Are you interested in understanding what makes people tick? Do you enjoy listening and observing the world from someone else’s perspective? These are the kinds of big questions that drive the passion of a psychologist. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes the field as the intersection between brain function, behavior, and the environment.
Psychology is a field in which people need to be adept at combining scientific and creative thinking. Although becoming a trained psychologist requires a large amount of determination and passion — as well as higher education — those who enter this field may find rewarding careers working for private practices and clinics, hospitals, schools, prisons, and other establishments where psychological services are required.
Part I. The Psychology Industry
If you aren’t ready to invest in five to ten years of schooling, then becoming a licensed psychologist with a doctorate will be tough. The doctoral route, however, is just one route you can take. So keep an open mind, and consider what is right for you. If you find you like the work, and you are passionate, you can always continue on when the time comes.
Careers in Psychology
- Clinical psychologists assess, diagnose and treat a wide variety of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. They typically work in an office setting, either private practice or as part of a public health environment, and often in tandem with other medical professionals. Clinical psychologists in Louisiana and New Mexico can even prescribe medicine.
- Counseling psychologists help patients understand and manage their problems. This may include dealing with issues at home, the patient’s workplace or in the community. This line of work is similar to other mental health occupations, such as counselors, therapists and social workers.
- Developmental specialists are interested in how psychological factors change and evolve throughout one’s life. Practice is usually focused on specific stages, such as childhood or adolescence.
- Forensic psychologists most often work in the legal and criminal justice system helping judges, attorneys, and other legal specialists understand the psychological findings of a particular case.
- Industrial-organizational professionals work to understand and improve the working environment or conditions for employees and their managers. They may study workplace productivity, management, or morale. They often design management policies, screen employees and/or provide training.
- School psychologists work in the education environment in a number of capacities. They might focus on student learning and behavior, or work with adults to develop strategies to improve teaching and administration.
- Social psychologists are interested in how behavior is shaped by our social structures, individual and group interactions.
Salary and Career Outlook
The median salary for psychologists was $68,640 in May 2010, with the lowest 10% earning less than $39,200 and the top 10% earning more than $111,810, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Within the field, wages can be broken down further by speciality. Median wage for industrial-organizational psychologists was $94,720, while the media for clinical, counseling and school psychologists was $66,810.
A nice paycheck is great, but consider the kind of schedule you want to keep. According to the BLS, psychologists typically work a full-time, 9 to 5 schedule. Private practice lends some flexibility: psychologists set their own hours and work part-time or as independent consultants. Hospitals, nursing homes, or other healthcare facilities may be a bit more structured; employees of these facilities may be asked to work nights and/or weekends. Since schools follow the academic calendar, most employees (including psychologists) enjoy long summers and winter breaks.
Human struggles with addiction, divorce, depression, and job stress aren’t going away anytime soon, so there is plenty of work for aspiring psychologists. Overall, growth for this field looks promising – in fact, it’s projected to increase at a rate of 22% over the next 10 years. Budding industrial-organizational psychologists have an especially bright outlook – the relatively small specialization is continuing to boom, with an expected growth rate of 29% over the next 10 years, according to O*Net.
The American Psychological Association (APA) predicts demand for psychologists will increase as aging baby boomers seek assistance with their mental health needs. The APA projects similar growth for psychologists trained in working with war veterans and the military. Trained psychologists also work as applied behavior analysts helping children with various issues in and out of school.
As you might expect, there is a strong need for school psychologists as student populations rise and faculty members retire. And with a growing body of research that demonstrates how developmental psychology benefits students, it’s clear the field is stable.
Part II. Top Psychology programs
Most higher learning institutions in the United States feature at least one academic program with psychology as the main focus. Here are some of the country’s most notable accredited psychology programs.
Southern New Hampshire University
- Accreditation: New England Association of Schools and Colleges and the New Hampshire Postsecondary Education Commission.
- Specialized degrees: Students can earn an online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology (BA) and an online Master of Science in Psychology (MS), with the option to complete general degree programs or concentrate their courses in child, forensic, developmental or industrial and organizational psychology.
- Industry perception: Featured on Fast Company’s “World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies” SNHU has enjoyed a surge of positive press. The private, not-for-profit SNHU also has a brick-and-mortar campus. It’s dedication to student success is impressive. They make sure online students aren’t falling behind by tracking everything from the length of time between enrolling in courses to the average length of student discussion posts.
- Cost: Tuition for the 120-credit undergraduate program will cost roughly $38,000, and tuition for the 36-credit master’s degree will cost about $22,000.
- Financial aid: SNHU recently announced that they are increasing their financial aid in an effort to provide students with a high school GPA of 2.5 and higher to be eligible for up to $18,000 in grants and scholarships. The financial aid handbook can give you all the specifics.
City University of Seattle
- Accreditation: Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Specialized degrees: City university has several great online options including a Bachelor of Arts in Applied Psychology with an option to choose an emphasis in child and adolescent services, criminal behavior or gerontology (aging). If you go onto graduate school, the university offers a M.A. in Counseling Psychology program, with an option to obtain a specialization in couples and family therapy. Upon completion of the program students will be qualified to apply for a Washington state associate license toward the Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) Certification.
- Industry perception: City University is a private not-for-profit institution based in the Pacific Northwest, with international programs in Czech Republic, Greece, Australia and China. Forbes listed City University as one of the country’s “Top 20 Cyber Universities” (institutions that offer distance learning programs), while US News & World Report ranked it as one of the top 50 online undergraduate programs.
- Cost: Undergraduate tuition is $330 per credit hour, roughly totalling $59,000 for the 180-credit bachelor’s degree. Graduate credits are $557 per credit and the degree requires between 72 and 80 credits for completion, in addition to 250 hours of internship.
- Financial aid: Aid is offered in the form of loans, grants and scholarships, and the award process checklist can walk you through the process.
University of the Incarnate World
- Accreditation: Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
- Specialized degrees: Through the virtual UIW campus, students can obtain a Bachelor of Science in psychology. UIW is one of few universities who offers the BS, rather than the BA, online. A BS degree has a stronger focus on the biological and biochemical processes related to behavior and mental function, while a BA focuses more in the social aspects of psychology. Both prepare you for the same professions in the field, but one may be better aligned with your interests.
- Industry perception: U.S. News and World Report ranked the private, not-for-profit UIW third in the country for student engagement and assessment and eighth in faculty credentials and training.
- Cost: Tuition is $465 per credit, and the undergraduate degree requires 120 credits for a total degree cost of roughly $55,000. Virtual students can participate in the Extended Academic Programs initiative Brainpower Online, which provides all students with free textbooks on electronic format to help students save some cash.
- Financial aid: UIW aims to provide resources that allow students who would otherwise be unable to pursue a postsecondary education to attend and earn a degree. The school offers numerous financial assistance opportunities, including scholarships, grants, work study and loans.
Part III. Launching a Career in Psychology
Your efforts in the classroom are just one way to get prepared for a career in this field. Hard work in academia should be coupled with hands-on experience to build your resume and interests.
- Seek out internships and research opportunities as an undergraduate. There is always a need for volunteers in campus lab and research settings. If you like kids, professors or graduate students enrolled in child psychology courses may be a solid resource.
- Befriend professors and develop a good rapport. Take Dr. Stephanie Sarkis’s advice: “I can’t emphasize this enough: Introduce yourself to your professors and go to their office hours. This is so important, I’ll tell it to you again: Introduce yourself to your professors and go to their office hours. We’re nice people. Seriously. And we really like it when someone is interested in our classes.” This can serve you in many ways down the road — letters of recommendation, experiment opportunities, advice and friendship.
- Volunteer in a hospital or a clinical setting. There are many educational institutions that will also let you work under the wing of the psychologist, such as this opportunity at California State University Northridge. A little bit of research in your neighborhood will point you in the right direction. Not only is this a great way to see if you actually like the work, but it looks great on a resume or graduate-level program application.
Psychologist John M. Grohol, Psy.D says his best advice is for students to complete their undergraduate requirements as quickly as possible, since some form of graduate education is a must. The longer you are in school, the more expensive it can be. A high grade point average (GPA) is also critical.
If you love your undergraduate experience enough to continue your education, you will eventually decide whether or not you want to earn your Ph.D.; this is generally a more research-oriented degree than a Psy.D. Both are well respected in the field, but a Psy.D. tends to focus more on professional practice and clinical work.
“While it’s hard to imagine what you’ll be doing six years from now, it’s critical because different programs offer different types of preparation,” said Carol Williams-Nickelson, Psy.D, former associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students. Major decisions later on will be easier if you’ve tried out different opportunities along the way.
A Career Spent Mapping the Human Mind
Becoming a psychologist can be a long and challenging process, but the rewards are well worth the efforts. You will ultimately help people understand their problems, explore various pathways toward recovery, and improve not only their current lives but also their potential for the future. And along the way, chances are you’ll bring home a tidy paycheck for your work.