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Careers: Psychology Specializations

Applied specializations in psychology

During each of my more than 30 years teaching at Calvin College, students have repeatedly asked me about professions in psychology that involve providing assistance in solving human problems.  I refer to these professions as the “applied areas” of psychology, since they focus on solving human problems by applying the principles of psychology.  Several years ago I wrote a section in the Handbook for Psychology Majors published by the Calvin College Psychology Department.  This handbook has gone through numerous revisions and so have the opportunities and options within the applied areas of psychology.  A revision and expansion of these applied areas is long overdue. 
The following is not intended to be “the gospel truth” regarding the applied areas.  Instead, it is merely “the gospel according to Stehouwer”, far from infallible and certainly a work in progress.  I bear the sole responsibility for the facts and opinions presented in this document.  Please keep this disclaimer in mind when reading, recalling, citing, and/or discussing with your psychology advisor any and all material presented herein.


Many of our majors are interested in pursuing graduate education to achieve a master’s or doctoral degree in a field of study related to psychology.  A number of our majors complete the pre-med program and go on to medical school; others complete pre-occupational therapy, pre-physical therapy, or pre-law programs.  These folks will use their psychology major as they go on for further training in their specific fields of interest.  A number of our psychology majors go on to graduate programs in areas of psychology associated with research and teaching. These areas include cognitive psychology, cross-cultural psychology, developmental psychology, experimental psychology, physiological psychology, and social psychology.  Nonetheless, most of our psychology majors go on to graduate training in what are referred to as the “applied areas” of psychology, those professions that apply the principles of psychology to solving human problems.  This document is designed to acquaint students with the areas of applied psychology they might want to consider in determining their professional goals within the field of psychology.

Applied Areas of Psychology

Within the field of psychology itself, there are several professional specializations that apply the principles of psychology to solving human problems.  Probably the oldest and best known applied specialization is clinical psychology.   Other applied specializations include counseling psychology, school psychology, and rehabilitation psychology.  All of these specializations deal with assisting people with emotional and cognitive disorders.  Another applied specialization within the field of psychology is organizational psychology.  This specialization, also referred to as industrial or I/O psychology, focuses on applying the principles of psychology to the world of work. There are several additional graduate programs outside of psychology that also focus on applying the principles of psychology to human problems, these graduate programs include clinical social work, psychiatric nursing, and pastoral counseling. Students who pursue graduate training in psychiatric nursing have graduated from our nursing program, though many of them have also had an undergraduate major in psychology.  Typically, students who pursue graduate training in pastoral counseling do so in connection with seminary training.  Often these seminary students also have graduated with an undergraduate psychology major.
This document will focus on those graduate programs in applied areas of psychology in which our majors are most interested in, are well prepared to pursue, and are most commonly pursued by our majors who are interested in a professional career that applies the principles of psychology to solving human problems.  

Clinical Psychology

Majors who go on into the field of clinical psychology can do so at either the master’s or the doctoral level.  Typically master’s degree programs are completed within two years, while doctoral programs are completed within five to six years.

Master’s programs in clinical psychology:
Master’s programs in clinical psychology focus training on psychopathology and especially on assessment of psychopathology.  Students in these programs are trained in the use of psychological tests including objective and projective tests of psychopathology, tests of cognitive capabilities, and intelligence tests.  Some states and provinces allow psychologists with a master’s in clinical psychology to practice psychological testing and counseling under the supervision of a licensed psychologist.
Some students who wish to go on into graduate school in psychology at the doctoral level will begin by completing a master’s program.  This is particularly the case for students who have less than stellar academic records and who wish to prove themselves in a master’s program before re-applying to doctoral programs.  Other students wish to pursue graduate training in a two year program rather than pursuing a graduate program that will take five to six years to complete.  For the former students, it is important to remember that even if they are later accepted into a doctoral program, they can expect to start at the beginning of the doctoral program with students who do not have a master’s degree; they will likely receive no credit for the graduate courses they have taken in the master’s degree program.  For the later students, it is important to remember that there will be significant restrictions to what they are licensed to do with the limited license that is available for persons with a master’s degree in clinical psychology.

Doctoral programs in clinical psychology:
Historically, doctoral programs in clinical psychology have awarded the Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology) degree. These programs are located within the psychology departments of large universities, and students in these programs will complete a number of core courses with doctoral (Ph.D.) students in other areas of psychology.  Within the past several decades, a number of professional schools of psychology have been developed; schools that offer the Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) degree.  There are some differences in the training these students receive and in the requirements for obtaining this degree relative to the training and requirements for students who receive the Ph.D. degree in clinical psychology.  However, in practice, graduates from either of these programs can be fully licensed as psychologists; there is no distinction made in terms of practice in psychology, including the use of psychological testing, psychotherapy, or consulting undertaken by a clinical psychologist with either a Ph.D. degree or a Psy.D. degree. 

Ph.D. in clinical psychology:
Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology follow the “scientist-practitioner model” within the field of clinical psychology.  Often referred to as “the Boulder Model” so named because of the location of the conference where this model was developed and approved. This approach emphasizes training as a researcher, teacher, and practitioner in clinical psychology.  Students are required to undertake a rigorous program of graduate study within a variety of non-clinical areas of psychology and focus on an area of specialization such as child clinical psychology, community psychology, health psychology, or neuropsychology. Students are also trained in the skill areas of clinical psychology including psychopathology, psychotherapy, and psychological assessment.
Students in these programs are required to complete a master’s thesis based on empirical research. This research often serves as the ground-work for a doctoral dissertation that is also based on empirical research. In addition, students must complete doctoral written and oral examinations. Students are accepted into these programs at the bachelor’s level and obtain the master’s degree in clinical psychology along the way to obtaining the Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology are part of the state or provincial university systems and are very selective, i.e. very few students are accepted into these programs each year.  Students in these programs can expect to receive a tuition waver from 80 to 100% of tuition as well as a stipend for living expenses (presently about $12,000 per year). Presently, students in these programs are most often assigned to a graduate professor with whom the student has indicated he or she is interested in doing research.  Students should become very familiar with the research work being undertaken in the clinical psychology programs to which they will apply, and they are required to indicate one or two professors with whom they wish to conduct research.  These ongoing research projects often serve as a source for the master’s and doctoral research in which the student will engage.
Students in Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology can expect to take four years of course work including one year of work on the doctoral dissertation, and they are required to complete a one year full-time internship in clinical psychology.  Financial aid can be expected for at least three of the four years of course work. For the year of internship, the student is paid by the facility where the internship takes place.   Throughout the graduate program, students receive “hands on” training in psychological assessment and psychotherapy through various practicum experiences.
After he or she completes state examinations and a sufficient amount of post-doctoral supervised clinical experience, a student who has graduated from a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology can be full licensed as a psychologist. Students with this degree can teach and conduct research at colleges and universities to be considered for a faculty appointment.   Most often colleges and universities require a candidate to have significant experience in research and a history of publications before he or she will be considered for a teaching appointment. The Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology require this type of research as part of their Ph.D. program. Persons with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology can also practice as a clinical psychologist in a variety of settings including inpatient and out patient hospitals or clinics and in private practice. 

Psy.D. programs in clinical psychology:
Over the past 30 years, a number of professional schools have developed Psy.D. programs in clinical psychology.  These programs were developed to train a large number of clinical psychologists to fill the need for more practitioners in the field.  One of the first of these programs is affiliated with Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.  These programs are professional schools of psychology and many of them are affiliated with a larger state or private university.  Many more students are admitted each year to these programs.  For example, a large state university might accept six to 12 students per year into a Ph.D. program while a state or a private university might accept over 100 students per year into a Psy.D. program.  In general, a university will offer either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. program in clinical psychology.
In part because of the sheer size of the Psy.D. programs and the fact that these programs are not involved in extensive research programs that provide significant financial resources for the university, students in the Psy.D. programs can expect little, if any financial aid.  Also, students should be aware that non-resident tuition at a state university can be quite expensive; though after one year of residence in that state, the student can often qualify for resident tuition.  Students should also be aware that private universities offering the Psy.D. are typically very expensive to attend.
Students in Psy.D. programs begin the program at the bachelors level.   These programs are typically five years in length, including a one year full-time internship.  The Psy.D. program will require research papers, but typically they do not require the student to undertake any empirical research.  These programs emphasize training  and experience in psychological assessment and psychotherapy.  There often is a doctoral project and even at times a master’s project, but these most often consist of a literature review and a lengthy paper.
Students in these programs take graduate courses in a variety of areas in psychology.  Typically these programs also allow for more coursework in psychotherapy and psychopathology relative to Ph.D. programs, and many of the Psy.D. programs do not require a minor or an outside minor.  Some of the larger private Psy.D. programs have had difficulty placing all of their doctoral students in internships. Available in the Psychology Department office is an annual APA reference book on graduate programs in psychology and it includes data on internship placements for each Psy.D. program.
After graduation and the completing of supervised post doctoral clinical experience and the completion of state requirements, students with the Psy.D. can obtain a full license as a clinical psychologist.  In terms of the types of clinical jobs for which they qualify and in terms of what they do in those jobs, those with a Psy.D. are indistinguishable from those who hold a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Since those with a Psy.D. have not been involved with a program of extensive research , they are less likely to qualify for an academic position.

Additional information regarding doctoral programs in clinical psychology:
Virtually all of the Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology in the large state universities are approved (accredited) by the American Psychological Association (APA approved). This approval is vital to determining the quality of the program and the graduates’ ability to obtain licensure as a psychologist.  Many, if not most, of the PsyD. programs are APA approved.  Beware of those programs that are not APA approved!  In fact, there are some places that offer a Psy.D. degree in clinical psychology via online distance programs.  For example,  Newport University in California offers such a degree.  Not only is this program not approved by the APA, but also this “university” is not accredited by any higher education accrediting agency!
Within both the Ph.D. and the Psy.D. programs there are a variety of areas of specialization that can be pursued. Students interested in a particular type of psychotherapy, e.g. marital therapy or family therapy, or students interested in working with particular types of patients, e.g. children, the elderly, or brain injured patients, can choose certain courses that will assist them in their work and can chose practicum and internship settings within these areas of specialization.
Students who wish to attend Canadian graduate programs in psychology should carefully determine the requirement of these programs.  Typically these programs have a number of different requirements for admission, especially with regard to the number of psychology courses the student is required to have completed.  Apparently, many of the Canadian undergraduate programs in psychology are not liberal arts programs and therefore students are required to take far fewer non-psychology courses and to take more psychology courses on the undergraduate level.  These requirements also may vary from one province to another.  Students interested in Canadian programs should also determine the provincial licensing requirements where they would like to practice.

Counseling Psychology

As is the case with clinical psychology, students can pursue graduate training on either the master’s or the doctoral level.  The history of counseling psychology is directly connected with education, and almost all of these graduate programs are located in the Education Department of state universities. 
Counseling psychology developed in response to the recognized need for school counselors to perform a variety of functions in secondary education settings, most often high school.  Today school counselors work with a master’s degree in counseling psychology and they perform a variety of tasks.  Most often they work in the high school setting.  They are involved in assisting high school students with scheduling, performing vocational assessment and vocational counseling, and doing some counseling.  Most of the counseling done in school settings is done by school social workers. 
Historically school counselors began as school teachers and took graduate courses in counseling to fulfill the requirements for the continuing teacher certification.  Until several years ago, school counselors were required to be certified teachers, but this is no longer the case.  A person can work as a school counselor with the master’s in counseling regardless of whether he or she has worked as a teacher.  However, keep in mind the fact that very often school counselors are selected from existing school faculty. 
Persons with a master’s in counseling psychology cannot become licensed as a psychologist.  However, they can become a limited licensed professional counselor (LLPC). States likely vary with regard to the requirements for this licensure, and it appears that in some states at times a person with a master’s in counseling can ultimately become a licensed professional counselor (LPC). Some third party payers (insurance companies and HMO’s) will cover psychotherapy with a LPC, and even with a LLPC. These professionals can be employed in clinics and increasingly in private practice. 

Doctoral programs in counseling psychology:
On a doctoral level, students with a graduate degree in counseling psychology can become licensed psychologists.  The doctoral programs are located in the Education Department of large universities.  The nature and the amount of financial support in these programs can vary a great deal depending on the university.  Typically these programs require little empirical research from their students.  Most often the students complete a four year program that emphasizes vocational and psychological assessment as well as vocational and psychological counseling.  Students are required to complete a one year full-time clinical internship.  Years ago there was a distinction made between doctoral clinical internships and doctoral counseling internships, but no such distinction is now made. 
When considering a doctoral program in counseling psychology, it is important to look at the Ph.D. programs and not the Ed.D. programs.  The Ed.D. programs are considered to be not the caliber of the Ph.D. programs, and it has been more difficult to become a licensed psychologist with an Ed.D.
Some Ph.D. programs in counseling psychology have been approved by the APA, but many programs have not pursued this accreditation.  That is, a doctoral program in counseling psychology can still be a very good program if it is not APA approved.  Some of these programs have pursued accreditation with a specific professional association for counseling psychology.

School Psychology

School psychologists perform assessments of and develop specific treatment programs for students with special needs.  There is and likely will continue to be a strong need for school psychologists, and the job market is excellent for persons in this profession.  School psychologists use a variety of methods to assess the social, emotional, intellectual, and academic needs of students from infancy through the high school level.  From these assessments, they develop specific treatment plans for others in the school system to carry out.  For example, the school social worker would work on a student’s social skill needs in group counseling or on a student’s emotional difficulties in individual psychotherapy.  A special education teacher would work on academic needs and a regular classroom teacher would put in place a program to assist a student with attention deficit disorder.
To become certified as a school psychologist, the student must complete a two year graduate program in school psychology.  These programs are located in the Education Department of universities.  Much of this master’s program focuses on assessment from infancy through early adulthood as well as on psychopathology and counseling.  After the master’s program is completed, the student then completes a one year full-time internship working as a school psychologist.  Upon completion of this internship the student receives the education specialist degree (Ed.S.) and qualifies for certification as a school psychologist.  Again, the employment opportunities appear to be plentiful and the pay is quite good for school psychologists.
On the doctoral level, the student takes the same courses as those in the master’s level program, then they take an additional two years of graduate work.  These additional courses focus on psychotherapy and on research.  After completing the additional two years, the student then completes the internship.  The student then can work in a variety of settings, including as a school psychologist, an administrative supervisor of school psychologists, or doing clinical assessment and treatment.  Persons with the Ph.D. degree in school psychology can become licensed psychologists. 
Just as with the counseling psychology doctoral programs, it is important to consider Ph.D. programs and not Ed.D. programs.  Also, be aware that the availability of and the amount of financial assistance for graduate students in these programs can vary a great deal.

Additional comments regarding licensure:

The greatest opportunities to engage in counseling and psychotherapy and the greatest flexibility in job opportunities in applied areas of psychology are available for someone who is a licensed psychologist.   It is important to keep in mind the fact that this license can be obtained with a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in clinical psychology, a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, or a Ph.D. in school psychology.  Although I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and have fulfilled the additional requirements for full licensure, my license says “Licensed Psychologist” which is the same for every licensed psychologist in the State of Michigan.  The license makes no distinction between a Ph.D. or a Psy.D.  The license does not make a distinction between clinical, counseling, or school psychology.

Industrial/Organizational Psychology

This area of graduate study is variously referred to as Industrial/Organizational, Oganizational, or Industrial Psychology.  Students can pursue either the master’s or doctorate in this area.  I/O psychologists focus on applying principles of psychology to the work setting.  Most often their emphasis is on performing research and consulting on issues related to work, such as job performance, motivation, job satisfaction, substance abuse in the work setting, absenteeism, executive selection, and labor/management relations.  On the doctoral level many I/O psychologists teach in college and university settings.  I/O psychologists are less involved in dealing with pathology per se and more involved with solving human problems related to work.
Calvin offers a course in organizational psychology with the prerequisite of Business 153.  Students interested in this area of study should talk to the course instructor and consider taking this course as part of their psychology major.

Social Work

Most often I have found the psychology majors interested in applied areas to be most interested in a profession that involves counseling and psychotherapy.  Many of these students are unaware of the opportunities available for this type of work in the field of social work. In fact, in outpatient clinics, psychiatric hospitals, general hospitals, and schools, the majority of professionals engaged in counseling and psychotherapy are social workers.
In general the terminal (highest) degree within social work is the master’s in social work (MSW).  This degree is a two year program, though there are some accelerated programs and some programs that can be taken on a part time basis.  Each semester students receive professional experience through a field placement that is comparable to an internship experience.
There are several areas of specialization within the field of social work, though only two areas focus on coursework and training in counseling and psychotherapy.  These areas are clinical social work and school social work. A major in psychology well prepares students for these graduate programs.

Clinical social work:
Much as is the case with graduate students in the clinical and counseling programs, clinical social workers are trained to perform counseling and psychotherapy services to individuals,  couples, groups, and families.  Also, as with graduate students in the clinical and counseling programs, clinical social workers receive training with specific age groups and problems through field (internship) placements.  Following graduation, a professional with a MSW in clinical social work continues with several years of supervision and can become a licensed social worker.

School social work:
The vast majority of counseling services offered in schools are offered by school social workers.  While often this counseling is individual in nature, increasingly with the greater need for counseling services, school social workers are involved in group counseling.  The counseling services occur in the school setting and during the school year.

Additional information:
While some MSW programs may allow a student to choose between a specialization in school or in clinical social work, most MSW programs require the student to select between these two programs when he or she applies to the graduate program. 
MSW programs are located within universities in separate schools of social work.  Please keep in mind that financial assistance for students in these programs is very limited.  Also, keep in mind the fact that in the U.S. the tuition for a resident of the state in which the school is located is typically one-third the cost of tuition for a non-resident.  Also, some of the schools of social work are part of a private university, and the tuition for these programs can be quite expensive.
Some significant changes have taken place with regard to the opportunities for clinical and school social workers with regard to counseling and psychotherapy in private practice.  In the past, social workers often had a difficult time obtaining third party (health insurance or HMO) payment for services they performed as independent practitioners.  However, many and perhaps most U.S. states have gone from certification of social workers to licensing of social workers.  Along with this change have come two important opportunities. Licensed social workers can work without supervision and in independent (private) practice they are covered by most third party payers(insurance companies or HMO’s).  These opportunities make private practice a much more attractive and viable option for licensed social workers.

Final words

Work as a professional in the applied areas of psychology is a noble and exciting calling.  This work offers tremendous opportunities to be part of the redemptive process in God’s kingdom.  Having been involved in this type of work for over 35 years, I can attest to the fact that this type of work is filled with satisfaction, is fraught with frustration, is an opportunity to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, will acquaint you with horrors you cannot imagine and satisfaction beyond your dreams.   Certainly this type of work is not for everyone.  But if you have the ability, the interest and the sense of God’s calling to this type of work, I encourage you to take a closer look at the applied areas of psychology.