This is a brief guide to help you understand what it takes and what you’re getting into if you’d like to become a psychologist.
Go to college and get a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in some other interest. Get as much experience as you can working with graduate students and your professors on research studies and explore your own interests and likes in psychology. Education can be as fun as you make it. Psychology is no different. So if you don’t like rats, don’t work with them! If you ultimately want to work with children, find studies at the university or college you attend that focus on children, and befriend the professor(s) that teach undergraduate and gradute-level courses in child psychology.
After college, you’re going on to graduate school. It is in your best interests to stay in school for as little as much time as possible, which means trying to complete your bachelor’s degree in 4 years, not 5, and your graduate degree in 5 years, not 8!
Choose a school that matches your interest and is as inexpensive as possible. Few psychologists make large incomes, so the less you have in student loans (look for grants!), the better. Find a school that focuses on your needs and will have enough resources to meet them. For instance, don’t go to a school with no child psychology professors if your interest is in child psychology. Yes, I know this seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people miss this.
If you want to go into research or teach at a college or university after your doctorate, then go for a Ph.D. degree. If teaching or research is of less interest to you, focus your energies on a Psy.D. degree. Both are well recognized and accepted within the field, and you can do anything with either degree. But a Psy.D. often is accompanied with less stress and requirements to complete, making it somewhat easier (all things being equal).
If you really want to practice, find a graduate program which emphasizes hands-on, clinical experience early and often. This should start in your second year and continue until you finish in practicums. If clinical experience isn’t offered in your program until your 3rd or 4th year, and becoming a clinician is a goal for you, then find another program.
Starting psychologists in clinical work and research generally make somewhere between $45,000 – $55,000 in the United States, depending upon geographical locale and position. After the first year (or two, depending upon the state), you will become eligible for licensure and your salary will enjoy a little bump after that. Postdoctoral research opportunities are not required and pay little ($25,000 – $35,000), but give people additional direct experience and training in specialized clinical areas they may have not received while in graduate school.
After 5-10 years in the field, many psychologists enjoy incomes ranging from $65,000 to $90,000. Of course, in geographic regions where the cost of living is higher — such as Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Chicago — salaries can be anywhere from 10% to 25% higher. Few psychologists enjoy significantly higher incomes, especially since the infiltration of managed care in the United States in the 1990s. However, some specialty areas such as neuropsychology and forensic psychology enjoy higher salaries, often into the six digits. After 10 to 20 years, a typical clinical psychologist with a thriving practice can make between $90,000 and $150,000.
Work settings for the psychologist vary according to the specialty or area of work. Research psychologists generally work for universities or colleges. In addition to their research responsibilities, they often are required to teach certain courses each semester, and bring in a certain level of grant income by going through a tedious process of applying for various government grants.
Some psychologists are also known as industrial psychologists and work in companies or for corporations, helping the company better manage its key asset, their employees. This is a fairly stable field to get into, and often involves assessment and human resources-related work.
Forensic and neuropsychologists often work in private practice. Forensic psychologists often have to testify in court and court settings (becoming very familiar with laywers and the law), while neuropsychologists often work in hospital settings as well. Neuropsychologists can be a part of a multidisciplinary hospital team and work closely with other medical disciplines, including medical doctors.
Clinical psychologists work in a variety of settings, most often private practice or public mental health. You will also find them in clinical counseling centers at universities and colleges, helping students with milder problems of adjusting to college life. These psychologists all work in office settings, sometimes in conjunction with other mental health professionals such as psychiatrists and social workers.
Positive Aspects of the Job
- Rewarding directly working with people and their problems
- Often get an opportunity to see the results of your work
- White-collar settings for most of the profession
- 9-5 work schedule, with flexibility built-in for most
- Fairly dependable work once established within a community
- Collaboration and networking with other professionals
- Large professional organization supports many needs
- Diverse field offering many different opportunities
Negative Aspects of the Job
- Managed care has made direct clinical work sometimes challenging to make a living
- Sometimes long hours
- Can be emotionally draining
- Can be professionally isolating, especially if in lone private practice
- Advancement in private practice requires direct marketing and business efforts
- University positions have no job security without tenure (which is increasingly being challenged at many universities)
- Often hard to get established within a community for private practice
- Ofen don’t get an opportunity to see the results of your work (most clients never come back after first session)