In fact, the American Psychological Association currently has 54 divisions. And while not all 54 divisions are of equal popularity, many of these subdisciplines are hugely popular for both students and professionals.
While each division of psychology has common threads, they also offer unique opportunities for studying and applying psychological principles. If you’re considering a degree in psychology, you could find a very lucrative career in a specialized field like those listed below.
Cognitive psychologists study the “how” behind mental processes. They may investigate how people learn and understand information, how the brain handles what’s learned, and how this influences common mental conditions.
This could be the field for you if you’re interested in the mechanics behind problem solving, decision making, reasoning, judgment, and language. How people perceive things, language development, memory, and what drives the development of intelligence are also studied in cognitive psychology. A simple way to think about this field is that it’s the study of the relationship between environmental stimuli and our responses to that stimuli.
For example, a cognitive psychologist might postulate how humans receive information from the outside world. Furthermore, a cognitive psychologist might study how that information is stored and processed.
As another example, cognitive psychologists study how humans pay attention to the environment around them. A classic study on this process was carried out in the 1950s, which revealed that people can tune out background noise at a party in order to focus on what the person you’re talking to is saying. Likewise, if what the person you’re talking to isn’t very interesting, you can tune them out and focus on a different conversation nearby.
This is called the cocktail party effect, and it’s just one way that cognitive psychology has shed light on the internal workings of the human mind.
Usually, cognitive psychologists work in the research field, but some also work in academics as professors at colleges and universities. If the idea of research or teaching is attractive to you, this might be a good field for you to explore.
Those who choose the discipline of developmental psychology study physical, cognitive, social, emotional, perceptual, intellectual, and personality development over the course of the human lifespan. This includes how social factors and emotional influences affect development at various life stages.
Additionally, developmental psychology seeks to address critical questions, such as:
- Stability vs. change – Human development is marked by significant physical, social, emotional, and mental changes, yet some things remain stable across the lifespan.
- Continuity vs. stages – Some changes over the course of the lifespan occur continuously, and very smoothly as a result. Others take place in stages and can be a dramatic and sudden shift in our development.
- Nature vs. nurture – This is a classic debate that seeks to determine how nature (the traits we inherit from our parents) interacts with the experiences we have (nurture) over the course of our lives, and how the two processes together influence human development.
Given the broad scope of human development, most psychologists in this area choose to focus on a specific age group. Childhood and adolescence are popular categories, but studying geriatrics is becoming more common since people are starting to live longer and can benefit from information that increases the number of years they remain independent.
Many developmental psychologists work in the fields of research and academia while many others work in applied settings. For example, as a researcher, you might examine the relationship between parenting styles and the social development of children. A specific research question might be, “does an authoritarian parenting style limit the social growth of children as compared to kids raised by parents with a laissez-faire or an authoritative parenting style?”
In an applied setting, you might work with children who display delays in social development. Your purpose would be to identify, diagnose, and treat any specific disorders that might have caused the social development delays, and equip the child and their parents with strategies for advancing their social development.
These professionals work with students, teachers, administrators, and parents to deal with the many psychological issues that can disrupt a school setting. A school psychologist may:
- Administer cognitive assessments to students
- Counsel kids in dealing with personal, developmental, or emotional issues
- Collaborate with teachers to overcome challenges in the classroom, such as helping teachers correct a child’s unruly classroom behavior
- Partner with parents in helping their kids achieve academic excellence in the face of struggles
Additionally, school psychologists often conduct research. For example, you might be tasked with researching cutting-edge learning programs for underachieving students in a middle school setting. After conducting your research, you might be asked to formulate a plan to implement changes to curricula, the learning environment, course offerings, and so forth, to help address the needs of students that aren’t meeting their potential.
School psychologists are often asked to evaluate school policies to help make them more appropriate for the age of students being served. An example of this might be to evaluate the disciplinary procedures for common infractions in a high school setting and devise interventions that help reduce the number of disciplinary incidents.
Usually, school psychologists are also an integral part of the special education department in a school. As noted earlier, as a school psychologist, you might administer assessments to students, counsel them, work with parents and teachers, and consult with administrators on the best courses of action for treating a student’s social, emotional, behavioral, or psychological issues.
It should be noted that school psychology is not the same thing as school counseling. For starters, a school psychologist’s degree is in psychology, whereas a school counselor’s degree is in counseling. As a result, their focus is slightly different.
For example, school psychologists often focus on testing and assessment to identify social, emotional, behavioral, or intellectual issues in students. The data they derive from assessments help them to work with kids on specific, targeted issues.
By contrast, school counselors tend to focus on improving a student’s mental health. They work with kids on improving their behavior and provide individual and group counseling. Additionally, school counselors often work on enhancing the school environment by implementing school-wide changes for the betterment of students. If you like the idea of counseling kids and addressing mental health issues, school counseling might be for you. But if you enjoy the idea of conducting research and assessments to create targeted interventions for specific students, school psychology is a good choice.
It’s not unusual for athletes or sports teams to have their own psychologists or for coaches to ask for input in dealing with the mental and emotional issues faced during the season and the off-season.
In the field of sports psychology, it’s your job to help improve athletic performance by honing concentration, increasing motivation, and reducing stress. That means working directly with athletes and their coaches to provide the necessary counseling and support to improve the likelihood of a successful season.
Some sports psychologists work with schools that have a heavy focus on athletics to improve the quality and prosperity of their programs. Others concentrate on research to increase the understanding of the specific psychological challenges that are faced by athletes. Yet others work with athletes that have been injured to help the athlete deal with the mental stressors of being injured.
A large component of being a sports psychologist is helping athletes prepare mentally for competition. For example, you might work with a professional baseball player to teach them skills for improving confidence and focus, even if they are suffering through an extended slump at the plate.
As another example, you might work with a basketball player to develop a pre-game routine that helps them “get in the zone.” This might entail mental exercises that improve focus and composure. It might also include working on a pre-shot routine in which the athlete works to calm their nerves and envisions themselves making a shot, thereby making it more likely for them to actually make the shot.
Sports psychologists often work for professional sports organizations, though, as mentioned earlier, they are often employed by athletics departments of colleges, universities, and even high schools.
As one of the largest, and often the most recognized, subdisciplines of psychology, clinical psychology covers a broad spectrum of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. But regardless of one’s focus, this field’s aim is to provide comprehensive mental health care for people in need.
To work in this field, you generally choose a specific problem to address or group of people to work with. For example, you may specialize in bipolar disorder or focus your attention on teenagers. You might elect to work exclusively with children. You might specialize in treating schizophrenia. You might work in private practice or be a college professor. The possibilities are virtually endless.
But clinical psychology isn’t just about providing mental health care. Many clinical psychologists also help clients with behavioral issues.
For example, you might work with a child client who is acting out after his parents’ divorce. His behavior is likely the result of the changes in his life, not because of a mental disorder or psychopathology.
As another example, you might specialize in counseling couples or families that are working through difficulties at home. Again, these difficulties might stem from typical family occurrences such as sibling rivalry, or they might be the result of one member of the couple or family having more serious emotional, mental, or psychological issues.
Many clinical psychologists also engage in research. This is often the case for clinical psychologists that work in an academic setting – research is often required of faculty members at colleges and universities.
Of course, clinical psychologists are often asked to educate others and provide training. As an example of this, a clinical psychologist might be asked to supervise a master’s student’s internship. This professional relationship allows the psychologist to provide feedback and insights that will help the psychologist-in-training develop additional knowledge and skills as well as gain the confidence they need to apply their knowledge and skills in a real life clinical relationship.
Whether running a private practice, working in a medical setting, working in a community mental health setting, or something in between, clinical psychologists use the principles of psychology and information from psychological research to assess clients and provide the best possible treatments.
Which Psychology Subdiscipline is for You?
When you’re ready to enroll in a psychology program, select a subdiscipline that’s in line with your skills and passions. Since there are so many areas to choose from, you have the freedom to focus on where you can do the most good and help the greatest number of people.
For some, this might mean that you focus on clinical psychology and developing a private practice. For others, this might mean working for a government agency and engaging in research on aging, death, and dying as a developmental psychologist.
The value of studying psychology is that psychological services of all kinds are often in very high demand. While it is sad to know that so many people are hurting in so many ways, focusing your studies on psychology means that you will soon be equipped with the knowledge and skills to help some of these people in need.
Regardless of the subdiscipline you choose to pursue, it will take time, energy, and patience to get there. In many cases, you’ll need a doctorate to work in these and other popular fields of psychology, though a master’s degree is sometimes acceptable. Since a master’s program in psychology is often 2-3 years in length, you’re looking at a minimum of 6-7 years of schooling to practice as a psychologist. If you have to get a doctorate, it could be anywhere from 3-5 more years on top of that.
This timeline isn’t meant to discourage you. Instead, it is simply meant to illustrate that the training you receive as a psychologist is critically important, that way you have all the tools you need to effect positive change in people’s lives. You can do just that in any of the subdisciplines described above.
B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming
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Updated August 2021