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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2006
Alternative Master's Degree Programs for Psychology Majors
Linda L. Walsh, PhD, University of Northern Iowa
The number of students pursuing master's degrees has been on the rise and those degrees need not be in psychology or counseling. Graduate programs in social work, occupational or physical therapy, marriage and family, or student affairs are other options psychology majors should consider.
Many students choose to major in psychology anticipating careers that involve helping others, but few realize just how many ways there are to do so. Although I have told advisees that those with bachelor's degrees in psychology are welcomed in a wide variety of graduate and professional programs, I myself did not realize until recently just how many alumni from my department pursued master's programs other than those in psychology or counseling. In the remainder of this article, I describe the alternative master's degree programs they most often selected.
Master's in Social Work (MSW) Programs
Would you like to help individuals or families struggling with the social problems so often encountered in today's world, such as family strife, poverty, unemployment, disability, violence, substance abuse, or illness? Social workers are often the professionals in the front lines of those fighting to improve the lives of others. An undergraduate degree in social work is not an admission requirement for MSW programs. A psychology major provides good preparation, especially if complemented by additional courses in areas like social work, sociology, political science, and urban studies. Relevant paid or volunteer experiences in social services, residential or care facilities, shelters, or other human service settings are important, if not essential, when applying to these graduate programs. Generally MSW programs require two years of course work plus many hours (~900 hours) of supervised fieldwork. All MSW programs offer foundation courses on the social work profession. Some then provide several different tracks allowing students to specialize or develop an area of concentration preparing them for work in a particular setting (e.g., healthcare, schools, substance abuse treatment, social service administration) or with a particular client population (e.g., children, disabled, elderly, disadvantaged) or on a particular social problem (e.g., homelessness, child abuse, poverty). A MSW degree from an accredited program is a highly marketable degree; the U.S. Department of Labor (2006) predicts that employment of social workers will increase faster than the average for all occupations into the next decade. For additional information see the print or online resources listed below.
Council of Social Work Education. (n.d.). Member program directory. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from
Ginsburg, L. H. (2001). Careers in social work (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
National Association of Social Workers. (n.d.). Choices: Careers in social work. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from
U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2006). Occupational outlook handbook - Social workers. Retrieved May 9, 2009, from
Wittenberg, R. (2003). Opportunities in social work careers. Lincolnwood, IL: VGM Career Books (McGraw-Hill Publishing).
Master's Degrees in Allied Health Professions
Do you enjoy natural science classes and the biological aspect as well as the helping aspect of psychology? Then you might want to consider one of the following types of masters programs in allied health areas. Allied health professionals work in clinical healthcare settings providing specialized services that complement and extend the efforts of physicians and nurses. The particular allied health areas that draw the most psychology students are occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT).
Master's in Occupational Therapy (MOT) Programs
Occupational therapists are certified professionals who help their clients regain or master the activities of daily living and other perceptual-motor tasks to develop as much independence and self-sufficiency at home, school, and/or work as possible. Clients might include individuals with physical or behavioral limitations due to injury or health problems as well as those with developmental disabilities, and they may range in age from infants to elderly. Some clients may be adapting to prosthetic or orthotic devices or may be working to maintain functioning in the face of a progressive disorder. Occupational therapists may work in hospitals and other medical, rehabilitation, or special care settings, schools, residential facilities, social service agencies, or in private practice. For additional information see the print or online resources listed below.
Abbott, M., Franciscus, M., & Weeks, Z. ( 2001). Opportunities in occupational therapy careers. Lincolnwood, IL: VGM Career Books (NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group).
The American Occupational Therapy Association. (2005). Consumer information. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from
The American Occupational Therapy Association (2005). O-T programs – Accredited. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from
U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2005). Occupational outlook handbook: Occupational therapists. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from
Master's in Physical Therapy (MFT) Programs
Physical therapists work primarily in healthcare settings to maximize muscle strength and comfortable movement in those whose motor function is less than optimal. They make use of therapeutic exercise and a variety of physical treatment approaches (such as ultrasound, hydro therapies, cold and heat therapies, electrical stimulation) to improve flexibility, fitness, and healthy motion patterns and to decrease muscle and joint pain. Physical therapy clients may be those suffering from disability or health problems or individuals who have recently had surgery or been injured in an accident. For additional information see the print or online resources listed below.

American Physical Therapy Association. (2006).
Hawkins, T. (2001). Careers in physical therapy. New York, NY: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.
U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2005). Occupational outlook handbook: Physical therapists. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from
Both occupational therapists and physical therapists are in high demand and admission to graduate programs in OT or PT is highly competitive. Psychology majors interested in either area should take a year or more of biology courses, including anatomy and physiology, and course work on the nervous system and neurological disorders, if available. Campus advising offices may have a list of other recommended courses for those preparing to enter OT or PT. These are, again, areas of graduate study where admission is not based solely on academic record and GRE scores; it is particularly important that applicants have a record of relevant volunteer or work experiences, with diverse populations if possible. Work with individuals with disabilities is especially valued.

Master's Programs in Marriage and Family
Although you could do graduate work preparing you to work with couples and families in departments of counseling, psychology, or social work, a large number of the graduate programs in this area are offered by departments of family studies, family science, or human development. The particular advanced degrees offered vary from campus to campus—some award the Master's in Family Therapy (MFT), others award Master of Arts or Master of Science degrees in family studies/family science, and some have several degree options. Professionals with master's degrees in this area find work in most of the same settings that employ those with degrees in psychology, counseling, or social work. These professionals might be providing family-related education (e.g., parent education, prenatal support, writing for family publications, family support in a healthcare setting), serving as an advocate (e.g., for children, women, or families), providing social services (e.g., abuse protection, victim support, hospice or gerontological services), or lobbying for or seeking funding for family related programs. Those who earn the master's degree in Family Therapy (and, in most states, pass a licensing exam) will most often be providing family-centered interventions, helping couples or families deal with a variety of issues (e.g., psychological disorders, substance abuse, criminal offenses, violence and abuse, family discord, or broken families). They might work in a treatment setting, a social service agency, a school system, or the criminal justice system. For more information on family studies/family science, see the list of resources below.
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. (n.d.). A career as a marriage and family therapist. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. (2002). Directory of MFT training programs. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from
Educational Directories Unlimited. (n.d.) Family and consumer sciences - family studies. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from
Educational Directories Unlimited. (n.d.). Human development – child development. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from
Family science. (2002). Retrieved May 9, 2006, from science 629 635 iemf
Hans, J. D. (2005). Graduate and undergraduate study in marriage and family: A guide to bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs in the United States and Canada, 2005-2007. Columbia, MO: Family Scholar Publications.
Touliatos, J. (1999). Graduate study in marriage and the family: A guide to master's and doctoral programs in the United States and Canada. Fort Worth, TX: Human Sciences Publications.
Master's Programs in Student Affairs
Have you enjoyed your time in an academic environment? Would you like to work at a university helping students have a full and successful college experience? Have you perhaps enjoyed working as a resident assistant, peer advisor, or leader in a student organization? A master's program preparing you for a career in student affairs (also known as the area of college student development or college student personnel) may be a good choice for you. Student affairs professionals are found all across campus—admissions, financial aid, student residences, academic advising, career and placement centers, student unions and student activity offices, and many other offices offering support services to different student populations (e.g., international, disabled, minority, Greek system, academically challenged, or gifted). For additional information see the print or online resources listed below.
Coomes, M. D., & Gerda, J. J. (Eds.). (2005). Directory of graduate programs preparing student affairs professionals. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from
National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. (2006-2007). Grad prep. Retrieved May 9, 2006, from (n.d.). Retrieved June 20, 2006, from
One must earn a doctoral degree to become a psychologist and the employment opportunities for those with master's degrees in psychology are therefore more limited. In contrast, in each of the areas briefly described in this article, the master's degree is the most common advanced degree. Doctoral degrees may be available, primarily for those most interested in careers in research or higher education, but it is the master's degree that is required for access to most of the positions in social work, family science, occupational therapy, physical therapy, or student affairs. Each of these areas makes use of psychological principles and research findings. Master's programs in these areas offer important graduate school options for psychology students interested in becoming helping professionals.

Linda L. Walsh, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). She received her bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago and her master's and doctoral degrees in biopsychology from the University of Chicago. She has been at UNI for many years, receiving a college teaching award and sometimes serving as the Psi Chi and Psychology Club advisor. She has published articles in Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior, Physiology and Behavior, Brain and Biobehavioral Reviews, Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, and the National Teaching and Learning Forum. She is a member of APA and APS and serves on the Council of Undergraduate Psychology Programs. She also enjoys developing online resources for students and faculty (e.g., The Pursuing Psychology Graduate School Page,, and The Pursuing Psychology Career Page, ).

Copyright 2006 (Volume 11, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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