Master’s in Psychology - Is it Worth it?

There are a number of scenarios where a master’s in psychology might be a valuable degree to pursue. One example is if you’re considering a psychologist position. If you are looking to build a career that applies psychological science, a master’s program in psychology may be for you. While the pathway to becoming a psychologist comprises a couple of steps—and typically includes earning a doctoral degree—gaining an in-depth understanding of the field through a graduate program may expose you to a variety of principles, lessons and even roles that don’t necessarily require a Ph.D., EdD or PsyD degree. 

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The American Psychological Association (APA) asserts that, more often than not, higher-level opportunities in psychology are held by those with graduate degrees compared to those with only undergraduate ones. If  you do decide to earn any one of the aforementioned doctorate degrees, it's common for doctoral programs to require a master’s degree in psychology as part of the admission  into the program. Online master’s in psychology degree programs are a viable and flexible option for people busy with full-time jobs and families. 

Psychology is a diverse field with opportunities in private practice, business, academia, government, the nonprofit sector and more. Master’s-degree-level coursework, which may touch on areas like industrial–organizational psychology, statistics and research design, is developed with this in mind. Oftentimes, those with a master’s in psychology help improve people’s lives as psychological assistants in clinical or counseling settings while working under the supervision of a doctoral psychologist. Some other niche areas where a master’s in psychology might be relevant include organizational development, survey research and human resources (HR).

So is a master’s in psychology worth it? It all comes down to your career goals. However, some may say yes based on the growing job outlook for positions that require an advanced degree in psychology. From health care delivery to the criminal justice system, psychologists use their expertise and skills to inform and improve psychological health, well-being and practices—all while working with diverse populations. The gratification found in supporting individuals, families and groups makes the pursuit of an online master’s in psychology worth it for some students. 

What is Psychology and What Do Psychologists Do?

Psychology is a scientific discipline concerned with the mind, brain and behavior. It is a broad field of study that is closely linked to other social sciences and human services disciplines such as sociology and anthropology. It is also related to the natural and physical sciences. So how does this impact the scope of a psychologist’s work? Psychologists may collaborate with professionals in related disciplines but their body of work remains unique.

Psychologists perform a range of duties with the goal of understanding, explaining and predicting human thought, emotion and behavior. Some common on-the-job responsibilities include:

  • Conducting scientific studies on brain function
  • Observing and interviewing subjects
  • Testing behavior patterns 
  • Identifying psychological, emotional, behavioral and/or organizational issues
  • Discussing treatment options with clients
  • Researching, writing and publishing articles and research papers
  • Supervising interns, psychological assistants and counseling staff

As mentioned, master’s in psychology programs are designed to familiarize students with these functions in addition to core scientific principles, experimental procedures and best practices. The curriculum for an online master’s in psychology program is generally the same as its on-campus counterpart, and the two options tend to be equally rigorous. Graduate students studying psychology may be interested in a particular function or subfield. Some might work toward becoming a clinical psychologist while others might focus on furthering research within the discipline. Still, some may take elective courses that prepare them to become consultants with the goal of improving organizational and workplace life. 

Whatever your endgame, be sure to research the steps to take to become a psychologist. While your journey may vary slightly from another aspiring professional’s journey, there may be some commonalities and most states require psychologists to be licensed. 

Reasons to Get a Master’s in Psychology

What motivates people to pursue an education and career in psychology? Well, there are a number of reasons why you may want to earn a master’s in psychology. Here are just a few:

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Specialize in a Variety of Areas: Career Paths

What can you do with a master’s in psychology? Generally, you can find professionals with master’s-level training (or higher) in a variety of settings, even beyond the field of psychology. Some potential jobs include:

Specialize in a Variety of Areas: Career Paths
Position Job Duties Work Setting/Industry
Clinical and Counseling Psychologist Clinical psychologists assess, diagnose and treat mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. On any given day, you can find them working with clients with severe chronic conditions. They help people deal with these conditions in the home, in the workplace or in the community.
Counseling psychologists have similar responsibilities. They help people deal with short-term problems and the typical stresses of life.
Clinical and counseling psychologists work in private practice, government agencies, academic institutions, hospitals and other health care settings.
Industrial-Organizational Psychologist Industrial-organizational psychologists (sometimes called HR psychologists) apply the principles of psychology to the human resources field in order to improve employee productivity, develop training and development programs and more. 
They may collaborate with HR managers who plan, coordinate and direct the administrative functions of an organization from handling staffing issues to mediating disputes.
Like HR professionals, industrial-organizational psychologists may work in a number of industries—sometimes in-house—and during regular business hours. 
Marriage and Family Therapist These professionals work with couples, families and individuals. They use a variety of techniques and tools to help their clients, including cognitive behavioral therapy. Marriage and family therapists work in private practice, substance abuse treatment centers, hospitals and through mental health programs offered by some employers. 
School and Career Counselor School counselors help students develop the academic and social skills they need to succeed in higher education and in adulthood in general. 
Career counselors guide people through the process of choosing a path to employment.
School counselors work in both public and private schools while career counselors work in colleges, career centers, private practices and for outplacement companies.
Education Administrator Education administrators oversee student services, academics and faculty research. A background in psychology may be particularly useful when it comes to the research portion of the job. Similar to social science research assistants, these professionals may assist social scientists in lab analysis, quality control or data management. Education administrators work in public and private higher education facilities.
Social and Community Service Manager At the macro level, these managers coordinate and supervise programs that support vulnerable populations and overall public well-being. Working with a variety of stakeholders, they draft proposals for social services funding and analyze data to determine the effectiveness of various programs. 
Possessing analytical skills and  knowledge about human behavior/interaction may be useful in this career. A master’s in psychology may help you gain these competencies.
Social and community service managers work in individual and family services, nonprofits, community centers, residential care facilities and local government, among other settings. 

When considering a career in psychology, it is wise to keep in mind that a number of jobs with “psychologist” in the title require a doctorate degree. So as you explore your graduate journey, it’s important to understand the specific educational requirements for the jobs you are interested in pursuing. That way, you can determine if an online master’s in psychology will be part of your journey to becoming a future psychologist or pursuing a related career in psychology. 

Work Environment Flexibility

The workplace flexibility for professionals with a master’s in psychology varies between professions, industries and employers. What’s more, work environment flexibility may depend on if you work full time or part time. 

For example, marriage and family therapists generally work full time with evening and weekend hours to accommodate their clients’ schedules. They may work in a variety of mental health treatment settings or in private practice. Similarly, clinical and counseling psychologists may work around clients’ work hours. Some of their interactions happen face-to-face and other times, meetings may take place remotely. 

Professionals who specialize in industrial-organizational psychology might work in an office setting with regular office hours to meet the needs of the company’s workforce. Career and school counselors  at colleges, career centers and job placement companies generally work full time although their schedules may align with school breaks.

If you have a master’s degree and several years of experience, you may want to take the next step in your psychology career and begin working as a consultant. From industrial and organizational psychology to data collection and analysis to market research, there are a number of directions you may take. Turning to consulting psychology might be a way for you to become your own boss and then create a flexible office schedule and environment that works for you.

Job Outlook and Growth

The average salary for those who earn a master’s in psychology varies greatly. Factors like location, industry and number of years of experience may impact earning potential. It is also worth noting that independent practice in psychology typically requires a doctoral degree, and only a few states permit licensed practice with a master’s-level degree in a health service psychology subfield. So keep this in mind as your research potential pay for psychology jobs.

Fortunately, there are salary estimates you may refer to. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for psychologists was $80,370 in May 2019. By comparison, industrial-organizational psychologists earned a median annual salary of $92,880. The BLS also reports that the 2019 median annual salary for marriage and family therapists was $49,610.

Overall employment of psychologists is projected to grow 3% from 2019 to 2029, according to BLS. That’s about as fast as the average growth rate for all occupations. During the same time period, employment for marriage and family therapists is projected to grow 22%. This is partly attributed to  increased use of integrated care, which is the treatment of multiple problems at one time by a group of specialists. 

A master’s degree in psychology may offer students a deeper understanding of psychological principles and the chance to obtain research or clinical experience to enhance a doctoral application. As you map out your career path, consider your goals to figure out whether an online master’s in psychology degree can help you achieve them.

Last updated February 2021.