Studying Psychology Online: A Basic Guide

Psychology was first offered as a university major in the 1950s, and it was an instant hit. Psychology was the fifth most popular degree in the 2008 to 2009 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The field of study ranked behind business, social science, health professions, and education. Since it is one of the most popular degrees, reputable colleges and universities now offer psychology courses and even full psychology degree programs online.

Below you’ll find general information about studying psychology and studying online. Check our other articles for links to accredited online psychology programs at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level.

Why choose psychology?

People are drawn to psychology for a number of reasons:

  • Learning about psychology is personally enriching. Students of psychology learn to understand themselves and others in more ways and at deeper levels than most non-psychologists. Benefits can be reaped in daily life in terms of personal development and navigating virtually any social situation, from business to dating or raising children.
  • Psychology is relevant to almost any career. According to a 2009 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, 21.3% of doctoral graduates work in a university setting, 5.7% work for an independent practice, and 20.9% are employed by the government of by businesses. Business schools and other employers frequently recruit graduates of psychology programs because they know the students develop strong backgrounds in research, writing, critical thinking, and interacting positively with others. Although many psychology graduates do not work as psychologists, the vast majority of them report that their psychology educations are directly related to their work.
  • Psychology careers can be extremely rewarding. Practicing psychology permits people to help others in very meaningful ways while also earning a comfortable living. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employment of psychologists is expected to grow 22% between 2010 and 2020. According to the BLS’s data, psychologists earned a median annual wage of $68,640 in May 2010. However, keep in mind that you need to earn doctoral degree to practice psychology.

How is psychology studied online?

Online psychology degrees are offered in a variety of program formats: on campus only, on campus and online (often called a “blended program”), and online only. If you choose an online-only program, then all of the following activities will probably take place online: enrollment; orientation; lectures; retrieval of course readings and assignments; submission of assignments; communication with the instructor and other students; testing; and grade delivery. These are typically accomplished through a combination of email and web-based course management systems such as Blackboard. However, some online psychology programs require students to travel to the school’s campus for orientation, test-taking, or to defend a thesis. Some online programs offer graduation ceremonies on campus as well.

Are online psychology programs respected?

In 2007, online learning was considered mainstream by a majority of American universities. Nearly 70% of accredited colleges and universities had moved courses online. According to the Sloan Foundation’s report entitled “Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning,” this was largely in response to student demand; schools found that to attract more students, they needed to offer more flexibility.

In a 2009 study, the U.S. Department of Education concluded that kindergarten to 12th-grade students of online courses typically outperform students in traditional classrooms. The report, an evaluation of 1,100 studies of online learning, stated “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” Results were published in a report entitled Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.

How should I choose among programs?

Obviously, not all programs are created equal. Ask yourself the following questions when considering an online psychology degree program:

  • Is the school offering the program accredited by a regional accrediting agency? Six regional accrediting agencies are recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the United States Department of Education (USDE). These agencies are the same groups that grant most campus-based institutions their accreditation. They include:

    There are also national accrediting agencies recognized by the CHEA. Like regional agencies, national accrediting organizations accredit the entire institution instead of a specific program. The CHEA recognizes the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) and the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) as national career-related accrediting agencies. The CHEA also lists four national faith-based accrediting agencies:

    The American Psychological Association (APA) provides specialized accreditation to universities that offer doctoral programs in psychology. However, the APA only accredits clinical, counseling, and school psychology doctoral programs. APA accreditation only applies to the specific program which means that other doctoral psychology programs offered by the school may not be accredited.

    If a psychology school is not accredited by one of the above agencies, then it may not be worth your investment. Fortunately, it’s easy to find schools that meet the agencies’ educational standards. Our articles include links to accredited schools, and you can verify any school’s status by searching the CHEA database.

    When choosing a doctoral degree program, make sure the curriculum includes an internship or field work. Many states have educational requirements for psychologists which include a doctoral degree and an internship that has lasted a certain amount of time. If you don’t have the clinical or internship experience you may not qualify for licensure by the state in which you reside.

  • Is the schedule convenient? Online programs vary widely. Synchronous programs, which require students and professors to be online at the same time, are more structured than asynchronous programs, which let students download lectures or record them off cable TV. In addition, some online programs have a few on-campus requirements.

    Depending on your situation, the idea of being online at the same time as other students and professors might appeal to you. You might also like occasional interaction on campus. On the other hand, requirements such as these might defeat the purpose of your choosing to learn online. Since a major benefit of online learning is its convenience, take the time to find a program that suits your lifestyle.

  • Are the faculty well-connected and will I connect with them? It’s important to develop relationships with professors. While you’re in school, they can provide excellent mentoring and networking opportunities. You’ll also want professors to know you well enough to provide strong recommendation letters to employers or other universities that you apply to in the future. Therefore, find out about each program’s faculty/student ratios and the opportunities the programs provide for meaningful interaction with your online professors.

  • What other benefits are offered? As an online psychology student, you should expect to have free online access to social science journals and other electronic resources. If your school has a physical campus, then you should also receive a library card and possibly rights to other campus facilities, such as workout rooms. Other perks offered to online students include academic advising, employment assistance, and tutoring services.

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