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How to Become a Psychologist in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Nearly 1 in every 4 American adults suffer from one form of diagnosable mental illness or another. That’s over 50 million people and just about 26% of the entire population. These cases range from mild, moderate to severe. 

According to a survey carried out by the American Association of Psychologists, at least 48% of the population says they would gladly see a psychologist or mental health professional to diagnose the issue and help manage them. 

This shows that while a good majority of the population may be suffering from mental health problems, society, in general, isn’t blind to the fact that licensed psychologists are an important part of this fight. 

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that this particular industry will grow at an estimated rate of 3% through 2029. Although that is about the average growth rate projection for most industries, it shows that there’s demand for qualified psychologists will remain constant. 

This means that this is an excellent career option for people inclined to help others work through mental illness. 

Types of Psychologists

The field of psychology is rather broad. However, it can be divided into two main areas:

  • Research Psychology: This is any type of psychology that looks to increase the overall knowledge base of the science
  • Practice Psychology: This is the side of the practice through which this acquired knowledge is put to practice and used to solve real-world problems, including mental health

There are numerous different types of psychologists practicing the science to diverse ends within these two main branches. Here is an overview of some of the main types of psychologists in practice today:

1. Clinical Psychologists

A Clinical Psychologist is a professional who assesses, diagnoses, and treats patients who experience psychological distress or any kind of mental illness. These psychologists also carry out psychotherapy and work hand in hand with the patient to develop the right treatment plan based on the analysis and diagnosis.

For the most part, clinical psychologists work in a wide range of settings, including:

  • Mental health clinics
  • Hospitals
  • Private practice

While the typical Clinical Psychologist is trained in a wide range of treatment techniques that allow them to help mental health patients, it’s not uncommon for these professionals to choose a specific focus. This often includes specializing in a specific type of disorder or simply working with a specific section of the population. A good example would be clinical psychologists focusing on areas such as:

  • Child mental health
  • Geriatric mental health
  • Adult mental health
  • Substance abuse treatment

While it’s common for a Clinical Psychologist to work in a medical setting, these professionals shouldn’t be mistaken for physicians and can’t prescribe medication. 

2. Counseling Psychologists

Perhaps one of the most common types of psychologists, Counseling Psychologists, are trained and licensed to help patients deal with their day-to-day stresses. Whenever a patient suffers any kind of stressful or traumatic moment in their life, they are advised to seek help from a Counseling Psychologist who is equipped to listen and help them work through the trauma or distress in a mentally healthy manner. 

While Counseling Psychologists and Clinical Psychologists all help patients, the former works closely with people who suffer emotional strain that can be brought about the social or other physical factors while the latter diagnoses and treats mental disorders. In this regard, grief counselors or marriage counselors can be categorized as Counseling Psychologists. 

3. Developmental Psychologists

Developmental Psychologists are those professionals who focus on researching human development across the entirety of the human lifespan. These professionals often perform a wide variety of tasks such as:

  • Investing in the myriad issues associated with aging
  • Studying how growing individuals acquire language skills
  • Evaluating children who show signs of developmental problems

As is the case with most of the different types of psychologists in the profession, a Developmental Psychologist can choose to study the field in general or simply focus on a specific period in the human lifespan such as adulthood, adolescence, early childhood, or old age. 

Some professionals within this field choose to focus on the research end of things by adding to the knowledge base within the discipline. Others, however, choose to take that knowledge and practically apply it or try using it to solve day-to-day issues, such as helping clients who have developmental issues find a way to cope or make the best of the situation by understanding it. 

4. Educational Psychologists

Educational Psychologists take the time to study the process of learning and anything that can hinder or improve it along the way. An Educational Psychologist’s job involves developing suitable teaching techniques or developing instructional strategies that can help advance the learning process in differently gifted or challenged individuals. That’s why most Educational Psychologists choose to either focus on giftedness or study the various types of learning disabilities. 

Furthermore, Educational Psychologists pay close attention to have a myriad of factors such as the social, emotional, and cognitive impact on the overall learning process of an individual. A section of professionals within the field focuses mainly on finding out what potential threats to the learning process exist and neutralizing such threats. 

5. Forensic Psychologists

Forensic Psychologists are professionals who are tasked with focusing on how psychology relates to law. These individuals typically act as consultants who help the authorities figure out why people do the things they do in terms of crime and identify potential triggers that might cause violent behavior. 

Interest in this field has grown mostly due to the positive depictions garnered from popular TV shows. Although these TV shows depict Forensic Psychologists as detectives who work out in the field outsmarting and catching criminals, the depiction is somewhat skewed from reality. For the most part, a Forensic Psychologist:

  • Assess both adult and juvenile offenders for any risk of recidivism
  • Evaluate competency and the ability of an accused to stand trial
  • Work with child witnesses
  • Offer professional testimony in court

Still very important work but nowhere near as action-packed as one would expect going by what is depicted in TV shows. 

6. Industrial-Organizational Psychologists

Industrial-Organizational Psychologists are professionals who study workplace behavior and come up with viable systems that allow companies to select the best employees and increase their productivity. 

These professionals use their knowledge of psychological principles to come up with the right kind of assessment tests to screen the perfect candidates for highly specific and sensitive organizational roles.

In many cases, an in-house Industrial-Organizational Psychologist is tasked with developing viable training programs for a company’s employees. These systems are often set in place to help:

  • Increase employee productivity
  • Maximize efficiency
  • Increase knowledge
  • Minimize injuries

Furthermore, an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist could be tasked with assessing the business from an organizational level. This means that they must find new ways of improving efficiency and lowering costs while increasing employee retention and satisfaction. 

7. School Psychologists

A School Psychologist’s job is to help school-aged children cope with any emotional, social, academic, and behavior problems that arise in a school setting. These professionals often collaborate with teachers, parents, students, and other staff members to create as suitable a learning environment as possible. The idea is to have a healthy, productive, and supportive school environment for both school-going children and staff. 

In a school setting, the School Psychologist is available for children who may be suffering or struggling with emotional, academic, and behavioral issues. Whether the kids need to talk or require guidance, it’s the School Psychologist’s job to determine the best cause of action to try and resolve whatever issues the student might be facing. 

While these are just a few of the most common types of psychologists, others apply in various fields. These include:

  • Military Psychologists: These professionals work hand in hand with soldiers suffering from a range of mental health issues, including PTSD or other types of emotional stress. They also carry out a great deal of research into different aspects of the military as a whole. It’s part of their duty to develop better ways for soldiers to serve while remaining mentally healthy and socially fit. 
  • Social Psychologists: These professionals investigate common social problems such as group dynamics, prejudice, attitudes, interpersonal relationships, and aggression, among other social problems. 
  • Research Psychologists: These are professionals who focus fully on researching various principles of the psychology field. 

The type of psychology field a student chooses to pursue mostly depends on their personal orientation. Students who are naturally good with kids might be better suited to be school psychologists, child psychologists, or counseling psychologists. Just like individuals who desire to work in the military can focus on becoming Military Psychologists. 

Degrees Required for Psychologists

Becoming a psychologist is just as complicated as becoming a physician. Similarly, in this field, the number of years an individual spends in school fully depends on the kind of psychologist that individual wants to become. Here are the three most important steps one must take to become a psychologist:

Step 1: Earn a Degree

There’s simply no way to become a licensed psychologist without attaining the necessary education. The very first thing individuals should do when they choose this career path is preparing for years of rigorous schooling. 

However, the educational track doesn’t always look the same as it all depends on the individual’s ultimate goal. While there are a few exceptions to this rule, candidates will need to attain a doctoral degree in their chosen field of psychology if they are to become a psychologist. 

For example, if the candidate is more interested in research, pursuing a Ph.D. in their psychological field is the best course of action. However, if they are more interested in the practical side of the science, then getting a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) would be best. 

That being said, here are the different degree requirements for psychologists:

Bachelor’s Degree

The best course of action is to begin by getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field such as sociology. In some cases, depending on the requirements set forth by the chosen graduate school, students might not even need to have a degree in psychology or a related field. 

However, a degree is necessary and the first step towards becoming a psychologist. It’s important to note that for students who go for degrees that aren’t in psychology or a related field, the chances that they would need to complete a mandatory number of prerequisites before getting accepted into a psychology-related graduate program.

Master’s Degree

It should be noted that a master’s degree isn’t always necessary for aspiring psychologists to find work. For the most part, however, attaining a master’s degree is the best way for the individual to delve much deeper into their chosen field of psychology. 

There are two ways an individual can use their master’s degree to enhance their career. One is to take on what is known as a terminal master’s degree in their chosen field, such as social work, counseling, or school psychology which allows them to attain the highest possible recognition in that field. 

Two is to use the master’s degree as a stepping stone towards attaining a doctorate. They can simply choose to go directly into a Psy.D or a Ph.D. program that either takes them towards research or a certified and specialized expert in a specific field. 

Doctorate Degree

To become a licensed psychologist who can start their own practice, candidates need to earn a Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) or a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy). How long either one of these programs takes the individual to complete will depend on a few factors, including the type of psychology they chose and whether or not they completed a master’s degree before getting to this point. 

As is the case with almost every individual’s choice from the bachelor’s degree level to the highest pinnacle of the field, the doctorate they choose to pursue depends on their personal career goals. 

Candidates interested more in research rather than the practical end of psychology should aim to pursue a Ph.D. as these programs are more focused on experimental methods, research and largely train graduates to work as scientists within the field. 

Those who are interested in practicality should think about pursuing a Psy.D program. These programs are more practical and suitable for candidates who have ambitions of starting their own private practice someday. 

It is recommended that students enroll in APA-Accredited Programs for all their specialized studies. These programs are expertly designed, but they are held to the highest possible educational standards as set forth by the governing bodies. Furthermore, certification from any of these programs is recognizable across the entire field. 

Degree Requirements for Various Types of Psychology

As already mentioned, to become a licensed psychologist, one needs to complete a master’s degree. However, this isn’t always the only route towards working in this field. 

There are many different types of psychology career paths that, although closely related with the science itself, don’t require individuals to attain a master’s or even a Psy.D to practice. 

It should also be noted that every state has its own licensing requirements, just like every type of psychology has its own educational requirements. That being said, here are the degree requirements for some of the most popular types of psychology:

  • Social Worker: Candidates require a bachelor’s degree, which takes about 4 to 5 years of undergraduate school. 
  • Sports Psychologist: Candidates require a master’s degree, which takes about three years of graduate school.
  • Licensed Counselor: Candidates need to attain a master’s degree, which takes about three years of graduate school.
  • School Psychologist: This varies with every state, but for the most part, it requires a master’s degree, which takes about three years of graduate school.
  • Criminal Psychologist: This requires a master’s degree.
  • Clinical Psychologist: Candidates need to attain a Doctorate Degree, which takes about 4 to 7 years of graduate school. 

Other fields such as Health Psychologist, Social Psychologist, and Child Psychologist all require the candidate to have a Doctorate Degree and take about 4 to 7 years of graduate school to complete. 

Step 2: Complete a Postdoctoral Program or an Internship

Once the candidate has completed either their degree, be it a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral, they must have some real-world experience under the supervision of a recognized professional in their field of interest. 

Many states require individuals to spend at least 1,500 – 2,000 hours of supervised training alongside an already licensed psychologist. That typically translates to about 1 or 2 years of supervised learning. 

Step 3: Earn Licensure

The kind of licenses psychologists need to practice will depend on the state they intend to practice. The best way to go about it is to research specific state requirements through platforms such as the ASPPB (Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards). 

While there are specific educational and professional requirements that individuals must meet before applying for licensure, there’s also an examination (Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology) administered by ASPPB that they must pass. 

How to Choose a Psychology Career Track or Specialty

Whenever it comes to choosing the right path, the answer always comes down to the individual.

  • What is it they like?
  • What would they find fulfilling?
  • How much are they willing to put in to get what they need?

Choosing a psychology career is very much the same despite the fact that there are real-world consequences involved. For example, choosing one psychology career path over another could very well be the difference between spending four years in school or spending up to 7 or even more. 

Here are some tips that candidates can use to help them choose the right psychology specialty for them: 

Decide with Whom They Would Like to Work

One of the best ways for candidates to decide which kind of psychology specialty they would like to explore is to first decide with whom they would like to work. This often falls into a particular age group such as:

  • Children
  • The elderly
  • Adults
  • Women
  • Adolescents
  • Married couples
  • Families

It could also be approached from an occupation-centered point of view. Maybe the candidate prefers to work with servicemen and women and would rather be a Military Psychologist, or maybe a Counseling Psychologist focused on dealing with specific professionals. 

What the Candidate Would Like to Do

Some people prefer to look at life as one big experiment, and as such, these people tend to enjoy researching complex subject matters. There are very few things in this world more complex than the human mind and psyche. For these people, taking the research psychologist’s approach to all this might be the best path. 

On the other hand, some simply want to be practical and would like to maintain a “solve the problem” kind of approach. These are the candidates who need to focus more on getting their Psy.D and licensing as clinical psychologist, forensic psychologist, etc. 

How Much Education the Candidate Can Take

It should be noted that psychologists, much like every other profession within the human wellness industry, never really stop learning. Not only do new psychological challenges keep cropping up every other day, but there are new research material and breakthrough methods of practicing psychology. 

As such, on-the-job learning and frequent certification courses are just part of the gig. However, some psychology career paths require far more schooling than others to pursue. 

For example, candidates wishing to get licensed as practicing psychologists in fields such as clinical psychology, school psychology, and so on need to be prepared to get their bachelor’s degree and their master’s degree through seven years of graduate school. 

Other fields such as social work only need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree to start professional work.  

In What Kind of Environment, They Would Like to Work

Some psychologists, especially counseling psychologists such as marriage counselors, have the luxury of setting their own working hours, especially if they own their own practice. Others, however, such as clinical psychologists who work in a hospital, need to clock in from 9-5 and work on a tight schedule as required by the organization by which they are employed. 

These are some of the key factors that individuals need to consider before choosing a specific psychology specialty. In what kind of work environment does the candidate thrive? Are they the kind of person who likes to make their own hours or the kind of person who prefers strict structure?

Where Do They Want to Work?

It’s quite normal for candidates to fantasize about their ideal work environment. Maybe it’s a corner office in a swanky downtown office building, or maybe it’s in one of the best hospitals in the country. Where one wants to work plays a big role in determining which career path they should choose. 

Although it’s quite possible to transition most psychology specialties into private practice, in which case the candidate will determine where they work, some simply need to be performed in a specific structure. 

For example, becoming a Military Psychologist will require high-level clearance, which means that the individual can’t simply have an office above a bar in Little Italy. 

It all comes down to the kind of person the candidate is and what they are willing to do to get where they want to go. On the other hand, the choice might be taken out of the individual’s hand altogether. 

Introduction to Psychology classes often covers almost every aspect of science. During these lessons, it’s very likely that the right specialty will find the student depending on which subject they respond to the most instead of the other way round.  

How to Start Your Career in Psychology

Starting a career in psychology is very much like starting any other career, only with a lot more schooling than most. Assuming the candidate is already taking their bachelor’s degree and wants to chart the right path to their ideal career in psychology, here are some steps they can take to jumpstart their career:

  • Take on as many extra credit classes as possible; this expands their knowledge base and marketability
  • Be professionally close to their lecturers who have a network of possible employers
  • Volunteer most of their free time in clinical settings or in the kind of setting that presents them with the best opportunity for employment as per their preferred field
  • Offer to be a research assistant to gain more hands-on experience
  • Find an internship in their ideal work setting

Other than that, it comes down to getting the necessary degrees, licensing, and any additional training they can get to make them an expert in their field. 

Becoming a psychologist takes time and calls for much sacrifice. It is, however, a highly rewarding profession. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for psychologists stands at an impressive $82,180 per annum or $39.51 per hour. This figure significantly increases, especially when one starts a private practice and gains more experience or education in their field. Other than that, the mere fact that this field seeks to make people’s lives and mental health better is good enough.

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