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Master of Arts vs. Master of Science in Psychology: What’s the Difference?


Pursuing a graduate degree in psychology opens up doors as you explore professional opportunities in the field. Although the general public may imagine a therapist meeting one-on-one with a client when they think of the degree’s career prospects, the truth is that the field of psychology offers a wide variety of job titles to consider. Students who earn their graduate degree often go on to obtain jobs in clinical psychology, counseling, experimental or forensic psychology and industrial psychology. Some become school psychologists.

Perhaps you studied psychology as an undergraduate, or you’re exploring the field for the first time as an adult after years in the professional world. Whatever your path toward a graduate degree in psychology has looked like, a master’s program will provide you with the skills necessary for a successful and rewarding career built on serving those around you.

Graduate-level programs typically last 2-3 years. Although prerequisites vary, common required coursework includes statistics, experimental methods and developmental psychology

Discerning which program is right for you can feel a bit overwhelming at first. That’s why we’ve broken down the advantages of both a Master of Arts and a Master of Science in psychology. You're about to embark on an exciting new adventure, so set yourself up for the best chance at success by committing to a program that’s right for you. 

Overview: Consider Your Academic Pursuits

The first important decision you will make as a graduate student of psychology is whether to pursue a Master of Arts or Master of Science in psychology. At the foundational level, you’ll need to consider basic logistics. 

Look inward at your personal career goals, including specialization interests, to find a program that best suits you and your needs. Begin with the following questions:

  • Do you already have a graduate school in mind? 
  • If so, does the school offer both Master of Arts and Master of Science in psychology degree programs? 
  • If not, are you willing to switch schools to pursue your speciality? 
  • What is the class offering schedule at your prospective school? 

Core curriculum requirements tend to be similar between both MA and MS programs. Some degrees are available to students in both programs, including:

  • MA or MS in experimental psychology
  • MA or MS in industrial-organizational psychology
  • MA or MS in forensic psychology
  • MA or MS in clinical psychology
  • MA or MS in social psychology
  • MA or MS in child development

When determining a degree plan that’s right for you, you should take a closer look at the academic focus, professional opportunities and general benefits that both a Master of Arts and Master of Science in psychology can offer. 

Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology

If you’re looking for a fulfilling career as a professional counselor, marital and family therapist or drug and alcohol counselor, a Master of Arts in counseling psychology is a great place to begin. In as little as 28 months, you can pursue a comprehensive degree in the field that guides you through the process of gaining basic counseling techniques before delving into more specific coursework to become well-versed in the following:

  • Psychopathy
  • Theories and techniques of counseling
  • Marital and family systems theories
  • Research methods
  • Multiculturalism and diversity
  • Group therapy techniques
  • Philosophy of interpersonal relationships
  • And more 

Upon graduation, you’ll have the opportunity to transform the way people think about themselves, each other and the world around them. You’ll also have the opportunity to be a part of the reason a person takes the next big step in their personal or professional lives, seeks out meaningful relationships, and becomes more introspective about who and what they want out of life. 

Prospective MA students at SNU must hold a BA degree from a regionally accredited college or university and must have at least 18 hours of psychology-related undergraduate coursework in order to apply. 

Academic Focus

A Master of Arts in psychology tends to have a liberal arts and/or humanities focus. Academic work in this program tends to provide training for most entry-level positions in the field, including mental health and forensic psychology. 

It’s sometimes considered a prerequisite for pursuing a PhD program, but not always. For example, grad students who earn their Master of Arts in psychology may pursue a PhD in psychology or a doctorate of psychology (PsyD). However, generally speaking MS degrees are a more common prerequisite for those choosing to pursue doctoral-level degrees. 

Real-World Application

As soon-to-be grads explore career prospects, common job titles include rehabilitation counselors, mental health counselors, addiction and substance abuse counselors, and marriage and family therapists. Clinical counselors and school psychologists are other popular avenues. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, counselors working outside of school settings require licensure in 49 states. According to the same BLS report, school and career counselors and advisors earn a median salary of $58,120 per year

Takeaway Benefits

A Master of Arts in Psychology is best suited for students interested in pursuing a degree in counseling or analysis. Typically, an MA is considered a terminal degree. In other words, those who have earned their master’s in psychology have earned the highest degree in their field. However, because students who pursue an MS in psychology often go on to pursue a doctoral degree, an MS is not considered a terminal degree. 

Yearning to go back to school, but don’t think you have the time? Read our  guide, What to Expect from an Online Degree Program, to see if it’s the right  fit.

Master of Science in Psychology

Students who pursue a Master of Science in psychology are usually interested in research or scientific study as it relates to psychology. Coursework tends to emphasize statistical analysis and research methodology rather than counseling practice and theories. Some Master of Science in psychology programs can be completed in one year, but typically they take 2-3 years to complete. 

Academic Focus

For students who are looking to maximize their prerequisites from their undergraduate studies at a graduate level, Master of Science programs are particularly advantageous to students who have already completed a bachelor’s in psychology. Although a Master of Arts may be helpful to students who plan to pursue a doctoral degree in psychology, a Master of Science is essential. 

Common examples of degree programs for those pursuing an MS in psychology include:

  • General psychology
  • Applied behavior analysis
  • Child and adolescent development
  • Education psychology
  • Sport psychology 
  • Industrial and organizational psychology 

Real-World Application

Earning a Master of Science in Psychology opens up opportunities in private industries, mental health industries, forensic psychology and schools. More specifically, students may choose between: 

  • Clinical specializations such as counseling, cognitive psychology, abnormal psychology and child psychology
  • School-based specializations including school and educational psychology
  • Corporate specializations including social psychology, industrial psychology and forensic psychology

According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, psychologists earn a median salary of $82,180 per year

Takeaway Benefits

In some cases, opting for a MS in psychology can save students time and money. For example, some schools allow students to concurrently earn their bachelor’s and master’s degree in psychology. This equates to higher earning potential and less time commitment than PhD programs, for example. 

You’ll also enter the workforce with marketable skills. For example, nonprofits rely on the support of students who have their MS in psychology. While this oftentimes requires students to balance work life and student life at the same time, it also provides students with an added level of job security once they reach graduation. 

One of the primary reasons a student may choose to pursue an MS in psychology, the option for specialization, also becomes hugely beneficial to students as they enter the workforce. As students complete coursework and gain licensures and certifications, they set themselves apart from the competition when it comes time to apply for full-time post-graduation work. 

A Fulfilling Career That Inspires

An academic and professional career in psychology is an exciting prospect for many students. On a practical level, a career in the field allows you flexibility outside of the traditional 9-to-5 job, competitive salary and opportunities for career advancement

Psychology of any kind — counseling, research, social work and so forth  — provides a deep sense of community and personal responsibility to the greater good. It not only opens you up to grapple with the human condition, but it also forces you to consider those same tendencies and relationships in your own day-to-day life. Furthermore, you can use the knowledge you glean over the course of your career to inspire the next generation. Counselors and psychologists often take on instruction opportunities of their own. It’s truly a rewarding career that keeps on giving. 

If you’re interested in pursuing a Master of Arts or Master of Science in psychology but not sure where to begin, SNU is here to help. You’ll find detailed information about our diverse degree program offering and the steps you must take to register. To find out more about which program may be right for you, get in touch with one of our counselors to set out on your academic goals today. 

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