Master’s in Social Psychology

When people picture a typical psychologist, they tend to think of a person sitting and listening to a patient’s problems, offering guidance and advice in the role of what is more formally referred to as a counseling psychologist, or a clinical counseling psychologist. But, much of what happens in the wide realm of psychology takes place in a very different kind of clinical setting, one in which research into the workings of human thought, behavior, and emotional wellbeing is carried out, quantified, analyzed, and then published in the hopes of furthering our collective understanding of what makes us who were are in the world.

There are a number of different divisions within the realm of research psychology. And there are research psychologists who engage in counseling as part of their work. Some psychologists, like neuropsychologists, look inward, using a body of knowledge borrowed from neurological medicine to tease out the biochemical workings of the brain and how that impacts cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development. Other psychologists train their researching eyes outwork, examining the ways in which larger societal and cultural forces that we often take for granted play a role in our psychological development.

Among the latter are social psychologists. Put simply, and in the words of the American Psychological Association (APA), “Social psychology is the study of how individuals affect and are affected by other people and by their social and physical environments.” The APA goes on to explain that, “Social psychologists study interpersonal and group dynamics and social challenges, such as prejudice, implicit bias, bullying, criminal activity and substance abuse. They research social interactions and the factors that influence them, such as group behavior, attitudes, public perceptions and leadership.”

Obviously, this is not work that can be confined to a laboratory setting. Most social psychologists have traditionally been employed by colleges and universities, where they split their time and energy between teaching and conducting research that may take them far outside the walls of academia. Increasingly, as the APA notes, social psychologists are finding employment opportunities as marketing consultants, personnel managers, political strategists, technology designers, and private-sector researchers. Not surprisingly, a deep and rigorous understanding of group dynamics and the interaction between social norms and individual behavior turns out to be quite valuable well beyond the confines of a research laboratory.

Master’s in Social Psychology Concepts

  • Impact of social facets on human development and behavior
  • Apply psychological concepts to global issues and social change
  • Analyze and evaluate psychological theories
  • Multicultural issues
  • Global perspectives in understanding psychological theories, research, and practice
  • Principles of statistics and research design
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Relation of self and culture
  • Concepts of persuasion, conformity, attraction, prejudice, aggression, group dynamics, and multiculturalism
  • Social inequalities and psychology behind efforts toward reformation

Benefits of Earning a Master’s in Social Psychology

A master’s is social psychology is usually considered a stepping stone to a doctoral degree and full licensure as a professional psychologist. In fact, many master’s degrees in social psychology are built into PhD or PsyD doctoral programs. The master’s degree, in those cases, essentially serves as the first two years of a 4-7 year doctoral degree, conferring upon students a master of arts or a master of science in social psychology that then allows them to begin working as research and teaching assistants.

However, the knowledge base, incisive perspective, and critical thinking skills that come with earning a master’s in social psychology have become more widely regarded as a unique asset unto themselves, well suited to a variety of real-world applications that don’t require licensure as a professional psychologist. As a result, more and more PhD and PsyD programs are offering a terminal master’s degree option in social psychology, an acknowledgement that the body of knowledge encompassed by social psychology has wide ranging applications. Specifically, social psychology’s focus on how societal norms, peer group influence, and social pressures affect emotions, behavior, thought, and decision making can be useful in public relations, marketing and branding, and product design and manufacturing, as well as in areas like digital platform development and human resource management.

In this respect, social psychology is akin to industrial-organizational, or I-O psychology, a specialization in which the theories and practices of psychology are applied to workplace efficiency, job satisfaction, and optimal structuring of the workforce. Because I-O psychologists don’t treat individual patients and aren’t necessarily engaged in research that involves interacting with human subjects, they can find work without going through the licensure process and requisite PhD or PsyD program. Similarly, those who have earned a master’s in social psychology can go out into the workforce, not just as research assistants, but as consultants, personnel managers, policy advocates, and many other emerging professional designations in which the title “psychologist” is not necessary. That said, a master’s in social psychology is also a step along the path to earning a doctorate and entering the field of professional psychology.

What to Expect in a Social Psychology Master’s Program

Social psychology begins in the same general place as any other branch of psychology — with theories of human behavior and an exploration of the various factors that impact thought, emotion, and cognitive function. But, from that point, social psychology goes off in the direction of exploring how outside factors influence individual and group psychology. If psychology is often thought of as a discipline that balances the effects of nature and nurture, or genetics and upbringing, in the formation of personality, then social psychology adds a tertiary variable to that equation: the ongoing impact of social forces beyond childhood and adolescence. In other words, social psychology begins with the premise that personality is formed through an interaction of biological and environmental forces, but it continues with the consideration of the continued effects that social groups and social forces have throughout a person’s lifespan. As the AMA explains quite plainly, “Social psychologists study interpersonal and group dynamics and social challenges, such as prejudice, implicit bias, bullying, criminal activity and substance abuse. They research social interactions and the factors that influence them, such as group behavior, attitudes, public perceptions and leadership.”

Most master’s degree programs in social psychology are designed to be completed in two years, or four semesters. They generally include a internship that may begin at the end of the first year of study, and continue into the second. Many also have a written thesis or research capstone requirement, but this varies from school to school. Course descriptions and curricula also vary, but the list below offers an overview of the types of courses commonly found in a social psychology master’s program:

  • Research methods in social psychology
  • Theories of group and social behavior
  • Applied social psychology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Psychopathology
  • Social and cognitive development
  • Theories of personality
  • Statistics and survey research methods
  • Organizational psychology
  • Political thought and social psychology
  • Consumer psychology
  • Bias, prejudice, and intergroup relations
  • Forensic psychology and the criminal justice system
  • Psychobiology of fear and anxiety
  • Human sexuality
  • Psychological perspectives on happiness and depression

Degrees and Areas of Specialization in Social Psychology

A master’s in social psychology comes in two very similar forms with slightly different labels: a master of arts (MA) and a master of science (MS). The MA and MS degrees were originally based on somewhat different pedagogical principles: the former was a traditional research/practice-based degree aimed at preparing students for PhD programs, while the latter stressed clinical work in preparation for PsyD programs. In practice, however, the MA and MS degrees are considered to be largely equivalent, and it’s said that there are often more differences from school to school than there are between the MA and MS degrees in psychology.

Social psychology is, by its nature, an area of specialization within the larger field of psychology. In fact, many social psychology master’s degree programs are housed within larger schools of psychology, and social psychology is among a number of concentrations that are offered at the master’s degree level. That said, students in master’s degree programs are given the opportunity, through elective coursework, independent research, and supervised internships, to pursue their own areas of interest in the field of social psychology. These can include a focus on the social psychological components of political behavior, consumer behavior, business management, racial and ethnic identity, criminal behavior and deviance, or child and adolescent development.

Career Options, Salaries, and Job Outlook in Social Psychology

The overall forecast for jobs in the field of psychology is quite good. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest Occupational Outlook Handbook projects an 19 percent increase in job openings for psychologists through 2024. This includes robust job growth numbers in that same range for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists (20 percent), as well as I-O psychologists (19 percent). In contrast, the job growth for social scientists and related workers is expected to hover around 12 percent.

A master’s degree in social psychology is only the first step toward becoming a social psychologist. Completion of a doctoral degree, as well as at least two years of supervised work experience, is typically what it takes just to qualify for the licensing exam in most states. But, as we’ve noted, a master’s degree in social psychology brings with it tools and skills that can be of great value in a wide array of other occupations, including as a research assistant working under the supervision of licensed psychologists in the field of social psychology. The chart below offers an overview of median annual salaries as of the latest BLS Occupational Employment Statstices from May 2014:

OccupationMedian SalaryJob Growth through 2024
Market Research Analysts$61,29019%
Social Workers$45,50012%
Advertising, Promotions, and Marketing Managers$123,4509%
Public Relations Specialists$55,6806%
Graduate Teaching Assistant$31,570n/a

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