Master’s careers in psychology

For most careers, providing professional services using psychological knowledge requires a doctoral degree in psychology, and these careers are often called professional or health service psychology. However, psychology careers for individuals holding master’s degrees are available in multiple occupational settings and in fields across the discipline. The demand for jobs at this level of training is reflected in the growth of master’s psychology degrees — from slightly below 18,000 in 2003 to nearly 28,000 in 2013. Similarly, the National Science Foundation reports growth during the past decade in research-focused psychology master’s degrees: approximately 15,000 in 2003 and 22,000 in 2011.

For some, the master’s degree offers additional background in psychology prior to applying to doctoral study — either to gain deeper understanding of psychological principles or to obtain research and/or clinical experience to enhance a doctoral application. But for others, the terminal master’s degree (i.e., not leading to a doctoral degree) offers the necessary credential for entry into the workforce. This article explores just a few of the career options for master’s degree recipients in psychology.

Psychology Careers for Master’s Graduates

When pursuing a terminal master’s degree, what kinds of psychology careers do master’s graduates obtain? Although licensed independent practice in psychology typically requires a doctoral degree in a health service provider subfield (e.g., clinical, counseling and school) along with other training (e.g., internship, postdoctoral residency and examination), there are some exceptions and opportunities for individuals with master’s-level training in health services.

A few states permit licensed practice with a master’s-level degree in a health service psychology subfield; typically clinical, counseling and school psychology. Licensure is the mechanism by which states in the United States and provinces in Canada regulate the practice of psychology and some of these jurisdictions permit master’s-level educated individuals a limited scope of practice under supervision of a licensed doctoral-level psychologist possessing either a PhD or PsyD. Those working in direct service at this level are typically distinguished from psychologists by the title of “psychological associate” or something similar. In rare cases, a master’s degree combined with supervised experience and examination may be sufficient for independent practice. In some jurisdictions, individuals with a master’s degree in school psychology or an education specialist (EdS) degree may practice within school settings (e.g., elementary and secondary). If you are interested in these career options, it is recommended that you research licensure and practice regulations for the state(s) in which you intend to work prior to matriculation. A starting point is the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

Opportunities in Industrial/Organizational Psychology

Another area of opportunity for master’s graduates is found in the practice of Industrial/Organizational (I/O) psychology. I/O psychology is a subfield of psychology that studies and applies psychological science to individual and group behavior in workplace and organizational settings. I/O trained individuals may work in human resources, consulting, nonprofit and corporate settings by providing applied psychological expertise and in teaching in academic settings to a limited degree. Indeed, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Guidelines for Education & Training at the Master’s Level in Industrial-Organizational Psychology in reporting on the state of that field found, “There were very few master’s graduates in academic roles, whereas master’s graduates were more highly represented in jobs such as compensation, training, data analysis and generalist human resource management positions compared with doctoral graduates.”

Students considering I/O psychology have access to robust resources to understand the profession and the education required for different types of work across the field. In particular, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology conducts a regular income survey (PDF, 359KB) offering insights into not only income, but also types of work settings in which master’s-level individuals are employed and where they work in the United States. For instance, more than 75 percent of master’s-level survey respondents were employed in private sector positions and for practitioners with 15-19 years of experience, the median salary was $125,000 across all employment settings. Entry-level consultants with master’s degrees in I/O psychology earned a median of $60,000 in 2012.

Social Psychology Careers

As in I/O psychology, academic careers are limited for those with a master’s degree in other psychology subfields. However, individuals educated in social psychology find employment in research settings and academic positions at community colleges. The Society for Social and Personality Psychology, a division of the American Psychological Association, offers extensive programming for students at its annual conference including mentoring programs to promote the field and increase representation of diverse groups. Conferences and networking expose prospective graduate students to career options and information on the education required for various professional pathways in social and personality psychology.

The Field of Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is another field in demand. Forensic psychologists are employed in criminal justice settings (e.g., prisons, detention centers) and positions incorporating psychology and law (e.g., personal injury) by applying psychological principles to service populations engaged in civil and criminal matters. Like clinical and counseling psychology, forensic psychologists hold doctoral degrees for independent practice, but master’s-level professionals find opportunities within a limited scope of practice. The American Psychology-Law Society, Div. 41 of APA, offers information about the prospects of the field and employment opportunities. Additionally, the APA offers information on forensic careers.

If you are interested in a psychology career but unsure about committing to a doctoral degree, a master’s degree may offer the career path you seek. Hopefully this article offered you a few ideas. Bottom line: Ask questions and do research before you apply. The Office of Graduate and Postgraduate Education & Training at APA offers resources to help you and you are welcome to contact us directly with any questions. You can learn more by visiting our Frequently Asked Questions page.

Reposted with permission from APA’s Psychology Teacher Network

About the Author

Daniel Michalski, PhD
Daniel’s diverse experiences as a workforce/pipeline researcher and accreditation policy analyst uniquely position him to share his perspectives on psychology education and training. Having presented at regional and national conferences, as well as at invited lectures, Daniel intends to contribute regularly to this blog and participate in an ongoing conversation about the leading issues within the discipline and profession. He earned his Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, a Master of Public Administration from the University of Colorado Denver, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Economics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When not satisfying his hedonistic professional and academic curiosities, Daniel is happiest in the bright sun; either a Florida beach or a Colorado ski slope.