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Developmental Psychology Graduate Programs: An Overview

Developmental psychology studies the psychological changes that affect humans over the course of their lives. Graduate programs in this field usually award M.A., M.S. or Ph.D. degrees, and prepare graduates for work as counselors or psychologists.

Essential Information

Graduate programs in developmental psychology instruct students in theories of human development throughout the lifespan. Attention is given to cognitive and social development, language development, and family dynamics, among other topics. Practicing psychologists, including developmental psychologists, typically need a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in psychology. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, a master's degree in psychology can prepare individuals for most counseling and some psychologist positions. Most practicing psychologists are also required to have licensure or certification, which can involve completing an internship or 1-2 years of professional experience.

Entrance into master's programs in developmental psychology typically require a bachelor's degree with some educational experience in psychology, while doctoral program prerequisites often include a bachelor's degree, GRE scores and letters of recommendation. Ph.D. programs often recommend expertise in biology, linguistics or statistics as well. The program length of M.A. and M.S. degrees is usually 1 to 2 years, but the more advanced Ph.D. programs take closer to 5 years to complete. Programs usually culminate in a master's thesis or project, or a doctoral dissertation.


Master's Degree Programs in Developmental Psychology

Master's degree programs in developmental psychology generally aim to give students extensive background in both psychological theory and advanced research practices. In terms of theory, students learn about how humans develop in cognitive, biological, emotional and social terms. In terms of research, students are trained in the methodologies and applications of developmental psychology, especially statistical measurement and analysis. Students may also have opportunities to conduct independent fieldwork in communities. Some programs may feature divergent concentration tracks for students who wish to transition to a doctoral program and others who are interested in applied careers. Coursework at the master's degree level usually consists of core requirements in personality theory, statistical research and cognitive development. Electives may then cover advanced topics in subjects like:

  • Development of language
  • Educational psychology
  • Family systems
  • Learning and cognition
  • Personality development

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Doctor of Philosophy in Developmental Psychology

Ph.D. programs in developmental psychology are designed to train students as scholars, researchers and teachers in the field. Most programs require students to work closely with a chosen faculty mentor to develop research methodologies and to solve problems in specific areas such as developmental psychopathology, educational applications of developmental psychology, cultural studies, urban studies and linguistics. Students must typically pass qualifying exams and then write and defend a dissertation. Some programs also require students to serve as teaching assistants while enrolled. Doctoral programs in this field aim to build student competency in the scientific and social bases of developmental psychology. Course topics may include:

  • Cross-cultural development
  • Familial contexts of development
  • Neurocognition
  • Information processing
  • Psychology experiment design
  • Psychometric theory

Popular Career Options

Graduates with a master's degree in developmental psychology often find work in counseling and educational settings. Some of these positions may require additional educational credentials. Possible titles include:

  • Alcohol and drug counselor
  • Child development specialist
  • Crisis intervention counselor
  • Mental health counselor

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists developmental psychologists as a subset of psychologists in general (www.bls.gov). According to the BLS, all psychologists will see 19% growth in total employment, much faster than the average for all professions, from 2014-2024. Increased demand for psychologists among schools, medical facilities and social service providers will drive this growth.

Many psychologists with a doctoral degree work in private clinical practices. In May 2015, the BLS stated that the mean annual wage for all clinical, counseling and school psychologists was $76,040.

Continuing Education Information

In some cases, students may have the opportunity to concurrently earn a graduate certificate in developmental psychology alongside a graduate program. Such an opportunity could be open to students enrolled in master's degree programs, though a student may be required to be enrolled in a doctoral program in some cases. These programs may allow students to apply developmental psychology to a specific area of the field, like child psychology, or could allow for specialization within developmental psychology, such as social or cognitive development.

According to the BLS, all psychologists who offer patient care or operate a clinical practice must be licensed by the states in which they work. Licensure standards vary by state, but usually require psychologists to have a doctoral degree and several years of professional working experience and to have completed an internship. All states also require psychologists to pass an examination before obtaining a license. Some states require an additional oral examination or essay composition. Psychologists may need to complete continuing education requirements in order to renew their licensure.

Certification for clinical psychologists is available through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). Applicants for ABPP certification must have a doctoral degree and postdoctoral experience, as well as a state-issued license. Additionally, they must pass the ABPP's board examination.

Graduate programs in developmental psychology offer individuals who already hold a bachelor's degree more advanced and specialized training in the changes that humans undergo over the course of their lifetimes. Master's level programs prepare graduates for field work in counseling or intervention services, while doctoral programs prepare graduates for work as licensed psychologists, teachers or researchers.


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