Psychologist is one of the highest-paying social science careers, but different psychologists in different specializations do very different things. After all, psychology is the study of the mind, thinking and behavior. That entails everything from mental health disorders to how you frame and solve problems in your life, from academic performance to workplace behaviors, and much more. As of 2020, the American Psychological Association recognizes 18 different specialties within the field, along with three unique proficiencies – addiction psychology, sport psychology and biofeedback and applied psychophysiology. Each recognized proficiency can include various subspecialties or areas of emphasis. There are also areas of psychological study, research and therapeutic practice that are not yet widely recognized enough to be recognized as a distinct field by the American Psychological Association.
You can’t describe the specialties of psychology without mentioning clinical psychology, the specialty that emphasizes the use of evidence-based psychological practices to diagnose and treat mental health disorders. The practice of clinical psychology may include treatment through psychotherapeutic techniques, programs of behavior modification and pharmaceutical medications, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
A clinical psychologist may work in related specialties recognized by the American Psychological Association, such as serious mental illness psychology or clinical pharmacology. Although a clinical psychologist often works with an individual, they may also conduct psychotherapy with families or groups.
When a patient requires medication for a mental health condition, who prescribes that medication depends on state laws. A psychologist may prescribe in some states, but in others, the drug must be prescribed by another member of the patient’s care team.
The concepts of psychology and the techniques of psychotherapy aren’t only valuable when you have a diagnosable mental illness. They can also be used to help people cope with problems in their lives. Whether a person is going through a rough time as a result of a loss or trauma or could simply use some help understanding family dynamics and strengthening these relationships, a counseling psychologist could help them find solutions.
Generally, clinical psychologists treat more severe mental health disorders, while counseling psychologists tend to work with patients who are in a better state of mental health and to focus on the bigger picture of their wellbeing.
A third major category of psychology is school psychology. A school psychologist works with children to address issues related to learning and behavior. There may be some overlap between the mental conditions a clinical psychologist treats and those that impact learning and behavior in school, but the focus of these different types of psychologists is distinct.
If a child is acting out due to experiencing clinical depression or anxiety, the child may see both a clinical and a school psychologist in different settings and capacities. Outside of school, a clinical psychologist may work with the patient on psychotherapy to address the underlying problem of depression. Meanwhile, a school psychologist might meet with the child at school and develop and facilitate performance plans to help the child do better academically, behaviorally and socially.
Together, clinical, counseling and school psychologists make up nearly 90 percent of the occupation, accounting for 162,000 of the 181,700 psychologist jobs in the United States, according to the BLS.
In clinical, counseling and school psychology, the focus is generally on treating and improving the lives and functioning of patients or clients. In research roles in psychology, on the other hand, the goal is to learn more about an aspect of psychological functioning through research experiments designed according to scientific methods and principles. A psychologist who focuses on research in any branch of the field does not necessarily treat patients, although they may do that as well. In their research role, they design the parameters of experiments and data collection methods and then analyze that data to better assess matters like causation and correlation, the efficacy of therapeutic interventions and other experimental relationships.
Even if a psychologist devotes their career fully to research and never works with patients or clients directly, they make a big indirect impact on individuals. Every field of psychological practice benefits from the discoveries made through scientific research.
Other Specialties of Psychology to Know
With so many different specialties and subspecialties in the field, the career possibilities in psychology are countless. You might decide to work in developmental psychology, the branch of psychology that emphasizes how humans develop psychologically, neurobiologically, emotionally and socially throughout their lifespan. The field of social psychology looks at how social interactions, norms, institutions, expectations and other factors pertaining to the influence of other people impact patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. If you’re interested in criminal justice, you might pursue work as a forensic psychologist. Business-minded psychology students might go on to work in industrial-organizational psychology or financial psychology.
Although forensic psychologists are popularly viewed as profilers who crack the case of a severely disturbed serial killer, the work of forensic psychologists is often less dramatic. They may treat the mental health conditions of incarcerated individuals or testify in court.
Psychology Specializations by Age Group
Some specialties of psychology are differentiated by the age of the client population with whom the psychologist works. If you want to work with young people, you might pursue the specialty of clinical child and adolescent psychology. This distinction is important because children and teens don’t necessarily process thoughts and information in the same way. Symptoms of mental health conditions may be different when these disorders manifest in children rather than adults. Further, kids, especially young kids, may not be able to express their thoughts and feelings in ways that adults are. Geropsychology, on the other hand, focuses on the unique psychological needs of older adults.
Psychologists can also specialize in treating women’s issues, like postpartum depression and anxiety, or men’s issues, such as avoiding expressions of emotions due to societal pressures. Other psychologists work with clients of all ages, genders and sexual identities.