FAQs for Psychology and Counseling Majors

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Q: Why are there so many different kinds of psychology degrees?

A: If you’re just starting to research the field of psychology, you might be surprised to discover degree types and specialties such as B.S., M.A., Ed.D., and Psy.D. What do these abbreviations mean? Why do some degree options mention “general psychology” while others focus on “management,” or “leadership,” or even health topics? Tip: Read up on your psychology abbreviations!

For starters, the field of psychology is very diverse. Psychology professionals do more than just ask patients to lie down on a couch and talk about their dreams. Today’s psychology careers include opportunities in hospitals, social service offices, schools, colleges, corporations, labs, and more. Some psychologists do focus on the applied practice of mental health- either by counseling patients in emotional distress or by evaluating clients’ behaviors. But plenty of other professionals spend their time teaching, conducting research, advising company leaders, counseling students, fundraising, or working within the justice system.

If you’re not sure which type of psychology professional you’d like to become, you might want to read through the various online psychology degree descriptions. It’s important to think about your long-term career goals now, so you can invest in a degree program that starts you on the best track to success.

psychology and counseling major faq

Q: Which is better: a degree in psychology or a degree in counseling?

A: No degree is better than the other. However, depending on your career goals, one might be a better fit for your situation than the other. 

Associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in general psychology are very versatile degrees that will allow you to pursue employment in health care, social services, human resources, business, and psychology itself. On the other hand, counseling degrees are specifically designed for those who wish to counsel clients. Consequently, counseling degrees may involve less coursework in research, math, or liberal arts. If you decide that being a counselor is not for you, your counseling degree may be less applicable to other fields.

Many schools offer degrees in “counseling psychology,” which are essentially psychology degrees. If you’re thinking about counseling as a career choice, but you’re not ready to commit to a specific branch of counseling, a counseling psychology degree might be a good option.

Alternatively, if you’re committed to working in a specific area of counseling, for example substance abuse counseling or Christian counseling, a more specific degree can bolster your resume and potentially help you work towards the counselor certification you may eventually need. 

Q: Why should I pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology?

A: If you already know you want to become a counselor or psychological professional, a B.A. or B.S. in psychology will prepare you for advanced study in the field. It will also help you gain access to internships or job opportunities that can jumpstart your psychology career. Graduate schools usually prefer to admit students who majored in psychology as undergraduates, and who have some relevant work experience.

Even if you’re not certain you want to pursue advanced study, a bachelor’s degree in psychology is great for almost any student who is interested in a people-based career, including business, public relations, or social work. The degree includes many of the liberal arts requirements that an English major or a history major would complete. Plus, employers value the math and research skills that psychology study entails. 

In fact, the American Psychological Association offers this advice to college grads with bachelor’s degrees in psychology: Employers of all stripes want and need your communication and interpersonal skills; your ability to collect, organize, analyze and interpret data; and, perhaps most important, your strong understanding of human behavior. As a result, many psychology majors find jobs managing human resource departments or working as recruiters.

Other job opportunities for psychology majors with bachelor’s degrees include assistant and liaison roles at rehabilitation centers or residential facilities, probation officer roles, and (with state teacher certification) the opportunity to teach psychology at the high school level. 

Q: Why should I pursue a master’s degree in psychology?

 A: If you’re committed to professional success within the psychology field, you’ll soon discover that most long-term opportunities require an advanced degree. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any good jobs available for B.A. or B.S. psychology graduates. However, most people don’t obtain independent, clinical or counseling roles without holding at least a master’s degree. 

Master’s degree graduates can work under the supervision of licensed psychologists, in various settings related to clinical, counseling, school, or testing and measurement psychology. Master’s graduates can also conduct survey research, oversee employee training, complete data analysis, or handle personnel issues for companies and government organizations.

If you plan to become any kind of certified counselor or therapist, you will need, at the minimum, a master’s degree in psychology. If you plan to become a psychologist, you will need a doctoral degree, and usually a master’s degree in the process. And if you plan to supervise other employees or manage any kind of department related to psychology, health, or human services, you will almost certainly need a master’s degree.

Q: What’s the difference between a BA and BS in psychology?

A: Different colleges structure and classify their degree programs in different ways. Often, whether a college decides to offer its undergraduate psychology program as a B.A. (bachelor of arts) or a B.S. (bachelor of science) is more a matter of school policy than a reflection of the program’s content. In other words, the two types of degrees are often interchangeable.

If there is a substantive difference between a BA and a BS, it usually has to do with focus. The B.S. is sometimes a more concentrated plan of study. Most of the classes B.S. students are required to take will directly relate to the major, psychology, in this case.

B.A. programs, on the other hand, may allow some extra room for electives and general study courses. B.A. students may be free to choose more courses outside of the major discipline, including subjects like history, art, or literature. The potential advantage of a B.A. is that graduates may receive an education that is more well-rounded and versatile. If they decide not to pursue a career in their major course of study (psychology), they still have other competencies to draw on.

Both degrees are widely accepted and can be used to apply for master’s programs in psychology. If you are considering a B.A. or B.S. in psychology, and you’re concerned about the scope of courses involved, contact an admissions advisor at the prospective college. He can outline which classes you’ll be required to take, and can explain whether or not the program varies significantly from a traditional B.A. or B.S. degree.

Q: What’s the difference between an M. and an MS in psychology?

A: Just like the undergraduate options in psychology (B.A. and B.S. degrees), M.A. and M.S. degrees in psychology are often interchangeable. Different colleges choose to structure and classify their degree programs in different ways. What some schools call an M.A. (master of arts), others will call an M.S. (master of science). But the curricula are often very similar.

That said, some colleges and some psychological disciplines do draw clear lines between the different degrees. Since it’s difficult to speak for all colleges by assigning concrete rules to the M.A versus the M.S., here is a list of possible differences between master’s level psychology degrees. You’ll want to establish which of these conditions apply to the degree you’re considering. An admissions advisor from your prospective college should also be able to help. The program is “terminal,” meaning graduates cannot advance to a doctoral program after completing master’s level coursework. The program is specifically designed for students who want to pursue advanced (doctoral) study.

The program is more academic, or research-oriented. It may require the completion of a master’s thesis before a student can graduate. The program is more practical, or hands-on. It may involve a required number of internship hours and in-person training. Students from your state can qualify for certified counseling or psychology roles after completing the program. Students from your state cannot qualify for certified counseling or psychology roles after completing the program. Instead, most are looking to advance within their fields.

Q: What’s the difference between a PhD, or a PsyD. and an EdD in psychology?

A: The difference between a Ph.D. versus a Psy.D. in psychology is mainly an issue of practice versus research. Ph.D. stands for “doctor of philosophy.” Ph.D. programs are recommended for students who ultimately plan to teach and/or focus on psychology research, because they emphasize the scholarly component of the degree, requiring a substantial master’s thesis project and a doctoral dissertation. Accordingly, Ph.D. programs may have tougher admissions standards.

Psy.D., meanwhile, stands for “doctor of psychology.” Psy.D. programs prioritize clinical training, and require more hours of “practicum,” meaning in-person work with actual clients. They are sometimes referred to as “professional” degrees, to distinguish their slant from the more academic nature of the Ph.D. Psy.D. degrees are commonly recommended for students who are sure they want  careers as practicing clinicians. Still, both are highly regarded credentials within the field.

A psychology professional with an Ed.D. degree is an educational psychologist. He will have completed a doctorate program that focuses specifically on educational and developmental psychology. In fact, Ed.D. degrees are usually preferred by colleges’ education departments, not by psychology departments. Ed.D. professionals are well-equipped to diagnose and treat learning disabilities and/or social/emotional concerns that impair the academic progress of children, adolescents, or college students. Like Ph.Ds and Psy.Ds, Ed.Ds may act as counseling/clinical practitioners, or they may work as researchers/consultants for schools, firms, and agencies that deal with educational aims.

Q: I want to work as a psychologist. Which degree do I need?

A: Psychologists aren’t medical doctors, but they are doctors. Understandably, becoming a psychologist requires a lot of time and effort. If you plan to become a psychologist- regardless of your intended specialty- you will eventually need to earn a doctoral level degree, along with substantial externship or post-doc experience. A doctoral degree in psychology is required before you can sit for any state’s licensing exam.

Doctorate degrees in psychology can be abbreviated in different ways; Ph.D. and Psy.D are two common examples. Most doctorate degrees require several additional years of schooling after a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Some colleges offer combination master’s/doctoral degrees in psychology, allowing students to start working towards their Ph.D with just a bachelor’s degree as an entry requirement. However, acceptance to such programs may be very competitive, as the schools want to ensure all Ph.D. candidates are dedicated and prepared for the long haul.

Point of caution: some master’s degrees in psychology are considered “terminal,” meaning that graduates cannot build on these degrees to earn a psychology doctorate. So if your dream is to become a psychologist of any kind, be sure to research master’s programs carefully, especially M.S. degrees in psychology. They may or may not allow you to advance towards your ultimate career goal.

It is possible to pursue an online doctoral degree that can lead to psychologist licensure. Most online programs that can lead to licensure will advertise this option in their degree description. However, you should be aware that not all doctoral programs possess the specialized accreditation that allows their graduates to sit for state and national certification exams in the field of psychology.

Finally, online coursework may not count toward psychologist licensure in your state. According to the SIOP, “licensure as a psychologist (in New Jersey, for example) requires that the doctoral degree must be based on at least 40 doctoral credit hours earned within a doctoral program requiring personal attendance at the degree-granting institution.” [1]

Q: I want to work as a counselor or therapist. Which degree do I need?

A: There are many different types of counseling careers. Some counselors work with students and job-seekers, offering academic and career advice. Other counselors work with inmates or group home residents. Some counselors work with patients who have substance abuse problems or those recovering from trauma. And some counselors, often known as marriage and family therapists, work with couples and families to resolve conflicts that occur in marriages and shared living situations.

In most cases, counseling careers require a master’s degree in the desired specialty, along with supervised clinical experience and a passing score on a state licensure exam. According to the National Board for Certified Counselors, “all states in the US, except for California, license professional counselors.” [2] In order to optimize your employment options, you should consult your state guidelines on counseling careers and certification. That information can help you determine which degree you’ll need, and it may also help you narrow down the list of colleges that provide the necessary preparation.

It is possible to qualify for counselor certification as a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT), a mental health counselor, a school counselor, or a substance abuse counselor, with an online master’s degree in counseling. However, qualifying programs often include on-campus residencies and/or supervised internship placements, so you wouldn’t be able to complete these programs entirely from home. Additionally, not all states will recognize such programs as a gateway for prospective counselors. Again, be sure to check.

You may find that different states use different abbreviations for the same type of counselor. A few of the different certified counseling titles include LPC, LCPC, LPCC, LMHC, LPCMH, LCMHC, or LPC-MH. Further, some states offer the same type of license, on a two-tiered basis, which means you can advance to a higher level of certification. Again, it’s important for you to determine which type of counseling you intend to pursue before you choose a degree program.

As an added note, not all counseling careers require state licensure and/or a master’s degree. Some employers use the term “counselor” in an informal way. They may hire candidates with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and provide their own training. Private organizations, like private colleges and private schools- may also be free to hire motivated candidates, who lack the traditional certifications. In such cases, you wouldn’t be considered a certified counselor, and your options for career advancement might be limited, but you could potentially gain valuable experience while deciding if you wanted to pursue advanced credentials.

Q: What materials or background preparation do I need to apply for a psychology degree?

A: The requirements or “prerequisites” for any given psychology degree range from minimal to quite extensive. Preparation depends on the degree level you’re seeking, the type of program you’re considering, and the schools where you apply- as some are for more competitive than others.

To apply for a bachelor’s degree, usually only a high school diploma or GED is required. Some colleges may require materials like SAT scores, a personal statement about why you want to study psychology, and perhaps letters of reference from former teachers or employers. Some online colleges require that students meet a certain age threshold.

Master’s degree programs in psychology are more selective. Almost all master’s programs require applicants to provide undergraduate transcripts; they want to see evidence that you graduated from an accredited college, and that you passed with a reasonable grade point average. If you haven’t already taken a statistics course, you might be required to do so.  Most colleges will also require an essay or personal statement and letters of reference. Additionally, many master’s programs require GRE scores or MAT (Miller Analogies Test) scores, and some relevant work experience in the field of psychology.

Doctoral programs in psychology are very selective. Some will accept students who have only completed a bachelor’s degree. These programs combine master’s and doctoral level work into one, long course of study. Other programs will only accept candidates who already hold a master’s degree from an accredited college. Some doctoral programs are especially selective, and will only accept candidates from their own undergraduate programs, or candidates who have clearly defined research goals. Be sure to ask an admissions counselor which of these circumstances applies, before you make a list of prospective schools.

Other doctoral degree application requirements may include GRE/MAT scores, letters of reference, a personal statement that outlines your research interests and relevant work experience in the field of psychology. If you’re considering an online doctoral degree program, you should also be aware that you may be required to attend several colloquia- or extended stays at a physical campus- during the course of your studies.

Q: What is Industrial/Organizational Psychology?

A: Industrial/Organizational psychology is the study of human behavior and the workplace. You may see I/O psychology degrees listed with different titles- leadership psychology, management psychology, evaluation and measurement psychology- but most business-oriented psychology programs develop similar competencies. That is, they prepare students to address behavioral matters within companies and organizations.

I/O graduates can work as consultants, business executives, or human resources professionals. Graduates often evaluate employee performance levels, explore the consumer mindset, measure internal responses to structural or policy changes, study group dynamics, and help promote healthy work/life balances for the members of a given organization.

Q: What is Forensic Psychology?

A: Many students may ask "What is forensic psychology?" when determining their specialization in the field. Forensic psychologists apply psychological principles to legal issues. Often, forensic psychologists are called on to assist in court trials or investigations, both civil and criminal. Their combination of psychological and legal expertise allows graduates to optimize jury selection, substantiate witness testimony, analyze confessions and false confessions, weigh the impact of different trial strategies, and validate psychological definitions with respect to the guilt, motivation or competency of alleged criminals.

While some forensic psychology programs qualify graduates to become licensed psychologists, other programs are designed to prepare professional researchers and consultants in the field. In fact, professionals who already work in criminal justice environments, paralegal roles, or for victim advocacy groups can often benefit from an enhanced understanding of forensic issues in the legal process. For them, applied forensic psychology degrees may help with career advancement and expanded opportunities. 

Q: I want to work in a school system. What’s the difference between a school counselor and a school psychologist?

A: School psychologists are not the same as school counselors or guidance counselors. For one thing, school psychologists are often licensed psychologists, meaning they hold a doctoral degree. Other differences between school psychology programs and school counseling programs have to do with the departments that house them and the populations they serve. School counselors typically work with a school’s general population. They deal with course selection and schedule conflicts. Additionally, counselors are often called on to create school-wide initiatives, like early intervention strategies or substance abuse prevention programs. Meanwhile, school psychologists operate in conjunction with the special education department. They provide psycho-educational and mental health services using data-based problem solving.

Q: How do I become a school psychologist?

A: School psychology degrees come in three categories: master’s degrees, specialist degrees, and doctoral degrees. Within the first category, degrees include the M.A., M.S., or M.Ed. These usually entail three years of combined fieldwork and course credits. “Specialist” degrees are defined by the NASP as master’s programs that require 60 semester credits or more. Sometimes abbreviated CAS or CAGS (Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study)or SSP (Specialist in School Psychology), specialist degrees may last three or four years, including extensive internship hours. Ph.D. and Psy.D. degrees require five to seven years for completion, and confer eligibility for independent psychology practice. 

So which degree is the best choice? Field experts say it depends on a student’s long-term career goals. Students entering doctoral programs usually enjoy greater flexibility in their eventual job options; they can practice in schools and mental health centers, or hold teaching and administrative roles at colleges and state departments of education. Students who instead earn specialist degrees may be somewhat more limited to the role of school psychologist, working specifically in a school environment.

Either way, in order to become a certified school psychologist, you’ll likely need to complete a specialist or doctoral-level program. The NASP reports, “the majority of states require the completion of a 60 graduate semester, specialist-level program in school psychology, including a 1200-hour internship.” [3] Therefore, a master’s degree alone may be insufficient for school psychology employment within the public schools of your state. Students should investigate the professional standards in their individual states.

Q: How do I become a school counselor or guidance counselor?

A: School counselors and guidance counselors often follow a preparatory path similar to that of state certified teachers. If you already hold a teaching license in your state, you may be able to bypass many of the certification hurdles.

Because requirements differ a great deal from one state to the next, you’ll want to investigate the school counselor certification requirements in your home state before you choose any type of psychology or education degree. In some states, school counselors can earn certification with just a bachelor’s degree and the completion of a state-approved teacher education program. Other states require at least a master’s degree, if not a master’s degree that is specifically designed for school counselors.

Further more, most states require school counselors to complete a supervised counseling “practicum,” or observed training that can last as long as several hundred hours. Some states require passing scores on a standardized teaching test, like the PPST, the Praxis II or the CBEST in California. And of course, most states will conduct a personal background check on candidates who are applying to work with children.

Most important, some states maintain a list of “approved educator preparation programs,” often limiting certification rights to graduates of select colleges within the state or out-of-state colleges with which they have reciprocity agreements. These states may not acknowledge degrees and school counselor training that was completed out of state and/or online. If you’re considering an online degree for a career in school counseling, be sure to discuss all potential limitations with the schools you’re considering and with your state’s department of education.

If you study child development or school psychology, but you don’t pursue your state’s official school counselor certification, you haven’t necessarily hit a dead end. Private schools and private childcare centers may have more relaxed policies in terms of hiring non-licensed supervisors and school counselors. However, jobs in private schools are less numerable, and your salary may not mirror the average figures for licensed school counselors.

Q: What do I need to know about psychology degrees and specialized accreditation?

A: As is true for all college students, it is very important that psychology professionals select a college that is accredited by a reputable accrediting agency. More specifically, many future employers and even your state’s licensing board (if you plan on being certified as a counselor or psychologist) will require that your degree come from a regionally accredited college. Luckily, all the psychology degree programs listed on elearners.com are offered by regionally accredited schools.

Point of caution: if you plan to become a psychologist, some state licensing boards and some employers may additionally require that your degree come from a college with “specialized accreditation.” Specialized accreditation is separate from institutional (regional or national) accreditation. In the field of psychology, specialized accreditation is granted by the APA Committee on Accreditation. If a college is not approved by the APA its psychology graduates may not be eligible to sit for their state board exams.

That said, the APA only accredits doctoral programs in clinical, counseling, and school psychology. The APA does not accredit programs that focus on other areas of professional psychology, for example, industrial/organizational psychology. Further, the APA does not accredit master’s degree programs. So if you’re not planning to pursue doctoral study, you don’t need to be concerned with the APA’s specialized accreditation of psychology programs.

[1] state.nj.us/lps/ca/psy/psyreg.pdf| [2] counseling.org/knowledge-center/licensure-requirements/state-professional-counselor-licensure-boards | [3] nasponline.org/students/degreefactsheet.pdf