Applied Psychology Careers

With actual patients, applied psychology tests and puts into practice the principles and theories developed in the experimental branches of psychology. Applied psychologists use psychological methodologies to answer questions and solve problems pertaining to human, and sometimes, animal, behavior. Almost every branch of psychology uses applied psychology to some degree.

While other branches of psychology are based on scientific theories and experiments, applied psychology is practical, grounded in the tangible, everyday world. Through the direct application of psychological concepts and treatment approaches, it seeks to improve patient well-being and mental health.

Overview of Applied Psychology: What Is Applied Psychology?

Applied psychology uses our understanding of human behaviors, affects, emotions, motivations, and disorders to effect measurable changes in patient mental health. The applied psychologist may practice in a variety of settings, including community, medical, and corporate domains.

While this branch of psychology has a research component, its primary thrust is to observe and evaluate patients, then use those results to directly impact patient care. Applied psychology is, therefore, subjective, using the principles of psychology and applying them to specific situations on a case-by-case basis. This distinguishes it from theoretical psychology, which is objective and applied only in an abstract manner to large segments of the populations as a whole.

Duties of an Applied Psychologist: What Does an Applied Psychologist Do?

Practitioners of applied psychology use a variety of approaches to help their patients adjust both their emotional responses and decision-making behaviors: The end goal is to help the patient navigate psychological challenges in a healthier manner. The psychologist’s focus varies within each specialty niche. For instance, clinical and counseling psychologists typically talk with patients to help them improve their everyday situations and lives, working with individuals, couples, families, or groups. They also assist patients with the challenges of substance abuse.

Other applied psychologists focus on mental health in less traditional ways. Many help students with learning disorders. Organizational psychologists help their clients not only to improve their mental health, but also to improve their job performance. Forensic psychologists offer their opinions on mental health, behavior, and motivations in discovery and court cases.

To serve their patients best, applied psychologists perform a variety of functions on a daily basis:

  • Application of psychological principles at the individual, group, organizational, and cultural level
  • Diagnose disorders and create productive treatment plans
  • Application of the principles of applied psychology in health, business, educational, or government settings
  • Ability to determine treatment efficacy and modify plans as necessary
  • Analysis of patients at the general population level to determine which treatments work best; refine treatment at an individual level
  • Work with colleagues to increase patient outcomes
  • Capacity for patience and compassion
  • Innate understanding of human behavior and emotions
  • Solve problems as they arise

Typical Work Environment & Occupational Challenges

Applied psychologists work in a variety of settings, including research environments, where they treat patients while simultaneously gathering data to analyze and draw conclusions for publication. Others work on healthcare teams and interact with other professionals on a daily basis, such as doctors, social workers, nurses, and other psychologists. Applied psychologists also work in schools, clinics, business settings, human resources departments, or federal and state agencies.

In any setting, applied psychologists can experience a great deal of daily, work-related stress. Rarely alone, they typically spend most of their day working with others, including patients and other professionals. Additionally, the stress and anxiety caused by working with patients in distress can pose a challenge. While most practitioners in the field find the tasks rewarding, many also find it draining, and they must learn to cultivate a balance between their work and lives.

Application of the newest, most untested psychological theories to real-life subjects means the psychologist must be willing to undergo a certain amount of risk during their daily activities. New approaches may work out or they may not, which means the psychologist must maintain an attitude of unbiased impartiality, with both the mental flexibility and the psychic toughness necessary to bounce back quickly if an approach doesn’t work.

Lastly, an applied psychologist’s daily schedule may prove challenging. While psychologists working in private practice have the ability to set their own schedules, those employed by institutions typically do not. Daily schedules may include working evenings or weekends. In some cases, applied psychologists work night shifts – such as in hospitals or psych wards – which may prove a challenge to both family and social life.

Applied Psychologist Salary & Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists have a favorable job outlook. The median pay is $36.17 per hour, which translates to roughly $75,000 per year. Estimated to grow at a rate of 19 percent between 2014 and 2024, job growth is significantly faster than average. These statistics indicate that applied psychology students who graduate in good standing, complete on-the-job training, and attain licensure will find employment in the current job market.

The salary outlook is even more positive for specific applied psychologist roles, such as the industrial-organizational psychologist. In this role, the average wage is $50.27 an hour, or approximately $105,000 per year. Most applied psychology roles pay a salary between these two figures, although beginning pay may be lower.

Applied Psychology Jobs & Job Description

Typically, applied psychologists deliver direct care to patients in mental health settings, including their own private practices or a variety of institutions. They may work for hospitals, nursing homes, or hospice care facilities to help patients deal with the challenges of disease, illness, and age. They may also work at clinics or public health centers.

Although their focus is not primarily academic, applied psychologists may work in colleges or universities, positioned to help both the students and faculty on campus. They also may work as counselors in primary and secondary educational institutions. To assist their staff in achieving a successful work/life balance and to withstand the challenges and stressors of their positions, private businesses or corporations hire applied psychologists. For this type of role, the company vets, hires, and employs the psychologist. Other applied psychologists find employment in forensics, which means working with lawyers or state or federal governments to provide professional opinions on cases.

A few applied psychology roles are more indirectly related to mental health. For instance, some work in sports, helping identify common patterns in individual or team play to help athletes become more effective. Applied psychologists work in marketing or product design, using their knowledge of human behavior to help advertisers more effectively appeal to consumers. Others work in traffic, observing typical traffic patterns and determining how changes in routes could reduce congestion and make commutes easier.

An applied psychologist’s duties and responsibilities can vary as widely as the job description and institution in which they work. However, the work of almost all applied psychologists involves helping people increase their overall sense of well-being and mental health, which means certain duties are common across all specialties, including:

  • Conducting observations and interviews of their patients
  • Diagnosing disorders
  • Administering tests to patients to help identify the specific issues from which they suffer
  • Discussing and administering treatment plans to patients
  • Helping patients mitigate stress, anxiety, grief, and other challenging emotions
  • Publishing reports of their findings in medical and psychological journals for peer review
  • Assessing and measuring the work of colleagues
  • Managing employees in organizations and institutions
  • Training and assisting others in skills’ acquisition
  • Helping individuals and families process shared experiences more effectively
  • Teaching diversity
  • Assisting with change management

Applied Psychology Degrees & Education

Because they work directly with patients to diagnose and treat them, most applied psychologists need a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) or Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) to practice. As prerequisites to entrance, both of these programs require the completion of an original course of research, a dissertation, and both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. The Ph.D. or Psy.D. focuses on support of patient mental health services and delivery of care.

In some states, however, school psychologists may be allowed to practice with only a master’s degree. However, beginning practice without a terminal degree limits job growth, opportunities, and leadership potential, so most graduates opt to acquire the highest possible qualifications before seeking employment.

To practice as a psychologist, all states and the District of Columbia require a license. The license requires completion of a degree program, typically consisting of one to two years of study – though in some cases, more – an internship and a specified number of education and clinical hours. The number of hours varies by program, but they typically are in the thousands of education hours along with hundreds of clinical hours. Upon graduation, and before beginning practice, applied psychologists usually need several years (typically two years) of work experience with professional oversight provided by a practicing psychologist. After successful completion of these requirements, the applied psychologist can apply for licensure.

In most states, as well as many Canadian provinces, passage of the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology determines licensure. This test is overseen by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB). To maintain their license, the board typically mandates that psychologists complete a certain number of continuing education hours on an annual basis.

Read more about online applied psychology degrees.