More than 1 out of 4 psychologists are self-employed, nearly four times the average
for professional workers. Most specialists, including clinical and counseling
psychologists, need a doctoral degree; school and industrial-organizational
psychologists need a master’s degree. Opportunities in psychology are limited for
those with only a bachelor’s degree.
Psychologists study the human mind and human behavior. Research psychologists
investigate the physical, cognitive, emotional, or social aspects of human behavior.
Psychologists in health service provider fields provide mental health care in hospitals,
clinics, schools, or private settings. Psychologists employed in applied settings such
as business, industry, government or non-profits provide training, conduct research,
design systems, and act as advocates for psychology.
Like other social scientists, psychologists formulate hypotheses and collect data to
test their validity. Research methods vary depending on the topic under study.
Psychologists sometimes gather information through controlled laboratory
experiments or by administering personality, performance, aptitude, and intelligence
tests. Other methods include observation, interviews, questionnaires, clinical studies,
Psychologists apply their knowledge to a wide range of endeavors, including health
and human services, management, education, law, and sports. In addition to
working in a variety of settings, psychologists usually specialize in one of a number
of different areas.
Clinical psychologists—who constitute the largest specialty—most often work in
counseling centers, independent or group practices, hospitals, or clinics. They help
mentally and emotionally disturbed clients adjust to life and may help medical and
surgical patients deal with illnesses or injuries. Some clinical psychologists work in
physical rehabilitation settings, treating patients with spinal cord injuries, chronic
pain or illness, stroke, arthritis, and neurological conditions. Others help people deal
with times of personal crisis, such as divorce or the death of a loved one.
Clinical psychologists often interview patients and give diagnostic tests. They may
provide individual, family, or group psychotherapy, and design and implement
behavior modification programs. Some clinical psychologists collaborate with
physicians and other specialists to develop and implement treatment and
intervention programs that patients can understand and comply with. Other clinical
psychologists work in universities and medical schools, where they train graduate
students in the delivery of mental health and behavioral medicine services. Some
administer community mental health programs.
Areas of specialization within clinical psychology include health psychology,
neuropsychology, and geropsychology. Health psychologists promote good health
through health maintenance counseling programs designed to help people achieve
goals, such as to stop smoking or lose weight. Neuropsychologists study the relation
between the brain and behavior. They often work in stroke and head injury
programs. Geropsychologists deal with the special problems faced by the elderly. The
emergence and growth of these specialties reflects the increasing participation of
psychologists in providing direct services to special patient populations.
Often, clinical psychologists will consult with other medical personnel regarding the
best treatment for patients, especially treatment that includes medications. Clinical
psychologists generally are not permitted to prescribe medications to treat patients;
only psychiatrists and other medical doctors may prescribe medications. (See the
statement on physicians and surgeons elsewhere in the Handbook.) However, one
State, New Mexico, has passed legislation allowing clinical psychologists who
undergo additional training to prescribe medication, and similar proposals have been
made in additional States.
Counseling psychologists use various techniques, including interviewing and testing,
to advise people on how to deal with problems of everyday living. They work in
settings such as university counseling centers, hospitals, and individual or group
practices. (Also see the statements on counselors and social workers elsewhere in
School psychologists work in elementary and secondary schools or school district
offices to resolve students’ learning and behavior problems. They collaborate with
teachers, parents, and school personnel to improve classroom management
strategies or parenting skills, counter substance abuse, work with students with
disabilities or gifted and talented students, and improve teaching and learning
strategies. They may evaluate the effectiveness of academic programs, behavior
management procedures, and other services provided in the school setting.
Industrial-organizational psychologists apply psychological principles and research
methods to the workplace in the interest of improving productivity and the quality of
worklife. They also are involved in research on management and marketing
problems. They conduct applicant screening, training and development, counseling,
and organizational development and analysis. An industrial psychologist might work
with management to reorganize the work setting to improve productivity or quality of
life in the workplace. They frequently act as consultants, brought in by management
in order to solve a particular problem.
Developmental psychologists study the physiological, cognitive, and social
development that takes place throughout life. Some specialize in behavior during
infancy, childhood, and adolescence, or changes that occur during maturity or old
age. They also may study developmental disabilities and their effects. Increasingly,
research is developing ways to help elderly people remain independent as long as
Social psychologists examine people’s interactions with others and with the social
environment. They work in organizational consultation, marketing research, systems
design, or other applied psychology fields. Prominent areas of study include group
behavior, leadership, attitudes, and perception.
Experimental or research psychologists work in university and private research
centers and in business, nonprofit, and governmental organizations. They study
behavior processes using human beings and animals, such as rats, monkeys, and
pigeons. Prominent areas of study in experimental research include motivation,
thought, attention, learning and memory, sensory and perceptual processes, effects
of substance abuse, and genetic and neurological factors affecting behavior.
Areas of Specialization in Psychology
The psychology major provides its students with both a liberal arts education and the
opportunity to explore specific areas of psychology in which they have special
interests. Graduate education is a process of further refinement during which
students become increasingly proficient and knowledgeable in an area of
psychological specialization. Described below are some specialty areas in psychology
that require graduate education. (See also APA's Psychology/Careers for the Twenty-
first Century: Scientific Problem Solvers.) This is by no means an exhaustive list of
specialties in psychology, and if you wish to see a descriptoin of a particular area,
please feel free to write and ask about it.
CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY: Clinical psychologists assess and treat people with
psychological problems. They may act as therapists for people experiencing normal
psychological crises (e.g., grief) or for individuals suffering from chronic psychiatric
disorders. Some clinical psychologists are generalists who work with a wide variety of
populations, while others work with specific groups like children, the elderly, or those
with specific disorders (e.g., schizophrenia). They are trained in universities or
professional schools of psychology. They may be found working in academic settings,
hospitals, community health centers, or private practice. (See also Counseling
COUNSELING PSYCHOLOGY: Counseling psychologists do many of the same things
that clinical psychologists do. However, counseling psychologists tend to focus more
on persons with adjustment problems rather than on persons suffering from severe
psychological disorders. They may be trained in Psychology Departments or in
Schools of Education. Counseling psychologists are employed in academic settings,
community mental health centers, and private practice. (See also Clinical
DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY: Developmental psychologists study how we develop
intellectually, socially, and emotionally over the lifespan. Some focus on just one
period of life (e.g., childhood or adolescence). Developmental psychologists usually
do research and teach in academic settings, but many act as consultants to day care
centers, schools, or social service agencies.
EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY: Educational psychologists are concerned with the
study of human learning. They attempt to understand the basic aspects of learning
and then develop materials and strategies for enhancing the learning process. For
example, an educational psychologist might study reading and then develop a new
technique for teaching reading. They are typically trained in Schools of Education and
employed in academic settings. (See also School Psychology.)
EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY: This area includes a diverse group of psychologists
who do research in the most basic areas of psychology (e.g., learning, memory,
cognition, perception, motivation, and language). Their research may be conducted
with animals instead of humans. Most of these psychologists work in academic
FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY: Forensic psychologists are involved in analyzing crime
evidence and aiding law enforcement agencies in criminal investigations. See the
brochure from the Psychology and Law division of the American Psychological
Association, on this site, for useful information.
HEALTH PSYCHOLOGY: Health psychologists are concerned with psychology's
contributions to the promotion and maintenance of good health and the prevention
and treatment of illness. They may design and conduct programs to help individuals
stop smoking, lose weight, manage stress, and stay physically fit. They are
employed in hospitals, medical schools, rehabilitation centers, public health agencies,
academic settings, and private practice.
HUMAN FACTORS PSYCHOLOGY: Human Factors researchers study the
human/machine interface. They may help make appliances such as cameras user-
friendly, or they may do studies of safety-related issues in the design of machinery,
airplane controls and instrument layouts, or they may do basic research on human
perceptual and motor abilities as they relate to the operation of machines,
computers, and other mechanical devices.
INDUSTRIAL/ORGANIZATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY: Industrial/organizational
psychologists are primarily concerned with the relationships between people and
their work environments. They may develop new ways to increase productivity or be
involved in personnel selection. They are employed in business, government
agencies, and academic settings.
PHYSIOLOGICAL PSYCHOLOGY: Physiological psychologists study the physiological
correlates of behavior. They study both very basic processes (e.g., how brain cells
function) and more readily observable phenomena (e.g., behavioral changes as a
function of drug use or the biological/genetic roots of psychiatric disorders). Most are
employed in academic settings.
SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGY: School psychologists are involved in enhancing the
development of children in educational settings. They assess children's psycho
educational abilities and recommend actions to facilitate student learning. They are
typically trained in Schools of Education and work in public school systems. They
often act as consultants to parents, teachers, and administrators to optimize the
learning environments of specific students. (See also Educational Psychology.)
SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY: Social psychologists study how our beliefs, feelings, and
behaviors are affected by other persons. Some topics of interest to social
psychologists are attitude formation and change, aggression, prejudice, and
interpersonal attraction. Most social psychologists work in academic settings, but
some work in federal agencies and businesses doing applied research.