Nature of Psychology Work

The nature of psychology work is quite varied

woman being evaluated by pyschologist
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The nature of psychology work is quite varied. Psychologists study the mind and behavior, but the actual work performed by individual psychologists can vary dramatically. As you might imagine, psychology is an enormously diverse field. While psychologists often apply their knowledge of the human mind and behavior in a wide variety of ways, they frequently specialize in a very specific area. There are many different types of specialty areas, and so the exact answer to the question "What does a psychologist do?" may depend largely on specialty area, employment sector and even geographic location.

What Do Psychologists Do?

Psychologists may work in a wide variety of settings, including schools, universities, hospitals, private clinics, government offices, corporations and small businesses. Psychologists primarily work in one of two broad areas: research psychology or applied psychology. Research psychologists investigate physical, emotional, social, cognitive and biological bases of human thought and behavior. They often conduct experiments and may work at a colleges or universities, or they may be employed by a business or government office.

Applied psychologists use their knowledge of human behavior to solve real world problems or help people overcome psychological distress. Applied psychologists may work directly with patients in a health care setting, such as in a hospital, mental health clinic, school or private practice. Other applied psychologists may work in government, industry, business or nonprofit settings.

In addition to applying their knowledge of psychology directly, these professionals may also perform research, offer training, design products, create programs or provide psychological advice.

A Day in the Life of a Psychologist

Psychologists employed in research settings often spend a great deal of time developing hypotheses and collecting data.

The exact research methods used by psychologists depend largely on the topic they are studying. For example, some psychologists might perform research using lab experiments, while others might use naturalistic observation. Other methods commonly used include administering questionnaires, clinical studies, surveys and interviews.

Psychologists employed in health care settings often spend a considerable amount of time working directly with clients. This might involve conducting assessments of new patients, diagnosing mental disorders and performing psychotherapy. Psychologists also frequently consult with other health professionals including doctors, nurses and other therapists.

Specialty Areas in Psychology

Psychology is remarkably diverse with a tremendous range of specialty areas.

Clinical psychologists make up the single largest specialty area in psychology. Clinicians are psychologists who assess, diagnose and treat mental illnesses. They frequently work in mental health centers, private or group practices or hospitals.

Within the area of clinical psychology, there are also a number of sub-specialty areas. Some professionals are generalists and work with a wide range of clients while others specialize in treating certain types of psychological disorders or a certain age group.

For example, some clinical psychologists might work in a hospital setting with individuals suffering from brain injuries or neurological conditions. Other clinical psychologists might work in a mental health center to counsel individuals or families coping with stress, mental illness, substance abuse or personal problems.

Clinical psychologists usually perform a broad range of tasks on a daily basis such as interviewing patients, conducting assessments, giving diagnostic tests, performing psychotherapy and administering programs. Work settings can vary based on the particular population that a clinician is working with. Typical work settings include hospitals, schools, universities, prisons, mental health clinics and private practices.

There are also a number of different sub-specialty areas within clinical psychology, including health psychology, neuropsychology, and geropsychology.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, health psychologists are focused on promoting healthy behaviors. Neuropsychologists focus on investigating the relationship between the brain and behavior. Geropsychologists specialize in treating the special concerns of elderly populations.

Counseling psychologists make up another large specialty area in psychology. These professionals perform many of the same tasks that clinical psychologists do, but counseling psychologists tend to work with clients suffering from less severe forms of mental illness.

Counseling psychology focuses on providing therapeutic treatments to clients who experience a wide variety of symptoms. The Society of Counseling Psychology describes the field as "a psychological specialty [that] facilitates personal and interpersonal functioning across the life span with a focus on emotional, social, vocational, educational, health-related, developmental and organizational concerns."

Experimental psychologists (or research psychologists) conduct research on the behavior of humans and animals. They often work at universities, private research centers, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Some major areas of research include substance abuse, genetics, neuroscience, motivation and cognitive processes.

Forensic psychologists work in the specialty area that deals with the intersection of psychology and the law. Forensic psychologists are often involved in custody disputes, insurance claims and lawsuits. Some professionals work in family courts and offer psychotherapy services, perform child custody evaluations, investigate reports of child abuse and conduct visitation risk assessments.

Those working in the civil courts often assess competency, provide second opinions and provide psychotherapy to crime victims. Professionals working in the criminal courts conduct evaluations of mental competency, work with child witnesses and provide assessment of juvenile and adult offenders.

Social psychologists are focused on understanding how interactions with other people impact individual and group behavior. These professionals often work in areas such as market research, organizational management, systems design and other applied areas. Prominent areas of study include group behavior, leadership, attitudes and perception.

More About Careers in Psychology


Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, Psychologists, on the Internet at

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