Careers in Psychology

Psychology: In simplest terms, it’s the study of human behavior and mental processes. But ask a handful of practicing psychologists to define the field and you’ll likely walk away with just as many definitions – all of them right. Psychology today isn’t the same as it was even a generation ago, evolving and changing to allow for a deeper understanding of the human condition and expanding to include a greater number of subfields and specialties.

When wrestling with the most vexing issues of the human psyche and delving into the inner workings of the mind, how could you expect anything else?

Like the field itself, careers in psychology continue to evolve. While the study of psychology has been around for nearly 140 years, advancements continue to shape its role in contemporary society, with such innovative subfields as forensic psychology and industrial/organizational psychology emerging in recent years.

Considering a career in psychology? You’ll likely be met with plenty of opportunities to focus on one (or more!) of the many subspecialties that make up this field of study.

But before diving in deep, let’s take a look at the major divide in psychology: counseling or clinical?

Counseling vs. Clinical Psychology: Identifying the Differences, Recognizing the Similarities

From the time you choose your graduate program and participate in an internship, you’ll begin considering your path: either counseling or clinical psychology. The subtle differences between graduate programs designed to prepare you for one of these paths have faded significantly in recent years, leading to the gradual amalgamation of the two in many cases. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) even stopped distinguishing between the two for its accredited internships and most schools no longer distinguish between the two, in terms of either title or content.

Whether you graduate from a program that identifies itself as a clinical or counseling psychology program, you’ll qualify to receive the same state license, the same national board certification, and enjoy the same insurance reimbursement. Most importantly, both prepare psychologists who can provide healthcare services including assessment and psychotherapy to the general public.

Chances are, if you complete a clinical psychology graduate program, it’ll be in an institution’s school/department of psychology, while counseling psychology programs are often found in various schools/departments like education and the arts and sciences.

The real, substantive differences come after your education and licensure when you actually begin practicing …

Clinical Psychology  – Clinical psychology involves providing services on an in-patient basis, working with severe psychological and behavioral disorders like schizophrenia where some patients may even pose a potential danger to themselves and others. As such, your career would involve working in an institutional setting, assessing and treating severely mentally ill patients.

Counseling Psychology – If you envision yourself with your own independent practice where you work out of your office providing therapeutic counseling services to individual clients, couples, and families to help them deal with the stresses and traumas of life or less severe mental, emotional or psychological disorders, then counseling psychology is the area of practice for you.

As a counseling psychologist, you may be more likely to study areas of human diversity, such as gender differences and homosexuality, while as a clinical psychologist, you may be more likely to focus your career on one or more pathology (such as schizophrenia or chronic mental illness) or area of study within hospital/medical settings (such as neuropsychology or pediatric psychology).

Psychology Subfields: Where a Career in Psychology Can Take You

Any one of the many psychological subfields can be a core focus of your graduate work and your career, but more than one can also be studied and practiced concurrently.

The following list is by no means comprehensive, but it does provide you with an overview of some of the most popular subfields in psychology:

Addiction and Substance Abuse Counselors

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Alcohol by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly 22 million adults aged 12 and older were battling a substance abuse disorder in 2014. Of those, nearly 80 percent were also suffering from an alcohol abuse disorder at the same time. What’s more is that nearly 8 million American adults battled both a mental health disorder and a substance abuse disorder during this time.

The opioid crisis is one that has garnered national attention for the last few years. And a crisis it is. According to 2017 statistics by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported, more than 90 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses.

Psychologists in addiction and substance abuse work alongside physicians and other healthcare providers in inpatient settings like hospitals and rehabilitation facilities and in outpatient settings like community centers and private practices to treat patients struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, which often times accompany other mental and emotional disorders.

Marriage and Family Therapists

The APA recognizes family psychology as focusing on the “interpersonal system of the family.”

In other words, psychologists working in marriage and family settings address the dynamics of the family unit—whether it’s between a husband and a wife, a parent and child, adopted children and parents, or members of extended families. These professionals may provide therapy to individuals, couples, or groups in any number of inpatient and outpatient settings.

Their services may be more valuable than ever as American families struggle with issues like aging parents living with children, blended families, divorce, remarriage, and multigenerational families living under one roof, or with issues like addiction, infidelity, and financial woes.

Family and marriage therapists consider a number of factors when treating patients in this context, including their health, personal background, any cognitive limitations, and age.

Forensic Psychologists

The field of forensic psychology has many applications in everything from courtrooms to police departments to America’s military. As a forensic psychologist, you may provide advice for attorneys when selecting juries, interview witnesses and suspects, and testify as an expert witness at trial.

Your expertise may also be used to counsel police officers and military personnel after experiencing traumatic incidents. For example, forensic psychologists often provide counseling for soldiers following overseas deployment.

Child Psychologists

Child psychologists specialize in assessing and treating children, from infancy to adolescence, in a broad number of settings. You may work for the courts, in private practice, or as part of a large medical team that treats children with physical, emotional, behavioral, or mental disorders.

Your expertise may take you to inpatient settings, rehabilitation facilities, or outpatient clinics. Outside of the clinical setting, you may also counsel children and teen groups on issues that affect them the most, including cyberbullying, teen pregnancy, or suicide.

Behavioral Psychologists

Behavioral psychologists study behaviors and implement interventions that involve changing negative behaviors for positive ones. Behavioral psychology has most recently garnered national attention in the subfield of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), largely recognized as a highly effective intervention for autism spectrum disorder.

But behavioral therapy (also includes cognitive therapy) is being used to treat a wide variety of disorders, from mental illness to substance abuse to gambling addiction to depression and more.

Industrial Organizational (I/O) Psychologists

Industrial organizational psychology (often referred to simply as I/O psychology) focuses on behaviors in the workplace, typically with the goal of maximizing efficiency, employee output, and workplace safety. You may be called in to evaluate employee or workplace efficiency or to identify gaps in training programs. Your goal may be to improve employee morale by identifying sources of discontent or to implement a new training or recruitment program. You may also serve as a company psychologist, helping employees adjust to policy changes or helping them deal with stress in the workplace.

Many times, I/O psychologists also help companies better understand external issues, such as marketing strategies and consumer satisfaction.

Engineering Psychologists

Engineering psychologists study how humans interact with technology and machines. Our increasingly automated world demands professionals who can help people better interact with devices, machines, and related services, whether as employees or consumers.

For example, Lowe’s home improvement stores recently announced that they will soon use robots as in-store assistants. This major change to Lowe’s stores resulted in more than two years of research and study to determine how effective (in theory) these robots will be as they interact with and help the shopper in the store. Engineering psychologists were part of the team that helped make this determination. As industry increasingly turns to technology, the engineering psychologist will be on the forefront of these changes.

Experimental Psychologists

Experimental psychologists look to the “what if’s” in life: How do our life experiences shape who we become? Why do we behave the way we do?

In other words, they explore theoretical questions and study them over time. Through experimentation, these professionals study any and all areas of psychology and look to behavioral topics like cognition, memory, and perception. Experimental psychologists devote their careers to research, often working on one topic for years.


According to the Pew Research Center, there are currently 75 million Baby Boomers dealing with the social, cognitive, behavioral, and physical changes associated with aging. Geropsychologists focus their work on this specific population as they deal with everything from a cognitive and physical decline to end-of-life issues. Major changes in their lives, from selling their home to the loss of their spouse to becoming less independent, may all have a serious impact on their mental health.

Geropsychologists, as compassionate, patient and understanding providers of care, help older Americans deal with these changes. They may work in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and in private practice, and they may also provide group counseling services in nursing homes, senior centers, and similar settings.


Neuropsychologists study how the physical structure of the brain affects memory, behavior, cognition and emotions. These professionals seek to assess the brain’s anatomy to find disorders that can affect both behavior and cognitive function.

The connections between neurology and psychology are constantly in flux as we learn more and more how our brain affects our health; even how we think can impact how we feel. The neuropsychologist can help sort out the origins of problems, whether organic in nature or somatic. As a neuropsychologist, you may work in research or academic settings, or in a clinical setting, often as part of a large healthcare team.


While the two titles of psychiatrist and psychologist may be mistakenly interchanged at times, they are two, distinct professions. Namely, a psychiatrist is a medical doctor capable of prescribing medication. As such, psychiatrists graduate from medical school, complete several years of residency, and complete an internship.

Even though both psychiatrists and psychologists study mental health, psychiatrists work from a medical standpoint, while psychologists focus their careers on psychological evaluations and psychotherapy.

School Psychologists

School psychologists are master’s or doctoral trained psychologists who complete a graduate program and clinical experiences in school psychology and are state licensed.

These psychological professionals work with students, educators, and parents to create a healthy learning environment where students can thrive. They often work alongside special education teachers and other school professionals to ensure student IEP goals are met and students with disabilities are receiving adequate services.

They are also a contact point for students who are facing issues such as bullying, low self-esteem, peer pressure, academic difficulties, and family issues.

Sports Psychologists

Sports psychologists help athletes, both amateur and professional, reach their athletic potential. They often help athletes overcome issues like stress and anxiety that impede their athletic performance. They may also help athletes recover psychologically from a traumatic event. For example, a downhill skier may have suffered a serious injury, only to find that returning to the sport is difficult due to the trauma associated with the injury.

Through the application of psychological principles, sports psychologists help everyone from high school athletes to professional athletes to Olympic hopefuls gain confidence and eliminate issues standing in the way of peak performance.