What kinds of career opportunities exist in Psychology?
Each year in the U.S. and Canada, hundreds of thousands of new students enter college or university programs in Psychology. Within a few years, most of them earn a bachelor’s degree. Along the way, they take a lot of courses in different areas of psychology, and in research methods and statistics. They gain an appreciation of the basics in a wide range of areas within Psychology, but most are taught almost nothing about career options in psychology. Surprisingly few Psychology departments at major colleges or universities offer courses or workshops on this topic, so students typically have to go on their own assumptions along with whatever little bits of reliable information they come across.
The good news is that there is a huge range of career options in Psychology, and reasonably-good-to-excellent employment prospects in all major subfields.
All psychology students come to realize at some point, however, that a bachelor’s degree does not provide the necessary qualifications to actually be a psychologist. A career as a psychologist requires a doctorate. A masters degree may give you qualifications to teach psychology at high school or college, and it is all that one needs to launch a career in one of the allied fields, like social work or counselling, but it won’t enable you to have a career as a fully-fledged psychologist.
So, that’s the catch – you need to go to graduate school for several years – but if you do, and if you are able to obtain a doctorate in psychology, there really is an wide range of career directions you could potentially take.
Importantly, before you can get into the graduate program that will set you on the career course you want, you need to have some idea of what you want your destination to be. That is, you need to have an idea of what type of career you want as a psychologist. I will assume that you know what subfields of Psychology interest you, and skip over discussing that part. What I mean by career option or career path has more to do with the setting in which you work, and the kinds of activities you spend most of your time engaged in, rather than the particular subject area in which you acquire expertise.
Of course, you might not end up with the particular career you currently plan on – your plans may change along the way for any number of reasons – but without a career plan you will probably not end up having any career as a psychologist, at all. There are many reasons why applying to graduate school without a coherent career plan often fails. But, I think to discuss them at length here would be too much of a side-track. Instead, I recommend reading this article on How to Choose a Graduate Program
Its important to acknowledge that a bachelor’s degree in psychology does provide the qualifications needed for many entry-level jobs with real career potential – just not as a licensed or certified psychologist of any type. There are also many job-market advantages of having a B.A. in psychology, relative to some other fields in the social sciences or humanities. In this blog, however, and for the next few weeks, I will be writing specifically about different careers one could pursue as a psychologist – that is, for people who are able to obtain a doctorate degree while also gaining the right kinds of expertise and skills along the way. Depending on the particular career, this normally means either a PhD or a PsyD (or for a few careers, an EdD).
There are a few key questions to ask yourself when considering different career options in psychology: What type of occupational setting do you see yourself working in, and what sorts of things do you want to spend most of your time doing? Of course, you need to make choices about what types of behavior or psychopathology you will specialize in – that is, what will be your area or areas of expertise – but, I will assume that you already know what subject areas within psychology interest you the most. Choosing a subject area to specialize in is not the same thing as choosing a career path.
Below, I give some examples of different work settings and professional activities of psychologists. One of the main things to notice are the huge range and variability in career options. Because psychologists work in such a wide range of careers, I will only describe the most common types. Keep in mind that I am only providing a summary overview of different psychology careers. My aim is to get you thinking about the right things as you consider your own potential future as a psychologist.
Applied-Psychology versus Academic or Research Careers… or Something Else?
Perhaps the first question to ask when considering different career options in psychology is this: Do you want an “applied-psychology” career, or one that mainly involves research? (Some psychologists work at jobs that involve mainly administrative roles, for example, within universities, various government institutions, mental health clinics, and hospitals. These kinds of careers are seldom planned far in advance – at least not in the early stages when a person is still in graduate school. I will blog more about those kinds of careers, later).
Applied-psychology careers (often, but not always) involve the delivery of mental health services directly to individuals in need of them; this is the kind of career where one is a mental healthcare practitioner. This is a very broad category that includes any occupation in which the psychologist interacts with clients for the purpose of assessment, diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of mental health issues (in most careers as a clinical psychologist), or to help clients deal with challenges of daily living (in most careers as a counseling psychologist). If you are a college or university psychology student, there is a good chance that this is the type of career you imagined for yourself when you decided to study psychology.
Although a large number of psychologists would consider themselves to be primarily mental healthcare practitioners, there are even more who would describe their careers as consisting of mainly other activities. In other words, not all psychologists who have applied-psychology careers are front-line practitioners. For example, some occupations involve the application of one’s expertise to solving a particular category of mental health problem. Still, I suspect that at some point in their career planning, the vast majority of psychologists were aiming to become a psychology practitioner. What often happens as people progress through graduate school, however, is they discover more and more about the incredible range of career directions their training and expertise could potentially take them.
The range of research careers is as broad as that of applied-psychology careers. Many psychologists work in a university, where they conduct research, teach courses in Psychology to undergraduate and/or graduate students, and serve in administrative roles within the department, faculty, or school. In fact, more psychologists work within academia than in any other career setting. This may seem somewhat surprising, as most people tend to think of psychologists primarily as practitioners, delivering mental healthcare services in clinical settings, such as mental health centers, hospitals, or private offices.
In most North American universities, as well as in other parts of the world, most psychology professors are full-time faculty members, and they spend only a small fraction of their time on classroom teaching and related activities. Many professors are also active researchers, who dedicate more than half of their time and attention to research-related activities, which may include such things as managing a laboratory and a team of research trainees (i.e., graduate students), writing manuscripts for the purpose of getting their research published, writing research-grant applications in order to get the funding to support the lab and its members, giving talks and going to conferences to disseminate research findings. Experienced and well-respected researchers are also called upon frequently to serve as peer-reviewers for psychology journals in their domain of expertise, or for grant applications submitted by other researchers. Some psychology researchers do a lot of consulting within in their area of expertise. The bottom line from all of this is that most psychologists identify strongly with the processes of research and discovery, and many consider themselves primarily to be scientists and researchers.
For those with careers in academic institutions, there can also be a great variety of other aspects of the occupation. Many psychology professors do a lot of consulting in their area of expertise, and most also do a considerable amount of administrative work within their department, faculty, and university or college.
Not all psychology research is carried out in university laboratories, however. A great deal of research is also conducted by psychologists employed within public institutions (e.g., social services, military), or in private industry (e.g., technology, pharmaceuticals).
There are many significant differences between a research career in academia and a research career in private industry, or working for the government. Those difference mainly revolve around the benefits of higher income (a characteristic of private industry or government occupations relative to occupations within academia) versus greater autonomy and freedom to make choices about the kinds of research you conduct (a characteristic of academic careers relative to careers in private industry or public institutions).
Importantly, applied-psychology and research careers are not mutually exclusive. That is, you don’t necessarily have to choose entirely between an applied-psychology career and a research career — many psychologists have careers that involve both applied work and research. Moreover, anyone who has a PhD in Psychology had to do a substantial amount of original research in order to obtain that degree, even those who eventually end up in an occupation in which they no longer conduct research.
It’s also worth noting that some psychologists have neither applied-psychology careers, or research careers, and instead they work as managers or administrators within businesses or in public institutions. This type of career is seldom what a person has in mind when starting graduate school in Psychology. Instead, a psychologist with this type of career is more likely to have been recruited for the job, later in his or her career.
Clinical Psychology or Counseling Psychology?
One question comes up over and over again when I see psychology undergraduate students for academic advising: What is the difference between clinical and counseling psychology? While there are significant differences in graduate-level training in clinical psychology versus counseling, there is a considerable amount of overlap in the career paths available to individuals with either degree.
Clinical psychologists assess, diagnose, and treat behavioral, cognitive, and emotional disorders, frequently using research to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments and to search for novel approaches in assessment and therapy. Most clinical psychologists are specialized to deal with assessment and treatment of specific kinds problem (e.g., eating disorders, anxiety, depression, etc.) Clinical psychologists work in academic institutions, and in health care settings such as clinics, hospitals, community mental health centers, and private practice. Many clinical psychologists focus on special populations (children, minority groups, the elderly).
Although many counseling psychologists have careers that are very similar, in practice, to those of clinical psychologists, one difference is that, in most cases, counseling psychologists help clients whose issues tend to be less severe than those dealt with by clinical psychologists. Of course, there is more that distinguishes clinical and counseling psychology, but the choice between which path to pursue affects a person’s experiences in graduate school and the kinds of specialized knowledge acquired, more than it limits the range of career options.
The Psychologist Practitioner in Private Practice
Many psychologists work in private practice, where they give therapy to clients who have problems that fall within their area of expertise. For example, a clinical psychologist may specialize in assessment and therapy for persons with a mood disorder, with special expertise in treating those with anxiety problems or phobias.
Those who are in private-practice usually have their own office, where they meet with clients. Private practice is a lot like any other form of self-employment, and with it there are many pros and cons to consider. In most cases, one must have good business-management skills to succeed.
Clinical Practice in Institutional Settings
Psychologists work in hospitals, clinics, extended-care facilities, and many other types of institutions that deliver mental healthcare services. In such settings, a psychologist might be a practitioner, an administrator, or both.
Some clinical psychologists are heavily engaged in scientific research within their area of expertise; a great deal of research is conducted within universities, but much is also conducted within other public (ie., government) institutions, or private industry.
The next few paragraphs comprise descriptions of some of the different subfields of Psychology in which one could pursue a career. (A similar list that includes a few additional subfields can be found at the website of the American Psychological Association).
Psychology and Business
The field of Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology has been rapidly expanding in recent years. Today, many psychologists are employed by large businesses, to develop and administer measures aimed at maximizing productivity and employee well-being and retention.
Industrial/organizational psychologists are concerned with such issues as: organizational structure and change; workers’ productivity and job satisfaction; consumer behavior; selection, placement, training, and development of personnel; and the interaction between humans and machines. They work in businesses, industries, governments, and colleges and universities. Some may be self-employed as consultants or work for management consulting firms.
Experimental psychologists are a diverse group of psychologists who conduct research on and often teach about a variety of basic behavioral processes. These processes include learning, sensation, perception, human performance, motivation, memory, language, thinking, and communication. Experimental psychologists also study the behavior and neurobiology of animals, in order to better understand human behavior. Most experimental psychologists conduct their research in an academic setting, such as a university, but many work instead for some branch of government, or in a private-industry lab.
Psychology and the Law (Forensic Psychology)
As an area of research, psychology and law is concerned both with looking at legal issues from a psychological perspective (e.g., how juries decide cases), and with looking at psychological questions in a legal context (e.g., assessing a defendant’s mental competency). Forensic psychologists may provide assessments or expert testimony for the courts, or provide consultation on such matters as jury selection, or the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Many forensic psychologists also have degrees in Law.
The field of Health Psychology deals with the promotion and maintenance of behavior and lifestyle choices that are conducive to good health, or the prevention or treatment of illness. In applied contexts, such as hospitals or community healthcare centers, health psychologist often collaborate with other medical health professionals in treating certain individuals.
Health psychologists conduct research into the various ways that behavioral, biological, and social factors interact to affect health. For example, a health psychologist might study how stress in the workplace affects the incidence of heart disease.
Psychologists who work in the field of rehabilitation psychology work with people who have suffered a physical deprivation or loss, helping them deal with the psychological aspects of disability and rehabilitation. A typical client may be someone who has recently become paraplegic, or who has lost her eyesight, or who suffers from a chronic illness. Individuals in these or similar unfortunate situations will face many new challenges in everyday life, and a rehabilitation psychologist may provide a range of psychological supports to help them function. Research in the field of rehabilitation psychology examines how biological, social, or environmental factors affect the functioning of people with disabilities or chronic illnesses.
Neuropsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience
Neuropsychologists study the relations among brain structure and behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and sensory and perceptual functions. Neuropsychologists also diagnose and treat disorders related to the central nervous system. Behavioral neuroscientists are primarily researchers who study the interactions between brain functions and behavior. A behavioral neuroscientist may do research that is either “basic”, “applied”, or both. Most behavioral neuroscientists conduct research in an academic environment (ie., a university), where they can do research on nearly any topic they wish, so long as they can receive funding for it, which is typically in the form of a government grant. Other behavioral neuroscientists are employed by government to conduct research on various applied issues, or by pharmaceutical companies to conduct preclinical studies of drugs.
Careers in Social Psychology
The field of social psychology deals with how people interact with each other and how they are affected by social environments. Most social psychologist work in academia, and are therefore heavily engaged in research and teaching.
Careers in Developmental Psychology
Developmental psychologists study human development across the life span, from newborns to the aging population. They are employed in academic settings, teaching and doing research, or may work in applied settings such as day-care centers and in programs with youth groups, community mental health centers, or nursing homes.
A career in Educational Psychology involves conducting research on how people learn, and/or designing methods and materials to enhance learning and intellectual, social, and emotional development. Many psychologists who work in this field have an EdD degree, instead of a PhD.
As I mentioned already, there are still more potential career paths for a psychologist than just those I have listed here. But, I have probably mentioned about 95% of the possibilities. I can get into more details about specific career paths in psychology, if someone would like.
[ By the way, if you think you might want to become a psychologist, and therefore, graduate school is likely to be in your plans, be sure to check out the archives for this blog, as well as the most recent posts. I can give you all the best information and advice about what it takes to get into the graduate program that's right for you. There are many other sites out there, but they all provide the same basic and generic information and advice about applying to graduate school, and therefore, none of them offer anything that is uniquely helpful. In fact, following too closely the advice of other so-called grad-school experts can be harmful to your chances of getting in! If you want to see what I mean by that, and learn about the biggest myth there is about getting into graduate school in Psychology, then please check out this blog post from August, 2012 -- What if the Guru is Wrong About That? ]