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How to Become an Educational Psychologist in 2021

September 27, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Educational psychology is the study of how people learn. These professionals work in schools and other educational institutions, building an understanding of the best way to deliver educational material.

The work of an educational psychologist includes finding ways to better deliver instructional materials and also working out how best to support gifted learners or those with learning disabilities. A school psychologist might support those with behavioral issues or build a program to support those who are gifted and talented or could work with young people who are struggling in the mainstream system.

Training as a psychologist requires a long program of academic study. To be a licensed educational psychologist a person needs a doctoral degree. Most people start with a broad psychology degree that covers the basic concepts and gives an overview of the field, before moving on to a master’s degree with a more focused curriculum. 

There are educational psychology degree programs at all levels, including master’s degree programs and even specialized baccalaureate-level programs. These programs may allow someone to work as an assistant or in an allied position, but the strict licensure requirements mean there are no shortcuts to the job title of licensed educational psychologist. Licensing is mandatory in most parts of the United States.

Once qualified, however, a school psychologist can expect an average salary of $80,370 per year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for the profession is expected to grow by 3% between 2019 and 2029, which is similar to the rate of the wider job market.

What is an educational psychologist?

An educational psychologist is someone who works in or with schools and colleges. They help learners cope with the challenges they are facing. Those issues could be social, behavioral, emotional, or purely academic.

What is the role of an educational psychologist?

The role of an educational psychologist is to create an environment that is conducive to learning. They use their understanding of how people learn in order to create curriculums that are inclusive, safe, and optimized for the people who are learning there.

These professionals work with staff members to help them understand how to communicate with students and support them when they’re having difficulties. A school psychologist may also work with parents to understand the issues a child is facing if they’ve had challenging issues at home.

Some educational psychology specialists work directly with children, for example operating out of inclusion centers to give one-on-one support to a child who has anger management or behavior issues or is otherwise struggling in a mainstream environment.

Others take on research-focused rules, studying how different age groups learn and helping develop new, more effective, and engaging curriculum content for institutions to use.

What skills do you need to be an educational psychologist?

An educational psychologist will need to be patient and empathetic. There are many different job options for people who hold an educational psychology degree, and not all jobs in this field involve working directly with children or young people on a day-to-day basis, but many positions do.

Because this field focuses on supporting young people and improving the educational environment for them, it helps if you’re interested in the education side of the profession as well.

Psychology is a broad, interesting profession with a lot of sub-specializations. A school psychologist needs to understand the school environment and the stresses that children and teachers are under.

In addition, psychologists should be mindful of the differences between children and adults. A child’s brain is still developing. In addition, young children do not have the vocabulary or frame of reference required to express how they are feeling and process things that are going on in their lives.

These differences mean a psychologist who works in a school environment needs a robust understanding of how children think and communicate. Educational psychologists invest years into learning how best to support children and learning the nuances of working with a specific age group.

What is the difference between a school psychologist and an educational psychologist?

A school psychologist is an educational psychologist who works in a school, either assisting teachers or providing support for parents and children. Not all educational psychologists work in schools, however.

Educational psychologists can work with young adults in colleges, or focus on researching the way that people of different age groups learn, so that information can be shared with educators and instructors, improving the learning experience for a much bigger group of people.

There are many educational psychologists who choose a specific focus area, such as supporting gifted children or helping those with learning disabilities. As a licensed educational psychologist you can choose whether to work in a school or another learning environment or focus your efforts on research.

Many school districts employ an educational psychologist who focuses on integration and supporting students from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds. These psychologists help to build a curriculum and train teachers in how to integrate these children into the classroom.

Large mainstream schools may have children with learning disabilities, behavioral issues or different levels of academic ability. Combine this with having to support children from different cultures who may have English as a second language, and it becomes clear that the job of a teacher is not an easy one.

As part of a school psychology program, a mental health professional will learn about the ways each of the factors mentioned above influences the way a child engages with learning material and will explore ways to make the learning process easier for all.

Career path to become an educational psychologist

Becoming an educational psychologist requires extensive study plus clinical experience. While it is possible to work in some education-related roles that are loosely associated with psychology with a bachelor’s or master’s degree, to become a licensed educational psychologist requires a doctoral degree as well as spending time working under an already licensed mental health professional to get clinical experience.

What are the education requirements to become an educational psychologist?

The standard pathway into educational psychology is to pursue an undergraduate degree in psychology, then specialize in educational psychology at the master’s degree level or complete a post-graduate certificate, before completing a doctoral-level qualification.

Programs at the Ph.D. level usually require learners to study courses in subjects such as:

  • Regression and correlation
  • Data analysis
  • Brain research
  • Advanced research design
  • Advanced program evaluation
  • Educational research

Most doctoral students are expected to complete a dissertation, and there are additional supervised clinical practice hours required.

Aspiring educational psychologists will then need to obtain a license from their state. California has some of the least strict licensing requirements, asking would-be school psychologists to earn a master’s degree then become a Licensed Educational Psychologist via the Board of Behavior Sciences.

The requirements for licensure in California are three or more years of experience working in the education system, and a master’s degree. Most other states require thousands of hours of clinical experience, plus a doctoral degree.

What options do you have for an educational psychology career?

Most people think of school psychology as being the main career track for someone with an educational psychology degree. However, there are many other options.

Where do educational psychologists typically begin their careers?

The most common place for an educational psychologist to work is in a support department either at or attached to, a school. Not every educational psychologist is a school psychologist, however.

Some other places where educational psychologists might work include:

  • Local authority education boards
  • Colleges, supporting teen and young adult learners
  • Research positions at academic institutions
  • Health care organizations
  • Private practice
  • Consulting for companies developing tools for education
  • Psychometric testing

An educational psychologist is not specifically a child psychologist, although there is some overlap in the work that they do and they will be expected to have an understanding of how children think and how to communicate them.

Some child psychologists work with teachers or with parents in order to create an environment where a child can grow and develop in a positive way. Creating an environment that is conducive to learning can be difficult, especially for children with behavioral or developmental issues.

Not all educational psychologists work directly with learners, however. Some focus on research into how children learn best and test various methods to determine which are best for mainstream education and which might help those who are more challenged learners.

These programs are then shared with teachers and the educational psychologists that work in the field, so they can implement them for the correct audience.

The diverse nature of the work educational psychologists do means they are required to keep up-to-date with the latest developments in psychological theory, educational policy, and child development. They have to follow the work being done by their peers, and spend a significant amount of time reviewing the research of others.

In most cases, the focus of an educational psychologist is on learners from early childhood through to the age of 25. There are some psychology specialists who consider a wider age range, investigating learning through the lifespan, motivation and teaching for adults, and how memory loss impacts our ability to learn.

Degrees, certifications, and specializations required to become an educational psychologist

In most states, an individual who wishes to become an educational psychologist would need to complete a Ph.D. It’s not possible to directly enter a Ph.D. program from high school so students typically climb the educational ladder with related courses.

What type of degree is needed to be an educational psychologist?

Students will usually pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology. It’s possible to study for B.S. or B.A. degrees. The B.A. covers the foundational knowledge of psychology but also includes more liberal arts courses, making it a good choice for someone who wishes to pursue a career in education.

Some students may minor in psychology and major in education, then pursue additional courses at the postgraduate level in psychology.

From there, the next step is a master’s degree in educational psychology, followed by a Ph.D., followed by accruing supervised experience. Completing a doctoral degree takes five years of full-time study.

Alternatively, a psychology degree holder may have the option of becoming a licensed educational psychologist by completing an Ed.S program.

How can you specialize within the field of educational psychology?

A psychologist who has a background in general mental health studies and therapies can specialize in the field of educational psychology by pursuing certificates and taking graduate-level courses.

A psychologist will need a broad and rigorous education. Doctoral level courses can cover topics such as:

  • Sociology
  • Research methods
  • Human development
  • A research project
  • Statistics
  • Social development
  • Language and communication development
  • School psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Community psychology
  • Psychometrics
  • Language and literacy

The doctoral-level of study has a significant element of research to it, and students will be expected to be self-motivated, confident in the fields of psychology and education, and to have a passion for learning.

On average, a graduate would need 3,000 supervised practice hours to obtain their license. This figure varies from state to state. Ph.D. candidates are required to complete an internship as a part of their program, and the hours from the internship are counted as a part of the course.

Places on internships are highly competitive. In most cases, students find placements via APPIC. If they’re not able to get matched with a placement opportunity in an area near them via APPIC, they may have to wait until the next academic year to start their internship.

The Ed.S. takes three years to complete. During the first two years, the learner will conduct graduate-level work in research methods, psychoeducational issues, assessment methods and related topics. The final year of the Ed.S will be a full-term internship.

How do you become certified to be an educational psychologist?

Licensing requirements vary depending on the state you would like to practice in. Most states require all kinds of psychologist to have a psychology degree, doctoral-level qualification, and thousands of hours of experience.

Any degree or Ph.D. you choose to pursue should be accredited. The National Association of School Psychologists is the biggest and most well-known accrediting body in the United States and several states will only issue licenses to graduates from a program that is accredited by this body.

The National Association of School Psychologists issues the designation of Nationally Certified School Psychologist, which is widely recognized and would make it much easier for a psychologist to find work in other states should they wish to move later in their career.

Best schools with degree programs for educational psychology

There are many schools offering degree programs for educational psychology. While it is possible to do some courses online or via blended learning, earning a license as a psychologist requires extensive clinical experience. This means most courses that lead to licensure are delivered on-campus, giving learners the opportunity to get supervised experience.

Where can you find the best schools with degree programs for educational psychology?

It can take between eight and ten years to complete a program of study to qualify as an educational psychologist, depending on the amount of time you commit to your studies and whether you choose to pursue a master’s degree along the way.

Because of this significant time commitment and the significant cost of these educational programs, it’s important to choose an accredited degree program with an institution that will give you the best chance of successfully completing your studies.

Some of the top institutions for bachelor’s degrees include:

  • Southern New Hampshire University
  • Capella University
  • University of California, Irvine

Southern New Hampshire University

The B.A in Psychology from Southern New Hampshire University includes an option to specialize in Child and Adolescent Development. The university also offers master’s degrees. Some courses are available to study online. The university offers a clear pathway for both those who are interested in general psychology and those who plan to specialize as they level up their qualifications.

Capella University

Capella University offers online study options that are self-paced and cover the bachelor’s and master’s level. These programs are affordably priced, allowing students to earn a bachelor’s degree for as little as $15,000 and a master’s in psychology from $14,000. Most students will take longer than this to complete the course, and therefore pay more, but the university could still be more affordable than most on-campus programs.

Doctoral degree options are also available, however, students should be aware that hands-on training/internship is required for licensure and may be harder to fit around other commitments.

University of California, Irvine

The B.A. in Psychology offered by the University of California, Irvine is a full-time degree program that is ranked number 69th in the Academic Ranking of World Universities. Students receive a broad education in clinical psychology, learning, memory, neuroscience, and development. Those who are interested in a more science-focused course have the option of pursuing the B.S. in Psychology which covers similar content but replaces some of the liberal arts modules with courses examining biological sciences and the role they play in the development of the brain.

Those looking for a master’s degree in psychology may wish to consider:

  • Pepperdine University
  • Stanford University
  • University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

Pepperdine University

The Online Master of Science and Master of Arts options offered by Pepperdine’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology are good options for those who are looking to upgrade their master’s degree and potentially pursue licensure as a therapist or a clinical counselor. These programs won’t immediately qualify a learner to work as an educational psychologist, however, they serve as a good stepping stone to doctoral study.

Stanford University

The Master of Arts in Psychology is a 45 credit graduate-level program. It is possible for students who are pursuing a Ph.D. at Stanford to apply for this qualification during the course of their studies, after having completed 27 units of core course and up to 18 units from lab courses. The program also includes a thesis.

Stanford is a highly regarded institution, and entry into the Master’s program is competitive. The qualification is widely respected, however, and students who complete the M.A. may have the opportunity to progress to doctoral-level study.

University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

There are several graduate school options for psychology students at the University of Michigan, including a general psychology master’s degree and a Master of Education in Counseling. This university’s psychology program is well regarded and there are some clear progression options for those who are interested in moving on to a doctoral program.

Institutions offering a doctoral-level educational psychology program include:

  • Stanford University
  • University of Wisconsin – Madison
  • Vanderbilt University Peabody College of Education and Human Development

Stanford University

Stanford University offers several doctoral programs under the umbrella of Developmental and Psychological Sciences. Specialization options include Learning Sciences and Technology Design, and Race, Inequality and Language in Education. Graduates of these programs have found work internationally in educational psychology positions, either in teaching or research at universities and colleges, or in educational research positions for public and private organizations.

University of Wisconsin – Madison

There is a dedicated Educational Psychology department at the University of Wisconsin. This university offers a variety of school psychology certificates, an Ed.S. in Educational Psychology, and other programs at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The university has its own School Psychology training clinic, giving students the opportunity to get some clinical experience under a licensed school psychologist while they study.

Vanderbilt University – Peabody

Doctoral programs offered at Vanderbilt University include qualifications in special education areas such as early childhood or severe disabilities, a variety of teaching and learning programs, and a psychology Ph.D. with a specialization in Developmental Science. These programs provide learners with the opportunity to progress into early years education, research, or consulting, or working with children with special educational needs.

What do the best schools with educational psychology degree programs have in common?

The best educational psychology programs are ones that are accredited by an organization that is listed in the U.S. Department of Education Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

There’s no requirement to pursue an educational psychology degree at the undergraduate level. A general psychology degree offers a broad and robust understanding of the field of psychology. Minoring in education could offer more value for people who are considering moving into school psychology because it will offer a better understanding of how schools work and the priorities and procedures that the psychologist is working around.

As you progress to the next level of your studies, you can look for a school psychology program to give you the specialization-specific grounding you need.

How can you determine which educational psychology degree program is right for you?

The most important things when considering a program, whether that is at undergraduate or postgraduate level, are accreditation, schedule, learner support, and cost.

While it’s common for young people to pursue their bachelor’s degrees full-time, postgraduate students often have family commitments or are working to fund their studies. This means it may be easier for a mature student, or even someone who is progressing straight from a B.A. to an M.Sc to follow a part-time program.

The level of study required for learners on a postgraduate school psychology program is demanding. Part-time programs in particular have high drop-out rates. It’s worth speaking to current and former students of the programs you’re considering following, and asking them if they feel they’re getting adequate support.

Distance learners, and students who are engaged in psychology research, will need to be highly self-motivated and committed. Learning on-campus is often easier than learning remotely because of the constant contact with faculty and support from your peer groups.

One final consideration is the cost of studying. By the time a person completes the pre-requisite requirements for licensure they may have spent eight to ten years in post-secondary education, potentially more if they’re studying part-time.

This expense is a good investment, given the earning potential of school psychologists. However, not all learners are able to fund their studies out-of-pocket.

Talk to the student finance department and find out what loans, scholarships, and bursaries are available from the institution and any local grantmaking bodies. In addition, contact the American Psychological Association to ask about federal and statewide grants that are open to aspiring psychologists.

Grants are often open for those who are in severe financial need, minority groups, or academically gifted students. There are also some grants available to current students who have fallen on hard times and are now struggling to pay their bills.

Be aware that if you are accepted onto a scholarship, you may still be faced with some up-front expenses payable before the scholarship is issued. The finance department at your chosen university can explain the schedule of fees to you.

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