What is Clinical Psychology?
Clinical psychology broadly refers to the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. Clinical psychologists may provide general psychological treatment or choose a practice area based on a specific patient group, disorder or condition. With many specialties falling under this domain, its practitioners comprise the largest subfield of psychology professionals.
Typical work settings include hospitals, academia or private practice; and while many in this field practice in medical settings, clinical psychologists are not considered medical doctors and most states do not allow them to prescribe medications. On this page, we will explore the skills needed to become a clinical psychologist and how to excel in the field.
What Does a Clinical Psychologist Do?
Many general clinical psychologists work in healthcare or mental health facilities, while those practicing a specialty may work for a private organization, school, police department or the military. The following skills and competencies embody a good clinical psychologist:
Skills & Competencies
- Strong Analytical Skills
- Scientific Reasoning
- Strong Communication and Observation
- Data Analysis
Areas of Expertise in the Clinical Psychology Field
Health psychologists study the behavioral attributes of mental and physical health in adult patients.
- Harmful behavior
- Worrisome thoughts/beliefs
Health psychologists often have a biopsychosocial approach when treating patients, incorporating an extensive understanding of how biological and social factors can impact psychological health.
Common Job Titles
- Health Psychologist
- Research Psychologist
- Counseling Health Psychologist
Professionals in this area work with patients from infancy to adolescence, focusing on methods of psychological assessment specifically designed for young patients.
Common Issues Treated
- Learning disabilities
- Anger management
- Developmental disorders
- Emotional/physical abuse
Consistent, ongoing treatment includes a variety of psychotherapy and behavioral modification methods to improve symptoms. Child psychologists typically work closely with parents and teachers to incorporate collaborative therapy for patients.
Common Job Titles
- Child Psychologist
- Child/Adolescent Therapist
- Licensed Counseling Psychologist
- Attending Psychologist – Children and Adolescents
- School Psychologist – Children and Adolescents
Neuropsychologists study how psychological behavior is affected by brain function and anatomy.
Common Issues Treated
- Learning disabilities
- Traumatic brain injury
- Alzheimer's disease
- Parkinson's disease
This experimental topic examines the progress and symptoms of common neurological disorders to develop treatments and advance further research.
Common Job Titles
- Neuropsychology Research Specialist
- Neuropsychology Specialist
Geriatric psychologists specialize in the mental well-being and the all-around physical, emotional and social health of older adults.
Common Issues Treated
- Cognitive function
- Chronic illness
In older patients with progressive conditions such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, geropsychologists and neuropsychologists often experience overlap in terms of effective psychological evaluation and treatment methods.
Common Job Titles
- Geriatric Psychologist
Clinical Psychology By the Numbers
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists are projected to grow 11% from 2012 to 2022, providing 16,400 new employment opportunities during this time.
Annual Mean Wage of Clinical Psychologists, By State, May 2014
|State||Employment||Employment per Thousand Jobs||Location Quotient||Hourly Mean Wage||Annual Mean Wage|
Source: Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor and Statistics, June 2015
How Do I Become a Clinical Psychologist?
There are a number of unique paths to becoming a clinical psychologist, though a master's is the minimum requirement to enter the field. Students looking to practice general psychological therapy may choose to study clinical psychology basics, while others may select a specialty and continue their education with a specific focus. In order to advance to the top of the industry or prepare for private practice, a PhD or PsyD is recommended. Internships and/or practicums are strongly advised for psychology students while completing their degree.
Our guidelines are designed to show you the start to finish journey of entering the clinical psychology workforce. Choose the stage that best matches your own situation:
Declare as a psychology major.
The following will likely be a part of your foundational courses:
- Intro to Psychology
- Behavioral Psychology
- Cognitive Psychology
- Biological Psychology
- Social Psychology
- Statistical Methods
- Psychology Seminar
Consider a specialty.
- Focus your studies. Seek out a niche in the field if you have settled on clinical psychology.
- Meet with professors in your school who are working in your area of interest. Grad schools are impressed if you are already thinking about your thesis at this stage in the game.
Take the GRE.
- Find out what the minimum scores for admittance are at your school.
- Re-take practice tests at least a few times.
- Consider a paid GRE prep course if your scores are low.
- When registering for a test date, be sure to allow time to retake the test if you're not satisfied with your results the first time.
Get reference letters.
- Keep in contact with a few professors by going to office hours, participating in class and making an effort to distinguish yourself. Building networking skills now may secure your admission later.
- If you're re-entering school after a break or are not close with your instructors, don't hesitate to approach them; be open to casually chatting about your interests, goals and extracurricular activities.
Choose a graduate school.
- Our psychology database can help you research the top graduate clinical psychology programs. Your choice of school directly affects your post-graduation employment. Select a school well-known for its clinical psychology alumni network and career placement services.
Come up with a thesis.
- The framework of your early career starts here. Hopefully you've pinned down your research subject, but if not, quickly identify your topic at this stage.
- Consult your professors to help transform a broad idea into a more focused hypothesis.
Find an internship.
- Apply for an internship before you graduate so that you can be working while in school. The right internship could lead to a job immediately after school and provide further networking opportunities to build your resume.
Network with professors and professionals in the field.
- Networking is typically the most promising part of the job search.
- Seek out your school's career services staff to build your interview skills. Strong networking and interview knowhow will serve you well when applying for jobs.
Refine your resume and keep it current.
- Update your resume often so it contains relevant information and maintains a professional appearance.
- Ask trusted individuals you know to proofread your resume and give suggestions.
- Always note the latest activity on your resume so potential employers can see recent experience and skills.
Start sending out job applications.
- Don't delay—the application process takes time. You will reap the rewards later for being consistent and methodical.
- Write customized cover letters for each position you apply for.
- Use LinkedIn to locate contacts within each organization and reach out to them. This can give you an edge come interview time.
Prepare for interviews.
- Conduct a mock job interview with friends.
- Research the company you are interviewing for. Prepare to be able to describe what they do briefly but accurately.
- Dress appropriately, conduct yourself professionally and bring hard copies of your resume and cover letter.
You're now a clinical psychologist.
- Pat yourself on the back! Ideally, if you have followed the guidelines above, you will have secured your first industry job.
- Don't stop looking for career-building opportunities. Stay current on recent research, and look for the chance to further your education and increase your income.
We have compiled a database of top programs in clinical psychology to help guide you through the process of selecting a school. Set the appropriate filters to meet your criteria and browse America's best schools.
Meet a Clinical Psychologist
Jill Prolman, PhD
I am deeply inspired by my patients' courage and willingness to share their lives and vulnerabilities with me.
To give an inside perspective of clinical psychology, we sat down with clinical psychologist Dr. Jill Prolman to get her view on the ins-and-outs of the field.
Skip to Question
- What's your educational background/How did you get interested in clinical psychology? How/why did you choose your school/program?
I received my BA in Psychology from the University of Michigan. For four years, I played on the Michigan tennis team. During my senior year, one of my psychology professors introduced me to the concept of Sports Psychology. I loved the idea of combining my background in both psychology and sports. After conducting in-depth research, I found a university in San Diego that offered a PhD program in Clinical Sports Psychology. I was admitted and began the program that following autumn. After a semester, I found that sports psychology felt limiting and I transferred into the clinical psychology doctoral program. I wanted to be able to treat a wide range of people and problems without being limited to athletes and sports performance.
- Who do you think makes the best clinical psych candidates? Do you recommend doing anything in undergrad/grad school to better set yourself up for success?
The best candidates are those who have a deep desire to help people and are interested in working intimately with others on an emotional level. I recommend volunteering in a variety of settings to become exposed to different populations and mental health issues. For example, psychiatric hospitals, abuse shelters and drug and alcohol clinics offer ideal volunteer opportunities.
- What's your area of specialty within clinical psychology?
I work with adults aged 18 and older. Within this population, I work with a wide variety of mental health issues. The most frequently seen cases include depression, anxiety, panic disorder, stress and marital/relationship issues.
- Where do you currently work? How did you find that position?
I work in a private practice in Encinitas, California. I have worked in private practice in some form for 27 years. I was fortunate enough to meet my sports psychology mentor while I was in graduate school and I joined his practice after I received my clinical psychology license. From there I established my own professional identity and practice.
- Were there any unexpected hurdles in getting where you are today?
There are definitely hurdles for everyone in the field. You have to be committed to completing graduate school and earning your license. It is a long process: two years to complete your masters; four years to complete your PhD (including writing a dissertation); approximately 3500 hours of internship training; as well as written and oral licensing exams. Additional hurdles after licensing include finding a job or starting a private practice and learning how to run a business, manage patients, network and market yourself.
- What does your typical day involve?
My typical day primarily consists of seeing patients. It also includes a small amount of paperwork and collaboration with other professionals.
- What's your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part of the job is working with a variety of people on unique and challenging issues. I am deeply inspired by my patients' courage and willingness to share their lives and vulnerabilities with me. I feel extremely honored to be given the chance to listen to their stories and help them manage adversity, develop resiliency, grow and heal.
- What do you think makes a great clinical psychologist?
A great clinical psychologist has the desire to help others and the ability to establish rapport and trust. They have strong ethics, compassion, values and boundaries. Ultimately, they have the ability to combine a theoretical knowledge of psychology with the art of communicating in a relatable manner; this will result in positive treatment outcomes.
- Is there anything you don't like about your work?
My career can be socially isolating. Because of the strict guidelines and ethics governing the therapeutic relationship between psychologist and patient, personal friendships cannot evolve on a social level with those you work with on a regular basis.
- What's the most interesting or challenging case/experience you've come across?
An interesting challenge with all of my cases is that a successful engagement and outcome with the patient results in the eventual termination of our therapeutic relationship. If I do my job well, I actually work myself out of a successful and rewarding business opportunity.
- Are you involved with any professional organizations? If so, why?
I am involved in local and national psychological associations. These organizations provide me with opportunities for networking and access to current information and ideas for clinical practice. I also remain active in several sports organizations to retain a reputation within the Sports Psychology arena.
- What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in this field right now? Who is doing the most interesting research?
There are several exciting developments happening in the field. Tremendous advancements have been made researching the brain, resulting in possible implications for treatment and therapy. Also, Eastern traditions and practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, are becoming more mainstream.
- What's the best "must-read/watch" book, video, or publication for your field?
A few of my favorite books include: The Four Agreements by Don Ruiz; The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, both by Brene Brown; Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson; and Feeling Good by David Burns.
- What are the biggest considerations someone should think about before pursuing clinical psychology?
- Whether or not they can face the challenges of completing a doctoral education, building and maintaining a successful practice and the ever-changing nature of the healthcare and insurance industries.
- If they have the ability to process and compartmentalize the emotional traumas dealt with daily; clinical psychologists have one of the highest rates of suicide out of all professional disciplines.
- Any other advice for those looking to go into the field?
Research other types of counseling such as social work, marriage and family therapy and coaching before fully investing in becoming a clinical psychologist.
- Is there anything else you would like to add?
Being a clinical psychologist in a private practice can be an extraordinarily rewarding career. First and foremost, it allows you to help others each and every day. It can also provide the flexibility to create one's own schedule. This independence allows you to maintain a vibrant practice, while, at the same time, allows the freedom to have a personal life and dedicate one's self to family, friends and community. Finally, being a clinical psychologist provides well in the way of economic needs.
Clinical Psychology Resources
Our editorial staff personally selected the following organizations, journals, and conferences shaping clinical psychology today. Please let us know if you feel a crucial resource is absent from our collection by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- American Board of Assessment Psychology
- American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work
- American Counseling Association
- American Educational Research Association
- American Psychoanalytic Association
- American Psychological Association
- Association for Psychological Science
- Arizona Psychological Association
- California Psychological Association
- Colorado Psychological Association
- Connecticut Psychological Association
- Delaware Psychological Association
- Idaho Society of Individual Psychology
- Kentucky Psychological Association
- Louisiana Group Psychotherapy Society
- Louisiana Psychological Association
- Maine Psychological Association
- Maryland Psychological Association
- Massachusetts Psychological Association
- Mental Health America of Hawaii
- Mental Health Association in Michigan
- Mental Health Association of Montana
- Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania
- Metropolitan New York Association for Applied Psychology
- Mid-Atlantic Group Psychotherapy Society
- Mississippi Psychological Association
- Montana Psychological Association
- Nebraska Psychological Association
- New Jersey Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists
- New York State Association for Behavior Analysis
- New York State Psychological Association
- Ohio Psychological Association
- Oregon Psychological Association
- Psychologists of Northwest Arkansas
- Rhode Island Psychological Association
- Tennessee Psychological Association
- Texas Psychological Association
- Utah Psychological Association
- Vermont Psychological Association
- Virginia Academy of Clinical Psychologists
- Washington State Psychological Association
- Wisconsin Psychological Association
- Wyoming Psychological Association
- Asian American Journal of Psychology
- Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice
- Clinician's Research Digest: Adult Populations
- Clinician's Research Digest: Child and Adolescent Populations
- Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology
- Families, Systems, & Health
- International Perspectives in Psychology: Research, Practice, Consultation
- Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology
- Journal of Counseling Psychology
- Journal of Latina/o Psychology
- Journal of Psychotherapy Integration