Careers in Psychology

What is psychology?

Why people do the things they do is an age-old question. However, psychology — the science concerned with behavior, in both human and nonhuman animals — first appeared in the 1870s. Despite its youth, it is a broad discipline, essentially spanning subject matter from biology to sociology. Psychologists have doctoral degrees. They study the intersection of two critical relationships: one between brain function and behavior, and another between the environment and behavior. As scientists, psychologists follow scientific methods, using careful observation, experimentation and analysis. But psychologists also need to be creative in the way they apply scientific findings.

Psychologists frequently are innovators, evolving new approaches from established knowledge to meet the changing needs of people, organizations and societies. They develop theories and test them through their research. As this research yields new information, these findings become part of the body of knowledge that practitioners call on in their work with clients and patients, as well as with organizations and communities. Psychology is a tremendously varied field. Psychologists conduct both basic and applied research, serve as consultants to communities and organizations, diagnose and treat people, and teach future psychologists and those who will pursue other disciplines. They test intelligence and personality. Many psychologists work as health care providers. They assess behavioral and mental function and well-being, study how human beings relate to each other and also to machines, and work to improve these relationships. And because the United States is undergoing sizable change in its population makeup, psychologists provide important knowledge and skills to help better understand diverse cultures.

Many psychologists work independently and also team up with other professionals — for example, with other scientists, physicians, lawyers, school personnel, computer experts, engineers, policymakers and managers — to contribute to every area of society. Thus, we find them in laboratories, hospitals, courtrooms, schools and universities, community health centers, prisons and corporate offices.

Psychologists traditionally study both normal and abnormal functioning and treat individuals with mental and emotional problems. They also concentrate on behaviors that affect the mental and emotional health and mental functioning of healthy human beings. For example, psychologists work with patients to help them change behaviors that are having negative effects on their physical health. They work with business executives, performers and athletes to reduce stress and improve performance. They advise lawyers on jury selection and collaborate with educators on school reform. Immediately following a disaster, such as a plane crash or bombing, psychologists help victims and bystanders recover from the trauma, or shock, of the event. They team with law enforcement and public health officials to analyze the causes of such events and prevent their recurrence. Involved in all aspects of our fast-paced world, psychologists must keep up with what’s happening all around us. When you’re a psychologist, your education never ends.

As has long been true, opportunities in psychology for those with graduate degrees will be more plentiful and at a higher level than for those with undergraduate degrees. An undergraduate degree remains excellent preparation for continued graduate work in psychology or in another field, such as business, medicine or computer science. Many employers are interested in the skills that psychology majors bring to collecting, analyzing and interpreting data and their experience with statistics and experimental design.

Opportunities for people with advanced degrees in psychology are expanding in number as well as in scope. The move toward preventing illness rather than merely diagnosing and treating it requires people to learn how to make healthy behavior a routine part of living. Indeed, many of the problems facing society today are problems of behavior — for example, chronic health conditions or disease, drug addiction, poor personal relationships, violence at home and in the street, and the harm we do to our environment. Psychologists contribute solutions to problems through careful collection of data, analysis of data and development of intervention strategies — in other words, by applying scientific principles, the hallmark of psychology.

In addition, an aging America is leading to more research and practice in adapting our homes and workplaces for older people. The promises of the electronic revolution demand more user-friendly technologies and training. More two-career families in the workplace spur employers to accommodate the needs of families. Psychologists are helping to make the changes that are needed. The diversity in America today calls for psychologists to develop and refine treatments and approaches to meet the unique needs of different racial and ethnic groups. Furthermore, research advances in learning and memory, and the integration of physical and mental health care, make psychology more exciting than ever.

Most psychologists say they love their work. They cite the variety of daily tasks and the flexibility of their schedules. They are thrilled by the exciting changes taking place in the field — from adapting technology to benefit humans, to working as part of primary health care teams. They are endeavoring to provide answers to research questions in such diverse areas as prevention, perception and learning, and they are using new technology and knowledge to train the next generation. It is an exciting time to be a psychologist.

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