Introduction to psychology careers and disciplines

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Psychology is a top choice major for college students, ranking fourth in terms of overall popularity. Psychologists specialize in understanding cognitive, emotional, and social processes. They do this by observing behavior and interpreting how people relate to themselves, one another, and the environment. While some psychologists use their skills to provide mental health services to those in need, others apply their knowledge in business settings, schools, or research. More than 90% of psychologists in the United States report high job satisfaction, making psychology a rewarding and in-demand career.

What does a psychologist do?

A psychologist is an expert in understanding the human mind and behavior. Psychologists work in a variety of settings, meaning there is no “one size fits all” description of what it is like to be in this profession. However, most psychologists collect information through interviews, surveys, clinical interactions with patients, or direct observation. They then use this information to test hypotheses about how and why people do what they do.

There are 2 major types of psychologists: those who do research and those who work in applied settings.

There are 2 major types of psychologists: those who do research and those who work in applied settings. Research psychologists may specialize in a variety of content areas, including social psychology, perception, neuroscience, developmental psychology, or cognitive psychology. Similarly, applied psychologists may use their skills in a multitude of settings. Clinical psychologists, neuropsychologists, health psychologists, school psychologists, industrial-organizational psychologists, and forensic psychologists all apply their expertise to important problems. These applied careers often directly help people with their health, education, or workplace issues.

Alternative career paths for mental health

The term “psychologist” is typically reserved for someone who has completed a doctoral degree— Ph.D. or Psy.D.— in psychology. However, there are many related professions that draw on similar skills. If you are interested in working in the mental health field but do not want to get your doctorate, counseling or social work are good career options to consider.

Counseling

Counselors help their clients deal with life problems. This could include mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. In other cases, counselors help people with life changes, grief, stress, trauma, addiction, poor sleep, or relationship difficulty. Counselors provide therapy to assist people as they learn new skills and behaviors to address these problems.

Explore careers in counseling

In most states, licensed counselors have a master’s degree. Master’s degree programs typically take 2 years to complete. A master’s in counseling typically includes coursework on individual and group therapy skills, lifespan development, psychopathology, and mental health. Students practice their skills through supervised internships or clinical practicums.

After completing an accredited master’s degree program, a person is eligible to become a licensed counselor. The 2 most common licensing options are a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). To become an LMHC, you must successfully complete the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination. To become an LMFT, you must pass the MFT National Examination. States and local jurisdictions may have additional requirements to become licensed as a counselor.

Counselors often have unique traits that make them well suited to this profession. Positive traits for counselors include a concern for others, enjoying working in a social environment, dependability, and an ability to cooperate with others. Counselors often value the feeling of accomplishment they get when they help a client. This career also suits people who enjoy independence and the ability to make their own decisions.

There are several differences between a counselor and a psychologist. Psychologists receive advanced training in the diagnosis and treatment of psychopathology. This makes them equipped to help patients with a variety of mental health problems using evidence-based methods. Psychologists often focus more on assessment, research, and other skills that are less commonly used by counselors.

Social Work

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) provide mental health services to their clients. An LCSW is different from other social workers who may focus on public issues such as housing or social services. Licensed clinical social workers receive special education and training to support clients and their families in a therapeutic role.

The focus of an LCSW is an individual, his or her family, and the broader community. These social workers are trained to provide counseling services to their clients. They may work in hospitals, healthcare facilities, community mental health settings, or private practice.

Explore careers in social work

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker requires a master’s degree, which usually takes 2 years. An LCSW training program typically includes coursework as well as hands-on clinical training. After completing the master’s-level ASWB exam, a social worker can become licensed to practice.

Certain traits are common among successful social workers, including an interest in a social occupation, enjoying working with ideas and solving problems, dependability, and high stress tolerance. Social workers often enjoy working independently but also value being part of an interdisciplinary team. Because social workers frequently refer their clients to other health professionals or social services providers, they need excellent communication skills.

Both mental health counselors and clinical social workers see the same types of clients. Often, the goal is to provide relatively brief counseling to adjust to a problem or resolve a crisis. However, the scope of practice differs between these 2 careers. Counselors often focus on helping people address thoughts and behaviors that are harming their mental health. Social workers often view the individual as part of a larger ecosystem that includes family members, friends, the community, and institutions. Social workers often draw on a diverse set of tools to help their clients adjust to crises or navigate challenges. This may include referrals to other specialists or working with clients to obtain other necessary services.

Difference between psychology and related mental health careers

Psychologists must undergo much more training than social workers or counselors, including advanced coursework in psychopathology, assessment, and evidence-based interventions. This gives psychologists the expertise to diagnose and treat a variety of mental health problems in healthcare settings, schools, the criminal justice system, and elsewhere.

Psychologists are also more likely to have a background in research, including specialized training in statistics and research design. While not all psychologists actively conduct research, most use this training to stay abreast of important topics in their field. Psychologists often work with more specialized patient populations than a master’s level counselor.

How to become a psychologist

If you are interested in psychology but are undecided on pursuing extensive postgraduate studies, there are several degrees and paths that can lead to a successful career in the field of psychology without becoming a full-fledged psychologist.

Bachelor’s degree in psychology

Before entering a doctoral program, all applicants must have completed a bachelor’s degree. Often, people major in psychology in their undergraduate program. However, this is not required to become a psychologist. Other popular majors include neuroscience, health sciences, biology, or social work.

Skills aquired

To prepare for a master’s degree or doctoral program in psychology, a bachelor’s degree should include coursework in psychopathology, social psychology, statistics, cognitive psychology, and research methods. Successful applicants to graduate programs typically have excellent oral and written communication skills. Some experience working with patients, such as volunteer work, can be helpful for those who want to pursue a clinical or applied psychology career. Exposure to research can also be beneficial.

FAQ

Yes. Bachelor’s degrees in psychology and related fields are available to take online.

Yes. Attending an accredited degree program increases the likelihood that you will gain admittance to a high-quality graduate program in psychology.

Master’s degree in psychology

Some people receive a master’s degree from a separate program than their doctoral degree, while others receive it as a milestone on their way to the Ph.D. or Psy.D. A master’s degree in psychology typically requires 2 years of full-time study. Depending on the focus of the master’s degree program, you may learn clinical skills, complete a research project, or take coursework in a particular area of study.

Some states permit people with a master’s degree in psychology to receive a psychology license. However, the majority of psychologists complete a doctorate degree. Earning a master’s degree before applying for a doctoral program can make you a more competitive applicant.

 

Doctoral degree in psychology

The doctoral degree in psychology is required in most places to become licensed and practice as a psychologist. There are several types of doctoral degree programs. A Ph.D. is one option. Typically, Ph.D. programs have a strong research requirement and are best suited for people pursuing an academic career. This could include clinical psychologists who wish to practice in academic medical environments, industrial-organizational psychologists, or forensic psychologists.

A Psy.D. is a clinically-oriented degree that is typically chosen by people who know they want to provide therapy or assessment services in a clinical setting. An Ed.D., or Doctor of Education, is the degree needed to become a school psychologist.

Skills aquired

The exact content of a doctoral degree in psychology depends on the program and focus of study. Typically, a program will take between 4 and 6 years of full-time study to complete. Those who have completed a master’s degree in a related discipline may graduate sooner.

Ph.D. programs often include advanced coursework in statistics and research methods. Completion of original research in the form of a dissertation is generally required to earn a Ph.D. Psy.D. programs often have less strict research requirements than Ph.D. programs. They focus on teaching clinical skills, including assessment and evidence-based intervention. Ed.D. programs are specifically designed to prepare you to become a school psychologist. This includes coursework about theories of lifespan development, testing and measurement, and program evaluation.

FAQ

Yes, in some circumstances. Some online programs offer doctoral degrees, though there are often hybrid options in which some on-campus activities, such as clinical work or research, are required.

Yes. Attending an accredited degree program is required to become licensed in several states. This is particularly important for clinical psychologists who often cannot complete an internship if they do not attend an accredited doctoral program.

Predoctoral internship

Psychologists in several applied disciplines, including clinical psychology and some Ed.D. programs, must complete an internship. This is typically a predoctoral internship, meaning that the degree is not conferred until you successfully complete the internship. For clinical psychologists, the internship is a 1-year experience designed to provide supervised clinical training. Internships may not be required for other specialties, such as industrial-organizational psychology or forensic psychology.

 

Postdoctoral fellowship

Upon completion of the doctoral degree, many psychologists go on to complete postdoctoral studies. A postdoctoral fellowship could include advanced training in clinical practice, research, or another skillset. Postdoctoral fellowships typically last 2 or 3 years depending on the specialty area. A fellowship may be required for certain careers, like clinical neuropsychology, or for those who wish to enter academia.

 

Licensure requirements

A license is required to practice psychology in most states. Licensure is most important for individuals in applied disciplines, such as clinical psychology, school psychology, forensic psychology, or certain types of industrial/organizational psychology. In general, licensure requires a psychologist to first complete an exam. For example, clinical psychologists must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), while school psychologists must complete the Praxis #5402 exam. Specific states or jurisdictions may have other requirements for licensure.

 

Advanced credentials and specializations

Psychology is a broad field with many opportunities to specialize or seek advanced training. Psychologists’ skills are transferable to several areas, and many psychologists decide to obtain additional training in a specific area to enhance their research or practice. One option is to become board certified in a specialty area. There are several agencies that offer board certification, but the American Board of Professional Psychology is most prominent. This board offers specialty certification within the following disciplines:

  • Behavioral and cognitive
  • Clinical child and adolescent
  • Clinical health
  • Clinical
  • Clinical neuropsychology
  • Counseling
  • Couple and family
  • Forensic
  • Geropsychology
  • Group
  • Organizational and Business
  • Police and public safety
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Rehabilitation
  • School

Specializations within psychology

The large number of specialty areas within psychology make this an in-demand field. What all these specialties share is a focus on human thought and behavior. Each type of psychologist needs specific skills and experiences to be successful. Following are some of the most common specializations within psychology.

Total employment

111,320

Projected growth (2018-2028)

14.7%

Degree required

Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree

The exact role of a clinical or counseling psychologist depends on the practice setting. Following are some tasks and duties of a clinical psychologist:

  • Collect and integrate information about patients by use of interviews, medical history, direct observation, and standardized assessments
  • Diagnose psychological disorders and assess psychological, emotional, or behavioral issues that may be affecting a person’s functioning
  • Create an individualized treatment plan to address patients’ specific needs and desires
  • Deliver evidence-based treatments, including psychotherapy, behavior modification, stress reduction therapy, play therapy, or hypnosis
  • Discuss treatment plans with all relevant parties, including patients, groups, and family members. This may include psychoeducation about what to expect and how to best support the patient.
  • Use techniques from psychotherapy to help patients build insight, define clear goals, and take action congruent with their goals
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Clinical and counseling psychologists typically have a Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree. Clinical psychologists must complete a 1-year, full-time accredited internship program to be eligible to become licensed. In some states, clinical psychologists must also complete one or more years of postdoctoral study before becoming licensed.

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Total employment

780

Projected growth (2018-2028)

14.3%

Degree required

Doctorate

Industrial-organizational psychologists, or I-O psychologists, focus on organizations and workplaces. They use principles of psychology to understand why and how people work the way they do. Organizations often hire an I-O psychologist to become more efficient, improve employee retention, or increase employee well-being.

As a result, industrial-organizational psychologists have a variety of highly transferable skills. These professionals are in demand in the private sector, public sector, non-profits, education, and government.

  • Conduct evaluations to assess organizational functioning. This may include assessment of physical work environments, organizational structures, employee morale, group interactions, or communication systems
  • Use interviews, rating scales, and psychological tests to determine which applicants may be best suited for a particular job. These methods may also be used for employee promotion
  • Develop and implement workplace training programs, using knowledge of learning styles and optimal uptake of information
  • Present research findings to key stakeholders
  • Serve as an expert witness in employment lawsuits
  • Examine consumer behavior, including responses to new products or advertising campaigns
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Most industrial-organizational psychologists hold a doctoral degree in psychology. Coursework is designed to build your knowledge base about people and human organizations. The doctoral degree also builds analytical skills, problem-solving abilities, and research background to ensure that I-O psychologists can effectively navigate workplace challenges. Most I-O psychologists go straight from a doctoral degree to full-time employment, although there are some advanced training options available.

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  • Median salary: $72K

    Forensic psychologists use the science of psychology to understand behavior in a legal environment. In practice, this means that forensic psychologists may work with incarcerated individuals or those facing trial. Forensic psychologists work in a variety of settings, including the criminal justice system, hospitals, medical examiners’ officers, police departments, or laboratories.

    Tasks and duties
    • Assess offenders’ state of mind at the time they committed the offense
    • Determine a person’s competency to stand trial
    • Assess the credibility of witnesses
    • Gauge a person’s risk of re-offending
    • Evaluate child and family environments in custody or divorce hearings
    • Prepare testimony and present it in a courtroom setting
    • Consult with police and public safety officers regarding mental health and best practices
    • Design programs that are implemented in corrections settings
    Education and training

    Most forensic psychologists have at least a master’s degree. However, many earn a doctorate degree in psychology with specific training in forensic science. This may include applied training through a practicum or internship setting.

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  • Median salary: $73K

    Sports psychologists work with athletes to help them achieve their goals. This discipline of psychology used to be reserved for elite athletes. Now, however, sports psychologists practice at all levels to help athletes reach peak performance. This is driven by a growing recognition that the mental aspects of sports are just as important as physical abilities.

    Tasks and duties
    • Assess athletes’ performance and offer psychological counseling
    • Help athletes identify risk factors for poor performance and develop mental strategies to combat them
    • Assess athletes’ mental strengths and weaknesses
    • Train athletes to use skills such as meditation or visualization to optimize performance
    • Help athletes who are undergoing rehabilitation for sports injuries adjust to their situation
    • Aid athletes facing pressure or anxiety due to their performance
    Education and training

    Most sports psychologists have at least a master’s degree in the field, though many have a doctoral degree. Sports psychologists often have a personal connection to athletics, sometimes as former elite or college athletes themselves. A strong working knowledge of kinesiology, sports medicine, and physiology is critical to a sports psychologist’s training.

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  • Median salary: $96K

    Research psychologists differ from applied psychology disciplines in that they investigate human behavior but do not see patients or perform clinical work. Some psychologists are primarily researchers, while others do a mix of research and applied activities. Research psychologists work at universities, hospitals, government agencies, and in the for-profit sector. Their skills make them well suited to investigate a variety of topics related to human behavior, cognition, mental health, and social interactions.

    Tasks and duties
    • Document participants’ behavior, either through direct observation, physiological measurements, or other methods
    • Administer psychological tests or other standardized assessments
    • Construct and distribute questionnaires or surveys
    • Analyze complex data and summarize findings
    • Publish results in peer-reviewed journals or industry publications
    • Write grants to obtain funding for research projects
    Education and training

    Most research psychologists have a Ph.D. in psychology with specialization in a particular discipline. While some people with a Psy.D. or Ed.D. degree may perform research, this tends to be less of a focus in these training programs. Individuals who intend to pursue a research career in psychology must focus on training in research methods, statistics, experimental design, research ethics, and related topics. They also obtain special training within a specific area of study, such as social psychology, neuroscience, cognition, or development.

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Degrees in psychology

An undergraduate degree with majors in psychology is one of the most popular bachelor programs. It provides a strong foundation to continue your studies at graduate level, which is required to work as a psychologist. This program is also broad enough to lead to other education and career pathways outside of psychology including teaching, sociology, and public health.

Either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D., these terminal degrees are prerequisites to become a clinical psychologist in the majority of specializations in the field. Similarly, psychologists who decide to work in academia and research typically require a doctorate degree.

Should you get a Ph.D. or Psy.D.?

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) and Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) are both considered terminal degrees in the field of psychology. Which degree makes most sense for you depends on several factors, including:

The differences between psychology and psychiatry

People considering a career in psychology or psychiatry often have a general interest in mental health and human behavior. There is some overlap between these 2 professions, especially between clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. Both careers involve working with patients to help them improve their mental health and well-being. This might include working in a hospital, outpatient clinic, rehabilitation facility, nursing home, or private practice.

The major difference between a psychologist and psychiatrist is that psychiatry requires a medical degree. To become a psychiatrist, you must complete a bachelor’s degree that includes prerequisites such as biology, anatomy and physiology, chemistry, psychology, and physics. You must then be accepted into and complete medical school to earn an M.D. or D.O. degree. Medical school typically takes 4 years. After medical school, you must complete a residency program to specialize in psychiatry. A residency in psychiatry typically takes 4 years to complete. Some psychiatrists choose to complete a fellowship or other specialty program after finishing residency.

Both types of practitioners focus on improving the lives of people with depression, anxiety, serious mental illness, and other mental health problems.

Psychologists and psychiatrists differ in their scope of practice. Both types of practitioners focus on improving the lives of people with depression, anxiety, serious mental illness, and other mental health problems. As medical doctors, psychiatrists prescribe medications to help their patients get better. Some psychiatrists may also provide psychotherapy, but this is less of a focus for many psychiatrists. In contrast, most states do not allow psychologists to prescribe medicine. Instead, psychologists often provide assessment and psychotherapy services to help patients. There are also differences in compensation between the 2 professions. Psychiatrists typically earn higher salaries than psychologists, though this depends on practice setting. Demand for both professions is high. Choosing between them is a matter of deciding what type of clinical practice suits you best.

American Psychological Association – Trends Report

American Psychological Association – Datapoint: Most Psychologists are Satisfied with Their Jobs

American Psychological Association – How many Psychologists are Licensed in the United States