Psychology Degrees & Careers How to Become a Psychologist

Now is a great time to start your pathway to becoming a psychologist. Find information about classes and certification requirements here.

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From helping patients who suffer from various problems to testifying against criminals in court, psychologists perform many tasks. Because psychologists work to understand the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of people, these sought-after professionals must complete a high degree of education, with most psychologists earning at least a master's degree. However, many psychologists earn a Ph.D.

Psychologists enjoy high levels of employment and excellent wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychologists earned a median annual salary of $80,370 in 2019. Projections show a 14% increase in psychologist positions between 2018 and 2028, much faster growth than the average job.

This guide explores how to become a psychologist, including career expectations, psychologist duties, and the different types of psychology careers. This page also highlights common psychology courses, how to find the best psychology schools, and potential salary for those with a psychologist degree.

What Does a Psychologist Do?

Career Basics

Psychologists observe and interpret the behaviors and actions of individuals for different reasons, such as providing healthcare solutions or solving workplace problems. Psychologists interview individuals and groups and observe how people respond to different questions and situations. After observing patients, psychologists identify potential issues or disorders, then find solutions or determine potential treatments.

The BLS reports that most psychologists work for themselves and start their own practices. Elementary and secondary schools employ the second-highest number of psychologists, followed by healthcare services. Psychologists typically work with other psychologists, social workers, or physicians.

Psychologist Salary and Job Growth

According to the BLS, psychologists earned a median annual wage of $80,370 in 2019. The BLS projects jobs for psychologists to grow 14% between 2018 and 2028, which means 26,100 new psychologist positions. However, salary and job growth potential depend on job type and industry. For example, clinical, counseling, and school psychologists earned a median wage of $78,200 in 2019, compared to $92,880 for industrial-organizational psychologists and $101,790 for all others.

Psychologists who work in the government earn $96,870, the highest median wage for all industries, according to the BLS. Those who work in hospitals earn a median wage of $88,480, and ambulatory healthcare services psychologists earn a median wage of $82,250. The city, region, and state where psychologists work also impact potential job growth and salary rates.

Four Steps to Becoming a Psychologist

Aspiring psychologists can begin their careers in four steps. However, note that every psychology career sets different requirements, meaning aspiring psychologists should determine what type of psychologist they plan on becoming. Requirements that affect career outcomes include education, certification, and professional experience.

Step 1
Complete a degree

Regardless of career goals, all aspiring psychologists must earn at least a master's degree in psychology. Some positions require a Ph.D., and students should begin studying toward their desired field during their undergraduate program. Many schools allow learners to specialize their bachelor's in psychology, and those that do not typically offer psychology electives that allow students to study niche fields of interest. Undergraduate students should also look into a psychology internship in their desired field.

Step 2
Earn state licensure

Because states set their own licensure requirements, future psychologists should consider studying in their desired state. Doing so typically satisfies all in-state licensure requirements. After completing their program, psychologists must then apply for licensure through their state's board of psychology. Licensure requirements vary by state but typically include a bachelor's or master's degree, work experience, testing, and an application fee. In-state requirements can also vary depending on the specific psychology career field.

Step 3
Find a psychologist position

Depending on the state, psychologists earn experience before, during, or after applying for licensure. Psychologists' first position could include supervised clinical hours or limited professional capabilities, though specifics depend on the state and industry. Aside from a license, psychologists typically require professional certification, and some psychology positions require previous psychology experience. Look for entry-level psychology positions within certain industries, such as positions with the government or within healthcare organizations.

Step 4
Maintain certification

Many psychology positions, particularly those that require a Ph.D., also require certification. Certification demonstrates a psychologist's expertise in a specific field, and some states require psychologists to earn specific certifications to obtain a license. Certifications require continuing education credits and a renewal fee, though requirements vary by certification. In some instances, psychologists benefit from earning a certification even if not required. Doing so could let psychologists set higher rates, increasing their salary.

Preparing to Become a Psychologist: Schools and Programs

Psychologists must earn at least a master's degree, so students should anticipate completing both a bachelor's and master's degree, potentially at different schools. Every school establishes its own psychology program and creates a unique curriculum with specific program outcomes. While some schools allow for specializations, others emphasize flexibility.

Some schools, such as Indiana University Bloomington, offer both a bachelor of arts and bachelor of science in psychology. Picking one over the other could expose students to specific courses of interest. Students should also research if schools offer their psychology programs online. The University of South Florida offers its bachelor of arts in psychology both onsite in Tampa and entirely online.

After learners find schools that align with their career goals and study format, they should consider factors including synchronous or asynchronous courses, rolling admission policies, required internships or work experience, whether the program uses a cohort system, program length, and financial aid opportunities.

Courses in Psychology Programs

Courses vary depending on the school, concentration, and degree level. Most undergraduate programs begin with introductory courses like research methods and experiment analysis, two important skills that professional psychologists must master. Later, undergraduate students take more advanced courses, such as cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and social psychology. These courses introduce learners to different fields of psychology and might influence desired career outcomes.

Graduate-level psychology courses cover much more advanced topics, and curriculum depends heavily on students' specialization. Master's degree or Ph.D. psychology students can anticipate conducting research and writing a thesis.

While availability depends on the program, future psychology students can anticipate completing the following courses.

Statistical Techniques

as an introduction to statistics for psychology majors, this course covers statistical data, data ordering, and how to measure tendencies and dispersion. Students also explore probability, estimation, and hypothesis testing. Statistics play a large role in all psychology fields, making this introductory course crucial to every undergraduate program.

Abnormal Psychology

This course introduces the causes and treatment of mental disorders. Learners study mental disorders like alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, and depression. Students cover the definition of abnormality and the different classifications of mental disorders. Because many psychologists' patients suffer from mental disorders, this course serves as a foundation for future courses and degrees.

Social Psychology

Learners cover thoughts, behaviors, and feelings in this course, which incorporates mental and emotional topics into the real world. Students learn the core concepts and theories of social psychology and how to examine psychological papers and research. The basis for clinical psychology and other fields, social psychology serves most psychological professionals throughout their careers.

Lifespan Development

Available as an upper-division course at the undergraduate level or as a graduate-level course, this course analyzes the development of the human brain and body from birth through old age, paying attention to important benchmarks as people grow. While the course analyzes psychological factors within each age group, students can use this course to learn more about a specific demographic, such as children, teenagers, or adults.


Required at the undergraduate and graduate levels, the capstone course comes at the end of the degree. Students conduct independent research and write a paper demonstrating their psychology expertise. Some students use the capstone as an opportunity to get published in an academic journal. Learners also use the capstone to improve their resume, letting them research a topic related to their field of interest.

Accreditation for a Psychology Program

To ensure a high-quality education, students should only apply to accredited colleges and universities. Schools with national or regional accreditation have met a set of academic standards set by an accrediting body. All accrediting bodies must meet standards set by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a federally backed organization.

While schools receive either national or regional accreditation, learners benefit most from studying at regionally accredited institutions. Regional accreditation holds colleges and universities to higher standards, and many employers and graduate schools prefer applicants who earned a degree from a regionally accredited school. Also, students may not qualify for forms of financial aid if they study at a nationally accredited school.

Aspiring psychologists should also consider enrolling in an accredited psychology program. Look for programmatic accreditation from American Psychological Association (APA) and National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

Psychology Specialties

Many students who plan to enter a specific psychology field select a specialty. Psychology specialties combine normal psychology coursework with a set of field-specific courses. While some undergraduate programs allow for specializations, most psychology students select a specialization at the graduate level. Potential specializations include clinical, developmental, industrial-organizational, forensic, social, school, and neuropsychology.

Colleges and universities usually structure psychology programs to easily fit a specialty, meaning students do not study for a longer period of time. However, some schools require learners to take 1-2 additional psychology courses, minimizing the number of elective courses available.

Specializations serve as an excellent tool for future psychologists. Aside from exposing students to a specific field, specializations improve resumes and applications, demonstrating a strong background in that field. A specialty could also lead to internship opportunities or increase students' chances of getting into a competitive graduate program.

Concentration Areas

Psychology students have a variety of concentration areas to choose from at the graduate level. The list below highlights several common specialization areas and potential occupations for each.

Counseling Psychology

This branch of psychology is heavily involved in working with people experiencing a wide range of problems, ranging from sexual dysfunction to issues at work. The field seeks to improve peoples' ability to cope and function through all stages of their lives. Students in this field take foundational psychology courses before selecting graduate-level classes geared toward their chosen profession.

Clinical Psychology

This is the largest branch of psychology. While sharing many similarities with counseling psychology, clinical psychology tends to deal with more severe mental issues by looking at the causes of mental illness and prescribing appropriate treatment. Basic topics include abnormal psychology and cognitive psychology. Graduates will need to be licensed by their state to diagnose and treat patients.

Cognitive Psychology

This branch of psychology is interdisciplinary because it ties in with subjects such as neuroscience and linguistics. It is primarily concerned with how people's brains work, including how they learn new information, remember it, and think about it.

Finding a Psychology Program

Components of a Successful Psychologist Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology

Psychologists must demonstrate excellent analytical, communication, interpersonal, and observational skills. Professionals master these skills during their time at school. Learners develop other important skills, including patience and problem-solving, either while working or during an internship. Because psychology depends on practical experience, students should strongly consider completing an internship.

Aside from skills, psychologists must earn professional credentials, including degrees and certifications. Specific requirements vary depending on field and position, but students anticipate completing at least a master's degree and earning one or more professional certifications. In many instances, psychology positions require certification to obtain a license and work.

The psychology field constantly grows and changes, so successful psychologists must continue to learn throughout their careers. Psychology journals, professional conferences, and e-learning all help psychologists stay current in the field.

Psychologist Professional Organizations

Current psychology students and professionals benefit from becoming members of psychology-focused professional organizations. These groups extend various tools, data, and invitations to members. Psychologists use these professional organizations to connect with other psychologists, stay current on industry trends, and get connected with continuing education opportunities.

Association for Psycological Science

A leading international organization for scientific advancement of psychology, APS connects psychological scientists in various industries. APS offers a webinar series for current students, and professionals who sign up for membership get access to eight psychology publications and a weekly newsletter.

National Association of School Psychologists

NASP is the leading organization for school psychologists. The association organizes professional development, supports various publications, and offers professional certification to school psychologists. Members get to connect with school psychologists around the world, an excellent way to network with experienced school psychologists.

American Board of Professional Psychology

The main organization for specialty board certification in psychology, ABPP sets the standards for psychology practices. Psychologists can find certification applications and continuing education opportunities through the site. ABPP does not offer memberships but offers a variety of resources useful to all psychologists.

Society for Personality and Social Psychology

Founded in 1974, SPSP is the main professional organization for social and personality psychologists. SPSP offers seven membership levels, including options for both undergraduate and graduate students. Members get access to breaking new research and updates within the field. SPSP serves a network of over 7,500 social and personality psychologists.

FAQ on Becoming a Psychologist

What do psychologists do?

Psychologists analyze the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of individuals. They do so for various industries, including schools, businesses, law enforcement, and healthcare.

What is the difference between a psychiatrist and psychologist?

Psychiatrists complete medical school and are trained medical doctors who focus on treatments. Psychologists focus on mental and emotional behaviors.

Is a psychologist a therapist?

Some psychologists become therapists, though most psychologists choose other professions. Therapists usually complete the same level of education as psychologists, making the two fields a natural fit.

What do psychologists do in a day?

Psychologists meet with patients who suffer from various emotional or mental health problems and try to determine the best forms of treatment.

Resources for Psychologists

Annual Review of Psychology

Created in 1950 to use scientific advancements for the benefit of society, the Annual Review of Psychology combines different fields of science with psychology. The review covers clinical, social, personality, environmental, community, and other forms of psychology. It combines them with biology, psychopathology, and human development. This review regularly publishes some of the top psychology research papers.

Psychological Bulletin

Offered by APA and extended to psychologists through membership, the Psychological Bulletin publishes reviews and interpretations of issues in psychology. The bulletin combines narrative and analytic pieces and accepts submissions from psychologists. Any social psychologist who wants to stay current on industry breakthroughs benefits from this publication.

Psych Web

Created specifically for psychology students and teachers, Psych Web offers a plethora of free information. Students can read about career advice from current psychology professionals and download a free introductory psychology textbook to learn more about the field. The site also contains links to other useful psychology resources.

Social Psychology Network

An organization with over 8,500 members, SPN connects current students and active social psychology professionals. SPN strives to promote social justice and sustainable living through the advancement of psychology. Members connect through the resource's social media sites and online forum.

See Also

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