Expert Contributor
Scott Shaw, PhD

With a background that includes counseling, ministry, coaching, and consulting, Scott Shaw has worked in private practice as well as in academia. As a police academy graduate, Shaw also deals with criminal justice and safety issues as they relate to the realm of psychology.

Broadly defined, health psychology studies the ways in which psychological, sociological and behavioral factors influence, and are influenced by, human health and illness. Given such an overarching definition, it should also come as no surprise that professionals in the health psychology field perform a wide range of research and clinical functions, and are employed in an equally wide variety of settings.

Psychology is an expansive professional scientific field focusing on the study of human behavior. Psychologists and mental health professionals work in a number of specialty areas, including the following:

Starting Your Health Psychology Career

Becoming a heath psychologist typically requires postsecondary education, although students have a number of academic options available at the graduate level and enjoy some flexibility in how they tailor their education to reach their professional goals. Most students choose to earn a doctoral degree, which is followed by professional licensee and board certification, particularly for those interested in interacting directly with patients in either a clinical or counseling environment. In all cases, the postsecondary educational path begins by successfully completing a bachelor’s degree program offered by a respected, fully accredited college or university.

Learn more about health psychology campus and online programs and degrees, including graduate degrees.

What Health Psychologists Do

Health psychologists work in both the clinical and research ends of the larger psychology field. Over time, health psychology has evolved four distinct sub-groups:

Clinical Health Psychology

Clinical health psychologists apply their knowledge and training in health psychology to the direct treatment of patients. Their main goal is to better understand the behaviors of patients as they relate to physical health in order to: 1) help these patients modify their behaviors and become healthier, and; 2) prevent habits that lead to bad health from forming in the first place. Clinical health psychologists also educate and train others in psychotherapy and behavior modification techniques.

Community Health Psychology

The focus of a community health psychologist is on the theories and methods applicable at the community level to promote physical and mental health and to prevent disease. Community health psychology straddles the line between research and clinical practice, employing the assistance of community members themselves to develop health-related interventions. Community health psychologists are commonly employed in all sectors of the economy by government agencies, nonprofit organizations, consulting firms, research and medical centers, clinics and private practices, as well as in teaching positions at colleges and universities.

Critical Health Psychology

Critical health psychology is concerned with applying critical theory and principles to the practice of health psychology in order to challenge mainstream thinking on the subject. Critical health psychologists believe that socioeconomic factors such as social class, wealth and poverty, and political power play crucial roles in mental health behaviors and physical health outcomes. Critical health psychologists are often activists in the areas of social justice and change, advocating on behalf of a number of related issues, such as how health care is provided.

Public Health Psychology

Public health psychology concerns theories and practices that are applied to a much broader population base, as opposed to an individual or at the community level. Public health psychologists work for governments, nonprofit organizations and educational institutions to conduct research and to collect, analyze and interpret data. They are also employed in both public and private positions as consultants and advocates of public policy and regulatory change.

Occupational Health Psychology

Closely related to health psychology and often discussed in conjunction with it, occupational health psychology focuses on issues of mental health and how they relate to the physical health of individuals in specific occupations. Occupational health psychologists focus on the development and application of psychological principles to promote better physical and mental health to working individuals and to improve safety and well-being in the workplace. Occupational health psychologists are employed primarily by federal, state and local regulatory agencies, as well as private businesses, to ensure that workplaces meet or exceed government occupational safety standards.

Health Psychologists: Filling an Important Need

A healthy community is a stronger one, and health psychologists enjoy the rewards that come from helping their neighbors and larger community reap the benefits of good health. Most people who enter the profession do so because they wish to help others overcome behaviors and habits such as smoking, overeating, and sedentary lifestyles, as well as to manage stress and improve the quality of patient’s lives.

Interview with a Professional: Scott Shaw, PhD

What made you decide to pursue a career in
health psychology?

I love health psychology because it is holistic and has real-world applications to long-term health. It looks at everything from the role of exercise to diet in maintaining healthy lifestyles. In some ways it’s more a focus on wellness than on psychopathology.

What was your educational path to becoming a health psychologist?

I worked as a counselor, doing both agency work and private practice. My first doctorate was in ministry and I was looking for something clinical. I looked at other programs, but when I saw that I could earn a PhD in health psychology, and I looked at the coursework and the areas of research, that piqued my interest.

What forms of work have been part of your practice?

It’s covered all types of health-related issues. My clients tended to be those who struggled with life-change issues as they related to their health: working with smoking cessation, obesity, eating disorders, diabetes management, pain management. For those who have chronic disorders that result in chronic pain, I used bio-psychosocial interventions to help manage that. I also helped families to adjust to having a family member with a terminal illness, and the grief and loss that comes with a change in health status.

What do you find to be the bigger challenges in the health psychology practice?

For me, the biggest challenge would be helping patients find the motivation to change. For example, take someone who has had a heart attack and you tell them they need to lose thirty pounds, or stop smoking, or live a less sedentary lifestyle. I think cognitively people understand that. And for some people, that’s the wake-up call they need. For others, though, it remains a struggle and even after the heart attack, they’ll maintain the weight or gain more weight, and continue with other unhealthy choices. They know they need to change, but just can’t find the motivation to do it. That’s the biggest challenge.

What have you found to be the biggest rewards of practicing health psychology?

When people are able to make the changes and realize that they have some control and power, or a sense of self-efficacy. I think those success stories make it worthwhile.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a career in health psychology, what would it be?

I would tell them to look at the wide range of psychology fields and find the one that resonates most and makes their heart pound. If someone is more interested in the counseling aspect, they might want to look into counseling psych or psychopathology. They might want to go more into abnormal psych. In a way, health psychology is kind of a niche field, but for the health-minded person, absolutely this could be a fit.

Becoming a Health Psychologist

Many specific degree options are available to those interested in becoming a health psychologist, but anyone entering the field can expect to take the following general steps to establish and maintain a successful career:

Step 1:Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Earning a bachelor’s degree from a fully accredited college or university is an absolute must for becoming a health psychologist and for virtually any other closely related job in the field. Most students opt for a degree in general psychology, but other degrees will also work; alternatives include sociology, public health and pre-med, among others. Students with an eye toward health psychology would be wise to complete courses in topics such as learning processes and behavior, abnormal and social psychology, psycophysiology, psychopharmacology, and anatomy.

Step 2:Earn a Graduate Degree

As mentioned above, most people interested in a career in health psychology will need to complete a doctoral (PhD or PsyD) degree program in health psychology or a closely related subject. This is particularly true in the case of clinical health psychology, although in a few instances a master’s degree may be sufficient. A growing number of colleges and universities are offering doctoral degrees specifically designated as health psychology, while others incorporate health psychology into broader degrees such as social psychology, experimental psychology, counseling psychology and clinical psychology.

Step 3:Predoctoral Experience

A predoctoral internship is an important plus for anyone entering a psychology-related doctoral program, and is usually required for students pursuing a doctorate in a field that focuses on direct interaction with patients or clients, such as counseling psychology or clinical psychology. Internships specifically in the field of health psychology do exist, and are, of course, preferable for those planning to become health psychologists, but internships in related practices are also acceptable.

Step 4:Postdoctoral Fellowships and Clinical Training

Another important component in establishing a career in health psychology is the completion of a postdoctoral fellowship or other form of clinical training. In most cases, specialty certification and/or licensure will require some form of supervised postdoctoral experience. Fellowships and clinical training in health psychology are typically offered through medical or health centers, universities, clinics and similar facilities.

Step 5:Continuing Education

After finishing all schooling and obtaining the necessary licensure and certification, an additional step concerns continuing professional education. Licensed psychologists must renew their licenses on a regular basic, which in turn requires the completion of a specified number of continuing education hours. Courses meeting those requirements are offered through a variety of sources, including professional psychology associations and organizations.

Certification of Health Psychologists

Board certification is a process through which professionals are recognized for their mastery of the knowledge and skills needed to effectively practice in a specialized area of their field.

Why certify?

Board certification in a professional specialization provides a “stamp of approval” on the individual’s practice. It signifies to colleagues and the public at large that the practitioner’s education, training and experience in their specialization have been held to rigorous standards. While not required for practice, it is nonetheless an expected benchmark in a career.

Who certifies?

In the United States, board certification for a number of professional psychological specializations is offered through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). Health psychologists may seek board certification through the specialties of clinical health psychology and counseling.

Who is eligible?

Eligibility requirements vary slightly depending on the specific certification, but generally a candidate must meet the following criteria: hold a doctoral degree from an accredited professional psychology program; be licensed or certified in a jurisdiction in the United States, its territories or in Canada; have completed a one-year full-time, or two-year half-time internship in an ABPP-approved program; and meet the ABPP’s postdoctoral experience and supervision requirements.

What steps are necessary to attain certification?

After ensuring that they meet the eligibility requirements, candidates begin the application process on the ABPP website. Next, they must take and pass an examination administered by the ABPP specialization board. The exams are designed to allow the candidate to demonstrate his or her competencies in the practice of the specialization.

Working in Health Psychology: Valued Skills

Making an honest assessment of your talents and skills is one of the best ways to gauge whether or not a specific profession is a good fit. Lacking a skill or two should not deter individuals from pursuing a career in health psychology if it’s a field that sparks their passion; instead, it simply highlights the need to emphasize the development of those specific skill areas. What skills and personality traits best serve a successful career in health psychology? Here is a look at some of the most common:

  • Active Listening

    The process of seeking out new information and understanding its meaning in context, while providing complete attention to what another person is saying, mindful of both the direct and possible underlying meanings of the words spoken, as well as attendant tone and emphasis.

  • Complex Problem Solving

    Cognitive ability to recognize and evaluate complex problems and develop potential solutions.

  • Critical Thinking

    The employment of logic and reasoning to a problem in order to reach a rational conclusion.

  • Judgment and Decision-Making

    The ability to identify the purpose of a decision, and then to gather pertinent information and apply judgment criteria to reach a decision and implement an appropriate course of action.

  • Service Orientation

    A willful and active predisposition to be of service to others.

  • Social Perceptiveness

    The awareness of other people’s behaviors, actions and reactions in relation to social norms and other cultural factors.

  • Advanced Reading Comprehension

    The ability to read scholarly texts and understand their meanings.

  • Communication

    The ability to effectively communicate both verbally and in writing.

Health Psychology Salary

An important factor in any career decision is expected salary and potential salary growth. According to 2014 estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, national annual median salaries for clinical and counseling psychologists, the category health psychologists fall under, were reported at $68,900. Salary amounts, of course, vary due to a number of factors, including the economic sector, the specific employer, and geographic location. For example, psychologists working in research positions tend to make more than those in counseling or clinical positions.

Skills added and honed through experience also directly translate to salary benefits. Because of its close association with clinical psychology, health psychologists may expect certain specialized skills to result in higher pay. For example, knowledge of pain management techniques or skills in working with geriatric populations tend to result in better-than-average pay, whereas general skills in counseling and assessment do little to pull salaries up.

Use the tool below to determine estimated annual wage and occupational projections for each of the 50 states, as reported by the BLS in May 2014:

Related Careers

Health psychology is but one specialty in the broad field of psychology; there are numerous choices for those whose interests and skills are better suited to a related field. Here is a look at some of the options, including the national median salary as of 2014 and the national projected job growth from 2012-2022:

Industrial-Organizational Psychologists

Median Salary: $76,950

Projected Job Growth: 53%

Education and Training: PhD or PsyD

Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists

Median Salary: $40,850

Projected Job Growth: 31%

Education and Training: Master’s degree in psychology, social work, counseling, marriage and family therapy, or a related mental health field

Psychiatric Technicians and Aides

Median Salary: $31,130

Projected Job Growth: 11%

Education and Training: Postsecondary certificate in psychiatric or mental health technology for psychiatric technicians; High school diploma or equivalent for psychiatric aides

School and Career Counselors

Median Salary: $53,370

Projected Job Growth: 17%

Education and Training: Master’s degree in school counseling or a related field

Social Workers

Median Salary: $42,120

Projected Job Growth: 19%

Education and Training: Bachelor’s degree in social work or closely-related field for entry-level positions. Master’s degree in social work for some positions, such as those in schools and in health care

Sociologists

Median Income: $72,810

Projected Job Growth: 15%

Education and Training: Master’s degree or Ph.D. in sociology

Substance Abuse and Behavior Disorder Counselors

Median Income: $39,270

Projected Job Growth: 31%

Education and Training: Ranges from high school diploma to master’s degree

Health Psychology Career Resources