A common misconception among those pursuing an advanced degree in psychology is that the degree will automatically lead to a career as a mental health care provider. While there are opportunities available to those interested in seeking a career to help people struggling with mental illness, there are also many nonclinical jobs available to those with a graduate degree in psychology.
"There's a general impression, which is incorrect, that if you major in psychology, you immediately want to go into the health professions, and you immediately are going to be a psychotherapist or work with people with emotional problems and that sort of thing," says Donald Leitner, a professor and chair of psychology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia who holds a Ph.D. "And that is only true of a branch of psychology, which is clinical psychology. There are many other branches of the modern discipline of psychology."
For instance, some psychology degree holders become researchers, who use scientific experiments to clarify how the human mind works, while others design and administer IQ tests and personality assessments.
Also, keep in mind therapists and counselors don't necessarily cater to individuals who suffer from serious mental health problems. "We're not only dealing with people with specific psychological, let's use the word, 'illnesses' or 'challenges,'" says William Gibson, an associate professor of psychology at Brandman University in Irvine, California who has a Ph.D. in psychology and specializes in marriage and family therapy.
Gibson says psychologists sometimes help psychologically healthy individuals find happiness.
The American Psychological Association offers an overview of the many types of jobs someone can get with a psychology degree in its online publication, "Careers in Psychology." The publication notes that the term psychologist is reserved for psychology degree holders who have doctorates, and identifies more than 15 types of psychologists.
Here's a breakdown of different types:
- Clinical psychologists: These health care providers diagnose and treat mental health problems, including short-term issues and chronic conditions.
- Cognitive and perceptual psychologists: Psychologists in this field focus on how people see, understand and communicate with the outside world and how people remember their past experiences. Researchers look for treatments for people with various brain disorders, while clinicians provide support to those with brain disorders.
- Community psychologists: These psychologists advise communities that are facing significant crises, such as disease epidemics and crime sprees, on the psychological aspects of such problems.
- Counseling psychologists: These therapists and counselors help people cope with difficult personal situations and provide guidance on how to achieve life goals.
- Developmental psychologists: These are experts in how the human mindset changes over the course of a lifespan and often conduct aging-related research. As clinicians, these psychologists assist children and adolescents struggling with psychological growing pains.
- Educational psychologists: These professionals specialize in the psychology of teaching and learning and focus on improving student outcomes.
- Engineering psychologists: Often called "human factors specialists" or "human factors psychologists," these experts help design machines that are easy for people to use.
- Environmental psychologists: These are experts in how the physical and social environment surrounding an individual affects the way that person feels and thinks.
- Evolutionary psychologists: These experts examine how natural selection has shaped human brains and influenced the way we think.
- Experimental psychologists: These researchers conduct psychological experiments on humans and animals to answer scientific questions.
- Forensic psychologists: These professionals focus on issues with legal implications, such as whether a criminal defendant is psychologically fit to face a trial, and may help law enforcement solve crimes.
- Health psychologists: These psychologists figure out how people with poor health habits can maximize their well-being.
- Industrial-organizational psychologists: These professionals concentrate on the way human psychology impacts the performance of businesses and other organizations.
- Neuropsychologists: Sometimes called behavioral neuropsychologists, these are experts in how the biology of the brain and nervous system impacts human behavior, thoughts and feelings.
- Quantitative and measurement psychologists: These mathematically-inclined professionals ensure that data from psychological experiments and assessments are accurately interpreted, and create models that facilitate a precise data analysis.
- Rehabilitation psychologists: These professionals provide counseling and treatment to people with traumatic physical injuries or serious disabilities.
- School psychologists: These care providers offer psychological support to students and their families.
- Social psychologists: These psychologists focus on the ways that society influences the way people think and act, and study the way people in relationships interact with each other.
- Sport psychologists: These psychologists focus on helping athletes maintain motivation and resilience during competitions.
Nonacademic, Nonclinical Psychology Careers
Karen Stamm, the director of the Center for Workforce Studies at the American Psychological Association, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, says it's common for people with psychology doctorates to have jobs outside of academia and health care.
"Only about half of psychology doctorates work in 'traditional' occupations (psychologist or psychology professor)," Stamm wrote in an email. "The other half work in a variety of occupations, such [as] professors in fields other than psychology, managers and administrators, writers, etc."
Psychologists often conduct research for clients and serve as industry consultants, says Susann Doyle-Portillo, an associate department head of psychological science at the University of North Georgia who holds a doctorate.
"For example, a human factors psychologist [an engineering psychologist] may work for an auto manufacturer to help design instrument panels in cars that promote safety and ease of use by consumers," Portillo wrote in an email. "A social psychologist may consult with trial attorneys on ways to best persuade juries. A developmental psychologist may help design educational toys or software and so on."
Job Opportunities Vary Depending on the Type of Degree
Julie Gurner, a former professor of psychology who has a Psy.D. degree in clinical psychology and now works as a business consultant, says the jobs psychology degree holders are marketable for depends on their specific discipline.
"For example, someone who is in experimental psychology would spend their career conducting research, while someone with a clinical psychology degree would likely be in academics or health care. There are so many different types of psychology that are not related to counseling that most do not realize," Gurner said via email.
A Psychology Doctorate Can Lead to Lucrative Jobs
Erin Reynolds, a Texas-based clinical director who holds a master's degree and Psy.D. doctorate in clinical psychology, says a doctorate in psychology is typically more marketable and profitable than a less advanced degree.
"Only those with a doctorate in psychology can use the title 'psychologist,'" Reynolds wrote in an email. "This opens many more doors in terms of what you can do and how much autonomy you can have in the workplace. It also allows you to bill for services at a higher rate than a master's level clinician in many cases."
Reynolds says a bachelor's degree in psychology "is a great generalist degree that allows you to apply to grad school, law school, or even medical school, but on its own doesn’t amount to much more than a liberal arts degree."
However, some psychology degree holders who only have a bachelor's or master's degree in psychology say that a psychology doctorate was not necessary for them to achieve their career goals. Meg Schmitz, a senior franchise consultant with FranChoice, a company that matches prospective franchise owners with a business that fits their skills and interests, says that her college degree in psychology provided her with training for her first job at a personnel agency.
A Master's or Bachelor's Can Offer an Array of Career Paths
"Many undergraduates find employment after graduation in areas such as human resources, law enforcement, employment counseling, insurance companies, nonprofit organizations, child care, mental health, health care settings, public affairs, business, sales, administrative support and so on," Doyle-Portillo wrote in an email.
Julia Simens, a retired school counselor who has a master's degree in clinical psychology, notes that she did not need a doctorate in order to establish a fulfilling psychology career. "In my position, having a doctorate would have made no difference whatsoever," Simens says.
The Difference Between a Psy.D. and a Ph.D.
Experts note an important distinction between a research doctorate in psychology, known as a Ph.D., and a clinical doctorate, known as a Psy.D. While the Ph.D. is the traditional degree for aspiring psychology researchers, the Psy.D. is designed for future psychology clinicians.
"Ph.D. programs are the gold standard for those going into psychological research, and Ph.D. degrees are typically required or desired for most academic and high-level industry jobs," Nick Schweitzer, an associate professor at Arizona State University's School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, wrote in an email.
Sarah Gray, the founder of a Massachusetts psychology practice and a psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School who holds a Psy.D., says that she chose to get a Psy.D. as opposed to a Ph.D. because she was most interested in therapy. "I knew I would want to spend most of my time practicing psychology as opposed to working in a research lab."
How to Choose a Psychology Program
"It's important to note that a graduate degree in psychology does not, in and of itself, allow someone to provide psychotherapy services," says Carla Marie Manly, a California-based clinical psychologist who holds a Ph.D. "Internships and licensure are required to obtain the necessary accreditation to provide services to clients."
Psychology degree holders say that a formal education in how the human mind works is useful for numerous career paths. Understanding how people think is especially useful in professions that involve understanding or influencing public opinion, such as advertising or politics, experts suggest.
According to Schweitzer, "Psychology is actually a very diverse field. While many people think of psychology as the study and treatment of mental health issues, the field is about understanding everything about human behaviors, thoughts and emotions."
Read the full article on U.S. News & World Report.