There are many educational options to choose from if you want to enter into a career in psychology. Unfortunately, virtually all of them require more than a Bachelor's degree in order to do anything truly interesting in psychology. An undergraduate psychology degree qualifies you to work as a laboratory or research assistance, and in some places, a low-level staffer in a mental health clinic or facility (you will not be seeing patients).
While a Bachelor's degree is the foundation of your education, a whole new set of really interesting and fun career opportunities open up once you've decided to continue pursuing your psychology education in graduate school. Whether you opt for a Master's or doctoral degree, you will have many more career options in psychology once you've made the decision to continue pursuing your education.
Only professionals nowadays who go on for their full doctorate degree can call themselves "psychologists." If that's important to you, then your decision is made for you. If the title is less important, you have more options open to you, because Master's degrees require less money, less time, and less training and allow you to do a lot of the same kinds of things as a doctoral-level person can -- most importantly, psychotherapy.
If, however, your interest is more along the lines of research, the doctoral degree is the easy and obvious choice. Specifically, you'll want to find a Ph.D. program that you can get into and afford. This path is also the one to choose if you're interested in teaching full-time. If you're interested in teaching only part-time or at a local community college, however, any graduate degree in psychology will suffice.
While once the gold standard of the psychotherapy profession, the doctoral degree is no longer considered required in order to become a competent and good therapist. If your career path is decidedly set on doing psychotherapy, you can still pursue a doctoral degree. But be careful in racking up expensive student loans if you take this path -- most therapists' salaries haven't risen nearly as quickly as tuition has in the past two decades. This trend is unlikely to change anytime soon, because less people see out psychotherapy too.
If you want to be able to prescribe medication, psychology is the wrong field to pursue. Medical doctors do most of the prescribing of medications in the U.S., so you'll want to look into becoming a psychiatrist -- a medical doctor that specializes in psychiatry. This requires all the same training as any doctor receives -- medical school, residency, etc.
Don't rely on psychologists seeking prescription privileges either. That's a slow train that's been on the tracks for decades now, with only two states who've signed on-board (and only because of a dire lack of alternatives in those states).
There are a wealth of options nowadays in order to obtain a graduate school education in psychology, ranging from professionals schools to online universities. These options make graduate training more readily available to ordinary people than at any previous time in the history of psychology. Carefully consider such programs, especially if you find little luck in being accepted at one of the few slots available in a traditional Ph.D. academic program.
One thing to be aware of if you pursue a professional school or a private university that has a larger Psy.D. program is the issue of educational loan debt. These schools can often be significantly more expensive than a traditional Ph.D. program, and it is becoming not uncommon for students to graduate with 6 figures of graduate schoold debt. This is a significant issue, even if you don't think it is right now. Most people's careers in psychology simply don't make sense if you start out with 6 figures of loan debt.
To put this into perspective, this is the same amount of loan debt many medical doctors graduate with -- but they often start out at 6 figure salaries too! Psychologists never start out with 6 figure salaries, and will be lucky to obtain such a salary within the first 20 years of their career (in most positions in most places in the country). So carefully think twice before agreeing to sign on to a program that will likely require you to go into debt beyond $100,000.
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 Jun 2011
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.