Online Degrees in Psychology or Social Work

psychology group session

By Sarah Stevenson

A recent report from National Public Radio cited increasing numbers of post-traumatic stress disorder claims among returning veterans, so it's no surprise that the Department of Veterans Affairs is a source of promising job prospects for psychologists and counselors. And that's not the only area that's burgeoning.

Specialties such as geriatric psychology, industrial-organizational psychology and school counseling are among several psychology fields considered to be "growth careers," according to the American Psychological Association. Online degrees in psychology and social work, as well as accredited online degrees in counseling, are becoming increasingly popular options for those looking to start a career in these fields.

Pros and Cons of Online Degrees

If you're researching online degrees in psychology or social work, it's critical to first consider whether online education is right for you. Here are some questions to ask yourself when looking at any prospective degree program that involves online study:

  • Does this program offer enough scheduling flexibility? Do you have the self-discipline to set your own study hours and stick to them?
  • Is the tuition affordable? Does the school offer financial aid options such as loans, grants and scholarships?
  • Does the program offer enough interactivity with teachers and classmates? Does the format of the online classes suit your learning style?
  • What are the technology requirements for the program? Is your computer compatible with the school's system, or do you need to purchase additional technology?

Choosing a Program

Rigorous training in the scientific method and psychological research; curriculum covering various subfields in psychology; the ability to learn from established professionals in the field—these are the core elements of any good psychology degree. If you plan to pursue graduate school, you'll also want to target an online master's degree that offers the same opportunities to gain laboratory research experience as a traditional program.

And if a doctorate is what you're after, bear in mind that clinical, counseling, and some other areas of psychology require 1-year internships as part of the coursework. Prospective employers will be on the lookout for job candidates with the right academic credentials, and this means a degree program with a competitive and comprehensive curriculum regardless of whether the format is online or traditional.

Not only that, employers expect that degree program to be accredited. Accredited institutions meet standards of quality defined by the U.S. Department of Education after being approved by one of the seven regional accreditation agencies. Specific professional programs may also be awarded specialized accreditation—for most psychology programs, this is granted by the American Psychological Association (APA). Other organizations that accredit online degrees in psychology, social work and counseling include the National Association of School Psychologists and the Council on Social Work Education.

Accredited Online Degrees

  • Associate's Degrees: Online degrees in psychology, social work and counseling at the associate's level provide a general overview of the field, and may prepare you to enter a bachelor's degree program for further training. It usually takes about two years to complete an associate's degree.
  • Bachelor's Degrees: A bachelor's degree is usually the minimum requirement for finding entry-level work in the field of psychology. Graduates are prepared for employment in a variety of settings: mental health services for the federal government, assisting psychologists in clinics and mental health centers, and working in business environments. As for online social work degrees, generally a bachelor's degree in social work (BSW) is sufficient for entry-level positions such as caseworker and residential counselor.
  • Master's Degrees: It isn't necessary to hold an undergraduate degree in psychology to gain entrance into a graduate program, but some elementary coursework helps, since the master's program builds on topics studied at the undergraduate level. Completion of a master's in psychology—usually a Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS)—is usually necessary to enter a doctoral program. However, the Master of Social Work (MSW) degree is a terminal degree that prepares the graduate to work in most clinical, health, and school settings. An MA or MS in Counseling is required in order to work in most settings as a counselor; some fields such as substance abuse counseling may demand specialty certification.
  • Doctoral Degrees: Doctoral programs in psychology usually take the form of either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), though there are some specialized programs such as the Doctor of Education (EdD) that focus on areas such as school psychology. School counselors and other counseling psychologists often hold an EdD. The doctoral curriculum is quite demanding, and often requires a written dissertation as well as some clinical or other practical internship experience.