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Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Knowing Is Half the Battle (Part 1)

What Type of Graduate Program Should You Apply To?

Advanced degrees in Psychology

Attending graduate school in psychology can lead you towards a large variety of degrees. It is important that you make an informed decision about which degree is right for you. It must be one that will help you meet your career goals - after all, graduate school is a big commitment. In the next two posts, I will provide a list of graduate degrees in psychology. I will also describe the type of career for which each degree program prepares students, as well as the requirements necessary for successful degree completion. I categorize the degrees into three broad categories: The practical degrees, the research degrees, and the hybrid degrees. In this post, I will focus on the practical degrees. (See my next post for the research and hybrid degrees.)

The Practical Degrees
If you earn a practical degree, you will be qualified to become a practitioner. You will likely conduct some research if you enroll in one of these programs, but the curriculum will mostly focus on training you to work in an applied setting. Importantly, after you earn your degree, you likely need additional certification or licensure to practice independently (i.e., without the supervision of another professional). The certification or license requirements might involve passing an exam, fulfilling a certain number of supervised hours of practice, or both. The practical degrees include:

PsyD (Doctorate of Psychology)
The PsyD is a professional doctorate degree and one of the two most common paths to becoming a licensed clinical psychologist. As a PsyD student, you can expect coursework to focus on the direct application of psychological theories to the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. PsyD students are usually expected to conduct a research project for their dissertations on an applied topic. Furthermore, PsyD training will include supervised clinical practice hours as well as a full-time supervised clinical internship. PsyD training usually takes 4-7 years.

MA/MS in Counseling Psychology
An M.A. refers to a Masters degree in Arts while an M.S. refers to a Masters degree in Science. The distinction between an M.A. and M.S. in the case of psychology is usually verbal, and nothing more. Whether a Masters in Psychology is an M.A. or M.S. could depend on the traditions at a particular university and/or the department or college which psychology was originally part of. It could also refer to whether or not a thesis was completed (an M.S. may require a thesis, an M.A. might not).

A Masters in Counseling Psychology is a practical degree that prepares graduates to become LPCs (Licensed Professional Counselors). In this career, you can specialize in a variety of counseling careers, including School Counseling, Marriage and Family Counseling, Rehabilitation Counseling, Substance Abuse Counseling, or Mental Health Counseling. This degree program involves a mixture of coursework in psychology, culture and practice, and hands-on experience in the counseling field. The standard duration is 2 years.

PhD in Counseling Psychology
Counseling psychologists focus on the optimal functioning of individuals who are free of mental disorders. A PhD in Counseling Psychology will prepare you broadly for a career as either a therapist or an educator/education administrator, but you can tailor your training to specialize in the particular type of counseling that fits your interests. Those who have PhDs in Counseling Psychology work in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, community centers, schools, universities, or independent practices. Program requirements generally include coursework, some research, clinical practice, an internship, and a dissertation. Five years is the typical length of time that it will take to complete this degree.

MA/MS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology
Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology is the psychology of the workplace. If you are interested in a career dedicated to improving the work environment for employees in large organizations (such as corporations, non-profits, or healthcare facilities), this might be the degree for you. A Masters degree in I/O Psychology trains students for applied research, that is to say, research that will have a tangible impact on the workplace. I/O psychologists who work in business (as opposed to academics) conduct research on topics related to productivity, leadership, diversity, training methods, work-life balance, personnel selection, motivation, etc. They also are commonly involved with implementing and assessing new programs in the workplace. Masters programs in I/O Psychology are often particularly suited to students who have a few years of work experience, but they can also accommodate students who are recent graduates. These programs will usually require you to complete and submit a thesis and, in some cases, complete an internship in an applied setting. The degree usually takes 2 years to complete.

MSW (Masters of Social Work)

Earning a MSW trains you for either working with individuals or families, or for a career in advocacy and policy change. Those who have an MSW often work for social work agencies that specialize in providing support to special populations, such as aging people, immigrants, or those affected by poverty. You can also work in private practice with an MSW. The other career path of a social worker is one that involves advocating for underprivileged groups in a university, religious organization, or government setting. The MSW takes about 2 years to complete. The requirements include coursework and supervised practice. Following graduation, to become a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) you must pass an exam or meet other state requirements.

In the following post, we will turn to the research degrees.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: to learn more about improving your graduate school application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.


About the Author

Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher in the iScience Group at Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.