How to Become a Clinical Psychologist
What Is Clinical Psychology?
Everyone has off days when they just don't feel like themselves. For most people, these feelings are normal, and they don't last long at all. For some, however, these feelings are more serious and could indicate a severe mental or emotional problem.
Clinical psychology is a broad branch of psychology that focuses on diagnosing and treating mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders, including learning disabilities, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.
By the second half of the 19th century, the field of psychology was widely recognized and respected, though the subfield of clinical psychology didn’t gain that same level of recognition until closer to the turn of the 20th century. It was around this time that Lightner Witmer, the American psychologist credited with introducing the term "clinical psychology", first opened a clinic catering to children with disabilities.
Although his ideas were somewhat slow to catch on, Witmer is now widely recognized as one of the founding fathers of clinical psychology, and his progress in treating children helped pave the way for the field to develop into what it is today.
What Does a Clinical Psychologist Do?
The role of a clinical psychologist is to use psychological techniques to treat mental illnesses. Clinical psychologists use psychological treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychoanalytic therapy rather than prescribing medications.
Clinical psychologists work in a variety of different capacities, largely dependent on the patient population they treat, whether it’s veterans, the elderly, or children. Their day-to-day work is also influenced by any area they might choose to specialize in, like neuropsychology.
Clinical psychologists may further specialize by working primarily with children and adults with ADHD or Asperger's Syndrome or based on the setting in which they work. In a school setting, they can help children with learning disabilities. At a university, they can help students make career decisions, stay emotionally healthy, and achieve academic goals. In community-based facilities, they can help culturally diverse and economically disadvantaged populations. As the nation's aging population grows, more and more are working with senior citizens.
Regardless of the setting or the patient population they see, clinical psychologists often treat mild mental health problems associated with things like depression and anxiety, although their primary focus tends to be more severe chronic issues like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Other clinical psychologists research mental health issues, policies, and training, as represented by the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology.
How to Become a Clinical Psychologist
Three of the most common questions prospective students interested in this field have are “Is it hard to become a clinical psychologist?”, “What are the educational requirements to become a clinical psychologist?”, and "How long does it take to become a clinical psychologist?"
Clinical psychology takes hard work but is a rewarding career. To become a clinical psychologist, you will need to earn your undergraduate degree, which takes on average four to six years. You will also need to earn your doctorate degree, which takes on average four to seven years to complete. In total, most clinical psychologists spend between eight and 12 years in school.
Of course, the path to becoming a clinical psychologist isn’t the same for everyone. Some students prefer to earn their clinical psychology degree online, while some prefer a traditional classroom or a hybrid approach. In any case, it’s important to research psychologist license procedure by state, but these steps are the most common.
1. Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree
Earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology provides the fundamentals you’ll need to pursue your master’s and doctoral degrees. While most clinical psychologists earn a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology, not all graduate programs require this. If you know you want to become a clinical psychologist and are enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program, it’s recommended to major in psychology as this will give you a wider selection of graduate degree programs to choose from later on.
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2. Earn Your Master’s Degree
Once you’re ready to pursue your master’s degree, you’ll have several choices to choose from. Some undergraduate programs result in a master’s degree so you can study at an accelerated pace, graduate sooner, and begin your doctoral program. Depending on where you choose to study clinical psychology, you may not need a master’s degree and can instead enroll directly into a doctoral program.
3. Earn Your Doctoral Degree
Although some states recognize and grant limited licensure to master's-educated psychological associates, allowing them to work in a limited capacity under the supervision and authority of licensed psychologists, full authority licensure in clinical psychology always requires a doctorate degree in psychology.
Earning a doctorate takes five to seven years and requires you to write and defend a dissertation in addition to passing a comprehensive exam. A one-year internship is also required in most cases.
There are two options available for earning a doctorate:
- A Ph.D. in Psychology, or a Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology, which is a research-focused doctorate appropriate for professors of psychology, researchers, as well as practitioners.
- A PsyD, or Doctor of Psychology, which is a practice-focused doctorate specifically aimed at practitioners and clinicians.
Where Does a Clinical Psychologist Work?
As the clinical subfield of psychology, these specialists most often work in settings like psychiatric hospitals, general healthcare facilities, and mental health clinics.
Many clinical psychologists find employment with government-run organizations, including on military installations where they can work as military personnel or civilian contractors, as well as in VA hospitals and with federal law enforcement agencies. Universities often employ these psychologists as research professors and as classroom instructors that help inspire psychology students to consider clinical practice.
Many clinical psychologists also choose to open their own private practices and work for no other boss but themselves. Opening a private psychology practice can often be expensive and difficult but can also be very rewarding and lucrative.
Here are a few of the areas clinical psychologists can be found working:
- Research at a university
- School psychology
- Health service psychology
- Physical health psychology
- Work with the elderly
- Work with children and university students
4. Become a Licensed Clinical Psychologist
In most states, a license is required to practice clinical psychology. Specific licensing requirements vary depending on where you live and what type of position you’re seeking, but in most states, clinical psychologists will need to:
- Earn a doctorate in psychology
- Complete an internship and 1-2 years of supervised professional experience
- Pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology
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Employment Outlook & Career Guidance for Clinical Psychologists
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even with 178,900 psychologists practicing throughout the U.S. as of 2020, the field is expected to see an 8% job growth rate over the ten-year period leading up to 2030.
The vast majority of professional psychologists work in clinical, counseling or school psychology roles, accounting for 118,800 members of the total psychology workforce. Among them, most work in elementary and secondary schools (44,970) or in non-medical practices (20,060), wile a smaller, but still significant number, work in physicians' offices (6,400), individual and family services (6,070) and outpatient care centers (5,430).
2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics job market trends for Psychologists reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area many vary. Data accessed December 2021.
What Type of Positions Can a Clinical Psychologist Hold?
Clinical psychologists can hold positions in education, research, management, and within a wide range of medical and community settings. Many psychologists become entrepreneurs, and start their own clinic or private practice. According to Dr. Tecsia Evans, a clinical psychologist in the SF Bay Area, career options available to clinical psychologists include:
- Being a director or supervisor of a psychology training program
- Providing evaluations for family court during child custody disputes
- Being a researcher, professor or adviser for an educational institution
- Publishing articles and self-help books in psychology
- Doing consultant work for organizations seeking psychology experts (such as forensic psychologists)
- Providing psychological evaluations for those seeking long term disability or worker's compensation
The type of job field or employment setting that a clinical psychologist encounters also hinges upon the type of degree he or she possesses.
"Clinical psychology graduates have many options: academia, research, clinical settings (hospitals, outpatient clinics) and private practice. The type of degree (PhD or PsyD) will influence the options to some extent. PhD's typically have more research training and typically have an easier time working in academic and/or research settings. PsyD's are more applied/clinical [and] tend to end up in more clinical settings. There are some programs that offer MA's in clinical psychology. Unfortunately, the options with an MA are much more limited, as you cannot become a licensed psychologist." – Reuben Robbins, PhD
Learn more about how to become a clinical psychologist.
Clinical psychologists also find employment within a:
- Legal Setting: Working with incarcerated individuals, victims of crimes, and recently released criminals. The legal system offers job positions that serve clients of all ages – from youths to senior citizens.
- Sports Therapy Setting: Working with athletes to overcome personal issues and problems that may hinder their performance level.
- Business Setting: Working with companies to find more scientific, better-organized ways to train employees, develop and strengthen relationships between employees, and eliminate negative aspects of an employee's personality, such as hostility and timidity.
- Military Setting: Working with military personnel (and their families) who experience difficulties readjusting to civilian life, coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, and/or dealing with combat injuries. Clinical psychologists also work with grieving relatives of soldiers, and spouses with separation issues.
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Ways for Clinical Psychologists to Increase Desirability as a Job Candidate
The characteristics deemed most desirable by employers of clinical psychologists vary according to the type of job that an applicant has applied to.
"According to Reuben Robbins, PhD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, employers within the academic and/or research field value a strong track record of publication and grant funding. He says that clinical-related jobs also take into consideration good recommendations, diverse experiences, strength in character, the ability to supervise, and experiences working with complex health systems and patients."
Other attributes of a clinical psychologist valued by employers include:
- Leadership skills
- Being able to demonstrate a healthy balance between work and life
- Published written work and/or research for academic-related positions
- Being an active member of a psychological association (such as the APA or local association)
- Active in the community, such as doing outreach and volunteer work
- A team player willing to learn from and listen to others
"Having experiences working with a diverse clientele. It's always impressive when you see an applicant who has done great clinical work with a caseload that is full of clients that represent a variety of backgrounds (i.e. race, age, cultural, sexual orientation, gender, SES, religion, etc.) and a spectrum of clinical diagnoses." – Tecsia Evans @DrEvansCo
Ways for a Clinical Psychologist to Increase His/Her Salary
The desire and follow-through that a clinical psychologist shows to further his or her skills and knowledge of the field is one of the most common actions that lead to an increase in salary or job position. In the academic and /or research environment, employers often evaluate a psychologists' grant funding efforts, published works, teaching reviews, and leadership roles (such as manager, supervisor, or project lead) to determine salary increases.
Advanced training is also beneficial in both the clinical and academic settings. Those who become board certified or earn a certificate in a specialized skill (such as a particular type of psychotherapy or learning advanced data analytic techniques, as Robbins suggests) exhibit the kind of qualities that employers place in high regard. Evans also suggests becoming an expert in a sought-after or unique clinical area.
Clinical psychologists may also gain additional income outside of their place of employment by doing consultant work, coaching, conducting assessments, and offering therapy services.
See our piece on clinical psychology degrees online.
Clinical Psychologist Networking Opportunities and Organizations
Collaboration on projects is regarded as one of the best ways for clinical psychologists to network with colleagues and other professionals within the field. This may include co-leading a group or co-teaching a class. Attending social and professional gatherings provide a more relaxed environment for networking.
Conferences allow a clinical psychologist to expand his or her networking pool, and are offered on a local, regional, national, and international basis. Clinical psychologists can also network during advanced training seminars and participating in workshops.
Organizations that provide networking opportunities for clinical psychologists include:
- American Psychological Association (APA)
- American Academy of Clinical Psychology
- Society of Clinical Psychology
"Joining listserves is a good way to network." – Reuben Robbins, PhD
Continuing Education (CE) Sources
In addition to a range of state-approved CE programs for clinical psychologists, the APA provides continuing education programs for psychologists and other mental health professionals. These professional development opportunities allow psychologists to earn CE credits in topics such as Deployment Psychology; Bipolar Across the Life Cycle; and Treating Pain with Hypnosis.