Is a master’s degree in psychology right for you?

BY Dawn RzeznikiewiczJune 13, 2022, 1:09 PM
A person walks on the California State University Long Beach (CSULB) campus, as seen in August 2021 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON—AFP/Getty Images)

When Samantha Stanich applied to the master’s degree program in psychology at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, she was looking to advance her career in health care. 

Stanich decided to pursue an advanced degree only after she joined Abbott Laboratories in 2020. She says she fell into the healthcare industry as a happy accident following a series of COVID-era layoffs at the non-profit where she formerly worked. The new job at Abbott showed her the impact she could make if she got a master’s degree in psychology, and the doors it would open up later on in her career. 

“The plan is to use this degree to someday start my own non-profit,” Stanich says. “I recognize that’s quite a few years down the line, so in the interim, my hope is to continue working with my healthcare company, and use the degree to work directly with patients.” 

Someone’s decision to go for a master’s in psychology can originate from a desire to level up in your career, switch careers entirely, or pursue a doctorate degree. Students attending grad school full-time can generally complete a master’s degree program within 18 months to 3 years, including classes and in-person placements. Part-time students take fewer classes at a time, usually due to managing school and work, which can extend the length of the program. 

Whether full-time or part-time, a master’s degree in psychology is a significant time commitment and prospective students have a lot to consider. 

Fortune spoke with Gimel Rogers, Psy.D., ABPP, visiting clinical professor and associate director of online MAP/MACLP programs at Pepperdine’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, to learn more about what prospective students should know when considering an online master’s degree program in psychology. Rogers is a licensed psychologist and the training director of the Professional Clinical and Forensic Services department at the Institute on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma (IVAT). She has 15 years of clinical, professional speaking, and training experience. 

Here’s what you need to know.

A master’s degree in psychology can improve your expertise

People who are already working in the behavioral or mental health fields often go back to school for a master’s degree in psychology to advance in their chosen field. “Think of an individual who works in a behavioral health office, and wants to be a supervisor,” says Rogers. “But in order to be a supervisor who can engage in chart review or data analysis and get that promotion, you need to have a master’s.” 

Other students find a use-case for this degree because they’re interested in how psychology intersects with their current career. “There is a group of people who are already working outside the field of psychology, but understand how psychology integrates into their discipline,” says Rogers. She references examples such as personal trainers, who know how important the mind-body connection is to their work, and attorneys, who understand the integration of mental health in practicing law and criminal law, in particular. 

The third group of people who pursue a master’s in psychology are on a path to getting a doctorate degree and hope to either appear more competitive, especially if they don’t have much practical experience in the field, or want to practice clinically before continuing their education, which requires licensure at the master’s degree level.

Shifting your career path

A number of students enroll in a master’s degree program in psychology in order to make a career shift after a few years in the working world—a dynamic that’s become even more pronounced during the pandemic, Rogers says. “Individuals were starting to think, ‘Okay, what do I want to do for the rest of my life?’” Among Pepperdine’s current student body, Rogers cites a few examples of career switchers including lawyers, law enforcers, and accountants. 

For these types of career switchers, it’s not as important that they come from a related field as it is to feel deeply connected to this work. “If being empathetic is an innate trait, and you really have the ability to connect, it’s not really a hard switch because those two traits are instinctual to you. It’s more just learning the discipline,” says Rogers. “If somebody is more along the thought process of ‘This is cool. Let me check it out’, then it might be a little bit harder.”

How to decide on an online vs. in-person program 

Students who opt for an in-person master’s degree program generally live close to campus and can commute. Online programs offer a lot more flexibility for students living far away from their preferred school. 

A lot of the students enrolled in Pepperdine’s online program chose this format, Rogers says, because they needed to eliminate the drive time as a result of work or family obligations. If this applies to you, she recommends considering programs that were originally created to be remote. “A lot of students apply to Pepperdine’s online program thinking, ‘I might as well apply to a quality online program’, instead of a school that’s typically in-person, trying to be online.” 

Online programs are a great fit for people who are busy with life’s other responsibilities—but the format doesn’t change how demanding these programs can be and may create other challenges for some students. 

“You definitely need to be able to manage your time,” says Stanich, who notes that the geographical distance from campus was, in some ways, the hardest part of doing an online program. “I was so used to having a network of peers that were all doing the exact same thing as me. None of my adult friends are back in school. You definitely need to be okay with the fact that you might be the only one doing this where you are physically located.”

Stanich found a solution by using the online program to make connections with other students. “I’ve made a few friends that I plan to stay in touch with throughout this process,” she says. “You have to try a little harder to be seen and be connected. But once you do, I think the reward is undeniable.”

Application decisions and requirements 

With respect to admission requirements, some graduate schools no longer require students to submit a GRE score—or will substitute other skills and qualifications for the test. That said, most master’s programs in psychology will require the GRE, according to Psychology.org. What’s more, some programs may prefer a bachelor’s degree in psychology, while many schools have flexibility here too, and happily admit non-psychology students. 

No matter which reason has led you to apply for a master’s degree program, there are some other factors to consider. Prospective students should look at accredited programs and, depending on if you’re planning on working clinically, where you plan to practice. “If your plan is to go the license route, you really need to be intentional about what you’re choosing because it’s technically transferable, but it’s not easy,” says Stanich, whose program at Pepperdine is supported in multiple states.  

When evaluating potential schools, Rogers suggests that students thoroughly vet the schools to know their geographical reach, particularly if you’re looking at attending an online program that’s based in a different state. In addition, she says students should think twice about a school that doesn’t specialize in the type of psychology they want to practice. 

“I encourage the student to reach out to the school and inquire about their internships, availability, and practicum availability. Who does the school have relationships with? How many placement sites do you have? What type of placement sites are there?” says Rogers. “I definitely would encourage students to do their research.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared 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.