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6 Specialty Areas of Psychology

Specialty Areas of PsychologyPsychology has a long and rich history. While many people think of therapists when they hear the word “psychology,” this discipline is about much more than a therapist working with a client to overcome mental or emotional struggles.

Today, psychologists can work in a variety of settings with a wide range of clients. They might work in business or industry as an industrial-organizational psychologist. They might spend time researching the behavior of animals and use that research in comparative studies to understand human behavior better. They might also work for law enforcement agencies as forensic psychologists.

Even psychologists that work in the clinical realm vary widely in their approaches to helping their clients. Some might espouse Freud’s psychoanalytic approach. Others might use cognitive-behavioral techniques. Still others might prefer Gestalt therapy for assisting their clients.

To help paint a picture of how diverse the field of psychology truly is, let’s review some common and uncommon specialties.

Social Psychology

Social PsychologySocial psychology is the scientific study of the interaction between individuals and society. More specifically, social psychologists try to explain how individuals’ feelings, behaviors, and thoughts are influenced by other people.

But it isn’t just real interactions that social psychologists are interested in. Rather, how we think, feel, and behave can be strongly influenced by our perceptions of what others are doing or saying.

For example, if you’ve been told by a co-worker that you’re too loud, you might withdraw at work and become much more subdued. But if you think that a co-worker thinks that you’re too loud (e.g., you’ve seen them rolling their eyes when you speak), you may withdraw and become much more subdued. So, the end result can be the same whether other people actually think you’re too loud or whether you simply assume they think you’re too loud.

Social psychology is a much broader field, though, and this is not the only kind of behavior that social psychologists seek to answer.

For example, social psychologists also study the concepts of leadership, such as what makes some people prone to becoming highly effective leaders, and by contrast, what makes someone less likely to be a good leader. They also study the concepts of prejudice and racism, aggression and conformity, and even nonverbal behaviors.

Forensic Psychology

Forensic PsychologyForensic psychology is a relatively new specialty that applies psychology to legal situations. On the one hand, this can occur in very specialized forms, such as developing a profile of a criminal to help law enforcement narrow the search for their subject.

But, again, this is just one component of this psychology specialty. And while psychological profiling has perhaps been dramatized by popular television shows, the primary roles of a forensic psychologist are perhaps less grandiose.

For example, forensic psychologists are often employed by prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys to assist in jury selections. Likewise, forensic psychologists often provide emergency clinical psychology services to victims of crimes. Most often, though, forensic psychologists are responsible for conducting psychological assessments, usually of people that have been accused of a crime.

Because of the heavy emphasis on conducting psychological evaluations, one of the most important skills for a forensic psychologist to have is solid clinical psychology skills. They must be empathic and understanding, have a good understanding of therapeutic treatments, understand how to encourage people to open up, and be able to employ strategies for building trust and rapport with a wide range of people.

Another common task of forensic psychologists is to serve as expert witnesses in criminal trials. Unlike conducting psychological assessments, serving as an expert witness requires less clinical skill and more raw understanding of psychological concepts and their application to legal matters. 

For example, to be a good expert witness, one must be competent in psychology, have excellent communication skills, have a good understanding of relevant legal doctrines, and must also be able to work well under pressure. 

Industrial-Organizational Psychology

Industrial-organizational (IO) psychology is concerned with the relationships between people and their workplaces, and between people within the workplace. As such, IO psychologists must have a good grasp of the intricacies of individual and group behavior as well as organizational behavior, and how all three can contribute to problems at work.

Psychologists in this specialty have many options for employment, from working for one specific organization to running a freelance practice to helping multiple organizations with specific projects. As such, it is an excellent option for people that have an interest in psychology and want a wide range of career possibilities.

Regardless of where they work, IO psychologists undertake some tasks that are common to most work situations. For example, they are often responsible for the design and implementation of occupational training for employees. They typically work with recruiters to find well-qualified job applicants for businesses and organizations as well. IO psychologists commonly facilitate professional mediations, too, during which they attempt to bring two opposing sides together to find common ground.

IO psychology also concerns the creation of workspaces that promote improved mental health. For example, an IO psychologist might be contracted by a business to develop a wellness program for employees. By implementing a work-based program that focuses on mental and physical health, the employees will feel better, will be less stressed, and as a result, are more likely to enjoy their work and be more productive. The obvious benefit to employers is that happier employees stay around longer, thus reducing the need to find and train new employees. Improved production obviously has its benefits for the company’s bottom line as well.

But IO psychology has other areas of focus. Some workers in this field are involved in coaching new employees or even seasoned employees. IO psychologists might help companies revise policies, such as disciplinary procedures, to make them more effective at encouraging positive workplace behaviors. Some IO psychologists even work on the customer side of business and provide recommendations for marketing strategies that are more effective at reaching a business’ target audience.

Health Psychology

Health PsychologyAs the name indicates, health psychology combines the study of the mental and physical health fields. It can be considered as the scientific study of the psychological, biological, and social factors that impact health.

But health psychologists don’t just study the interrelationships between these factors. Instead, they seek to find ways to help encourage people to embrace healthier ways of living. Becoming healthier can be a complex and difficult task, though, so health psychologists often have their work cut out for them.

For example, many people have poor eating habits, and as a result, more and more people are obese. But having poor eating habits isn’t always about making poor eating choices. Some people live in a food desert and don’t have the ability to procure healthy foods on a regular basis. So their “choice” to eat poorly isn’t necessarily a choice at all. It could be the result of the conditions in which they live.

So, health psychologists must take into account the array of factors that might be influencing a person’s health. These factors can and should be considered when developing a plan for a client to improve their overall health.

As a health psychologist, you will find that there are many different employment possibilities. You might work directly with patients in a primary care center or a hospital. You might work for a university as a college professor. You might also work in private practice and be contracted by different organizations to assist with health promotion programs.

Research Psychology

Like the other specialties on this list, research psychology has many different applications that make it an interesting choice for a career.

As a research psychologist, you might focus on a chronic mental health disorder, like schizophrenia, and work on improving our understanding of the causes of the disorder and the efficacy of certain treatments. As another example, you might use your skills in research to study questions related to social behavior and the factors that influence some people to conform to group norms, while others do not conform to group norms.

Really, any specialty in psychology has the potential to involve heavy doses of research. In fact, you can specialize in an area of psychology like developmental psychology or counseling psychology and spend your entire career conducting research on those topics.

What makes research psychology different from the other specialties on this list is that there is no client contact involved. This is not a therapeutic specialty at all. Instead of meeting with clients for one-on-one counseling, you would instead work in a laboratory designing, implementing, and evaluating research or surveying research that already exists.

This is a scientific pursuit through and through. Research psychologists rely on the scientific method to test hypotheses about human behavior and draw conclusions based on empirical research. To be a research psychologist, you’ll need to have advanced skills in statistics in addition to the necessary training in psychology.

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology is the closest to what most people think of when they hear the term “psychology.” Clinical psychologists meet with individuals, couples, families, and groups to provide therapeutic services whose aim is to help people improve the quality of their lives.

However, there is more variety within this specialty area than most people realize. For example, some clinical psychologists work only with children. Others work exclusively with people that have survived traumatic experiences. Other clinical psychologists specialize in treatments like music therapy or rational-emotive therapy. The possibilities are virtually endless.

What ties all these different approaches together are the psychological underpinnings that guide clinical psychologists. All clinical psychologists must understand how to assess clients – how to conduct an interview, how to administer a behavioral or diagnostic assessment, and how to interpret the results of psychological tests.

Additionally, clinical psychologists must understand what interventions are at their disposal for each client, and how to implement those interventions in a way that maximizes the ability of the client to make successful behavioral changes.

Clinical psychologists must also engage in consultations with their peers when difficult problems arise. For example, if a client is presenting a particularly complex problem, and a clinical psychologist isn’t sure what the right course of action is, they might consult with another clinical psychologist to get assistance with determining the most appropriate intervention.

Of course, there is also a lot of research involved in clinical psychology. Rather than conducting research like a research psychologist, it’s important for clinical psychologists to be current on the latest research in their field. So, if you’re a clinical psychologist that works with children under the age of five, it would be important for you to participate in trainings, workshops, and other continuing education opportunities to ensure you’re relying on the most recent research and using the best practices for your clients.

Psychology is a Highly Varied Field

As noted in the introduction, psychology isn’t all about professionals asking their clients “how does that make you feel.” Instead, as we’ve discussed here, psychology is a highly varied field with applications in all corners of business, law, education, and society in general.

As you think about a future as a psychologist, it’s a worthy pursuit to also think about how you wish your career to unfold. Does the excitement of helping someone modify their behavior to achieve a happier life excite you? Then clinical psychology might be the best route for you. Does working with law enforcement to identify potential suspects of crimes sound exciting? Then forensic psychology might be a choice worth making.

Whatever psychology specialty you pursue, you will find that it’s hard work. In many instances, having a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. is warranted, which means you’ll need to spend about ten years in college to complete your studies. Then, once you’re a psychologist, the hard work continues as you strive to make a positive difference in other people’s lives.

But, despite all the hard work, it is work that can be highly rewarding. Becoming a psychologist means having the chance to see the fruits of your labor and share in the joy of positively impacting the lives of others. Whether you do so in a clinical setting, in a school, in business or law or some other application is up to you. Just know that the rewards await!

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated September 2021

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