Psychology can broadly be defined as the study of the human mind and how it informs behavior. Professions for psychologists are as diverse as human behaviors, ranging from counselors and clinical researchers to criminal profilers.
Making career decisions is never easy, but the following guide is designed to assist aspiring psychologists by discussing industry basics, degree paths, primary responsibilities, and skills shared by all psychology professionals. Anyone interested in psychology can use the information provided as a starting point to see if the career options contained within this field are right for them.
Psychologists investigate human behavior, delving into how people think, how they learn, and how they develop emotionally and socially. They use a wide range of methods to conduct research on large groups, specific populations and individuals. A psychologist may control lab experiments, assess clients on-site, or evaluate school tests for learning disabilities.
Psychologists also assist people suffering from trauma, mental disorders or substance abuse problems. They may work with individual clients to understand root causes and offer treatment. Most research psychologists work in universities or government agencies. Depending on career goals, professionals may opt to move into a specialty area that fires their imaginations and promises fulfilling work.
Psychologists work in an ever-expanding field and possess many skills applicable to other disciplines, but typically they can be separated into two basic types: practitioners and researchers.
Practicing psychologists work with people experiencing a variety of difficulties, such as depression, anger, anxiety, or addiction. Their goal is to help remove mental and emotional obstacles in order to live full, healthy lives. Most practitioners hold a graduate degree, if not a doctorate, but there are some related job opportunities for those with a bachelor’s degree.
Research psychologists use the scientific method to create studies, collect data, examine results, and report findings. They often work in universities, where they have access to human and physical resources to inform their studies. In most cases, research psychology careers necessitate a doctorate degree.
There are approximately 106,500 licensed psychologists currently practicing in the United States and nearly 25 percent work in California or New York.
Becoming a psychologist requires years of education and training. It can take more than a decade to finish school, earn certification, specialize and gain enough clinical experience to establish a successful practice. But which schools are the best? Which specialization matches your skills and interests? Just how important is clinical experience?
The answer to these questions is that it depends on the specific work students hope to pursue after graduating. The information that follows will help individuals understand the many options available to them and what is required of each.
It is never too early for aspiring psychologists to begin identifying their particular interests and career goals. Psychology students have a range of options, from associate degrees that cover the foundations of the discipline to highly specialized doctoral degrees. Most jobs in the field require at least a master’s degree, and many require a doctorate with further certification. Students who want to begin working after a bachelor’s degree can still find entry-level jobs, such as case managers, assistant counselors, or human resource coordinators.
For students seeking an alternative to traditional classrooms, all levels of psychology programs can be found online. The chart below provides a quick reference of which degrees best suit individual career and educational goals.
|Career Goal and/or educational needs||Associate||Bachelor’s||Master’s||Doctorate||Online|
|I want to be able to work full-time while earning my degree.|
|I am not necessarily looking for a career in the field of psychology.|
|I want to finish my program on my own schedule.|
|I’m interested in a career in mental health.|
|I’m interested in a career in forensic psychology.|
|I’m interested in working with businesses to improve employee productivity and train staff.|
|I’d like to be able to diagnose patients.|
*Degree requirements may vary by state.
According to the American Psychological Association, 25 percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology continue on to postgraduate education in the field.
Psychology degrees are available at all levels of study, and each prepares students for different professional opportunities. Students should carefully consider what they want to gain from their education in order to choose the right academic path. Each type is reviewed in more detail below.
Obtaining an associate degree in psychology is a bit like dipping a toe into a swimming pool: it helps a person decide whether to jump in and go deeper or move on to something else. Associate degrees typically take two years to complete and are offered at community colleges and career schools. While an associate degree isn’t likely to land graduates a job in the field, it will provide an overview of basic theories and principles within psychology and often these credits can be transferred to a four-year program.
Typical psychology courses at this level include:
This course applies basic psychological concepts and theories to understand how people behave.
This course covers how to form a hypothesis, review relevant literature, design an experiment or research project, collect and analyze data, and write a scientific report.
This course familiarizes students with how people grow socially, emotionally, and cognitively throughout their lives.
Students in this course study mental disorders ranging from depression to sexual deviance.
Students can earn two types of bachelor’s degrees: a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS). Both degrees cover the basic concepts of psychology before branching off into differing studies. BS programs, however, are geared toward students who are more interested in science, are planning to earn a graduate degree in the field, or want to attend medical school. BA programs are often offered at liberal arts institutions, allowing students with diverse academic interests to take classes from other disciplines. A BA in psychology is attractive to students interested in fields beyond psychology, such as business or marketing, and those who do not plan on pursuing graduate studies in the field. Students who prefer online education over on-campus programs can find an extensive selection of schools with online bachelor's degree programs in psychology.
Some of the common courses at this degree level are reviewed below.
The course takes students deeper into using mathematical concepts to design experiments, analyze data, determine probabilities, factor in sampling error, establish probability, and examine correlation and regression.
This course looks at the relationship between our brains and our behaviors, including emotions, language, and memory.
This course explores mental processes, including not only how people think, but also how they perceive the world, remember things, and process new information. This course is often laboratory-based.
This course looks at how humans behave based on the context of their particular surroundings, including analyzing how perception, prejudice and gender roles influence behavior.
A master's degree is the next step after completing an undergraduate program and generally takes two years to complete. As students progress to higher degrees, typically more job opportunities become available in the field. A master’s degree is a must-have for students interested in mental health and forensic psychology roles. As an added benefit, many master's psychology degree programs are now offered online.
While some general psychology degrees do exist at this level, programs tend to be much more specialized. Aspiring psychologists should choose a school matched to their particular interests and keep the following components in mind during their search:
Common specialization areas include forensic psychology, clinical psychology, child development, and experimental psychology. New areas are also becoming available in recent years and most schools offer a variety of concentrations.
Both MS and MA degrees in psychology are frequently offered, diverging onto different paths based on students’ aspirations. The MS is typically more focused on the scientific aspects of psychology and often students selecting this track go on to complete PhD programs. The MA is a more holistic liberal arts degree and equips students to be licensed as practitioners or counselors. Students should consult institutions, as many of the differences may not be evident by merely looking at the curriculum. It is often determined just as much by the school’s philosophy toward the discipline.
Preparatory master’s programs are designed to prepare students for doctoral studies while terminal programs are geared toward students planning to enter the workforce after graduating. Students seeking roles in forensic psychology, mental health, or industrial-organizational psychology often select terminal programs.
While master’s degree course offerings may seem similar to bachelor’s programs, the difference is found in the expectation of output, both for classes and culminating projects. Many programs require students to complete an internship and write a thesis in order to graduate, as these may be requirements for certification.
The following are examples of courses graduate students might undertake:
Students will build upon coursework in the neurosciences to understand how drugs alter neural pathways in the brain.
Students will build on previous coursework, learning how to research and write reports of a near-publishable quality.
Students will spend time in an internship setting to prepare them for work as psychologists.
Thesis: This course is the culminating project of a master’s degree. It is meant to be in a student’s area of interest and demonstrate how they are able to draw upon what was learned throughout the degree to develop new ideas.
A PhD or PsyD is the highest psychology degree one can attain. The former is more traditional and research driven, while the latter is a good option for students aspiring to start their own practices. A doctoral psychology degree can take four to seven years of study after a bachelor’s (including master’s level coursework), with a yearlong internship incorporated into this timeframe. As with the master’s level, doctoral degrees are highly specialized and require students to choose a specialization, such as clinical or cognitive psychology.
Doctoral degrees in the field are sometimes open to students who do not have bachelor’s degrees in psychology, although these applicants will most likely be required to take foundational courses at the onset of the degree.
Along with the higher level of study comes a higher level of pay and more job opportunities. PhDs are required for three professions: opening a private practice, teaching at a university, and undertaking university-level research. After students receive their doctorate, they still have one more step: state and national exams must be taken before becoming fully licensed. Students interested in clinical psychology, school psychology, or counseling should ensure the American Psychological Association (APA) accredits the program, as they may not be eligible for certification if the school is not properly accredited.
As of 2013, the APA recommended four learning goals for psychology degrees:
Students will thoroughly understand major psychological concepts and theories and be able to use them to analyze human behavior.
Students will be able to think about psychology through the lens of science to solve problems. This involves setting up and conducting experiments to learn more about others’ behavior.
Because psychologists are scientists who study the human mind, graduating students should possess the skills needed to be sensitive to the diverse needs of the clients they serve.
Graduates should be able to present scientific results and explain complex concepts to others who have no such educational background in a clear and concise manner.
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.
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.
Professionals in this career work with individuals struggling with addiction, with the ultimate goal of helping patients break those behaviors so they can lead fulfilling lives.
These mental health professionals are trained in both psychotherapy and family systems. They diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders occurring within families and help individuals attain long-term wellbeing within their relationships. Marriage and family therapists hold a graduate degree in the field plus at least two years of hands-on clinical experience.
School psychologists work in a school setting with parents, teachers, and students of all ages to correct behavioral and emotional issues, thereby improving not only students’ mental health but also their academic performance.
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.
Not to be confused with psychiatrists, clinical psychologists work with individuals experiencing sudden emotional difficulties by employing a variety of methods for treatment. They often work in hospitals or mental health facilities, but can also have their own practices. There are two basic types of clinical psychologists: practitioners and researchers.
These psychologists are trained to work specifically with children experiencing a different range of emotional and developmental issues than adults. As with other clinical psychologists, they are either practitioners or researchers.
Psychologists in this occupation are typically employed by prisons or by police departments to analyze the behavior of convicted or accused criminals, respectively. Those working in corrections facilities are charged with rehabilitating inmates for release.
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.
Industrial-organizational psychology is a growing field that is quickly becoming its own specialization. These psychologists work with companies to create policies within workplaces to increase employee productivity and satisfaction.
These psychologists are also engineers, applying psychological principles to the design of objects and environments to optimize human performance.
Psycholinguists study how people acquire, create, and understand language. Most psycholinguists work as teachers or researchers at universities, but depending on their training and certifications, they may also work with hospitals, in private practice or as speech therapists.
Many students love, or need, the freedom online psychology degrees offer. Before applying to an online program, however, prospective students should take into account the following considerations:
Accreditation assures students that the program or school they are considering meets specific standards. All interested students should ensure the institution is accredited by an independent regional or national agency approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Programmatic accreditation is also important: within psychology, the gold standard comes from the APA, but the organization does not currently accredit any program offering exclusively online instruction.
Online students should ensure the program they are considering provides counseling for students who need help securing financial aid, performing well academically, and choosing a career. Online schools should also have library resources, such as publication databases, to aid students undertaking research or writing papers. Students with disabilities should also look for programs providing accommodation to help them get the most out of their online education.
As part of their licensure procedures, most states require that graduates have completed an internship. Because an online program is not necessarily local, it is crucial to make sure the program will work with students to identify a suitable internship opportunity in their state.
In order to practice psychology, most graduates will need to be licensed by their state. These requirements vary by state but usually mandate a PsyD or PhD in psychology, several years of experience in the field, and a passing score on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. When looking for an online degree, especially at the doctorate level, it is important to ask if and how that program prepares students to become licensed.
State certification is conferred via the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. While psychologists must be licensed by their state, they are not required to be board certified. There are many certifications available for psychologists, especially in specialty areas. Agencies such as the American Board of Professional Psychology offer specialty certifications ranging from clinical heath psychology and forensic psychology to school psychology. Here are a few more:
Cognitive therapy is a branch of psychotherapy that focuses on helping patients solve current problems so they can change negative behaviors.
Board Certified Behavior Analysts conduct behavioral assessments on patients and interpret the results.
Certified psychiatrists diagnose and treat a variety of disorders, including mental, emotional, mood, anxiety, and substance-related disorders.
Certified sex therapists work with couples to treat sexual issues. Since there is no degree in sex therapy, certification requires a graduate degree in a field such as psychology alongside additional training.
This certification is for industrial-organization psychologists working with companies.
As with many modern professionals, psychologists conduct much of their work on computers and the software they use can be highly specialized. Here are just a few examples:
|Analytical or scientific software||Comprehensive Affect Testing System (CATS); Noldus Information Technology; statistical software; testing software|
|Medical software||Anasazi Software Client Data System; ICANotes; Trinity Software Solutions BEACON; UNI/CARE Pro-Filer; Blueberry Harbor Software Clinical Record Keeper; Synergistic Office Solutions SOS Case Manager|
|Accounting software||Intuit QuickBooks; MPMsoft billing software|
Many psychologists also use advanced medical equipment that provides biofeedback, including electromyography units.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychology jobs are expected to grow by 12 percent between 2012 and 2022. While this growth rate is about average for all occupations, certain psychology specializations are growing at a much faster rate. Over 17,000 social and human service assistant jobs are expected to open up each year until 2022. These jobs, which typically require a bachelor’s degree, include titles such as advocate, caseworker, community coordinator, family support worker and mental health technician. Industrial-organizational psychology jobs are also growing quickly, with over 50 percent growth expected during the same period.
Psychology is about more than diagnosing and treating clients. If you have a picture in your head of someone lying on a couch and a doctor scribbling on a notepad, think again. Here are three real-world careers proving psychology is a diverse field:
Have you ever been frustrated when a computer button isn’t where it’s “supposed” to be? People use items every day as they interact with the world, but some things are easier to use than others. Human factors engineers apply what they know about human psychology to design objects and places that fit naturally with how humans think and behave.
Many people go to work from 9-5 on Monday through Friday, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are working eight hours a day. Productivity seeps out with each trip to the coffee cart and every time one employee duplicates the work of another colleague in a different department. Industrial-organizational psychologists work with both employers and employees to create better workplaces. They help companies hire the right people, teach employees to be better workers and develop staff into leaders.
These are the psychologists frequently seen on crime-related television shows. The jobs may not be quite as dramatic as they appear on these programs, but there is still plenty of excitement involved in this profession. Many forensic psychologists evaluate people involved in legal cases to assess their mental health, personality, and drug dependency. They may work either as a consultant or as a law enforcement employee, assessing whether individuals are mentally fit to stand trial and testifying about their observations in court.
Clinical Psychologists assess and treat patients using both time-tested and cutting-edge psychotherapy techniques. They help patients learn how to deal with their problems and issues in a positive and appropriate manner.
The BLS estimates the nationwide growth rate from 2012 to 2022 to be 11 percent, slightly lower than the overall average for the field. According to the American Psychological Association, growth is expected to remain steady due to an expanding elderly population that will be seeking help to understand the mental and physical changes taking place as they age.
Few careers offer such a tremendous combination of personal gratification and professional growth as child psychology. Becoming a child psychologist means helping children and families work through and overcome difficult behavioral challenges. The BLS places child psychologists in the same category as clinical psychologists because most have a clinical psychology background.
The estimated nationwide growth rate is 11 percent and is expected to remain steady as more students are diagnosed with behavioral disorders such as ADHD.
Forensic psychology lies at the crossroad of psychology and law. Those in the profession may work in employee discrimination and child custody or assess competence to stand trial.
This specialization is growing faster than average, partly due to the United States having the highest incarceration rate in the world. With a strong national emphasis on criminal justice, there is a demand for forensic psychologists to work both with law enforcement to identify criminals and in prisons to reduce the recidivism rate.
Heavier in lab work than other psychology specializations, neuropsychology revolves around studying aspects of the brain and how they affect behavior and emotion
Approximately 5,100 in this career will be created between 2012 and 2022. While that may not seem like many, neuropsychologist jobs typically require a doctorate, and only 6,323 students were awarded doctoral degrees in any psychology field in 2013, meaning opportunities are available.
Professionals in this field work with children to diagnose and treat behavioral and emotional issues, and with teachers and educational administrators to create plans for improving performance.
The estimated nationwide growth rate from 2012 to 2022 is 11 percent and, according to the American Psychological Association, this growth will remain constant as students with special needs, learning disabilities and behavioral issues need their services.