What is a Health Psychology Degree?

Health psychology, also referred to as medical psychology, is the study of the link between our mental and physical health. The approach taken by health psychologists to understand this link is known as the biosocial model, which contends that illness and health are the results of biological, psychological, and social factors.

Biological factors include personality traits and genetic conditions. Psychological factors entail lifestyle, beliefs, and stress levels. Social factors span social support systems, family relationships, and cultural attributes. With the biosocial model as the foundation of their work, health psychologists help people change habits and adopt behaviors that contribute to good health and wellbeing. With the biosocial model as the foundation of their studies, health psychology students learn how to do the same.

Program Options


  • Health psychology / medical psychology may be offered as a concentration within the psychology or behavioral science major.
  • It is important to select degree programs that are accredited by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Commission on Accreditation.

Bachelor’s Degree in Health Psychology – Four Year Duration
Bachelor’s programs in health psychology are quite rare. It is more common for undergrad students to earn a general psychology or related degree in preparation for entrance to a graduate level program in health psychology. The bachelor’s health psychology curriculum at schools offering the degree is introductory in nature and integrates topics from a number of core psychology subfields. Coursework provides a broad overview of the following:

  • History of psychology
  • Developmental psychology (child / adolescent / adult)
  • Psychobiology
  • Social psychology (how the way that people feel, act, and think during social interactions plays a role in the development of health-related ideas and habits)
  • Cognitive assessment
  • Personality assessment
  • Abnormal / clinical psychology
  • Epidemiology (how and why health events occur; how to direct the public to protect themselves from illness)
  • Social health issues (the social, cultural, and economic influences on physiological and psychological health)
  • Mental healthcare delivery (successes, failures, and disparities in access)
  • Health informatics (information systems used in psychology applications)
  • Psychology statistics and research methods
  • Ethics and professional issues

Master’s Degree in Health Psychology – Two Year Duration
A bachelor’s degree with coursework in psychology and statistics or research methods is the minimum requirement for admission to a health psychology master’s program. Graduates qualify to work as researchers or in clinical settings as assistants to psychologists, who typically hold a doctoral degree.

Here is an overview of the kinds of courses that comprise a health psychology master’s curriculum:

Advanced Qualitative Methods in Health Psychology

  • Introduction to qualitative methods in health psychology
  • Phenomenology – the study of phenomena as they manifest in our experience, of the way we perceive and understand phenomena, and the meaning phenomena have in our subjective experience; in short, the study of an individual’s lived experience
  • Thematic analysis – a qualitative data analysis method that involves reading through a data set (such as transcripts from in depth interviews or focus groups), and identifying patterns in meaning across the data
  • Methodologies and methods – interviewing, focus groups, naturalistic and online data sources, data from the media, ethics
  • Interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) – uses structured interviews to gather verbal and nonverbal information about how a person understands his or her personal and social worlds and gives meaning to particular experiences, events, and states
  • Social constructionist approaches – social constructionism is the theory that people develop knowledge of the world in a social context, that much of what we perceive as reality depends on shared assumptions

Advanced Quantitative Methods in Health Psychology

  • Psychometrics – the branch of psychology concerned with the quantification and measurement of mental attributes, behavior, performance, and the like, as well as with the design, analysis, and improvement of the tests, questionnaires, and other instruments used in such measurement
  • Measures of quality of life and their applications
  • Planning, implementing, and evaluating an intervention
  • Advanced quantitative methods including mediation and moderation

Health Promotion and Behavior Change

  • Mediators of health and health behaviors
  • Psychological principles and techniques of behavior change
  • Health promotion theory, models, and approaches
  • Health promotion in contexts such as the healthcare system, the education system, and broad social, cultural, and economic factors
  • Design and evaluation of health promotion campaigns

Living with Long Term Conditions

  • Incidence and range of long term conditions
  • Diagnosis of and adjustment to long term conditions
  • Coping and long term conditions: individual and social factors
  • Outcomes: measures
  • Interventions: psychological
  • Caregiving: stress, gender roles, and spousal, familial, and non-familial caregiving
  • Stigmatized conditions and identity: mental illness and physical disability
  • Long term conditions across the lifespan
  • Breaking bad news: dying, death, and bereavement

Professional Skills in Health Psychology

  • Health psychology teaching and training
  • Dissemination and communication
  • Professional development planning
  • Consulting in the health psychology field
  • Behavior change competencies
  • Formative assessment planning and feedback / health policy
  • Health practice ethics
  • Social and ethnic diversity
  • Respect and trust in healthcare

Psychology of Health and Illness

  • Contexts, perspectives, and socio-demographic factors in health and illness
  • Understanding and predicting health and health behavior
  • Models of health behavior
  • Attribution factors – locus of control (the extent to which an individual feels in control of the events that influence his/her life), personal control and healthcare, learned helplessness, self efficacy (the belief of an individual in his/her own abilities to meet the challenges ahead)
  • Biological and physiological aspects of stress – models of stress, coping with stress
  • Personality factors associated with health and illness
  • Psychological aspects of pain and pain management
  • Psychoneuroimmunology – the study of interactions between behavior, the brain, and the immune system; the links between stress and the immune system

Research Project in Health Psychology

  • Systematic reviews and meta-analysis (examination of data from a number of independent studies of the same subject, in order to determine overall trends)
  • Psychological measurement tools, scale development, and psychometrics
  • Research proposals and development of study materials
  • Research ethics and research governance
  • Writing for publication and oral and poster presentations

Doctoral Degree in Health Psychology – Four to Six Year Duration
This graduate degree may be offered as a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) or as a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). Health psychologists who work in clinical settings diagnosing and treating patients must hold a doctoral degree. They normally pursue a Psy.D., which at most schools has a stronger clinical focus. The Ph.D. in the field is generally more attractive to doctoral candidates planning on a career in health psychology academic research and/or teaching. In most cases, both degrees qualify graduates for state licensure.

The typical doctoral level curriculum is comprised of core and research courses similar to those described above in the master’s degree section, courses in special areas of interest, a teaching practicum and/or a clinical experience, dissertation writing courses, and completion of the doctoral dissertation.

Degrees Similar to Health Psychology

Behavioral Science
Behavioral science analyzes the impact of our actions and interactions on ourselves, our relationships, and our society at large. The field incorporates a mix of natural sciences and social sciences. It is based on physiology – the regular functions of human beings; psychology – how our mind’s functions influence our behaviors and decisions; sociology – the development, structure, and functioning of human society; and anthropology – the evolution of human societies and cultures.

Degree programs in behavioral science teach students to apply the fundamentals of each of these sciences to understand human habits, actions, and intentions. They prepare graduates to work as behavioral scientists in human behavior research or as hands-on practitioners trained to address individual and social problems.

Clinical Psychology
Clinical psychologists focus on pathological populations. In other words, they work mostly with people who have a mental illness or a psychosis – a severe disorder or disability that can incapacitate them, not merely diminish the quality of their life. Examples are schizophrenia, delusional disorder, and substance-induced psychotic disorder.

Community Health
Community health workers have different roles depending on the populations they serve. Their responsibilities may include helping people access resources such as housing, education, and employment. They may advocate for local health needs, mediate between families and services, and provide informal counseling and follow-up. In short, they create bridges between socially and economically marginalized populations and mainstream health and social services. Degree programs in the field teach students how to plan, deliver, and oversee these services in community settings.

Early Childhood Education ECE
A degree in early childhood education provides students with ECE fundamentals and helps them develop leadership and advocacy abilities, as well as the administrative skills required to work in the field. Typical coursework in degree and certificate programs focuses on child growth and development, behavior guidance, supporting children and families, children with exceptionalities, and effective curriculum planning.

Epidemiology, a fundamental science of public health, is concerned with health and disease at the population level; that is to say, within groups or communities. Its focus is the frequency, pattern, causes, and risk factors of diseases and other health-related events within these specified populations, which range from neighborhoods and schools to cities, states, countries, and the world at large.

Epidemiologists – often referred to as disease detectives – are the scientists and investigators whose work begins with looking for clues by asking questions. Who is sick? What are their symptoms? When did they get sick? Where could they have been exposed? Using statistical analysis, epidemiologists study answers to these questions and produce data that lead them to identify how a particular health problem was introduced, how its spread can be controlled, and how it can be prevented.

Health Science
Degree programs in health science teach how the human body functions in health and disease and explore how environmental and social factors can impact both of these conditions. The typical curriculum is broad-based, covering the basic sciences, health research, and healthcare systems. A health science degree can lay the foundation for further study and a degree in a specific health field such as nutrition, exercise science, or physical therapy.

Human Development
Degree programs in this human development explore physical, cognitive, and psychosocial development through each stage of human life – prenatal, infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood, late adulthood, and death and dying.

The physical domain is concerned with growth and changes in the body and brain, the senses, motor skills, and health and wellness. Cognitive human development comprises learning, attention, memory, language, thinking, reasoning, and creativity. Psychosocial development involves emotions, personality, and social relationships. Students learn how these three domains of human development influence and impact every aspect of our lives – from self-respect and self-esteem to how we interact with family, peers, and society at large.

Marriage and Family Therapy
Marriage and family therapy is psychotherapy that focuses on the relationships between couples and within family units. Degree programs in the field teach students how to lead and facilitate this kind of therapy.

Mental Health Counseling
The mental health counseling curriculum teaches students how to help people dealing with issues that impact their mental health and overall well-being. Coursework often includes the holistic or mind and body approach to counseling.

There is no distinct pre-medicine degree. ‘Pre-medicine’ or ‘pre-med’ is merely a term that students planning to go to medical school use to describe their undergraduate studies. In fact, aspiring doctors enter med school having earned many different bachelor’s degrees.

A science program such as biology or chemistry is certainly a common choice, but it is not mandatory. In other words, a pre-med student can be a psychology major, a statistics major, or a Spanish major. The key for students is to incorporate into their studies the classes needed to apply to medical school.

Psychobiology is the interaction between biological systems and behavior. It is concerned with how what we think and what we feel combine with biological events. Research in the field covers topics such as how psychological stressors can impact the brain and behavior. An example is how an exam or job interview can cause heart palpitations.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Public Health
Students who enter degree programs in public health look at how access and lack of access to healthcare, health education, and funding affect the spread, treatment, and prevention of disease. Epidemiology – the science concerned with the spread and control of diseases and viruses – is the science at the heart of public health.

Social Work
Social work is about helping people solve and cope with problems and challenges in their everyday lives. Students who pursue a degree in the field gain the knowledge and skills, as well as the ethics and values, to work for social justice for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. The typical curriculum examines issues such as child welfare, mental health, poverty, aging, domestic violence, and marginalized groups.

Substance Abuse Counseling
Degree programs in substance abuse counseling prepare students to counsel people suffering with alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorders, and other behavioral problems. The curriculum covers topics such as coping mechanisms and treatment plans.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Abstract reasoning
  • Academic writing and presentation
  • Basic techniques of statistical analysis
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Integrity and trust building
  • Leadership and teamwork
  • Observation, critical thinking, and analysis
  • Organization and time management
  • Patience
  • Problem solving
  • Research ethics
  • Research, data analysis and interpretation, and synthesizing large amounts of information

What Can You Do with a Health Psychology Degree?

Career opportunities for health psychology graduates are generally divided between the clinical and the research sectors of the field.

Clinical Health Psychology – is focused on the direct treatment of patients, on helping them change their behaviors to become healthier and develop good health habits; many clinical health psychologists work in private practice

Community Health Psychology – is focused on promoting physical and mental health and disease prevention at the community level; the most common employers in this field are government agencies, community health clinics, and non-profit organizations

Critical Health Psychology – is focused on challenging mainstream thinking about health psychology and advocating for social justice; it is concerned with socioeconomic factors such as social class, wealth and poverty, and political power, which impact mental health behaviors, physical health, and provision of healthcare; critical health psychologists often work for non-profits and advocacy groups

Public Health Psychology – is focused on a broader population based versus the individual or the community; public health psychologists conduct research and collect, analyze, and interpret data for governments, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations; their work may also involve advocating for regulatory change and setting public policy

Occupational Health Psychology – is focused on issues of mental health and how they relate to the physical health of individuals in specific occupations; occupational health psychologists are often employed by government regulatory agencies and private businesses to enforce safety and wellbeing standards in the workplace

Across the five subfields described above, here are some examples of specific roles and the degree(s) most often associated with them:

  • Community Health Worker – bachelor’s, master’s
  • Behavior Specialist – master’s
  • Marriage and Family Therapist – master’s
  • Mental Health Counselor – master’s
  • Mental Health Rehabilitation Specialist – master’s
  • Public Health Analyst – master’s
  • Research Assistant – master’s
  • Occupational Health Psychologist – master’s, doctorate
  • Public Health Psychologist – doctorate
  • Clinical Health Psychologist – doctorate required


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