Is an online master’s degree in psychology worth it?

BY Nicole Gull McElroyMay 25, 2022, 1:15 PM
Decorative mortarboards during commencement ceremonies for Cal State University Northridge, as seen in May 2022. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht—MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News/Getty Images)

Megan MacKellar’s patients are generally animals, as she works as an animal trainer at a zoological organization in Orlando. But, her focus shifted to humans in the three years it took her to complete an online master’s degree program in psychology from Purdue University Global. MacKellar spent about three years juggling her career in animal behavior during the day, while studying and attending online classes during nights and weekends.

“I knew I wanted to advance my education,” she says. “Where that falls into is applied behavior analysis.”

MacKellar took a few courses per term to pace herself. The shift from her work with animals to studying humans may seem odd, but the coursework at Purdue was a great complement to her day job. While MacKellar didn’t necessarily have the conventional career path in psychology, that didn’t prove to be problematic.

“The professors were so understanding,” she says. “They wanted to find ways to adapt my career into the education I was gaining.” That process, she says, even extended to her thesis. Normally, students work with human patients. Of course, for MacKellar, she focused her work on animals—a first for Purdue to take on a research project like that.

MacKellar’s story is an example of maximizing a master’s degree in psychology to expand experience and expertise in a chosen field. This graduate-level degree garners an average annual salary of nearly $64,000, compared with about about $51,000 for people who only have a bachelor’s degree, according to ZipRecruiter. Of course, salaries vary depending on specialty, experience, and type of work. By 2030, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that demand for psychologists will grow as much as 8%. 

Beyond the career opportunities and higher salary, here’s how to decide whether an online master’s degree in psychology is worth it.

Make the most of the master’s degree by having a goal in mind

Pursuing an online master’s degree in psychology is obviously a personal decision and the associated career paths can vary widely, including: human resources, nonprofit work, social work, education, business, private practice, and public policy. 

No matter what motivates a student to go back to school, they should leverage their master’s degree in a different way than their bachelor’s degree, says Julee Poole, academic department chair in the graduate psychology program at Purdue Global. “Most of our students are serious-minded and have specific goals in mind.”

By the time students have started the graduate-level program, they’re generally further along in developing a sense of an end game. “They understand in what field they want to work and what role they want to play,” Poole says. “We also encourage students to look at licensure and credential requirements in the field they’d like to study.” 

Meeting those licensure requirements for the school, the state, and external licensing boards is a major driver for students who earn a master’s degree in psychology, according to Robert deMayo, associate dean for the psychology division at Pepperdine University. Taking care of that piece, he says, is often a big barrier in moving along on any given path in the wider world of psychology.

And the master’s degree itself can also advance your career to the next level or help you dig deeper into the work you’re already doing. 

Psychology programs offer opportunities for making connections

For MacKellar, earning a master’s degree is one step closer to a doctorate in psychology—and, eventually, a role in research. The Purdue program allowed her access to faculty and people with Ph.D.s who she says added to her experience and enriched opportunities for learning that might not have otherwise been at her fingertips.

“The professors they have on board are active in the field and producing research,” Mackellar says, adding that even though faculty members are in a different field than she is, they saw the bigger picture of her goals and offered academic and emotional support. “They showed me that there could be much greater options for me in the future. I gained enough of an introduction into the research field and they reinforced my behavior that made me want to push on to expand the work I was doing.”

An advanced degree offers more opportunities

For Maggie Lavoie, earning a master’s degree in psychology online at Arizona State University is a step toward her goal of going on to a doctorate program and pursuing a job in research. Now that she’s finished the degree, she realizes just how many options are available to her: “It offers a variety of career paths and supports me in whatever profession I choose.”

The broad applicability of a master’s degree in psychology is important to keep in mind—and Poole tries to also encourage a level of realism with her students. Sometimes students are well on their way in their current jobs, but can build on a new interest or area of study with the master’s program. Or, they’re using the experience to recover from unemployment and broaden their network through faculty mentorship or connections with other students in the program, she adds. 

Being a part of the master’s curriculum can offer exposure to many new things and may cause students to change directions or shift their idea of the end goal midway through. 

MacKellar says her advisor has been critical in how she’s framing her work post-grad. “That support system and community is very important,” she says, noting that she’s now enrolled in a Ph.D. program studying psychology behavior analysis. “It’s critical to find an advisor who is similar-minded or has a career path that you aspire to get into.”

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.