Career Overview: Psychology and Counseling

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Mention the field of psychology and common associations are a book-lined office housing a comfy leather sofa and a tweed jacket-wearing, pipe-smoking therapist-or possibly even visions of Tony's sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi on The Sopranos. The problem with these preconceptions is that there are way too many different kinds of psychologists for any broadly applied stereotype to be valid.

Do you constantly wonder why people do the things they do? Psychologists devote their lives to this age-old question in a broad industry that spans subjects from biology to sociology. While all therapists share the goal of helping their patients cope with the stresses of life and eliminating destructive thought patterns and behaviors, they may use any of a wide range of therapy types to try to achieve that goal. You can choose from Jungian analysis, Adlerian psychotherapy, existential psychotherapy, transactional analysis, family therapy, feminist therapy, Gestalt therapy, and many other schools of therapy. And therapy can take place in a tremendous variety of settings, from hospitals to schools to professional sports teams' locker rooms.

And therapy is not the only career option for psychologists. Psychologists work for businesses, governments, and other organizations, doing everything from helping lawyers choose juries and acting as expert witnesses in legal disputes to helping businesses create employee training programs and design new products. Psychologists also conduct research in the field and teach.

What They Do
Psychologists, counselors, and other mental health professionals seek to understand what constitutes normal brain function and behavior. They also look for ways to help those individuals whose behavior falls outside the norm in such a way as to cause significant problems for themselves or others.

In the United States, mental health professionals spend many years learning and perfecting their techniques. Obtaining a professional license is usually a long, arduous process. Counselors must have at least a master's degree, and they undergo difficult internships.

Licensed psychologists must have a doctorate in psychology or a related discipline. Even after their formal education is complete, mental health professionals will continue to learn new methods and skills.

Once in practice, mental health professionals use their knowledge in a systematic manner. For example, a counselor needs to know the difference between an individual who is showing signs of despair related to a traumatic event, and another who is clinically depressed. While both need help, the final treatment will be radically different in each case. In order to make such assessments, psychologists use techniques to analyze situations while talking with patients about their problems.

Where They Work
While most psychologists work directly with patients, they are increasingly being hired by private industry, various branches of government, and educational institutions. Some psychologists use their knowledge to design better products and services, based on the latest psychological theories. Others analyze marketing campaigns to understand why one venture was a hit and another flopped. Regardless of where they work, psychologists are interested in what people think, and why.

Who Does Well
Psychologists and counselors must be excellent communicators who can quickly assess and analyze emotionally charged situations. They must be able to learn new methods and skills on an ongoing basis. They also need to be interested in people and in how the human mind functions.


While your BS in psychology might help you figure out why your roommate is moody, it won't get you far professionally. Psychologists and counselors must have graduate degrees, complete supervised internships, and pass state certification exams before becoming eligible for professional licensing. Although requirements to practice vary by state, in all states you'll need a license to practice as a psychologist. Similarly, counselors are generally required to be licensed, credentialed, or certified, though these requirements vary by state and counseling specialty.

Licensing, Internships, Testing
To become a licensed counselor, you'll generally need a master's degree in psychology or a related field. Clinical psychologists need a PhD or doctor of psychology (PsyD) degree. Aspiring school psychologists should get a PhD or a doctorate of education (EdD) degree. Each of these programs requires four to seven years of graduate work.

Aspiring counselors and psychologists must also undergo an extensive internship program. The process, which can last for two years or more, starts while the applicant is still in graduate school. The intern works under an already licensed psychologist who watches over his or her work. After graduation, there is usually another one to two years of supervised postdoctoral work.

The last step in the process is testing. Applicants need to pass the national Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Each state determines its own passing score and may institute additional tests. Even more confusing, some states allow master's level and doctoral students who have not completed their postdoc hours to take the exam, while others do not.

Roughly half the states allow those who have completed a master's degree in psychology to take the EEEP. In those states, master's level candidates who pass the EEEP can assess and meet with patients in almost the same way fully licensed psychologists do. However, such practitioners must be supervised and work under different titles, such as licensed psychological practitioner (LPP), psychological associate, or psychological examiner.

Finally, many states let school and industrial psychologists practice after receiving their master's degrees. For the exact requirements in your state, you can contact your state's board.

Counseling Versus Psychology
Because boundaries between counselors and psychologists are blurring, the requirements necessary to become a counselor are becoming stiffer. Currently, 47 states require counselors to pass a professional certification exam. Most use the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification (NCE), administered by the National Board for Certified Counselors Inc. (NBCC). Applicants must already have a master's degree in a field where at least half of the course work relates to counseling.

According to the NBCC, many master's-level psychology programs do not meet the requirements, so check out your school's program before signing up. For the exact requirements in your state, contact your state board.

Outside of the health-care industry, many organizations hire professionals who do not have advanced psychological education or training and who do not meet state licensing requirements. Such employees will have a variety of titles, since most states forbid them from being called psychologists. However, opportunities for BA- and BS-level candidates are severely limited. Most private companies and government agencies want candidates with master's and doctoral degrees.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs for psychologists and counselors will grow faster than the average for all jobs in the U.S. economy in coming years, in response to increased demands for psychological services in schools, hospitals, treatment clinics, consulting firms, and private companies.

School psychologists may find the best job opportunities in the field. Research continues to grow in the area of student mental health and behavioral issues, creating an increased need for student counseling and services. Another rapidly expanding sector is in management consulting services. Businesses rely on psychologists to conduct marketing research and to direct their advertising campaigns. Industrial psychologists are also in great demand as companies seek to resolve workplace issues before they become legal disputes. The growth in employee assistance programs, where employees receive help with personal problems, is also creating opportunities for psychologists.

Counselors should find opportunities in many of the same areas psychologists find them. More specifically, opportunities are projected to grow in schools, as a result of rising student enrollment and the expansion of responsibilities among counselors; for vocational counselors, as a result of laws that require welfare recipients to find jobs; and for counselors in the area of substance abuse, rehabilitation, and behavioral, mental health, and marriage and family counseling.

Career Tracks

Psychologists and counselors can be divided into two categories. Most work directly with patients in health-care settings or private practice. The rest are hired by government agencies, businesses, or educational institutions to perform a wide variety of tasks.

Some companies provide counseling services as an employee benefit. Others use psychologists to carry out market research. Universities and government agencies rely on psychologists to help them determine public policies. Following is a list of psychology-related positions typically found in various industries.

Despite public perception, not everyone who seeks mental health services is in need of Prozac. Most patients receive psychotherapy, or counseling, in one form or another-what Freud called "the talking cure."

While psychotherapy may seem unstructured, it actually follows approved methods and guidelines. The techniques can be found in a number of standard reference materials. By using a combination of tests and listening skills, psychotherapists form an assessment of a patient's mental state, then use various techniques to help the patient. If counseling alone is not enough, a psychotherapist will usually refer a patient to a psychiatrist, who has a medical degree and can prescribe medication.

Within psychotherapy, there are several competing techniques and schools of thought. The major branches of therapy in the United States include psychoanalysis, humanistic, behavioral, and cognitive disciplines. Students of psychology learn about the different approaches in school, but usually wait until their internship to choose one discipline over another. However, 40 percent of all therapists say they use a mix of different techniques.

The different approaches can lead to radically different treatments. For example, someone who has an intense fear of dogs might sit on the couch of a psychoanalyst, talking about his relationship with his mother. The same person seeing a behaviorist might be trained to desensitize himself by repeatedly visiting a kennel and interacting with its inmates more and more each time.

In the past, licensed psychologists (and psychiatrists) who worked with severely disturbed clients were often called psychotherapists. Those who served clients with mild emotional problems were called counselors. Today this distinction is all but gone. Counselors and fully licensed psychologists often treat the same patients using similar techniques. But fully licensed psychologists have a great deal more training and are therefore better equipped to handle more disturbed patients, although psychiatrists have even more training.

Clinical Psychologist
A man is treated in a hospital for a heart attack. A doctor discovers the man smokes two packs of cigarettes a day and won't quit. Hospitals often employ clinical psychologists to work directly with such patients. Many emotional and mental disturbances have direct effects on patients' physical health.

While their work is similar to those in private practice, clinical psychologists work directly with doctors, psychiatrists, and other medical personnel. Together they come up with multifaceted treatment plans to improve the lives of their patients. The group approach usually combines psychological, medical, and pharmaceutical methods.

Clinical psychologists also supervise and train other mental health professionals. Their students include graduate-level interns, master's-level psychologists, and counselors hired by hospitals. Many also research competing psychological methods within their hospitals to see which lead to the best outcomes.

While clinical psychologists treat clients who are mentally or emotionally disturbed, they may also specialize in the treatment of physiological brain dysfunction. Such psychologists are the leading researchers investigating potential treatments for Alzheimer's disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and other dementias.

School Psychologistsand Counselors
Educational institutions today are fighting perceived threats on all sides. Broken families, school violence, and limited financial resources have all affected the learning environment. Many school districts use professional psychologists to identify and treat troubled students before their problems become catastrophic.

School psychologists and counselors work mainly with students who have behavioral problems that affect their work. Behavioral problems can include antisocial actions that are typically met with disciplinarian responses and behavior caused by psychiatric illnesses such as depression. Together with teachers, administrators, social workers, and parents, school psychologists determine the issues that are causing behavior problems and develop treatment plans to correct them.

Counselors also work with students who have learning disabilities. They use techniques from cognitive psychology to develop individualized education plans (IEPs) for learning-disabled students. The IEPs are then carried out by special education teachers.

Often, licensed school psychologists work at the district level, where they oversee school counselors based at particular schools. Such psychologists may also determine and develop official school-district policies.

Industrial Psychologists
Industrial psychologists are hired by businesses to increase overall employee satisfaction. Industrial psychologists study the physical and aesthetic conditions at a workplace, including lighting, climate control, interior design, and noise levels. Manufacturing companies hire industrial psychologists to analyze machinery and plan how shifts should be scheduled. They may also help develop job application policies and effective interviewing techniques.

Unlike efficiency experts, who are concerned with the bottom line, industrial psychologists seek to improve the working conditions of the average employee. When they find an area of concern, they will suggest improvements that can be made to a company's physical plant or within its organization. Such changes can make a big impact on the amount of psychological stress affecting workers.

Research Psychologists
Research psychologists study how humans think, learn, remember, and respond to their environment. They are most often found working for universities, government offices, and private corporations. Whatever the setting, research psychologists conduct experiments, surveys, and market research to discover why people react the way they do.

In any university setting, there are psychologists who have no formal teaching duties. Some study mood disorders. Others research the mechanics behind memory, inference, visual, and auditory perception. Still another large field in psychology attempts to understand the various ways people learn, so that more effective teaching methods can be developed.

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