Psychology Professional Specialties

Within the field of psychology, there are many different areas of academic study and clinical practice. Students interested in pursuing a career in psychology have a number of specialties from which to choose. Some of the most popular specialties in the field of psychology are child psychology, clinical psychology, educational psychology, forensic psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, marriage and family therapy, social psychology, and sport psychology. Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, it is a good, general outline of some of the most frequently studied and practiced specialties in the psychology field.

Not sure which type of psychology you’re interested in practicing? Don’t worry. The point of psychology school is to introduce in great detail all the different practices available to you, and to help you select the one that interests you most and best aligns with your strengths and abilities. Some students enter the field of psychology because they are drawn to one particular type of psychology, and in the educational process find themselves attracted to a totally different specialty than they originally considered pursuing. In fact, few programs allow their students to specialize in any one practice until after they have a solid introduction to the field and a basic familiarity and experience level with each different practice. In addition, many psychologists study, practice, or dabble in more than one specialty within the field and approach their work from an integrative and collaborative perspective. For example, a psychologist interested in private practice may choose to specialize in both child and family and marriage counseling. Or a clinical psychologist may be interested in child psychology in particular. One of the best parts about attending school for psychology is learning about the practice and seeing all the doors it can open to your future and career.

Child Psychology

Child psychology is the study of the many organic and environmental influences that affect the thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behavior of children. Beginning with the prenatal environment, this field strives to learn and understand how genetics, personality, nutrition, parenting, family members, peers, education, world events, and basically all internal and external organic and environmental exposures affect children throughout their adolescence.

Psychology students in this field study typical child development–physically, emotionally, mentally, and socially. They study historical approaches and theories to child development, such as the Puritan model of thinking that treated children as miniature adults; and the notion of childhood being a specific developmental time period, first introduced by Jean Piaget, which revolutionized the way modern Americans view childhood and maturation theories. They also study a variety of parenting and educational strategies and the benefits and drawbacks associated with each model. One of the major debates within the field of child psychology is about the impact of “nature” versus “nurture”: Are children more affected by the genetics and brain chemistry with which they enter the world at birth or by the effect of their experiences, environment, and surroundings after they’re born? To what degree does each of these factors contribute to the way children think, act, behave, and make decisions? Child psychologists strive to uncover the distinctions between “nature” and “nurture” to understand how our brains create our thoughts, behavior, and experiences, and how our thoughts, behavior, and experiences shape our brains.

Psychology Professional Specialties

To examine this, child psychologists not only strive to come up with “typical” benchmarks for child development, but also try to investigate the environments affecting children from three different angles: the social context, the cultural context, and the socio-economic context. In our environments, what affects us the most at what stages of development: our peers, family, community, educational experiences, and financial situation?

Child psychology also attempts to understand the nature of many atypical childhood development patterns based on identifiable causes, such as disease, abuse, and neglect. It also studies the ways in which the brain reacts to a variety of stimuli in children, including language development, social skills, cognitive reasoning, motivation, and fear. Many students of child psychology go on to become therapists, researchers, social workers, and early childhood caretakers and educators.

Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology is an integrative study of science, theory, philosophy, and clinical research used to understand and treat individuals experiencing mental or psychological distress, dysfunction, or disease. Primarily focused on the diagnosis and treatment of recognized psychological conditions or afflictions, the field is often a broad term used as a catch-all for a variety of mental-health specifications. Generally, clinical psychologists perform either research on or therapeutic treatment of patients, based on one or more theories or approaches to the field. Some of the most commonly held theories of clinical psychology are: behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, psychodynamic therapy, psychotherapy (sometimes referred to as “talk-therapy” or “Freudian therapy”), humanistic therapy, and group or family therapy.

Generally thought to have been born out of the historical practice of phrenology (the study of one’s head shape to understand personality or instincts), the modern study of psychology began its current incarnation in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century. While initially a theoretical and philosophical area of study, early pioneers in the field, such as Dr. Lightner Witmer and Dr. Sigmund Freud, introduced modern science to the treatment and, in some cases cure, of mental afflictions. By the mid-20th century, psychotherapy had become integral in the study of psychology, and many psychology schools began to teach and specialize in both.

Often confused with psychiatry, psychology does not specifically look to the organic or chemical root of mental or psychological health, nor does it study or prescribe pharmaceuticals or medications. Instead, it seeks to understand and reveal environmental impacts on mental health and prescribe therapeutic solutions and treatments for patients experiencing them. Today, clinical psychologists work in a variety of careers and fields, including research, education, therapy, consulting, criminal justice, healthcare, and public policy.

Educational Psychology

One of the fastest growing fields in the U.S. today, educational psychology is the study of how and why humans learn and retain different information. Focusing on identifying and understanding different educational models, environments, theories, and practices, it seeks to understand how and why students learn in a variety of contexts and environments, and how the manipulation of those settings and practices can affect and hopefully improve individual results of that learning. Although many educational psychologists enter the field to study those with learning or developmental disabilities, or conversely, how and why some particularly gifted students seem to have the potential and abilities they do, many educational psychologists are also interested in studying the impacts and results of typical learning styles and environments on average learners.

To do so, educational psychologists must first have a basic understanding of both clinical psychology and child development, and then incorporate that knowledge into their studies of learning environments and impacts. Educational psychologists often study learners’ cognitive abilities, such as intelligence, creativity, problem solving, and communication. To measure this, educational psychologists seek to understand how individuals both retain and apply information based on how the information is presented or received. There are a plethora of theories and approaches to learning in educational psychology, but some of the most popular in today’s universities are those of cognitive perspective and behaviorism. While not entirely contradictory, these approaches are often debated as opposites in the academic community, and students typically will develop their own feelings on this debate during their time in psychology school. Each of these fields has a number of sub-specialties on which educational psychologists often focus. Students of educational psychology often go on to pursue careers as teachers, educators, researchers, writers, cognitive and/or behavioral therapists, consultants, learning specialists, and developmental disability researchers or therapists.

Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is the practice of psychology within the criminal justice system. Generally, it requires not only a solid mastery of psychology, but also a deep understanding of the legal system, its organization, laws, procedures, and jargon. The field is a source of credible insight, consultation, and expert testimony in relation to the thoughts, motives, and behaviors of criminals or participants in deviant behavior.

Forensic psychologists must not only understand the clinical, social, or organizational psychology about which they’re being consulted, but also the limitations and scope of the legal system in understanding the implications for their assessment. For example, many forensic psychologists frequently testify in court, not only about the mental health of an individual being prosecuted, but also about his legal mental state. To do so accurately and credibly, forensic psychologists have to have a firm grasp of the local laws and definitions pertaining to mental health in the jurisdiction in which they’re working. Many laws and legal criteria change from one area or region to the next, making it vitally important that forensic psychologists be well informed and up to date on legal statutes, opinions, and recent case law regarding mental health and culpability.

Courts rely on the testimony and advice of forensic psychologists to help determine the guilt of individual defendants, as well as for sentencing and treatment guidelines for those who are convicted. Both the prosecution and defense employ the services of forensic psychologists to help them understand and illuminate factors that may explain and/or mitigate the crimes for which defendants are accused. Because of the sometimes blurred ethical line between psychologist/patient confidentiality and the legal implications for revealing/concealing criminal revelations, forensic psychologists must also be experts in legal ethics and hold themselves to a particularly high standard to best perform their job in a professional, ethical manner.

Industrial and Organizational Psychology

Industrial and organizational psychology (which is sometimes referred to by a host of other names including I-O psychology, work psychology, and talent assessment) is the study of workplace psychology. Individuals interested in industrial and organizational psychology assist clients and organizations by providing them with valuable insight and advice about how to improve their employees’ morale, work ethic, and overall productivity.

Fundamentally, the goal of industrial and organizational psychology is to understand what motivates employees to perform at their optimal level with high levels of retention and job satisfaction. To do this, industrial and organizational psychologists often work with companies’ and organizations’ human resources departments and observe and research many facets of the workplace, including hiring practices, personnel management, workloads, daily duty expectations, interpersonal relationships among co-workers and management, benefits, management styles and techniques, evaluation and assessment systems, and a host of other variables that can affect how an employee perceives and performs in her workplace.

Based on these assessments and observations, industrial and organizational psychologists provide recommendations on how the employer can improve the workers’ attitude and performance, and ideally, produce greater results for the employer and a better environment for the employee. This is particularly helpful to many in human resources, such as recruiters, managers, supervisors, and quality control analysts.

This field of study relies heavily on both principles of sociology and the use of statistics (in addition to a general understanding of psychology) to come to reasonable and informed conclusions about each environment. Industrial and organizational psychologists rely on quantitative measurement tools such as surveys, statistics, and polls. They also implement qualitative techniques such as interviews, group discussions, observational hours, and ethnographic research into the companies or organizations they’re investigating. Many industrial and organizational psychologists pursue careers as researchers, teachers, human resource managers, consultants, and professors.

Marriage and Family Therapy

Marriage and family therapy, which is also sometimes known as couple’s therapy, specializes in building the relationships and communication skills among families or couples. Rooted in the idea that systems of organization, communication, and interaction have a significant impact on the psychological well-being of families and couples, marriage and family therapy is designed to strengthen and improve positive relationships and reform and address weaknesses and unsuccessful dynamics within families and couples.

Good marriage and family therapists specialize being able to develop meaningful conversations among people, often tackling intimate, difficult, or painful issues that have not been successfully or healthfully addressed without the help of an objective professional. Unlike many other branches of psychology, marriage and family therapy can trace its roots and practices back for millennia across many different cultures. In fact, almost all cultures around the globe have some sort of recognized secular or religious system for dialogue, arbitration, and problem solving within family or community units.

Generally, marriage and family therapists meet with several family members (or both members of a couple) to work on resolving issues communally within the family unit. The goal in having all members of the family unit present is to help each member understand how the other members of the family feel and communicate about various situations. Generally, the sessions are spent talking about issues that have arisen recently in the family or working on strategies for improving relationships within the family unit. The goal is not to improve any one member’s psychological well being, but rather to improve the interpersonal relationships and dynamics within the family to benefit all members’ physical, mental, and emotional health. Family and marriage therapists may pursue careers in both public and private practice, as social workers, therapists, researchers, educators, and speakers. Local governments, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, court systems, and other public and private entities may also require marriage and family therapists.

Social Psychology

Social psychology is the study of social and communal relationships among individuals and groups. A hybrid field that relies on theories and practices from both psychology and sociology, social psychology strives to understand how groups and communities develop group mentalities that often affect their individual members psychologically. In many cases, this group mentality may differ greatly in values, behaviors, actions, and emotions from any of its individual members’, but collectively, the members contribute to a new dynamic that influences individual behaviors.

Based on the theory that all interactions affect the parties interacting, social psychology often employs social experiments in laboratory and classroom settings to try and better understand how group dynamics develop. Areas of particular interest to many social psychologists are communal or societal values and attitudes, cognitive dissonance, persuasion, rationalization, dominance, submission, relativism, self-conceptualization, cooperation, altruism, bigotry, and aggression. Theoretically, all of these qualities of communal harmony and discord have a psychological root in individual members’ minds, but are often inflamed and exacerbated when found in macro-levels of social groups or communities. By understanding the interaction among individuals’ thoughts and behaviors and groups’ thoughts and behaviors, social psychologists aim to improve communal relationships and prevent mob-mentality friction, violence, and hatred.

To do this, social psychologists work to identify concepts in a group that help them to understand the group dynamics. They seek the norms established in the group, the roles or expectations to which members are (or feel they are) expected to perform or conform, and relations between members, including governmental, interpersonal, power, intimate, familial, and hierarchical organizations. These three concepts within groups (norms, roles, and relations) help social psychologists try to understand how ideas are generated, decisions are made, and feelings are elicited among members of the group. Many social psychologists pursue careers as researchers, writers, professors, teachers, retail buyers, consultants, civil servants, and market researchers and analysts.

Sport Psychology

Sport psychology, also known as sports psychology, is a newer psychology field. It is the study of emotional, interpersonal, physiological, and psychological factors that affect participation and results within sports. Sport psychology relies on the assumption that thoughts and emotions directly affect physical performance, and in some cases–such as anxiety, depression, stress, or injury–can even impede the physical abilities of an athlete who otherwise should be performing more optimally.

Sports therapists work with athletes to understand root causes of psychological distress that may be affecting athletic performance, and to mitigate them through a series of strategies, such as role play, concentration, meditation, relaxation, visualization, self-soothing, and developing healthy and confidence-inspiring rituals and routines. Sports therapists help athletes to identify their goals, speculate on their obstacles to reaching those goals, and find solutions for breaking down the obstacles and meeting their expectations.

Recently, there have been a number of breakthroughs in neuroscience research that support many of the theoretical techniques practiced by sports therapists, particularly in the areas of visualization and confidence building. Methods like neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) help educators and therapists understand how an individual receives and processes information and knowledge. Some people are highly auditory learners, whereas others benefit from more visual strategies, or rely on practical, hands-on strategies, known as kinesthetic learning. Once a learner’s (in this case an athlete) NLP style is identified, sports psychologists can focus their therapy on skill-building within that learning style. For example, if an athlete is identified as being a visual learner, watching clips of himself succeeding and performing well in his sport can help to inspire him and improve his performance. Likewise, self-talk and verbalization of goals and strategies can provide favorable results for auditory learners. Most sports psychologists will benefit from having a solid background in kinesiology or athletics, as well as psychology. As the field of sports psychology gains credibility and continues to grow, the career roles practitioners perform will likely increase, but currently most sports psychologists are researchers, educators, and consultants for athletic departments or organizations.

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