Top Psychology Careers See what you can do with a psychology degree
William T. O’Donohue, Ph.D's Bio
As the needs for mental healthcare and behavioral research grow, the projected job outlook for psychologists across all disciplines looks promising. Psychology students are key to filling this demand. Since the field of psychology is diverse and multifaceted, rising professionals are open to pursue a number of different career options. They might become clinical psychologists working in private practice, school psychologists helping students or research professionals working in academia or government. The following guide to psychology careers is an excellent place to start exploring your options.
Explore Specializations in Psychology
Students should research specialties within psychology careers before committing to a degree program. This can impact not only one’s course of study, but also their necessary terminal degrees and career options down the road. Many psychology students begin with a bachelor’s degree in general psychology and select specialties at the master’s level; others choose a more specialized program from the start. In either case, one can typically choose a more permanent track as graduate students. The following psychology career specializations demonstrate the range of options.
Biopsychology stands at the juncture of biology and psychology. Similar to neuroscientists, biopsychologists research the neural mechanisms of psychological processes in the central nervous system, but their scope of study can encompass subjects' biology, physiology and physical environment. Undergraduate biopsychology curricula typically integrate psychology basics with more advanced courses covering topics like neuropsychiatric disorders and developmental psychobiology. Careers in this area include psychiatry, psychopharmaceutic testing and behavioral research.
Child and developmental psychologists deliver psychological services to infants, toddlers, children, and adolescents-patients whose needs change over time. Child psychology courses might cover topics like cognition, perception, and language; culture, ethnicity, and development; and emotion and stress from the youth perspective. Graduates can work in private practices, in hospitals, or for agencies. These professionals must be licensed to practice and may be certified by the American Psychological Association (APA) or the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP).
Clinical psychologists provide mental and behavioral health care to individuals and families. Career options are broad as professionals can work with many different types of patients or participate in research activities. Clinical psychology curricula topics might include psychopathology and psychopharmacology, mental health diagnosis and treatment, and intervention. Professionals generally hold a doctoral degree, state licensure, and certification through the APA or ABPP.
Cognitive psychology takes a research-based, experimental-clinical approach to studying human learning and development and adapt theories of cognitive processing to promote meaningful change in negative thinking and behavior. Coursework includes special knowledge in applied behavioral analysis and therapies. Graduates will be prepared to treat patients with anxiety, personality disorders, depression, substance abuse and serious mental illness., or to engage in research. Licensure isn't required unless one is working in a clinical role.
Counseling psychologists assess, diagnose, and treat patients with emotional, social, occupational, educational, and physical challenges that impact mental health. First, however, rising counseling psychologists must study development across all stages of life, environmental factors that contribute to psychological well-being, and the role career, education and domestic stresses play in our lives. Counseling psychologists often work in private practices or public health organizations. Licensing is essential.
According to the American Psychological Association, developmental psychologists study human psychological development across the lifespan. While developmental psychologists were once akin to child psychologists, today's professionals also study aging, especially as our life expectancy increases. Coursework focuses on age-specific development among children, adolescents, adults and seniors. Developmental psychologists must typically hold doctoral degrees and state licensure to work in direct patient care.
Educational psychologists study and assess human learning, cognitive abilities and motivations with a particular focus on social and cultural differences in the classroom. An educational psychologist may work with children with dyslexia or social anxiety, or with those facing challenges at home. Educational psychologists work in schools or research facilities like universities. Licensure is required.
Engineering psychologists are an excellent example of highly-specialized mental health professionals with highly-specialized training. Professionals focus primarily on the relationship between humans and machines to improve technological efficiency and safety. One example of this from the APA is studying how to design computers to combat eye strain.
Environmental psychologists study the impact one's environment may have on their thinking and behavior. The environment in which a person works can affect them both positively and adversely, for instance. The field of environmental psychology broad and may deal extensively with subconscious feelings and the philosophical basis of evaluation. Only environmental scientists working in research or the academia must earn doctoral degrees, otherwise master's degree are sufficient.
Evolutionary psychologists are concerned with evolutionary processes and how they affect human thought, feeling and behavior. Topics like mutation, selective fitness, survival and adaptation are of great interest. For example, how did our psychology adapt to solve survival and reproductive problems faced many years ago? Because evolutionary psychologists tend to work in research or teach at universities, a doctoral degree is often required.
Experimental psychologists are research-oriented professionals: they collect data through observation and seek to understand cognitive processes, learning and conditioning in humans and animals. Academics and researchers usually hold PhDs. Experimental psychologists working in other environments, like zoos or businesses, may get by with master's degrees.
As their title suggests, family psychologists study familial systems theory and human behavior. They focus on the psychological health of individuals within the family context, and of that context within the larger social structure. Topics for coursework might include developmental psychology, personality theory, group dynamics or communication theories. Marriage and Family Therapy professionals must hold master's or doctoral degrees to practice. Family psychology degree programs combine coursework in family counseling with practical experience through internships. Many family psychologists work in private practice, hospitals, and advocacy or policy groups.
Forensic psychology is an ideal specialization for students interested in the relationship between human psychology and crime. In practice, forensic psychologists might study human behavior as it relates to the law and provide expert testimony in cases dealing with child custody or a defendant's mental health status, or relating to witness and jury behavior. A good understanding of courts and the legal system is paramount, as is the ability to understand family systems and mental illness. Doctorates are a must.
A division of gerontology, geropsychologists study and assess the health and safety of people who are older and aging. Specialized knowledge for this field includes adult development, family care models, and mood and cognition. A geropsychologist deals with specifics like dementia and its associated life changes, grief and loss, and chronic illness management. Geropsychologists may work in hospitals, care facilities, policy-making, or advocacy groups. A doctoral degree is required.
Health psychologists strive to understand how biological, psychological, and social factors affect health and wellness. Specialists may study how people react to illness, and devise plans in conjunction with other healthcare professionals to improve recovery times. Health psychologists work in hospitals or private practice, and in advocacy settings to help with high-risk behaviors like substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, and poor health habits. A clinical doctoral PhD or PsyD is likely required.
These specialists, also called I/O psychologists, work to improve the quality of life in the workplace to increase employee and management productivity, efficiency and motivation. In other words, they apply psychological principles to business and organizations to develop and maintain a healthy work structure. This subsection of psychology doesn't require a doctoral degree unless one is interested in research, teaching and academia. I/O psychologists often work for companies as management consultants or human resource officers. A master's degree is typically sufficient outside of research settings.
Often compared with biopsychologists, these specialists examine how the brain influences behavior. They study memory, perception, and behavior, as well as the effect of injury to the brain. Some neuropsychologists are also clinical psychologists who work with patients and determine their long-term care. Specialists work in research and development, in hospitals, and at universities. Doctoral degrees required.
Psychoanalysts work to create structural change in human personalities and behavioral modifications. The field can include dream analysis, awareness of the subconscious and poor patterns of emotion and behavior; and free association. Psychoanalysts complete years of postdoctoral study to practice, and accrue several more years of work experience to become sole practitioners.
Quantitative psychologists work to improve the methods by which psychologists analyze and collect data. They might design experiments and assess programs and treatments within the field. Key understandings among these experts include the empirical method, research strategies, and data analysis. Because of the research involved in quantitative psychology, doctoral degrees are required.
Rehabilitation psychologists work directly to improve the lives of people affected by disability, retardation, or severe physical or emotional injury. Rehabilitation psychology coursework addresses human development, coping skills and communication. Rehabilitation psychologists work in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, as well as in policy-making to advocate for their patients' care. Doctoral degrees and state licensure are a must.
School psychologists work to psychological practices in schools to address family issues, learning disabilities or emotional problems among students. Many school districts across the country employ full-time school psychologists at each institution, though others might employ one for the whole district. These experts must understand child and adolescent development, family structures, and behavioral and mental disorder. A doctoral degree and state license are required.
Social psychologists study the relationships between social interactions and human behavior and well-being. Degree program curricula reflect this, offering coursework in areas like social psychology and research. The work in a variety of settings and at different levels, so educational requirements vary. Research and academic institutions seek candidates with doctoral degrees while marketing firms, public and private industries, and the government may hire those with master's degrees alone.
Athletes, while physically trained, must train mentally, too. Sports psychologists help athletes of all levels focus on their goals, train in methods of mental toughness and regain confidence as they return from injury. Master's or doctoral degrees in clinical psychology or sport psychology are required, but additional understanding in occupational therapy, kinesiology and sports medicine are also a must. Sports psychologists should be licensed as they provide direct patient care.
Side-by-Side: Compare Mental Health Professions
The broad field of mental health provides career opportunities for psychology graduates with a variety of interests. Before committing to an educational or career path, rising professionals should understand the differences between three core mental health roles: psychologist, counselor and therapist. Job responsibilities, education requirements, and licensure and certification rules vary slightly for each. Use the comparison table below to understand the subtle differences between these careers and determine which is right for you.
|A practicing psychologist helps people learn to cope with mental health problems like depression, anxiety or more serious mental disorders. They can teach, conduct research, and assess and treat clinical patients.||Counselors help patients overcome life and psychological obstacles so that they can function at the highest level. Unlike psychologists, they do not provide direct patient care to those with serious mental disorders.||Therapists apply psychological principles to improve patient behavior and thinking. In some states it’s a protected title that requires licensure; in others, training requirements and use of the title are more flexible.|
|A doctoral degree is often required for practicing psychologists and those who work in the academia or research. These generally take 4-6 years after a bachelor’s degree is completed.||Master’s-level education is required for psychological, school and other types of counselors, but licensing requirements vary by state.||Therapists must hold master’s degrees to be licensed. States that do not require licensure establish their own educational requirements.|
|State licensure is mandatory; certification by the APA or ABPP is recommended.||Licensing and certification requirements vary by state. Some states require substance abuse counselors to be licensed, for instance, while others do not.||State licensure is mandatory in states in which the term is protected.|
In Depth: Salary Potential for Psychology Careers
Psychology professionals tend to earn good salaries across the country, though some states and specialties are more lucrative than others. At the same time, the different subfields in psychology, such as marriage and family therapy and clinical psychology, have varying earning potential. Rising professionals should research their potential salary according to both career specialty and location. The map below illustrates the earning potential across the country of five categories of psychology professions:
- Clinical, Counseling & School Psychologists
- Psychologists, All Other
- Marriage & Family Therapists
- Mental Health Counselors
- Counselors, All Other
Psychology, Therapy and Counseling Careers: Median Annual Salary, 2014
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015)
Non-Psych Careers for Psychology Majors
Not all psychology majors become psychologists. In fact, there are a number of fields that value professionals who understand how people think and operate. Overall, about 66 percent of students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology go on to pursue a master’s program, and only 17 percent go on to pursue a doctoral. Students who don’t pursue the long educational road may want to consider careers in other fields like healthcare, marketing and criminal justice.
Median salary (2015):$67,490
Projected growth (2014-2024):16 percent
Education:Nursing degrees and licensure required. Nurses may benefit from a basic understanding of psychology, including understanding how people interact in a healthcare environment and how we understand and relate to illness.
Median salary (2015):$57,200
Projected growth (2014-2024):6 percent
Education:Teaching credential and license necessary. Teachers will be able to help their students greatly with the knowledge of a bachelor’s in psychology, including how to best give and receive information, learning environment pluses and minuses, and helping kids with learning disabilities or mental illness.
Median salary (2015):$124,850
Projected growth (2014-2024):9 percent
Education:Generally, a bachelor’s degree is all that is required for a professional in this field. Work experience counts for a lot, as does understanding advertising and messaging. Understanding the psychology behind consumer behavior and advertising communications may be very helpful.
Median salary (2015):$115,820
Projected growth (2014-2024):6 percent
Education:A lot of additional education is required, as far as a doctoral or professional degree. An understanding of psychology, especially forensic or neuropsychology, might be useful and interesting to a lawyer.
Median salary (2015):$45,900
Projected growth (2014-2024):15 percent
Education:Prospective social workers with a bachelor’s degree in psychology can seek master’s degrees in social work. Many of the topics covered in a psychology degree program, such as child development, substance abuse and mental health can apply directly to a social work program.
Median salary (2015):$113,860
Projected growth (2014-2024):5 percent
Education:Bachelor’s degree is often the highest level required. Organizational psychology is helpful for managers of all types. How are people motivated? How do teams work best together? This understanding may give insight into these important questions.
Median salary (2015):$60,270
Projected growth (2014-2024):4 percent
Education:A bachelor’s degree is not always required; however, work experience is. As police officers constantly interact with the public and with criminals, understanding the “whys” of crime and how victims respond may help make officers’ jobs easier.
Median salary (2015):$58,350
Projected growth (2014-2024):5 percent
Education:Human resource specialists must typically have bachelor’s degrees in a related field, including communications, business or psychology.
Median salary (2015):$102,640
Projected growth (2014-2024):7 percent
Education:A bachelor’s degree is the typical entry-level education requirement, through work experience is mandatory. Training managers put together programs to enhance staff knowledge and skills. People strong in this field likely consider how staff members get along and interact, and how to motivate them to put forth their best effort.
Median salary (2015):$56,770
Projected growth (2014-2024):6 percent
Education:Human resource specialists are usually required to have bachelor’s degrees in a relevant field. Because specialists benefit from having a keen understanding of social behavior and response, psychology degrees can serve as an excellent primer for the field.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2015)
Expert Advice for Success in a Psychology Career
Describe your educational path, from undergraduate through doctorate.
I was an undergraduate psychology major, and I knew I wanted to be a clinical psychologist and deal with abnormal behavior. Getting into grad school can be difficult, it was one placement for every ten applicants, but I was lucky to get into one of my top choices at Stonybrook (New York), where I specialized in cognitive behavior therapy.
Sexual abuse first became interesting as I had classmates who were struggling with going through previous experiences. Then came treating kids, adults and even offenders.
What advice might you give to students who are interested in the psychology field? What’s a good way for them to navigate and differentiate among the different choices within the general field?
Psychology is a broad field. Clinical psychology is really great because you’re working with people and you can see improvements in their quality of life. But there are a lot of specialties. I tell my students to treat it like a romantic partner. They can date certain interests, read a book or write a paper in some of them, until eventually they’ll find something to pursue a little more seriously, and then will fall in love with a problem that’s interesting that they’ll want to solve, and will marry the field.
What recommendations might you make to students and professionals in the field? Anything they should be sure to do? Anything they should be sure not to do?
Do not be content to settle and not focus on a career path. Get focused on what real life looks like and make the decisions early to put you in a good position. By the way, the APA just completed a study and found that the most common job for a psych major is a barista. So get focused.
Other than that, find a good quality program. One that is evidence-based (cognitive based therapy), and find the amount of time you want to allocate. Be realistic about how much time you want to spend in school, and find a good advisor.
Also, be aware that PhD programs can pay their students. For example, the PhD program at UNR pays $27,500 a year, which covers tuition and health insurance plus a monthly stipend.
What do you find the most compelling/rewarding parts of your career?
Helping people. It’s incredible to see the transition from someone who is hurting and struggling, to someone who is happy and high-functioning.
Additional Career Resources for Psychology
There are many additional resources that prospective psychologists should explore. Among them are potential professional organizations, resources that outline specific degree types, and student organizations.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
A member-based organization of 9,000 child and adult psychiatrists. Member benefits include networking opportunities, continuing education, and annual subscriptions and discounts to publications.
American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology
This website has information for both professionals (board certification quizzes and testing, membership, annual conferences) and people seeking a board-certified neuropsychologist.
American Board of Professional Psychology
A key certification body, psychologists in all specialties will want to familiarize themselves with the process, as well as get information on career advancement, continuing education, and mentorship opportunities.
American Psychoanalytic Association
Both a resource for those seeking to learn more about the field and a membership site for professionals, APSA offers continuing education, field resources, and member benefits.
American Psychological Association
One of the primary sources for information on general psychology education, professional leadership, and research.
Association of Black Psychologists
ABPSI is a member-based group for black psychologists in the field. The website offers information for professionals and those seeking to become professionals. It has member benefits for degree holders of different levels, including undergraduate students and doctoral degree holders.
Human Factors and Ergonomics Society
HFES promotes the discovery and exchange of knowledge concerning human interaction with devices of all kinds. It promotes the field and gives information for professionals, as well as benefits to its members.
National Association of School Psychologists
NASP is a national organization and resource hub specifically for school psychologists. It’s a member-based group that provides benefits, as well as key certification information and research opportunities and updates.
For distinctions between PsyD and PhD doctorate programs.
This site has a comprehensive list of professional organizations that relate to social psychology, psychology research, and ethnicity-centric groups operating in the field.
Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology
This group is member based and includes information for students and professionals, educators and the media. It has a news function with issues facing the field, as well as member benefits and continuing education.