What is a psychologist?

A psychologist studies behavior and learning using observation, experimentation, and survey techniques. Some psychologists teach, some conduct research, and some apply their knowledge to problems of human behavior. Any combination of these is also possible. Most people think of psychologists as clinicians who test, diagnose, and treat emotional and behavioral problems. Clinical psychology is one of the major areas of psychology, but it is far from the only one. Developmental psychologists study normal patterns of development in children, adolescents, adults, the aged, or other animal species. Experimental psychologists increase our understanding of basic processes such as learning, motivation, emotion, and perception. Industrial and organizational psychologists aid in the selection and development of human resources in business or government. School psychologists treat social and learning problems of school children. Engineering psychologists design products, machinery, and work or living areas with the "human factor" in mind. Forensic psychologists work for the criminal and civil justice systems.

What makes a good psychologist?

Ellen Langer, First tenured female psychologist at Harvard. Photo from Wiki Commons by Robert Scoble, Half Moon Bay, USA.

An ability to work with people is important for most specialty areas. Curiosity, a strong sense of ethical responsibility, enjoyment of the problem-solving process, and good verbal skills are major characteristics of a good psychologist. Psychology requires creativity along with rigorous study and a desire to expand knowledge as well as apply it. A psychologist should have mathematical and scientific skills as well as an interest in people, behavior, and ideas.

What is life as a psychologist like?

A psychologist's work is challenging and interesting. The hours of work and intellectual energy needed can be great. Extensive work with disturbed people can make heavy emotional demands. It can be frustrating to have a client relapse or to have a carefully designed and executed study fail to support your ideas about behavior. Yet the gratification of advancing knowledge about behavior or helping others help themselves is not only satisfying but even exhilarating.

How do I become a psychologist?

A psychologist has different training than either a psychiatrist or a counselor. Psychiatry requires a medical degree with a specialization in psychiatry. Counselors concentrate on developing counseling and therapeutic skills in their advanced training. In contrast, a clinical psychologist must obtain a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in order to develop research skills as well as counseling and therapeutic skills. Clinical, consulting, and forensic psychology often require several years of supervised experience beyond the Ph.D. Many states, including New Mexico, require both a Ph.D. and supervised work experience before you can be certified to practice independently as a psychologist.

Almost all jobs require at least a master's degree, and a large majority require a Ph.D. degree. College teaching requires a Ph.D., as does most research. Junior college teachers should have at least a master's degree; more often than not, a Ph.D. degree is required. With a bachelor's or master's degree, you can teach in high school or work in government or business. For example, a bachelor's degree could lead to a job as an advertising consultant. Few high school teachers concentrate solely on psychology; instead, most obtain certification in the social sciences.

In high school you should take college-preparatory courses in math and the social and natural sciences to develop your research and analytic skills. A solid background in algebra is needed to understand how tests are developed and how scores should be interpreted. Trigonometry and calculus are important to understand the multivariate statistics increasingly in use by social scientists. A course in computer programming is also helpful. Take a broad sampling of psychology courses in college, even if you have already chosen your specialty. Some of the greatest advances in each area of psychology have been made by combining concepts from other areas, and you will be better able to discuss your work with people from varying backgrounds. Take laboratory courses to learn methods of inquiry and problem solving, and develop your math and science skills with courses in statistics, computer programming, and research methods. Do not neglect the humanities. Some of the most insightful ideas about people, behavior, and the mind come from philosophy, literature, and the arts.

In graduate school, traineeships can provide valuable and often necessary experience in most areas of psychology. Internships are a major component of all teaching and clinical practice programs, and a few corporations offer internships in engineering and industrial psychology.

What/where are the jobs?

Psychologists are employed by universities, large industries, government, medical and health facilities, and consulting firms. As in other fields, opportunities for employment in four-year colleges and universities are shrinking. Many clinicians choose to work outside academia in private practice, health organizations, school systems, or large businesses. Managed behavioral health care is slowly but steadily changing opportunities for clinicians to work, increasing opportunities for Master's level clinicians and decreasing them at the doctoral level.

For more information

American Psychological Association (APA)
APA Career Guides
APA Careers in Psychology
APA Brochure: Psychology: Scientific Problem Solvers - Careers for the 21st Century
The APA also has a book for sale entitled Career Paths in Psychology: Where Your Degree Can take You, (2nd Ed, 2006).

Original article by
Therese Elizabeth Goetz, Psychologist
Assistant Professor, The University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM
Human Resource Consultant, Albuquerque, NM
Updated by 
Amy Anderson, Counselor
     and Tom Locke, Psychologist

Los Alamos National Laboratory