Becoming a Clinical Psychologist
To work as a clinical psychologist is to experience the immense satisfaction of helping people overcome emotional and psychological difficulties. Unlike psychiatrists, clinical psychologists do not prescribe medications and instead address psychological issues with a variety of techniques that depend in part upon their area of specialty. Specialization in the field of clinical psychology may come by the choice of theoretical framework, such as cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, humanistic, family systems, positive psychology, transpersonal or existential. Specialization may also be achieved by focusing upon a specific disorder or condition such as depression, schizophrenia, addiction or learning disabilities (to name a few) or upon a particular demographic such as children, families, adults or the elderly.
No matter their area of specialty, clinical psychologists assist people in the midst of major life problems, physical traumas, and difficult life transitions. Events such as these tend to spark anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors and other psychological problems that interfere with day-to-day living. Clinical psychologists also have the option of teaching in a college or university, engaging in research, or working for organizations that need their services. Wherever they work, clinical psychologists perform the meaningful task of helping to relieve distress and return normalcy to lives upended by dysfunction.
A clinical psychologist who opts to open his own private practice, whether independently or as part of a group practice, has the luxury of setting his own hours and only taking on as many patients as desired. The organizational settings in which clinical psychologists may be employed are diverse, including mental health clinics, psychiatric hospitals, schools, businesses, correctional facilities, veterans' organizations, universities and research institutions.
Undergraduate degrees teach students the fundamentals of psychology, preparing students for clinical work through internships and volunteer opportunities. Even if your undergraduate major was not psychology, many graduate programs will accept students from a variety of academic disciplines. Pursuing a full-time, two-year master’s degree will qualify students to practice in a number of clinical psychology fields, such as marriage and family counseling or industrial and organizational psychology.
To have the full array of practice options open, however, most state licensing boards require a doctorate. When considering doctoral programs, there are two major options: The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree that requires a doctoral dissertation and clinical research experience or the Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) whose focus is on working with patients in a clinical setting and may or may not require research and a dissertation. In either case, aspiring clinical psychologists will find both traditional and online programs to meet their advanced educational needs.
Internship programs that give real-life experience with patients are an essential feature of both master’s and doctoral programs. Internships to complete a master’s degree typically require a minimum of 52 weeks at 40 hours per week with adjustments for vacation and holidays. Two-year intern programs for social or family counseling and three-year programs for other specialist licenses (such as school counseling) offer robust treatment experiences for the clinician-in-training.
Most doctoral programs have internship requirements during which clinical psychology students gain firsthand knowledge of the field. Most students take five to seven years to complete the requirements for the PsyD or PhD degree with their internship and training opportunities.
Licensing and/or Certifications
Practicing clinical psychologists must pass state-specific exams and meet the state licensing requirements. These requirements may include a doctoral degree and several years of clinical experience. The Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards website is an excellent starting point for both students and professionals seeking information about state licenses and certifications.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Similar to other healthcare professionals, clinical psychologists must be emotionally stable and have the ability to establish rapport with clients and patients. Part of the diagnoses and treatment offered by clinical psychologists involves keeping detailed confidential records, offering specific goals to their patients, and assessing progress. Effective communication and interpersonal skills are critical in all clinical psychology specializations, including teaching or research.
Opportunities for Advancement
Psychologists find employment in almost all areas of government, business or entertainment. Clinical psychologists can benefit from applying their knowledge of behavioral and social relationships to such wide-ranging fields as sports, industrial design, politics and even the military. Opportunities to advance to new positions depend upon types of specialization, length of experience and formal educational level.
In the academic sphere—university professors and researchers—career advances are tied to the number of publications and appearances at key conferences. Moving into the administrative side of higher education, such as department head or college president, allows for additional opportunities to affect budgets and funding. Outside of academia, private consulting is the most common route to increasing the level of compensation. Collaborating with colleagues in writing proposals for government-funded research projects or establishing clinics specializing in behavioral disorders are also advanced career goals for many experienced psychologists.
Salaries range from $39,200 to $111,810 for clinical psychologists. The current median annual income for a psychologist is $68,640 according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is roughly $33.00 per hour. Those in private practice or the business sector typically have higher salaries, as do those working in major urban areas. The degree of specialization is another factor that affects the level of compensation.
Clinical psychology is a growing field, and the demand for clinical psychologists in the United States is expected to increase from 2010 through 2020. The government predicts a 22% increase, which is faster than the average rate of job growth, for a total of 37,700 jobs added during those ten years.