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Career Guide to Becoming a Psychologist

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Are you ready to find your fit?

Interested in a career where you can help others while making an above-average salary? If the idea of helping people overcome social and emotional hurdles is interesting to you, becoming a psychologist might be a good fit. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a psychologist is about $82,180 per year as of 2020. This field is also expected to see a job growth of about 3% from 2019 to 2029, which is on par with the national average. 

The field isn’t just limited to just working directly with mental health clients, either. Psychologists can find work in a variety of fields, including healthcare, business, education, and sports. So, if you’re wondering whether this field is the right fit for you, read on to find out more about this type of career. 

What Is a Psychologist?

A psychologist is a trained professional who studies emotional, mental, and social behaviors to better understand how people think and make decisions. While psychologists can work in a number of different positions or capacities, most practicing psychologists use their professional training and clinical skills to help their clients learn to cope with life issues and mental health problems.

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What Does a Psychologist Do?

In general, psychologists have a wide range of skills, though what they focus on will depend heavily on their specialty and other factors. Some of the duties of a psychologist include: 

  • Listening to patients to observe and determine cognitive, social, and emotional processes
  • Issuing tests to help gain a better understanding of how the patient thinks
  • Diagnosing mental illness 
  • Collaborating with a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medications, as part of a comprehensive treatment plan
  • Coaching patients using different therapy modalities, like cognitive-behavioral, humanistic, psychodynamic, and intrapersonal therapies, to reach a desired outcome 

Psychologist vs. Psychiatrist: What’s the Difference?

While the terms psychologist and psychiatrist are often confused with one another, the reality is that these two roles differ vastly. The primary difference resides in how they assist patients. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medications, whereas psychologists use behavioral therapies to improve a patient’s outlook and outcome. The two often work together to devise a treatment plan that includes both medical interventions and behavioral interventions. 

Both psychologists and psychiatrists are required to complete training well past their undergraduate degrees. Psychiatrists are medical doctors and must complete medical school. From there, they have another four years of residency to complete in psychiatry. Most psychologists, on the other hand, must complete a doctoral program, which can take as long as seven years.

Different Types of Therapists and Counselors

There are a number of different types of psychologists, including:

  • Clinical psychologists: Clinical psychologists, also known as practicing psychologists, work with patients — often in a group or one-on-one setting — to assess and treat mental illnesses through cognitive-behavioral therapy and another type of therapy.
  • School psychologists: School psychologists work within the school district assigned to help children overcome learning and social anxieties or meet their educational goals despite any barriers they may face. These types of psychologists can work with young children through adolescence or into college and adulthood.
  • Forensic psychologists: Forensic psychologists combine the practice of psychology and the law as it applies to the justice system. Psychologists who work in this field generally offer psychological expertise as it applies to the justice system. This could mean serving as an expert witness during a trial, assessing a defendant’s mental acuity, assisting with investigations, completing research studies, or many other tasks related to psychology and the law. 
  • Industrial-organizational psychologists: Industrial-organizational psychologists tend to work in businesses or corporations to help make crucial changes to the company’s culture. This type of psychologist examines the company’s organizational structure to make changes and help improve its productivity and employee morale. 

The Differences Between Degree Types: Bachelor’s, Master’s, Ph.D., and Psy.D. Degrees in Psychology

If you want to become a working psychologist, a bachelor’s degree will not be your stopping point. You will have to obtain either a master’s or doctoral degree as part of the psychology requirements to work directly with patients in most capacities. 

Not familiar with the differences between these types of degrees? Here’s what you should know:

  • Bachelor’s degree: On average, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology takes about four years to complete. Obtaining this undergraduate degree will not make you a counselor, but if you choose to stop your education at your bachelor’s degree, there are many career fields you can pursue. Some options include criminal investigator (FBI), community worker, and psychiatric technician. 
  • Master’s degree: In general, a master’s degree takes between two to four years to earn after you complete your bachelor’s degree. The time it actually takes will depend on your course track and other factors. With a master’s degree in social work or psychology, you can pursue certain counseling roles, like school counselor positions. You can also work in human services, conduct research, or opt to go into a more specialized field.  
  • Ph.D. in psychology: A doctoral degree is the highest post-graduate degree you can earn in the field psychology. Completing your Ph.D. in psychology after your master’s degree can take between five and seven years to complete, and this type of program focuses heavily on the research aspects of psychology. Once you have obtained your Ph.D. in psychology, you can pursue a wide range of roles, like clinical researcher, school psychologist, and others. 
  • Psy. D. in psychology: This doctoral program is an alternative to the research-focused Ph.D. in psychology. It is geared toward those interested in providing psychological services to patients and the public, and is best suited for those who want to apply psychological research to patients in a counselor role. It takes students between four to six years to complete the program. 

How to Become a Psychologist

If you want to become a working psychologist, you’ll need to meet the psychology degree requirements for licensing in your state in order to practice with patients. There are educational and practical requirements you must complete in order to be eligible for licensing in this field. These include:

  • Earning your Bachelor’s degree in psychology, which is required to enroll in a graduate program in psychology.
  • Decide whether you need to obtain a master’s degree or a doctoral degree in psychology. There are different requirements depending on the state and the field you want to work in, so make sure to do your homework before choosing a trajectory for your education. 
  • Take the Graduate Record Examinations test (commonly known as the GRE) in order to make yourself competitive for graduate school and meet admissions requirements for these programs.
  • Research and apply to graduate school. When researching graduate programs, be sure to pay close attention to their admission requirements so you are aware of what you’ll need to be competitive for admission. 
  • Before graduating with your master’s or doctoral degree in psychology, you must complete a specified amount of clinical hours to meet licensing requirements.
  • Other licensing requirements vary depending on the state and your degree type, but in general, you’ll also need to apply for licensing with the state board and pass the exams to become a licensed psychologist. 

Where Do Psychologists Work?

As with any field, your career path as a psychologist will depend heavily on your interests and opportunities. In general, though, psychologists can work in a variety of settings, including:

  • Private practice
  • Mental health clinics
  • Schools
  • Corporate businesses
  • Private rehabilitation centers
  • Government agencies 
  • Sports teams
  • Nursing homes
  • Hospitals
  • Community health centers

Psychologist Salaries

As of 2020, the average salary for all psychologists was about $82,180 per year, according to the BLS. Industrial-organizational psychologists earn a higher average salary — about $96,270 per year, while school psychologists earn, on average, about $79,820. The actual salary you earn will depend heavily on your licensing, education level, experience, and other factors.

Who Should Become a Psychologist?

If you have a fascination with human behavior, mental and behavioral processes, and research, then a career in psychology could be right for you. If you are intellectually curious, enjoy reading, are patient and empathetic, thrive in problem-solving situations, and are ethical, you will have the right skills and temperament for a successful career in psychology. 

That said, it’s important to understand what is required of you to be successful in this field. If you want to go into this field, you will likely need to complete extra education and meet other licensing and career-specific metrics. If you aren’t willing to enroll in a graduate program after your undergraduate education, this may not be the best fit.

Where Can You Earn a Degree in Psychology?

Many universities offer in-person and online programs in psychology, which means you can often complete your undergraduate and graduate degrees remotely. You may also have the option to complete a hybrid degree track, in which you finish your master’s and doctoral programs simultaneously by enrolling in one combined program. The options you have will depend heavily on the schools and programs you choose.

Can You Earn a Degree in Psychology Online?

While it will depend on the college or university, you can, in most cases, earn a degree in psychology online. This is not limited to your bachelor’s degree, either. In many cases, you can pursue a graduate degree in psychology online as well, though you may have to meet state or program requirements for in-person training or research.

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Angelica Leicht

EDITOR

Angelica Leicht is an editor at Best Value Schools who oversees our college rankings, school profiles, and other higher education coverage. She previously served as an education reporter at Kearney Hub, and an editor at the Dallas Observer and Houston Press. Her writing has appeared in Affordable Colleges Online, Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, and elsewhere.

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