Specialties in Psychology

Specialties and areas of concentration in psychology

The APA (American Psychological Association) recognizes only clinical, counseling, school, and industrial/organizational psychology as “specialties.” Other areas are considered “areas of concentration” or “subfields.” In the following, they are considered together.


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 extreme 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).


Closely related to the clinical psychologist is the counseling psychologist. Counseling psychologists, however, are oriented to life span issues such as career development and adjustment, marriage and family counseling, 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.


Industrial/organizational psychologists are concerned with the relation between people and work. Their interests include organizational structure and organizational change; workers’ 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), and problem solving.

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. In a business, industry, or government setting, industrial/organizational psychologists might study the procedures on an assembly line and suggest changes to reduce the monotony and increase the responsibility of workers. They might also advise management on how to develop programs to identify staff with management potential or administer a counseling service for employees on career development and preparation for retirement.


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 may evaluate and plan programs for children with special needs or deal with less severe problems such as disruptive behavior in the classroom. They engage in program development and staff consultation to prevent problems and may also provide on-the-job training for teachers in classroom management. They consult with parents and teachers on ways to support a child’s efforts in school, and 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, or in a variety of settings including nursery schools, day-care centers, hospitals, mental health clinics, private practice, government agencies, child guidance centers, penal institutions and behavioral research laboratories.


Cognitive and psycholinguistic psychologists are research-oriented psychologists with a focus of study comprising a number of characteristics. First, they study the behavior of knowing, as opposed to responding. They are concerned with finding scientific means for studying the mental processes involved in the acquisition and application of knowledge. Second, they emphasize the study of mental structure and organization. Finally, these psychologists view the individual as active, constructive and playful rather than a passive recipient of environmental stimulation. Study of this area arose from the areas of linguistics and computer simulation: An information-processing theory evolved that resulted in a framework whereby human thought (cognition) and human language (linguistics) can be studied, analyzed, and understood. These researchers are most often found in academic research laboratory work or in advanced technological information-processing system agencies.


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 and 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.


Developmental psychologists study human development across the life span, from newborns 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 teaching and research settings. 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 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, both in 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 the learning of 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.


Engineering psychologists promote the research, development, application and evaluation of psychological principles relating human behavior to the characteristics, design and use of environments and systems within which people work and live. They may be found working in industries where machine and computer design is required, in military and transportation facilities, or in city or architectural planning, for example.


Environmental psychologists investigate the interrelationship between people and their socio-physical milieu. They study the effects on behavior of physical factors such as pollution and crowding and of socio-physical settings such as hospitals, parks, housing developments and work environments, as well as the effects of behavior on the environment. These environments range from homes and offices to urban areas. Environmental psychologists may do basic research, for example, on people’s attitudes toward different environments or their sense of personal space, or their research may be applied, such as evaluating an office design or assessing the psychological impact of a government’s plan to build a new waste-treatment site.


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 stop smoking, lose weight, manage stress, prevent cavities or stay physically fit. As researchers, they seek to identify conditions and practices that are associated with health and illness. For example, they might study the effects of relocation on an elderly person’s physical well-being. In public service roles, they study and work to improve the government’s policies and systems for health care. 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.


Psychobiologists and neuropsychologists investigate the relation between physical systems and behavior. Topics they study include the relation of specific biochemical mechanisms in the brain to behavior, the relation of brain structure to function and the chemical and physical changes that occur in the body when we experience different emotions. Neuropsychologists also diagnose and treat disorders related to the central nervous system. They may diagnose behavioral disturbances related to dysfunctions of the central nervous system and treat patients by teaching them new ways to acquire and process information - a technique known as cognitive retraining.


Researchers in the psychology of aging (geropsychology) draw on sociology, biology, and other disciplines as well as psychology to study the factors associated with adult development and aging. For example, they may investigate how the brain and the nervous system change as humans 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 are trained in a more traditional graduate program in psychology, such as experimental, clinical, developmental, or social psychology. Although they are enrolled in such a program, they become geropsychologists by focusing their research, course work and practical experiences on adult development and aging. 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.


Psychometric and quantitative psychologists are concerned with the methods and techniques used in acquiring and applying psychological knowledge. A psychometrician may revise old intelligence, personality and aptitude tests or devise new ones. These tests might be used in clinical, counseling, and school settings, or in business and industry. Other quantitative psychologists might assist a researcher in psychology or in another field in designing or interpreting the results of an experiment. To accomplish these tasks, they may design new techniques for analyzing information. Psychologists specializing in this area are generally well-trained in mathematics, statistics, and computer programming and technology.


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, and violence and aggression. Social psychologists might, for example, study how attitudes toward the elderly influence the elderly person’s self concept, or they might investigate how unwritten rules of behavior develop in groups and how those rules regulate the conduct of group members. Social psychologists can be found in a wide variety of academic settings, as well as in advertising, corporations, hospitals, educational institutions and architectural and engineering firms as researchers, consultants and personnel managers.


Rehabilitation psychologists are researchers and practitioners who work with people who have suffered a physical deprivation or loss, either at birth or through later damage such as resulting from a stroke. They sometimes help people adjust to the physical handicaps associated with aging. Typically, people treated by rehabilitation psychologists face both psychological and situational barriers to effective functioning in the world.


Family psychologists are concerned with the prevention of family conflict, the treatment of marital and family problems, and the maintenance of normal family functioning. They concentrate on the family structure and the interaction between members rather than on the individual. As service providers, they often design and conduct programs for marital enrichment, pre-marital preparation, improved parent-child relations, and parent education about children with special needs. They also provide treatment for marital conflicts and problems that affect whole families. As researchers, they seek to identify environmental and personal factors that are associated with improved family functioning. They may study communication patterns in families with a hyperactive child or conduct research on child abuse or the effects of divorce and marriage on family members. A subgroup of family psychologists specializes in the prevention and treatment of sexual dysfunction and in research on human sexuality. Doctoral programs in family psychology are just beginning to appear. Traditionally, most family psychologists have earned their degree in a professional area of psychology and then obtained advanced training in departments of psychiatry, family institutes, or through individual supervision. Postdoctoral training programs are becoming more common. Family psychologists are often employed in medical schools, hospitals, private practice, family institutes and community agencies. Opportunities also exist as university teachers, forensic family psychologists and consultants to industry.


Psychology and law is a new field with career opportunities at several levels of training. As an area of research, psychology and law is concerned both with looking at legal issues from a psychological perspective (e.g., how juries decide cases) and with looking at psychological questions in a legal context (e.g., how jurors assign blame or responsibility for a crime).

Forensic psychology is the term given to the applied and clinical facets of psychology and law. Forensic psychologists might help a judge decide which parent should have custody of the children or evaluate the victim of an accident to determine if he or she sustained psychological or neurological damage. In criminal cases, forensic psychologists might evaluate a defendant’s mental competence to stand trial. Some forensic psychologists counsel inmates and probationers; others counsel the victims of crimes and help them prepare to testify, cope with emotional distress and resume their normal activities. Some specialists in this field have doctoral degrees in both psychology and law. Others were trained in a traditional graduate psychology program, such as clinical, counseling, social, or experimental, and chose courses, research topics, and practical experiences to fit their interest in psychology and law. Jobs for people with doctoral degrees are available in psychology departments, law schools, research organizations, community mental health agencies, law enforcement agencies, courts and correctional settings.

Some forensic psychologists work in private practice. Master’s and bachelor’s-level positions are available in prisons, correctional institutions, probation departments, forensic units of mental institutions, law enforcement agencies and community-based programs that assist victims.


The psychology of women is the study of psychological and social factors affecting women’s development and behavior. The field includes the study of stereotypes about women, the relation of hormones to behavior, women’s achievements in mathematics and science, the development of gender roles and identity, sexuality, psychological problems of women and their treatment and physical and sexual abuse of women and girls. Psychologists focusing on the psychology of women are found in academic settings. Current research topics include women’s reaction to being raped and the best treatment techniques for rape victims, factors that promote managerial success, factors that discourage talented girls from obtaining advanced mathematics training, and the causes of eating disorders such as anorexia. Clinicians whose area of concentration is the psychology of women may practice feminist therapy with women and girls. Most psychologists whose concern is the psychology of women have received their training in clinical, developmental or social psychology, or in psychobiology, pursuing their special interest within these broader areas. Teaching positions for doctoral-level psychologists are available in psychology and women’s studies departments. Researchers who focus on health issues for women have been hired as faculty members in nursing, public health, social work or psychiatry departments of universities. Clinicians work in mental health centers and in private practice.

Preparing for Internships, Jobs or Grad School

Resources from XPD – Experience & Professional Development:

College of Saint Benedict
Saint John’s University

Dr. Robert Kachelski
Chair, Psychology Department
CSB Main 368