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The study of the human mind and any abnormalities or mental health issues that accompany the brain is a key component to programs that offer master’s in psychology degrees. The insights you learn in these programs are one of the main benefits of majoring in psychology.
That said, it takes a significant time and money investment in order to earn a master’s degree in any field, psychology included. Because of the high cost of graduate degrees, most students expect to see a positive return on investment in terms of expanded job opportunities or higher pay — or both.
The good news is that a master’s in psychology can be a valuable asset in your job search. This degree can be useful for employment opportunities in a variety of fields, from family services to behavioral counseling and beyond, and it may open up salary opportunities that you otherwise may not have had. Before you start applying for admission into master’s in psychology programs, though, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of this degree and learn whether earning one is the right move for you.
What Is a Master’s in Psychology?
Masters degrees in psychology are graduate degrees that allow students to gain specialized knowledge in a particular area of psychology. This type of degree prepares students for certain careers in psychology, from research to clinical counselor or school counseling or licensed marriage and family counseling.
This type of master’s degree expands on and specializes in the type of psychology theory you learned at a bachelor’s level. Earning a master’s degree in psychology typically takes between two to four years to complete after you’ve earned your four-year bachelor's degree, and it is more likely to open up doors in psychology-related jobs than just a bachelor’s in psychology would.
Master’s in psychology programs allow you to narrow your focus and most programs will expect some background in psychology already — which is part of why this degree is a great option for those who have already earned a bachelor’s in psychology at the undergraduate level. When you pursue a master’s degree in psychology, you’ll have a wide range of concentrations or specialities to choose from. For example, you may have the option of pursuing a master’s degree in clinical psychology, a master’s in experimental psychology, or a master’s in organizational psychology.
No matter what route you choose, though, you’ll study the existing psychology scientific literature, learn about how psychologists and scientists work in these fields, and put your learning into practice through internships in clinical psychology or through your own psychological research.
What Does Someone With a Master’s Degree in Psychology Do?
Depending on the focus of your master’s degree in psychology, you may have the option to pursue a variety of roles, from acting as a consultant in organizational psychology in order to help businesses operate more effectively, to working as an assistant researcher in a lab, or working with clients on a one-on-one basis.
Many master’s degree in psychology graduates will opt to continue their studies with a doctorate in psychology or a related field. In some cases, you may need a doctorate to be a practicing psychologist who can work with patients in a clinical setting, though it will depend heavily on the licensing requirements in your state.
You may not be required to pursue a doctoral degree in psychology to act as a practicing counselor, though. Some master’s degrees are structured to be terminal degrees, which allows you to practice clinically at that level.
While the job duties you’re responsible for in this field will vary based on your education level, experience, area of expertise, and other factors, a typical day on the job with a master’s degree in psychology could include:
- Working with clinical patients in a counseling setting
- Organizing workplace systems and meeting with employees in a human resources setting
- Filling out paperwork to document meetings with clients in a government services setting
- Setting up and conducting experimental research with a psychological research team
The Pros of Getting a Master’s Degree in Psychology
When you weigh the pros and cons of getting a master’s degree in psychology, there are a number of possible benefits to consider. A few of the benefits of majoring in psychology include:
- Versatility in the job market
Master’s in psychology degrees are considered relevant in many employment capacities, which is one major benefit of pursuing this type of degree. This degree could lead to a job in a therapeutic or counseling setting, a human resources department at a business, or in a laboratory.
You may also be able to make the case that a master’s degree in psychology is relevant for advertising, marketing, a variety of government services, and even prison and parole officer work. While your master’s is likely to focus on a particular career trajectory as a specialization, you’ll still have a variety of options available to you if you change your mind about where you want your career to head in the future.
- The freedom to choose a specialty that interests you
When you start narrowing down the available master’s in psychology programs, you’ll find that you can focus on a number of specialties within the psychology space.
For example, if you have a knack for and an interest in business, you may have the option to pursue a master’s in business psychology. If you particularly want to go into counseling, you can specialize in counseling psychology. If you love conducting research within this field, experimental psychology could be for you.
- The potential to directly help people
If you have a need to help people — especially those suffering from mental health issues or other issues that counseling or psychology could help — you may find this field extremely rewarding. After all, it does allow you to work directly with clients in a group or one-on-one setting, which lets you see firsthand how the work you do impacts others.
With a degree from the right master’s in psychology program, you will gain access to a rewarding career that allows you to help many people on a day to day basis.
- Strong job outlook and growth
The job outlook for psychologists is expected to have a 3% growth through 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is right on par with the average growth in other fields. That said, other areas of the field, which you can seek employment in with a master’s in psychology, are expected to grow at much faster rates.
For example, the job outlook for marriage and family therapists is expected to grow by about 22% through 2029. Another area of psychology — substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counseling — is projected to grow by about 25% through 2029.
- Strong pay potential in many areas
Having a master’s degree in psychology tends to yield mid-range pay potential in most areas and higher-range pay in some areas.
If you work to become a psychologist, the average yearly pay in this field was about $89,290 as of 2020, according to BLS data. The related field of mental health counseling had lower but still modest average annual pay of about $47,660 per year.
The Cons of Getting a Master’s Degree in Psychology
You should also factor in the downsides or disadvantages of majoring in psychology when trying to decide whether to pursue this degree path. The cons of getting a master’s degree in psychology may include:
- Some jobs will require a doctorate
If you’re hoping to be finished with school after your master’s and want to work as a psychologist, you might want to consider your degree program carefully. The work a psychologist does tends to require both licensing at the state level and — in some cases — a doctorate.
Your state is primarily what dictates whether you need a doctoral degree or a master’s degree to state and the terms of the program dictate that you’ll be able to practice psychology after the masters program. Make sure you know what the requirements are before pursuing a graduate degree in this field.
- Minimal financial aid options
Unlike bachelor’s degrees, master’s degree programs typically have fewer financial aid options, resulting in students having to take out more loans and gaining access to fewer grants. That could make this type of degree cost prohibitive for some students.
That doesn’t mean you should discount the value of this degree, though. You’ll just want to talk to a financial aid counselor in order to get a complete picture of the cost of the program and your opportunities for financing it.
- Nonprofit and lower paying careers make it harder to pay back loans
Many of the jobs in psychology are in nonprofit or helping fields, which often means you earn modest pay. Problem is, a lower paying job in the psychology field may not be enough to reduce the burden of your loan payback period. That’s why it’s important to be aware that if your goals in psychology involve public service or nonprofit work, you may face some hardship in paying for your degree out of your future earnings.
- Unexpected lack of career growth
If you’re considering experimental psychology or other fields in which people with doctorates take the lead, you’ll want to be prepared to work in lower roles like research assistant, which may be as far as you can advance without additional education. If you aren’t prepared to earn a doctoral degree in this field, just be aware that there may be unexpected “ceilings” you hit — even if you aren’t pursuing a role as a psychologist.
- Even successful careers can be emotionally taxing
While many people find that helping and caregiving professions are rewarding, these fields also lead to potential for emotional drain and burnout. Remember that you are going to be helping a lot of people in some of their hardest moments, which can take a toll on your own mental health.
This is less of a disadvantage of majoring in psychology than it is an occupational hazard, but you don’t want to pursue this type of degree unless you are fairly sure that you can cope with the emotional labor that comes with it.
How to Decide if a Master’s Degree is Right for You
When weighing the pros and cons of a psychology major, you’ll want to first decide if you’re truly interested in working with clients who need guidance for mental health issues or other stressors. While a career in psychology encompasses more than just talk therapy, you will work with people who need support. If you’re ready and willing to take that on, along with the other potential cons in a helping field like this, then you may be on the right path with this degree.
You’ll also want to talk to a guidance counselor or someone else with clear knowledge and association to the degree programs you’re considering about where their students typically end up working after graduation. If the possible career trajectories fit well with your goals and you can handle any costs associated with the program, you are likely to be on the right track while pursuing this degree.
Alternatives to a Master’s Degree in Psychology
A master’s degree in psychology isn’t the only route you can take to end up in a helping field.
If you’re interested in psychology, you may also want to look into other master’s programs, like master’s in social work (MSW), master’s in education (M. Ed.), or master’s in nursing or registered nurse (RN) programs, which would allow you to specialize in psychiatric nursing.
If you haven’t studied psychology at the bachelor’s level yet, pursuing a bachelor’s in psychology part-time or online can be a way to see how far your interest leads before making the jump to a master’s program.
Alternatively, you may find entry-level work in a counselor or therapist’s office or a psychologist’s lab before exploring the idea of a graduate degree. Doing that can give you first-hand exposure to the work you’d be doing instead of launching right into a master’s degree program without a clear idea of whether it’s the right fit.
Angelica Leicht is the schools editor at Best Value Schools who oversees our college rankings, school profiles, and other higher education coverage. She previously served as an education reporter at Kearney Hub, and an editor at the Dallas Observer and Houston Press. Her writing has appeared in Affordable Colleges Online, Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, and elsewhere.
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