James Madison University

Career Options with a Graduate Degree

Individuals who hold master's degrees in psychology work in a variety of settings, including businesses, hospitals, schools, community mental health centers, and many other public and private institutions. Professional opportunities at the master's level vary considerably and depend to a large extent on the type of master's degree obtained.

People with general or research-oriented master's degrees who do not pursue further study at the doctoral level are employed in a variety of settings, however, without a doctoral degree, these individuals often find their opportunities for employment or advancement are limited. They usually report to someone who holds a doctorate, and they are seldom able to provide services without supervision.

Completion of a professional/terminal master's degree or specialist degrees in counseling provides preparation for immediate employment in applied settings. Persons who hold such degrees frequently work in community mental health centers or treatment facilities. They are often involved in assessment, the provision of intervention services, counseling, vocational rehabilitation, or behavior management. Many licensed professional counselors also hold specialist's degrees, which represent more extensive training than either the general or professional/terminal master's degrees. Licensed professional counselors may provide psychological services without supervision by other professionals. Licensure requirements vary from state to state.

Graduates of professional/master's degree programs in industrial/organizational psychology find employment opportunities in private businesses and government organizations. These individuals devote most of their time to the selection and training of employees. They may also focus on human resource development, employee assistance programs, and other programs related to personnel management and employee relations.

Most people employed in school psychology hold specialist's degrees, which require at least 60 semester hours of graduate study. Most professionals in school psychology work primarily in the schools and are concerned with a variety of psychological and educational issues. School Psychologists are licensed and licensure requirements vary from state to state.

Psychologists with doctoral degrees assume many different occupational roles. They may work as professors, researchers, mental health service providers, administrators, or consultants. Doctoral-level psychologists are employed in a variety of settings, including universities, elementary and secondary schools, hospitals, human service agencies, private business and industry, and government organizations. In addition, many psychologists maintain independent practices for the provision of psychological services. The doctoral degree offers the most professional flexibility and leads to many career opportunities in psychology.

Obtaining a doctorate requires a deep commitment to the discipline of psychology. The successful completion of a doctoral program entails at least 4 years of intensive graduate study. Students must also pass a set of comprehensive exams and write and defend a dissertation. Those who wish to provide psychological services are required to complete a yearlong internship plus at least 1 year of supervised practice. Admission to doctoral programs is highly competitive. The average acceptance rate for doctoral programs is approximately 11 percent; some programs in clinical psychology accept less than 2 percent of all applicants. Still, a doctorate in psychology is a very appealing option for bright students who are willing to make a substantial personal investment in order to achieve high academic and professional goals.

Areas for Graduate Study


Biopsychology, Physiological Psychology, and Neuroscience. These psychologists generally teach and conduct research on the role of genes, the nervous system, the endocrine system, and chemicals on the regulation of behavior. Most work in academic institutions or research labs in the public or private sector. (Also see Experimental Psychology.

Clinical Neuropsychology. Neuropsychologists investigate the relation between the brain and behavior. They diagnose behavioral disturbances related to suspected dysfunctions of the central nervous system and treat patients by teaching them new ways to acquire and process information. Clinical neuropsychologists work in the neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatric, and pediatric units of hospitals, and in clinics. They also work in academic settings, where they conduct research and train other professionals.

Clinical Psychology. Clinical psychologists assess and treat people's mental and emotional disorders. Such problems may range from the normal psychological crises related to life-cycle adjustment to conditions such as schizophrenia, personality disorders, or depression. Many clinical psychologists also conduct research or function as consultants, supervisors, or administrators. Clinical psychologists work in both academic institutions and health care settings such as clinics, hospitals, and community mental health centers, as well as in private practice. Many focus their interests on special populations (e.g., children, the elderly) or specific problem areas (such as phobias, substance abuse, or depression).

Cognitive Psychologists and Psycholinguistics. These psychologists generally teach and conduct research on mental processes such as memory, reasoning, information processing, language, problem solving, decision making, and creativity. Most work in academic institutions or research labs in the public or private sector. (Also see Experimental Psychology.)

Community Psychology. Community psychologists are concerned with everyday behavior in natural settings: the home, the neighborhood, and the workplace. They seek to understand the factors that contribute to normal and abnormal behavior in these settings. They also work to promote health and prevent disorder. Whereas clinical psychologists tend to focus on individuals who show signs of disorder, most community psychologists concentrate their efforts on groups of people who are not mentally ill (but may be at risk of becoming so) or on the population in general. Community psychologists are often employed in academic or government settings.

Comparative Psychology and Animal Behavior. These psychologists generally teach and conduct research on the behavior of animals, and the evolution of behavior. Most work in academic institutions or research labs in the public or private sector. (Also see Experimental Psychology.)

Counseling Psychology. Counseling psychologists help people with personal issues such as career development, marriage and family issues, and a variety of other issues associated with problems encountered by most people during their life span. These psychologists provide assessment of, and counseling for, personal, career, and educational problems. Counseling psychologists often use research to evaluate the effectiveness of treatments and to search for novel approaches to assessing problems and changing behavior. Research methods may include structured tests, interviews, interest inventories, and observations. Many work in academic settings, health care institutions, community mental health centers, hospitals, or private clinics.

Developmental Psychology. Developmental psychologists study human development across the life span, from conception to the aged. Developmental psychologists are interested in the description, measurement, and explanation of age-related changes in behavior; stages of emotional development; universal traits and individual differences; and abnormal changes in development. Observational as well as experimental methods are used to investigate such areas as aging, basic learning processes, cognition, perception, language acquisition, socialization, and sex roles. Many doctoral-level developmental psychologists are employed in academic settings: teaching and doing research. Others are employed by public school systems, hospitals, and clinics. They often consult on programs in day-care centers, pre-schools, and hospitals and clinics for children. They also evaluate intervention programs designed by private, state, or federal agencies.

Educational Psychology. Educational psychologists study how people learn, and they design the methods and materials used to educate people of all ages. Many educational psychologists work in universities, in both Psychology Departments and schools of education. Their research focuses on the theory and development of psychological tests, creativity, and retardation, as well as on such concepts as maturation, group behavior, curriculum development, and intellectual growth and development. They conduct basic research on topics related to learning or reading, writing, mathematics, and science. Some educational psychologists develop new methods of instruction, including designing computer software. Others train teachers and investigate factors that affect teachers' performance and morale. Educational psychologists conduct research in schools and in federal, state, and local education agencies. They may be employed by governmental agencies or the corporate sector to analyze employees' skills and to design and implement training programs.

Experimental and Research Psychology. Experimental Psychologists generally teach and conduct research about fundamental issues in the behavioral sciences. During graduate school these professionals usually specialize in sub-areas such as biopsychology, cognitive psychology, comparative psychology (animal behavior), learning, psycholinquistics, and sensation and perception. Most experimental psychologists work in academic institutions or research labs in the public or private sector.

Forensic Psychology. Forensic psychologists apply psychological principles to legal issues. Their expertise is often essential in court. They can, for example, help a judge decide which parent should have custody of a child or evaluate a defendant's mental competence to stand trial. Some forensic psychologists are trained in both psychology and the law. Often state law dictates the credentials and training needed for forensic work. Forensic psychologists are often used as expert witnesses for a variety of legal questions. Other fields of work for psychologists interested in law include probation and parole counseling, police psychology, and academia.

Health Psychology. Health psychologists are researchers and practitioners concerned with psychology's contribution to the promotion and maintenance of good health and the prevention and the treatment of illness. As applied psychologists or clinicians, they may, for example, design and conduct programs to help individuals stay physically fit, stop smoking, lose weight, manage stress, prevent cavities, or deal with physical illness or death and dying. As researchers, they seek to identify conditions and practices that are associated with health and illness. Employment settings for this specialty area can be found in medical centers, industry, hospitals, health maintenance organizations, rehabilitation centers, public health agencies, and private practice.

Human Factors Engineering and Environmental Psychology. Engineering psychologists promote the research, development, application, and evaluation of psychological principles relating human behavior to the characteristics, design, and use of systems within which people work and live. Environmental psychologists investigate the interrelationships between people and their sociophysical milleu. They study the effects on behavior of physical factors such as pollution and crowding and of sociophysical settings such as hospitals, parks, housing developments, and work environments, as well as the effects of behavior on the environment. These psychologists may work in industry, in the military as well as in government and academic settings.

Industrial/Organizational Psychology. Industrial/organizational psychologists are concerned with human behavior in the workplace. Their interests include organizational development and organizational change; teamwork; worker's performance, well being and productivity and job satisfaction; consumer behavior; selection, placement, training, and development of personnel; and the interaction between humans and machines. Their responsibilities on the job include research, development (translating the results of research into usable products or procedures), problem solving, mediation and dispute resolution. Industrial/ organizational psychologists work in businesses, industries, governments, and colleges and universities. Some may be self-employed as consultants or work for management consulting firms.

Learning and Applied Behavior Analysis. These psychologists generally teach and conduct research on the fundamental processes of learning such as habituation, classical conditioning and instrumental conditioning. Much of their work is with animals, but research on human behavior is also common. Most work in academic institutions or research labs in the public or private sector. (Also see Experimental Psychology.)

Psychology of Aging (Geropsychology). Researchers in the psychology of aging study the factors associated with adult development and aging. They draw on sociology, biology, and other disciplines as well as psychology. For example, they may investigate how the brain and the nervous system change as human's age and what effects those changes have on behavior or how a person's style of coping with problems varies with age. Clinicians in geropsychology apply their knowledge about the aging process to improve the psychological welfare of the elderly. Many people interested in the psychology of aging train in graduate program in experimental, clinical, developmental, health, or social psychology. Geropsychologists are finding jobs in academic settings, research centers, industry, health care organizations, mental health clinics, and agencies serving the elderly. Some are engaged in private practice, either as clinical or counseling psychologists or as consultants on such matters as the design and evaluation of programs.

Psychometrics and Quantitative Methods. Psychometric and quantitative psychologists are concerned with the methods and techniques used in acquiring and applying psychological knowledge. A psychometrician may revise intelligence, personality, and aptitude tests or devise new ones. Quantitative psychologists might assist researchers in design or interpret the results of their research projects. Psychologists specializing in this area are generally well trained in mathematics, statistics, and computer programming and technology. They work in academic settings, government and industry.

Rehabilitation Psychology. Rehabilitation psychologists work with stroke and accident victims, people with developmental disabilities and those with physical disabilities caused by such conditions as cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and autism. They help clients adapt to situations, frequently working with other health care professionals. They deal with issues of personal adjustment, interpersonal relations, the work world, and pain management. Rehabilitation psychologists work with public health programs to prevent disabilities, especially those caused by violence and substance abuse. They sometimes testify in court as expert witnesses about the causes and effects of a disability and a person's rehabilitation needs.

Sensation and Perception. These psychologists generally teach and conduct research on the fundamental processes underlying our ability to see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. Most work in academic institutions or research labs in the public or private sector. (Also see Experimental Psychology.)

School Psychology. School psychologists help educators and others promote the intellectual, social, and emotional development of children. They are also involved in creating environments that facilitate learning and mental health. They help children and families cope in time of crisis. They may evaluate and plan programs for children with special needs or deal with disruptive behavior in the classroom. They sometimes engage in program development and staff consultation to prevent problems. They may also provide on-the-job training for teachers in classroom management, consult with parents and teachers on ways to support a child's efforts in school, and consult with school administrators on a variety of psychological and educational issues. School psychologists may be found in academic settings, where they train other school psychologists and do research. Other settings in which school psychologists sometimes work are nursery schools, day-care centers, hospitals, mental health clinics, private practice, federal and state government agencies, child guidance centers, penal institutions, and behavioral research laboratories.

Social Psychology. Social psychologists study how people interact with each other and how they are affected by their social environments. They study individuals as well as groups, observable behaviors, and private thoughts. Topics of interest to social psychologists include personality theories, the formation of attitudes and attitude change, attractions between people such as friendship and love, prejudice, group dynamics, violence, and aggression. Social psychologists can be found in academic settings, as well as in advertising, corporations, hospitals, educational institutions, and architectural and engineering firms as researchers, consultants, and personnel managers.

Sports Psychology. Sports psychologists help athletes refine their focus on competition goals, become more motivated, and learn to deal with the anxiety and fear of failure that often accompany competition. The major areas of interest for today's sports psychologists include motor-skills learning, personality, anxiety and stress, imagery training, conflict and competition, coaching, counseling, and fitness. The role of the sports psychologist has grown because of the trend for people to be involved in some form of recreation and the concern for health.