Fields Within Psychology

Individuals interested in a psychology career can specialize in many different fields. Amongst these fields are clinical psychology, sports psychology, forensic psychology, developmental psychology, counseling, experimental psychology, and industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology.

Clinical psychology, the largest field of psychology, is what the general population likely envisions when thinking about a psychologist. These practitioners are concerned with assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients with mental illnesses. These individuals are trained in many different techniques to treat patients, and this treatment can be dictated by the patient’s disorder, age, or both.

Sport psychologists study the psychological factors that influence athletes’ actions and performance. Sports psychologists work with individuals and teams to help maximize performance. This is accomplished by managing the possible detrimental effects of injury or changes in performance. These psychologists can help individuals set goals, visualize those goals, and gain control and confidence in their sport.

Forensic psychologists work within the criminal justice system, helping law and legal professionals understand the psychological factors in particular cases. It is not uncommon for a forensic psychologist to act as an expert witness in family court, civil court, or criminal court. Those who work in family court settings can be responsible for completing evaluations for child custody, investigating claims of child abuse, or even providing therapy. In civil court settings, forensic psychologists may provide therapy to victims of crime. Finally, those working in criminal court settings can perform evaluations to determine the mental competency of witnesses and work with minors who are serving as witnesses.

Fields Within Psychology

Developmental psychologists typically focus on behaviors during major periods of change in life, such as infancy, childhood, adolescence, and old age.

Psychologists in the counseling field provide services that are aimed at improving one’s quality of life. This counseling can take place in schools, hospitals, or in group settings.

Experimental psychology is the area of psychology dedicated to research in the field. These individuals typically work at universities or private research facilities studying human behavior.

When improvements in the workplace are needed, an I-O psychologist may be called in. They help maximize worker output while keeping employees as satisfied with their work as possible.

There are many areas of psychology that one can practice in. For those interested in the field, it is important to look into these differences to determine what might be the best fit.

Clinical Psychologist

When the general population conjures up an image of a psychologist, it is typically the clinical psychologist that they envision. Clinical psychology is the largest field within psychology.

Clinical psychologists see patients in an attempt to determine whether they have mental illnesses and, if so, determine what those mental illnesses are and devise therapeutic treatment plans. For the most part, clinical psychologists help individuals through difficult times in their lives, such has handling grief or adjusting after life-changing events, like divorce. Some, however, do treat individuals with serious mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder. The place of the clinical psychologist is to offer a structured opportunity for the patient to discuss his or her feelings about certain events or situations and evaluate why those things might be causing concern.

Work settings for the clinical psychologist are varied. Some see patients in private practices, while others can perform group or family therapy sessions. Still others can be employed by hospitals, universities, or medical schools. In private offices, patients are seen for diagnostic assessments and psychotherapy. Clinical psychologists who work in hospitals may work with physicians to help patients understand and deal with new limitations imposed by illnesses or medical procedures. Clinical psychologists who work in universities and medical schools typically teach students about the psychology profession.

Some less common work settings for clinical psychologists include rehabilitation centers and community health clinics. Treating patients in rehabilitation centers can include psychotherapy for those with chronic pain conditions that can create psychological distress. At a community health clinic, a clinical psychologist might see patients to provide crisis counseling or counseling to help with drug rehabilitation.

Within the field of clinical psychology, individuals can choose a further area of specialization including:

  • Health psychology — the study of biological factors that affect health and treatment of patients adjust when illnesses affect quality of life.
  • Neuropsychology — the study of how the brain impacts behavior and treatment of individuals with traumatic brain injuries.
  • Geropsychology — treatment elderly patients
  • Child psychology — treatment of juvenile patients

In order to specialize in one of these clinical psychology subfields, one can focus one’s work in these areas.

Because most clinical psychologists are not able to prescribe medication, they often work in concert with other healthcare professionals who do have prescribing abilities. The exception to this is clinical psychologists practicing in Louisiana and New Mexico, who are able to prescribe medication with the proper training.

Clinical psychologists can demand high salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lumps clinical psychologists, counseling psychologists, and school psychologists together, making it difficult to determine the precise median salary for clinical psychologists alone. Altogether, these three groups command a median salary of roughly $66,000 per year. With experience in the field, salaries can exceed $125,000.

The BLS projects that the job outlook for individuals in clinical psychology should be good, especially for those with specialties. An individual with training in research or computer science may also have a leg up on the competition. Growth in the field is expected to be about 12 percent between 2008 and 2018, about average for any job.

Individuals interested in a psychology career will need to complete a lengthy education process. They are rewarded with varied job opportunities and the potential for high salaries.

Sports Psychologist

As the name implies, sports psychologists work within a psychology niche dealing with individuals and teams involved in athletic activities. These psychologists are tasked with examining behaviors that impact one’s performance.

Sports psychology is the study of psychological factors that affect one’s performance in sports. Sports psychologists delve into the mental factors that determine how one performs in sports, exercise, and other physical activities and use this information to enhance performance.

Sports psychologists spend time helping individuals manage their feelings relating to injuries or poor performance and help boost confidence through specific techniques like relaxation and visualization of goals. Other techniques include using self-talk and centering. If one has ever watched a televised sports program, self-talk in athletes is immediately evident. Sometimes viewed as a way to pump oneself up, self-talk is a psychological technique designed to train athletes to think positively in order to gain confidence. Centering involves concentrating deeply on the task at hand and managing physical factors, like racing thoughts, that could affect performance.

There are generally thought to be two main areas of sports psychology: improvement of performance and improvement of quality of life through physical activity. In the first area, sports psychologists can help individuals visualize and attain goals. These psychologists can help individuals regain motivation to attain a specific sports goal or help set new goals after an athlete has sustained an injury. In the second area, sports psychologists may help individuals with body image disorders or obesity explore how physical activity might improve quality of life.

Sports psychologists can have varied work settings, including working with sports teams, universities, hospitals, research facilities, or private practice. Because of these varied work settings, salaries for a sports psychologist can vary widely. Some may earn annual salaries of $45,000, while others, if employed by a large sports franchise, can earn six-figure incomes.

This is a field thought to have a potential for growth, especially due to recent media attention on the effects of obesity in the general population. Sports psychologists can help individuals with body image problems and low self-esteem garner the motivation to start a program of physical activity and discuss ways this mobility can affect one’s overall quality of life.

Training in sports psychology can be difficult as many schools don’t specifically have a sports psychology program. Individuals interested in this area are encouraged to obtain a well-rounded psychology education in the absence of a sports psychology program and make every attempt to secure internships and other clinical training opportunities in sports psychology

Individuals who are interested in helping others seek, evaluate, and meet their goals as they relate to physical activity may want to investigate the possibility of working in this psychology career.

Forensic Psychologist

Forensic psychologists have a unique niche in the field of psychology. They are specially trained to operate within the criminal justice system. In this psychology career, one can still see patients, but all patients evaluated will be involved in the court system.

Forensic psychologists can help judges and lawyers understand the psychological implications that may be relevant to particular court cases. Typically, these individuals are the psychologists who testify as expert witnesses in courts of law.

An individual interested in becoming a forensic psychologist will typically specialize in one of three areas: family court, civil court, or criminal court. In the family court setting, a forensic psychologist might provide therapy, be involved in cases of alleged child abuse, and can perform evaluations as part of a child custody battle. For those working in civil court settings, typical job responsibilities might include evaluating the mental competency of witnesses or providing therapy services to the victims of crime. In the criminal court setting, a forensic psychologist might also assess the mental competency of a witness as well as determine the “swearability” of a child witness.

Additional job responsibilities of a forensic psychologist can include making sentencing recommendations, treatment recommendations, or even aiding in the process of jury selection. This field requires a comprehensive understanding of the field of psychology and the legal system. In order to testify effectively in a court of law, one must understand the basic rules of the courtroom in addition to some of the relevant laws as they apply to psychological factors that might influence a case.

Forensic psychologists will typically not see patients long term. As consultants, forensic psychologists can be called on to testify for either the defense or the prosecution. It is not the job of the forensic psychologist to take sides. Additionally, where empathy is an important component to the field in general, forensic psychologists should really refrain from building lasting relationships with the clients they see as it may prevent them from providing unbiased opinions.

The field of forensic psychology is expected to grow at about the same rate as other fields of psychology, but job security should not be a concern for those interested in this career. Salary projections can range from $40,000 to over $100,000 depending on one’s work experience, employer, and whether one has become an expert witness.

Forensic psychology is a unique field within psychology that might interest those with a desire to work within the criminal justice system.

Developmental Psychologist

As the name might imply, developmental psychologists study the psychological affects of life-changing periods of growth such as infancy, adolescence, and old age. A developmental psychologist might also study the effects of developmental disabilities on people’s behavior.

Developmental psychologists may work with a specific patient population or perform research in a specific area of development. Some of the job responsibilities include:

  • Evaluating children for developmental disabilities
  • Studying the acquisition of language
  • Studying the development of moral reasoning
  • Studying the evolution of ethics in children
  • Studying patterns of behavior and the development of personality
  • Investigating problem solving
  • Studying ways to keep elderly individuals independent for lengthier periods of time

Work settings for the developmental psychologist are varied. Some may work at a college or university doing research and teaching courses in psychology. Some can work for the government in programs that are designed to evaluate and treat children with suspected developmental delays. Some developmental psychologists are employed by assisted living facilities, psychiatric hospitals, rehabilitation centers for adolescents, or community centers dealing with homeless populations.

In addition to some of the more traditional job settings that a developmental psychologist may find work, there are some less traditional work sites that offer unparalleled flexibility of employment in the psychology field. It is possible for a developmental psychologist to work for a children’s museum or large toy company communicating how different toys can help children meet new developmental milestones or consulting on what types of toys or exhibits interest children most. Some might go to work for the United Nations explaining the impacts of poverty and famine on development.

As is the case with many fields in psychology, a doctorate is required to apply for most positions as a developmental psychologist. For those who intend to work at a university teaching and performing research, a PhD is the degree one should pursue.

The salary of developmental psychologists varies from region to region and can vary widely depending on one’s work setting and years of experience. The average salary is between $70,000 and $90,000 per year.

The field of developmental psychology is unlike many other psychology fields. Individuals can see patients or perform research. They may work in traditional work settings like hospitals or clinics or take less traditional routes and gain employment with toy manufacturers. Individuals interested in how psychology impacts development should consider this field.

Counselor (School, Group, Hospital)

The psychology career of counseling is a broad one and includes school counselors, group counselors, and counselors that work in hospital settings. Generally speaking, a counselor helps individuals think through problems that are encountered in everyday life.

In school settings, counselors help students maximize their potential by guiding them through the education process. This can include helping students select courses that match their aptitudes and interests and working with students who have special needs. Their job is to be an advocate for the student and promote the development of children and young adults in the areas of academics and socialization. State licensure is often required to work as a school counselor but can be applied for after completing a master’s degree. School counselors should not be confused with school psychologists, who have different training, qualifications, and job responsibilities.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the area of school counseling is expected to grow faster than average with a projected growth of 14 percent in the coming years. The average salary of a school counselor working at an elementary, middle, or high school approaches $60,000 per year.

Group counselors can see clients in a variety of settings and for a variety of indications. Counselors may conduct sessions amongst the victims of violent crimes, in drug rehabilitation settings, or in troubled youth settings. Oftentimes, group counselors will be involved not just with the people seeking treatment but also with their families, as is sometimes the case in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. The goal of these counseling sessions is for the individuals to find themselves again and stop defining themselves by their problems. Individuals performing group counseling typically command slightly lower salaries in the range of $35,000 to $45,000 per year. There is thought to be excellent job security and growth in this field.

Counselors who work in hospitals have unique opportunities to see a variety of different patients or groups of patients. These individuals may counsel family members after the loss of a loved one or conduct group therapy sessions for individuals being treated for cancer. The goal of this type of counseling is to guide an individual or group of individuals through a particularly difficult period and promote lasting mental health. According to the BLS, counselors working in a hospital setting earn approximately $40,000 per year.

The salaries of the above positions are all markedly lower than those discussed for other psychology career positions. It is important to remember that counseling positions can be sought with master’s degrees only, whereas other positions discussed may require doctoral degrees.

Individuals who are interested in counseling can choose from several different areas and focus on school counseling, group counseling, or work in hospital settings. For those who are not certain they want to pursue a doctorate in psychology, this can be an appropriate career opportunity.

Experimental Psychologist

Experimental psychologists study human behavior and therapeutic applications. The goal of experimental psychology is to guide the clinical practice of psychology through research.

For the most part, experimental psychologists work in research laboratories. These laboratories can be located at colleges or universities, private research facilities, or even in government organizations. Because human behavior is still a bit mysterious, experimental psychologists sometimes work with small animals, learning about their behavior and applying those theories to human behavior. Currently, areas of research in this field include the study of memory, learning, and genetic factors that influence behavior.

Human behavior is still not a fully understood concept. Because of this, treating patients with mental illnesses can be difficult. Without knowing the best therapeutic techniques, psychologists may not be able to fully help their patients. The benefit of having trained psychologists conduct research in the field is that they can guide the therapeutic process through their discoveries. Experimental psychologists can perform research in areas they feel require further understanding and shape the practice as a whole.

Just as is the case with professionals in many fields in psychology, an experimental psychologist must obtain a doctorate in psychology to work independently. Those with bachelor’s or master’s degrees who are interested in this field may be able to find jobs as assistants to doctoral-level experimental psychologists but will not likely be able to run their own labs.

The area of scientific research is one of the highest paying in the field of psychology. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), individuals working in the research setting can earn a mean salary of roughly $90,000. It should be noted that this figure is likely skewed by experimental psychologists working for private research facilities. Psychologists who identified their work sites as colleges or universities reported average incomes of close to $80,000, though not all of these individuals are experimental psychologists. Furthermore, salaries of experimental psychologists working in university settings can be dictated by the influx of federal grant funding. In some cases, one’s base salary might be nominal compared to the income awarded from grant money.

Like most fields of psychology, the field of experimental psychology is expected to have above-average career growth in the next several years. For this reason, job security is not thought to be a problem.

The field of experimental psychology is essential for the progress of the practice of clinical psychology. This is an excellent psychology career option for those with a natural curiosity about how human behavior develops and how to treat it when it goes awry.

Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

Industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology is one of the few fields in psychology where one can find gainful employment after pursuing only a master’s degree. This is a rapidly growing psychology career with excellent job prospects and salary potential.

An I-O psychologist uses psychological principles to maximize work performance while keeping a high quality of life for the employees. Oftentimes, an I-O psychologist will work as a consultant coming onto a work site to evaluate and try to fix a specific problem. I-O psychologists perform many duties, including:

  • Evaluating job performance
  • Employee recruitment and selection
  • Conducting performance evaluations
  • Performing personality assessments
  • Performing tests to evaluate skills
  • Training
  • Assessing job attitudes
  • Achieving a work–life balance
  • Coaching
  • Organizational development
  • Evaluating group performance

When working with a human resources (HR) department to find new employees, an I-O psychologist might start by helping to design an employment advertisement and guiding the HR department as to the best sites to place this ad. They can also help identify the key qualifications necessary for job applicants and aid in the screening process. Once individuals have been hired, an I-O psychologist can help determine which employees should be eligible for promotions.

One of the most important factors in maximizing a worker’s performance is examining that employee’s motivation. Without the appropriate motivation, the employee will have little desire to meet expectations, nor will the worker have a feeling of pride or accomplishment upon completion of a task. Examining how individuals become motivated is a key area of research in the I-O psychology field.

A related function is the selection of students for colleges and universities. I-O psychologists can function in this role as well or even for education testing companies, helping to design tests to best examine a student’s aptitude in certain areas.

An I-O psychologist can earn a relatively high salary considering that only a master’s degree is required to work in the field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that the average salary of an I-O psychologist is roughly $75,000. Depending on the level of experience and geographical location, individuals can earn over $100,000.

Individuals who are not interested in pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology should consider the field of I-O psychology. Alternative master’s-level psychology positions are supremely competitive.

For individuals studying psychology who are interested in what factors enhance employees’ performances and what factors lead those employees to enjoy their jobs, I-O psychology may be a good fit.

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