Skills Needed for a Career in Psychology
Whether working directly with individuals who are in crisis, helping people build tools for coping with stress or working to expand the understanding of human behavior, a wide range of careers are available in the broad field of psychology. Broadly, psychology is a field of science related to understanding the human mind, including conscious and unconscious decision-making, feelings, thoughts and behaviors.
For those who are passionate about mental and emotional health, there are fulfilling careers to be had across every industry and working with every conceivable population, from children and adolescents to the elderly or military veterans, or even working on research in a laboratory setting.
Some jobs in psychology require advanced degrees, certification and state licensure, which is why it’s important for job-seekers who have a passion for psychology to begin honing in on their ideal career early in their educational journey. Use this guide to understand what you’ll need for a successful, challenging and rewarding career in psychology, from personality traits to education and more.
Skills Needed for Jobs in Psychology
The personality traits and skills needed to be successful in a psychology career will depend on what type of job you’re looking for, and some jobs may lean more heavily in one direction or another, but generally, everyone working in any psychology-related job will need to exhibit a few particular skills.
Whether they work directly with clients or patients, teach others or work in a research setting, the desire to fully understand the behavior of others is perhaps the single most important trait when working in psychology, so an analytical mind is necessary.
In both clinical and research settings, psychology professionals must be trustworthy. This means holding certain things in confidence, in the case of people working with clients, and it means having scientific integrity in the case of those working in research settings.
Psychologists and others working within the psychology field are responsible for understanding people and often are charged with helping them understand themselves. This requires a great deal of skill in tactful communication and interpersonal relationships.
Working in psychology often means being able to pick up on behaviors or emotions that others would prefer to hide, so the ability to decode potentially important meaning from body language or facial expressions is crucial.
Regardless of their job setting, psychology professionals need to be expert problem-solvers. That could mean helping a patient or client develop a plan for tackling their anxieties, or it could mean anticipating and resolving problems with the structure of a research project.
Why Work in Psychology?
In addition to having an existing skill or passion for the study of human behavior, jobs in psychology tend to be exciting, plentiful and high-paying. For instance, according to federal employment data, one particular role, psychologist, is expected to see employment grow by 14% through 2028, which is nearly triple the growth rate projected for all jobs.
Psychologist is far from the only role one can pursue in the field, and most others look to be just as good an investment. Marriage and family therapists, for instance, have even brighter job prospects than general psychologists, as those jobs are projected to grow by more than 23% through 2026.
One major reason why so many jobs in psychology are expected to become more plentiful over the next decade is because the understanding of psychology and mental health is growing. While stigma over mental illness and behavioral disorders still exists, that stigma seems to be disappearing: A recent survey found that 76% of Americans believe mental health is as important as physical health.
How Much Do Psychology Majors Earn?
A variety of factors are in play when you talk about how much a psychology major can expect to earn in their jobs — industry, educational level, licensure and certification, location, job type, population served and many more. Clinical, counseling and school psychologists, one of the main occupations in the field, carries a national median wage of $76,990, but those who practice in Vallejo, California earn one of the nation’s highest wages, $125,180.
How to Become a Psychologist
For many people who study psychology, their ultimate goal is to become a psychologist, such as a licensed clinical psychologist or a school psychologist. Generally, psychology professionals who want to work directly with clients or patients diagnosing and treating their mental health or behavioral issues need a doctoral degree, which could be a Ph.D. in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D). Some psychologists who work in schools can earn certification after they complete an Education Specialist (Ed.S.) or Doctor of Education (Ed.D) degree.
However, many people who work in psychology don’t want to have the job title of psychologist, and for those people, lower education levels, such as a master’s or bachelor’s, is appropriate. For instance, those who wish to become career counselors or marriage and family therapists probably will need to attain a master’s degree, while substance abuse counselors may need only a bachelor’s degree, depending on the employer.
Necessary experience varies by the job one seeks as well as the population served, and in some cases, a specific number of hours of supervised experience may be legally required. For individuals who seek jobs as psychologists, in most cases, an internship or residency period is necessary to be able to legally practice, and many employers will expect it regardless of any state rules.
In other cases, such as those who work in the treatment and counseling of substance use disorders, it may be helpful to have personal, first-hand experience with addiction, whether as an addicted person or the family member of one. For other jobs, volunteer experience working with an affected population or specific demographic may be helpful.
Certification & Licensure
Generally, the professional practice of psychology, in particular using the title “psychologist,” carries some legal obligations, including certification and state licensure. In every state, psychologists who practice independently (vs. working for a specific employer) must become licensed by the state.
Specific requirements vary, but in general, licensure requires a doctorate, an internship and supervised professional experience of at least one year. Candidates must also successfully pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, and in many states, continuing education is required for maintaining licensure.
Board certification may not be required for all jobs, but particularly for those who wish to practice in a specific area, such as neuropsychology or psychoanalysis, it may be helpful to seek certification from an applicable board. For instance, the American Board of Professional Psychology provides annual certification in 15 psychology specialties, and gaining that certification can help boost a candidates bona fides.
Concentrations for Psychology Majors
- Counseling: Helping people function better in their lives, jobs and relationships at all ages, focusing on life stresses and how to cope with them.
- Clinical: Diagnosing and treating mental illness, including serious disorders like PTSD or depression.
- Group: Focusing on group and relational dynamics in order to diagnose and treat disorders or disturbances within individuals and the group.
- Industrial-organizational: Solving problems within workplaces or large organizations related to conflict between staff members.
- Couples and families: Addressing behavioral or emotional disorders impacting the function of couples or family units.
- Forensic: Providing expertise and (sometimes) counseling within an investigative or criminal justice setting.
- Cognitive & neuropsychology: Focusing on study of how the human brain stores and processes information as it relates to behavioral and emotional well-being.
- Pediatric & adolescent: Diagnosing and treating unique behavioral and emotional issues that affect children and teenagers.
- Rehabilitation: Focusing on individuals impacted by substance use disorders, alcoholism or related problems.
Median Salary by Psychology Occupation
|Clinical, Counseling or School Psychologist||$76,990|
|School & Career Counselor||$56,310|
|Marriage and Family Therapist||$50,090|
|Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder or Mental Health Counselor||$44,630|
Jobs You Can Do With Psychology Degrees
Specific career options for psychology professionals will largely be dictated by educational level. That’s because almost everyone who wants to practice as a psychologist, therapist or counselor will need a state license, which usually requires advanced degrees. For instance, those who wish to practice independently as clinical psychologists must earn licensure before they can practice.
That said, working directly with individuals to alleviate their emotional or behavioral issues is not the only possible way to work in psychology, and people with a passion for understanding human behavior can use that passion to excel in a variety of jobs. For instance, a writer with an education in psychology could work in marketing, or psychology training could lead a person to seek jobs in human resources.
Median Salary of Psychology Majors by Degree Level
|Bachelor of Arts||Master of Arts||Doctor of Psychology|
Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology
While most high-paying jobs in psychology can only be unlocked with more advanced training, there are lots of roles available for those with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. The foundational training received in an undergraduate program provides the fundamental knowledge of human behavior, and a person’s specific skills could further help them refine what type of entry-level psychology job is right for them.
Many people find success in the jobs they can get at this educational level, but many people may choose to work in an entry-level job for a few years before pursuing a master’s degree or doctorate, which can open up additional opportunities.
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
These professionals provide advice and guidance for people who are dealing with things like substance use disorder, alcoholism, eating disorders, mental illness or other behavioral and emotional disturbances. They may provide support to clients as well as their families in attempting to modify behavioral issues. These individuals may work within inpatient or outpatient treatment or mental health facilities, while others work in private practice. It may be necessary for them to consult with other providers, such as physicians or corrections officers as well. In some cases, they may work within the structure of 12-step programs or faith traditions.
Median wage: $44,360
Social and Human Services Assistant
These professionals help connect community members with necessary assistance, and those with a background in psychology will focus on providing help related to mental health, substance use or behavioral disorders. They most often work in clinics, hospitals or group homes, though some work in independent offices.
Median wage: $33,750
Market Research Analyst
They study market conditions related to the introduction and sale of goods and services, and those with a background in psychology use their expertise in human behavior to inform their recommendations. They may be responsible for things like creating questionnaires and conducting interviews, in addition to analyzing data, and they often work in consulting firms or in the finance space.
Median wage: $63,120
Training and Development Specialist
These professionals work to develop and administer programs to train employees, improving their knowledge base and skill set. They formulate training and assessment materials, using their expertise in psychology to ensure they are communicating well. They may work as independent consultants or within large organizations.
Median wage: $60,870
Master’s Degree in Psychology
At the master’s degree level, many more jobs become available that involve working directly with clients. While some master’s programs in psychology stand on their own and may be terminal degrees, many educational institutions have combined master’s degrees into doctoral programs. In addition to expanding opportunities for directly working with people to improve their mental health, psychology professionals with master’s degrees open up high-level non-clinical work, such as corporate leadership roles.
These individuals assist students in developing the academic and personal skills needed to succeed in their educational journeys. They may evaluate a student’s academic and emotional aptitude and recommend potential courses of study, help them plot out their career goals and collaborate with teachers and parents to help students achieve success.
Median wage: $56,310
Marriage and Family Therapist
These therapists help couples and family units manage emotional, mental or behavioral problems that impact the family unit. They help couples and families learn methods of coping with issues and communicating their needs in a healthy way.
Median wage: $50,090
Human Resources Director
Human resources directors are responsible for managing all functions of personnel and related departments within organizations, which often involves recruiting, hiring and developing staff members as well as consulting with upper-level management on larger business decisions.
Median wage: $113,300
These individuals study society and behavioral patterns of large groups. They are most often focused on research, including collecting and analyzing data on social, religious, economic and political groups or institutions and analyzing the impact, growth and history of such groups. Sociologists may specialize in various areas, including crime and poverty, religion, families, or gender and race.
Median wage: $82,050
Doctoral Degree in Psychology
Several terminal degrees are possible within the field of psychology, primarily a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology (Ph.D) and a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D). While both can help qualify a person to work as a licensed psychologist, generally those who pursue a Psy.D. will work directly with clients, while a Ph.D. track is usually ideal for those who wish to work in academia, research and publishing.
In every state, those who wish to practice as independent psychologists must first earn a doctoral degree, followed by a professional internship after that, though specific rules on those vary. Some who wish to do similar work without that particular title or who will work for an employer may not need state certification, but that will vary by job.
Clinical psychologists work directly with clients and patients to diagnose and treat mental illnesses, develop tools to modify problem behaviors and instill strategies for coping with everyday stress. In some states, these professionals can become authorized to prescribe medications, though that is not standard, and most will specialize in specific types of therapies or populations.
Median wage: $86,530
These psychologists work in educational settings, most often primary and secondary schools, evaluating and addressing the mental health and behavioral concerns of students. They are often responsible for developing and evaluating individualized plans for student success, and they sometimes will need to coordinate with outside parties, such as parents or the legal system.
Median wage: $75,890
These professionals work within or very close to the criminal justice or civil court system, evaluating defendants for competency to stand trial, providing expert testimony related to human behavior and sometimes providing direct counseling services to defendants or incarcerated individuals.
Median wage: $77,000
Neuropsychologists study the relationship between the physical structures of the brain and an individual’s behavioral state. In practice, this may mean consulting with patients who have experienced a traumatic brain injury or who have been diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition and helping predict and manage the impact on their mood and behavior.
Median wage: $91,000
Where Can I Get a Job With a Psychology Degree?
While not all psychology degrees will lead to a psychologist’s job, it can be helpful to examine data related to that role as a proxy for all jobs that become available after a degree in psychology. The good news is that psychologists are generally in-demand in every state and, as we’ve already discussed, such jobs are projected to become even more popular in the years to come. But the prevalence of these jobs do vary widely by state.
The decision of which state is best for you is a highly personal one that will include factors like cost of living, weather, politics, crime rates, environment, culture and many more. While psychologist jobs generally are available in every state, there’s no doubt the wages and concentration of those jobs is incredibly variable depending on the state.
|State||Median Annual Wage||
Psychologist Employment Per 1,000 Jobs
|District of Columbia||$84,780.00||0.999|
Psychologists employed by government agencies most often are hired to help police officers, firefighters or military service members cope with the stresses of their jobs.
Median wage: $96,410
Many psychologists are employed by inpatient hospitals, whether those are mental health facilities or hospitals that deal with all types of patients.
Median wage: $86,530
Ambulatory healthcare services
Accounting for 18% of clinical psychologist employment, ambulatory healthcare services generally refers to outpatient mental health facilities or clinics.
Median wage: $79,180
Elementary and secondary schools
Schools account for about one-quarter of clinical and school psychologist employment, and these professionals work with students and teachers.
Median wage: $75,890
About 1 in 3 clinical and counseling psychologists works in private practice, helping clients deal with their mental health and behavioral issues directly.
Median wage: $96,930
How Can I Get a Psychology Job?
While this will depend on what educational level is required and whether you’ll need a license to practice, the best way to get a job in psychology is much the same as it is for any other job — make a solid resume and build your professional network. Psychology can be a difficult field to quantify when it comes to building a resume, so be sure to list all certifications, specialties and licenses you’ve received so that anybody looking at your resume will know immediately that you have been endorsed by a professional body or a state board.
It’s also helpful to decide what type of organization you want to work for, assuming you’re not going into your own private psychology practice. For instance, a market researcher with a bachelor’s degree in psychology may choose to work for a company or nonprofit that’s doing important work in the mental health field, or a counselor who has a personal family history of substance use may narrow their focus to inpatient treatment facilities. In other words, following your passion may lead you to your ideal job.
Many professional organizations in psychology operate job boards, including the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Alternatively, it can be helpful to consult with professors and other faculty members throughout your education journey who may be able to point you in the right direction professionally.
Professional Resources for Psychology Majors
The preeminent body for advancing the understanding of psychology, the APA provides accreditation to doctoral programs in psychology as well as regularly publishing data and analysis related to the practice and study of psychology.
Founded in 1947, the ABPP is the primary professional organization that confers board certification for licensed psychologists in a total of 15 specialty areas.
The NASP represents more than 25,000 school psychologists and related professionals throughout the U.S. and 25 other countries and is the largest organization of school psychologists.
The American Psychiatric Association aims to ensure humane care and treatment of individuals with mental illness and is the leading organization in the practice of modern psychiatry. The group aims to promote and advance the cause of psychiatry.
A nonprofit that’s shaping the understanding of psychological science, the association supports active psychological science throughout the world and promotes scientific perspectives in the study of human behavior and related areas.
With more than 50,000 member marriage and family therapists throughout the U.S., Canada and abroad, the association is the main professional organization for couples and family therapists.
An international honors society, Psi Chi promotes outstanding achievement and advancement in the study and application of psychology throughout the world. The organization, formally titled the International Honor Society in Psychology, was founded in 1929.
The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, SIOP is the leading professional organization for the study and practice of industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology.
Founded in 1993, the academy is a professional membership organization for those who have earned board certification as licensed psychologists.
The academy is a membership organization for board certified forensic psychologist that aims to provide continuing education and scientific exchange among members.
Note: Information on median wages for various jobs was taken from the BLS as well as Payscale.com.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook. (2019.) Accessed at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/
- National Council for Behavioral Health, New Study Reveals Lack of Access as Root Cause for Mental Health Crisis in America. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/press-releases/new-study-reveals-lack-of-access-as-root-cause-for-mental-health-crisis-in-america/