If you’re thinking about majoring in psychology and pursuing a career in this field, it’s a good idea to consider what the future holds for careers in psychology.
Truth be told, the job outlook in psychology varies depending on a wide range of factors, not the least of which are the level of education you have and the specialty you pursue.
For example, regardless of specialty, you will likely find that the higher your education, the more job opportunities there are available. Yet your specialization will also impact the job outlook – industrial-organizational psychology, for example, is in much higher demand than aviation psychology.
However, despite these differences based on specialty and education, we can draw some general conclusions about what to expect in the future based on widely available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and other reliable economic sources.
Read on for more information about popular psychology specialties and the projected growth of these careers in the coming years.
The term “psychologist” encompasses a variety of professionals that have an advanced degree in psychology. On the one hand, some psychologists are clinicians that work with clients who have sought help in overcoming a mental health issue like depression or anxiety. On the other hand, other psychologists work in the research realm, studying human behavior and conducting experiments that help advance our understanding of why people behave in the manner that they do.
Whether a psychologist is a clinician, a researcher, or something in between, they typically have a Ph.D. or a Psy.D., both of which are doctorates. A Ph.D. is more research-focused, and is therefore the degree of choice for many psychologists that want to follow the path of research. A Psy.D. focuses more on the practical application of psychological principles in a therapeutic setting. As a result, psychologists that want to pursue a clinical career often choose to take part in a Psy.D. program (though many Ph.D. programs are also clinically focused).
As of 2020, there were around 178,900 psychologists in the United States. That number is expected to grow at just three percent – an average rate – through 2029. Compare this with previous projections that psychology jobs would grow by 12 percent over a 10-year period. The slower growth rate doesn’t mean that psychology is doomed, though. These are merely estimates that the BLS publishes every two years. They can be fairly volatile, too, depending on the economic factors that are present when the estimates are made.
Even if jobs in this field only grow at a three percent rate, there is expected to be strong demand in certain specialties of psychology, such as industrial-organizational psychology, school psychology, clinical psychology, and counseling psychology.
Likewise, the BLS predicts that rehabilitation psychology will be a fast-growing specialty because the population is getting older and older adults will need more rehabilitative services in the coming years.
Mental Health Counselor
Where psychologists might specialize in research or clinical work, mental health counselors work exclusively in the clinical field.
Like clinical psychologists, mental health counselors work with clients who have behavioral, emotional, or psychological disorders. This might be done in any number of ways, such as using psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral techniques, or interpersonal therapy, to name just a few. Additionally, mental health counselors can work with a wide range of clients, from children to adolescents to adults, as well as individuals, couples, families, and groups. Typically, mental health counselors will specialize in a certain area, such as working with children or families.
Mental health counselors usually have a master’s degree, though a growing number hold a Ph.D. in counseling or a closely related field. In some states, mental health counselors can be licensed as a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a master’s degree. However, in some situations, a Ph.D. might be required for licensure.
Where some states allow Ph.D.-level psychologists to diagnose mental disorders and prescribe drug therapies to treat them, many states do not allow mental health counselors – even those that have a Ph.D., to prescribe medication. To do so would require a psychiatrist, a physician, or a psychologist to prescribe a drug treatment.
Growth for this career is projected by the BLS to be at 23 percent through the end of the 2020s. This is much faster than average for other occupations. The increasing need for mental health counseling will result in an estimated 41,000 new jobs each year.
There are several reasons why the BLS estimates that this career will see greater-than-average growth.
First, many workers in this field are approaching retirement age, so a greater number of jobs are expected to be available simply because of current workers retiring.
Second, with a greater focus on treating mental disorders, there are simply more consumers of mental health counseling services than there once was. Paired with an emphasis on providing mental health services to people in jails and prisons, this should result in more jobs being created in this specialty.
And third, we’re simply seeing an uptick in people seeking help for mental health issues. Many employers are encouraging their employees to seek help when needed, and as it becomes less taboo to discuss mental health issues, more people are open about their struggles and actively seeking help.
Substance Abuse Counselors
As the job title indicates, substance abuse counselors focus on providing aid to people with substance dependency and substance abuse disorders. The type of aid varies depending on the situation.
For example, many substance abuse counselors lead group therapy sessions for people that struggle with substance abuse. In this situation, substance abuse counselors create a supportive environment in which each member of the group feels as though they have people in their corner as they work through their substance abuse issue.
As another example, a substance abuse counselor that works with individual clients might focus on teaching their clients behavior modification techniques that will help them overcome their substance abuse problem. Additionally, many counselors in this specialty provide practical assistance to their clients, like assisting clients with making amends with loved ones, finding work, and finding housing.
Since substance abuse is a long-term struggle, substance abuse counselors often work with their clients for an extended period of time – years or even decades, perhaps. However, since substance abuse is such a significant issue, there is a great need for more substance abuse counselors.
In fact, the BLS estimates that this field of psychology will grow at a 23 percent rate through 2029. The reasons for this growth are very similar to those for mental health counseling – treating substance abuse, rather than punishing people in the legal system for substance-related activities – is becoming more and more the norm. Likewise, as the stigma of substance abuse lessens, more people are admitting they have a problem and seeking out help. As a result, the BLS estimates that more than 75,000 jobs in mental health, substance abuse, and behavioral disorder counseling will be created by the end of the decade.
School and Career Counselors
Psychology professionals that specialize in school and career counseling often work in a public or private school setting, typically with grades K-12. School counselors usually work with all grades from elementary to high school, but career counselors are more frequently employed in high school settings. Career counselors might also be employed at colleges or universities or work in private practice.
Regardless of the employment setting, the purpose of school counseling is essentially to help kids develop the needed social and academic skills to be successful in life now and in the future. According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the role of a school counselor is much broader than this, and includes tasks such as:
- Advocacy on behalf of students
- Academic planning
- Collaborate with teachers and parents to ensure student success
- Engage in research and data analysis to determine specific needs amongst the student body
- Short-term counseling for students
In some school settings, school psychologists might also provide guidance counseling services and assist students in identifying the courses they want and need to take to fulfill the requirements of moving to the next grade or graduating from high school.
Additionally, some school counselors devise classroom-based or schoolwide programs for addressing social or emotional issues. For example, they might develop a curriculum for teaching kids how to deal with bullying or devise a school-wide program for increasing support for LGBTQ+ students.
Career counselors, on the other hand, offer guidance to students on their career path (those that work in private practice help people as they transition from one career to the next). This might take the form of helping a high school student identify the most appropriate courses to take to prepare them for pursuing their desired career after graduation. It might also involve coaching people already in the workforce to help them improve their interview skills.
In both cases, career counselors typically make use of personality tests and interest inventories, which can be informative as to the career path someone might be inclined to pursue. This information, as well as information gleaned from one-on-one sessions with clients, is then used to suggest the direction a student might go in terms of their post-secondary education.
School and career counseling is expected to grow at an 11 percent clip through 2029, making it one of the fastest-growing specialties on this list. If that level of growth is sustained, it could result in about 37,000 more jobs being created by 2030.
The primary reason for this growth is the increasing enrollment of students in K-12 schools. With greater numbers of kids comes a greater demand for school counseling and career counseling services. The same is true of colleges and universities. More and more post-secondary institutions are focusing on school to career services. With on-campus career services centers becoming more popular, the need for career counselors is expected to rise.
While social work is different from psychology, the two fields are closely related despite these differences.
Where the other specialties on this list require degrees in psychology or counseling, to become a social worker, you’ll need a degree in social work. This begins with a bachelor’s of social work, which enables you to work in entry-level positions in this field. But to get more advanced jobs, you’ll need a master’s of social work, and in some cases, a doctorate in social work to achieve your career goals.
Social workers typically help individuals cope with everyday life, such as finding a place to live or assisting clients with finding a job. In some situations, social workers may also diagnose and treat mental health issues and disorders, engage in one-on-one therapy sessions, and work with groups of individuals in a group therapy situation.
To provide therapeutic services to clients, social workers must be licensed. This involves becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). This involves getting a master of social work, passing relevant exams, applying for licensure and meeting all of the licensure requirements, and taking part in supervisory hours.
Jobs for social workers are expected to increase by 12 percent over the course of the 2020s, with approximately 78,300 new jobs created. Jobs for child and family social workers, who specifically deal with problems within the family unit, are expected to increase by 13 percent over the same period.
Mental health and substance abuse social worker careers are expected to increase even faster during this period, by a rate of 15 percent. The higher rate of growth is attributed to more individuals seeking help with these issues, and, as noted above, the reduced stigma of substance abuse is opening more doors for people to seek help.
The American Psychology Association is an excellent resource to learn more about careers in psychology. You can also access reports on these and other psychology-related jobs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There, you’ll find detailed information on everything from expected pay to the educational requirements to geographic data regarding what areas of the country have the highest salaries for each psychology career.
As with anything, choosing the right career path requires that you spend some time researching, planning, and preparing. Use the information presented here as a guide to help you get started and narrow the field of potential careers. Then be sure to do additional research so you know exactly what you need to do to pursue the psychology career of your dreams.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
Updated September 2021