3 career paths you can pursue with an online master’s degree in psychology

BY Dawn RzeznikiewiczMay 26, 2022, 1:20 PM
Artistic representation of a career path
Illustration by Martin Laksman

The COVID-19 pandemic has put mental health in focus, and that’s driving an increase in opportunities to work in mental and behavioral health. The number of mental-health-related jobs has spiked during the pandemic, as LinkedIn data showed a 23.7% one-year increase in job openings for mental health professionals and professional and personal coaches in 2021. Over the next decade, the outlook for psychologist jobs is projected to grow 8%, the same as the average for all occupations, while marriage and family therapists could grow twice as fast, at 16%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Likewise, the opportunities for higher education have also steadily increased over the past two decades. The number of master’s degrees in psychology nearly doubled in two decades—from about 16,500 in 2001 to nearly 30,000 in 2020, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Getting a master’s degree in psychology can be a powerful tool for those people looking to advance in their careers. This is true for students already pursuing a career in psychology or mental health, as well as those people working outside the field. Graduates from online master’s degree programs in psychology can find jobs in mental health services, government agencies, or within HR departments. For many people already working within the field, a master’s degree can be a way to earn more money, become a licensed counselor, qualify for a better job, or prepare for a Ph.D. 

The career paths may vary widely among students in an online master’s degree program in psychology, but there’s a generally agreed upon altruistic goal for those people pursuing this degree, according to Samantha Stanich, a first-year student at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology.

“It’s people that are really passionate, and really care about other people,” she says. “Whatever capacity they’re doing that in may be different, but the desire to help people and be involved in other people’s lives in a humanitarian way is pretty consistent.”

One of the most important things to do when considering a psychology program is to check the training and potential licensure or certification needed to work in your chosen field, as well as any geographic requirements that come with these licenses as it can limit where you can practice. These considerations most commonly come up when considering a clinical job. 

As a result, students need to have a general idea of their post-graduate goals when enrolling in an online master’s degree program in psychology. Below are three of the most common career paths that students pursue after completing this degree.

1. Work in a behavioral field 

Students who pursue a graduate degree in psychology gain a thorough understanding of human behavior and psychological principles. This prepares graduates for a lot of different opportunities, ranging from jobs such as a family services worker or social service manager to an intervention advocate or group home worker. Often, master’s students are already working in one of these areas and are pursuing the degree in order to gain a promotion or higher title within their current company or field. 

There is another huge set of job opportunities with clinics, counseling, and in schools. The opportunities to work as a counselor are expansive: family and marriage therapist, private counseling, victim counseling, veteran counseling, and sports psychology, to name a few. These types of roles typically require a master’s degree in clinical psychology and even a doctorate degree, in addition to licensure, according to the American Psychological Association. Fortunately, it’s sometimes possible to switch from a more general master’s degree program in psychology to one focused specifically on clinical psychology at the same school, such as Pepperdine.

“There are a couple people in my class that will be switching from the general psychology program to another now that they’ve taken classes,” says Stanich. “I have a friend that is switching over to one of the more specific courses, and now she knows she wants to get a license and practice.”

A master’s degree in psychology can also be used to advance the careers of people who have already entered the working world—but recognize that psychology integrates into their current field. 

Some students may enroll in a graduate program in psychology because they’re interested in the connection between psychology and human resources, notes Gimel Rogers, PsyD, and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. For example, these programs may attract business leaders, entrepreneurs, and personal trainers who are interested in how psychology might be able to enhance their skills in business.

Another opportunity to utilize a degree in psychology with the corporate world is the emerging field of industrial-organizational psychology, focusing on the behavior of employees in the workplace. This might include working within or in partnership with a company’s HR department and helping with policy planning; employee hiring, training, and development; and organizational development. As an added bonus, it’s one of the highest paid career paths a graduate of psychology can pursue. 

3. Pursue a doctorate degree

For some people, completing a master’s degree is a stepping stone on the path to a doctorate degree. While some doctorate programs don’t require a master’s degree as a prerequisite, if someone doesn’t have much research or clinical experience, a master’s degree can help to make your doctorate application more competitive.

An additional degree can also lead to a different career path, higher salary expectations, or can help you break into academic and research opportunities. If someone is interested in working primarily in lab work and research or teaching at the collegiate level, a doctorate is required. In the clinical world, there are some limitations to what you can do in your practice without further study.  

“There are certain measures and tests that you have to be licensed at the doctorate level in order to be able to administer and interpret,” says Rogers, adding that there are other key motivating factors to pursuing a doctorate degree. Specifically, you’ll also likely make a higher salary if you have a Ph.D. 

A master’s degree in psychology can open doors in all different types of industries, both directly within the field of psychology and outside it. There’s plenty of ways for this degree to advance those already working in the human services field, but it can also teach new principles to those working in other industries, especially those with jobs that involve closely interacting with others.

“There’s a lot of room for manipulation and for personalization,” says Stanich. “You think you may be going into something that is set, so to speak, but you have a lot of space to make it your own, and make it what you want, and figure out how you can best help people.”

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s in psychology programs, public health programsbusiness analytics programsdata science programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.