How We Choose the Psychology Master’s Programs We Consider to Be the Best

You won’t have any trouble finding schools that offer psychology degrees at every level, from AA programs at your local community college to PsyD and PhD options at the best recognized Ivy League institutions in the world.

What you may have a problem with is identifying which of those schools is the best fit for you – the ones offering the right combination of concentrations, experienced faculty, affordable tuition, and flexible study options to fit the unique needs of your life.

It’s important to us that you be able to use our site as a trusted guide to narrow down your options to a handful of programs well aligned with your goals.

That’s why we take a holistic approach to selecting the best options available, evaluating factors like faculty experience and contributions to the field … university research programs and the funding to make it happen … dedicated student support for academic advising and practicum placements … the school’s reputation and connections to the professional community to ensure students have access to diverse and meaningful fieldwork opportunities … school culture and student organizations that foster networking opportunities and lifelong camaraderie for those dedicating their lives to the science and art of psychology.

Our view is that, in a field as focused on individual, human factors as psychology is, you deserve a nuanced, human perspective on the best programs in the field. And that’s exactly what we offer with our curated lists of selected programs.

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General Criteria for Degrees in Psychology (And Related Fields)

Every psychology degree has certain elements in common, a foundation that has to be strong and stable enough to build a career on. We use some of the same essential criteria to evaluate all the programs that are featured on our site – the things applicable to all master’s programs in psychology and related fields. Naturally, these are the things that we have come to find make the biggest difference when it comes to creating an exceptional student experience while providing the most complete preparation possible for a career in psychology.

Accreditation to Ensure Adequate Academic Performance

Employers and clients expect psychology master’s program graduates to have earned their degrees from schools that maintain high academic standards. Thanks to the basic college accreditation process that the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) oversees, that expectation is consistently met.

Meeting basic accreditation standards make a school eligible to receive tuition payments from Title IV federal loans and grants. They are also what ensure that anybody who passes through the halls of these institutions ends up ready for careers in the fields they’ve studied. It’s an important hurdle, and one that’s in place for the benefit of everybody, both students and the public they will eventually serve when they graduate.

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All reputable schools in the United States hold accreditation from one of the seven regional accrediting agencies, or an agency with national scope that deals primarily with online and vocational schools. That basic institutional accreditation process ensures the adequacy and consistency of academic standards and we consider it the base minimum for any school worthy of a second look.

The process for gaining accreditation is formidable and can take years. Schools have to document their accomplishments in categories such as:

  • Management and Administrative Operations
  • Program Requirements
  • Educational Administration
  • Student Recruiting and Achievement
  • Resource Availability and Faculty Qualifications

After reviewing that documentation with a fine-toothed comb, the accrediting agencies follow up with on-site visits and recommendations. And they continue to do so at regular intervals, requiring schools to engage in continuous improvement that ensures that their psychology programs, among others, always remain current and relevant.

Excellence in Instruction from Superior Faculty

Who you learn from can impact what you learn more than almost any other factor, so we insist on including only schools with the top instructors practicing in the field of psychology today. We look for professors who aren’t just experienced academically, but who have years of real-world practice under their belt, who continue to engage in cutting-edge research in the field, and who publish regularly on the subject.

Third-Party Reviews and Overall Reputation of The Program

Psychology dives deep inside the hidden realms of the mind, but that’s not to say that appearances aren’t important. We look to third-party reviews by respected organizations like The Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report to find both current and historical information about program rankings.

Tuition Costs and Overall Program Value

While there are tremendous differences in the costs of different psychology degree programs across the country, there is one constant: the value they deliver. We make sure that a program that costs a lot also delivers a high value, while a program that is less expensive may not necessarily have to hurdle quite so high a bar for inclusion.

General Criteria for Bachelor’s Degrees in Psychology (And Related Fields)

According to the American Psychological Association, in 2016, 6.2 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States were granted in the field of psychology… but only around 30 percent of those graduates ended up working in the field.

The relatively low proportion of graduates from four-year psychology programs that go on to work in the field helps paint a picture of how important it is to lock in with a program that really works to engage you as much as it prepares you for the rigors of working in the field. It’s more important than ever to identify a program that can deliver the tools you need to transition into the field or prepare you for further graduate study, which is why we use strict standards for evaluating schools at the baccalaureate level.

General Liberal Arts and Humanitarian Education Elements

At the bachelor’s level, you are expected to absorb a great deal of information that is outside your designated area of study. Half or more of your classes will be aimed at classical education elements encouraging critical thinking and general studies skills that will inform your ability to continue learning for a lifetime. We look for schools that offer a strong liberal arts foundation in addition to psychological program excellence.

Strong Counseling and Career Advising Services

Considering how many psychology graduates there are in the country and how few of them actually end up practicing in the field, it’s worth considering what sort of advice they are getting from college counselors and how much assistance they receive in job placement after graduation. We favored programs that have the career services resources and expertise to help you make the best decisions regarding your education and to help you meet your post-graduation employment goals.

General Criteria for Master’s Degrees in Psychology (And Related Fields)

The APA has also found that around 45 percent of psychology bachelor’s graduates go on to earn a graduate degree. It’s little surprise considering that a master’s is looked at as a standard requirement for many jobs in industry that call for a background in psychology and even for psychology associate-level licensing in states that offer this option, while a doctorate is the only way to achieve full authority licensure as a psychologist.

Whether or not your master’s is a stepping-stone to a doctorate, there are few things in the career preparation process that are as important as landing in a program that’s of the highest quality, and also one that’s well aligned with your career goals.

We help you in identifying those programs by compiling lists of options that meet the criteria it takes to be classified among the very best:

Programmatic and Specialty Accreditations

When it comes to looking specifically at psychology graduate programs, specialty programmatic accreditation of individual programs gets more to the heart of what it is to provide a comprehensive education in the principals, practices and ethics of psychology. The accreditation options at this level are pretty limited, however.

The American Psychological Association’s Commission on Accreditation is in the business of accrediting the PhD and PsyD programs required for psychology licensure, but does not currently evaluate most master’s programs or any bachelor’s programs. Certain programs, viewed as pre-doctoral, may have APA accreditation, and we consider that in those cases. For lists that include PsyD and PHD programs, APA accreditation is a minimum requirement.

A second specialty accreditor, the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC), has emerged to fill this gap. Though MPCAC is not currently recognized by CHEA or the USDE, it is set to submit applications for approval to CHEA in late 2019. In building our lists of counseling and psychology programs, it was one among many considerations, but not an absolute criterion.

When it comes to counseling and related degree programs – whether related to mental health, school and education concerns, substance abuse, or marriage and family therapy – it’s the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Degree Programs (CACREP) that we turned to. This organization has been recognized by CHEA for years, offering the assurance of quality we were looking for in the counseling programs we felt were worth considering.

There are certain additional specialty accreditations from CHEA-recognized accrediting agencies that we look for in certain degree fields. For example, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) would be a minimal accreditation standard that we would consider for social work degrees, while business-oriented degrees in organizational psychology or similar focuses might rely on an accreditation from one of the three major business degree accrediting bodies in the country:

Strong Research and Experimental Programs

The knowledge base of the psychology industry is constantly expanding on the basis of research conducted by professors and graduate students in master’s degree programs. For a leg up in the field, it’s important that you select a program that has strong and well-supported research activities that actively involve graduate students… like the programs we select for our lists.

Meaningful Clinical and Practical Experience

Hands-on practicum hours are a key aspect of any psychology master’s program, but not all practicum opportunities offer the same level of diverse and immersive experiential learning. We look for programs that offer strong clinical experience that is relevant to the concentrations on offer, and that put you in a key role in delivering supervised services to needy populations. A lot of this comes down to the breadth and nature of the relationships a school has forged with the professional community.

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The schools that stand out for us are the ones that offer diverse options in business, healthcare, government, private practice, and even international opportunities.

Concentrations to Fit Your Goals and the Demands of the Job Market

Psychology pervades almost every aspect of the human experience, and consequently you can find concentrations ranging from sports psychology to economic psychology offered at institutions around the country. We evaluate schools not just on the basis of the number of concentrations available, but also on their ability to successfully teach the concentrations they do offer.

This means giving consideration to the backgrounds of the professors teaching specialty courses, as well as the type of practicum opportunities students have access to. Schools with professors and community partners that align with the concentrations on offer always got a second look as we made our selections.

Focused Psychology Master’s Degree Criteria

For lists that focus on specialty concentrations in psychology master’s degrees, or in degree programs that are adjacent to psychology, such as counseling or social work, we apply slightly different criteria.

When we feature other types of degrees on our lists, there’s always a good reason: you can forge a career in psychology with that degree just as well as with a traditional psychology degree. But we do want to ensure that the education you are receiving still covers all the foundational elements of psychology, so we look carefully for courses that fulfill basic psychology education as well as the adjacent specialty skills.

Online Master’s in Psychology (And Related Fields) Criteria

Psychology education has moved online along with most other fields of study, but it brings with it challenges that many other types of degrees do not. The human-centric face-to-face nature of psychological interaction can be preserved even with an education that is delivered online, but only with the appropriate design, effort, and resources devoted to doing so.

We apply additional criteria to online programs to make sure they are every bit the equal of campus-based offerings. This meant looking for programs that ensure seamless streaming for any synchronous courses they may offer, as well as for discussions with professors and peers.

Course Flexibility and Graduation Timeline

Chances are you wouldn’t be looking at online options in the first place unless you genuinely needed a program that fits your schedule and the existing demands of your work and family life. An online program doesn’t do you any good if it ties you down in the same way as a traditional degree program, so we favor those that offer flexible timelines for completion, asynchronous delivery that allow you to consume class content at any time, and large course catalogs that give you plenty of options for classes to take.

Online Learning Technology and Support Services

The right Learning Management System (LMS) software can make or break an online degree program. Without high uptime, fast performance, and an intuitive user interface, you can end up spending more time learning how to submit your papers than you do writing them.

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We look for schools that use the best technology in the space, dedicated 24/7 IT support.