Are you fascinated with human behavior and the question of what thoughts, feelings and impulses drive that behavior? Regardless of whether your interests involve helping people or constitute pure scientific curiosity, this enthusiasm may prompt you to consider becoming a psychologist. Achieving this goal of developing expertise in human behavior, thought, emotions and perceptions will require a great deal of formal college education.
What Is a Psychologist?
The field of psychology encompasses the scientific study of all aspects of the mind, thinking and behavior. When you become a psychologist, you become an expert in human behavior and the thoughts, feelings and processes that drive behavior.
What Do Psychologists Do?
What psychologists do depends on the area of psychology in which they focus. Psychologists are scientists, but they aren’t all researchers – or at least, not primarily researchers. Many psychologists are also practitioners in some respect.
People who practice psychology apply the concepts and principles of psychology, as well as evidence-based techniques and methods discovered through research, to real-world situations. Many psychologists are mental health professionals, while others apply their knowledge of the field to areas like business administration or law.
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Where Do Psychologists Work?
If you want to become a psychologist, you may end up working in any number of environments.
A Variety of Industries and Work Settings for Psychologists
Hospitals (both general and psychiatric), clinics, inpatient and outpatient mental health centers and other healthcare facilities commonly employ psychologists to provide mental health services.
Colleges and universities, as well as research organizations, often employ experimental psychologists whose career focus is on research.
School psychologists and educational psychologists typically work for schools that offer kindergarten through 12th-grade education.
Some psychologists work for the government, often in clinical, research or forensic roles.
Self-Employment Among Psychologists
More than one in four psychologists in America were self-employed as of 2020, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), making self-employment the single largest employment industry for the occupation. Self-employed psychologists may work as clinical and counseling psychologists in private practice or as consultants in the field of industrial-organizational psychology or expert witnesses in a forensic capacity.
Types of Career Options in Psychology
Generally, if you want to become a psychologist of any kind, you will need to begin by pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology. Prospective psychologists most commonly start their college education by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in general psychology.
A psychologist typically needs an advanced degree in the area of psychology that pertains to their interests. The next step toward your licensed psychologist career goals will be to pursue graduate programs or doctoral programs. Before you can figure out your educational path more specifically, you need to identify the area of psychology in which you want to advance your studies.
The field of clinical psychology pertains to applying the concepts and evidence-informed practices of psychology to clinical practice – in other words, to the management of the psychological needs and issues of patients. Clinical psychology is the branch of psychology that focuses most closely on the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and behavioral disorders.
In professional practice, a clinical psychologist may use a variety of different evidence-based psychotherapy approaches, behavior modifications, and medications, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Only a few states currently permit clinical psychologists to prescribe medication to patients, according to the BLS. However, clinical psychologists may work as part of a care team that includes healthcare providers like psychiatrists and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners, who would manage the medication aspects of the patient’s care.
Clinical psychologists may work in any of the numerous psychology specialties. A clinical psychologist might focus on specialties and subspecialties like clinical neuropsychology or clinical health psychology. Psychologists practicing in this area of the field might also tailor their work to certain patient populations. For example, some clinical psychologists focus on clinical child and adolescent psychology, while others focus on geropsychology, the branch of psychology that specializes in the clinical needs and treatment of older adults.
If you want to become a clinical psychologist, you’re going to need a license. That typically means completing a doctoral degree in psychology, as well as meeting other licensing requirements.
Like clinical psychologists, counseling psychologists apply the principles of psychology and psychotherapy approaches to addressing the needs and problems of individuals in real-world practice. However, counseling psychologists don’t focus on psychopathy – mental disorders – to the extent that clinical psychologists do.
Counseling psychology emphasizes mental well-being more generally. A counseling psychologist may work with patients who have been diagnosed with mental disorders, but they may also assist people who are dealing with mental health issues that arise out of challenges in their lives.
Professional practice in the field of counseling psychology involves a variety of approaches in psychotherapy, techniques for trauma management and crisis intervention and working with patients or clients to identify the strengths, techniques and resources that can help them address challenges. In counseling psychology, as in clinical psychology, practitioners use assessment techniques to diagnose mental health disorders and evaluate client or patient progress.
Naturally, there is some overlap between the populations that clinical and counseling psychologists may treat. Generally, you would only see a clinical psychologist if you need treatment for a mental illness that impacts your life in significant ways. On the other hand, you may see a counseling psychologist to help you process and cope with problems in your family relationships and other interpersonal relationships, your career or workplace, your community, or any other challenge in your life.
For many people, the term “psychology” immediately brings to mind psychological problems, like diagnosed mental disorders or trouble coping with psychologically stressful situations in life. However, the field of psychology encompasses everything to do with thinking and behavior, including the processes of teaching and learning.
School psychologists work in school settings, where they focus on education and learning disorders, development disorders and behavioral problems that affect learning. In most schools, a school psychologist will spend much of their time working with individual students who are struggling to develop plans and strategies to improve their learning outcomes.
A school psychologist may also recommend to teachers and administrators teaching and learning strategies that draw upon the knowledge of how students learn. By sharing their expertise in this capacity, school psychologists help improve teaching and learning outcomes across the board – for all students.
School psychologists may have different options to prepare for the career path. In some states, you can become a school psychologist with an education specialist (EdS) degree rather than a doctoral degree. An education specialist is a specialist-level degree, which generally puts this highly specialized professional program somewhere between a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in terms of the level of advanced study and the number of credits required to earn the degree.
So far, the types of psychology career paths discussed have focused primarily on types of mental health professionals. This is because the majority of psychologists in the United States – 118,800 of the 178,900 psychologists working in 2020, or about 66% of this workforce – are clinical, counseling or school psychologists, according to the BLS.
However, not all psychologist job roles revolve around the practice of applying psychological concepts and techniques to addressing the problems of groups or individuals. An example of a different kind of psychology career is research psychologist or experimental psychologist. Experimental psychologists dedicate their careers primarily to conducting psychological research in the form of experiments designed in accordance with the scientific method.
Psychology is a science, and the methods and approaches found in psychotherapy, behavior modification plans and individualized education programs are informed by research. Undertaking scientific research is critical for advancing the field of psychology and coming up with new and better methods of mental health intervention, trauma and crisis management and teaching and learning strategies.
Experimental psychologists may not make the kind of difference to individual patients or clients that a professional working in clinical psychology, counseling psychology or school psychology does, but their work behind the scenes is what allows these practitioners to help a large volume of people.
A doctoral degree – generally, a PhD – is typically required for experimental psychologists in high-level roles like principal investigator. With a lower level of degree in psychology, you might be limited to work in roles like research assistant and research analyst.
Much of the field of psychology emphasizes the thoughts, feelings and learning processes of an individual or how thoughts and feelings influence or are influenced by interpersonal relationships and challenges. Industrial-organizational psychologists, however, focus on the application of psychological principles and practices to matters in workplaces and other organizations.
Industrial-organizational psychologists may be brought in to help companies find ways to overcome specific challenges. An industrial-organizational psychologist may also look for opportunities to boost productivity, employee morale and successful hiring, retention and performance evaluation policies through the application of the concepts of psychology.
Preparing to work in the field of industrial-organizational psychology is generally considered easier than preparing to work in other roles in psychology. A master’s degree is sufficient to work as an industrial-organizational psychologist in some jurisdictions and capacities, while certain states or job roles will require industrial-organizational psychologists to earn a doctorate degree in psychology and become licensed psychologists.
Forensic psychologists are psychologists who apply their knowledge of psychological principles and methods to the legal and criminal justice system in some way.
Often, forensic psychologists serve as expert witnesses, testifying in court in areas of criminal law, family law or civil legal matters, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Examples of work in forensic psychology may include counseling crime victims, evaluating the sanity and competence of alleged perpetrators of a crime and evaluating the competence of parents in family law custody cases.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of all of the different psychology career options you might consider. Other specializations in the field of psychology include developmental psychology, behavioral psychology, transpersonal psychology, holistic psychology, evolutionary psychology, engineering psychology and media psychology, among others.
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The first step toward completing a psychologist education is finishing your undergraduate psychology degree. A bachelor’s degree in psychology typically covers a general psychology curriculum. Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree usually study areas like developmental psychology, social psychology, psychopathology or abnormal psychology, cognitive psychology and health psychology. Students may also take courses in sensation and perception, the psychology of teaching and learning, cognitive or behavioral neuroscience and psychological development at different times during the lifespan.
Psychology is a consistently popular undergraduate degree program, but not every student who earns a bachelor’s degree in psychology actually becomes a psychologist – or even intends to do so. A great deal of post-baccalaureate education is required to become a psychologist, and not every student enrolled in bachelor’s in psychology programs will want to invest their time, effort and money into completing such an advanced educational program.
However, having knowledge of human behavior, thought processes, learning and emotions can prove valuable for many occupations and fields of study outside of psychology. Sales, management and teaching are common fields for graduates from a bachelor’s degree in psychology program to pursue. Many students who major in psychology as undergraduates go on to find work in areas like health, law enforcement, human and social services and counseling.
After completing your undergraduate studies in psychology, most aspiring psychologists will either pursue a master’s degree in psychology program or a doctoral degree program. Master’s degree programs in psychology often prepare students to enroll in doctoral programs, serving as a bridge between bachelor’s and doctoral degree programs that awards a further degree in psychology in the meantime.
Suppose you opt not to continue your studies as far as a doctoral degree program. What can you do with a master’s degree in psychology? In most branches of psychology, a master’s degree is not sufficient to become a licensed psychologist. Your career options in clinical, counseling and school psychology fields, if you stop your education at the master’s degree level, may be restricted to psychologist assistant roles in which you must be supervised by a psychologist with a doctoral degree, the BLS reported. However, a master’s degree may be sufficient for reaching your career goals if you intend to work in the field of industrial-organizational psychology.
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At the master’s degree level, psychology degree programs tend to become more specialized. By the time you enroll in a graduate program, you should have a clear idea of what you want to do with your psychology degree. In a psychology master’s program, you might pursue a degree or a concentration track in an area like forensic psychology, child development, applied positive psychology, educational psychology, health psychology or applied behavior analysis. Some graduate programs in psychology are general psychology programs, but even these master’s degrees often allow students to use their elective courses to build expertise in an area of interest.
Earning a graduate degree in psychology typically takes two to three years of full-time study, although some programs that award psychology master’s degrees take longer. Students are often required to write a thesis based on original research or, in an applied master’s in psychology degree program, to gain hands-on practical experience through an internship.
For certain roles in psychology, a different level of degree known as a specialist degree may be an option. An aspiring school psychologist, for example, may reach their career goals by earning an educational specialist (EdS) degree instead of a doctoral degree in psychology. EdS degrees are generally offered out of departments of education rather than psychology.
In an EdS in psychology degree program, students take classes in developmental psychology, applied behavior analysis principles, theories of learning and behavior, psychology of behavior change, collaboration in educational settings and the psychology of exceptional children and English language learners. Through their EdS degree curriculum, students learn to complete assessments of cognitive function, behavior, academic skills and social and emotional function and perform cognitive-behavioral therapy, academic and behavioral inventions and psychotherapy in school settings.
If you want to become a licensed psychologist, you will most likely need a doctoral-level education. For example, clinical psychologists and counseling psychologists typically need to acquire a doctoral degree. If you want to work in academia or research, you will typically need a research-focused doctorate degree.
A doctoral program in clinical psychology will cover courses in psychopathology, psychological assessment, principles of psychotherapy, theories of psychological intervention, clinical case conceptualization and research and data analysis in psychology.
A doctoral degree program in counseling psychology typically includes coursework in professional counseling foundations, psychopathology, assessment in counseling, and methods of career counseling, individual counseling, family counseling and group counseling. In addition to studying counseling theory and practice, aspiring counseling psychologists take classes in clinical instruction in the counseling process and the application of counseling theory to practice.
PhD Programs vs. PsyD Degree Programs
There are two types of psychology degrees available at the doctoral level of study: the PhD and the PsyD degree. In either type of doctoral psychology program, you need to do much more than simply attend class.
The traditional Doctor of Philosophy, or PhD, degree has historically been considered a research-focused program. This doesn’t mean, however, that only aspiring experimental psychologists should seek a PhD. PhD programs are available in areas like clinical psychology and counseling psychology and can be used to prepare for work in private practice and in health care services. However, most students who pursue a PhD doctoral program will devote a sizeable portion of their studies to conducting research and writing a dissertation based on their research.
The Doctor of Psychology, or PsyD, degree is a practical degree program that emphasizes preparing students for clinical practice. Instead of requiring a research-focused dissertation, this doctoral psychology degree program typically requires extensive fieldwork, including a one-year internship. The focus of a PsyD psychology degree program is on applying the knowledge of psychology needed to become a psychologist rather than on delving deep into the theory behind psychological techniques and interventions.
Neither a PhD nor a PsyD program is easy or quick to complete. In general, it takes students between five and seven years to complete a psychology degree program that awards a PhD and four to six years to complete a PsyD program, according to Psychology Today. If you already have a master’s degree in psychology from an accredited program, you can expect to begin your doctoral studies with advanced standing based on the graduate-level credits you have already completed.
Psychologist Career Preparation Beyond the Degree
Your education is, perhaps, the most important step toward becoming a psychologist. However, becoming a psychologist requires more than a degree. Most states require anyone who practices psychology or calls themselves a “psychologist” to acquire a state license to do so, according to the BLS.
The requirements for licensed psychologists are set by individual jurisdictions, as compiled by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). In general, however, if you want to become a psychologist who is eligible for licensure, you must typically meet the following requirements:
- Completing a doctoral program in psychology
- Gaining experience first through an internship and then through post-doctoral supervised experience
- Earning a passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology
- Keeping abreast with new developments in the field through continuing education coursework
Becoming an expert on human behavior and thinking requires so much effort not only because human thoughts, emotions and behaviors can be complex but also because our understanding of the field of psychology is constantly expanding.
Preparing for Non-Psychologist Jobs in Mental Health
Often, students automatically associate psychology programs with the treatment of mental health problems – and while the two fields are closely related in many instances, this isn’t always the case. If you don’t actually want to practice psychology, you may not really want to become a psychologist after all. Rather, you might be interested in other related career paths, like the following.
Licensed clinical and counseling psychologists can go by the title of “doctor,” because they have, after all, earned a doctoral degree. However, they are not medical doctors, and they don’t go to medical school. The type of medical doctor most closely related to the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues is a psychiatrist.
Psychiatrists approach the management of mental disorders from a medical model that emphasizes disease diagnosis and treatment. These medical doctors often prescribe medications but can also use psychotherapy techniques and neuromodulation devices that alter nerve activity.
Becoming a psychiatrist requires you to go to medical school and earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. After graduating from medical school, aspiring psychiatrists complete four years of residency training in psychiatry, most of which takes place in a hospital setting.
For counselor roles, you don’t need a doctoral-level degree. You can usually attain these roles upon completion of a master’s program and a licensing process.
A school counselor differs from a school psychologist in several ways, even though both serve critical roles in the education system. School counselors serve a broader range of students and provide broad, basic services rather than focusing on the testing, assessing and invention plans specifically for students who need assistance due to psychological, behavioral or developmental issues.
Any student may turn to school counselors for help dealing with a learning problem, emotional problem, family problem or social problem. School counselors also help students plan for the future, including considering potential career paths and preparing for college, apprenticeships in the skilled trades or the workforce.
Licensed Professional Counselor or Therapist
If it turns out that you’re more interested in counseling techniques than in learning to practice psychology in a counseling psychologist role, consider pursuing a career as a counselor or therapist of some kind.
Mental health counselors can provide counseling services to patients and clients with all sorts of mental health concerns and emotional, psychological or social relationship problems. They may help patients move forward after a trauma or crisis or help them manage depression, anxiety, stress, grief and trouble with self-esteem. Substance abuse counselors and behavioral disorder counselors focus on helping patients who are struggling with some sort of addiction – whether that addiction takes the form of substances like alcohol and recreational drugs or behavioral disorders that can range from gambling to eating disorders.
Counselors use a variety of counseling techniques and approaches to help and advise their patients and clients, including implementing talk therapy with individuals, couples, families and groups.
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If you have been thinking about becoming a psychologist to work in the industrial-organizational applications of the field, an alternative career path to consider is business consultant.
Many factors go into achieving success in business, not just the principles of psychology. You might have insights to offer as a business consultant with a background in management and leadership, finance, industrial engineering or any number of other subjects. Generally, you don’t need to achieve any specific credentials to begin marketing your services as a business consultant. You may, however, need a reputation, references or an impressive history of results to persuade companies to hire you.
The Qualities of Successful Psychologists
What qualities should you possess if you want to become a psychologist? Naturally, which type of psychology career path you want to pursue affects the answers to this question.
A clinical or counseling psychologist is more likely to need plenty of patience, empathy and a good bedside manner than an experimental psychologist, for whom analytical skills, observational skills and the integrity to follow legal and ethical regulations are more essential attributes. Generally, though, all of these strengths are valuable in any role in psychology, as are problem-solving and communication skills.