Sociology vs. Psychology Degrees: What's the Difference?

Updated June 24, 2022

The social sciences are a broad field that include many overlapping disciplines and specialties. Two major fields of study in the social sciences are psychology and sociology. For those who are interested in pursuing a career in the social sciences, it may be helpful to learn the differences between sociology and psychology so you can choose the right field of study for you. In this article, we define sociology and psychology and outline the differences between them to help you choose which field is the best fit for you.

What is sociology?

Sociology is the study of human social behavior. This includes the study of how social groups form, interact and change over time. Sociologists use scientific methods to understand how social groups work at varying levels, from the behavior of individuals within larger groups to how institutions like the military, government, economy, healthcare industry and criminal justice system shape society and social structures. Here are some fields within sociology:

  • Culture

  • Criminal justice

  • Economics

  • Human ecology

  • Family, gender and sexuality studies

  • Health, aging and disability studies

  • Communications and technology

Related: Guide for Sociology Majors: Coursework, Benefits and Top Careers

What is psychology?

Psychology is the study of behavior and mental processes. Psychologists apply scientific principles to study how the brain works to process information and produce emotional and behavioral outcomes. Their work may also extend to studying interpersonal relationships, motivation, personality, attention and intelligence. Psychologists might study:

  • Human behavior

  • Animal behavior

  • Cognition

  • Sensation and perception

  • Subjective experience

  • Psychosocial development

  • Trauma and resilience

Related: All About Psychology Jobs and Common Careers

Differences between sociology vs. psychology

Although sociology and psychology may overlap in their study of human behavior, here are several key differences between these fields of study:

Focus of study

The first major difference between psychology and sociology is the scale at which they study behavior. While psychology is primarily interested in studying behavior at the level of the individual or small group, sociology typically looks at larger social networks. For example, psychologists and sociologists might both be interested in studying family units. The difference may be that a psychologist studies the dynamics within a single family unit to understand how the interests of the individuals within that unit conflict with or complement each other, while a sociologist might study how typical family structures differ between cultures.

Another example may be how psychologists and sociologists study corporations. An industrial psychologist may study how the policies of an organization contribute to employee productivity, while a sociologist might study how the history of corporations has developed into the modern workplace culture.

Career paths

Sometimes career paths for psychologists and sociologists can overlap. However, working as a specialist in either of these fields often requires an advanced degree such as a master's or doctorate. Earning a bachelor's degree in psychology or sociology may prepare you for graduate-level work in either field. After completing a bachelor's in either psychology or sociology, you might choose to specialize in one of these fields depending on your career goals.

Here are some common careers for sociologists:

  • Social worker

  • Guidance counselor

  • Social service administrator

  • Public education coordinator

  • Health statistician

  • Healthcare inspector

  • Public relations specialist

  • Market research analyst

  • Policy or program analyst

  • Professor of sociology

Some typical careers for psychologists may include:

  • Licensed mental health counselor

  • Family and marriage counselor

  • Industrial and organizational psychologist

  • Correctional officer

  • Childcare worker

  • Social worker

  • Career counselor

  • Art therapist

  • Health coach

  • Forensic psychologist

  • Psychology researcher

Related: 17 Social Science Jobs

Salary averages

The salary averages for sociology and psychology careers vary significantly based on the job role and place of employment. They may also vary by the individual's level of education and experience. For example, the national average salary for a social worker is $59,922 per year. The national average salary for a therapist is $72,333 per year, but a psychiatrist may make $230,433 per year, while school counselors make $55,346 each year.

Degree coursework

Degree programs in psychology and sociology may have different coursework requirements. Coursework may also vary depending on whether you are pursuing a bachelor's, master's or doctorate degree. Here are some courses that sociology students may take while pursuing a bachelor's degree:

  • Introduction to sociology

  • Economic sociology

  • Institutional and organizational sociology

  • Personality and social systems

  • Sociology of politics

  • Research methods

  • Social movements

  • Sociology of marriage and family

  • Urban or rural studies

  • Health and social behavior

  • Introduction to criminal justice

Graduate students in sociology may take more specialized courses related to their career field. For example, a social worker may pursue a graduate degree in leadership, child welfare and advocacy, or a sociology researcher may take specific courses in research methods and applied statistics.

Here are some courses that undergraduate students in psychology may take:

  • General psychology

  • Physiological psychology

  • Industrial and organizational psychology

  • Cognitive psychology

  • Social psychology

  • Developmental psychology

  • Forensic psychology

  • Comparative psychology

  • Psychology of personality

  • Psychology of aging

  • Research methods

  • Statistics

Similar to sociology, graduate courses in psychology may vary based on your career path. For example, mental health counselors may take courses in evaluating mental wellness and implementing behavioral intervention techniques. Those who wish to become psychiatrists must take specialized medical courses for diagnosing mental illnesses and treating them with medication.

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How to choose between sociology and psychology

Here are some tips to consider when choosing whether to pursue sociology or psychology:

1. Consider your interests

Since sociology and psychology are both social sciences, they may overlap in some areas. Knowing the differences between them may be a good first step to help you decide which field interests you the most. Since sociology focuses on larger institutions and social structures, this may be a good choice for those who are interested in understanding how social institutions, like the criminal justice system, shape society. Those who are interested in how individuals think and behave may be more interested in studying psychology.

2. Evaluate your career goals

Studying sociology or psychology may lead to different career opportunities. For example, a degree in psychology may better prepare you to work as a counselor or therapist because psychology degrees emphasize understanding mental processes and individual behavior. A sociology degree may be a better fit for someone looking to work in social justice and advocacy because it may focus more on understanding social systems.

However, it's important to recognize that a bachelor's degree in psychology or sociology may prepare you to pursue higher education in either field. For example, a candidate applying to a master's program in clinical psychology may still be eligible for acceptance with a bachelor's degree in sociology. You may also choose to take classes in both fields of study to gain a more well-rounded perspective. Many careers in the social sciences require a higher education degree, so you may use your undergraduate program to explore both options before choosing one to pursue at the master's level or higher.

Related: Deciding on Your Ideal Career: Considerations and Steps To Success

3. Research degree programs

You may find it helpful to research degree programs at different institutions to help you choose a field of study. Researching course requirements and opportunities for practical engagement through student research or internships may help you decide which program best meets your career goals and interests.

You might also look into the research specialties of an institution's faculty members within each field. Getting involved in research as a student can be a great way to earn experience in your field. Therefore, identifying programs where the faculty members work on studies related to your interests and goals may help you decide which program best fits your needs.

4. Meet with a career counselor

Finally, scheduling an appointment with a career counselor may help you choose which path is right for you. A career counselor may help you evaluate your skills, interests, work habits, personality and strengths to help you determine what career field may be a good fit for you. Working with a career counselor can help you gain insight and identify career opportunities that make the most of your strengths and professional assets.

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