Psychology and sociology are both important fields for helping people. With effective listening skills, interpersonal communication skills, the right education, confidence, and approachability, entering into one of these two fields can be the start to a professionally rewarding and personally satisfying career.
In both instances, psychology and sociology entail the scientific study of human behavior. Whether you pursue a degree in psychology or sociology, you’ll develop sound research skills, gain the ability to critically observe behavior, and discover reasons why humans behave the way they do.
However, the manner in which psychologists and sociologists seek to understand behavior and facilitate positive changes in people’s lives differs.
For example, if a psychologist and a sociologist are studying family dynamics, a psychologist might offer individual and family therapy sessions to get to the root of the problem that underlies dysfunction in the family. A sociologist, on the other hand, might examine the family dynamic through the lens of societal norms or trends or specific lenses, like religion, to help the family understand why they are interacting with one another in the manner they do.
This is a very simple example, but it illustrates one of the primary differences between psychology and sociology – psychologists work at the micro level, with individuals, couples, and small groups, while sociologists tend to work at the macro level, studying societal associations like gender, social class, and race.
Let’s explore these and other differences between psychology and sociology in more depth.
The Focus of Psychology
Psychology is focused on the study of various types of human behaviors and cognitive processes. In other words, it’s the study of observable behaviors as well as the inner workings of the mind.
Psychologists perform research and work with individuals to understand everything from thought processes and mental health disorders to attention, perception, intelligence, addiction, and motivation, to name a few.
Psychologists often choose paths in either research, to develop theories and identify treatments, or clinical psychology, to work with individuals to address behaviors or disorders. However, there are many different branches of psychology, including:
- School psychology
- Sports psychology
- Forensic psychology
- Industrial-Organizational psychology
- Counseling psychology
- Health psychology
- Educational psychology
In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) currently has 54 divisions, which shows the breadth and depth of this area of study.
Despite the disparate applications of psychological science, each one shares the commonality of seeking to develop a better understanding of human behavior through research and applied science.
Likewise, psychologists of all persuasions share the same four goals:
- To describe behavior
- To explain behavior
- To predict behavior
- To change behavior
In describing a behavior (or thought process), psychologists are able to quantify it and aid in the development of basic laws that govern behaviors.
In explaining a behavior, psychologists are able to take things a step further and devise hypotheses as to why these behaviors occur. To do this, psychologists propose theories to explain the behaviors they are studying.
From there, the focus shifts to predicting future behaviors. This isn’t a matter of guessing what may or may not occur, either. Instead, psychologists base their predictions on empirical research. If the predictions that have been made are not confirmed, the explanation for the behavior must be revised.
The fourth goal of psychologists is to change unwanted behaviors. This can be done in a variety of ways, and the methods that are used will vary depending on one’s theoretical perspective.
For example, if you’re a behavioral psychologist, you might use the process of systematic desensitization to treat a client for a phobia. If you’re a psychoanalyst, you might use talk therapy to slowly peel back the layers of a client’s repressed memories from childhood to reveal the root cause of their phobia in adulthood.
Again, though the processes differ, the ultimate goal is the same – to better understand behavior and use that knowledge to expand the body of research or provide direct assistance to a client.
The Focus of Sociology
Sociology is focused on the study of society in general, including the history and development of societies, human relationships, and the study of organizations and institutions.
Factors included in the study of sociology include:
- Social class
Ultimately, sociologists look to find answers and solutions for various issues within these social structures throughout society.
Like psychology, sociology has a wide range of applications and areas of interest. Each of the American Sociological Society’s 53 sections has a distinct area of interest. These sections include:
- Community and Urban Sociology
- Political Sociology
- Sociology of Culture
- Aging and the Life Course
- Environmental Sociology
- Sociology of Law
- Sociology of Mental Health
You can see how sociology’s macro focus comes into view here. The sections listed above include an incredible array of applications within each one.
For example, the Aging and Life Course section explores sociological principles as applied to newborns, children, adolescents, young adults, middle-aged adults, older adults, and people that are nearing the end of their lives. Each one of these areas can be the focus of a sociologist’s life’s work. There is simply much to study!
The common theme amongst these very different areas of sociological study is the goal to better understand society and the systems and institutions within it. More to the point, sociologists question what perpetuates societal systems and wish to learn how human behavior is shaped by society and how society is, in turn, shaped by human behavior.
Differences in Education
In a psychology degree program, students study a number of different areas. In an undergraduate program, you’ll take introductory courses in:
- Abnormal psychology
- Psychology of learning
- Experimental psychology
- History and systems of psychology
- Psychological statistics
This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but the point is that an undergraduate degree in psychology is a survey of many different components of the field.
Typically, undergraduate programs in psychology do not offer areas of specialization. Instead, specialization usually occurs in graduate school. Areas of specialization might include:
- Educational psychology
- School psychology
- Experimental psychology
- Clinical psychology
- Organizational psychology
- Cognitive psychology
Again, the coursework you undertake in graduate school will largely depend on your area of emphasis. While there will be some general courses that are common to many different graduate degree programs, much of your coursework and fieldwork will be in your specific area of interest.
For many psychologists, a doctorate is necessary to achieve their desired employment. This isn’t to say that you can’t get a job as a master’s level psychologist, but the options might be limited.
For example, most college and university professors have a doctorate (in addition to a wealth of work experience in their specialty). Though there are some master’s-level college professors, it is rare.
Much like a graduate program is more specific and focused on a particular specialty, a doctoral program is even more focused on a specialty. So, where your graduate degree might have been in developmental psychology, your doctoral program might be in child and adolescent development.
As a sociology student, you have the opportunity to study introductory courses in topics that include:
- Gender studies
- Social change
As in psychology, undergraduate work in sociology is very broad, touching on an array of topics and specializations to give students a survey of the many different branches that sociology encompasses.
Again, specialization will occur at the graduate level. Since sociology is such a broad field of study, there are many different options for specializing, including:
- Human development
- Social psychology
- Urban studies
- Political sociology
- Family structure
- Race and gender
Unlike psychology, sociology tends to offer more job opportunities for graduates with a master’s degree.
For example, with a master’s degree in the sociology of business, you might find work as a market research analyst. As another example, if your specialization is in mathematical sociology, you might begin a career as a data analyst.
Other master’s-level careers you might consider with a degree in sociology include:
- Grant writer
- Consumer researcher
- Academic researcher
- College lecturer
- Non-profit director
- Community liaison
As with psychology, it’s often prudent for sociology students to pursue a doctorate. Though it isn’t necessarily required, having a terminal degree in this field indicates that you have a wealth of educational experience. Getting a doctorate also gives you the opportunity to specialize further, develop a stronger understanding of human systems and behavior, and affords you the chance to advance your research skills.
Career Possibilities in Psychology and Sociology
Psychology professionals pursue many different types of career positions. With a background in psychology, career options include working in counseling in private practice, for health organizations, and with educational institutions.
Likewise, as the level of education and experience increases, you might find opportunities to work in fields as varied as law enforcement, business and marketing, advertising, or government agencies.
According to Indeed, five of the most popular employment options for psychology majors include:
- Psychology Program Director
- Behavior Analyst
- Psychology Professor
Whatever specialization you choose in your psychology career, there is the opportunity to make a very good living.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for all psychologists in 2020 was $82,180. But the pay range for psychologists extends from about $46,270 on the low end to more than $137,000 on the high end.
Where you fall in this pay range depends on several factors including your level of education, how much experience you have, and where you work (both in terms of your employer and the geographic location where you’re employed).
Of course, the area of specialization will impact the salary you can earn. For example, industrial-organizational psychologists earn a median annual wage of $96,270, which is well above the $82,180 median wage for all psychologists.
Sociology professionals also have a number of options for career opportunities.
Common organizations that employ sociology professionals include:
- Community organizations
- Social services agencies
- Criminal justice organizations
- Research institutions
- Educational institutions
- Private corporations
Likewise, some sociologists find work in local, state, or government agencies. For example, with a master’s degree in sociology you might pursue employment as a case manager for the Department of Family Services in your city or state.
Positions that you might fulfill in an organization vary widely. A sociology graduate might be hired as a family planning organizer for a non-profit community agency, as a housing coordinator, as a public aid worker, or a youth outreach worker for a non-profit. Other options include working in law enforcement as a parole officer, a corrections officer, or a juvenile court worker. Sociologists can also work as urban planners for city government, admissions counselors for a college or university, and as an employee specialist for a private business.
As a sociology graduate, you have a career to look forward to that, on average, pays about as well as psychology jobs. In fact, with a median yearly wage of $86,110 in 2020, sociologists made slightly more than psychologists.
Again, there is significant variation in the salary that sociologists earn. For example, the BLS reports that sociologists working in the field of research and development in the social sciences have a median yearly wage of more than $96,000. By contrast, sociologists that work for state or local governments or educational institutions have a median yearly salary of just under $66,000.
Setting the possible salaries aside, the point is that both psychology and sociology offer many different types of job opportunities for graduates with all manner of degrees. Even with just a bachelor’s degree in one of these fields, you can find entry-level work that will give you valuable on-the-job experience.
While the fields of psychology and sociology are similar in some of the areas of education and employment, there are many more ways in which these disciplines differ.
Understanding the differences between these two fields is helpful for choosing which direction you choose to go with your education. As we’ve discussed, with both psychology and sociology future professionals have numerous and diverse opportunities to make a difference in the lives of people around the world. The task for you right now is to decide how you want to go about affecting change – by working with and studying individuals or taking a larger view and studying and working with human systems. Either way, a satisfying career awaits!
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated August 2021