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How to Get a Degree in Psychology 

by Dan Hughes
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How to Get a Degree in Psychology

Psychology is one of the few occupations that allows its practitioners to make money while they sleep. The average salary of someone working as an analyst in the field is $74,560, according to the BLS. That’s more than most other fields require, and it makes sense; psychologists often help patients deal with anxiety, depression, stress, anger management, substance abuse issues, eating disorders, and many other problems. They also offer counseling to those who need it and run tests on people to diagnose mental health conditions like autism, Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, personality disorders, and others. And when it comes time to apply for jobs, having a master’s degree or Ph.D. will give you much greater credibility than a bachelor’s degree alone.
So how long does it actually take to become a psychologist? To answer this question, let’s first consider what kind of student you are. Are you going through college part-time? Or maybe you’ve already earned some credits but want to finish up before applying to grad school? If you’re a recent graduate looking for work, we’ll assume you have at least a high school diploma and plan to attend classes part-time — though there are exceptions if you live in a rural area where distance may be a problem.
The duration of a psychology program depends largely upon how fast your studies progress. Let’s say you begin taking classes in January 2010 and finish by June 2011. You should then have about 13 months left until graduation day. If you spend all summer revising for exams, you could get away with cutting your time down to 12 months. But don’t count on getting into graduate school right after earning your undergraduate degree; admissions officers look only at the past year’s grades. Your best bet is to wait until you’ve completed at least one semester at your current school before making the move to graduate school.
When deciding whether to pursue a career in psychology, students must weigh several factors. For example, do you enjoy helping people solve their problems? Do you prefer conducting research? Would you rather counsel individuals or teach courses? Some psychologists find fulfillment in both areas, but others prefer specializing in either clinical practice or education. Once you narrow down your focus, figure out which type of psychology major would suit your skills and interests the best. Then determine how many semesters you plan to devote to your studies each term.
It’s important to note that psychology degrees differ significantly depending on location. In New York City, for instance, a master’s degree in general psychology typically takes four years, whereas a master’s degree in special education requires six years. The same applies to masters’ programs in business administration and nursing. This means that even if you choose to study in a particular city, you should check how long it takes to complete your degree so you know when to start searching for employment.
In addition to choosing a specific major, you might want to consider interning during your final year of school. Internships provide valuable experience and allow you to test out job opportunities early. When planning for your future, remember that you probably won’t be able to immediately land a position straight out of school, no matter how impressive your credentials. It’s not uncommon for graduates to search for a job for two years before finding success. So keep your options open by completing internship credit hours and volunteering as well.
Now that you understand how long it takes to earn your degree in psychology, let’s explore the different types of degrees available. Read on to learn about the difference between a master’s and doctoral degree in psychology.
Master’s Degrees in Psychology
A master’s degree in psychology prepares students to enter a professional field. Students typically earn a master’s degree through a university program lasting two to three years. Most universities require applicants to possess at least a bachelor’s degree before enrolling. Depending on the institution, coursework varies, but common topics include cognitive science, behavioral sciences, social sciences, child development, educational methods, communication theory, human resources, organizational behavior, marketing, statistics, ethics, law, economics, accounting and finance, and mathematics.
Master’s degrees require a minimum of 36 credit hours, usually spread over nine terms. Each term lasts approximately eight weeks. As mentioned earlier, you should aim to complete at least one semester per term. Ideally, you’ll complete your master’s within two years.
While pursuing a master’s degree in psychology, you’ll likely encounter a variety of challenges. On top of juggling class schedules, you may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information you’re learning. Fortunately, there are many online tools available to assist you throughout your studies. These include academic journals, textbooks, databases, blogs, videos and podcasts, interactive software, and plenty of free literature.
Doctoral Degrees in Psychology
Ph.D.s are reserved for experts in the field of psychology. Unlike master’s degrees, which prepare students to enter the workforce, a Ph.D. offers advanced training for professionals. While most Ph.Ds require passing comprehensive exams, there are exceptions if you chose to specialize in certain subfields. Like master’s degrees, however, Ph.D.s typically take four years. You should also expect to conduct independent research and write lengthy papers.
To obtain a Ph.D., you must pass both comprehensive examinations and a dissertation defense. Comprehensive exams consist of multiple choice written assignments based on required readings. Dissertation defenses involve oral presentations in front of a panel comprised of faculty members.
Like master’s programs, Ph.D. programs vary depending on the institution. Common subjects include developmental psychology, abnormal psychology, applied psychology, experimental psychology, neuropsychology, forensic psychology, human services, marriage and family therapy, gerontology, counseling psychology, and occupational health psychology [Source: University of Texas].
Although most Ph.D. programs require extensive coursework, there are some institutions that offer shorter Ph.D. programs consisting of just 18 months of coursework followed by a dissertation defense. One such option is offered through the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.
As you can see, obtaining a psychology degree requires patience and diligence. Keep these tips in mind when beginning your studies and you’ll be ready to join the ranks of psychologists soon.
Before entering any graduate program, make sure to ask potential professors about any requirements they might have. They may request letters of recommendation from previous employers, letters attesting to your character or grade point average, copies of transcripts, proof of immunizations, and possibly a list of references. Don’t forget to bring them!

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