Professional Fields in Psychology

The American Psychological Association recognizes specialties, areas of concentration and subfields.
In this Section

Specialties and Areas of Concentration

The American Psychological Association recognizes only clinical, counseling, school, and industrial/organizational psychology as "specialties." Other areas are considered "areas of concentration" or "subfields."

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychologists assess and treat people's mental and emotional disorders. Clinical psychologists work in both academic institutions and health care settings such as clinics, hospitals, community mental health centers, and private practice. Many clinical psychologists focus their interests on special populations. Others focus on treating certain types of problems. In most states people with master's and bachelor's degrees may not independently practice psychology. They may, however, work in clinical settings under the direction of a doctoral-level psychologist. In some cases this work could include testing or supervised therapy. People preparing for careers in clinical psychology should investigate local licensing laws carefully.

Community Psychology

Community psychologists are concerned with everyday behavior in natural settings -- the home, the neighborhood, and the workplace. They seek to understand the factors that contribute to normal and abnormal behavior in these settings. They also work to promote health and prevent disorder. Whereas clinical psychologists tend to focus on individuals who show signs of disorder, most community psychologists concentrate their efforts on groups of people who are not mentally ill (but may be at risk of becoming so) or on the population in general.

Counseling Psychology

Counseling psychologists foster and improve normal human functioning across the life span by helping people solve the problems, make the decisions, and cope with the stresses of everyday life. Counseling psychologists often use research to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments and to search for novel approaches to assessing problems and changing behavior. Many counseling psychologists work in academic settings, but an increasing number are being employed in health care institutions, such as community mental health centers, Veterans Administration hospitals, and private clinics. Those with master's degrees are often found in educational institutions, clinics, business, industry, government, and other human service agencies.

Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychologists study human development across the life span, from newborn to aged. Developmental psychologists are interested in the description, measurement, and explanation of age-related changes in behavior; stages of emotional development; universal traits and individual differences; and abnormal changes in development. Many doctoral-level developmental psychologists are employed in academic settings, teaching and doing research. Persons with bachelor's and master's level training in developmental psychology work in applied settings such as day care centers and in programs with youth groups.

Educational Psychology

Educational psychologists study how people learn, and they design the methods and materials used to educate people of all ages. Many educational psychologists work in universities, in both psychology departments and schools of education. Some conduct basic research on topics related to the learning of reading, writing, mathematics, and science. Others develop new methods of instruction including designing computer software. Still others train teachers and investigate factors that affect teachers' performance and morale. Educational psychologists conduct research in schools and in federal, state, and local education agencies. They may be employed by governmental agencies or the corporate sector to analyze employees' skills and to design and implement training programs.

Environmental Psychology

Environmental psychologists are concerned with the relations between psychological processes and physical environments. These environments range from homes and offices to urban areas and regions. Environmental psychologists may do basic research, for example, on people's attitudes toward different environments or their sense of personal space; or their research may be applied, such as evaluating an office design or assessing the psychological impact of a government's plan to build a new waste-treatment site.

Experimental Psychology

"Experimental psychologist" is a general title applied to a diverse group of psychologists who conduct research on and often teach about a variety of basic behavioral processes. Most experimental psychologists work in academic settings, teaching courses and supervising students' research in addition to conducting their own research. Experimental psychologists are also employed by research institutions, business, industry, and government. A research-oriented doctoral degree is usually needed for advancement and mobility in experimental psychology. These processes include learning; sensation; perception; human performance; motivation; memory; language, thinking, and communication; and the physiological processes underlying behaviors such as eating, reading, and problem solving. Experimental psychologists study the basic processes by which humans take in, store, retrieve, express, and apply knowledge. They also study the behavior of animals, often with a view to gain a better understanding of human behavior, but sometimes also because it is intrinsically interesting.

Family Psychology

Family psychologists are practitioners, researchers, and educators concerned with the prevention of family conflict, the treatment of marital and family problems, and the maintenance of normal family functioning. They concentrate on the family structure and the interaction between members rather than on the individual. Doctoral programs in family psychology are just beginning to appear. Traditionally, most family psychologists have earned their degree in a professional area of psychology and then obtained advanced training in departments of psychiatry, family institutes, or through individual supervision. Postdoctoral training programs are becoming more common. Family psychologists are often employed in medical schools, hospitals, private practice, family institutes and community agencies. Job opportunities also exist for university teachers, forensic family psychologists, and consultants to industry.

Health Psychology

Health psychologists are researchers and practitioners concerned with psychology's contribution to the promotion and the maintenance of good health and the prevention and the treatment of illness. As applied psychologists or clinicians, they may, for example, design and conduct programs to help individuals stop smoking, lose weight, manage stress, prevent cavities, or stay physically fit. As researchers, they seek to identify conditions and practices that are associated with health and illness. In public service roles, they study and work to improve the government's policies and systems for health care. Employment settings for this specialty area can be found in medical centers, industry, hospitals, health maintenance organizations, rehabilitation centers, public health agencies, and private practice.

Industrial/Organizational Psychology

Industrial/organizational psychologists are concerned with the relation between people and work. Their interests include organizational structure and organizational change; workers' productivity and job satisfaction; consumer behavior; selection, placement, training, and development of personnel; and the interaction between humans and machines. Industrial/organizational psychologists work in businesses, industries, governments, and colleges and universities. Some may be self-employed as consultants or work for management counseling firms.

Consumer psychologists are industrial/organizational psychologists whose interests lie in consumers' reactions to a company's products or services. They investigate consumers' preferences for a particular package design or television commercial, for example, and develop strategies for marketing products. They also try to improve the acceptability and the safety of products and to help the consumer make better decisions.

Engineering psychologists are industrial/organizational psychologists concerned with improving the interaction between humans and their working environments, including jobs and the contexts in which they are performed. Engineering psychologists help design systems that require people and machines to interact, such as video-display units; they may also develop aids for training people to use those systems. They may be found working in industry where machine and computer design is required, in military and transportation facilities, or in city or architectural planning.

Human Resource psychologists are industrial/organizational psychologists who develop and validate procedures to select and evaluate personnel. Jobs for industrial/organizational psychologists are available at both the master's and the doctoral level. Opportunities for those with master's degrees tend to be concentrated in business, industry, and government settings; doctoral-level psychologists also work in academic settings and independent consulting work.

Neuropsychology and Psychobiology

Psychobiologists and neuropsychologists investigate the relation between physical systems and behavior. Topics they study include the relation of specific biochemical mechanisms in the brain to behavior, the relation of brain structure to function, and the chemical and physical changes that occur in the body when we experience different emotions. Neuropsychologists also diagnose and treat disorders related to the central nervous system. They may diagnose behavioral disturbances related to suspected dysfunctions of the central nervous system and treat patients by teaching them new ways to acquire and process information--a technique known as cognitive retraining. Clinical neuropsychologists work in the neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatric, and pediatric units of hospitals and in clinics. They also work in academic settings where they conduct research and train other neuropsychologists, clinical psychologists, and medical doctors. Most positions in neuropsychology and biopsychology are at the doctoral level, and many require postdoctoral training.

Psychology of Aging (Geropsychology)

Researchers in the psychology of aging geropsychology draw on sociology, biology, and other disciplines as well as psychology to study the factors associated with adult development and aging. Many people interested in the psychology of aging are trained in a more traditional graduate program in psychology, such as experimental, clinical, developmental, or social. While they are enrolled in such a program, they become geropsychologists by focusing their research, course work, and practical experiences on adult development and aging. A doctorate is normally required for teaching, research, and clinical practice, but an increasing number of employment opportunities are becoming available for people with associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees. These positions typically involve the supervised provision of services to adults in nursing homes, senior citizens centers, or state and local government offices for the elderly.

Psychology and Law, and Forensic Psychology

Psychology and law is a new field with career opportunities at several levels of training. As an area of research, psychology and law is concerned both with looking at legal issues from a psychological perspective (e.g., how juries decide cases) and with looking at psychological questions in a legal context (e.g., how jurors assign blame or responsibility for a crime).

Forensic psychology is the term given to the applied and clinical facets of psychology and law. Some specialists in this field have doctoral degrees in both psychology and law. Others were trained in a traditional graduate psychology program, such as clinical, counseling, social, or experimental, and chose courses, research topics, and practical experiences to fit their interest in psychology and law. Jobs for people with doctoral degrees are available in psychology departments, law schools, research organizations, community mental health agencies, law enforcement agencies, courts, and correctional settings. Some forensic psychologists work in private practice. Master's and bachelor's level positions are available in prisons, correctional institutions, probation departments, forensic units of mental institutions, law enforcement agencies, and community-based programs that assist victims.

Psychology of Women

The psychology of women is the study of psychological and social factors affecting women's development and behavior. Psychologists focusing on the psychology of women are found in academic settings and a variety of clinical settings.

Most psychologists whose concern is the psychology of women have received their training in clinical, developmental, or social psychology, or in psychobiology, pursuing their special interest within these broader areas. Teaching positions for doctoral level psychologists are available in psychology and women's studies departments. Researchers who focus on health issues for women have been hired as faculty members in nursing, public health, social work, or psychiatry departments of universities. Clinicians work in mental health centers and in private practice.

Psychometrics and Quantitative Psychology

Psychometric and quantitative psychologists are concerned with the methods and techniques used in acquiring and applying psychological knowledge. A psychometrician may revise old intelligence, personality, and aptitude tests or devise new ones. These tests might be used in clinical, counseling, and school settings or in business and industry. Other quantitative psychologists might assist a researcher in psychology or in another field in designing or interpreting the results of an experiment. Psychometricians and quantitative psychologists are well trained in mathematics, statistics, and computer programming and technology. Doctoral-level psychometricians and quantitative psychologists are employed mainly by universities and colleges, testing companies, private research firms, and government agencies. Those with master's degrees often work for testing companies and private research firms.

Rehabilitation Psychology

Rehabilitation psychologists are researchers and practitioners who work with people who have suffered a physical deprivation or loss, either at birth or through later damage such as resulting from a stroke. Many rehabilitation psychologists work in medical rehabilitation institutes and hospitals. Other rehabilitation psychologists work in medical schools and universities, serve as consultants to or as administrators in state and federal vocational rehabilitation agencies, or have private practices serving people who have disabilities.

School Psychology

School psychologists help educators and others promote the intellectual, social, and emotional development of children. They are also involved in creating environments that facilitate learning and mental health. School psychologists may be found in academic settings, hospitals, mental health clinics, federal and state government agencies, child guidance centers, penal institutions, and behavioral research laboratories. Some school psychologists work in private practice. To be employed in the public schools of a given state, school psychologists must have completed a state-approved training program (or the equivalent) and be certified by the state. Certification as a school psychologist can usually be obtained after 60 hours of graduate work and a one-year supervised internship. School psychologists trained at the doctoral level often find employment in a variety of settings including schools, hospitals, university training programs, mental health clinics, and other agencies. The doctoral-level school psychologist has more research and evaluation training as well as more in-depth clinical and consultative training.

Social Psychology

Social psychologists study how people interact with each other and how they are affected by their social environments. They study individuals as well as groups, observational behaviors, and private thoughts. Topics of interest to social psychologists include personality theories, the formation of attitudes and attitude change, attractions between people such as friendship and love, prejudice, group dynamics, and violence and aggression. Social psychologists can also find employment in advertising, corporations, hospitals, educational institutions, and architectural and engineering firms as researchers, consultants, and personnel managers. Social psychologists can be found in a wide variety of academic settings, and, increasingly, in many nonacademic settings. As with experimental psychology, a research-oriented doctoral degree is usually necessary in social psychology.