What Is a Psychologist?

Couple meeting with psychologist
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What Is a Psychologist and What Do They Do?

A psychologist is someone who studies the mind and behavior. While people often think of talk therapy when they hear the word psychologist, this profession actually encompasses a wide range of specialty areas, including such things as animal research and organizational behavior.

The term psychologist can apply to people who:

  • Use psychological knowledge and research to solve problems, such as treating mental illnesses
  • Work as social scientists to conduct psychological research and teach at colleges or universities

The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes 54 distinct divisions, each representing a specialized interest or area within psychology.

Types of Psychologists

While there are many different types of psychologists, they typically fall into one of three different areas:

  • Applied psychologists utilize psychological principles and research to solve real-world problems. Examples include aviation psychologists, engineering psychologists, industrial-organizational psychologists, and human factors psychologists.
  • Research psychologists conduct studies and experiments with human or animal participants. Research psychologists often work for universities, private businesses, or government entities. Their research may focus on a wide range of specialty areas within psychology, including cognition, neuroscience, personality, development, and social behavior.
  • Mental health psychologists work with people experiencing mental disorders or psychological distress. They often work in hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, government offices, or private practices. Examples of mental health psychologists include clinical psychologists, counseling psychologists, and school psychologists.

Psychologists vs. Therapists

A psychologist has to have a master's and/or a doctoral degree in psychology, whereas a therapist can refer to a number of different types of healthcare professionals (such as a licensed clinical social worker or a mental health counselor).

Education and Training for a Psychologist

Training and educational requirements vary considerably depending upon the specialty area. Industrial-organizational psychologists need at least a master's degree in experimental or industrial-organizational psychology. Clinical psychologists need a doctorate degree in clinical psychology along with an internship and one to two years of supervised clinical experience.

Licensing Requirements for a Psychologist

If you plan to work in a specialty area such as clinical, counseling, or school psychology, you will need to investigate the licensing requirements for your state. In all cases, you should start by making sure that your psychology program is accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Psychologist Requirements

Clinical or counseling psychologists generally need to complete a doctorate degree, internship, and one to two years of professional experience in order to become licensed.

Learn more about the requirements for different professional paths in this article on the accreditation and licensing requirements for psychologists.

Work Settings for a Psychologist

Because psychologists perform such a wide variety of tasks, work settings can vary dramatically. Some psychologists work in medical settings, such as hospitals, health clinics, mental health facilities, or psychiatric institutions. Other psychologists work in academic or research settings, often teaching students and conducting psychological research. Learn more about the work settings for psychologists.

Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist

Many people are not quite sure of the distinction between these two professions, but if you are planning a career in mental health or seeking a mental health provider, it is important to understand exactly how a psychologist differs from a psychiatrist.

Psychologist
  • Has a master's or doctoral-level degree in psychology

  • Studies human behavior with an emphasis on scientific and research methods

  • Cannot legally prescribe medication in most states

Psychiatrist
  • Has a degree in medicine

  • Studies mental illness with an emphasis on their biological aspects

  • Can prescribe clients medication; often provide talk therapy as well

Job Outlook for a Psychologist

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for psychologists is expected to grow faster than average between 2018 and 2028, with an estimated 14% growth and approximately 26,000 new jobs during that period.

Certain specialty areas within psychology are rapidly expanding as the demand for trained professionals increases. School psychologists and clinicians, in particular, may find ample job opportunities over the next several years. Learn more about the job outlook for psychologists and discover which fields of psychology offer the greatest potential for growth.

Psychologist Salary

Because there is so much diversity in psychology professions, earnings and salaries vary greatly depending upon factors such as specialty area, the degree held, and the sector of employment.

What Is a Psychologist's Salary?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook, median earnings for psychologists in 2018 were $79,010 per year. The lowest 10% of psychologists earned less than $43,800, while the highest 10% earned over $129,250.

Is Becoming a Psychologist Right for You?

Is becoming a psychologist the best choice for you? Before you decide, spend some time seriously considering your goals and interests. Of course, looking at statistics can never offer a full view of the many aspects of a job. If you are considering psychology as a career, spend some time carefully researching your options in order to determine if this field is a good fit for your personality, needs, and long-term goals.

Don't let a single factor, such as projected salary, guide your decision-making process. Instead, look at each career as a whole, including the educational and licensing requirements, job outlook, work settings, and typical job duties.

When to See a Psychologist

If you feel it's time to see a psychologist, trust yourself. Some people think their problems aren't "bad enough" to seek help, but this is a misconception.

Though you can consult with a psychologist for any number of reasons, the following are common mental health concerns for which you may seek the expertise of a psychologist:

Where to Find a Psychologist

If you are looking for a trained and experienced psychologist, there are a few different ways to accomplish this. First, you can contact your family physician or local hospital and ask for a referral. This method can be a highly effective way of finding good psychologists in your community. A second approach is to ask trusted friends for family members who they would recommend.

Another option is to utilize the online search tool maintained by the American Psychological Association to uncover a listing of psychologists in your area. Once you have narrowed down your list, book consultations with your top picks. By meeting with each individual and talking about your options, you will have a much better idea of which psychologist is right for your needs.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Divisions of the APA.

  2. American Psychological Association. Pursuing a Career in I/O Psychology.

  3. American Psychological Association. Pursuing a Career in Clinical or Counseling Psychology.

  4. U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Psychologists. Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  5. American Psychological Association. How to choose a psychologist.

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.