The world of psychology is vast, with many potential career paths to choose from. The most common specializations in the broad view of psychology include that of psychologist, social worker, counselor and therapist. There are then numerous specializations under those four umbrellas. Choosing one of the four paths, then choosing a specialization, can be a daunting task. This guide can help you figure out which path is right for you.
Dr. Chelsi Day is a clinical and sport psychologist currently employed at Indiana University Kokomo in the Office of Counseling and Psychological Services. She has worked in a variety of settings including geropsychology and in private practice.
As the specialty name implies, this area of psychology uses psychological research and theories to counsel, diagnose and treat individuals with addictions. Addiction psychologists take various psychological approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, behaviorism and psychodynamics to treat and better understand addictions.
Also known as behavioral neuroscience, biopsychology is the study of the biological basis for human behavior. Biopsychology is not just limited to how and why humans act a certain way, but includes how human behavior interacts with other biological systems, such as the immune system, cardiovascular system and nervous system. The study of biopsychology often involves examination of the human brain on the cellular level and how it relates to human behavior.
Cognitive psychology is the study of the human thought process. Mental activities such as thinking, memory, learning, reasoning, perception and language are all part of this psychology specialty. Cognitive psychology is a very influential psychology specialty as it affects many other psychology specialties, such as education psychology, social psychology and development psychology.
Counseling psychology can be thought of as a specialty that applies psychological concepts to people and their everyday lives. For example, stress management, coping with negative events and mental disorders are all addressed with counseling psychology. The counseling psychology specialty covers many areas including psychological counseling, education and health improvement.
Developmental psychology is the study of how humans change over the course of their lives. Developmental psychologists study both how the human mind develops and ages and how human social interactions and cultures change over time.
Educational psychology is concerned with how people learn. Various psychological concepts such as motivation, intelligence, personality and cognition are all examined to understand their roles in learning. Appropriately, much of what is learned and studied applies to the classroom setting.
This specialty focuses on exploration of psychological questions through utilization of scientific and research methods. When you think of human or animal subjects hooked up to machines or mice running a maze, you’re probably picturing experimental psychology at work.
Forensic psychology involves applying psychological concepts within the legal system. Forensic psychologists help the court system by explaining psychological concepts to court and law enforcement personnel and providing psychological advice and assessment, especially as expert witnesses. Job duties can include psychological assessment of criminals, evaluation of witness credibility and assisting law enforcement with criminal profiling.
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As its name implies, health psychology is the specialization that examines how human psychology and behavior affect health. Health psychologists research connections as to how good health can be promoted through psychological concepts. Health psychologists also educate others on how illnesses can be caused or alleviated by certain behaviors or mental processes.
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Human factors psychology is the intersection of mechanical engineering, ergonomics and psychological principles. Based on experimental data, human factor psychologists design and engineer objects humans interact with so that they may be used more effectively or more safely.
Industrial and organizational psychology can also be thought of as office psychology, as it is the scientific examination of human behavior in the workplace and similar organizations. This specializations looks at the how and why of workers: what motivates them, how to make them happy and what can keep them satisfied.
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Media psychology studies how various forms of media and technology affect human behavior. The media psychology specialty is very useful for marketing and studying the effects of social media.
This specialty takes psychological concepts and gives them military applications. Military psychologists help military personnel both on and off the battlefield by helping them with post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout, and gaining strategic and tactical advantage over a soldier’s adversary, among many other points.
The pediatric psychology specialty applies psychological principles within the field of pediatric or children’s health. Much of pediatric psychology focuses on using psychological theories to promote healthy behaviors in children, but it also looks at children’s relationship with their families, healthcare providers and peers.
Social psychologists examine how the human mind is affected by others, real or imagined. Topics studied include why people act a certain way with others, why people have prejudices and why and how certain attitudes exist. While similar to sociology, social psychology looks at the micro level factors (such as individual attitudes and human perception) that affect human and behavior, while sociology takes a broader view and looks at how social institutions and broad populations affect human behavior.
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Sport psychology looks at the mental aspect of athletic performance. Sports psychologists study various psychological factors and how they can affect sports and exercise, whether it be a faster way to recover from injury or how to improve clutch performance. The effect sports and exercise has the human mind is also studied.
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These counselors provide advice to individuals who suffer from addictions and/or substance abuse. More specifically, they help develop ways to stop addictions and substance abuse by meeting with clients to discuss ways to change the clients’ behavior and/or attitudes to make quitting easier.
For those needing help with career decisions, a career or vocational counselor can help. These counselors work with individuals by giving them advice on making the best career and educational choices to achieve their professional goals. Advice given can range from how to make a resume more marketable, recommending a college major and how to communicate better with the boss.
Those in this specialty treat child patients on almost any issue that affects children, such as abuse, family problems, and mental illness. Because child pediatric counselors can work with young children, part of their task is to find effective means of communicating and treating those who may not be able to utilize talk-based therapies.
College counselors focus on helping individuals in post-high school education, often those enrolled at colleges and universities. College and graduate school is often a stressful time for many students, so many schools have college counselors available to help students deal with problems such as career decisions, academic pressure, family problems and relationship issues.
These counselors provide assistance to those who are in bad situations at home. The assistance can include coping with domestic violence, finding a way to escape the violence and learning to successfully live a new life away from the abuser. Domestic violence counselors can also help victims cope with the emotional trauma, which may continue to affect the victim in her everyday life even after they are removed from the abuse.
A forensic counselor works with criminal defendants and incarcerated (or formerly incarcerated) individuals. Tasks can include substance abuse and mental health treatments. Some forensic counselors also provide expert testimony and advice to court personnel regarding an individual’s mental health status or recommended course of treatment.
Some mental health problems are more likely to affect those later in life; therefore, geriatric counselors are specially trained to deal with these issues. Additionally, geriatric counsels help older individuals with everyday living due to normal mental and physical changes that occur with age.
As the name implies, grief counselors help people deal with grief, usually stemming from a substantial negative life event, such as the death of someone close. Also known as bereavement counselors, grief counselors facilitate and ease grieving individuals through the multiple stages of grief so that they may be able to “move on” or move forward through a terrible time.
Humanistic counseling uses humanistic principles to help people. Humanistic principles are based on the idea that every person is inherently good and has the ability to use their creativity, free will and emotions to achieve self-actualization. Humanistic counselors focus on personal growth to improve lives.
LGBTQ counselors tailor their energy to helping individuals live in a world where their sexual preferences and/or identities are the minority. In addition to helping sexual minorities deal with prejudice and learn to accept who they are, counselors can also advocate for LGBTQ equality.
Marriage and family counselors work with individuals on both emotional and mental health issues, but do so with a family-focused approach. This is necessary due to the relationships that exist among family members. Even when treating the individual, marriage and family counselors often need to treat the individual’s relationships, as well.
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Mental health counselors treat people with a wide variety of mental and emotional problems or issues. They help those who are having trouble mentally or emotionally for any number of reasons, such as trouble at home, financial problems, eating disorders, low self-esteem or depression. Mental health counselors often work in tandem with psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists to treat patients.
Multicultural counseling aims to facilitate acceptance and remove prejudices among those from different cultures and backgrounds. Although a less well-known type of counseling, multicultural counseling is very important in today’s globalized and interconnected society. With so many different ideas, cultures and beliefs so widely expressed, friction between those of different backgrounds is inevitable.
Rehabilitation counselors help those with mental or physical disabilities by working with them to adjust to their limitations. This assistance can be in the form helping the client accept the disability, identify resources to assist the client and advocate on behalf of the client to obtain accommodations (at home or at work) should they be necessary. Rehabilitation counselors may also work with other individuals treating the client in order to facilitate client needs.
These counselors work with students to help them succeed as students and grow as individuals. Found at all levels of a student’s educational journey, school counselors counsel students by helping them handle issues with family and fellow students, identify signs of possible abuse, provide academic and study advice, and work with teachers and family members as necessary.
See our counseling page for more info on school counselor careers.
These specialists utilize spiritual and religious concepts to help those who are suffering from spiritual suffering or uneasiness. Some spiritual counselors may be associated with a specific religion, but others may not. Either way, spiritual counselors help others by utilizing the belief that there are higher powers and a connection with humanity.
Warfare is a traumatic and stressful, to say the least. It’s no wonder that current and former soldiers often have a difficult time coping with combat experiences and/or adjusting to civilian or non-combat life. Veteran counselors help soldiers and their families with these difficult times by providing therapy, counseling and advocacy services.
In addition to punishment, the criminal justice system aims to rehabilitate inmates so that when they reenter society, they will provide a positive contribution. This rehabilitation is where corrections social workers step in, by helping inmates with problems that may lead to breaking the law, such as anger issues, substance abuse and mental health problems.
Clinical social work is probably the broadest area of social work. However, generally speaking, clinical social workers spend much of their time assessing and treating individuals with mental or emotional problems, such as those suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts.
These social workers protect families and children who need assistance. Family and child social workers may help parents during a national disaster or who are in financial need, or they may stand up for children who are the victims of abuse or neglect.
Geriatric social work involves helping older clients with problems that may arise as they age. Whether the increased trouble in daily living is due to mental or physical impairments or problems, geriatric social workers help their older clients live a satisfying life.
Healthcare social workers help patients with their medical care and adjusting their life to their change in health. For example, a health social worker may explain a medical diagnosis in terms the patient can more easily understand or provide logistical assistance when the patient is moving from hospital to home care.
Hospice and palliative care social workers deal with clients who are in severe pain and/or dying, often the result of a serious sickness. Palliative care focuses on pain relief while hospice is focused on impending death. Whether pain, death or both, hospice and palliative care social workers help clients deal with their unfortunate situation as best as possible.
School social workers have the goal of maximizing students’ potential by creating an ideal learning environment at school and helping students with out-of-school problems or issues. Whether it’s an abusive or neglectful parent, bullying or academic pressure, school social workers work with students to make them happier, healthier and safer.
Art therapists use the art mediums (such as painting, drawing, sculpting, etc.) to treat physical and/or emotional problems in a person. By using art’s creative process, an art therapist can improve the health of the person by bring self-awareness, solving emotional turmoil and managing behavior or addictions.
Occupational therapists help people live the life they want to live. They do this by helping people endure rehabilitation after an injury, cope with a disability or achieve a certain goal. For example, an occupational therapist may help a patient learn to write or speak again after suffering from a stroke.
Marriage and family therapists work with families and couples to resolve relationship problems or issues. They can help find causes of relationship strife as well as suggest ways to resolve them by allowing families and couples to solve and treat them together.
Music therapy can be used to treat any number of issues, including emotional, physical, mental or those related to relationships. A music therapist first assesses the individual, then decides on how to use music to improve their health.
Dr. Chelsi Day, a clinical and sport psychologist, discusses her work in psychology.
I am currently employed as the director of a college counseling center at a small university. Being at a small university, I am the only full time staff member. This means that I am responsible for all parts of the functioning of the center; from the less exciting budget and electronic medical record management to the more exciting treatment and prevention planning.
The majority of my days are spent providing one-on-one psychotherapy to the students at our university. Many days I attend various university committee meetings on things related to or that have an impact on student mental health and wellbeing. I also spend some time planning and executing outreach events which are programs for our campus that serve the purpose of educating our campus community about the services provided at our counseling center as well as achieving prevention objectives to reach students before they have mental health emergencies with the hope of preventing them.
In my sport psychology role, which is limited with this position, I work on mental health aspects with athletes but also consult with them to help with performance issues to maximize their athletic potential.
I took an intro to psychology course in high school through a college placement program. I found myself completely fascinated with the topic; the theories, the ideas, the concepts. The further I’ve traveled into my education and continue to travel into my career, the more fascinating the human mind continues to get. I’ve always been a “helper” type, so my typical answer has always been “to help people”. But with all of helping options, psychology has always been one that seemed to be the best fit for me.
I always knew I would go into psychology, but I did consider different areas of psychology. When I first entered college, I thought I would be a criminal profiler for the FBI. I thought it would be fascinating to understand the criminal mind and get to be involved in stopping those committing heinous crimes and hopefully helping to prevent them in the first place.
After an FBI representative told me about the phases within the FBI that had to occur (many years in the FBI as an agent before getting to do the job), I redirected. Briefly, I entertained the idea of working within the prison system for a similar reason before recognizing that I wanted to work with college aged students and, when possible, student-athletes.
The biggest piece of advice I have is to do the research. I love my job, I love the career I’ve chosen, I love going to work on Monday mornings, and I’m always excited to get back in the office after a vacation. That being said, it’s been a really demanding path with 4 years of undergraduate study, 5 years of graduate study, a dissertation, and another year before becoming licensed.
It takes a lot of work if you want to switch states as a licensed mental health provider and the money in helping professions is often not great. But I find my job to be rewarding almost every day and I feel so fulfilled in the career I’ve chosen.
I think in doing the research, it is important to reach out to people doing the job(s) you think you might want. Learn what they look like and how it might fit with your interests.
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Psychologists study various aspects of the human mind. This can include pure research, treating individuals with mental health problems or giving psychology theories practical applications by applying them to everyday problems and challenges.
A Ph.D. or Psy.D. is required to become a psychologist, especially if conducting research or clinical work. A master’s degree may be sufficient for certain psychology specialties, such as industrial-organizational psychology.
Most states require licensure in order to practice as a psychologist. Licensure usually requires a doctorate degree, an internship, several years of experiences and passing the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology.
Certification applies to those who want to have a specialty within psychology. Therefore, certification is usually optional, but can improve marketability by having independent verification of a requisite amount of knowledge in a given psychology specialty.
Counselors help people with any number of problems. They can work in a wide range of areas, usually using psychotherapy or other forms of therapy to help their patients.
In order to practice with clients, licensure is needed, which requires a master’s degree in counseling, psychology or a related field.
Licensure is required and can be obtained with a master’s degree, passage of an exam (such as the National Counselor Examination or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination) and a certain amount of supervised clinical experience.
Obtaining a certification is not usually required and can be obtained in order to gain additional knowledge in a specialty area, such as family and marriage, social work or vocational counseling.
Social workers help people cope with and solve problems. This usually involves identifying the problem, referring clients to additional resources and providing treatment as necessary. In essence, social workers work directly with people who are actively facing a life challenge.
A bachelor’s degree in social work is the minimum level of education needed to be a social worker. However, a master’s degree in social work is highly recommended as it is required for many social worker positions, such as those in healthcare or education.
Clinical social workers must be licensed in all states, although social workers in a nonclinical setting may not need to be licensed. Licensure requires a master’s degree, passage of a clinical exam and a minimum number of years of supervised experience.
Certification is a voluntary process by which social workers can verify that they possess the requisite amount of knowledge about a certain area of social work. While optional, certification can improve a social worker’s professional potential.
Within the mental health realm, therapists generally treat people with emotional problems with psychotherapy or some other form of holistic or alternative methods such as massage, music or art.
Due to the broad range of areas therapists can work in, there isn’t a set level of education needed to become one. However, a master’s degree is usually necessary for licensure and the ability to utilize psychotherapy to treat patients. A doctorate can also be useful, but is not required.
Becoming licensed is generally required and consists of a master’s degree, clinical experience and passing a state approved examination.
Optional board and specialty certifications for therapists are available in certain specialties, such as gerontology, mental health and sexuality.
Now that you know the difference between the most popular specializations in psychology and related fields, how do you narrow down the options? Ask yourself these questions:
Bachelor’s Degree: Therapist, some social work positions
Art therapist, music therapist, entry-level social worker
Master’s Degree: Social worker, therapist, counselor
Occupational therapist, licensed clinical social worker
Clinical psychologist, forensic psychologist
Private practice: psychologist, counselor, therapist
Domestic violence counselor, marriage and family therapist, counseling psychologist
Hospitals or clinics: Psychologist, social worker, some counselors and therapists
Occupational therapist, clinical psychologist, healthcare social worker, grief counselor
Rehabilitation centers: counselors or therapists
Occupational therapist, mental health therapist
Government agencies: psychologists or social workers
Industrial-organizational psychologist, community psychologist, media psychologist, corrections social worker
Social service organizations: social workers
School social worker, public health social worker, family and child social worker
A decent living: counselor or therapist
Career counselor, school counselor, marriage and family therapist, art therapist
A nice nest egg: psychologist
Clinical psychologist, military psychologist, sports psychologist
The rewards are far more than money: social worker
Clinical social worker, school social worker, substance abuse social worker
Every day: counselor or therapist, psychologist in private practice
Clinical psychologist, grief counselor, marriage and family therapist
Sometimes, depending on the workplace: social worker, psychologist
Clinical social worker, public health social worker, educational psychologist
Developmental psychologist, forensic psychologist
There are many factors that play into the salary of those in the psychological professions, including the demand in a particular state, whether a person works in the public or private sector, the specialty itself, years of experience before taking the job, and much more. Geographical location plays a key role in how much a person can expect to be paid. This salary map of the United States highlights those differences and can help an aspiring therapist, counselor, psychologist or social worker make an informed decision about where to work.