The industry of psychology offers many disciplines and rewarding career opportunities that can shape the lives and emotional well-being of children and adults alike. To work in most medical and scientific fields, however, most individuals need to earn advanced degrees and licensure—a common barrier to entry for prospective psychologists.
Thankfully the field of school psychology—the only sub-discipline of psychology where graduates can use the title of psychologist without a PhD—offers many methods to enter the industry.
Here you’ll learn what a school psychologist does and how to become licensed and what factors will impact your timeline the most when earning your degrees and certifications to start your career.
What Is a School Psychologist?
School psychologists are licensed experts in education and psychology who work closely with students, parents, and teachers to improve students’ mental health and academic performance within a school setting.
Their daily responsibilities include conducting psychological evaluations of students; creating and implementing individualized education plans; educating staff and students on mental health issues; and monitoring the overall academic, social, and behavioral progress of students who require assistance.
School psychologists focus on mental health issues during their counseling sessions and work closely with students, their families, and school administrators to identify behavioral concerns to ensure the right intervention strategies are implemented.
How Long Does it Take to Become a School Psychologist?
Because school psychologists are experts in their field and have a strong background in both mental health and education, the certification process can take some time.
Fortunately, since there’s an increased demand for mental health professionals and a shortage of school psychologists, the field of school psychology is in a unique position that allows graduates to transition into careers quickly. In fact, many students receive job offers before they’ve even graduated from an accredited program.
Even with this positive career outlook, like in most industries, the time it takes to become a working professional in your field depends on various factors. Here are some essential things you should consider as you plan your career trajectory as a school psychologist.
1. Where You Want to Work
Before starting a degree program, you’ll first need to ask yourself what state you hope to work in. Most states require a three-year graduate education, including a completed practicum and internship. However, different states have different requirements, ranging from the type and length of the required internship, hours spent in the field, and additional certificates.
In Massachusetts, school psychologists must graduate from a school psychology graduate program with an MS Plus (completing 30 additional graduate semester hours on top of your master’s degree) to receive an initial license to practice. Then you’re required to maintain your certification to remain employed. For example, the NCSP certification requires 75 hours of continuing professional development every three years.
To best prepare yourself for success, make sure you thoroughly research the requirements for the state you wish to work in.
2. How Much Education You’ve Completed
Most states require a graduate degree to work as a licensed school psychologist. You’ll first need to earn an undergraduate degree in psychology or a related field (e.g., sociology, child development, or education). Whatever undergraduate degree you choose to pursue, it’s recommended to take classes in child development, education, and research methods to best prepare yourself for your master’s degree curriculum.
After earning your bachelor’s, you’ll need to earn your master’s degree from an accredited program. Keep in mind that some NASP-accredited schools, like NEU, include initial license requirements as part of their curriculum. Therefore, as long as you complete the program and pass any additional examinations (e.g., the Communication and Literacy Skills test [MTEL]), you’ll be ready to immediately transition into the field after graduation.
Therefore your educational pursuit of becoming a school psychologist can take a minimum of seven years—four years to earn your bachelor’s degree and at least three years to complete your advanced education.
Once you’ve completed your degree and you’ve obtained your initial license, the final step is applying for your professional license. This requires a passing grade on the Praxis II exam (which is a degree requirement at many institutions, such as NU), as well as three years of experience working in the field.
3. What Workplace Setting You Prefer
School psychologists work in educational institutions, many of which are specifically public school settings. However, private schools, universities, and clinical settings also hire school psychologists but typically require more advanced education.
If you’re considering working in academia or in a clinical setting as a school psychologist or professor of school psychology, you’ll need to earn a PhD or doctoral degree, which takes five to six years to complete. Most PhD programs offer opportunities to develop in-depth research and teaching skills and specialize in concentrated areas within psychology.
For example, Northeastern University offers a School Psychology Doctoral Program (SPDP) to prepare school psychologists to work in various settings. Coursework in this program focuses on research and fieldwork to help students develop skills in research, intervention, assessment, and consultation. While this additional degree isn’t required to become a school psychologist, it may be the perfect option for those looking to break into psychology research.
Choosing the Right Program
No matter where you are in your education or career path, there are many opportunities to earn a degree in school psychology. Those who still need to obtain a bachelor’s degree should consider pursuing a field of study closely related to psychology. From there, you must obtain an MS Plus 30 (i.e., CAGS, Ed.S., 6th-year degree) in School Psychology from a NASP-accredited program, which only offers certification to students who’ve completed a three-year degree.
Northeastern University (NEU) offers a Master of Science (MS) and a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in School Psychology, which is a three-year, fully accredited program through the National Association of School Psychologists and the Massachusetts State Department of Education. It requires 62 semester hours and a one-year internship or practicum consisting of at least 1,200 hours, half of which must be completed in a school setting.
While the curriculum is extensive, some of the required courses you’ll need to take in order to complete the program are:
- Cognitive Assessment
- Child and Adolescent Psychopathology
- Understanding Culture and Diversity
- Counseling Children and Adolescents in Schools
The Right Career Path For You
School psychology is a multifaceted field that offers various methods and opportunities to make an impact on young people of all ages in a plethora of settings, ranging from public schools to universities.
Becoming a school psychologist is no easy feat, but working with students and ensuring their success is extremely rewarding. Learn more about becoming a school psychologist in our ebook “How To Become A School Psychologist.”