The Field of Psychology
Psychology uses empirical (scientific) methods to understand, predict, and modify human behavior. As a separate discipline, psychology is relatively young and steadily growing. Historically, psychologists have been interested in mental processes, psychological conflicts (as conceptualized by Freud), and behavioral conditioning (as studied by Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner). Current approaches emphasize new discoveries about the brain and the nervous system, cognitive or thinking processes, and the social context for individual behavior. While other behavioral sciences like sociology and anthropology focus on groups of people, the distinguishing feature of psychology as a discipline is its emphasis on the individual.
Specialties in Psychology
There are many specialties within the broad field of psychology, both in terms of academic study and career opportunities. Physiological psychology is the study of biological influences like neurochemistry and hormones on behavior. Developmental psychology addresses physical, psychological, and social changes over the lifespan from conception to death. Personality theory is an area of psychology that compares ideas about human nature and unique characteristics of the individual. Social psychology represents a blend of sociology and psychology in its investigation of attitudes and behavior in groups. Abnormal psychology examines the causes, symptoms, and treatments of mental and emotional disorders. Applications of psychology in community settings, the study of sex and gender differences, and extension of psychology into cross-cultural comparisons of attitudes and behavior are newer areas of investigation. In addition, there are courses in psychology that teach research methods and statistical processes used in all areas of study.
Careers in Psychology
People with an interest and background in psychology work in almost every field. For those who wish to have a career in psychology, the level of education completed often determines the level of employment available.
- With a bachelor’s degree in psychology, you may be able to find employment at a paraprofessional level, for example as a case worker in a social service agency or an intake worker in a mental health agency. Certification as a chemical dependency counselor requires a specified number of courses and internship hours in this area.
- A master’s degree (which could be in psychology, counseling, or a related field) is considered the first level of professional training. In many states, you must have a master’s degree to be certified or licensed as a therapist or to work as a counselor in an agency or school. You must also have a master’s degree to teach at a two-year college.
- To call yourself a psychologist, you need to earn a doctoral degree: typically a Ph.D., Psy.D., or Ed.D. At this level, you are eligible to be licensed as a clinical psychologist, to do research, and/or to teach at a four-year university.
Professional psychologists work in many settings: universities and colleges, schools and school districts, business and industry, private practice, government agencies, mental health clinics, correctional facilities, court systems, hospitals, research laboratories, etc. Some psychologists do nothing but basic research, meaning they conduct scientific studies to increase understanding. Other psychologists work more in an applied setting, where they are directly applying information from psychology to improve human life. Some of the areas in which psychologists can concentrate include:
- Clinical psychology: assessment and treatment of mental/emotional problems
- Community psychology: preventive problem-solving in natural settings
- Counseling psychology: improve human functioning, coping, decision-making
- Developmental psychology: study human development across the lifespan
- Educational psychology: study learning and assessment in educational settings
- Environmental psychology: focus on impact of physical environment on people
- Experimental psychology: research basic processes like sensation and memory
- Industrial/organizational psychology: assist people in business and industry
- Neuropsychology and psychobiology: study brain, biochemistry effects
- Psychometrics: develop tests, measurement tools, data analysis measures
- School psychology: promote intellectual, social development of children
- Social psychology: study interaction, individuals in groups, social behaviors
Many people who earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology use this background to go into other fields like business, law, teaching, or social work. There are many areas of potential employment with appropriate preparation and planning.
Please read the American Psychological Association’s guide to careers in psychology for much, MUCH more information!
Are you already thinking about graduate school in psychology?
The American Psychological Association has a great set of video resources on how to prepare for and apply to graduate school. View them here!
Last Updated April 15, 2022