Psychologist Careers and Education
In many ways psychologists hold the key to understanding human behavior. They study what motivates and frustrates us. They analyze how our behavior is shaped by the world around us. They also help millions of people work through difficult life stages such as grief, anxiety, depression, and challenging transitions to live healthier, more fulfilling lives.
There are just over 100,000 licensed psychologists in the United States today, and the field is growing. This number includes a wide variety of specialties that focus on issues as far-ranging as performance stress in athletes to creating a healthy work environment.
There are many opportunities for you as an aspiring psychologist, so read on to learn more about your options and the required education.
What Does a Psychologist Do?
Practicing psychologists are highly trained to help people cope with difficult life stages, short-term crises, or management of chronic health conditions. Often people experiencing strong emotions like anxiety, depression, or grief seek the help of psychologists for processing and coping with difficult life circumstances.
Psychologists use an evidence-based approach to treatment, combining the latest scientific studies and clinical research with therapy, medication, and specialized patient care. They administer diagnostic tests to choose the best individual treatment plans for patients and will vary the approach accordingly. They often collaborate with primary care physicians in cases where medicine may help with treatment.
Beyond these basic undertakings, there are a host of other functions that psychologists perform based on their area of specialization.
Psychologist Career Specializations
There are dozens of career specialties to choose from in the field of psychology. Applying your personal interests and natural talents to the specialty that most appeals to you can make for a rewarding psychology career.
- Industrial-organizational psychology: Industrial-organizational psychologists apply their understanding of human behavior to the workplace to increase productivity and overall company morale. They work in businesses of all sizes to improve processes and offer training and coaching for both employers and employees.
- Sports psychology: If you are a sports enthusiast, you may be interested in working with players and coaches as a sports psychologist. These professionals help players face career pressures and losses, work through stress from injuries, or communicate better with teammates. They also can work directly with child athletes to help them manage stress and competition.
- Behavioral psychology: Behavioral psychologists study learned behaviors and the environments in which those behaviors are born and cultivated. They help correct behavioral problems such as addiction, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, or even sleep difficulties.
- Child psychology: If you connect well with children, being a child psychologist may be a rewarding option. These psychologists work with children, from birth through adolescence, to help them cope with loss or trauma, deal with chronic cognitive or health problems, or adjust to difficult life transitions.
- School psychology: School psychologists work one-on-one with children in a school setting. They provide academic, social, and emotional support. They work closely with teachers and parents to ensure that each student gets the type of help they need.
- Forensic psychology: The areas of psychology and criminal justice intersect in this discipline. Forensic psychologists evaluate and assess suspects, witnesses, victims, and others to lend expertise throughout the stages of the justice system. Note that forensic psychologists deal with the mental health of all of those involved in the criminal justice system, including suspects, criminals, police officers, and victims. Professionals who only work with criminals—from profiling to counseling—are called criminal psychologists.
- Neuropsychology: Neuropsychologists study the behaviors and feelings of those who have neurological disorders and injuries. They may treat patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, a head injury, or a stroke to help them improve memory or process changes in mood or mannerisms.
- Clinical psychology: Clinical psychologists typically work individually with a wide range of patients in private practices, hospitals, military installations, and anywhere they’re needed. They apply a range of techniques and approaches to treating behavioral disorders.
- Counseling psychology: A “counselor” is a broad term that covers a number of different types of professionals. Although some counselors work with the general population, in groups or individually, to help patients cope with mental health issues, many others work with specific groups. Substance abuse counselors treat those suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. Marriage and family counselors work with struggling couples and families who need guidance on healthy ways to interact. Other counselors focus on those with eating disorders, disabilities, or who have been abused. Note that to earn the title of counseling psychologist you need a doctorate. However, you can also practice as a counselor with a master’s degree.
For information about additional careers, refer to our list of psychology careers.
What’s the Difference Between a Psychologist and Psychiatrist?
While both psychologists and psychiatrists are clinical professionals who treat patients individually, there are some key differences between the two professions. A psychologist uses psychotherapy and other techniques to assess and counsel patients. A psychologist often meets with patients weekly or biweekly for 30 minutes to an hour per session.
While a psychologist is required to earn a doctorate to practice, a psychiatrist must also earn a medical degree (M.D.), including completing a medical residency. Psychiatrists therefore combine their training in physical and behavioral health to focus on medicine management for treating mental health disorders. Because of this, psychiatrists often meet less regularly with patients, seeing them only periodically and for shorter periods of time. It’s also often common for psychiatrists to earn significantly more than psychologists due to their medical training.
Psychologist Salary and Job Growth Expectations
It’s a good time to become a psychologist. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment rates to grow 14% between 2018 and 2028. Additionally, while earnings vary by specialty, the median psychologist salary in 2018 was $79,010, with those in the top 10% earning more than $100,000 annually.
|Specialty||Median Salary (2018)||Job Growth Expectations, 2018–2028|
|Clinical, counseling, and school psychologists||$76,990||15%|
|Psychologists, all other||$100,770||12%|
As in any field, earnings can vary with your specialty and geographic location. In 2018, psychologists employed with the government earned the highest incomes, with a median annual salary of $96,410. As for geographical locations, Oregon and California come in at over $100,000 for the categories of clinical, counseling, and school psychologists, while in Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, New Jersey, and New York you can earn $90,000 or more.
Consider quality of life as well as income when deciding where you’d like to work. If you work in a hospital or a government job, you may work longer hours and have less flexibility than if you were to go into private practice for example.
How to Become a Psychologist
It takes a number of years of training to become a practicing psychologist. The most important qualification is education: You will need to earn both a bachelor’s and a doctoral degree to qualify as a psychologist. Although some states have their own unique requirements, here are the basic steps for becoming a psychologist:
- Complete your bachelor’s degree. Typically you will complete a program in four years, with a major in psychology or a related field (such as sociology or social work). It’s always a good idea to conduct some research ahead of time to make sure your program aligns with future doctoral programs of interest.
- Complete a master’s program. This step isn’t necessarily required, as many doctorate programs do not require a master’s. However, master’s programs can help you decide on a specialty area to pursue before jumping right into a doctoral program. Credits will often apply to your doctorate program, as well.
- Complete a doctorate. To earn the title of psychologist you need to earn either a Ph.D. or Psy.D. Look for a regionally accredited psychology program in good standing, and check your state to see if your program also needs to be APA-accredited.
- Complete an internship. As part of your doctoral studies, you’ll complete a clinical internship. Internships are typically one year long and represent about 2,000 hours of supervised clinical training.
- Complete supervised training. Before you apply for licensure, you’ll need to clock an additional 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised time, for a total of up to 6,000 hours (depending on the state) between your internship and postdoctoral work to satisfy licensing requirements.
- Pass the state examination. You’ll need to pass either the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) or the newer and less common Psychopharmacology Examination for Psychologists (PEP) exam to qualify as a psychologist.
- Apply for a license. Finally, you can apply to your state’s licensing board to obtain your license qualifying you to practice psychology.
Psychology Education: Getting a Doctorate
There are two types of doctoral degrees that you can choose from—Doctor of Psychology Degree (Psy.D.) or Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (Ph.D.).
If you are interested in conducting research or teaching, a Ph.D. is generally your best option. If you want to focus on clinical work and applying science to individual or group patient care, a Psy.D. may be best.
Prerequisites and Admission Requirements
Once you’re ready to start applying to psychology programs, you’ll want to consider the various requirements for admission as well as the competitiveness of the program you’d like to attend. While it varies from program to program, here are some of the most common admissions requirements the APA lists for acceptance into a doctoral psychology program:
- A bachelor’s degree, preferably with some classes or focus in psychology or a similar field
- Clinically related public service
- Extracurricular activities
- Previous work experience
You may also need to complete an interview and provide additional details about yourself and why you want to become a psychologist. You’ll need to meet the minimum grade point average (GPA) standards and, in some cases, take a qualifying exam such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Many programs will ask for supplemental application materials such as essays, statements of purpose, and letters of recommendation. Some programs may even prefer that you already have a master’s degree, although this is less common.
Courses to Take to Become a Psychologist
A psychology doctoral program typically lasts four to six years and includes a master’s-level equivalent as well as the Ph.D. or Psy.D. degree. Depending on which degree you opt for, your first two years are likely to include courses in the following subjects:
- History of psychology: Learn the evolution of the practice and philosophies that have shaped the field.
- Clinical care: Understand the practice and evidence-based approaches to assessment, consultation, and advocacy.
- Human development: Discover historical and contemporary social and psychological theories of human development and behavior.
- Fundamentals of research methods: Design, analyze, and understand approaches to research and data and research methodologies.
- Ethics: Understand the roles, responsibilities, and legal requirements of practice.
In years three and four, you’ll focus on your dissertation and learning the fundamentals of clinical work in preparation for your practicum. Expect to take courses such as the following:
- Dissertation proposal seminar
- Practicum seminar
- Theory and practice of clinical work
- Elective and specialty courses
At some point in the final two years of your program, you’ll complete your internship and focus on electives (depending on your specialty and program).
Once you near the end of your degree program, your focus will shift toward graduation requirements. Most schools will require dissertation proposals and oral qualifying examinations or dissertation defenses (some programs will allow an additional two to three years for you to complete your dissertation). There may also be a final written exam that tests your knowledge and spans the program’s entire curriculum. Finally, most programs will require at least 1,500 hours of supervised clinical work in your internship or practicum experience.
Licensure and Certification for Psychologists
The last step to becoming a practicing psychologist is preparing for state licensure and certification. To apply for your license in most states, you’ll need a doctoral degree, your state’s mandated number of supervised postdoctoral hours, and successful completion of oral and jurisprudence exams, which test you on your state’s legal compliance and regulations. Many state exams and applications take into account an applicant’s character, reputation, and experience practicing psychology, and they will ask you to submit client lists, questionnaires, or other materials as support. Check your state’s requirements regarding when you can apply and what paperwork is required. Keep in mind any application fees as well. These fees vary by state but typically range between $300 and $600.
Once you complete your degree, you can register to take your state board examination—typically the EPPP, the test created by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) and accepted by most states as the standard exam for psychology licensure. The test’s 225 multiple-choice questions are broken into eight parts:
- Biological bases of behavior
- Cognitive-affective bases of behavior
- Social and multicultural bases of behavior
- Growth and lifespan development
- Assessment and diagnosis
- Treatment, intervention, and prevention
- Research methods and statistics
- Ethical, legal, and professional issues
Test takers have 4 hours and 15 minutes to complete the test. Most states require a score of at least 70%, or 500 points, to pass, but they will allow you to retake it up to four times every 12 months. The fee to register for the EPPP is $450, plus a $65 scheduling fee.
Psychologists stay up to date in the field by earning annual continuing education credits that are required to maintain their licenses. They often have the opportunity to further specialize and choose from a range of recognized fields such as the ones listed above.
Skills and Personality Traits of Great Psychologists
If you’re thinking of becoming a psychologist, it may help to consider the common personality traits and skills shared among these professionals. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the following traits as being important for psychologists:
- Analytic skills: Collect information and draw logical conclusions.
- Communication skills: Listen well, be empathetic, and speak with care.
- Integrity: Build trust and respect confidentiality with sensitivity.
- Interpersonal skills: Work well with patients and other professionals.
- Observational skills: Study facial expressions, body positions, and actions, and consider the possible meanings of these behaviors.
- Patience: Treating patients may take a long time and require extensive research and study.
- Problem-solving skills: Design research, evaluate problems, and find treatments and solutions to problems.
Resources for Psychologists
Here are some additional resources to help you learn more about psychology, connect with others, and stay up to date on the latest industry news.
- American Psychological Association (APA): The APA is one of the largest professional organizations for psychologists. Its website includes career information, industry news, the latest publications, and information about networking and learning events.
- Association for Psychological Science (APS): The APS focuses on scientific discovery, research, and publication and has a membership of more than 30,000 international psychological researchers.
- National Alliance of Professional Psychology Providers (NAPPP): This online association offers training courses and advocacy; the website includes a database of qualified psychologists.
- The Psychology Podcast: Since 2014, this podcast, hosted by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, has featured interviews with experts on various topics in psychology.
- The Psych Files: With more than 300 available episodes, this podcast explores current and trending psychology topics.
- Hidden Brain: NPR’s Shankar Vedantam reports on the human behavior that shapes our choices. Each episode focuses on a popular topic in the news.