Health Care Careers - Psychologist

Psychology is the study of behavior and the mind. There are many different types of psychology and many different kinds of psychologists. All psychologists are concerned, though, with some aspect of the behavior of an individual or an organization, or with the human or animal mind. When most people think of a psychologist, they think of a professional who diagnoses and treats mentally ill people. However, there are many psychologists who focus on research rather than actually treating individuals as practitioners do.

Working in laboratories or out of research centers, psychologists who conduct research can study anything from functions of the brain to the way large organizations, such as corporations, function. Some psychologists focus exclusively on the work habits and work environments of different people and are employed by privately owned businesses or the government. Other psychologists work in private practice, clinics, or hospitals with patients and clients to help those individuals overcome mental illness, such as attention deficit disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychologists are also instructors at universities, training others to become psychologists. And, a psychologist's role in education doesn't end there. Many psychologists work with students to help them with learning disabilities and violence prevention in schools. Finally, psychologists can be found working in and around a community, assisting in planning programs at community centers or providing counseling services within jails or juvenile-detention centers.

There is a wide range of specialties within psychology that individuals training to be psychologists can focus upon as they complete their training and prepare to enter the workforce:

CLINICAL PSYCHOLGIST. The most popular specialty in psychology, clinical psychologists interview, diagnose, and treat patients in a variety of settings, including counseling centers, private practices, hospitals, or universities. They are trained to provide individual, couples, family, and group therapy, all of which can help people overcome mental and emotional problems. Clinical psychologists are often instructors at colleges and medical schools.

DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLGIST. Just as the name suggests, developmental psychologists are most concerned with the development of the human mind and behavior throughout a person's life. Developmental psychologists may focus their interests on research or treat persons who develop mental disorders during a particular time of development, such as infancy or adolescence. Specific developmental disabilities, such as mental retardation and autism, can also be a developmental psychologist's area of specialty.

INDUSTRIAL/ORGANIZATIONAL (I/O) PSYCHOLOGIST. Trying to improve productivity in the workplace, I/O psychologists use psychological principles and research to determine what motivates individuals and groups of people at work. I/O psychologists also work to improve the quality of work life so that both employee and employer are satisfied. Human resource specialists and trainers in the workplace are often trained I/O psychologists.

NEUROPSYCHOLOGIST. To be a neuropsychologist, one must first be a clinical psychologist. Because neuropsychologists concentrate on the relationship between the activities of the brain and a person's behavior, they often work with people who have suffered strokes or head injuries. Neuropsychologists also study the functions of memory as well as how certain diseases can affect people's emotions and behavior along with the rest of their mental functioning.

RESEARCH PSYCHOLOGIST. Human beings and animals, such as rats, monkeys, and pigeons, are often studied by research psychologists. Research psychologists usually work in university and private research centers as well as laboratories and for governmental organizations. They research and study things such as motivation, learning and memory, and the effects of substance abuse on the mind.

SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGIST. Working in settings as diverse as conducting research in a university or studying consumer likes and dislikes at an advertising agency, social pychologists study how people interact with others and the social environment. Social psychology research provides a greater understanding of how and why people form different opinions about certain people or things. This is especially helpful in overcoming problems like discrimination and prejudice.

SPORTS PSYCHOLOGIST. Athletes, both professional and amateur, must prepare both their bodies and their minds for a competition. Often, individual athletes or entire teams need help to become more mentally focused on goals or to become more motivated. Sports psychologists work with this population, helping athletes to achieve their goals. Along the way, the sports psychologist might also help an individual overcome anxiety and a fear of failure before an event or competition.


Psychiatrists and psychologists are similar in that both are mental health care providers. The difference between the two lies in the training for each profession as well as their approaches to treating mental or behavior problems.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors. They attend college and go on to medical school just as all physicians do. After completing their schooling, psychiatrists do their residency in psychiatry, just as a pediatrician would do a residency in pediatrics. Psychologists go to college as well, but they go on to a graduate program where they earn a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. While psychologists do learn about the human body to a certain degree, they focus mainly on applying psychological principles when assessing and treating mental and developmental disorders. In contrast, psychiatrists, because they are physicians, focus on the biological and chemical causes behind mental illness as well as using psychological principles to diagnose and treat an individual.

Both of these types of mental health professionals can help people with mental illness or emotional and behavioral problems. Psychiatrists, however, are allowed to prescribe medications that are often used to treat anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia (see Chapter 12 Mental Illness). A psychologist treating an individual with any of these disorders would need to work closely with a psychiatrist in order to provide a patient with proper physical and psychological therapy.

Training to Be a Psychologist

Individuals working in the field of psychology usually hold bachelor's degrees (four-year college degree) in psychology. From there, an individual may choose to earn a master's degree in psychology and work as an I/O or a school psychologist. Clinical psychologists and other psychologists specializing in other areas usually hold doctorates of philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees in psychology. A doctor of psychology (Psy.D.) degree is also awarded at some universities.

A Ph.D. can take anywhere from five to seven years to complete. Near the end of the program, Ph.D. candidates must write a dissertation (an indepth research paper) based on original research that the student has conducted. A Psy.D. program is different in that it can often be based more on hands-on work and traditional exams rather than on a research-based dissertation. Most Ph.D. and Psy.D. students are also required to perform an internship.

Psychologists must be certified and licensed to practice psychology professionally. This certification and licensing usually involves passing written and oral exams.

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