Online Degrees in Psychology and Mental Health

Many students become psychology or mental health majors for the sense of professional satisfaction their degrees can bring, particularly those who go into human or social services. Another major benefit: many psychology majors enjoy strong job and salary potential. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many psychology majors earn higher-than-average wages while a number of psychology-oriented careers are projected to grow quickly in the decade preceding 2018.

Choosing the Right Online Psychology Degree

Psychology and mental health are well-rounded disciplines, meaning one can earn a degree online at virtually any level, from associate to post-graduate degrees. Here are the most common credentials:

  • Associate degrees in psychology and mental health are ideal for those seeking entry-level support occupations in the field, such as psychiatric technicians.
  • Bachelor's degrees in psychology and mental health do not produce the same higher-level careers as advanced degrees, but are suitable for those who want to become career counselors, case managers, probation officers or the like.
  • Master's degrees in psychology are among the most common psychology and mental health degrees because of the diverse career opportunities they provide. Therapists, counselors, social workers and some psychology professors typically have master's degrees.
  • Doctoral degrees in psychology or mental health are ideal for those who want to work in more advanced mental health care, in research or in academia.
  • Certificates in psychology or mental health help those with psychology degrees develop specialties, or help entry-level workers get their first jobs. The American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) is a popular certificate vendor offering credentials in 13 different specialties as of 2011.

Some careers require psychology and mental health grads to be licensed, a process that usually requires a relevant degree and an exam. Licensed professionals must typically take continuing education courses (CECs) to maintain their licenses.

The Ideal Psychology Student

Anyone with a passion for helping others and a fascination with the human brain or behavior is likely to enjoy studying psychology, but there are a few personality types who really excel in the field. According to The College Board, it helps when students are math and science oriented, but also excellent critical readers and writers. They must also be able to evaluate themselves and others in a very technical way.

What to Expect from an Online Psychology or Mental Health Degree Program

According to The College Board, psychology majors study the way humans act, feel, think and learn. Specific coursework can vary tremendously from one program to the next, but most cover topics such as:

  • Introduction to psychology
  • Abnormal psychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Perception and sensation
  • Neuroscience
  • Research methods

Psychology and mental health programs can be very technical, book-oriented disciplines, making them suitable for online training. Depending on one's chosen degree or career path, however, some courses will require labs or face-to-face internships. Sometimes these requirements can be fulfilled through local campuses, regional hospitals or mental health centers. As with campus-based programs, prospective students should research online degrees in psychology or mental health thoroughly to ensure they suit their goals, availability and learning styles.

Popular Careers in Psychology and Mental Health

According to the BLS and The College Board, psychology and mental health graduates enjoy a variety of career options, though degree level and experience dictate the positions for which one qualifies. Upon graduation, psychology and mental health grads often become:

  • Psychologists
  • Psychiatrists
  • Marriage and family therapists
  • Counselors, including mental health, school or career counseling
  • Psychiatric technicians
  • Probation officers
  • Substance abuse counselors
  • Social workers
  • Psychology teachers and professors

Psychology at a glance:

  • Psychology grads qualify for a variety of careers, from psychiatric support occupations to advanced research or medical careers.
  • The BLS reports that psychology grads tend to earn more than the average worker.
  • The mean annual salary for a psychologist was $86,510 in 2010, according to the BLS.
  • Counseling and industrial psychology careers are in particularly high demand.

Having an in-depth understanding of human behavior and other principles of psychology can be a valuable skill, both personally and professionally. Online psychology associate degree programs help students learn introductory theoretical and practical concepts while preparing them for the upper-division coursework that takes place in the later years of a psychology education or related fields of study.

What Does an Associate Degree Program in Psychology Entail?

Full-time students earning an associate in psychology online can typically expect their degree program to last about two years. Most program curricula balance general education requirements with fundamentals of various types of psychological study. Here are a few examples of typical courses offered in psychology associate degree programs:

  • Introduction to Psychology: This course is designed to provide students with a solid foundation in the study of psychological theory and research. Motivation and emotion, the effects biology and society have on human behavior, and treatment tactics may be discussed. Students might learn about Freud's three parts of consciousness -- the id, the ego and the superego -- or discuss the case of Pavlov's dogs, a famous example of classical conditioning.
  • Human Development: Students in a human development class look closely at physical and psychological growth at multiple stages of life, paying particular attention to the complex relationships between environmental and genetic factors that can help mold an individual. This course also usually covers cultural differences as they relate to human development and existing research methods used to study people with diverse backgrounds.
  • Personality Theory: In this course, students learn about the forces that shape personality, as well as the theories that psychologists use to understand those forces. The list of forces includes social roles, cultural expectations, desires, beliefs and evolutionary habits, among others. Class discussions typically focus on prominent personality theorists and how they have employed approaches such as psychoanalytic, behavioral, biological and cognitive psychology in the study of personality.
  • Human Sexuality: Classes on human sexuality introduce students to the biological and psychological aspects of sex, sexual health and perception of sexuality. These courses intend to help students understand both conscious and unconscious sexual attitudes and behaviors, as well as provide a more thorough understanding of love, intimacy, gender identity, relationships, sexual abuse and sexual diseases.

Students pursuing online associate degrees in psychology are also usually be required to complete several credit hours of general education courses, covering subjects such as English composition, mathematics, research writing, physical science, history, fine arts, humanities and communications. General education requirements can vary widely from institution to institution. The type of general education courses required can also vary depending on whether the student is pursuing an Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.) or Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree -- A.A. programs tend to ask students for more history or language courses, while A.S. programs often include more math or science. Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree programs, on the other hand, require less general education requirements overall, as it is a terminal degree.

Some programs ask students to choose elective courses to complete their degree plan, and these courses can often be tailored to the discipline the student wishes to pursue. For instance, if a student plans to go into market research, the program curriculum may contain opportunities for the student to take electives in business or consumer behavior.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Associate Degree Programs in Psychology

Graduates of associate degree programs in psychology who hope to become psychologists need to continue their education to the bachelor's level, and then earn a master's or doctorate in psychology, depending on their chosen specialty. However, there may be job opportunities in other fields right out of school for students with associate psychology degrees. For example, they could find a position as a customer service representative, where their psychology background may let them better empathize with a customer's questions or complaints. The BLS expects 13 percent national job growth in this profession between 2012 and 2022, which is on par with the average growth rate for all careers. Companies are increasingly seeing the value of having great customer service, as it can help set them apart in the marketplace. Earning an online associate degree in psychology may open up other job opportunities as well, including junior positions in market research or substance abuse counseling.

Members of unique experience groups -- from veterans returning from war, to students with learning difficulties, to survivors of personal trauma, to children and adults with autism spectrum disorders -- call on psychologists to help them develop strategies for managing the issues they face. Online psychology bachelor's degree programs are a great way for aspiring psychologists to learn about the fundamentals of the human psyche and prepare for future studies at the master's or doctoral level. Earning a bachelor's in psychology online can also lead to a wide range of careers outside the field, or serve as a good foundation for other graduate degree programs, such as a master's in business administration, social work or counseling.

What Does a Bachelor's Degree Program in Psychology Entail?

An online bachelor's degree in psychology can typically be completed in four years of full-time study. In general, curriculum focuses on understanding the various facets of the human mind, and finding what causes individuals to act, think and feel in a particular manner. Here's a short list of core courses commonly offered in psychology bachelor's degree programs:

  • Introduction to Psychology: This course teaches students the history and terminology of psychological science through stories of notable theorists and practitioners, and provides an overview of various psychological concepts, models, methods and research tools. Some concepts covered in this class, such as sensation and perception, learning, social conditioning and brain biology, will be the central subjects of courses found later in the degree plan.
  • Research Methods: Research is a big part of psychological practice, and this course aims to ensure that students develop solid research skills before going on to conduct their own experiments. Course content focuses on the design, organization, execution and analysis of experimental studies with a focus on forming accurate hypotheses and testing the strength of those hypotheses against possible threats to validity.
  • Statistics: This course helps to deepen students' understanding of the analysis and presentation of collected data. Coursework provides an introduction to concepts such as probability, regression, sampling distributions and statistical significance. Both descriptive and inferential statistics are usually covered, and special attention is customarily paid to the specific applications of statistical reasoning used in the field of psychology.
  • Abnormal Psychology: In this course, students are introduced to historical and contemporary research on psychological disorders, pathologies and other classifications of abnormal behavior. Specific topics that might be discussed include the difference between psychopaths and sociopaths, the conflict of nature vs. nurture in determining the causes of abnormal behavior, and the various approaches to understanding and treating psychological disorders.

On top of their dedicated psychology coursework, bachelor's degree students are normally required to earn a certain amount of general education credits before graduating. The exact subjects and courses offered vary from college to college, but can include mathematics, physical science, communications, fine arts, humanities and English composition.

Depending on the school, students may have the opportunity to choose between a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in psychology, and the type of degree chosen can have an effect on the student's general education requirements. Most notably, B.A. degrees tend to include a modern languages requirement, while B.S. degrees typically have a business or economic component.

Elective courses are another customary part of the coursework required to complete a bachelor's in psychology online. These might consist of psychology or non-psychology courses, and can sometimes be selected from upper division or graduate catalogs with special administrative permission. Some online bachelor's degree programs in psychology also offer specialized concentration tracks in areas such as criminal justice or marketing for those wishing to further tailor their education.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Bachelor's Degree Programs in Psychology

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most bachelor's degree graduates go on to work in non-psychology fields, as becoming a licensed psychologist requires a master's or doctoral degree. Graduates who want to enter the workforce immediately after earning their degree may be good candidates for related positions, such as direct-service social worker. These professionals help individuals overcome life crises like divorce and unemployment by coordinating community services and other resources. The BLS expects direct-service and clinical social workers as a group to see faster-than-average national job growth of 25 percent between 2010 and 2020, with healthcare social service worker jobs expected to grow 34 percent.

Other potential occupations for those with a bachelor's in psychology include survey researcher or human service assistant.

As members of society continue to seek the aid of psychologists for help managing their problems, the need for professionals in this field is expected to grow. Online master's degree programs in psychology generally teach students advanced theories of human behavior, effective research methods, and how various treatment methods can promote positive changes in the lives of these individuals. Core curriculum often covers topics like psychotherapy, counseling theory, interpersonal conflict and psychopathology. The two most commonly earned degrees in this field are the Master of Arts (M.A.) and the Master of Science (M.S.). Although both degree types have similar academic requirements, a M.A. degree typically indicates a liberal arts focus, while a M.S. degree usually emphasizes math and science.

What Does a Master's Degree Program in Psychology Entail?

Upon completion of a bachelor's degree, students generally can earn their master's in psychology online in two to three years of full-time study. Coursework mainly focuses on understanding the behavior, emotions and thoughts of human beings, with a concerted effort on research methods and assessment. Many online colleges also offer students the chance to choose a concentration or focus, such as clinical psychology, forensic psychology, child development, or sport psychology. While curriculum varies from program to program, here are some examples of potential courses:

  • Social Psychology: This course provides an overview of social psychology covering issues such as aggression, group influence, and social beliefs and judgments. Students explore how others can affect our perception, thoughts, emotions and behavior on purpose or by accident. Specifically, students learn how social psychological constructs impact the world and try to relate the lessons to a variety of social issues across the globe.
  • Human Development: In order to gain a complete understanding of human behavior, students must start at the beginning. This class offers an overview of the various stages of human growth and development and how those stages shape an individual's traits, personality, and behavior over the course of their lifespan. For instance, understanding developmental events in others' lives may help students gain insight into the factors that led an individual to become who they are.
  • Sports Psychology: In this class, students learn how to examine human behavior in sport and exercise settings. In addition to gaining an understanding of the foundation of sports psychology, students examine how personality, motivation, competition, and group and team dynamics can be applied to counseling, coaching and fitness instruction. With an emphasis on the latest research and practice in sport and exercise psychology, students can take a hands-on approach to creating strategies for athletic success.

Typically, students also choose elective courses based on their individual interests. For instance, a student who wants to work in addiction psychology might choose to take an elective course in alcoholism or chemical dependency. In addition to the core curriculum and required elective courses, students may also be asked to complete a thesis, capstone, externship or comprehensive exam in order to fulfill the requirements of their master's program.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Master's Degree Programs in Psychology

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as more people seek help from psychologists to deal with issues like depression, mental disorders, or marriage and family problems, the need for their services is expected to rise. National job growth in this field is projected to reach 22 percent between 2010 and 2020, a faster-than-average rate. Graduates of psychology master's programs can also go on to become psychologist assistants in mental health, counseling or research environments, reports the BLS. Those who wish to become full-fledged, licensed psychologists without earning their doctorate can pursue careers in school or industrial-organizational psychology. Job prospects for school psychologists, who work to enhance student learning performance, should be particularly good, as few specialize in this field and retiring professionals will need to be replaced. Licensing requirements may vary from state to state.

Psychology uses a unique blend of biology, philosophy, anthropology and sociology to study humans and their behavior. Earning a doctorate in psychology can help students master advanced psychological concepts and the range of techniques used to understand and study the human mind.

Two degrees are offered at the doctoral level: the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in psychology and the Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology). Ph.D. programs typically emphasize theory and advanced research, while Psy.D programs focus more heavily on clinical instruction -- however, there is often crossover in curriculum content. Doctoral students may want to choose a specialty depending on their desired career path. Popular concentrations include clinical psychology, counseling, forensic psychology and social psychology.

What Does a Doctoral Degree Program in Psychology Entail?

For full-time students, a Ph.D. in psychology typically takes five to seven years to complete, while a Psy.D. may take slightly less time. Much of the curriculum covers human behavior on a global level, with an emphasis on understanding feelings, beliefs and attitudes from a variety of cultural perspectives. Coursework also provides an in-depth overview of research methods, as well as a close look at the biological, social and cognitive areas of psychology. Potential course topics include:

  • Clinical Psychology: In this course, students explore the importance of clinical psychology and what makes it unique. With a focus on advanced research methods and evidence-based practice, students learn how to assess patients and diagnose mental illnesses. Many instructors also focus on the implementation of psychology in a diverse setting. For instance, coursework might include a study of diverse populations in an effort to understand how human behavior can be affected by culture and environment.
  • Educational Psychology: Individuals working toward a Ph.D. in psychology may choose to focus on contributing to education through their research efforts. In this course, students examine how people learn, analyzing the relationship between education and cognitive development. Coursework may include hands-on experience with teachers and students at a variety of educational levels. Educational assessment, environmental issues and educational research techniques are also typically explored.
  • Human Motivation: In order to understand human behavior, students must first delve into the details of what makes us tick. This course focuses on the internal and external factors that drive human beings to succeed or fail, with an emphasis on harnessing this information to help others reach their goals. Through the study of historical and contemporary theories and perspectives, students study the physiological, psychological, social, cognitive and emotional aspects of human motivation.

Many doctoral programs also require students to complete elective courses based on their interests or desired career path. For instance, psychology majors interested in working as consultants or government researchers may want to take elective courses in social psychology in order to study how social factors affect human behavior.

In addition, doctoral students are typically required to complete a dissertation, which involves independently researching an issue in psychology, writing a paper, and defending it to an academic committee. Psy.D. programs may also give students the opportunity to gain real-world clinical experience through practicum courses and internships.

Career Outlook for Graduates of Doctoral Degree Programs in Psychology

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a growing demand for psychological services in schools, hospitals, mental health centers, and social service agencies should cause employment of psychologists to rise 12 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022. The BLS also projects demand for industrial-organizational psychologists to grow by 53 percent during that period, as businesses seek help hiring the right employees and increasing productivity.

Completing a doctoral program may also allow graduates to conduct academic research or teach at the college level. The BLS expects employment of postsecondary teachers to increase 19 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022. The rising influx of college students should help fuel demand, but the BLS notes that schools are increasingly hesitant to offer tenure to professors, instead favoring adjunct or part-time teachers.

Depending on their background, students who earn a doctorate in psychology might also consider careers as consultants, political strategists, or human resources managers.

"Customer Service Representatives," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2014-15 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/office-and-administrative-support/customer-service-representatives.htm
"Postsecondary Teachers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2014-15 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Education-Training-and-Library/Postsecondary-teachers.htm
"Psychologists," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Life-Physical-and-Social-Science/Psychologists.htm
"Social Workers," Occupational Outlook Handbook (2012-13 Edition), Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-and-human-service-assistants.htm

For me there was no typical day, which is why online was perfect for me. I am very disciplined, so I would read/research/write whenever I had free time. Sometimes that was in the middle of the night - V.J. Sleight 
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