Choosing a Psychology or Social Work Degree Online

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By Sarah Stevenson

Studying and improving mental health in all areas of life is the province of psychology, but careers in the field take many different forms, ranging from general clinical psychology to highly specialized jobs such as vocational rehabilitation counselor, in diverse settings from academia to industry. Distance learning and online programs now address nearly every discipline in psychology, but it can be an arduous process to figure out which of the many subfields to focus on, and what to study in order to get there. Should you get an online counseling degree or a social work degree online? What's the difference between school psychology and educational psychology?

Read on to find out more about some of the major subfields in psychology, counseling and social work and learn which online degree programs can get you started.

Psychology and Social Work Career Paths

Clinical psychology is a broad specialty that deals with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental disorders. There are many specialized subfields, including child psychology and neuropsychology. Most practicing clinical psychologists have a doctoral degree in psychology; however, if you are interested in clinical social work, you may want to pursue a social work degree online.

Cognitive psychology focuses on how the brain acquires, processes and stores information by studying memory, perception, language and other mental processes. Cognitive psychology courses are available at the undergraduate level, but to practice in the field requires graduate study.

Developmental psychology is the study of cognitive, social, and physiological development throughout the human lifespan. Many developmental psychologists specialize in a particular stage of life, such as early childhood, or in developmental disorders. Developmental psychologists usually hold a graduate degree.

Educational psychology is the study of how children and adults learn in a variety of settings, and generally requires a graduate degree in educational psychology. In contrast, school counselors and school psychologists work directly with students to address personal and social issues and provide academic and career guidance. School counseling requires at least a master's degree, while school psychologists generally need a doctorate.

Experimental psychologists focus on research that helps inform the diagnosis and treatment of psychological disorders. They usually hold a graduate degree, and may work in universities, private research firms, non-profit organizations and governmental agencies.

Forensic psychology applies psychological principles within the legal and criminal justice system, to assist legal professionals in understanding the psychological issues of a case. Graduate degrees in this fast-growing field are becoming more common.

Geropsychology or geriatric psychology
is a subfield of clinical psychology that looks at specific issues faced by the elderly, such as stress caused by age-related illness. Some medical and public health social workers also specialize in geriatric issues; depending on your career goals, you may choose to pursue either a psychology degree or a social work degree online.

Industrial-organizational psychologists apply the principles of psychology to the workplace in order to increase productivity and efficiency as well as improve employees' working lives. I/O psychology is becoming increasingly popular, and degree programs are proliferating.

Marriage and family therapy focuses on how people interact with in the context of the family, which may include the treatment of emotional disorders, relationship problems, communication problems and other issues that may affect the health of a marriage or family unit. An MFT usually holds a graduate degree as well as a state license.

Mental health counseling addresses the mental health needs of individuals, groups or families. Mental health counselors work with other mental health professionals to provide a range of services, helping patients with emotional disorders, stress, addiction, career concerns, relationship problems and more. Most counselors need a master's degree.

Rehabilitation counseling is concerned with helping individuals and their families cope with the personal, social and other effects of disabilities. Like other counselors, rehabilitation counselors usually hold a master's degree; sometimes additional certification is required.

Social psychologists study how people interact with one another and react to various social environments. Personality psychologists focus on the characteristics of individual personality. Because these disciplines are concerned with how human nature affects behavior, those with graduate degrees in either area often work in applied fields like consulting or market research.

Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counseling is a specific area of counseling that addresses addictions and other related problems, from drug or alcohol addiction to gambling addiction to eating disorders. These counselors help individual patients and groups as well as their families. Jobs may be available after completing a state-approved certification program.