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Postgrad growth area: assessment psychology

Testing was the seed from which modern-day psychology grew, says Irving B. Weiner, PhD. In the 1940s and 1950s, when only psychiatrists were allowed to provide therapy, psychologists cornered the market on clinical assessment, says Weiner, a clinical psychiatry and behavioral medicine professor at the University of South Florida, president of APA's Div. 5 (Evaluation, Measurement, and Statistics) and past-president of Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology).

Since then, the niche for psychologists and assessments has greatly expanded.

"Whenever personality characteristics are relevant to decisions facing courts, employers or agencies of any kind, psychologists, as experts in assessing personality functioning, have a valuable and sometimes critical contribution to make," Weiner says.

It's a contribution that can help determine whether a sexual predator is released from prison, whether a parent retains custody of a child and sometimes even whether someone lives or dies. Assessment psychologists, after all, help determine whether a person facing a death penalty is exempt as a result of mental retardation, says Radhika Krishnamurthy, PsyD, a clinical psychology professor at the Florida Institute of Technology.

"Think about how important that evaluation of mental retardation is," says Krishnamurthy, president-elect of the Society for Personality Assessment, an association that promotes the science and practice of personality assessment. "It can't be based on something loose or just on someone's judgment. When you bring in the precise measurement, then at least you're resting the data you're getting on something that is credible and dependable."

Valid, scientific tests give credibility to the entire field of psychology, she adds. A well-conducted personality assessment, for example, provides a sound basis for one's conclusions when dealing with questions of impulsivity, psychological impairment or risk to self or others, and use of culturally sensitive assessment tools helps reduce misconceptions and biases.

Why it's hot

Assessment psychologists are in demand in nearly every facet of psychology. In fact, in some of psychology's newer areas of expertise in particular—such as neuropsychology and forensic psychology—testing and assessment experts are critical to the specialty's ongoing development, and government and industry are clamoring for more of them, says Charles Golden, PhD, director of the neuropsychology assessment center at Nova Southeastern University.

Psychologists who specialize in this area are also needed to document the mental and behavioral health effects of such chronic diseases as diabetes and heart conditions. They are also essential in helping assess traumatic brain injuries in soldiers.

What you can do

Many assessment and testing psychologists work in clinical settings, including psychiatric clinics and hospitals, as well as in private practice. There, they administer and interpret personality, intellectual and neuropsychological tests, which help clinicians and physicians create treatment plans and track patients' progress.

Assessments are often needed when a client presents a diagnostic question or when treatment is at an impasse.

"Without an accurate assessment, it's impossible to establish appropriate goals or provide a well-targeted intervention," says Virginia Brabender, PhD, a psychology professor at Widener University and president of Section IX (Assessment Psychology) of Div. 12.

Other assessment psychologists conduct forensic evaluations. They may help determine, for example, whether a defendant understood a Miranda warning or if a sexual predator is likely to offend again.

Assessment and testing psychologists are also in demand in educational settings to pinpoint learning disabilities. Other assessment psychologists work for the government or as consultants to determine, for example, whether a severely depressed person qualifies for Social Security disability benefits.

Some assessment specialists work in academia or for test-development companies such as Pearson or the College Board. These psychologists design tests that influence who gains admission to college or medical school and who gets certified to practice in certain professions, for example. Psychologists Scott Oppler, PhD, and Dana Dunleavy, PhD, of the Association of American Medical Colleges, surveyed hundreds of medical education experts as part of a project to revise the Medical College Admission Test. Testing expert Paul Sackett, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, is working with the MCAT revision to examine several possible additions to the test, including a better way to measure noncognitive skills—or personal and professional characteristics—as a way to improve the test's ability to identify who will be the most qualified physicians.

Earnings outlook

Salaries for assessment psychologists vary widely depending on where you work and how successful you are, says Golden. Starting out, he says, assessment specialists can earn $45,000, but some psychologists—particularly those working in the forensic setting—are making $250,000 or more.

"If you get really good at this you can be in high demand for complex cases where people are willing to pay a pretty good amount of money," Golden says.

Plus, compared with psychotherapy, an assessment practice using technicians to administer tests typically allows clinicians to take on a much larger number of clients.

How to get there

You can specialize in assessment psychology whether you're a research-oriented grad student or in a clinical program, but the doctoral programs vary greatly. Some programs have particular tracks, such as neuropsychology. However, even the generalist curriculum in assessment varies considerably in depth. Besides studying programs' Web pages to determine the extensiveness of an assessment curriculum, undergraduates can also check out the Society for Personality Assessment's Web page, which describes many programs.

If you plan to specialize in this area, consider signing up for advanced classes—ones that cover such topics as behavioral assessment, child and adolescent assessment, forensic or neuropsychological assessment, Krishnamurthy recommends. Some programs even offer seminars in which students use test data and their advanced knowledge of assessments to conceptualize cases and develop treatment plans.

If you're seeking licensure, try to find an internship where you can practice your testing and assessment skills. You'll also want to learn several different therapy methods, so you know firsthand what kinds of interventions to recommend on the basis of your tests.

To network with others in your future field, join a community of assessors, such as the Society of Personality Assessment, Div. 5 and Section IX of Div. 12.

Pros and cons

If you thrive on challenges, enjoy puzzles and take pleasure in variety, becoming an assessment psychologist has a great deal to offer, Krishnamurthy says.

"Conducting an assessment is almost like being a detective in an investigation—you're constantly finding something new," she says.

For clinical psychologists, doing assessments is a great way to round out your practice. Or, you can build an entire practice on assessments, Golden says.

As for the drawbacks of assessment psychology, it requires rigorous training and a fervent focus on precision, experts say. Some students may find it boring to ask the same questions repeatedly. It also requires a larger overhead than psychotherapy, as assessors must keep up with a constant flow of new tests and revisions of old tests, Finn says. He adds, however, that despite the added costs, assessment is a unique enterprise that no other mental health professional has the training to do.

"We get clients referred to us whom even really good psychiatrists and therapists can't figure out," he says. "It's very rewarding."

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.

Assessment psychology resources