As our understanding of the complexities of the human mind and behavior has grown exponentially over the last century, so has the field of psychology. After all, the central concern of psychology is the study of human behavior and its origins in the neurological, biological, cultural, and chemical processes that impact thought, instinct, and our interactions with the world. In the words of the eminently quipable, oft-quoted, early-20th-century French poet and philosopher Paul Valery, “The purpose of psychology is to give us a completely different idea of the things we know best.”

The degree to which those completely different ideas about the things we know best have proliferated since Valery’s time, penetrating the almost every fiber of the fabric of human existence, would be hard to measure. But just as scientific advances in our knowledge of human biology and physiology have pushed the field of medicine into new areas of specialization, our quantitative and qualitative insights into the processes of the human mind have opened up whole new areas of study in the realm of psychology, and created exciting new ideas about how to apply the tools of psychology. As a result, demand for well-trained psychologists has been growing, and so have the various areas of specialization in the field. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that an ongoing need for psychological services in schools, hospitals, mental-health centers, and social-service agencies will amount to a 12 percent growth rate in employment across the board for psychologists through 2022. Jobs in the relatively new specialization of industrial-organizational psychologists will likely increase by a projected 52 percent.

Because the job market is a competitive one, and the skills required to become a licensed psychologist require intensive training and in-depth study, a master’s degree in psychology is a necessary step in the process of entering the field. There are numerous areas of specialization in master’s programs, from clinical and social psychology, to forensic, experimental, and the aforementioned industrial-organizational psychology. And, within each area of specialization, there are further areas of concentration, including sports psychology and neuropsychology. We’ll look at the range of different master’s programs in psychology and some of the common career paths that are associated with each of them.

MA vs. MS: Choosing the Right Program

A two-year master’s degree in psychology can be an end in and of itself — in academic and professional terms, a terminal master’s degree. Or, as is often the case for anyone aiming to practice as a licensed psychologist, the master’s degree is the middle step between a bachelor’s degree and an eventual doctorate (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree. In either case, completion of a BA or BS is an almost universal requirement, although the American Psychological Association and the Bureau of Labor Statistics both emphasize that an undergraduate degree in psychology is not necessary. “In general,” the APA explains, “graduate programs require only introductory psychology, statistics, and experimental psychology/research methods. Graduate schools want a solid background in psychology; they will teach you the rest.”

Once you have those bases covered, you’ll want to find out what other materials, including GRE scores and faculty recommendations, specific master’s programs require as part of the application process. And, you’ll also have to decide what kind of master’s degree program best suits your needs, depending on what career path you’re aiming to pursue. Weighing the relative benefits of a master’s of science versus a master’s of arts in psychology might be one of the first important considerations, although more often than not the area of focus will determine whether it’s an MA or an MS program. For example, a master’s program in clinical neuropsychology and behavioral neuroscience is more likely to be an MS, while programs in social and/or community psychology tend to be MAs. Most master’s degree programs include a defined program of study, as well as a requirement to complete a master’s thesis, which usually includes research within a particular area of specialization.

Master’s Degree Specializations

Because there is quite a bit of variation from program to program, depending on the area of specialization, we’ll look at five of the more common types of master’s degrees in psychology.

  • Masters in Clinical Psychology: This is a core area of specialization in psychology that involves mastering scientific applications, including quantitative research and qualitative assessment of individuals and groups, and honing the communication and interpersonal skills associated with consultation, counseling, and intervention with patients. It requires an understanding of the research methodologies of psychology and the dynamics of various psychopathologies.
  • Masters in Social Psychology: This is one of the main areas of research in the field of psychology. Social psychologists examine and assess societal issues and problems, such as domestic dysfunction, substance abuse, community health issues, criminal activity, and bullying in schools, and then propose and implement policy solutions. Learning how to design and conduct relevant and reliable research studies both in the field and in clinical settings, as well as developing a deep understanding of the cultural and social processes that affect psychological function, are central to a master’s degree program in social psychology.
  • Neuropsychology: One of the more medically related specialties in psychology, neuropsychology focuses on the relationship between brain function and behavior. Understanding the anatomy of the brain and the nervous system, the symptoms and causes of neurological disorders, and various ways of treating such conditions in a clinical setting are central to the practice of neuropsychology.
  • Industrial-Organizational Psychology: Also referred to as I/O psychology, this specialization deals with applying the tools of psychology in the workplace, to create better organizational strategies for companies and institutions and improve the working conditions and productivity of employees. Decision theory, consumer behavior, and group dynamics are also important parts of the I/O toolbox. In addition, a clear knowledge of legal and ethical concerns in psychology is crucial in this area of specialization.
  • Developmental and School Psychology: These are two related areas of specialization that actually can have different educational paths. Developmental psychologists can fall under the rubric of social and clinical psychology, and the master’s programs associated with them, only the focus is more on issues surrounding childhood development and working with young patients. However, because many schools employ designated psychologists, it’s also possible to earn a Ed.S., or educational specialist, degree with a focus on psychology. It’s a terminal degree that offers preparation to assess and intervene in the interest of prevention and crisis management, and develop and implement evaluation skills to improve educational effectiveness in schools and classrooms.

Course Topics

Depending on the specific concentration, most master’s degree programs in psychology will provide you with knowledge in some, if not all, of the following areas:

Master’s in Psychology Concepts

  • Thought processes
  • Behavior
  • Emotions
  • Practices of clinical psychology
  • Testing and assessment
  • Research methods
  • Psychotherapy
  • Diagnostics
  • Assessing and building on clients’ strengths
  • Individual and group counseling methods
  • Addiction
  • Family dynamics
  • Health psychology
  • Human development (biological, cognitive, and psychosocial within various contexts)
  • Personality theories
  • Abnormal psychology – psychological disorders
  • Statistical analysis
  • Multicultural psychology
  • Ethical issues for psychology professionals
  • Psychology of learning
  • Social psycholoy, attitudes, stereotyping, conformity, aggression, etc.
  • Cognitive psychology – reasoning, language, imagery, processes of thought, etc.

Career Options, Salaries, and Job Outlook

It’s important to remember that a doctoral degree, or PhD, is generally required in most states to obtain a certification as a licensed psychologist. However, there are a number of different careers and job opportunities open to those who have completed a master’s degree in psychology. The job outlook and typical salaries can vary greatly from area to area, so we’ll run through a few of the more typical ones below, using the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

CareerMean Annual Wage (2014)Projected Job Growth (2012-2022)
Industrial-Organizational Psychologists$90,07052%
Psychological Clinical, Counseling, or Research Assistants$43,07022%
Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists$73,03011%

Other Career Possibilities with a Master’s in Psychology Include:

  • Marriage and Family Therapist
  • Business Management
  • Marketing Positions (Management, Director, etc.)
  • Leadership Coach
  • Community College Professor
  • Community and Human Services
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