A Career in School Psychology: Frequently Asked Questions

What do school psychologists do?

  • Consult with teachers, parents, administrators, and community mental health providers about learning, social, and behavior problems;
  • Engage in school-wide mental health activities;
  • Assist educators in implementing safe, healthy classroom and school environments;
  • Teach parenting skills, problem-solving strategies, substance abuse, and other topics pertinent to healthy schools;
  • Conduct research about effective instruction, behavior management, alternative school programs, and mental health interventions;
  • Assess and evaluate the wide variety of school-related problems and assets of children and youth in assigned schools;
  • Intervene directly with students and families through individual counseling, support groups, and skills training;
  • Serve as a member of interdisciplinary teams to address needs of at-risk students and to serve the needs of students with disabilities through the special education assessment, eligibility, and placement process;
  • Communicate results of psychological evaluations to parents, teachers, and others so that they can understand the nature of the student's difficulties and how to better serve the student's needs;
  • Engage in crisis prevention and intervention services;
  • Work with a wide range of student emotional and academic issues;
  • May serve one or multiple schools in a school district or work for a community mental health center and/or in a university setting.

Where do school psychologists work?

The majority (81%) of school psychologists work in public school settings. Other primary places of employment are private schools, community agencies, hospitals and clinics, and universities. School psychologists generally work as practitioners, administrators, and faculty/researchers. A specialist-level degree will allow for employment in most states as a practitioner and administrator (with appropriate administrative credential), while a doctoral degree allows for practice as a practitioner, administrator, and faculty/researcher.

What education is required?

The majority of states require the completion of a 60 graduate semester credit specialist-level program in school psychology, including a 1,200-hour internship. Many programs also offer a doctorate in school psychology, which generally requires 5-7 years of graduate work, including a 1,500-hour internship and completion of a dissertation. For more information, review an Overview of Differences Among Degrees in School Psychology.

There are a few states that continue to certify school psychologists who graduate from programs of less than 60 graduate semester credits; however, NASP maintains that the minimum acceptable education in school psychology is specialist-level training.

What is the job market for school psychologists?

The job outlook is very promising for school psychology nationwide. It is believed that a significant proportion of current practitioners will reach retirement age within the next 10 years, hence opening the door for a new generation of school psychologists. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of psychologists is projected to grow 12% from 2012–2022, and one of the groups with the best job prospects will be those with specialist or doctoral degrees in school psychology.

Many school districts have school psychologists on the same salary schedule as teachers while others have a separate salary schedule. The average annual salary for full-time school-based practitioners with 180-day contracts was $64,168 in the 2009–10 school year. For practitioners with 200-day contracts, the average was $71,320. For university faculty, it was $77,801. It is likely that there is significant variability in salaries by region, state, and school district. For more information about salaries in the 2014-15 school year by region of the country, see these slides. In addition, some school psychologists also engage in private practice part-time or even full-time, providing yet another avenue for employment and income.

How do I select a good school psychology training program?

It is impossible to list the "best" training programs. Many factors must be considered to find the program that is best for you. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I want a doctoral program or a specialist-level program, or do I want a program offering both degrees in the event that I choose to switch between programs?

  2. Where do I want to live and possibly work after graduate school?

  3. Do I prefer an urban, suburban, or rural area for training and living?

  4. Is there a particular focus that interests me—early childhood, counseling, research, developmental disabilities, etc?

  5. Do I want opportunities to work on research projects or in alternative settings (e.g., medical)?

  6. Do I prefer to attend a small program or a large one? Some programs may have no more than 5-6 students per entering class, while others may have 20 or more.

  7. Does the program meet high standards for training?

As part of its efforts to assure high quality school psychology training and services, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reviews school psychology specialist and doctoral programs and approves those programs which provide evidence of consistency with NASP standards. Such approval provides recognition for programs that meet national standards for the graduate education of professional service providers in school psychology. Program approval is an important indicator of quality training, comprehensive content, careful evaluation of candidates, and extensive, properly supervised field experiences as judged by trained national reviewers. Some programs also meet APA standards. These programs are doctoral-only programs since APA only recognizes the doctoral degree. For a list of NASP-approved programs see www.nasponline.org/certification/NASPapproved.aspx. You can also find the Standards for Training Programs posted on the website at www.nasponline.org/standards/2010standards.aspx.

Will I be admitted to a school psychology program if my undergraduate major was in another field like English?

Although the majority of individuals are now entering the field of school psychology with undergraduate degrees in psychology, students continue to enter graduate school with a variety of degrees including education, sociology, and child development to name a few. Your major field is less important if you have sufficient background knowledge in areas applicable to school psychology—child development, psychology, education, etc. English majors tend to write well, which is a very important skill for school psychologists, while science majors are well-prepared for applying research to practice.

What if I miss the application deadline?

NASP has recently developed a 2nd Round Candidate Match process that helps connect applicants with programs that are still accepting applications through Spring or early Summer. A program's participation in the match does not guarantee admission, and each program should be contacted to clarify the application process.

What is the difference between attending a specialist versus a doctoral training program?

Nearly all states certify school psychologists who have completed a 60 graduate semester credit specialist-level program in school psychology, including a 1,200-hour internship. A few states will only grant the title “school psychologist” to those with a doctoral degree, and will have some other title for those with a specialist-level degree, such as “school psychological service provider” or “school psychology specialist.” Be sure to check certification requirements in the areas where you want to work. You can find links to state certification requirements on our website at www.nasponline.org/certification/state_info_list.aspx. For detailed information on different degrees in school psychology, see A Career in School Psychology: Selecting a Master's, Specialist, or Doctoral Degree Program That Meets Your Needs.

How important is it that the specialist level program I attend actually grant a specialist degree?

As long as the degree is specialist-level, it doesn't matter what degree is awarded (MA, MS, MEd, EdS, CAGS, etc.). In order to meet NASP standards and certification standards in the great majority of states, it is very important that you attend a program that is at least at the specialist level (at least 60 graduate semester credits, with at least 54 exclusive of internship credit). 

Can I practice school psychology privately without a doctorate?

The laws of each state govern who can engage in the private practice of psychology and who can use the title of “psychologist” in the private sector. APA and the majority of states do not recognize non-doctoral degrees for independent practice. However, a few states offer licensure to practice privately for master's-level psychologists. In addition, a few clinic and hospital settings hire master's-level psychologists who work under the supervision of a doctoral psychologist. Ethically, school psychologists are obligated to follow the rules of their state as well as professional standards for practice. Although most states will not allow individuals to practice "psychology" privately with a master's degree, there are wide variations in state rules as to what is defined as psychology practice. In some states, the title used is what is regulated; in other states, it is the actual services provided that determines which rules you must follow.

School psychologists should not provide any services beyond the scope of their credentials. For more on school-based and independent practice credentialing, see http://www.nasponline.org/publications/cq/40/1/essential-tools.aspx. For a list of degree and experience requirements by state, see www.nasponline.org/certification/state_info_list.aspx.

Are school psychologists involved in providing mental health services or prescribing medication?

School psychologists provide mental health services that address needs at home and school to help students succeed academically, emotionally, and socially. They are specially trained to link mental health to learning and behavior. School psychologists are often the only school mental health professionals trained in child psychology, learning, and development as well as school systems and classroom environments. They use research and evidence-based strategies to promote good mental health, high academic achievement, positive social skills and behavior, tolerance and respect for others, and safe, supportive learning environments.

Typically, prescribing medication is restricted to medical doctors and some nurses. A few states have enacted legislation that allows doctoral-level clinical psychologists who have had additional training the authority to prescribe some medications. In some settings, school psychologists will work closely with medical doctors in helping to determine the appropriateness of medication. In most school settings, school psychologists might consult physicians with parent consent to help monitor medication effects or to provide information to help a clinic diagnose a condition such as ADD or depression, which may in turn lead to a prescription for medication.

I have training as a counselor. What would be involved in becoming a school psychologist?

Individuals with training in related fields still need to complete a typical school psychology program and a minimum of a 1,200-hour internship. However, depending on the content and recency of your previous coursework, the school psychology program may allow you to waive related classes and field experiences.

What is the difference between a school psychologist and a school counselor?

School psychology training brings together the knowledge base of several disciplines, including child psychology and development and education with an emphasis on special education. In most states and training programs, school counseling does not include training or work with special education populations. In addition, most states require 3 years of graduate school training, including a 1,200-hour internship, to become a credentialed school psychologist. In comparison, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) indicates that accredited master's degree programs in school counseling include a minimum of 2 years of full-time study, including 600 hours of supervised internship.

In the school setting, counselors typically work with the total school population regarding a variety of issues—family and academic problems, career planning, course schedules and problem solving around course selection and scheduling, etc. In some districts, elementary counselors in particular conduct groups regarding family changes, social skills, etc. With older students, they also may be involved in chemical dependency prevention and early intervention activities, crisis intervention, mental health counseling, etc.

School psychologists are typically funded through special education monies and often their first responsibility is to the population of students at risk for failure and who have identified disabilities. With these populations, their roles include assessment (comprehensive evaluations of disability and risk), consultation regarding instructional and behavioral interventions, and direct interventions including crisis prevention/intervention, individual and group counseling and skill training. In this latter role, school psychologists may overlap the duties of counselors and social workers, and often will work jointly with these other professionals by co-leading social skills groups and jointly serving on crisis support teams. Relative to counselors, school psychologists are more likely to have training in behavioral analysis, mental health screening and diagnosis, research methods (and application of research to classroom practices), and specific disability areas.

Training as a school psychologist will provide broader options both within and outside of school settings. School psychologists often are employed by other agencies in addition to school—community mental health centers, pediatric departments of hospitals, corrections facilities, etc. Within school settings, there are growing opportunities for varied roles as a school psychologist as districts tap broader funding sources including grants, prevention and early intervention projects, etc. If direct counseling work with children is appealing, positions emphasizing this role are available to those trained as counselors, social workers, or school psychologists. If a broader range of activities is appealing—comprehensive evaluations of student needs, consultation with parents and teachers regarding achievement and behavior problems, training staff and parents as well as students to be more effective problem solvers and to better understand disability and risk issues, and perhaps conducting research in applied settings—then the field of school psychology might be the best option.

What is the difference between a “child psychologist” and a “school psychologist?”

Typically, the term “child psychologist” refers to doctoral-level clinical psychologists who specialize in children. “School psychologist” specifically refers to professionals who bridge psychology and education to address school-related issues, including those that concern children, teachers, parents and families, as well as school organizations.

Both school psychologists and child clinical psychologists need strong backgrounds in child development and psychology. Clinical psychologists' training generally does not include study of school organization, instruction, classroom management, special education or special education law and ethics. School psychologists' training does include study in education and special education, but compared to clinical psychology, there likely will be less emphasis on psychopathology and long-term therapy. Most states will only license private practice at the doctoral level, while most states credential school psychologists at the specialist level (60 graduate semester credits).

School psychologists typically are found in school settings although a few may work in clinic or hospital settings that specialize in treating school-age children and school-related problems. Child clinical psychologists typically are found in hospitals, mental health centers, and private clinic settings. The school psychologist is much more likely to be involved in services intended to prevent mental health problems and severe behavior disorders, or to intervene at early stages to prevent more serious problems. They are also far more likely to work with teachers and parents to improve instruction in the classroom.

What is NASP Program Approval and is it important?

As part of its efforts to assure high quality school psychology training and services, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) reviews school psychology specialist and doctoral programs and approves those programs that provide evidence of consistency with NASP standards. Such approval provides recognition for programs that meet national standards for the graduate education of professional service providers in school psychology. Program approval is an important indicator of quality training, comprehensive content, careful evaluation of candidates, and extensive, properly supervised field experiences as judged by trained national reviewers. 

This does not mean that programs without NASP approval are of lower quality or fail to meet standards. Some programs choose not to apply for NASP approval. Some programs are so new that they are not yet able to demonstrate that they meet standards. Other programs fail to obtain approval because they fall short of standards. Employers may prefer to hire individuals who graduate from NASP-approved programs, and a few states require individuals to have graduated from NASP-approved programs; however, employment is readily available for graduates of non-NASP-approved programs. Be sure to check certification requirements in the areas where you want to work. You can find links to state certification requirements on our website at www.nasponline.org/certification/state_info_list.aspx

Some questions you might want to ask a program director of a non-NASP-approved program:

  1. Does the program intend to apply for NASP approval in the near future?

  2. Has the program aligned itself with NASP Standards?

  3. How many recent program graduates have applied for national certification and how many have attained it?

  4. Will the program from which you graduate qualify you for a school psychology credential in the state in which you plan to work?

You are encouraged to download an application for national certification before you begin a non-approved program at http://www.nasponline.org/certification/becoming_NCSP.aspx. The application will outline the qualifications required to obtain national certification and might help guide you in your choice of courses and field experiences. Creating your portfolio of training and evidence of skill acquisition is easier to do as you progress through your program of studies rather than waiting until you're ready to apply for national certification to start building your portfolio. If it appears that the usual curriculum doesn't meet national standards, then you should consider adding additional coursework to supplement the program and to better meet the NCSP requirements. 

What is NASP “Conditional Approval?” Should I be concerned if a graduate program I am considering is “Conditionally Approved?”

Conditional Approval is typically given in cases in which the program has met the preponderance of NASP standards but also needs to document additional program policy and/or practice consistent with some standards. In some cases, Conditional Approval means that the program is relatively new or has undergone recent changes that require additional implementation time and documentation. In the great majority of cases (over 90%), Conditionally Approved programs subsequently obtain Full Approval.

Graduates of all NASP-approved programs have the same access to national certification (assuming documentation of internship consistent with NASP standards and a passing score on the national examination in school psychology) regardless of whether the program has Full or Conditional Approval at the time of program completion. For programs with Conditional Approval, you may want to inquire as to what steps the program is taking to move to Full Approval.