Psychologists today serve many roles, working in countless industries to accomplish various goals relevant to individuals, families, government, academia, the criminal justice system, business and contemporary society as a whole. Psychologists are innovators, pioneers, creators, scientists, providers of healthcare, collaborators, and advisors—and that’s just the beginning.
Through the work of psychologists, we have a better understanding of behavior and mental health; how relationships, cultures, communities, and populations shape who we are and how we relate to one other; of intelligence, personality, and well-being; and how knowledge of these things allows us to meet the changing needs of people, organizations, and societies.
Psychologists contribute in some way to nearly every aspect of contemporary society. They may work alone or with teams of professionals, such as physicians, scientists, policy makers, and healthcare providers. Their work takes them to laboratories, hospitals, schools, universities, prisons, the corporate world, the courtroom, and beyond.
Careers in Psychology
Jobs in psychology are as vast as the study of psychology itself. Depending on the sub-specialty on which they focus their career, psychologists may:
- Conduct research
- Study social development
- Teach and provide services to students
- Promote physical and mental health
- Support community and individual well-being
- Study work environments and performance issues
Some of the more well-known psychology professions recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) include:
Clinical psychologists evaluate and treat disorders associated with mental health and behavioral problems. These may include everything from short-term crises to more severe, chronic conditions. Clinical psychologists may focus their careers on specific populations (pediatrics, families, couples, gay/lesbian individuals, etc.) or on specific problems, such as clinical depression or schizophrenia.
Cognitive and Perceptual Psychologists
Cognitive and perceptual psychologists study thought processes, memory, and human perception. These psychologists focus their careers on how people learn, how they understand and produce language, and how the mind affects reality. Many study reasoning, judgment, and decision-making.
Community psychologists focus their expertise on how communities and social systems work to meet people’s needs. Their work often includes finding ways to develop stronger communities by helping people cope with negative circumstances, prevent problems, and implement community changes. Community psychologists often lend their expertise to crime prevention, school bullying, and in helping individuals and communities recover from natural or manmade disasters.
Counseling psychologists help people cope with problems or adversity through counseling/psychotherapy. The job of counseling psychologists is to help people understand and take action regarding their personal and professional problems so as to achieve psychological well-being. Their work involves taking psychological, physical, and spiritual factors into consideration.
Developmental psychologists study psychological development through the lifespan – from birth to death. Although developmental psychologists historically focused their work on childhood and adolescence, today’s developmental psychologists now look at the complete picture, often focusing on the aging process.
Environmental psychologists study how people affect the environment and how the environment affects behavior. The term environment may mean natural environments, built environments, social settings, informational environments, and cultural groups. The work of environmental psychologists is inherently multidisciplinary because it involves working with other scientists, including sociologists, anthropologists, biologists, etc. and in any number of fields, including architecture, engineering, urban planning, etc.
Experimental (Research) Psychologists
Experimental psychologists study a wide array of psychological phenomena, such as comparative psychology, cognitive processes, and the processes of learning and condition. Experimental psychologists collect data and manipulate variables to better understand specific phenomena and advance scientific knowledge.
Forensic psychologists apply psychological principles to the criminal justice system and legal issues. Forensic psychologists may conduct research on jury behavior, testify in court to a person’s competency to stand trial, perform court-ordered evaluations, and make inpatient rounds in correctional facilities, among many others.
Industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists apply their expertise to matters in the workplace. Their work involves applying psychological principles in an effort to improve productivity and efficiency and elevate employee morale. Many I/O psychologists help organizations with their overall staffing and training needs, while others help companies through transitional periods, such as mergers and acquisitions. Still, others work as management consultants, overseeing strategic planning and quality management efforts.
Neuropsychologists explore the intrinsic relationship between the brain systems and behavior. Their work involves studying behavior and brain function through imaging techniques and behavioral assessments. Outside of the research lab, neuropsychologists often treat patients with traumatic brain injuries or diseases of the brain.
Rehabilitation psychologists work with stroke victims, those with developmental disabilities, and those with diseases affecting the brain, such as autism and epilepsy. These psychologists often work with other healthcare professionals in rehabilitative situations to help people adapt to and improve their lives. Rehabilitation psychologists may also focus their careers on public health and helping people overcome mental disabilities caused by violence or substance abuse.
School psychologists assess and counsel students, consult with parents and school staff, and conduct behavioral assessments, when necessary. Their expertise lies in providing comprehensive psychological services to children, adolescents, and families in schools and other applied settings.
Sports psychologists work with athletes to improve motivation, meet personal and professional goals, and deal with the anxiety and stress than often accompany competition. Sports psychologists may work with all age groups, from childhood through adulthood.
Today’s Psychologists: Who They Are, Where They Work, and What They Do
According to the APA, there were nearly 159,000 actively licensed psychologists working in the U.S. in 2013. These psychologists possessed the following degrees:
- Master’s degrees: 75,442
- Doctoral degrees: 69,084
- Professional degrees: 14,058
The states with the largest number of psychologists during this time were:
- California: 11,025
- New York: 8,074
- Pennsylvania: 5,837
- Texas: 3,908
- Massachusetts: 3,614
- Florida: 2,926
Psychologists are employed in:
- Private practice
- Offices of mental health practitioners
- Physician practices
- Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers
- Private hospitals
- Educational institutions
- Faculty, counseling, testing, research, and administration positions
- State and local government
- Public hospitals
- Correctional facilities
- Criminal justice system
- Rehabilitation facilities
- Research companies/laboratories
- Consulting firms
- Private companies
- NGOs and nonprofit organizations
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) remains the largest employer of psychologists, although psychologists also work for a large number of federal government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, all branches of the military, the CIA, NASA, and the FBI, just to name a few.
Private corporations, including Boeing and Lockheed, are large employers of psychologists, as are NGOs, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations.
Job Responsibilities and Duties of Psychologists
Psychologists may be researchers, clinicians, therapists or all of the above. Through research they discover new and exciting ways to understand human behavior and mental processes. Through clinical practice and therapeutics, they apply what we know about mental and emotional health and mental functioning to solve problems and promote healthy human development.
Practicing Psychologists (clinicians and therapists)
Practicing psychologists treat patients with a wide variety of mental or behavioral problems. They may treat those with short-term or long-term conditions, chronic conditions that affect their quality of life or physical health. They also help patients overcome addictions, deal with life stressors, grieve the loss of a loved one, or break personal barriers that keep them from reaching their goals.
In addition to treating patients through psychotherapy (talk therapy), practicing psychologists administer and interpret tests and assessments that help diagnose a condition or better understand a person’s behavior. Just a few of the tests that practicing psychologists use include cognitive tests, intellectual skills tests, vocational aptitude tests, and tests that measure neuropsychological functioning.
Practicing psychologists often work alongside other members of a multidisciplinary healthcare team when medications and other therapies are implemented alongside psychotherapy.
Practicing psychologists may have a wide array of duties and responsibilities, including:
- Diagnosing and evaluating mental and emotional disorders
- Administering programs of treatment
- Interviewing patients and studying medical histories
- Observing patients in various situations and administering assessments/tests to diagnose disorders and formulate plans of treatment
- Consulting with other mental health professionals
- Selecting appropriate treatment approaches
- Planning the frequency, intensity, and duration of therapies
- Utilizing psychological techniques to treat psychological disorders
- Assessing patient progress and modifying treatment programs accordingly
- Documenting therapy according to policies and procedures
- Providing crisis intervention
Research psychologists (also called experimental psychologists) may focus their work on applied research (gaining knowledge for real-world implications) or basic research (performing research to advance knowledge). Both types of research are important for contemporary society.
Opportunities for research are broad, with nearly every branch of psychology conducting some form of research. Many research psychologists work in academia as research professors, many of which also teach psychology. Governmental agencies, the military, and even large corporations and businesses also employ research psychologists. Psychologists in these settings may be involved in everything from understanding political attitudes to testing a new pharmaceutical drug to understanding the best marketing strategy for a business.
The job responsibilities and duties of research psychologists often include:
- Formulating hypotheses to investigate psychological issues involving perception, memory, learning, personality, and cognitive processes
- Selecting, controlling, and modifying variables and observes and records behavior in relation to those variables
- Analyzing test results using statistical techniques
- Writing scientific papers describing experiments and the interpretation of results
- Collaborating with other scientists to conduct interdisciplinary studies and formulate theories of behavior
Careers in Psychology: Education, Training, and State Licensure
Independently practicing psychologists in the U.S. must attain a doctoral degree (PhD, PsyD), which requires at least four to six years of full-time study beyond an undergraduate degree. Most doctoral degree students participate in research and teaching and complete a supervised internship of at least one year.
Most states require at least one year of supervised practice after graduation (called a post-doc) before graduates can qualify to take the national examination (Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology) and state-specific examinations for state licensure.
Continuing education is a necessary requirement to maintain state licensure, although state license regulations set the specific type and amount required.
Just three states—New Mexico, Louisiana, and Illinois—grant psychologists prescriptive privileges. Licensure in these states requires advanced training in psychopharmacology.
The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards provides information on state licensing, credentialing, policy, and education.
However, not all psychologist careers require a doctoral degree. Individuals with bachelor’s degrees in psychology may work for market research firms, social services agencies, governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations, among others.
Individuals with master’s degrees in psychology often work in education, human services, government, and in research positions. Industrial-organizational psychologists often hold master’s degrees as their highest level of education, and master’s graduates often work as assistants to licensed psychologists in clinical, counseling, and research settings.