An advanced degree is required if you want to work as a school psychologist. Whether you choose to go the master’s, specialist-level or doctoral degree route, you will take classes that combine aspects of both psychology and education, along with hands-on internship experience, that allows you to develop the most important competencies needed to work in the field.

Choosing a Degree Option in School Psychology

While a doctorate is mandatory for most psychologist roles, school psychology is an exception. A master’s degree, specialist degree or doctoral degree can all put you on the path to becoming a school psychologist, but each option has pros and cons.

A traditional master’s degree that requires credit hours in the range of 30 to 36 is quick to complete but may qualify you for only limited job options, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). Specialist-level programs like the Education Specialist (Ed.S.) degree take at least three years and 60 credits to complete and will generally meet entry-level education qualifications for school psychologists in every state, the NASP reported. The most extensive education option is the doctorate. School psychologists may hold a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) or Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in school or educational psychology. Doctoral students typically spend five to six years earning their degree and may acquire up to 2,000 hours of supervised internship experience.

The master’s degree is the most common education for school psychologists, with 47 percent of the field holding one. Master’s programs that include 60 credit hours of graduate work and an internship count as specialist-level degrees, despite the name.

A Curriculum That Blends Psychology Principles and School Applications

At both the master’s and doctoral levels, school psychology degrees can lean toward the field of education or the field of psychology. Naturally, an Ed.S. or Ed.D. program is likely to emphasize the education components of the curriculum, while a Psy.D. will focus more on the psychology aspects. No matter what degree title appears on your degree, your curriculum will include some combination of these two fields of study.

Although you might not plan to do much research in your role as a school psychologist, you must understand research methods and findings so that you can incorporate evidence-backed new strategies into your practice throughout your career. For that reason, many specialist-level and doctoral programs include a research core that consists of classes such as research methods and design, univariate or multivariate statistical models, analysis of experimental data or an experiential research practicum.

Even at these advanced levels, students complete coursework in psychological foundations such as developmental psychology, behavioral neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and multicultural perspectives in psychology. School psychologist programs might also include some coursework in counseling psychology through classes in counseling and therapeutic approaches, personality assessment, family counseling, group counseling and school counseling. Special education courses can also play an important role in preparing graduate students to work in school psychology. Subject matter in this area can include studies in childhood disorders, inclusion of special needs students, academic interventions and alternative curricular approaches.

Although each area of the field enriches your knowledge and skills in the practice of school psychology, it’s the professional core courses that most thoroughly prepare you for your future career. Students in school psychology programs take courses in crisis management in school settings, behavioral assessment, applied behavior analysis, assessment of intelligence, consultation procedures and assessment and intervention in educational consultation. You might study both historical and modern issues in the field of school psychology as well as the theory and practice of organizational leadership as it relates to education. Students complete advanced coursework in essential subjects, such as child psychopathology and school and family interventions.

In institutions that offer both specialist-level and doctoral degrees in school psychology, the main differences between programs include more emphasis on research, more extensive foundation coursework and more specialized coursework in doctoral programs.

Internships in School Psychology

Until you have experience actually working with students in direct service roles, your school psychology knowledge is strictly academic. Specialist-level and doctoral degree programs in this field require considerable practicum and internship experience before students graduate.

Specialist-level programs usually require students to complete a minimum of 1,200 hours of internship experience, according to the NASP, while doctoral students complete internships consisting of at least 1,200 to 1,500 – and sometimes up to 2,000 – supervised hours. You should expect to spend at least 600 of these hours in a school environment.

Often, students also complete experience-based practicum coursework in areas such as behavioral assessment, intelligence assessment, consultation procedures and assessment and intervention in educational consultation.

Professional Competencies for School Psychologist

It’s not just the classes you take that matter, but also what you get out of your coursework. The NASP identifies 10 practice model domains that represent the competencies all school psychologists should demonstrate. These competencies include:

  1. Data-based decision making and accountability
  2. Consultation and collaboration
  3. Interventions and instructional support to develop academic skills
  4. Interventions and mental health services to develop social and life skills
  5. School-wide practices to promote learning
  6. Preventive and responsive services
  7. Family–school collaboration services
  8. Diversity in development and learning
  9. Research and program evaluation
  10. Legal, ethical, and professional practice

School psychology serves a unique function in the wellbeing of children, so it’s no wonder that professionals in this field must meet so many varied demands. They work with the entire student body through the practices they promote to improve learning, but they also work with individual students who require interventions due to academic, developmental and mental health disorders.

Both school psychologists and school counselors have responsibilities toward the student population at large and individual students, but their backgrounds and scope of practice are different. School psychologists are more likely to tackle clinical issues than counselors.

Additional Resources

What Classes Will I Take for a Degree in School Counseling?

What Is the Difference Between a School Counseling Degree and a School Psychology Degree?

How Long Does It Take to Become a School Psychologist?

What Are the Benefits of Pursuing a Degree in School Psychology?