As a single mother working two jobs, Spencer Williams needed an online bachelor’s program in psychology that was convenient for her schedule.
“That was important for me, too – that I didn’t have the travel a lot,” says the 29-year-old South Carolina resident. She explored several options, also evaluating cost, flexibility and accreditation.
Ultimately, she settled on Pennsylvania State University—World Campus’ Bachelor of Arts degree, graduating in 2014.
In a field where many graduates interact with clients and patients face to face, prospective students should select an online college that will satisfy their career goals and provide a legitimate education. Here are six questions experts suggest asking while researching online psychology degrees.
[Explore a checklist for researching online degree programs.]
1. What type of degree do you need? An online bachelor’s or associate degree in psychology may allow a student to get an entry-level job in various disciplines, experts say. A master’s enables them to attain more advanced jobs and reach goals such as getting certain licensures. Some students then pursue a doctorate, which is generally more research-focused.
“Anybody who wants to work as a psychologist is going to need at least a master’s degree,” says Richard Carlson, professor and associate head of the psychology department at Penn State. “That’s a requirement for licensing as a counselor or therapist in every state.”
Some doctoral psychology programs – specifically in clinical, counseling and school psychology, or a combination thereof – are accredited by the American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation, which won’t accredit any strictly online programs in those subjects, according to its website. Experts suggest prospective students interested in clinical, counseling or school psychology carefully evaluate which programs provide a path to licensure, if that’s their ultimate goal.
2. Is the program accredited? To verify an online psychology graduate degree will be accepted by employers and licensing boards – and other universities, if a student continues his or her education – the school itself needs to be accredited at the university level, experts say. Regional accreditation is generally preferred over national accreditation.
In some psychology fields, particularly those related to health and clinical services, prospective students should ensure that their specific degree program is also accreditedby agencies recognized by either the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Department of Education, says Garth A. Fowler, the association’s associate executive director for education.
[Discover five steps to check if an online program is accredited.]
3. Are there opportunities to specialize? Many online psychology programs allow students to choose a concentration. At the for-profit Kaplan University, online undergraduates may focus on addictions, applied behavior analysis or industrial and organizational psychology.
Prospective students can also ask employers whether their specialization is suited for the online format. For example, “I certainly think that a clinical or a mental health counseling type of concentration is better suited for an in-person school,” says Julee Poole, graduate psychology program academic chair at Kaplan.
4. Are there in-person requirements? Whether there will be internship or clinical requirements depends largely on the university and concentration a student pursues, experts say. In the online master’s program in applied psychology at the University of Southern California, students must complete an internship, for instance.
Williams, the Penn State—World Campus graduate, says having no on-campus requirements worked better for her.
“I could sit down when I had time, when my son was asleep, when I was off work,” she says.
5. Can students participate in research? Many psychology students hope to conduct research with faculty outside of class. At the online Penn State—World Campus, doing so isn’t as common as it is for on-campus students, but it does happen, Carlson says.
[Consider research opportunities as an online bachelor’s student.]
About a dozen online students each year conduct research either virtually with Penn State faculty, he says, or at an institution based near their home.
6. What student services does the program provide? Library resources, for instance, are particularly important for online psychology students, who may conduct intensive research, experts say.
For Shayla Proctor, a graduate from the online industrial and organizational psychology master’s program at the for-profit Capella University, the writing center was most helpful. She submitted papers and often received feedback within two days, on everything from grammar to organizational structure.
Ensuring there’s a career center is also critical to understanding where psychology graduates at each level end up, Poole says. She recommends researching to find out: “Do they begin working with you while you’re in your program? Do they continue to work with you for life, post-graduation?”
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.