An Overview of Working as a Psychologist

woman being evaluated by pyschologist

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Broadly speaking, psychologists study the mind and behavior, but because psychology is such a diverse field, the work that individual psychologists do can vary dramatically. They often specialize in a specific area, for example, and there are a myriad of psychology specialties. Here's an overview of the ways in which psychologists might funnel their expertise into careers.

Two Types of Psychology Work

Psychologists may work in a wide variety of settings, including schools, universities, hospitals, private clinics, government offices, corporations, and small businesses. Psychologists primarily work in one of two broad areas: research psychology or applied psychology (sometimes called basic research and applied research). Research psychologists investigate the physical, emotional, social, cognitive, and biological bases of human thought and behavior. They often conduct experiments and may work at a college or university, or they could be employed by a business or government office.

Applied psychologists use their knowledge of human behavior to solve real-world problems or help people overcome psychological distress. Applied psychologists may work directly with patients in a healthcare setting, such as in a hospital, mental health clinic, school, or private practice. Other applied psychologists may work in government, industry, business, or nonprofit settings. In addition to applying their knowledge of psychology directly, these professionals also may offer training, design products, create programs, or provide psychological advice.

A Day in the Life of a Psychologist

Psychologists employed in research settings often spend a great deal of time developing hypotheses and collecting data. The exact research methods they use depend largely on the topic they're studying. For example, some psychologists might perform research using lab experiments, while others might use naturalistic observation. Other methods commonly used include administering questionnaires, clinical studies, surveys, and interviews.

Psychologists employed in healthcare settings often spend a considerable amount of time working directly with clients. This might involve conducting assessments of new patients, diagnosing mental disorders, and performing psychotherapy. Psychologists also frequently consult with other health professionals, including doctors, nurses, and other therapists.

Specialty Areas in Psychology

Here are some examples of the richly diverse specialties that make up the field of psychology.

Clinical psychologists make up the single largest specialty area in psychology. Clinicians are psychologists who assess, diagnose, and treat mental health issues. They frequently work in mental health centers or private practices. They might also work in a school, prison, or hospital.

For example, some clinical psychologists might work in a hospital setting with individuals who have experienced brain injuries or neurological conditions. Other clinical psychologists might work in mental health centers to counsel individuals or families coping with stress, psychiatric conditions, substance abuse, or personal problems.

Clinical psychologists usually perform a broad range of tasks on a daily basis, such as interviewing patients, conducting assessments, giving diagnostic tests, performing psychotherapy, and administering programs.

Within the area of clinical psychology, there also are a number of subspecialty areas. Some professionals are generalists and work with a wide range of clients, while others specialize in treating certain types of psychological disorders or a certain age group.

Some examples of clinical psychology subspecialties include clinical health psychology and clinical neuropsychology. Health psychologists focus on the intersection between psychology and physical health, such as how motivation can influence a person's outcomes in occupational therapy. Neuropsychologists focus on investigating the relationship between the brain and behavior. 

Counseling psychologists make up another large specialty area in psychology. These professionals perform many of the same tasks that clinical psychologists do, but counseling psychologists tend to focus on areas of personal distress or social conflict, such as relationship or workplace issues.

Counseling psychology focuses on providing therapeutic treatments to clients who experience a wide variety of symptoms. The Society of Counseling Psychology describes the field as "a specialty within professional psychology that maintains a focus on facilitating personal and interpersonal functioning across the lifespan. The specialty pays particular attention to emotional, social, vocational, educational, health-related, developmental, and organizational concerns."

Experimental psychologists (or research psychologists) conduct research on the behavior of humans and animals. They often work at universities, private research centers, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. Some major areas of research include substance abuse, genetics, neuroscience, motivation, and cognitive processes.

Forensic psychologists work in the specialty area that deals with the intersection of psychology and the law. Forensic psychologists are often involved in custody disputes, insurance claims, and lawsuits. Some professionals work in family courts and offer psychotherapy services, perform child custody evaluations, investigate reports of child abuse, and conduct visitation risk assessments.

Those working in the civil courts often assess competency, provide second opinions, and provide psychotherapy to crime victims. Professionals working in the criminal courts conduct evaluations of mental competency, work with child witnesses, and do assessments of juvenile and adult offenders.

Social psychologists are focused on understanding how interactions with other people impact individual and group behavior. These professionals often work in areas such as market research, organizational management, systems design, and other applied areas. Prominent areas of study include group behavior, leadership, attitudes, and perception.

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Article Sources
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  1. University of Texas at El Paso. Basic vs. applied research. 2021.

  2. American Psychological Association. Recognized specialties, subspecialties, and proficiencies in professional psychology. Updated October 2020.

  3. Society of Counseling Psychology. What is counseling psychology. 2021.

Additional Reading
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Psychologists. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Updated April 9, 2021.