In the last quarter of 2020, former American Psychological Association (APA) president Jeffrey Zimmerman observed that mental health professionals are inundated and are now busier than they were prior to the pandemic. In the United States, the operational distress hotline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration saw an increase in inquiries by more than 1,000% compared to the same period in 2019 (Abrams, 2020). Psychologists from around the globe have joined forces to address COVID-19’s toll on mental health. If you are exploring the field and looking for the best online psychology degree programs, perhaps this is the best time to take your first step towards taking part in helping your community cope with the fear, doubt, and uncertainty brought about by the pandemic.
Online psychology degree programs include associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate. From the baseline two-year program, the various programs can last from four to eight years, depending on the course concentration. Your investment, however, will pay off once you become a licensed practitioner. In 2020, the median wage of psychologists based on Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data is $82,180 with the lowest 10% earning $46,270 and the top 10% earning more than $137,590 (BLS. 2021).
For online degree programs in psychology, you may start with an associate degree or bachelor’s degree and grow your career by acquiring clinical or research experience while at the same time taking further studies. Online degree courses in psychology are also designed for busy practitioners in the field who want to take their careers to the next level.
This article provides a guide for students and professionals who are looking into advancing their careers in the field of psychology. The different types of online degrees in psychology are discussed, including possible career paths and areas of specialization. The differences between an online and traditional degree are also explored plus, the costs and requirements of online degrees in psychology.
Online psychology degree programs are available online, just make sure to seek out a regionally accredited program to ensure compliance with industry standards. Most schools offer online psychology degrees, however, the graduate psychology programs involve in-person internship or practicum experience requirements. APA-accredited programs recognize the importance of person-to-person coursework (Wolff et al., 2020). The latest advisory from the APA Commission on Accreditation (CoA) has temporarily suspended site visits. Virtual site visits are instead being performed until the threat of COVID-19 is diminished.
Online degrees, ranging from associate to bachelor’s, and master’s to doctorate, can now be fully earned online. Most regionally accredited institutions offer psychology programs that are also accredited by agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Accreditation bears the stamp of approval of the U.S. Department of Education, which also ensures that your degree will be recognized by other institutions, and also by future employers. This is the main reason why you should verify whether your school of choice is accredited or not. In the U.S., the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) are two agencies that accredit bachelor’s or master’s level psychology programs. For doctorate programs, the main accrediting body is the American Psychological Association (APA).
Earning an accredited program from an accredited institution is also important because accreditation is a prerequisite to earning a license to practice psychology. In addition, in case you decide to transfer to another school, the credits you have earned will not be recognized if you are coming from an unaccredited institution.
Graduates of master’s and doctorate programs are usually required to have a license to be able to practice psychology. The licensure process goes through your state’s licensing board. In some states, psychologists affiliated with a college or university, research laboratory, state or federal institution, or a corporation, may not be required to have a license.
Licensing requirements vary by state. Depending on your specialization, the state may require you to become licensed. For instance, public school psychologists are required to complete specific licensing requirements. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards can provide information on licensing fees and requirements per state.
Psychology degree programs offered online are similar to traditional programs. Both degree types have similar courses, requirements, and completion guidelines. The difference lies in the mode of delivery. A fully online degree involves the use of a virtual platform, while the traditional format involves face-to-face, on-campus learning. Online degree programs are designed for the specific needs of students who desire to earn a degree but do not have the luxury of time to attend on-campus classes.
Enrolling in an online program allows you to manage your own schedule, and choose when and where you learn. Studying online reduces overall cost because you do not have to pay for room and board, or stay near the campus. Transportation costs and other expenses are also automatically eliminated. Overall, compared to earning a traditional degree, the online format offers flexibility, cost advantage, and an enhanced learning experience.
Online degree programs in psychology allow students to manage their own schedules while performing different roles. Online learning provides autonomy by allowing the student to decide when and where to learn. But this high degree of flexibility also requires a high level of discipline and self-motivation. When learning online, you are expected to comply with the course requirements, as with traditional learners. In traditional learning, the instructor is always present in reminding students of coursework. As an online student, you have to practice self-regulation to realize learning objectives and outcomes.
Online learning also gives the student more time to reflect on concepts and ideas. Compared to the traditional format that tends to have limited discussion times, learning online allows the student to have more time to reflect on questions that might arise while studying a particular material. Through these questions, further research is facilitated, which enhances the learning process.
A study on asynchronous learning by Aloni and Harrington (2018) entitled “Research-Based Practices for Improving the Effectiveness of Asynchronous Online Discussion Boards” found that “online discussion boards are an effective forum for fostering critical thinking skills and integrating writing in psychology courses. In addition, online discussions enable students to develop their writing skills by exposing students to peer models.” Published in Scholarship for Teaching and Learning in Psychology, the research underscored the importance of asynchronous online discussions in facilitating the development of critical thinking skills among students, as well as its role in enhancing writing skills.
Online students typically pay less compared to their on-campus cohorts because of the lower overhead needed for facilitating online programs. This does not mean, however, that online learning is inexpensive. You would still need financial aid if you choose to earn your psychology degree online. What is eliminated in the overall cost is the room and board expense, including meal plans, transport costs, and other campus residency fees.
Considering the overall cost of attending college on-campus, earning your degree online will cost less. The flexibility element of online degree programs allows the student to complete coursework in less time with the accelerated format, which can contribute to lower overall cost. Room and board expenses, transport costs, and meal plans are also eliminated when learning online.
The accreditation process is the same for traditional and online programs, thus an online degree will always be as good as a regular degree. It is important to acknowledge though that not all recruiters and HR practitioners recognize this. But this perception of the difference between online and traditional degrees is slowly being diminished by the pandemic as more and more schools have awarded more online degrees to students. Today, employers are more focused on school and program accreditation.
Source: American Psychological Association
Online psychology degree programs are associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees which can either be a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.).
Associate Degree. An online associate degree in psychology typically takes two years to complete in full-time study. Earning an associate in psychology ensures quick entry into the field of psychology as graduates take on supporting roles in the social and human services, and even in the mental health fields. An online associate degree usually requires 60-65 credits, which is considered by many students as a stepping stone to the pursuit of a higher degree such as bachelor’s and master’s.
An online associate degree in psychology introduces the student to the discipline, which includes major theories and topics such as personality, cognition, and developmental approaches. These, aside from the general education requirements of math, verbal and written communication, and analytical skills.
Bachelor’s Degree. An online bachelor’s degree in psychology opens doors to a variety of psychology careers. Once you earn your degree, you become eligible to take on positions in human resources, social and community services, or rehabilitation services. Bachelor’s degree in psychology graduates may also seek employment in non-psychology-related fields such as criminal justice, business, and education. With a bachelor’s degree, you have the opportunity to advance in the field.
An online bachelor’s program in psychology typically requires 160 credits taken in roughly four years. Depending on the specific focus of the degree program, most psychology majors involve coursework in theory and research methods, developmental psychology, and even the study of addictions. The bachelor’s in psychology curriculum includes clinical experiences that provide students with practical, career-focused training.
Master’s Degree. An online master’s degree in psychology takes approximately two years in addition to bachelor’s, and provides the minimum qualification for the psychology major to practice counseling, administrative, and research positions in settings such as social and community services, mental healthcare, and education. Most students who earn the master’s level continue on with their doctorate programs to become licensed clinical psychologists and researchers.
The master’s in psychology curriculum consists of core courses and coursework focused on clinical experiences. Students may also choose from several specializations depending on their personal and professional interests.
Doctorate in Psychology. There are two types of online psychology doctorate degrees—Doctor of Philosophy (Ph. D.) and Doctor of Psychology (Psy D.). The former is more focused on research, while the latter is more on clinical practice. All states in the U.S. require professional psychologists to hold either of these two doctoral degrees. The Ph.D. is the one that works closely with students that are interested to pursue a career in teaching and conducting scientific research. The Psy.D. are those that specialize in clinical psychology.
Compared to a Ph.D. degree that is research-oriented, the Psy.D. degree focuses on specializations in clinical practice areas such as school psychology, family and couple’s therapy, counseling, and gerontology. The Ph.D. program could take as long as five to eight years to finish due to the dissertation requirement, with its emphasis on statistics and research methodology. Psy.D. degree program typically takes less time, usually four to six years to complete than a PhD., and is ideal for students who prefer clinical practice over pragmatic research. Both the Ph.D. and Psy.D. degrees require a year-long internship as mandated by the APA.
An online degree, just like the traditional degree, is a significant investment of time and resources. There are a lot of online psychology degrees being offered online, but you have to be very careful to choose a program that will be recognized by employers and other institutions. Evaluating the program design, as well as the services provided by the institution are of equal importance. You also have to consider your personal learning preferences and career goals when choosing an online psychology degree.
Choose an accredited school as this will ensure that you will be earning an online degree that is approved by the U.S. Department of Education. The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) accredits bachelor’s and master’s in psychology programs, while the American Psychological Association (APA) accredits doctoral in psychology programs.
Take time to carefully research the school accreditation, as well as the programmatic accreditation, as both these are crucial in determining the validity of your degree. In the field of psychology, the APA is accredited by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education to determine the quality of internship, training programs, and residencies for doctoral students.
Psychology as a discipline is research and experience-driven. Choosing the best online psychology degree programs entails looking for a school that has a reputable faculty that can mentor students on the best practices in the field. The school should also be able to organize internships and other field experiences that can enhance learning.
When choosing an online program, you have to take into account the class size. Determine how much hands-on interaction you may need from your learning facilitator, and from there, estimate the ideal class size. Some schools limit the class size while others have no limits at all, after all, online is very similar to learning on-demand format.
Uncapped classes would most likely limit the ability of the instructor to provide essential feedback to each student. Even in an online format, optimal interaction is crucial for students to learn effectively. 15-20 students is the ideal count per group in an online setting. Research has established that class size does make a significant difference in online learning (Burch, 2019).
Prior to application, check the school’s credit requirements. Find out which programs require clinical hours or internships prior to graduation, particularly if you are signing up for postgraduate programs. Some schools may also credit prior internships or clinical hours. Inquire with the institution on the details of the internship—if a list of acceptable partner facilities will be provided such as hospitals, clinics, or research centers.
Online degree programs in psychology are designed to accommodate the different learning styles of students. The synchronous and asynchronous learning formats suit different learners. For students that have strong organizational skills and are able to self-regulate, the online asynchronous option is ideal. Students who need to interact with course materials directly with the learning facilitator may opt for the synchronous format. Most online courses have pre-recorded lectures for students, which can be accessed anytime. There are also programs that require students to post their reflections, while at the same time commenting on the posts of other students to initiate discussions and the exchange of ideas.
What do you plan to do after earning an online degree in psychology? How do you see yourself after graduation? Take time to plan your career and choose your school and program based on the path that you have set for yourself. There are many types of concentrations and specialties in psychology. If you are not yet sure, however, you may choose to concentrate on general education for the time being, then enter a specialized field as you advance in the program.
Some of the career options for graduates of online psychology degree programs include being a clinical practitioner, working as a counselor, being involved in social work, and facilitating therapy in addressing relationship concerns. The following are some of the possible career paths that you may take:
Psychologist. To be able to practice, a psychologist is required to have a doctorate and a state license. Among the roles performed are providing mental health counseling, diagnosing and treating mental illness, and working with different types of patients.
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselor. Graduates of bachelor’s and master’s degrees are allowed to practice as counselors with some states requiring licenses. This particular career is focused on counseling persons who are battling drug abuse, alcoholism, and other addictions. The work location is usually in rehabilitation centers and mental health centers.
Social Worker. A master’s degree and state license are required to qualify for this role. This career path connects with families and children in need, usually by providing support through resources. Social workers with master’s degrees are also allowed to do counseling services.
School and Career Counselor. To be able to take on this role, a master’s degree and state license are required. Some schools also require the practitioner to have a teaching license. The primary role of the school and career counselor is providing support to students as they deal with academic, personal, and career issues. These counselors work with the school administration as well as with teachers in coming up with the most effective guidance to students.
Marriage and Family Therapist. To become a marriage and family therapist, you must have a master’s degree and a state license. Using cognitive behavioral therapy and other methods, marriage and family therapists work with couples and families to address various emotional and relationship concerns.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
To date, there are 56 different divisions within psychology that are recognized by the APA. Psychology degree students are allowed to choose one among four major concentrations—general, child, clinical or health professions. Some of these concentrations are listed in this section.
Child Psychology. Psychology majors who specialize in child psychology find employment as counselors, advisors, therapists, and researchers. Practitioners in this field are required to have at least a master’s degree, but most hold a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree which are requirements for obtaining a license to practice in a clinical setting. This specialization concentrates on studying the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral factors that affect individuals from infancy through adolescence.
Clinical Psychology. Specialists in clinical psychology are licensed and generally hold doctoral degrees, and find employment in well-paying positions in mental health organizations, healthcare, government, schools, private practice, and nonprofit agencies. Clinical psychology is considered the largest area of specialization for psychologists, whose job is focused on mental health disorders encompassing assessment, diagnosis, and treatment.
Counseling Psychology. Specialists in this field find employment in healthcare and mental health organizations, government agencies, schools, and businesses, while others operate their own private practice. To become a counseling psychologist, you must have at least a master’s degree and have completed supervised clinical practice hours. Counseling psychology coaches individuals, families, and groups on how to deal with mental disorders, personal issues, emotional, and behavioral challenges.
Developmental Psychology. Bachelor’s or master’s degree holders can practice developmental psychology in the social work and counseling fields. To be able to provide patient services, however, you need to have a Ph.D. and a state license. This particular field of psychology deals with developmental disorders related to specific stages in life—from childhood to old age. A developmental psychologist offers insights to better understand the changes and challenges that individuals experience during their lifetime.
Educational Psychology. Practitioners in this area of specialization have a doctorate degree and are state-licensed. Graduates of psychology with a concentration on educational psychology work with exceptional children or adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, or dyslexia. Educational psychologists are trained to design ways to improve the learning outcomes for diverse groups. Graduates of bachelor’s and master’s degrees may also practice in this field as guidance counselors, behavioral analysts, or special education assistants.
Forensic Psychology. This role requires at least a master’s degree, state licensure, and professional certifications. Practitioners in this field are trained to conduct mental health assessments in prisons, trials, and rehabilitation facilities. Forensic psychologists are also often sought to offer expert opinions on criminal and civil cases, and they also provide assistance in criminal investigations.
Health Psychology. A state-issued clinical license and a master’s degree are the minimum requirements for this area of specialization. Those with associate and bachelor’s degrees may also be employed as rehabilitation specialists or as mental health counselors. Practitioners in this field perform pain management, behavior assessment, and manage community and public health by identifying the social, psychological, and biological factors that affect mental and physical wellbeing.
Industrial-Organizational (I/O) Psychology. This area of specialization requires a postgraduate degree, but holders of bachelor’s degrees may also enter the field by taking on training and facilitating positions. I/O psychologists perform research, testing, and assessments in the context of organizations to improve safety, employee performance, and satisfaction. Based on these activities, practitioners are able to consult organizations in the areas of leadership development, team building, and workplace diversity.
Social Psychology. To become a practitioner in this field, you must be a doctoral graduate, preferably a Ph.D. as this field is heavy on research and assessment. This area concentrates on human thoughts, beliefs, and behavior, and how they are shaped by applied or imagined interactions. Interpersonal conflict, prejudice and implicit bias, bullying, and group dynamics are among the topics explored by social psychologists.
Sports Psychology. As part of clinical counseling, this role requires a doctorate degree, but bachelor’s and master’s degree holders may also become recreational therapists, motivational consultants, and athletic trainers in this field. Practitioners administer skills assessment and counseling and also conduct research on the psychological factors that impact performance. The objective is to design techniques to help athlete clients to achieve their full potential and overcome mental challenges.
The cost of an online psychology degree depends on the type of program. The range of costs, from the least expensive to the most expensive tuition for the different online psychology degree courses, are listed below.
The cost of online degree courses in psychology varies from institution to institution. Costs also differ between public and private schools. Public schools are typically larger and less expensive and offer more degree options due to higher student populations. Private schools, on the other hand, are known for having advanced specialization programs. The school’s location is another factor that affects cost. Students that attend school in-state are typically charged lower per credit hour cost than out-of-state students.
The online degree programs in psychology are designed for specific types of students. You will be getting the most value from an online degree if you are good at managing your time, if you are comfortable with technology, and if you are able to achieve your academic and career goals efficiently through online learning. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for psychologists is expected to grow by 14% between 2018-2028.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
The best online psychology degree programs from the associate and bachelor’s to the master’s and doctorate, equip students with skills that are useful in a wide variety of jobs within and even outside the discipline. Having a deep understanding of psychological science is considered an asset in any career.
For the online associate and bachelor’s degree in psychology, an official high school transcript or acceptable score on the General Education Development (GED) exam is required for admission. If the applicant has attended postsecondary school prior to enrollment, transcripts from the schools attended are also required.
For master’s and doctorate programs, the applicant should have a bachelor’s degree. Transcripts of all postsecondary schools attended should be submitted as these will be evaluated by the admissions team. Graduate schools in psychology typically look for an average 3.0 cumulative GPA. Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) score, personal statement or essay, letters of recommendation, and the applicant’s resume are also evaluated in the application process.
A career in psychology can be very rewarding. Earning a degree opens doors in different industries, and while you are gaining experience you also have the opportunity to pursue further studies online. As an online student, the primary requirement is to have self-motivation and self-discipline. Integrating your studies into your daily routine is important, so designate a specific time and place for your online studies.
For your online study setup, a reliable internet connection for online learning is essential. You also need a laptop or desktop computer with a web camera and microphone. The school typically sends a list of system requirements, including the required software and hardware. In addition, you will be informed of the classroom management software and video conferencing platform that will be used in your online classes with your log-in details.
As discussed in this guide, the field of psychology is vast with concentrations that address the needs of different industries, not just in health and mental care. The career path is diverse, and unlike other degrees that tend to have limited pathways, psychology cuts across various disciplines and professions.
Online degree programs in psychology teach students to address the unique needs of individuals and even organizations. The courses in psychology train students in the dynamics of relationships, and how these dynamics affect individual and group behavior. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, psychologists are at the forefront of providing support to frontline workers and extending assistance to communities.
A career in psychology can be very rewarding. Online degree courses in psychology can be accessed anytime, anywhere. Your degree will not just open doors of opportunity towards career advancement, but through the skills that you will learn in your psychology program, you will have the power to restore hope and make lives whole again.