getting into psychology

To start a psychology career, you’ll need to get at least a master’s degree (for school psychology) or a doctorate to practice in other specialties. To get licensed to practice psychology, you’ll need to earn the required degree, pass a state and/or national exam, and fulfill other licensing requirements.

At a minimum, you will want to earn your undergraduate degree in psychology or in a related field such as sociology, education, anthropology, or social work. Then, you will want to decide if you want to earn a doctorate-level degree.

The reason you should make a decision at this point is due to the fact that many programs do not offer a terminal master’s degree in psychology. In such cases, you will enroll in a graduate program after earning your bachelor’s degree and then spend four to seven years working on your doctorate.

To become a clinical psychologist, you will need an undergraduate degree (four to five years of college) plus a doctorate degree (four to seven years of graduate school). For this specialty area, most people will spend between eight to 12 years in higher education.

Of course, there are other career options in psychology that do not require as many years of college. For example, you could become a licensed marriage and family therapist with a master’s degree, which would require two to three years of graduate study.

If you decide not to pursue a doctorate at this point, you should start looking at different master’s degree programs in psychology or in related fields such as counseling or social work.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree can be a great way to delve deeper into a specific field of interest. However, a master’s degree is not always necessary. If you are interested in what is known as a terminal master’s degree in a field such as counseling, social work, or school psychology, you can often enter the workforce immediately after earning your degree.

In other cases, you might use your master’s degree as a stepping stone toward a doctorate, or you might choose to forgo a master’s program and go directly into a Ph.D. or Psy.D. program immediately after earning your bachelor’s degree. The path you take depends largely on your career goals as well as the graduate offerings at the school you choose to attend

Doctorate Degree

The length of your doctoral program depends on many factors, including the specialty area you are pursuing as well as whether or not you already earned a master’s degree. In order to become a licensed psychologist, you will need to earn either a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or a Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology).

As with your master’s degree, the doctorate degree you pursue really depends on your career goals. If you are interested in a career in research, a Ph.D. might be the best choice. Ph.D. programs place greater emphasis on research, experimental methods, and training graduates to work as scientists.

If you are more interested in starting a private therapy practice, consider a Psy.D. The Psy.D. option tends to be more centered on professional practice and clinical work, preparing graduates to enter careers in mental health.1

The American Psychological Association recommends that you enroll in an accredited program. Accreditation provides public notification that an institution or program meets certain standards of quality.2

In addition to your doctorate, you will be required to complete a year-long postdoctoral training period before you can be fully licensed to practice in your state.3

Degree Requirements

Becoming a licensed psychologist working in the field of mental health is certainly not the only career option if you are interested in working in the field of psychology. Licensing requirements for psychologists vary by state and specialty. Careers in forensic or sports psychology, for example, have differing requirements.

Please note that these represent the minimum educational requirements in these fields. Job opportunities and pay are generally greater with advanced training. Learn about different degree options and requirements for various careers in psychology.

  • Social worker: Bachelor’s degree (four to five years of undergraduate school)
  • Licensed counselor: Master’s degree (two to three years of graduate school)
  • Sports psychologist: Master’s degree (two to three years of graduate school)
  • Industrial-organizational psychologist: Master’s degree (two to three years of graduate school)
  • School psychologist: Varies by state (generally two to three years of graduate school)
  • Forensic psychologist: Master’s degree (two to three years of graduate school, ideally with a doctorate degree)
  • Criminal psychologist: Master’s degree (two to three years of graduate school, ideally with a doctoral degree)
  • Clinical psychologist: Doctorate degree (four to seven years of graduate school)
  • Health psychologist: Doctorate degree (four to seven years of graduate school)
  • Social psychologist: Doctoral degree (five to seven years of graduate school)
  • Child psychologist: Doctoral degree (five to seven years of graduate school)