Psychology degrees come in an array of levels of education and specializations, which makes it challenging to predict just what coursework you might study in this popular field. Introductory college courses and undergraduate major programs in psychology expose students to the science of thinking and behavior and begin building their knowledge base in the study of psychology. At the graduate and doctoral level, students acquire the advanced and specialized knowledge they need to work in psychology. Both experiential learning and specialized coursework have a place in every level of psychology degree, but the more advanced the education, the more in-person experience and focused studies you can expect.
Goals of Introductory and Undergraduate Psychology Courses
Every student of psychology starts with an introductory psych course. The best college-level introduction to psychology classes provide the earliest bases for psychology majors to build on while fulfilling general education requirement, the American Psychological Association (APA) reported.
As you progress through the curriculum of your undergraduate psychology program, there are certain goals, outlined by the APA, that your coursework should meet. Through fundamental classes like developmental psychology, social psychology and abnormal psychology, psychology majors build a knowledge base of the essential theories and concepts in psychology and their applications. They meet the next goal, scientific inquiry and critical thinking, by studying topics in research methods, statistical data analysis, cognitive neuroscience and biopsychology.
To develop a strong sense of ethical and social responsibility in a diverse world, students might take classes in cross-cultural psychology as well as studying the ethical components and legal issues involved in psychological research and clinical practice throughout their coursework. To achieve the goal of becoming an effective communicator in written, presentation and interpersonal contexts, students may take classes in the psychology of language. They also learn through experience when they write research reports and create presentations of findings or practice counseling and psychotherapy in laboratory and internship settings. Finally, a Careers in Psychology class that highlights the different subfields of psychology, graduate school options and roles in the workforce can help undergraduate students meet the goal of preparing for professional development as well as guiding them as they plan for life after earning a bachelor’s degree.
Although the APA sets standards for psychology degree programs at the bachelor’s level, the professional association only awards accreditation to doctoral degree programs.
Graduate and Doctoral Studies in Psychology
Why are advanced studies in psychology so important? In most subfields of psychology, you need a doctoral degree to work in the field and to use the title of psychologist, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. Rather than being an extra credential, a Ph.D. or Psy.D. is an entry-level requirement in this field.
While most undergraduate psychology programs are general in nature, master’s and doctoral degree programs require students to choose from the largest fields of psychology, such as clinical, counseling, research, school or industrial-organizational psychology. Students complete advanced coursework specific to their program.
A doctorate in clinical psychology might include studies in psychological testing, diagnostic interviewing, psychopathology, cognitive-behavioral treatments and psychotherapy as well as studies in research, quantitative methods and statistical analysis. For a Psy.D. in counseling psychology, you may need to take more coursework in counseling, including multicultural counseling, couples and family systems therapy and group dynamics in counseling, as well as numerous practicum and internship experiences.
A major difference between master’s and doctoral degrees, other than whether you can call yourself a psychologist, is the time it takes to graduate. Doctorates take five to six years, according to U.S. News & World Report, while many master’s programs take two years.
Experiential Learning in Psychology Programs
No matter which area of psychology you choose to pursue, knowing how to apply the theories and concepts you have learned to the field is crucial. For those interested in psychological research, this means learning through research projects. In fields like clinical, counseling, school and even industrial-organizational psychology, gaining hands-on experience in the field is encouraged and, often, required.
The more advanced your level of education, the more rigorous your experiential learning requirements will be. As an undergraduate student, internships are often shorter in duration and may be optional. In doctoral programs, you can expect to complete hundreds of hours of practicum experience plus thousands of hours as an intern.
An internship is necessary to become a licensed psychologist, although whether that internship is done before or after you graduate with your doctorate depends on your state’s licensing regulations.
Specialized Studies in the Field of Psychology
The potential specializations in psychology are almost countless. Clinical, counseling and school psychology may be common branches of study, but the field gets far more granular. Sports psychology, environmental psychology, forensic psychology, neuropsychology and health psychology are just a few of the many possibilities. If you want to work in one of these niche fields of psychology, you should look for degree programs that offer highly specialized tracks and concentrations as well as internship and job opportunities in that field.
Although there are undergraduate psychology programs that offer concentrations in subjects like sports psychology and forensic psychology, doctoral programs typically offer the most specialized curricula.