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Psychology Education, Schools, and Career Overview

Think of the word "psychologist," and you may imagine an individual listening to clients pour out their troubles while lying on a couch. While therapy can be an important aspect of this profession, it would be a mistake to believe this is all psychologists do. Tracing its roots back to 1870, psychology is a field offering varied career and professional opportunities. With the right education, psychologists can work in schools, businesses and academia to solve big-picture problems as well as provide clinical services to individual clients.

Specializations

The tremendous number of psychological subfields acknowledged by the American Psychological Association (APA) illustrates the number of vocational opportunities that may be available after earning a degree in psychology. Here are a few common occupations:

Counseling psychologists work directly with individuals, couples, or families to examine thoughts, feelings, actions, and relationships to determine where problems exist so changes in attitude and behavior can be implemented to improve an individual’s quality of life.   The term “psychotherapy” is often used interchangeably with counseling. The distinction between the two terms is usually made by medical insurance companies who have defined psychotherapy’s results as being long term in contrast to counseling.  People most often seek the assistance of psychological counselors voluntarily to deal with anxiety, depression, and stress in their personal lives.

Clinical Psychologists most often work with severely mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals who have been committed to institutions because of their inability to function in society.  This may those who have been deemed dangerous to themselves or to others. These more severe disorders would include phobias, irrational fears, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Through the process of psychological rehabilitation, clinical psychologists work to help patients cope with disorders while living in the community setting of a hospital or institution with the ultimate goal of integration back into society as is possible and appropriate.

Forensic Psychologists apply principals of psychology to criminal law.  Forensic psychologists are typically called upon as paid expert witnesses in criminal trials to attest to or rebuke a defendant’s claim of insanity, or to refute the reliability of other witness testimony. Forensic psychologists may also assist federal and local law enforcement officials in criminal profiling to create a likely description of an unknown offender based on the nature of the crime and any other information that might be available. 

Military Psychologists can be either civilians or members of the armed forces who use applied psychology in testing the intelligence and aptitude of military enlisted service men and women, as well as officers, to qualify them for a particular military role or specialty that might require a certain psychological profile. Military psychologists may also help current and former members of the military deal with the traumas associated with combat or other military operations, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Military psychologists also can help soldiers who are making the sometimes difficult transition from military to civilian life.

Other common specialties in the field of psychology include:

  • Abnormal Psychology is concerned with disorders that result in behavior that deviates from societal norms.
  • Biological Psychology is focused on the physiological connection to psychology; specifically how the nervous system affects behavior.
  • Comparative Psychology studies animal cognition and behavior, and its evolutionary links to humanity. 
  • Developmental Psychology looks at infant and childhood development, and the developmental changes in an individual through the course of life and into old age.
  • Educational Psychology considers how humans learn within educational settings, the social psychology of these settings, and the effectiveness of teaching methods and educational practices.
  • Evolutionary Psychology studies the genetic source of mental and behavioral patterns, and how these evolutionary adaptations may be maladaptive in the context of modern societal life.
  • Health Psychology is focused on the psychology of behavior such as eating, drug use, and sexual habits that directly impact a person’s physical health.
  • Industrial/Organizational Psychology is applied to the selection and evaluation of workers in any commercial industry to organize and employ methods that maximize efficiency and workplace performance.
  • Personality Psychology looks at the differences and converse similarities in characteristics and behavior among individuals.
  • Quantitative Psychology applies math and computational statistical models to develop methods to analyze and explain psychological data. 
  • Social Psychology is concerned with how humans interact within a society, and what they think about one another.  It studies group dynamics in the development of beliefs and attitudes.

How to Become a Psychologist

A student's choice in academic focus -- including which, if any, subfield of psychology -- can dictate what potential career options they may choose to pursue after graduation.

Degree Programs

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov), most clinical, counseling and research positions require individuals have a doctoral degree. This can be either a Ph.D. in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree. The American Psychological Association also notes its policy, as well as state licensing laws, limit the use of the title psychologist to those who have a doctoral degree.

However, the APA reports the number of students who now pursue a terminal master's degree in psychology -- meaning they have no plans for a doctoral degree -- increased sixfold from 1960 to 2008. Individuals with a master's degree may work as industrial-organizational psychologists or school counselors. They may also work under the supervision of doctoral psychologists.

At the undergraduate level, students interested in becoming a psychologist may want to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology. Although an undergraduate degree can provide a solid foundation for future studies, it is generally not sufficient for most positions in the field. In fact, the APA found only 5 percent of those with only a bachelor's degree in psychology were working in an occupation related to psychology in 2008.

Graduate-Level Coursework 

The curriculum for psychology degree programs may vary depending on the institution and the degree level. However, the following are examples of courses students might take as part of their graduate studies.

  • Physiological Basis of Behavior
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychology of Social Behavior
  • Cognitive and Behavioral Treatment for Depression
  • Family Therapy
  • Child Psychological Assessment
  • Theories of Personality
  • Mental Health Policy
  • Traumatic Stress Reactions

Students may need to complete an internship as part of their education. After earning a degree, aspiring psychologists may be required to have 1-2 years of professional experience before they are able to sit for the Examination for the Professional Practice of Psychology, become fully licensed and able to work independently.

Psychology Licensure

Psychologists are highly trained professionals who must meet rigorous licensing requirements if they want to work in a clinical setting and offer one-on-one therapy services. Counselors and clinical psychologists most often practice with one of two licenses granted by the state board of psychology in their respective state:  the Mental Health Therapist (MHT) license or the Marital Family Therapist (MFT) license.

Licensure is granted after completion of an appropriate master’s or doctoral degree program and usually requires completion of classes in early childhood development, domestic violence, and law and ethics as specified by that state’s board of psychology. Qualifying for licensure is also dependent on completing 3000 hours of supervised practice under the observation of a licensed therapist.

The Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) is established by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) as the final step toward becoming a licensed psychologist.  It is a multiple-choice test consisting of more than 200 questions and takes more than four hours to complete. 

The EPPP tests cover:

  • The understanding of biological, cognitive-affective, and social and multi-cultural factors in behavior
  • The understanding of psychological principals in respect to growth and lifespan development, assessment and diagnosis, treatment and intervention, research methods
  • The ethical, legal, and professional issues involved in psychology

The ASPPB is the recognized resource in regulating the licensure of psychologists in the U.S. and Canada, and has created the Guidelines on Practicum Experience for Licensure as the most comprehensive document of its kind.  Information on testing and qualification for licensure is available at www.asppb.net.

Once licensed, states may require psychologists take continuing education courses.

Can a psychologist practice without a license?

Yes, psychologists can practice during the interim period between graduation from college and the completion of the 3000 hours of observed practice required for licensure.

Any psychological vocation that doesn’t require patient care can be performed without licensure.  This would include research work and industrial-organizational psychology.

Certification in a Specialty 

Specialty certification is granted by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) which currently recognizes 13 of these specialized fields of psychology.  A specialty is defined as an area of practice requiring special competency gained through formal education, training, and experience.

To be eligible for certification in one of these specialized fields means first meeting the general requirements for practicing psychology by earning a Ph.D. or Psy.D., and receiving proper licensure to practice.  After successful completion of all additional education, training, and experiential requirements specific to the particular specialty, a psychologist must submit an application and pass an examination that demonstrates his competency in that field.  Details and application forms are available at www.abpp.org.

Psychologist Skills and Qualities

Effective psychologists are drawn to psychology more as a personal calling than strictly a vocational profession. Psychology in practice is almost as much an art as it is a science, and it requires the talents of individuals who are motivated by the purest intentions. To be a good psychologist, a person must have the ability to be deeply empathetic to the distress of others.

Psychologists bear an enormous responsibility in the handling of individuals who are in a compromised emotional state. The nature of the deeply personal discourse between psychologist and client requires psychologists to be extremely trustworthy. They must bring an uncompromised level of integrity to their practice and be willing to hold to the highest ethical standards. It is said that a good therapist causes no harm, while a great therapist may do some good.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

Psychologists can find deep satisfaction that comes from helping people to overcome their psychological problems so that they can become both functional and happy.

According to the APA, those with recent doctorates in psychology are employed in the following settings.

  • Four year college or university: 25.9 percent
  • Hospital or other heath service provider: 25 percent
  • Government or VA facility: 16.3 percent
  • Business or nonprofit entity: 10.4 percent
  • School or other educational setting: 8.1 percent
  • Medical school: 6.3 percent
  • Private practice: 5.7 percent

Psychologists, in most cases, can expect to earn a comfortable living, although the various specialties, education level, experience and even leadership roles can also affect pay. Operating a private practice is often most lucrative and allows the freedom to work from home at chosen hours.

Sources:

  • Careers in Psychology, American Psychological Association, Accessed September 18, 2014, http://www.apa.org/careers/resources/guides/careers.aspx?item=1
  • Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193031.htm
  • Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Northwestern University, Accessed September 18, 2014, http://psychiatry.northwestern.edu/education/clinical-psychology-program/curriculum.html#
  • Industrial-Organizational Psychologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193032.htm
  • Masters in General Psychology: Curriculum, New York University, Accessed September 18, 2014, http://www.psych.nyu.edu/programs/ma/general.html
  • National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates United States, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm#00-0000
  • Psychologists, All Others. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193039.htm
  • Psychologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm

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