What is health psychology?
A specialty of clinical psychology, health psychology is the study of how biological, psychological and social factors affect overall health and wellness. Health psychologists may focus their skills further in subspecialties including behavioral assessment and/or intervention; pain management and illness prevention; or health care reform.
The range of available health psychology careers is broad. Licensed health psychologists are qualified to treat patients in a clinical setting as well as consult for private or government agencies. Their knowledge and skills are applicable in hospitals, clinics, universities, private corporations and government offices.
What does a health psychologist do?
Many health psychologists work in clinical settings, assisting individuals or groups in preventing illness and adopting positive lifestyle choices to promote overall good health among their patients. Others may choose to perform research, become health psychology professors or work with lobbyists or community health organizations to influence public policy on healthcare issues. Whatever the professional setting, you need the following skills to land a career in health psychology:
Skills & Competencies
- Complex Decision Making and Sound Judgement
- Critical Thinking
- Risk Management Assessment of Biological and Behavioral Factors
- Deductive and Inductive Reasoning
- Understanding of Pathophysiology of Disease and Potential Treatments
- Understanding of Public Health Issues in a Bio-Social-Psychological Context
- Data Analysis
Whether treating patients directly in clinical practice or helping to reshape healthcare laws, health psychologists aim to develop and implement effective methods of promoting health and wellness among individuals and the public. Hiring organizations require professionals operating in the domain of health psychology to have extensive knowledge of the psychological, biological and social implications of health, behavior, illness and disease.
Below are four primary specializations within health psychology which describe the general responsibilities of the profession.
Areas of Expertise in the Health Psychology Field
Clinical Health Psychology
Helping patients in a medical facility or other clinical setting to radically improve their lifestyle through techniques designed to identify cognitive behaviors, explore and understand more healthful choices and inspire healthy change.
- Obesity or unhealthy weight gain
- Chronic pain
- Physical disability
Professionals in this area may also specialize in treating patients who are adjusting to the onset of, response to or in recovery from an injury or illness. Depending on the level of severity, effective techniques may include exercise tips, cognitive therapy and hypnosis.
Common Job Titles
- Clinical Health Psychologist
- Clinical Health Counselor
- Clinical Health Therapist
Occupational Health Psychology
Occupational health psychologists specialize in treating mental and physical issues, specifically work-related stress, brought on by individual occupational conditions.
- Chronic stress at work
- Conflict with superiors or coworkers
- Social anxiety surrounding their job
These professionals help to develop a psychotherapy-based treatment plan customized for each individual. Depending on the specific diagnosis of each patient, occupational health psychologists may focus on work-specific communication and interaction techniques to help improve health and reduce stress.
Common Job Titles
- Occupational Health Psychologist
- Occupational Health Specialist
- Occupational Stress Management Specialist
Public Health Psychology
Health psychologists specializing in public health typically work within universities or other academic settings to research the connection between psychological and physical well-being. They also explore effective methods of mental health care and pain management.
Common Research Topics
- Violence prevention programming
- Disease control
- Mental health of correctional facility inmates
It is common for this subspecialty of health psychologists to develop and participate in research programs designed to advance public health and inspire innovations in the field. Findings are often published in scholarly journals or industry publications.
Common Job Titles
- Public Health Psychologist
- Public Health Specialist
- Public Health Analyst
Community Health Psychology
Professionals in this subspecialty could be called "the face" of health psychology; they're responsible for promoting health care initiatives through community programs and public awareness.
- Conduct community health care surveys
- Contact government officials on behalf of the community
- Organize public/community health care programs
- Distribute information/raise awareness in community
Community health psychologists may also work with lobbyists, local government or other elected officials to shape and reform health psychology via a government agency or private organization.
Common Job Titles
- Community Health Psychologist
- Community Health Specialist
- Community Health Programs Specialist
Health Psychology by the Numbers
Health psychologists in the U.S. are a rapidly-expanding group, expected to increase in population by 11% nationwide from 2012 to 2022. As a specialty under larger categories of psychology, health psychologists are among the broad population of clinical, counseling and school psychologists who will occupy an estimated 16,000 new jobs by the year 2022.
Annual Mean Wage of Health 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, July 2015
How do I become a health psychologist?
Entering the field of health psychology demands a high level of academic education. Though many schools offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees in this particular concentration, and some jobs require a minimum of a master's degree, a PhD is preferred in the field of health psychology
A terminal degree in this field demonstrates a mastery of a broad range of competencies spanning biological, social and psychological conditions and treatments; as well as focused skills in a subspecialty of your choice, including clinical, community, public or occupational psychology. Pre-doctoral internships and post-doctoral fellowships are also encouraged.
In order to determine the path to follow to enter the field of health psychology, choose the stage that applies to you from the list below:
Declare as a psychology major.
The following are common health psychology courses:
- Advanced Health Psychology
- Emotion, Stress, and Health
- Health Psychology Interventions
- Social Psychology of Health Promotion
- Principles of Public Health
- Health Care Systems
- Health Disparities
Consider a specialty
- Once you've decided on health psychology as your specialty, start researching a potential subspecialty of interest, such as community or clinical health psychology.
- Seek out any clinical health psychologists at your school and ask to meet with them for added insight. The graduate schools you apply to later will be impressed if you have an idea of your thesis topic already.
Take the GRE
- Find out the average minimum scores for admittance, if any, at schools you'll be applying to.
- Practice the test multiple times.
- If your scores are low, consider a paid GRE training course.
- Register for the test, leaving enough time to take it again if you're not satisfied with the score the first time.
Get Reference Letters
- Become close with your professors. These are important contacts come application time and can greatly affect admission.
- If you've been out of school for a long while, or are no longer in touch with your professors, approach them anyway. Often, they'll ask to chat about your interests, goals and objectives.
Choose a Graduate School
- Use our psychology database to search the top graduate health psychology programs. Pick a school known for its health psychology programs and for its network of alumni in the field.
Come Up with a Thesis
- The framework of your early career is formed here. If you have an idea of which subspecialty in health psychology interests you, you're already a step ahead. If you have yet to make a choice, research available options, whether in clinical practice, research or community-based health psychology.
- Consult your health psychology professors to help you formulate a specific hypothesis in a subspecialty from a broad interest in the subject.
Find an Internship
- Pursue an internship in health psychology before you graduate; you should be working while you're still in school. A good internship at a medical clinic or community center, for example, can provide experience in clinical subspecialties in health psychology and potentially increase job opportunities after graduation.
Network with Professors and Professionals in the Field
- This is of the utmost importance. The core of the job search process is networking with health psychology professionals in your area.
- Ask your school's career center services staff to help you practice interview skills specific to your health psychology specialty area. These skills will serve you well come application time, when you begin to seek out employers matching your objectives.
Refine Your Resume and Keep It Current
- Always keep your resume up-to-date with the most current health psychology experience or internship work specific to your subspecialty.
- Ask several trusted peers to look over your resume for copyedits and suggestions.
- Treat your resume as a living document; tailor it to particular skillsets and experiences needed for job applications in your subspecialty.
Start Sending Out Job Applications
- Don't wait to do this, as it may take longer than you expect to find a job. Be persistent and methodical about finding and applying to health psychology facilities in your area.
- Develop customized cover letters pertaining to your specialty and the individual employer to which you are applying.
- Use LinkedIn to reach out to potential employers. This can set you apart and may help you land a competitive health psychology job.
Prepare for Interviews
- Perform mock interviews with friends, preferably with health psychology-specific questions and answers.
- Research the company for which you are interviewing so that you understand its contribution to the world of health psychology and can explain what you hope to bring to the job.
- Dress professionally. Bring copies of your resume/cover letter and remember: conduct yourself appropriately for a work environment.
You're now a Health Psychologist
- Ideally, following the steps above will help you land your first health psychology job at a hospital, clinic or private agency.
- Career building doesn't have to stop here. Keep looking for new opportunities to immerse yourself in research and innovations impacting your area of interest in the field of health psychology, possibly bringing advanced professional opportunities and increased income your way.
To help you select the right school for you, we have compiled a database of the nation's top health psychology programs. Customize the filters to fit your needs and explore the best health psychology schools in the United States.
Health Psychology Resources
Personally selected by our editorial staff, these resources capture the organizations, journals and conferences leading health psychology today. If you feel our collection is missing a crucial link, please don't hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- American Academy of Clinical Health Psychology
- American Board of Clinical Health Psychology
- American Board of Professional Psychology
- American Psychological Association Division 38
- Council of Specialties in Professional Psychology
- National Register of Health Service Psychologists
- The American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology
- Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research
- American Pain Society
- American Psychological Association
- American Psychosomatic Association
- Society of Behavioral Medicine
- 77th Convention of the Canadian Psychological Association
- American Pain Society Annual Meeting
- American Psychometric Society 74th Meeting
- Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association
- European Health Psychology Society Conference
- Society of Behavioral Medicine Annual Meeting