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What is Psychology?

Psychology is a diverse discipline, grounded in science, but with nearly boundless applications in everyday life.  Some psychologists do basic research, developing theories and testing them through carefully honed research methods involving observation, experimentation and analysis. Other psychologists apply the discipline’s scientific knowledge to help people, organizations and communities function better.

As psychological research yields new information, whether it’s improved interventions to treat depression or how humans interact with machines, these findings become part of the discipline’s body of knowledge and are applied in work with patients and clients, in schools, in corporate settings, within the judicial system, even in professional sports.

Psychology is a doctoral-level profession. Psychologists study both normal and abnormal functioning and treat patients with mental and emotional problems. They also study and encourage behaviors that build wellness and emotional resilience. Today, as the link between mind and body is well-recognized, more and more psychologists are teaming with other healthcare providers to provide whole-person healthcare for patients.

 

What can I do with a degree in Psychology?

Psychology graduates generally report being pleased with the way what they studied in school helped prepare them for both life and work. A woman who opened her own business shortly after earning a baccalaureate in psychology explains, “After all, psychology is the business of life.” Psychology graduates continue to be excited by the changes taking place in the field that relate to what they are now doing.

The 2001 Doctorate Employment Survey from APA's Center for Psychology Workforce Analysis and Research (CPWAR) found that 73% of the 1,754 responding psychologists who earned their doctorates in 2000-2001 secured their first choice when looking for a job. In addition, 75% of respondents were employed within 3 months of receiving the doctorate.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that opportunities in psychology will continue to grow over the next decade. “Employment in health care will grow fastest in outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment clinics. Numerous job opportunities will also arise in schools, public and private social service agencies, and management consulting services. Companies will use psychologists' expertise in survey design, analysis, and research to provide marketing evaluation and statistical analysis. The increase in employee assistance programs, which offer employees help with personal problems, also should spur job growth.

Opportunities for people holding doctorates from leading universities in areas with an applied emphasis, such as counseling, health, and educational psychology, should be good. Psychologists with extensive training in quantitative research methods and computer science may have a competitive edge over applicants without this background.

Graduates with a master's degree in psychology may qualify for positions in school and industrial-organizational psychology. School psychology should have the best job prospects, as schools are expected to increase student counseling and mental health services. Master's degree holders with several years of business and industry experience can obtain jobs in consulting and marketing research, while other master's degree holders may find jobs in universities, government or the private sector as psychological assistants, counselors, researchers, data collectors, and analysts.

 

Bachelor's graduates

In 2002–2003 psychology was the most popular intended undergraduate major according to a survey of college freshman. As a single field and not a constellation of fields, such as is true of business, biology, or education, psychology outdrew all other fields. In 2000, 74,654 students graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology.

Some students stop with a bachelor's degree in psychology and find work related to their college major. For example, they may be assistants in rehabilitation centers. If they meet state certification requirements, they may be able to teach psychology in high school.

But the study of psychology at the bachelor's level is also a fine preparation for many other professions. In 2000, about 75,000 college seniors graduated with a degree in psychology, but many were not necessarily interested in a career as a psychologist.

In 1999, fewer than 5% of 1997 and 1998 psychology BA recipients were employed in psychology or a field related to psychology. Of the 1997 and 1998 BA graduates in 1999, two thirds were in for-profit business settings, usually the sales/service sector. These students often possess good research and writing skills, are good problem solvers, and have well-developed, higher-level thinking ability when it comes to analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information. Most find jobs in administrative support, public affairs, education, business, sales, service industries, health, the biological sciences, and computer programming. They work as employment counselors, correction counselor trainees, interviewers, personnel analysts, probation officers, and writers. Two thirds believe their job is closely or somewhat related to their psychology background and that their jobs hold career potential.

 

Master's graduates

While the doctoral degree is the standard for independent research or practice in psychology, the number of psychology students who pursue a terminal master's degree has increased sixfold since 1960. Competition for positions in psychology-related jobs is keen. Just over one fifth of master's graduates are full-time students, and about two thirds of master's graduates are employed outside psychology. Many handle research and data collection and analysis in universities, government, and private companies. Others find jobs in health, industry, and education, the primary work settings for psychology professionals with master's degrees. With growing recognition of the role of psychology in the community, more jobs for persons with master's degrees in psychology may also become available in community mental health centers.

Persons with master's degrees often work under the direction of a doctoral psychologist, especially in clinical, counseling, school, and testing and measurement psychology.

Some jobs in industry, for example, in organizational development and survey research, are held by both doctoral- and master's-level graduates. But industry and government jobs in compensation, training, data analysis, and general personnel issues are often filled by those with master's degrees in psychology.

 

Doctoral graduates

As might be expected, the highest paid and greatest range of jobs in psychology are available to psychology doctorates. The number of doctoral graduates has remained stable over the past decade, and supply continues to meet demand. Unemployment and underemployment remain below what is noted for other scientists and engineers. Few drop out of the field.

The greatest expansion of career opportunities for doctoral psychologists in the last decade has been in the for-profit and self-employment sectors, including, but not limited to, health service provider subfields, industrial–organizational psychology, educational psychology, and other fields with applications in these settings. Although fewer new doctorates have headed into faculty positions compared to past decades, it is the case that about one third of doctoral-level psychologists today are employed in academe, and more than half of new doctorates in the research subfields head into academe following graduation.

 

Some of the subfields in psychology

Psychologists specialize in a host of different areas within the field and identify themselves by many different labels. A sampling of those focal areas is presented to give you an idea of the breadth of psychology's content as well as the many different settings in which it is found. Additionally, many psychologists teach psychology in academic institutions from high schools to graduate programs in universities.The field of psychology encompasses both research, through which we learn fundamental things about human and animal behavior, and practice, through which that knowledge is applied in helping to solve problems and promote healthy human development. In each of the subfields there are psychologists who work primarily as researchers, others who work primarily as practitioners, and many who do both (scientist-practitioners). Indeed, one of psychology's most unique and important characteristics is its coupling of science and practice, which stimulates continual advancement of both.

 

Clinical psychologists

Clinical psychologists assess and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. These range from short-term crises, such as difficulties resulting from adolescent rebellion, to more severe, chronic conditions such as schizophrenia.Some clinical psychologists treat specific problems exclusively, such as phobias or clinical depression. Others focus on specific populations: youngsters, ethnic minority groups, gays and lesbians, and the elderly, for instance. They also consult with physicians on physical problems that have underlying psychological causes.

Cognitive and perceptual psychologists

Cognitive and perceptual psychologists study human perception, thinking, and memory. Cognitive psychologists are interested in questions such as, how does the mind represent reality? How do people learn? How do people understand and produce language? Cognitive psychologists also study reasoning, judgment, and decision making. Cognitive and perceptual psychologists frequently collaborate with behavioral neuroscientists to understand the biological bases of perception or cognition or with researchers in other areas of psychology to better understand the cognitive biases in the thinking of people with depression, for example.

Counseling psychologists

Counseling psychologists help people recognize their strengths and resources to cope with their problems. Counseling psychologists do counseling/psychotherapy, teaching, and scientific research with individuals of all ages, families, and organizations (e.g., schools, hospitals, businesses). Counseling psychologists help people understand and take action on career and work problems. They pay attention to how problems and people differ across life stages. Counseling psychologists have great respect for the influence of differences among people (such as race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability status) on psychological well-being. They believe that behavior is affected by many things, including qualities of the individual (e.g., psychological, physical, or spiritual factors) and factors in the person's environment (e.g., family, society, and cultural groups).

Developmental psychologists

Developmental psychologists study the psychological development of the human being that takes place throughout life. Until recently, the primary focus was on childhood and adolescence, the most formative years. But as life expectancy in this country approaches 80 years, developmental psychologists are becoming increasingly interested in aging, especially in researching and developing ways to help elderly people stay as independent as possible.

Educational psychologists

Educational psychologists concentrate on how effective teaching and learning take place. They consider a variety of factors, such as human abilities, student motivation, and the effect on the classroom of the diversity of race, ethnicity, and culture that makes up America.

Engineering psychologists

Engineering psychologists conduct research on how people work best with machines. For example, how can a computer be designed to prevent fatigue and eye strain? What arrangement of an assembly line makes production most efficient? What is a reasonable workload? Most engineering psychologists work in industry, but some are employed by the government, particularly the Department of Defense. They are often known as human factors specialists.

Evolutionary psychologists

Evolutionary psychologists study how evolutionary principles such as mutation, adaptation, and selective fitness influence human thought, feeling, and behavior. Because of their focus on genetically shaped behaviors that influence an organism's chances of survival, evolutionary psychologists study mating, aggression, helping behavior, and communication. Evolutionary psychologists are particularly interested in paradoxes and problems of evolution. For example, some behaviors that were highly adaptive in our evolutionary past may no longer be adaptive in the modern world.

Experimental psychologists

Experimental psychologists are interested in a wide range of psychological phenomena, including cognitive processes, comparative psychology (cross-species comparisons), learning and conditioning, and psychophysics (the relationship between the physical brightness of a light and how bright the light is perceived to be, for example). Experimental psychologists study both human and nonhuman animals with respect to their abilities to detect what is happening in a particular environment and to acquire and maintain responses to what is happening.Experimental psychologists work with the empirical method (collecting data) and the manipulation of variables within the laboratory as a way of understanding certain phenomena and advancing scientific knowledge. In addition to working in academic settings, experimental psychologists work in places as diverse as manufacturing settings, zoos, and engineering firms.

Forensic psychologists

Forensic psychologists apply psychological principles to legal issues. Their expertise is often essential in court. They can, for example, help a judge decide which parent should have custody of a child or evaluate a defendant's mental competence to stand trial. Forensic psychologists also conduct research on jury behavior or eyewitness testimony. Some forensic psychologists are trained in both psychology and the law.

Health psychologists

Health psychologists specialize in how biological, psychological, and social factors affect health and illness. They study how patients handle illness; why some people don't follow medical advice; and the most effective ways to control pain or to change poor health habits. They also develop health care strategies that foster emotional and physical well-being.Psychologists team up with medical personnel in private practice and in hospitals to provide patients with complete health care. They educate medical staff about psychological problems that arise from the pain and stress of illness and about symptoms that may seem to be physical in origin but actually have psychological causes.Health psychologists also investigate issues that affect a large segment of society, and develop and implement programs to deal with these problems. Examples are teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors, smoking, lack of exercise, and poor diet.

Industrial/organizational psychologists

Industrial/organizational psychologists apply psychological principles and research methods to the work place in the interest of improving productivity and the quality of work life. Many serve as human resources specialists, helping organizations with staffing, training, and employee development. And others work as management consultants in such areas as strategic planning, quality management, and coping with organizational change.

Neuropsychologists

Neuropsychologists (and behavioral neuropsychologists) explore the relationships between brain systems and behavior. For example, behavioral neuropsychologists may study the way the brain creates and stores memories, or how various diseases and injuries of the brain affect emotion, perception, and behavior. They design tasks to study normal brain functions with new imaging techniques, such as positron emission tomography (PET), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).Clinical neuropsychologists also assess and treat people. And with the dramatic increase in the number of survivors of traumatic brain injury over the past 30 years, neuropsychologists are working with health teams to help brain-injured people resume productive lives.

Quantitative and measurement psychologists

Quantitative and measurement psychologists focus on methods and techniques for designing experiments and analyzing psychological data. Some develop new methods for performing analysis; others create research strategies to assess the effect of social and educational programs and psychological treatment. They develop and evaluate mathematical models for psychological tests. They also propose methods for evaluating the quality and fairness of the tests.

Rehabilitation psychologists

Rehabilitation psychologists work with stroke and accident victims, people with mental retardation, and those with developmental disabilities caused by such conditions as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and autism. They help clients adapt to their situation, frequently working with other health care professionals. They deal with issues of personal adjustment, interpersonal relations, the work world, and pain management.Rehabilitation psychologists are also involved in public health programs to prevent disabilities, including those caused by violence and substance abuse. And they testify in court as expert witnesses about the causes and effects of a disability and a person's rehabilitation needs.

School psychologists

School psychologists work directly with public and private schools. They assess and counsel students, consult with parents and school staff, and conduct behavioral interventions when appropriate. Most school districts employ psychologists full time.

Social psychologists

Social psychologists study how a person's mental life and behavior are shaped by interactions with other people. They are interested in all aspects of interpersonal relationships, including both individual and group influences, and seek ways to improve such interactions. For example, their research helps us understand how people form attitudes toward others, and when these are harmful—as in the case of prejudice—suggests ways to change them.Social psychologists are found in a variety of settings, from academic institutions (where they teach and conduct research), to advertising agencies (where they study consumer attitudes and preferences), to businesses and government agencies (where they help with a variety of problems in organization and management).

Sports psychologists

Sports psychologists help athletes refine their focus on competition goals, become more motivated, and learn to deal with the anxiety and fear of failure that often accompany competition. The field is growing as sports of all kinds become more and more competitive and attract younger children than ever.

-American Psychological Association, Careers in Psychology

Last Published 12/21/16