Psychology is one of the most popular undergraduate majors in the United States, which should come as little surprise; studying human behavior and cognition is not only fascinating, but also immensely important. A bachelor’s in psychology is appealing to a wide array of people, but there are so many more degree paths to consider. Here is a guide to the most popular degrees for those pursuing psychology at all degree levels, from undergraduate to doctoral degrees.
Why learn about master’s and doctoral degree paths in psychology? A general undergraduate degree is fundamentally important and prepares students for a variety of rewarding careers, but it is rarely sufficient to obtain a job as a psychologist. A 2013 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce illustrates that, while students with an undergraduate degree in psychology don’t suffer from the worst unemployment rates upon graduation, they don’t enjoy the best either. Pursuing graduate degrees greatly improved their job prospects. Fortunately, there are many education options for undergraduate psychology majors seeking postgraduate education. Each educational path opens up a variety of exciting and unique career opportunities.
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What Is a Psychologist?
Broadly defined, a psychologist is an educated professional with expertise in the study of human thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Practically speaking, most psychologists are experts with degrees in a particular subfield, such as social psychology or clinical psychology. While a great many psychologists are researchers, some are practitioners who deliver psychological services directly to clients or stakeholders. Nearly all psychologists have some form of postgraduate education (a master’s degree, PhD, or PsyD), and many must obtain certification and a license to administer their services.
Most undergraduate psychology majors begin their education with a fairly simple image of psychologists in mind: the typical image of a “psychologist” is a therapist, who works with clients in a private practice and treats individuals with mental or emotional disorders.
In reality, the field of psychology is far more diverse, and a majority of psychologist are not therapists or counselors. Psychologists work in all sectors of society, including academia, private companies, public corporations, government offices, schools, consulting firms, sales departments, and in police departments and the military. Psychologists also vary in their educational backgrounds and expertise – there are professional psychological researchers with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, PhD’s, PsyD’s, and even degrees in social work. By expanding your view of the field of psychology, you can discover fascinating new lines of research and intellectual inquiry, and find numerous unfamiliar, yet lucrative and rewarding career options.
Types of Psychology
Humanity is incredibly diverse, and so it is unsurprising that the study of the human mind is a remarkably wide and diverse field. The American Psychological Association has 54 separate divisions, each catering to a unique subset of psychologists. The most prominent categories, however, are the following:
- Clinical psychology
- Counseling psychology
- Social psychology
- Cognitive psychology
- Industrial and organizational (I-O) psychology
- Developmental psychology
- School psychology
These are just a few of the numerous fields in which psychologists study and work today. There are psychologists who specialize in aging, sports performance, the creative arts, religion and spirituality, and many more topics. To get a full sense of the breadth of psychology and its numerous subareas, visit the American Psychological Association’s full list of divisions.
Career Options for Psychologists
Just as the field and study of psychology is immense and broad, so are the career prospects for trained psychologists. Psychological expertise can be useful in virtually any work environment. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree in psychology most frequently work in the fields of sales, management, human resources, social services and education, though some also work in research.
A psychologist with a specialized post-graduate degree can obtain work in a number of job sectors. These careers tend to be more directly related to psychological science than the careers that can be readily obtained with an undergraduate degree. Across all subfields of psychology, the most common job placements are in academia, the public sector, the private sector, and in consulting or self-employment.
Academic psychologists are typically tenured or tenure-track professors who spend their days on a variety of tasks including conducting research, advising graduate and undergraduate students, and teaching. Most academic psychologists have PhDs in a particular subfield (such as clinical, social, developmental, or school psychology) and have cultivated expertise in a number of research topics. These jobs are typically highly competitive and require large time commitment. Other academic psychologists work only as instructors or adjunct lecturers and are on a class-by-class basis.
Psychologists work in the public sector as well, often in government or nonprofit companies. Such psychologists are typically researchers with a great deal of technical expertise and statistical training. Psychologists are employed by government institutions such as the Veteran’s Administration, the Defense Department, the Department of Education, or the Public Health Service. A master’s degree or PhD in a research-oriented field of psychology is typically required for these positions.
Many psychologists apply their research expertise to private sector jobs as well. The marketing and sales departments of major corporations frequently hire psychological researchers to determine the best methods of advertising their products. Social and I-O Psychologists also work for corporations that wish to improve employee job satisfaction or productivity.
Finally, psychologists sometimes work as independent contractors or consultants. Clinical and counseling psychologists, for example, may make their therapeutic services available to clients by opening and operating a private practice. Research psychologists with degrees in social, I-O or experimental psychology may work as consultants for nonprofit and for-profit companies, helping to evaluate program performance, analyze data, or form systematic improvements in how the organization operates.
Overall Job Outlook in Psychology
Taken as a whole, job growth in psychology is about average, compared to other fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates the field to grow by approximately 12% from the years 2012 to 2022, though growth varies from specialty to specialty. Those with doctoral (PhD or PsyD) degrees in psychology will enjoy greater job prospects in the coming years, particularly school psychologists and psychologists with specialized PhDs. The current median salary for a psychologist is $69,280 per year, according to the BLS, but again this varies a great deal depending on degree, location and employment type.
Generally, psychologists with bachelor’s or master’s degrees can expect a more competitive job market with lower pay, while psychologists with PhDs who work in the private sector can expect the greatest pay and lowest unemployment rates. To get a complete sense of your job outlook as a psychologist, focus on the subfield you are interested in studying and the sector in which you’d like to work.
Bachelor's Degrees in Psychology
Many students choose to major or minor in psychology during college, leading to the field’s massive worldwide popularity. Unfortunately, this has arguably led to an oversaturated and highly competitive job market for psychology majors. While it may be difficult for an undergraduate psychology major to obtain a job performing counseling or conducting original research straight out of school, there are nonetheless many rewarding, intellectually challenging careers that require the social science, communications, and statistical expertise that psychology majors bring to the table.
Undergraduate Degree Options
At most universities, psychology degrees fall under two categories: the Bachelor of Arts (BA) and the Bachelor of Science (BS) degree. Some universities offer both BA and BS degrees in psychology, allowing their students to choose whether they would like to focus on the philosophical and humanitarian side of the field, or scientific, research-oriented side. BS programs tend to require more coursework in biology, chemistry, and even physics; BA programs tend to require extra courses in English, Sociology, Political Science, or other humanities and social sciences. Generally, BS programs considered slightly more rigorous and are preferable if you are interested in postgraduate study in the clinical psychology, experimental psychology, or a related, scientific non-psychology field such as neuroscience. For students interested in counseling, school psychology, or work in less experimental fields, a BA in psychology may be preferable.
In addition, some universities offer specialized psychology degrees in prominent subareas such as clinical psychology, social psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, or health psychology. These majors, if available at your institution, can offer valuable specialized instruction. A specialized undergraduate degree is often seen as more prestigious and more rigorous, improving your odds of graduate school acceptance in most cases – particularly if a student’s major and their desired postgraduate field match up. An undergraduate clinical degree, for example, is a fantastic choice for a student who wishes to pursue graduate study in clinical psychology.
Career Options for Undergraduate Psychology Majors
The majority of undergraduate psychology majors do not go to graduate school (around 75%), and choose instead to enter the job market directly following graduation. According to a 2011 report, most of these psychology majors end up employed by for-profit companies, state or local government, or educational institutions. Positions in sales, marketing, human resources, management, social work, administration, rehabilitation, and child care are popular.
Undergraduate psychology majors possess research and data analytic skills; theoretical and practical knowledge about the human mind and social interaction; and varied communications skills. This skillset lends itself to a wide array of positions, many of them outside of psychology. Most psychology majors do not get jobs as psychologists if they do not possess advanced degrees. In nearly all cases, therapeutic and research-based psychologist positions require advanced education and licensure that persons with bachelor’s degrees are not eligible for.
While this outlook may seem bleak, there are many fields related to psychology where psychology majors can readily obtain employment. As the American Psychological Association reports, psychology majors frequently pursue work in rehabilitation services, physical therapy, psychiatric tech, social work, child care, career counseling, and teaching – all of which require a deep knowledge of human psychology.
In addition, psychology majors with research experience can obtain rewarding and lucrative jobs as research assistants and technicians in psychological and neurological research labs. These positions can be located at research institutions, government offices such as the Veteran’s Administration, or university psychology departments. Not only do research assistant positions allow psychology majors to work directly on psychological research, but they can also help a psychology BA or BS obtain acceptance to graduate school.
Across the United States, undergraduate psychology majors can expect a competitive but diverse job market and a median annual income of $41,451 in their first four years after graduation, though that figure varies geographically. About 66% of employed psychology majors nationwide describe their places of employment as “closely related” or “somewhat related” to their field of undergraduate study.
Clinical psychologists are researchers and practitioners who specialize in the study of psychiatric conditions, mental disorders, and other individual-level sources of dysfunction, disorder or distress. Psychologists with a clinical focus work in hospitals, medical centers, therapeutic offices, wellness centers and universities, providing psychological services to improve individuals’ emotional wellness and psychological health.
In addition, most clinical psychologists conduct research on treatment methods for various psychological disorders and life stressors. Clinical psychologists are distinct from counselors and other therapists in that they not only provide services, but also study the efficacy of various treatments to determine the “best practices” for every disorder. Because they offer a unique blend of empirical research expertise and counseling services, clinical psychologists are often referred to as “scientist-practitioners”.
Clinical psychology is one of the most popular specialized fields of psychological study, with the most competitive graduate programs. To become a practicing clinical psychologist, a post-graduate degree is required.
Degree Options and Licensing for Clinical Psychologists
- PhD. In most instances, a practicing clinical psychologist must possess a doctoral degree from an accredited clinical psychology graduate program. Clinical psychology PhD programs take four to six years to complete, depending on the university. Students must complete multiple major research projects (e.g., a master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation), pass several comprehensive exams, and complete between two and three years of coursework. Courses in clinical psychology often include psychological assessment, abnormal psychology, statistics, child psychopathology, and psychotherapy.
After meeting these base requirements, clinical psychologists are often required to embark on a one- or two-year internship, where they provide counseling while also conducting research. Placement sites include university wellness centers, hospital psychiatric wards, research hospitals, retirement communities, and social service offices. Once clinical psychologists have obtained their PhD and completed sufficient training, they may apply for licensure. In all 50 states in the U.S., a license is required in order to work as a clinical psychologist (in other words, to lead a research program or to administer psychological services such as therapy).
- PsyD. This doctoral degree has only been available for a little over four decades, originally conceived as an alternative for clinical psychologists who wish to focus on practice rather than research. Since the late 1960's, this degree has now grown to become a very common choice, in spite of often being funded less than PhD programs. The PsyD is a doctoral degree, but typically requires a little less time to complete than the PhD. The primary difference between PsyD and PhD is that the PsyD focuses less on a future in research; it focuses on preparing students to be practicing psychologists who offer therapy. In other words, a psychologist who earned a PsyD will provide therapy to patients, and their therapy will utilize the concepts and best practices that have been established by other psychologists through research. The PhD, by contrast, aims to prepare students for careers in both research and practice.
- Master’s degree. While a terminal master’s degree is not sufficient to become a therapist or a practicing clinical psychologist, many programs offer a Master of Arts (MA) in clinical psychology. If a student is enrolled in a PhD program, she will earn her MA two or three years into the graduate school process. However, terminal Master’s degrees in clinical psychology also exist. These programs are slightly less competitive than PhD graduate programs, take less time to complete, and usually are unfunded (i.e., the psychology department usually does not provide financial aid). To earn an MA in clinical psychology, the student must complete one to two years of coursework and conduct a master’s thesis research project. A master’s in clinical psychology can be used to gain acceptance to a PhD program; to participate (but not lead) research programs in nonacademic institutions; and to teach clinical psychology at the college (but not university) level.
- Licensure. To become licensed as a clinical psychologist, a candidate must possess a completed PhD from an accredited school and must provide transcripts, course catalogs, writing samples, and other documentation to establish the sufficiency of his or her education. Candidates must also provide proof that they have completed their internship, as well as a log that shows the number of clinical hours they have accrued, with approval from a supervisor. In the United States and Canada, a clinical psychologist must pass the EPPP, a multiple-choice licensing exam consisting of 225 questions on a broad array of subjects, and earn a grade of 70% or greater. Finally, licensing fees of $500-1000 must be paid. In all 50 states in the United States, a license is required, and while each individual state issues its own unique license, the licensing process is similar across the board.
A licensed clinical psychologist is legally permitted to provide therapy to clients; to work with special populations in clinics (such as brain injury patients or eating disorder sufferers); and to conduct original research. Licensure is essential if you are interested in being a professor of clinical psychology, a researcher studying psychological disorders, or the owner of a private practice. A non-PhD, non-licensed clinical psychologist can still assist in research for many private and federal institutions, but he cannot be the primary investigator (PI) in charge of developing research questions and obtaining funding. Similarly, clinical psychologists who lack a PhD or a license may be able to teach individual university courses and assist in therapeutic settings, but they cannot become full professors or conduct one-on-one treatment sessions.
Clinical psychologists can work in private practices, university departments, hospitals, government offices, schools, counseling centers, and military services. Virtually anywhere that psychiatric or counseling services are administered or that individuals suffering from mental or emotional distress are located, clinical psychologists can be found.
Academic clinical psychologists spend their time teaching, training graduate psychologists, providing therapy in their offices or at college wellness offices, and performing studies on clinical treatment options. Most academic or research-focused clinicians select a theoretical topic of focus and conduct repeated experiments and longitudinal studies, sharing their findings in peer-reviewed journal articles.
Other research clinicians work in medical offices, research institutions, or government agencies. Such clinicians conduct research on the efficacy of various treatment options for particular disorders. For example, a military clinical psychologist might study the effect of daily journaling on post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in veterans. A clinical psychologist provides therapeutic services to his population of interest – whether it is veterans, mothers with post-partum depression, teens with eating disorders, or homeless adults with schizophrenia – and also studies which treatments work the best.
Clinical psychologists who work in private practice can provide therapeutic services of all kinds. For example, they may administer marital therapy to couples; behavioral training to children with hyperactivity; biofeedback therapy to clients with panic disorders; or cognitive behavioral therapy to individuals who self-harm. Typically, clinical psychologists select a particular client or type of disorder early on in their graduate education, and focus on the treatment of that population throughout their career.
Job Prospects for Clinical Psychologists
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs in clinical psychology will grow by 11% in the next decade, on par with the national average for other careers. Clinical psychologists who study aging or specialize in treating senior citizens should expect a greater increase as the average age increases. The field of clinical psychology is becoming increasingly intertwined with health services as well, leading to growth in job postings in hospitals and health centers. Generally, licensed PhD clinicians will fare better than those with master’s degrees, though academic positions have become more difficult to obtain. The BLS reports that the median income for clinical psychologists is currently $67,760.
The similarities between clinical and counseling psychologists are numerous. Both counselors and clinicians provide therapeutic services and focus their studies on individual emotional, behavioral, and mental health problems. Both must obtain licensing to provide therapeutic services. Both fields require advanced doctoral education and internship experience. Finally, both can become private practice counselors.
Where counseling and clinical psychologists differ is twofold.
- First, counseling psychologists tend to focus on psychiatric disorders and clients that are less “serious” than those addressed by clinical psychologists. Whereas many clinicians may study conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, fetal alcohol syndrome, and spina bifida – which have massive, noticeable effects on patients’ quality of life – counseling psychologists are more likely to provide services to high-functioning sufferers of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and similar disorders. Counseling psychologists are therefore less likely to work in healthcare and hospital settings, working instead with patients in brief sessions.
- Second, counseling psychologists generally have a less research-oriented focus than their counterparts in clinical psychology. While many counselors do conduct research projects and take an interest in the empirical effectiveness of various treatment options, not all counselors are researchers. Many are focused instead on working holistically and idiosyncratically with clients to create treatment plans that improve life functioning and satisfaction as well as disorder symptoms.
Degree Paths in Counseling Psychology - PhD, PsyD and Others
- PhD. Most counseling psychologists obtain PhD degrees from specialized graduate programs. Graduate study in counseling entails four or five years of study and coursework, combined with internship hours and technical training. Counseling psychologists are trained and supervised in a variety of therapeutic methods and specialties, as well as in psychological assessment. Coursework in counseling psychology usually includes classes in psychopathology, therapeutic ethics, group therapy, theories of healing, and independent-study courses in counseling practice. A PhD program in counseling psychology culminates in the completion of a doctoral research project.
- PsyD. A relatively recent invention, the PsyD is a specialized degree in counseling psychology that focuses on the training of effective therapists and service providers, and is less concerned with research experience. Frequently offered at professional schools rather than universities, the PsyD typically takes less time to complete than a PhD, and does not require completion of a doctoral dissertation.
Counselors with a PsyD are able to administer therapeutic services, provide counseling, and train new psychologists, but they are not trained to conduct experiments or long-term studies on treatment effectiveness. Thus, the PsyD is only advisable for students who are certain they would like to work as trained therapists, not as academics or social scientists. However, because they are typically housed in for-profit institutions, PsyD degrees are more expensive on average than PhDs. Coursework in most PsyD programs includes psychological assessment; social bases of behavior; psychopathology; mood and emotion; family and systems therapy; group therapy; and counseling practice.
- Other options. If you would like to be trained in counseling techniques and receive authorization to provide therapy in a private practice, a doctoral degree is not necessarily required. Licensed social workers (LSWs) and Masters of social work (MSWs) also receive education and supervised training in the administration of psychological services. While there are limitations in place on the kinds of patients an LSW or MSW may treat, these degrees remain a practical and economical option for many prospective therapists.
In addition, LSW and MSW counselors are often less expensive for their clients, making them an invaluable option for uninsured and low-income sufferers of mental disorders. In most states, a LSW can own a private practice or work in government offices providing therapy and counseling to individuals suffering from mental disorders, addiction, or abuse. Both MSWs and LSWs can work in public service, as case workers in public health offices, local departments of child and family services, or in shelters. Much of their work involves assisting clients in navigating the legal system and social service bureaucracy, however, and less time is devoted to dispensing therapy.
Like clinicians and other psychologists, counseling psychologists frequently work in academic settings. Counseling psychology departments are housed in the psychology or education departments of most colleges and universities. Counseling psychologists in academia provide psychotherapy to individual students or private clients; teach courses at the undergraduate and graduate level; train graduate counseling students; and sometimes conduct research.
Outside of academia, counselors work in private practice, social service offices, and psychotherapy clinics. As mentioned above, most counseling psychologists work with non-clinical, non-hospitalized patients, often adults and teens with mood or personality disorders. Counselors can also work as addiction treatment therapists, marital therapists, sex therapists, and life coaches.
Finally, counseling psychologists sometimes provide their services in government and social services settings. Counselors can provide emotional and psychological resources to veterans and evaluate the psychological wellness of police officers, active duty military, and other professionals in high-stress positions. Counselors may also assist patients in women’s shelters or homeless shelters, or help incarcerated individuals with their behavioral, psychological, and emotional symptoms.
The employment statistics for counselors is highly similar to those for clinical psychologists: the field is expected to grow by 11% from 2012 to 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the median income as of 2013 was approximately $67,760.
It should be noted that the field of counseling psychology is diminishing in some areas. Some universities have cut their counseling programs in favor of larger clinical programs, and the APA occasionally considers removing counseling psychology as a specialized division. However, the growing popularity of PsyD degrees suggests that the field is not likely to vanish or be absorbed by clinical psychology entirely.
Social, Cognitive and I-O Psychology
While the common image of a psychologist is a therapist or counselor, in reality most psychologists are not trained or certified in therapeutic techniques at all. Most of the APA’s subdivisions, in fact, do not pertain to counseling or treatment whatsoever.
So what do all these non-counseling, non-clinical psychologists do? Most of them conduct experimental research. Psychology is, first and foremost, a social science concerned with the study of human behavior and thought. Most psychologists study the behavior not of clinical patients, therefore, but of typically functioning, relatively healthy individuals. This includes Social, Cognitive, I-O and other experimental psychologists.
All of these subfields are similar in many ways: their educational requirements are roughly the same, the training they provide is in empirical research, and their subjects of interest are “neurotypical” or undiagnosed, normally functioning people. Where these fields differ is their level of analysis or subject of interest.
- Social psychologists, for example, study the effect of social environments and cultural pressures on group and individual behavior. They examine social phenomena such as obedience, prejudice, conformity, voting behavior, consumer choices, and group decision-making.
- Cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, study mental processing and perception. They conduct experiments on subjects such as how the visual system functions or how people solve complex mathematical problems.
- I-O psychologists (industrial and organizational psychologists) focus on workplace topics, such as improving job performance or employee satisfaction.
What all of these psychologists have in common is their methodology: they all use experimental and survey research to answer theoretical questions about human behavior and thinking. They are focused on understanding the hows and whys of human behavior, rather than treating individual people. For this reason, all these subfields are sometimes referred to jointly as experimental psychology.
- PhD. The majority of social, cognitive, and I-O psychologists obtain expertise in their area of study by completing a PhD. Graduate programs in these fields are competitive and challenging to obtain, often with acceptance rates of 15 to 10%. Most university psychology departments have unique programs for each specialty, and therefore grant specialized PhDs in social psychology, cognitive psychology, I-O psychology, or sometimes simply experimental psychology. Other related specialty PhDs are also available at some institutions – for example, there are PhDs in decision-making, sports psychology, or consumer psychology.
Regardless of area of focus, all of these experimental psychology programs have similar requirements. Students must complete multiple years of coursework and pass comprehensive exams (sometimes called “qualifying exams”) on numerous relevant subjects, including research methodology and statistics. Coursework in experimental psychology also includes the study of mood, persuasion, attitudes, prejudice, information processing, advanced statistical modeling, and psychological measurement. Students must additionally conduct two major research projects – first a master’s thesis, then a doctoral dissertation. In addition, a research internship or teaching experience may also be required. Licensure is not required for experimental psychologists of any type.
- Master’s degree. Individuals seeking to become psychological researchers may also pursue terminal master’s degrees in any of the above specialties. While PhD students commonly earn an MA in the middle of their graduate school career, terminal MA programs are also popular. Master’s degrees in social, cognitive, I-O, and other experimental psychology areas usually require a year or two of classes, followed by the completion of a thesis research project. These programs are typically unfunded, and must be paid for out of pocket.
Individuals with master’s degrees in experimental psychology can teach at the collegiate (but not the university) level, and are not eligible for tenure-track faculty positions. Additionally, master’s degree holders can work in research positions, but cannot serve as primary investigators (PIs) in government offices, such as the Veteran’s Administration or the Department of Education. In other words, experimental psychologists who lack a PhD may help analyze data, write up reports and form experimental conclusions, but they cannot design studies, apply for grants, or manage research programs in any way. In the private sector, however, a master’s degree is sufficient for most jobs.
Career Paths for Social, Cognitive and I-O Psychologists
Experimental psychologists enjoy a plethora of career options. For most PhD students, the first career choice is academia. Academic psychologists teach, conduct research, publish papers and book chapters, and train graduate students in proper experimental techniques. These positions are desirable because of the status and intellectual freedom they offer: academic psychologists can conduct experiments and survey research on virtually whatever topics they like, and study whatever populations they like (provided that their research meets ethical guidelines).
However, academic job prospects are not excellent. Nationwide, according to the APA, the number of tenure-track academic psychology positions has declined over the years while the number of graduate students and PhD graduate has increased. Aspiring psychology professors must therefore build impressive curriculum vitae with many published articles and a compelling body of research prior to entering the job market.
Experimental psychologists also work quite frequently as adjunct lecturers at universities and community colleges. Some PhD experimental psychologists also teach in private high schools or work as researchers in educational institutions, studying things such as test performance.
An increasing number of social, cognitive, and I-O psychologists work in the public sector as consultants, researchers, and evaluators. The scientific and data analytic expertise of experimental psychologists makes them invaluable researchers in many settings. An I-O psychologist may work for a Fortune 500 company helping to redesign workspaces and improve employee productivity, for example. A social psychologist may work in the prison system, helping to evaluate a new job training program for inmates. A cognitive psychologist may help technology companies develop more use-friendly operating systems. These are just a few examples demonstrating the range of options available to experimental psychologists.
Most research psychologists can expect job growth of about 11-12% percent from 2012 to 2022. However, Industrial and organizational psychologists are enjoying a major hiring boom, with an anticipated job growth rate of 53%. While the prospects are best for PhD graduates, master’s degree holders can become highly sought-after research professionals in many fields, including private and government offices – particularly after they have obtained a few years of work experience.
The median income for experimental psychologists collectively was $69,280 in 2012, according to the BLS. Psychologists in the private sector and those who work as consultants earn more on average than those who work in government or nonprofit sectors. In addition, I-O psychologists can expect to earn quite a bit more than their other experimental colleagues – $87.960 per year on average, as of 2013 (BLS).
Developmental psychologists study the process of maturation and aging. Every stage of life is of interest to the developmental psychologist, though most choose an age range of focus, such as infancy, early childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood, adulthood, and late adulthood. As researchers and occasional practitioners, developmental psychologists aim to understand, describe, and optimize development.
Developmental psychologists can specialize in a number of subjects, many of which are specific to their age range of focus. Those studying early childhood development, for example, may conduct studies on language acquisition or the effectiveness of various parenting strategies. Adolescent developmental psychologists may study body image and eating disorders, bullying, social skills development, or teen depression. Developmental psychologists specializing in late adulthood may focus on cognitive declines or social isolation in elderly adults.
Primarily, developmental psychologists are researchers. Their findings inform educational policy, pediatrics, university learning plans, parenting strategies, high school counseling methods, and even geriatric care in nursing homes and hospitals. Focused on the process of aging and developing, they answer questions about how the maturation process works, and how it can be facilitated and made more successful for individuals at all ages.
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Degree Options for Developmental Psychologists
- PhD. The typical research job in developmental psychology requires a PhD. The process of obtaining a doctorate in developmental psychology is generally comparable to that of other academic programs – graduate courses are usually administered by university psychology departments, and led by developmental psychology staff. To complete a PhD in developmental psychology, a student must meet coursework requirements (which generally take two to three years) and complete at least one major research project (the doctoral dissertation). Common course requirements include: social development, language acquisition, developmental psychobiology, statistics, and abnormal psychology. Developmental psychology research usually involves recording observations about a target group of interest and testing competing hypotheses about how developmental processes function.
- Master’s degree. Terminal master’s degree programs in developmental psychology are relatively rare, but joint degrees that blend developmental study with educational psychology are fairly common. A master’s degree in developmental psychology may not be ideal for obtaining a basic research position, but can be useful for students who are interested in working as school psychologists, educational administrators, or school counselors. A master’s degree in developmental psychology should take about two years to complete.
Career Paths in Developmental Psychology
Academic developmental psychologists teach, train graduate student researchers, and conduct developmental psychology research. Research programs in developmental psychology often involve massive, long-term participant pools and massive datasets; participants are often observed multiple times over the course of years or even decades. Thus, generating research results can be a very arduous and slow process for developmental researchers, though the end results of their projects can have massive implications for education and child rearing.
In addition, developmental psychologists may work in educational settings. Some work in assessment, evaluating individual students’ cognitive performance, aptitude, or emotional development. Developmental psychologists can also work as consultants with parents of children or teenagers, and make suggestions regarding child rearing or disciplinary strategies. In some cases, developmental psychologists may work as practitioners to help address behavioral and emotional issues. However, they are not licensed to provide therapy or counseling. Expertise in development is also invaluable in the field of special needs education.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects careers in developmental psychology to grow at a rate on par with the national average, about 11%. PhD graduates enjoy better employment rates than master’s degree graduates, though research positions are available for both. As is the case for experimental psychologists, tenure-track academic careers are declining for developmental psychologists, but applied careers in child care, adoption agencies, child abuse and prevention agencies, and educational institutions remain promising. Median annual income was estimated at $91,140 in 2013 (BLS).
School psychologists work almost exclusively in educational settings. Unlike most other psychologists, who are largely based out of university research centers, most school psychologists work in K-12 schools and focus on children and adolescents. Less concerned with basic research or abstract theories, school psychologists concern themselves with questions of practical performance: is a particular school meeting state and national testing goals? Is an individual student suffering from a learning disability or behavioral disorder? Which methods of instruction are most effective, and for which kinds of students?
Not to be confused with school counselors, school psychologists are not therapists. While they may provide assistance and guidance to individual students with learning disabilities, behavioral problems, or emotional disorders, they do not work in private practices or other non-school clinical settings, nor do they treat psychological symptoms that are irrelevant to learning. A school psychologist’s primary goal is to provide a safe, efficacious learning environment for every student in his or her institution.
Education of School Psychologists - Master’s Degrees and PhDs
- PhD. Unlike nearly all of the psychology programs discussed above, school psychology usually has its own department at academic institutions. Rather than being housed within a broader psychology department, school psychologists either operate in a small separate department, or work within departments of social work. As a result, the academic tradition and overall “feel” of a school psychology program is a bit different from other psychology programs.
School psychologists take courses in clinical psychology, child development, survey research and some basic statistics, as well as a great number of courses in clinical and psychological assessment. They are trained to evaluate students’ emotional states, intelligence, test-taking aptitude, psychological health, and their disability status. In addition, a PhD in school psychology typically involves completion of comprehensive exams, a master’s thesis, a dissertation, and a yearlong internship at an educational site. A PhD allows a school psychologist to work in research, in academia, in school administration, and in school policy development.
- Master’s degree. A master’s in school psychology takes three years on average, and consists of two years of coursework followed by the completion of a research project. Master’s programs are similar to PhD programs, but tend to be more focused on a specific subarea, such as intellectual assessment. As a result, a master’s school psychology degree is only advisable to students who know exactly the kind of work they wish to be involved in. In addition, a PhD is required for work in school administration (except in very small, rural school districts) and is always required for faculty-level teaching at universities. Students with a master’s in social work can perform some assessment services; can work one-on-one with disabled, gifted, or troubled learners; and can assess school-wide academic performance for private schools or charter schools.
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Most school psychologists work either in academia as tenure-tracked professors, or in K-12 educational institutions. Common employment sites for school psychologists include public and private elementary, middle, and high schools, boarding schools, juvenile detention facilities, and treatment centers for students with behavioral disorders or learning disabilities. Any institution where children spend their days receiving education instruction probably benefits from the services of a school psychologist.
Some school psychologists work at a single school, and spend their entire day dealing with the needs of students on a case-by-case basis. Students may be individually assessed for their IQ and academic aptitude; high-performing students may be recommended for gifted services, and low-performing or disabled students may be referred to special education or social services.
Alternatively, some school psychologists instead focus on assessing emotional problems and behavioral disorders, and help to determine why a student is acting out in class or appearing disturbed. Other school psychologists analyze school-level performance, focusing on test scores and helping teachers alter their instruction and evaluation strategies. In small or underfunded school districts, a single school psychologist may visit numerous schools throughout the week or month, providing such services to each.
In addition, school psychologists may work at the administrative level, for county school boards, private school offices, or departments of education. These psychologists take a more hands-off approach, and do not work with individual students. Instead, administrative school psychologists tailor school policies and help develop educational curricula; they may also design special education or gifted education programs. After many years in school psychology administration, some choose to take on a more political role, and take state or federal government positions informing broader educational policy.
Finally, a great number of school psychologists work in academia. Some teach as adjuncts, training undergraduate and graduate students; others take on tenure-track positions and split their time between conducting research and teaching. Academic school psychologists study the effectiveness of various behavioral interventions, instruction strategies, assessment methods, and disciplinary strategies. They try to determine the best way to teach students while managing emotional and behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and other challenges. These recommendations are then shared in academic articles, which help teachers, principals, and other psychologists to improve their performance.
Job Prospects for School Psychologists
Careers in school psychology are projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow by 11% between 2012 and 2022, which is a fairly typical national average. While jobs in academic and institutional settings are still widely available, the future of school psychology is mixed. Many school districts struggle to afford basic resources, and during funding crises, school psychologists may be laid off or spread thin across multiple school sites. Many school psychologists must cycle through a long list of locations, meeting the needs of thousands of students all over a district. However, as school performance becomes an increasingly contentious political issue, and as school funding cuts have led to larger classrooms and under-prepared teachers, the need for knowledgeable school psychologists and the services they offer has grown. The National Association for School Psychologists reports a nationwide shortage of over 9,000 school psychologists, estimating that this will increase to a 15,000-person shortage by 2020.
The median income for a school psychologist is $67,760 according to the BLS. School psychologists with PhDs and extensive experience typically enjoy higher salaries than school psychologists with master’s degrees or those just entering the field. Administrative and private school positions are often more lucrative as well.
Applied Career Options for Psychologists
As described above, tenure-track academic positions in psychology are increasingly hard to come by. A growing number of post-graduate psychologists have entered the job market, at a time when tenured positions are being cut by universities across the country. While this is a frequent cause of despair for graduate students and recent graduates, it does not need to be. There are many alternative career paths in psychology that are less competitive and actually pay better than academia.
Psychologists are trained in a variety of skills that can be incredibly lucrative outside of the university. Psychologists know a great deal about measurement, data systems management, statistical analysis, and data cleaning. They are well trained in communications skills from years of writing academic papers and grant proposal, as well as presenting research results at conferences. Psychologists also know a great deal about human behavior, persuasion, perception, mood, learning, and performance. This expertise can be applied to many career paths, including consulting, private sector work, public sector work, and adjunct teaching.
Consulting and Private Sector Opportunities
Corporations and other private institutions require a great deal of data analytical and management assistance from psychologists. A growing number of psychologists work as private contractors or employees for such businesses, analyzing data, designing and implementing new programs, improving employee performance, managing employees, or optimizing marketing strategies. Psychologists are frequently hired to help facilitate brainstorming sessions or to increase employee motivation and satisfaction, for example. Psychological research and data analytic techniques are applied to marketing or awareness campaigns and can even influence things like office or store design.
The private-sector job options for psychologists are many and varied. Psychologists work in HR, train employees, evaluate corporate programs, coach executives, research corporate performance, and develop new interventions, among many other duties. A large percentage of industrial/organizational and social psychologists in particular work in private sector jobs, though any psychologist with a great deal of research and statistics experience can obtain a consulting or private sector position. Statistical consultants can charge anywhere from $100 to $200 per hour; according to BLS data, the average salary for an I-O psychologist working in the private sector is close to $90,000. Those with extensive non-academic research experience can enjoy a greater income. A PhD is not necessary to obtain a consulting or private sector job in psychology; a master’s degree and a few years of work experience can make an MA candidate equally appealing.
Opportunities in the Public Sector
Similarly, there is a high demand for psychological expertise in the public sector. Psychologists work in government offices such as the Department of Defense, the Veteran’s Administration, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Education, local public transit departments, local education departments, food banks, women’s shelters, welfare offices, YMCA offices, and in the offices of nonprofits and charities. In these settings, psychologists analyze data, design new programs, evaluate past interventions, make policy recommendations, design awareness and fundraising campaigns, train employees, and assist in management.
In the public sector, job prospects are promising, especially in urban centers and cities where a number of government offices are located, such as Washington DC. Public sector psychology jobs are reasonably well-paying (though less than private sector jobs), and usually come with fantastic benefits. The median income for a public sector psychologist is $88,080, according to the BLS. In most cases, a master’s degree is sufficient to obtain a research or applied psychology position in the public sector, but a PhD is required to lead and manage a research program as the primary investigator (PI). Slightly higher pay is reserved for government employees with PhDs.
Adjunct and Teaching Positions
For psychologists who love teaching, a tenure-track professor position is not the only option. An increasing number of psychology master’s and PhD graduates teach fulltime as adjunct instructors or as teachers at the high school level. Private high schools sometimes hire psychologists with a master’s or a PhD to teach psychology and other social science classes; while this position can offer career stability and a great deal of instructional freedom, it typically requires that the psychologist obtain state licensing, which may require taking additional classes or enrolling in a teaching certification program.
A far more popular option is teaching college and university psychology courses as an adjunct. An adjunct instructor is paid by a school on a per-class basis; there is no longstanding contract, and no guarantee of long-term employment. Many psychologists teach adjunct courses part-time, as an income supplement while working another job. Some psychologists teach as adjuncts at multiple academic institutions per semester; for example, teaching Intro to Psychology at the local community college two days per week, and Statistics at a nearby private university three days per week.
While adjunct positions are relatively plentiful for both MA and PhD psychologists, they are not generally well paying and come with no benefits. As of 2005, the APA's estimate of median salary for a single class in a doctoral department was $3,500 per semester, though community colleges and public universities sometimes pay a great deal less. The median income for a psychology adjunct in 2013 was $68,980 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A master’s degree is sufficient to teach as an adjunct at many institutions, including most colleges and community colleges. As tenure-track positions continue to be cut from universities around the country and as undergraduate enrollment in college increases, adjunct teaching positions are anticipated to grow – by as much as 19% from 2012 to 2022. Already, the majority of college and university instructors are now adjuncts, not full professors.
With so many exciting possibilities, all that remains is to begin exploring possible schools. For starters, visit our free School Finder Tool located HERE.
References and Further Reading
Divisions of APA. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/about/division/. Accessed 2014.
Psychologists – Occupational Outlook Handbook. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2012. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm. Accessed 2014.
Occupational Employment Statistics. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2013. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_stru.htm#19-0000. Accessed 2014.
Halonen, Jane S., PhD. Are There Too Many Psychology Majors? (The APA’s White Paper on Career Prospects for Psychology Majors). Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology; 2011. http://www.cogdop.org/page_attachments/0000/0200/FLA_White_Paper_for_cogop_posting.pdf. Accessed 2014.
Top 10 College Majors. The Princeton Review. http://www.princetonreview.com/college/top-ten-majors.aspx. Accessed 2014.
What Is Counseling Psychology? Society of Counseling Psychology, APA Division 17. http://www.div17.org/about/what-is-counseling-psychology/. Accessed 2014.
Strauss, Valerie. School psychologists: Shortage amid increased need. The Washington Post; 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/school-psychologists-shortage-amid-increased-need/2012/02/26/gIQAU7psdR_blog.html. Accessed 2014.
O’Shaughnessy, Lynn. 25 college majors with the highest unemployment rates. CBS Moneywatch; 2011. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/25-college-majors-with-the-highest-unemployment-rates/. Accessed 2014.
Harrington, Paul, Thomas Harrington, and Neeta Fogg. The College Majors Handbook. JIST Works; 1998.
Kingkade, Tyler. 9 Reasons Why Being an Adjust Faculty Member Is Terrible. The Huffington Post; 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/11/adjunct-faculty_n_4255139.html. Accessed 2014.