Careers in Psychology Job Paths, Salary Potential & Field Outlook

From intellectual processes to emotions, psychology is a broad field involving the scientific study of the human mind and its functions. Psychologists fulfill a number of roles, from providing therapy to conducting research, and may work in any number of specialty areas that delve into a particular aspect or influence on human behavior. Individuals interested in this field should investigate the different concentrations available to students – and the jobs they may lead to – as well as take a look at the profession as a whole, including licensing requirements, salary expectations, employment outlook, and trends that are shaping this ever-changing industry.

Career Paths in Psychology

The first step to a career psychology is earning a degree. Because the field is so broad, specialization is a must, so it’s helpful to understand what options are available, and what they entail. Here are some examples of concentrations and the specific careers they can lead to.

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychologists work directly with patients to investigate the causes of mental and emotional disorders; identify symptoms and perform diagnoses; and develop treatment and prevention plans.

  • Clinical Psychologists

    Provide comprehensive and continuing mental and behavioral health care to individuals and families, and serve as consultants to agencies. Clinical psychologists typically work in healthcare environments such as hospitals, in private practice, or in academia.

  • School Psychologists

    Develop programs in areas such as dropout prevention, bullying and school safety, as well as work with individual students when necessary. Specialized training in psychological assessment, crisis response, counseling and research prepares these school-based mental health professionals to work with children in elementary, middle and high schools.

  • Social Psychologists

    Analyze previous research and conduct original research to determine how the presence of other people affects an individual’s behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Much of social research is conducted in the field, observing people in real situations.

Counseling Psychology

While similar to clinical psychology, this field focuses not on psychological disorders but more on adjustment issues. Students in this specialization learn about subjects such as family counseling, stress management, and career issues.

  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors

    Counsel and support people with drug and alcohol problems, eating disorders, and other behavioral issues. Responsibilities include creating treatment plans, teaching behavior modification methods, and leading group therapy sessions.

  • Career Counselors

    Work with people who need career guidance, and help them determine the best path. Duties include administering tests to determine personality traits and interests, and helping clients locate sources of financial support to pay for school and training programs.

  • Marriage and Family Therapists

    Help individuals, couples and families in effectively managing interpersonal issues. Responsibilities include observing and assessing clients, identifying effective strategies to improve communications, and helping clients implement such strategies.

Industrial/ Organizational Psychology

Students who choose the industrial/organizational psychology specialty learn about group behavior as it relates to workplace productivity. Coursework includes organizational assessment, training and development, the psychology of small groups, and consultation skills.

  • Training and Development Specialists

    Assist businesses in reaching their goals by assessing the performance and needs of employees, and developing and implementing plans that enhance their skills and knowledge.

  • Assessment Services Managers

    Assess management and organizational tactics in the workplace and work with members of management to reorganize work environments and improve worker productivity. These professionals apply principles of psychology to personnel, management, sales and marketing programs.

Developmental Psychology

In this specialization, students learn how social relationships, cultural contexts, and individual differences influence human development. Courses cover child and adolescent development, gender and racial stereotyping, language and cognition, stress and risk-taking, and learning processes.

  • School Psychologists

    Develop programs in areas such as dropout prevention, bullying and school safety, as well as work with individual students when necessary. Specialized training in psychological assessment, crisis response, counseling and research prepares these school-based mental health professionals to work with children in elementary, middle and high schools.

  • Social Psychologists

    Analyze previous research and conduct original research to determine how the presence of other people affects an individual’s behaviors, thoughts and feelings. Much of social research is conducted in the field, observing people in real situations.

Forensic

The popularity of television shows featuring forensic psychologists has resulted in growing interest in this field. Students in this specialization learn to apply psychological principles in legal situations, such as child custody cases, prison rehabilitation programs, and crime prevention.

  • Trial Consultants

    Help attorneys find the best approach to a trial by identifying key issues, developing strategies, assessing jurors, and preparing witnesses. Attorneys may hire trial consultants to assist in managing ethical issues in sensitive situations.

  • Victim Advocates

    Give emotional support to crime victims, provide access to resources, and offer help in filling out paperwork and navigating the legal process. Victim advocates may go to court with their clients; they may also work for crisis hotlines and support groups that need qualified counselors.

Outlook & Salary Potential in Psychology

For those interested in pursuing a career in psychology, the number and variety of available positions, as well as potential income, are important factors. Job growth in this field is much faster than the average of all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with projected employment for all psychologists expected to increase 19 percent from 2014 to 2024.

Clinical, counseling, and school psychology are the specialties with the most growth (20 percent), fueled by the demand for psychological services in hospitals, mental health centers, social service agencies and schools. Contributing to this high projected growth are an aging population that will require assistance with mental and physical changes; military veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); and rising rates of autism. The heightened awareness of the role mental health plays in learning translates to an additional need for school psychologists; however, budget constraints will likely affect the number of openings.

Another specialty with a high projected rate of job growth is industrial-organizational psychology (19 percent). The overall number of professionals in this field is still low, but with organizations turning more to these professionals to build morale, retain employees, and improve productivity in the workplace, opportunities will increase.

Below are employment statistics for several common career paths in psychology.

Clinical Psychologist Median salary $70,700 Employment in 2014 173,900 Growth outlook 19 percent (32,500)
Marriage and Family Therapist Median salary $42,250 Employment in 2014 168,200 Growth outlook 19 percent (31,400)
Training and Development Specialist Median salary $57,340 Employment in 2014 252,600 Growth outlook 7 percent (18,900)
Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors Median salary $39,270 Employment in 2014 94,900 Growth outlook 22 percent (21,000)
School and Career Counselors Median salary $53,370 Employment in 2014 273,400 Growth outlook 8 percent (22,500)

Psychology Salary by State

While clinical specialty and experience level are two prime factors that affect salary, another is location. Salaries for psychologists vary widely by geographical area, reflecting both the living expenses in a particular region as well as the availability of qualified candidates. The states with the highest salaries are as follows:

  • 1Illinois: $125,230
  • 2Minnesota: $120,500
  • 3Maryland: $100,710
  • 4Virginia: $99,410
  • 5Wisconsin: $98,910
  • 6New York: $98,710
  • 7Washington: $95,290
  • 8Iowa: $94,990
  • 9California: $89,550
  • 10New Mexico: $89,130

Top Skills for a Career in Psychology

Becoming a psychologist is a process that involves more than acquiring clinical knowledge. Success in this field requires a host of professional and personal skills and the ability to use them effectively. The following skills are some of the most essential.

Empathy

In order to engender trust and foster a healing environment, psychologists need to show empathy, helping their patients feel understood and comfortable being vulnerable as they get to the root of their problems.

Active Listening

In counseling, it can be challenging to identify specific disorders. Having the ability to pay close attention and read between the lines is invaluable when diagnosing patients.

Communication

Whether interacting with patients or working in research settings, communicating information and ideas is vital. Psychologists need a mastery of both spoken and nonverbal communication skills, as well as the ability to accurately interpret the actions or cues of others.

Critical Thinking

In both patient care and research, psychologists are faced with the complexities—and sometimes contradictions—of the human mind. A logical approach, and the ability to examine problems from different perspectives, are key to making accurate diagnoses, developing effective treatment plans, designing experiments, and interpreting results.

Scientific Skills

Scientific principles and concepts are at the root of psychology research and clinical work. Psychologists need the ability to master these ideas in both settings.

Certifications & Licenses

Every state requires psychologists to become licensed before working with patients, a process that involves taking specific courses and working a certain number of hours under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. In addition, licensure requires passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP), administered by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB).

Certifications in psychology aren’t mandatory, but they do demonstrate added professional expertise, and can help individuals compete in the job market. Through its member boards, the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) offers a variety of certifications to psychologists:

Top 5 Certifications or Licenses for a Career in Psychology

  • Forensic Psychology

    Offered by the American Board of Forensic Psychology, this certification is recognized in many jurisdictions as the standard of professional competency in forensic psychology.

  • Clinical Psychology

    The American Board of Clinical Psychology developed this certification to demonstrate the following foundational competencies: relationships, individual and cultural diversity, ethical and legal standards/policy, professionalism, reflective practice/self-assessment/self-care, science knowledge and methods, interdisciplinary systems, and evidence-based practice.

  • Organizational & Business Consulting Psychology

    The American Board of Organizational and Business Consulting Psychology offers this certification to psychologists who work to increase efficiency in the workplace. Many human resources departments consider this credential essential when hiring organizational consultants.

  • Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology

    Psychologists engaged in research, education, training, and clinical practice can obtain this certification through the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. The certification recognizes competency in four distinct areas: applied behavior analysis, behavior therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, and cognitive therapy.

  • Clinical Health Psychology

    This certification, available through the American Board of Clinical Health Psychology, is designed for psychologists engaged in academic research, professional practice, and education and training across an array of community, clinical, occupational, and acute healthcare settings.

To earn any of the above certifications from the ABPP, candidates must meet general requirements such as a doctoral degree and licensure, and specific requirements determined by the specialty area. Certification also entails passing an oral and written examination and payment of a $125 application fee.

Emerging Careers in Psychology

In addition to traditional occupations such as counselors and researchers, there are other exciting opportunities psychologists can pursue. Major societal issues are driving new and emerging careers to the forefront, with specialty areas such as environmental psychology becoming both popular and lucrative. In a very different arena, the psychology of executive coaching is becoming recognized as a way to help executives manage stress and improve their performance in the corporate environment. Finally, the publication of several best-selling books about consumer psychology has put a spotlight on the connection between social science and behavioral economics, making this field stronger than ever.

Ecopsychologist

Ecopsychology is a subset of environmental psychology, which is the study of human behavior within the context of a particular environment. Specifically, ecopsychology examines relationships between human behavior and the natural world. With environmental issues such as climate change, sustainable living, and natural disasters continually in the news, this profession is getting more attention.

Ecopsychologists explore the influences of the natural environment on human behavior, such as emotional responses to nature, and look at the ties between environmental and societal degradation. Ecopsychologists work in a variety of settings, such as colleges and universities, nonprofits, and government agencies. Businesses hire ecopsychologists for many purposes, including conducting and analyzing research, making policy recommendations, and collaborating with urban planners. In private practice, they may use outdoor activities as part of an overall counseling plan.

Executive Coach

Globalization, technology, and corporate mergers have fundamentally changed the business world, while years of economic recession have put extreme pressure on executives to shepherd their companies through tough economic times. Even top executives do not have all the answers, though, and they must rely on a network of people to solve complex problems. Unfortunately, without strong people skills, these executives may struggle to tap into the resources of the people they supervise to find the answers. An executive coach seeks to bridge this gap, helping executives to identify and address their strengths and weaknesses to maximize their potential and move their organizations forward.

Executive coaches serve as confidential sounding boards. In some cases, they may work with a newly promoted employee who is inexperienced at supervising staff; in others, their job may be to help with stress management. It’s also not uncommon for coaches to assume the role of mediating conflicts between executives. What was once a service utilized only by Fortune 500 companies is now becoming increasingly popular with smaller entities. Family businesses or individuals in private practice—such as attorneys or doctors—may find the skills of an executive coach useful, and according to the American Psychological Association, companies spend $1 billion a year on executive coaches worldwide.

Currently, there is no universally accepted executive coaching certification and no standard definitions in the regulation of the practice. As a result, people of all backgrounds are labeling themselves as executive coaches. For psychologists, it’s important to coach in areas in which they’ve received training. There are several organizations that include executive coaches, including the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology and Society for Consulting Psychology.

Consumer Psychologist

Consumer psychology is a specialty area of industrial-organizational psychology, one of the fastest growing branches of psychology. Consumer psychologists study the many elements that contribute to consumer behavior, from specific wants and needs to the influences of factors such as product packaging, cost, and availability.

Businesses, universities and even government agencies may hire consumer psychologists to assist in marketing efforts and find ways to make products and services more appealing or accessible to customers. According to BLS, the average salary for all industrial psychologists is $90,070, with the most lucrative positions found in scientific research and development services.

Career & Job Resources

One of the most important aspects to launching a successful career in any field is career prep, that is, the actions a student takes to make himself or herself known and attractive to potential employers before graduation. Here are some great sites psychology students can visit to help make that student/employer connection happen.

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