There are counselors who offer various kinds of counseling. There are therapists who provide various kinds of therapy. And then there are psychologists, highly trained professionals who engage in counseling and therapy, but do so only after undergoing rigorous training in the cognitive, emotional, physiological, and sociological foundations of human behavior, and developing specific scientifically based methodologies for applying this knowledge in clinical and laboratory settings.

Not surprisingly, becoming a psychologist isn’t easy. At the very least, it requires a master’s degree in psychology, along with supervised experience in the field in the form of an internship or practicum. That may be the fastest route to becoming licensed to practice as a psychologist — an absolute requirement in all 50 states, although the details of licensing can vary from state to state. And, more often than not, it is necessary to earn a further advanced degree — a PhD, PsyD, or EdS in psychology — in order to qualify for a psychologist license.

Steps to Becoming a Psychologist

There are many choices and options along the way to becoming a psychologist, as well as different specializations and concentrations in the field, from clinical and counseling psychology, to school and industrial-organizational psychology. To become a psychologist you need to -.

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related field in the behavioral sciences
  2. Complete a master’s degree program in psychology
  3. Enter a doctoral level degree program in a specific specialty area of psychology
  4. Begin a formal internship and/or residency program in that specialization within psychology
  5. Pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology and any board certification exams in that area of specialization

What Do Psychologists Do?

The work of a psychologist is probably best broken down into two general activities and responsibilities:

  1. Research and scientific study of the human mind, cognition, and normal and abnormal emotional and behavioral pattern.
  2. Application of that knowledge to evaluate and treat patients suffering from emotional, behavioral, and cognitive dysfunction.

These two functions have a wide range of applications across a broad cross-section of disciplines, including education, healthcare, business administration and management, and the everyday lives of people who are struggling with behavioral and emotional problems, substance dependency and abuse, or other issues affecting their quality of life.

Perhaps the most familiar profile of a psychologist is that of the counselor/therapist, who meets regularly with patients privately or in groups to assess emotional and behavioral well-being, work through problems, and offer solutions — i.e., psychotherapy. This area of specialization falls under two designations: clinical psychology and counseling psychology. Both perform similar functions as researchers, practitioners, and psychotherapists at hospitals, clinics, and mental-health centers; in private practice; or at colleges and universities. Indeed, even the American Psychological Association (APA) allows in its literature that, “the differences between psychologists from each specialty [clinical and counseling] are more nuanced, and there are perhaps more similarities than differences among individual psychologists from each field.”

Types of Psychologists

The APA currently recognizes 14 individual specialties, and an additional five specific proficiencies in the field of professional psychology. Two of these specialties — sleep psychology, and police and public safety psychology — were only afforded official recognition in 2013. In addition to clinical and counseling psychology, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook includes descriptions for the following types of psychologists:

  • Developmental Psychologists often focus their work on children and adolescents, although they’re purview covers the entire human lifespan, and some are primarily concerned with issues related to aging.
  • Forensic Psychologists are generally involved in the criminal justice system, working with judges and lawyers to bring better clarity in civil and criminal prosecutions.
  • Health Psychologists study the ways in which emotional and behavioral patterns impact physical health and illness, investigate psychologically driven medical issues like substance abuse and eating disorders, and often work in hospitals with patients and medical staff.
  • Industrial-Organizational Psychologists deploy the principles and methodologies of psychological research in the workplace, targeting issues that impact employee moral, safety and productivity, and organizational management techniques and strategies.
  • Neuropsychologists work with patients who have experienced brain trauma, researching the links between neuropathology and behavior.
  • School Psychologists are involved in the educational system, employing the tools of psychology to create better teaching strategies, address behavioral problems, and help students and families cope with learning disabilities and other issues.
  • Social Psychologists perform research into the ways in which group dynamics and social interactions affect and are affected by psychology.

What Education Does a Psychologist Need?

There are very few exceptions to the rule that one must be licensed through a state board in order to practice as a psychologist in that state. As the APA points out, “Those who work at a college or university, state or federal institution, research laboratory or a corporation may be exempt from having to be licensed in some states. However, this does vary by state; look at your state’s language regarding exemptions from licensure. Industrial-organizational psychologists, for example, are required only in some states to become licensed, and school psychologists in public schools must complete distinct licensing requirements.”

And there is also very little wiggle room when it comes to educational requirements. Again, from the APA’s literature: “State licensing boards typically require a minimum of a doctoral degree in psychology from a regionally accredited or government-chartered institution.” It is possible to find work as an industrial-organizational psychologist, according to the BLS, with only a master’s degree. And those holding a master’s degree in psychology may find jobs as assistants in clinical, counseling, or research settings. But, practicing as a psychologist usually means getting a psychology license from the state, and getting that license almost always requires a doctoral degree.

Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology

The typical route to grad school in psychology is a four-year bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. A BA or BS in psychology is not a prerequisite for admissions to a master’s degree program in psychology. However, most master’s programs do insist on undergraduate coursework in introductory psychology and statistics.

Master’s Degree in Psychology

Master’s degree programs in psychology come in several forms: there are master of arts and master of science programs, online and campus based. Specialization usually begins during the two years of coursework associated with a master’s degree, and some programs are specifically targeted at clinical, counseling, or developmental psychology. The key is to know what you’re looking to get out of the program, what kind of career you have in mind, and to make sure the program is properly accredited. The AMA website is a good source for this kind of information.

PhD in Psychology and the PsyD

Most master’s degree programs in psychology include some kind of internship or supervised clinical experience. And, this will continue as you move on to either a PhD or a PsyD in psychology. A PhD in psychology, or doctor of philosophy in psychology, generally places a stronger emphasis on research, and includes a doctoral dissertation. The PsyD, or doctor of psychology degree, is geared toward training clinical practitioners and psychotherapists, and may or may not include a research-based dissertation.

Getting Licensed to Practice Psychology

Depending on the area of specialization and state regulations, some form of post-doctoral internship or residency may also be required before qualifying for the licensing exam. However, most master’s degree programs, and all accredited PhD and PsyD programs, will include a practicum or internship as part of the training in psychology. As the BLS’s Occupational Outlook Handbook stresses, “Most clinical and counseling psychologists need a doctorate in psychology, an internship, at least 1 to 2 years of professional experience, and to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology.”

The Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology is the standard licensing tool for psychologists. It includes eight sections, each of which focuses on a different foundational aspect of the discipline: biological bases of behavior; cognitive-affective bases of behavior; social and multicultural bases of behavior; growth and lifespan development; assessment and diagnosis; treatment, intervention, and prevention; research methods and statistics; and ethical, legal, and professional issues. The BLS recommends contacting the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards for state-by-state requirements for licensing in psychology.

In addition to state licensing, the American Board of Professional Psychology offers voluntary certification in 13 distinct areas of specialization, including couple and family psychology, clinical neuropsychology, and organizational and business consulting psychology. Board certification is not required for licensing or practice in psychology. However, it can be helpful in job placement and career advancement. More information about the ABPP can be found on the organization’s website.

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