychologists work in schools, hospitals, and community mental health centers, in private practice, and as teachers and researchers at colleges and universities.

A master's in clinical psychology, whether it's a master of arts (MA) or a master of science (MS), generally does not meet the requirements for full licensure as a professional psychology at the state level. Most states require a doctorate, as well as between one and two years of supervised clinical experience, for candidates to qualify to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). However, a master's in clinical psychology is in some cases a prerequisite for doctoral study in the field or a related specialization. In other cases, depending on the program, completing a master's in clinical psychology can provide academic credits toward the completion of a PhD or PsyD in psychology, which might otherwise take up to six or seven years to complete. A master's in clinical psychology can also be enough to apply for research assistant jobs in the field of psychology, and, in some states, it's possible to become a licensed professional counselor, or LPC, with a master's in clinical psychology.

What to Expect in a Clinical Psychology Master's Program

Most MA and MS programs in clinical psychology are designed to be completed in one or two years of study, and most of the better ones are meant to be gateways into doctoral programs that will eventually qualify students to become fully licensed psychologists. In that sense, the master's in clinical psychology is meant to be an introduction to the field, one in which the core conceptual methods, psychological theories, and clinical skills are surveyed.

Historically, the study of clinical psychology centered around the identification, assessment, and treatment of abnormalities and dysfunctions in the emotional, behavioral, and cognitive function of individuals, and of more extreme and persistent forms of mental illness. To a certain extent, this remains true today. However, recent examinations of the discipline by the APA's Society of Counseling Psychologists indicate that the gap between clinical psychology and counseling psychology has narrowed quite a bit. "Clinical psychologists have traditionally studied disturbances in mental health, while counseling psychologists' earliest role was to provide vocational guidance and advice," the Society of Counseling Psychologists reports on its website. "Today, though, the differences between psychologists from each specialty are more nuanced, and there are perhaps more similarities than differences among individual psychologists from each field."

A 2008 report by two Texas Tech University psychology department professors, Robert Morgan and Lee Cohen, went even further to suggest that the traditional line between clinical and counseling psychology has been blurred. According to an APA report on the paper's findings, "The two looked at program descriptions, research and clinical experience requirements and faculty characteristics and found no significant differences between clinical and counseling programs. They did, however, notice one trend: Clinical psychology programs tend to emphasize psychopathology training and external practicum opportunities, while counseling psychology programs emphasize multicultural training and a more holistic education."

Master's in Clinical Psychology Coursework

Because master's degree programs in clinical psychology are in many ways both a proving ground for and an introduction to a doctoral degree in psychology, they aren't meant to necessarily be comprehensive. So, the coursework can vary quite a bit from program to program, whether you're looking at an MA or an MS in the field. Indeed, there are likely to be bigger differences between individual programs than there are between the largely equivalent master of arts and master of science in clinical psychology. With that in mind, here are some of the typical topics covered over the course of a master's in clinical psychology:

  • History of Psychological Theories and Practices -- An overview of how research into the workings of the human mind has impacted the evolution of psychological theories and practices up through the present day.
  • Introduction to Psychotherapy -- How the theories of psychology are applied in a clinical therapeutic setting.
  • Social Psychology -- The study of how group dynamics and social pressures impact the emotional, behavioral, and cognitive function and development of individuals.
  • Developmental Psychology -- The study of the changes in mental function over a person's lifespan, and the impact this has on psychological treatments and assessments.
  • Principles of Neuropsychology -- The neurochemical basis for thought, emotion, and behavior as it relates to the clinical practice of psychology.
  • Cognitive Psychology -- The area of psychology that deals with mental processing, including thought, memory, perception, language, problem solving, and other critical thinking skills.
  • Adult Psychopathology and Abnormal Psychology -- The study of various forms of psychological dysfunction and mental illnesses as they present in adult patients.
  • Biological Basis of Behavior -- The mind/body connection as it relates to the ways in which physiology and biological processes impact behavior and cognition.
  • Statistics in Psychology -- The uses of quantitative data to analyze and assess experimental results in psychology and the behavioral sciences.
  • Psychological Assessment Methodologies -- Theories and practices for determining the psychological profile of an individual.
  • Case Management and Clinical Practice -- An introduction to the ways in which professional psychologists track the treatment of patients and work with individuals in a clinical setting.
  • Interviewing and Patient Assessment Techniques -- The use of interviews and other assessment techniques in research and treatment settings.
  • Ethical and Professional Issues in Psychological Practice -- Standards for the professional practice of psychology.

In addition to the above coursework, master's programs in clinical psychology often require some form of supervised internship or work-study, which may involve research or other forms of clinical assistance with groups or individuals. A master's thesis is generally not a requirement in clinical psychology.

Specializations in Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology offers students the opportunity to specialize in any number of different areas within the larger realm of psychology. However, this is generally done at the doctoral level. Students in master's degree programs may have a chance to dip into various areas of specialization through elective coursework. This usually takes the form of introductory classes in clinical psychology as it is applied to specific populations, such as child psychology, the psychology of aging, multi-cultural psychology, or the psychology of women and other minorities. Other areas of principle interest among clinical psychologists are forensic or criminal psychology, neuropsychology, school psychology, health psychology, and industrial-organizational psychology.

Career Paths, Salaries, and Job Outlook

A doctoral degree in clinical psychology opens the door to almost any area of psychological practice, from teaching and research, to working with school-age children, adults with a range of psychological issues, or the elderly. It can also be a stepping-stone to a career in the health care industry, business consulting, sports psychology, or many other areas of specialization. That said, a master's degree in clinical psychology does not meet state requirements for licensure, so the job options for those with a master's degree are somewhat limited. The chart below offers some examples of careers that may be open to graduates with a master's in clinical psychology, along with the most recent average annual salary and job growth data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Occupation 2012 Average Annual Salary Growth Projected Through 2022 Licensing Requirements
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors $38,520 31% Master's Degree + 2000-4000 hours of supervised experience
Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists $41,500 29% Master's Degree + 2000-4000 hours of supervised experience
Social and Human Services Assistants $28,850 22% High School Diploma
Graduate Teaching Assistants $32,970 NA Master's Degree
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists $48,190 -1% Bachelor's Degree

Sources

"Clinical Psychology," American Board of Professional Psychology, visited November 30, 2015, http://www.abpp.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3307

"Clinical Psychology," American Psychological Association, visited November 30, 2015, http://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/clinical.aspx

Psychologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, visited November 30, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm#tab-1

"Counseling vs. Clinical Programs: Similarities Abound," gradPSYCH magazine, March 2009, American Psychological Association, visited November 30, 2015, http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2009/03/similarities.aspx

"Counseling Psychology vs Clinical Psychology," Society of Counseling Psychology, American Psychological Association Division 17, Patricia R. Roger and Gerald Stone, visited November 30, 2015, http://www.div17.org/about-cp/counseling-vs-clinical-psychology/

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, visited November 30, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/home.htm

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