How long does it take to earn an online master’s in psychology?

BY Nicole Gull McElroyJune 06, 2022, 1:48 PM
Illustration by Martin Laksman

When Maggie Lavoie completed her undergraduate degree in May 2020, she was torn between two obvious options: find a job or go back to school. With the uncertainty of the job market amid the then-mounting COVID-19 pandemic, Lavoie ultimately chose to enroll in a master’s degree program in psychology. 

“My main goal was to build on my knowledge of psychological research,” says Lavoie, who is 23 and lives in the Chicago suburbs. “I wanted to learn more about the research process and gain experience for a potential Ph.D. program, or be able to apply the knowledge and skills in a future lab/research setting.”

Lavoie chose to complete her master’s degree online at Arizona State University. She’s still early in her career and enjoyed the cost-savings benefit of living at home with her parents while attending school full-time. In total, it took Lavoie just 15 months to complete the program. Here’s how her experience compares with those of other students in master’s degree programs in psychology.

Plan on a rigorous schedule week to week

Students can generally expect to complete an online master’s degree program in psychology within two and a half years. At Arizona State, most students finish the required courses within a window of about one to two years, depending on how much time a student can devote to her studies, says Casey Ambrose, executive director of marketing operations for the EdPlus digital learning program at ASU. Coursework involves lectures, reading, posting to online forums, exams, and papers. 

“Students should be ready to commit 18 hours per week for every course they take,” Ambrose says of the ASU program. And that’s no small commitment, considering each course lasts roughly seven weeks. 

“You need to be prepared for fast-paced learning,” Lavoie says. “Some courses required everything due on Mondays, others were Wednesdays, Fridays, or Sundays. The time restraints of having different deadlines with different courses and planning out schoolwork into a cohesive schedule was a challenge.” 

What’s more, many of the exams and quizzes were timed and required extra planning, Lavoie adds. And because the program was online, she also needed to consider working within specific time zones as her professors and fellow classmates were located throughout the world, and managing different schedules and obligations. Overall, Lavoie estimates she spent 15 to 20 hours a week on schoolwork outside the classroom. 

Psychology programs also have commitments outside the classroom

Graduate-level degree programs in psychology—even online ones—often have graduation requirements that extend beyond the classroom. For example, some programs require fieldwork. And the time it takes to complete a program can also vary depending on whether students focus their studies on various specialties—including addiction, family dynamics, behavioral therapy, and education—and some programs require patient-facing or in-person practical work. 

Even though Lavoie pursued her degree entirely online, she completed guided research under the supervision of a professor during her final semester. 

Because the reasons why a student might enroll in this program are wide-ranging, that can also dictate how long it takes to complete. Some students want to shift gears in a given career path, others want to round out business experience for a role in HR, and still other students may want to take the degree even further for a doctorate or research position, says Julee Poole, academic department chair for the graduate psychology department at Purdue University Global. 

In some programs, like Purdue’s addiction-focused curriculum, says Poole, there’s an extra component to plan for: a period of fieldwork, or practicum. Students complete two 10-week, 150-hour terms of practicum, generally at an organization the school has partnered with to help students gain the face-to-face experience they’ll need once they graduate. “They are working under an addiction supervisor for those hours,” says Poole, noting that the requirement aligns with state licensure laws.   

Consider nonschool obligations

While students may not have many in-person obligations with an online program, a number of students must find a balance between school and other obligations, like work. Several are working full-time, part-time, raising families, or generally juggling other aspects of their professional and personal lives at work and home while pursuing the degree.

While Lavoie had no in-person component to her degree, she urges prospective students to ask themselves several questions before enrolling: “Am I ready for fast-paced courses? Can I manage my time independently? Am I able to facilitate my own learning and communicate effectively when I may not understand something?” 

The last question, Lavoie says, is especially important in an online program, given the physical distance and extra energy and time needed to connect with professors and advisers. And the onus falls on students to reach out to the variety of resources their program offers if they are having difficulties with these types of challenges, she adds.

“The professors and course assistants are there to help students succeed, but you initially must take the first step.”

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