“Can Brands Change Their Personality?,” asks a May 28, 2015 headline in The Guardian online edition. As psychologist and University College of London business psychology professor Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic goes on to explain in the article, “Psychology has the answer.” When Ford began unveiling details of its latest sports car innovation, the 2016 GT, the company emphasized the degree to which it factored the psychology of the driver into the design process, as Automotive News reported in a May 2015 story on “The science, psychology and secrecy behind the Ford GT.” And, when The Huffington Post wanted an answer to the question, “Should I let my baby cry to sleep?,” where did it go for professional insight? To a developmental psychologist, of course.

In broad terms, psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. But insights gained through psychology have proven useful and provided practical applications in almost every facet of human endeavor, from brand management and marketing, to driving a car and raising a child. And, while earning a college degree in psychology is certainly a good move for anyone aiming to become a licensed clinical or research psychologist, it can also open the door to a broad array of career opportunities.

An associate degree in psychology, which can usually be completed in two years, offers an foundational introduction to the principles behind the practice of psychology. It can be a crucial first step toward pursuing a career in the field, or pivoting to a career in which an understanding of behavioral psychology has practical applications. In this guide, we’ll take a comprehensive look at the different types of degrees available at the associate level, what kind of coursework these degree programs entail, how these degrees realistically factor into career outcomes, and much, much more.

What Is an Associate Degree in Psychology?

An associate degree in psychology should be viewed as a starting point for those interested in pursuing further study and/or a career in psychology, whether that’s as a clinical practitioner, a behavioral researcher, or in any number of other capacities that involve the application of psychological principles and methodologies. It’s a degree that’s generally designed to be completed in just two years, as opposed to the four years that are typically required for a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Associate degree programs in psychology are most often found at community colleges, where students have the opportunity to begin undergraduate work in the discipline and gain crucial introductory level knowledge and skills without incurring the cost and commitment of a four-year bachelor’s degree program. In addition, there are an increasingly large number of institutions that offer online associate degree programs in psychology. In either case, it’s important to understand that the associate degree in psychology is best understood as a proving ground of sorts — an introductory undergraduate-level degree that allows students to gauge their affinity for psychology while preparing to transfer valuable credit hours over to a suitable bachelor’s degree program.

As we’ll see below, there are some jobs open to applicants who hold an associate degree in psychology, and the subjects covered in a typical associate degree program can be useful in any number of pursuits, from social work, teaching, and youth counseling, to human resource management, sales, marketing, and public relations. But, for those aspiring to work in the field as a licensed psychologist, it’s important to be aware that an associate degree is essentially a starting point.

Associate in Psychology Concepts

  • Positive Psychology
  • Human Sexuality
  • Physiological and Neurological Bases of Human Behavior
  • Diversity
  • Psychological Disorders
  • Social Interactions
  • Interrelationships of Fundamental Psychological Theories
  • Learn to Critically Evaluate

Who Should Enroll in a Associate Degree Program in Psychology?

The primary requirement for an associate degree in psychology, as with most other associate degree programs, is simply a high school diploma or the equivalent. But, there are less tangible assets, interests, and personality traits that are also worth weighing when considering enrollment.

Psychology is a behavioral science, which in practical terms involves the use of scientific methods to analyze, classify, and ultimately understand the workings of mind as it relates to human behavior. So, while a basic interest in how people relate to one another and to the world is central to the study of psychology, a certain comfort level with math, chemistry, and biology is also an important component of the discipline. ONet Online, a partner of the American Job Center Network, divides the personality profile for psychology related careers into the following three categories:

  • Social: Communicating with, working with, and teaching other people.
  • Investigative: Working with concepts and ideas, solving problems analytically, and mentally processing information.
  • Artistic: Employing creativity, self-expression, and empathy.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook further identifies seven discrete skill areas that are important components in the field of psychology, which are listed in the table below:

  • Analytical Skills – Collect data, examine information, and draw logical conclusions
  • Communication Skills – Listen closely and clearly express ideas to other people
  • Observational Skills – Study and interpret the behavior traits of others, including expressions, actions, and interactions
  • Patience – Develop the ability spend long periods of time working with people even in conditions where extreme and difficult behavior patterns may be present
  • People Skills – Work with patients, clients, and other medical professionals
  • Problem Solving Skills – Find treatments and solutions for various psychological problems
  • Trustworthiness – Maintain confidentiality when dealing with patients and/or clients who may disclose sensitive personal information

Associate Coursework in Psychology: What You May Learn

Regardless of whether you opt for an AA or an AS in psychology, and whether you chose a community college or an online degree program, the core coursework tends to be quite similar. A good program should include classes in the history of psychology, human psychological development, and the science of learning and perception. However, one common difference between an AA and AS is that the former may have more general education requirements in math, science, and the arts and humanities, while the latter can give students the opportunity to select from more elective coursework in areas like abnormal, educational, and behavioral psychology. This can be an important consideration for students who are planning to transfer credits to a bachelor’s degree program, which may have different general education requirements. What you want to try to avoid is a situation in which an associate degree program leaves you in a position where you have to catch up on general education requirements during the last two years of a bachelor’s degree.

Most associate degree programs in psychology will begin with a one or two semester introductory survey of the principles of psychology, and go on to include in-depth coursework in cognitive development, social psychology, and abnormal psychology. Below are some of the specific classes you can expect to encounter on your way to an associate degree in psychology:

Associate Degree Coursework

  • Introduction to Psychology: Covers psychological research methods, the relationships between biology, environment, and behavior, and theories of personality, emotional development, and perception.
  • Human Growth and Development: Covers the processes and importance of cognitive, emotional, physical, and psychosocial development over the human lifespan, and the research methods that psychologists employ to study these important developmental factors.
  • Social Psychology: Covers the ways in which group social dynamics impact behavior, emotional well being, and cognitive function in individuals.
  • Abnormal Psychology: Covers the methods used by psychologists to measure, understand, and ultimately treat various conditions caused by anxiety, depression, mood and personality disturbances, substance abuse, and other behavioral dysfunctions.
  • Psychology of Personality: Covers the various factors that shape personality, including biology, culture, social forces, and cognitive processes.
  • Psychology of Gender: Covers the ways in which biology and environment shape sexual identity and behavior throughout the life span.

In addition to this core coursework, there may be opportunities to specialize in particular areas related to psychology. For example, if you’re interested in using the principles of psychology to pursue a career in business, marketing, or public relations, it can be helpful to take classes in the principles of marketing, business administration, and/or communications. Or, if you’re aiming to go into social work, a course that surveys various social problems, like crime, poverty, and substance abuse, is advisable. Some associate degree programs include courses of this sort as requirement, while others offer electives.

Choosing the Right Program

The Associate of Arts (AA) vs. the Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Psychology

There are actually two kinds of associate degrees in psychology, which fall right in line with the way that bachelor’s and master’s degree programs are designed and designated. The associate of arts (AA) degree is congruent with a bachelor’s of arts in psychology. And, the associate of science (AS), which can also be an associate of applied science (AAS), more closely relates to a bachelor’s of science in psychology.

Traditionally, the difference between an AA and an AS in psychology or any of the other behavioral sciences hinges on the amount of clinical or lab-oriented coursework. In practice, however, associate degree programs can vary from school to school, and the actual differences between an AA and an AS, or even an AAS, are somewhat minor. That said, there are two important considerations when weighing associate degree options:

  1. If you’re planning to pursue either a bachelor’s of arts or science in psychology after completing an associate degree, you should make sure the course requirements and credit hours match up and are transferable.
  2. If you’re hoping to enter the job market directly from an associate degree program, you should look into the various kinds of career resources, skills, and training that come with specific AA and AS programs.

Career Options, Salaries, and Job Outlook

It should be emphasized that an associate degree in psychology is generally considered a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree, which then opens the door to a number of careers in the field. And, in most states, a master’s degree is a requirement for certification to practice as a licensed psychologist.

However, an associate degree in psychology does bring with it the knowledge and skills necessary to work at an entry level in human services, mental health, early childhood education, or paraprofessional counseling. Here are some of the career opportunities open to associate degree graduates, along with general salary information for work in each field:

Human Service Assistant

This is the broad title given to those who work alongside and under social workers and psychologists in the field, helping individuals and families through difficult life challenges. A human service assistant might aid the elderly or disabled in their daily routines, research and help coordinate services like Medicaid and food stamps available to particular clients, and help clients complete the paperwork to receive these services. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for social and human service assistants was $31,860 as of May 2014. The BLS also projects employment growth of 22 percent for these professionals from 2012 to 2022.

Childcare Worker

Different states have different certification requirements for people who work in early childhood education and childcare, but in most cases an associate degree in psychology qualifies one to work with children in some capacity, from simply providing supervision to offering some forms of pre-K education. The mean annual salary for childcare workers was $21,710 in May 2014, according to BLS data. The BLS estimates that demand for these professionals will rise by 14 percent between 2012 and 2022.

Substance Abuse or Behavioral Disorder Counselor

Counseling for addiction, substance abuse, and other behavioral and mental health problems takes place on many levels and in many settings, from hospitals and clinics, to community and crisis intervention centers. And associate degree in psychology can be sufficient for an entry-level position at a mental health facility or a counseling clinic. The mean annual wage for mental health and substance abuse social workers was $45,820, as of May 2014. However, salaries for those in the lowest 10 percent were $25,770, which is more realistic for an entry-level position. The BLS projects employment growth of 31 percent in this field between 2012 and 2022.

Paraprofessional Counselor

There are a range of other jobs options open to those who hold associates degree in psychology, including those that fall under the general umbrella of paraprofessional counseling. Like a paralegal, a paraprofessional counselor is someone who does not have the credentials for licensure as a certified counselor, but who works under a qualified professional. There’s no solid data for paraprofessional counselors, mostly because it’s such a broad designation. But, it’s yet another way to start a career using the knowledge and skills that come with an associate degree program in psychology.

Additional Career possibilities with an Associate Degree in Psychology:

  • Psychiatric aide/assistant
  • Case technician
  • Mental health assistant
  • Mental health worker/advocate
  • Psychiatric nursing assistant
  • Youth counselor

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