What Is an Academic Psychologist?

What Is an Academic Psychologist?An academic psychologist, or school counselor, is an important staff member at elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools.

These dedicated professionals assist students with their social and emotional development, identify and remove barriers that prevent students from maximizing their academic potential, and help guide students to post-high school education and job opportunities.

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Of course, school counselors wear many other hats as well. They’re advocates for students, they research best practices for improving educational opportunities, and they teach teachers, administrators, and parents skills that will help them better support the growth and development of children. 

Entering the field of academic psychology can be a rewarding career option, especially since academic psychologists are able to help school-age kids through life’s difficult issues. Making an impact is vital in this profession, and academic psychologists need to fully understand what it takes to become successful in this field.

What Do Academic Psychologists Do?

Academic psychologists focus on the coordination of the goals and actions of students, teachers, parents, and involved parties through informal and formal treatment plans.

For example, let’s say an academic counselor at an elementary school is working with a student that is struggling to get his homework turned in. To address this issue, the psychologist might have a telephone conference with the child’s parents to see if there are any issues at home that are causing barriers to the child completing his work. If problems exist (i.e., the family can’t afford internet service), the psychologist might then coordinate with the school district to make accommodations, be that providing the child a hot spot so he can access the internet at home or allowing the child to come to school early or stay late to do his homework in the library.

In this example, the academic psychologist is working as an advocate for their client. They began with a specific classroom problem and worked with the child’s parents to identify the home-based issue that is causing the child to not have his homework done on time. But, as noted earlier, advocacy is just one task that academic psychologists commonly address.

School counselors may also be responsible for school-wide programs on important social issues. Depending on the current administrative concerns, the counselor may implement awareness and education programs on issues concerning sexual abuse, sexism, and racism. So, rather than working one-on-one with a child, the academic psychologist would develop a curriculum that can be provided to all students in school.

For example, if there is a pervasive problem with bullying in a high school, an academic psychologist might develop an educational program that sheds light on the reasons why people engage in bullying behaviors. The program might also offer specific steps students can take when they witness bullying as well as strategies that bullied kids can use to cope with being bullied. The methods and details for developing this kind of plan depend on the school’s grade level and specific demographics.

Other areas that academic psychologists often address include:

  • Developmental changes in kids
  • Family challenges
  • Sexual abuse
  • Academic planning
  • Social skills development
  • Conflict resolution

Additionally, many academic psychologists work with students that have special needs.

Specifically, academic psychologists are typically responsible for the development and coordination of individualized educational plans (IEPs) and helping pupils with behavioral issues or learning disabilities.

Developing IEPs can be a long process, and it requires input from multiple stakeholders, including the child, the child’s parents or guardians, the child’s teachers, and perhaps outside agencies like social services or the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. As such, academic psychologists must be able to be an effective leader with excellent organizational and communication skills if the group is to achieve its goal of assisting the pupil in making positive academic progress.

Academic psychologists also assist teachers who suspect a student has a learning disability, parents who want answers for their child’s poor performance, and principals who identify chronic behavioral issues.

When academic psychologists meet with students, they determine the actions needed to correctly identify the problem, such as seeking an outside referral from a physician or specialist to identify possible organic causes. Academic psychologists conduct certain evaluations as well, such as academic examinations and diagnostic screenings.

Unfortunately, academic psychologists in today’s world are often tasked with comforting students after a tragedy. Be it an accident that takes the life of another student or an all-too-common school shooting, academic psychologists often serve as trauma therapists for kids that are struggling with the emotions that result from a tragic loss.

But there are wonderful moments, too, that make academic psychology a highly rewarding career. You might work with a student on study skills that enable them to get their grades up and get scholarships to go to college. A child you worked with on anger and aggression issues that blossoms into a caring and compassionate classmate is a success story that many academic psychologists share. Likewise, the feeling you get when you see a once sad and lonely child grow into an outgoing kid with many strong friendships makes all the hard work worth it.

Where Do Academic Psychologists Work?

Where Do Academic Psychologists Work?Many academic psychologists are employed by public or private schools. In some cases, they might work in a single school, which is more common at the high school level, or in multiple schools, which is more common for elementary and middle grades. Regardless of the grade level, academic psychologists usually have an office where they can meet individually with kids, with groups of kids, or with children and their families.  

But, since academic psychologists often collaborate with classroom teachers and administrators, they will often work in classrooms directly with teachers and students or they will take part in meetings with other teachers, such as IEP meetings or academic planning meetings with other counselors and staff.

Some academic psychologists are employed in higher education. Though their job duties might be a little different than at the K-12 level, the ultimate goal remains the same – to support the growth and development of students.

So, instead of working with a child who has trouble handing in his homework, an academic psychologist at a college or university might lead a group therapy session for survivors of sexual assault. As another example, an academic psychologist might connect students with academic resources on campus, such as the tutoring lab, that will help them improve their academic performance and increase the likelihood that they meet the requirements of their degree program in a timely fashion.

What is the Required Education for Academic Psychologists?

What is the Required Education for Academic Psychologists?Most states require aspiring academic psychologists to complete a minimum of a master’s degree in a psychology program like school psychology or school counseling. Though the specific requirements differ, you should expect to participate in a program that requires at least 30 semester credit hours (and as many as 60 semester credit hours) as well as an internship or even multiple internships.

For example, a master’s program in school counseling might be 60 credits in length with a practicum experience in which you mostly observe a school counselor, and then an internship experience in which you must complete 1,000 hours of work. That work might be divided into 250 hours of educational activities, like conducting research or reading relevant texts on school counseling. The other 750 hours might be required client contact time in which you are required to have direct contact with clients in an individual, group, or classroom setting.

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Some school counselors go on to get their Ph.D. in counseling. While a Ph.D. is not typically required for most academic psychologist positions, it can be beneficial to have the additional schooling and experience for carrying out the duties of the position.

Getting a Ph.D. is a long process – likely at least five years – and a lot of work, too. Ph.D. programs in this field might include an internship component of 1,500 hours on top of a dissertation requirement, which entails years of research that culminates in a defense of the dissertation to a committee.

Whether you stop with your master’s degree or go on to get a doctorate, you will have to obtain licensure as an academic psychologist in the state where you intend to work. The tricky part about licensure is that each state is responsible for setting the requirements for licensure. This means that the steps involved can be quite different from one state to the next.

Despite this, there are some fundamentals you’ll need to address. First, your degree needs to be from an accredited institution. If it isn’t it is likely that you will not be licensed in any state. Second, there is certain coursework that most state licensure bodies require you to take, like psychological theory, individual counseling techniques, group counseling techniques, and ethics.

The other component of licensure is successfully completing a licensure exam. While some states do not have a licensure examination requirement, most do, and many of those are Praxis tests that cover very broad concepts in school counseling. Additionally, prospective academic psychologists will have to pay the relevant fees for licensure and will have to pass a criminal background check.

What is the Salary and Job Outlook for Academic Psychologists?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychologists earn a median salary of $82,180 annually. When broken down to an hourly wage, this averages out to $39.51 per hour. 

The pay scale for psychologists is quite wide, too. Top-earning psychologists can make in excess of $137,000 per year. The lowest-earning psychologists might make closer to $46,000 per year.

There are many different reasons for this variation in pay. First and foremost, the more education and work experience you have, the higher the income you will earn. For example, two academic psychologists, one with a master’s degree and five years of experience and the other with a Ph.D. and five years of experience, will likely not earn the same yearly salary. The psychologist with a Ph.D. will typically earn more.

Other factors affect one’s salary as well. The location at which you work, the geographic area in which you work, and the overall health of the economy can all impact your salary as an academic psychologist.

For example, you might find that working as an academic psychologist in a public school setting involves a salary that is higher than a similar position at a private school. As another example, academic psychologists that are in private practice might make more money than those employed by a government agency. This is not always true, but it is a good rule of thumb.

As for the job outlook, the BLS doesn’t paint a very rosy picture for the coming years for psychology. It is predicted that job growth will be slower than average, at just three percent through 2029.

This does not mean that there won’t be any jobs for academic psychologists. Instead, it simply means that the job market might be a little tighter than it has in previous years. For example, the BLS predicted 22 percent job growth for this field between 2010 and 2020, so things can change – and change quickly.

Typically, the BLS updates its job outlook numbers every two years. Sometimes there are large swings between predictions from one report to the next, so you might find that job growth in this area is stronger in a couple of years than it is currently predicted to be.

Ultimately, whether the job market is hot or not, it’s up to you to build the requisite knowledge and skills that make you a competent academic psychologist. You might need to have additional schooling or training to get a leg up on other applicants. You might also need to complete additional on-the-job training like work studies, practicum experiences, or internships. The point is that the more you do and learn, the better you can differentiate yourself from other applications, and the more likely it is that you can increase your job prospects.

Choosing to Become an Academic Psychologist

Choosing a career path can be a daunting task, especially when it comes to making an impact in others’ lives. Academic psychology is a rewarding industry that many will enjoy, allowing them to make a difference in children’s lives before they reach adulthood.

Remember that it will take time and a lot of work to get the proper qualifications to become an academic psychologist. But if you’re passionate about helping other people, and if you enjoy working with children, this is an excellent career path for you.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated May 2021