Careers in Psychology

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand educational requirements for careers in academic settings
  • Understand the demands of a career in an academic setting
  • Understand career options outside of academic settings

Psychologists can work in many different places doing many different things. In general, anyone wishing to continue a career in psychology at a 4-year institution of higher education will have to earn a doctoral degree in psychology for some specialties and at least a master’s degree for others. In most areas of psychology, this means earning a PhD in a relevant area of psychology. Literally, PhD refers to a doctor of philosophy degree, but here, philosophy does not refer to the field of philosophy per se. Rather, philosophy in this context refers to many different disciplinary perspectives that would be housed in a traditional college of liberal arts and sciences.

The requirements to earn a PhD vary from country to country and even from school to school, but usually, individuals earning this degree must complete a dissertation. A dissertation is essentially a long research paper or bundled published articles describing research that was conducted as a part of the candidate’s doctoral training. In Canada and the United States, a dissertation generally has to be defended before a committee of expert reviewers before the degree is conferred (see Figure 16).

A photograph shows several people are gathered outdoors wearing caps and gowns in a graduation ceremony.

Figure 16. Doctoral degrees are generally conferred in formal ceremonies involving special attire and rites. (credit: Public Affairs Office Fort Wainwright)

Once someone earns her PhD, she may seek a faculty appointment at a college or university. Being on the faculty of a college or university often involves dividing time between teaching, research, and service to the institution and profession. The amount of time spent on each of these primary responsibilities varies dramatically from school to school, and it is not uncommon for faculty to move from place to place in search of the best personal fit among various academic environments. The previous section detailed some of the major areas that are commonly represented in psychology departments around the country; thus, depending on the training received, an individual could be anything from a biological psychologist to a clinical psychologist in an academic setting (see Figure 17).

A pie chart is labeled “Percent of 2009 Psychology Doctorates Employed in Different Sectors.” The percentage breakdown is University: 26%, Hospital or health service: 25%, Government/VA medical center: 16%, Business or nonprofit: 10%, Other educational institutions: 8%, and Medical school: 6%, Independent practice: 6%. Beneath the pie chart, the label reads: “Source: Michalski, Kohout, Wicherski, & Hart, 2011.”

Figure 17. Individuals earning a PhD in psychology have a range of employment options.

Individuals who wish to become practicing clinical psychologists have another option for earning a doctoral degree, which is known as a PsyD. A PsyD is a doctor of psychology degree that is increasingly popular among individuals interested in pursuing careers in clinical psychology. PsyD programs generally place less emphasis on research-oriented skills and focus more on application of psychological principles in the clinical context (Norcorss & Castle, 2002).

Individuals earning a PhD can work in a variety of settings, depending on their areas of specialization. For example, someone trained as a biopsychologist might work in a pharmaceutical company to help test the efficacy of a new drug. Someone with a clinical background might become a forensic psychologist and work within the legal system to make recommendations during criminal trials and parole hearings, or serve as an expert in a court case.

While earning a doctoral degree in psychology is a lengthy process, usually taking between 5–6 years of graduate study (DeAngelis, 2010), there are a number of careers that can be attained with a master’s degree in psychology. People who wish to provide psychotherapy can become licensed to serve as various types of professional counsellors (Hoffman, 2012). Relevant master’s degrees are also sufficient for individuals seeking careers as school psychologists (National Association of School Psychologists, n.d.), in some capacities related to sport psychology (American Psychological Association, 2014), or as consultants in various industrial settings (Landers, 2011, June 14). Undergraduate coursework in psychology may be applicable to other careers such as psychiatric social work or psychiatric nursing, where assessments and therapy may be a part of the job.

Activity: Read Two Web Pages

  1. Read this web page about “Careers in Psychology” on the website of the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA):
  2. Read this web page about “Becoming a Psychologist” on the website of the CPA:

As mentioned in the opening section of this chapter, an undergraduate education in psychology is associated with a knowledge base and skill set that many employers find quite attractive. It should come as no surprise, then, that individuals earning bachelor’s degrees in psychology find themselves in a number of different careers, as shown in Table 1. Examples of a few such careers can involve serving as case managers, working in sales, working in human resource departments, and teaching in high schools. The rapidly growing realm of healthcare professions is another field in which an education in psychology is helpful and sometimes required. For example, the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) exam that people must take to be admitted to medical school now includes a section on the psychological foundations of behaviour.

Ranking Occupation
1 Mid- and top-level management (executive, administrator)
2 Sales
3 Social work
4 Other management positions
5 Human resources (personnel, training)
6 Other administrative positions
7 Insurance, real estate, business
8 Marketing and sales
9 Healthcare (nurse, pharmacist, therapist)
10 Finance (accountant, auditor)

Table 1. Top Occupations Employing Graduates with a BA in Psychology (Fogg, Harrington, Harrington, & Shatkin, 2012)

Activity: Chapter Quiz

Once you have read through this chapter and completed the associated activities, click here to take the chapter quiz. Recall that this quiz is worth 10% of your course grade and will require you to log into Moodle.


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