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Specialty Areas in Psychology

A Few of the Largest Psychology Specialties

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What are some of the major specialty areas in psychology? Learn more about some of largest subfields in which psychologists work.

Psychology is remarkably diverse with a tremendous range of specialty areas. Psychologists frequently choose to specialize in a subfield that is focused on a specific subject within psychology. Many of these specialty areas in psychology require graduate study in a particular area of interest.

Clinical Psychologists

Clinical psychologists make up the single largest specialty area in psychology. Clinicians are psychologists who assess, diagnose and treat mental illnesses. They frequently work in mental health centers, private or group practices or hospitals. Within the area of clinical psychology, there are also a number of sub-specialty areas. Some professionals are generalists and work with a wide range of clients, while others specialize in treating certain types of psychological disorders or a certain age group. For example, some clinical psychologists might work in a hospital setting with individuals suffering from brain injuries or neurological conditions. Other clinical psychologists might work in a mental health center to counsel individuals or families coping with stress, mental illness, substance abuse or personal problems.

Clinical psychologists usually perform a wide range of tasks on a daily basis such as interviewing patients, conducting assessments, giving diagnostic tests, performing psychotherapy and administering programs. Work settings can vary based on the specific population that a clinician is working with. Common work settings include hospitals, schools, universities, prisons, mental health clinics and private practices.

There are also a number of different sub-specialty areas within clinical psychology, including health psychology, neuropsychology and geropsychology.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook:

Health psychologists promote good health through health maintenance counseling programs designed to help people achieve goals, such as stopping smoking or losing weight. Neuropsychologists study the relation between the brain and behavior. They often work in stroke and head injury programs. Geropsychologists deal with the special problems faced by the elderly. The emergence and growth of these specialties reflects the increasing participation of psychologists in providing direct services to special patient populations.

Counseling Psychologists

Counseling psychologists make up another large specialty area in psychology. These professionals perform many of the same tasks that clinical psychologists do, but counseling psychologists tend to work with clients suffering from less severe forms of mental illness. Counseling psychology focuses on providing therapeutic treatments to clients who experience a wide variety of symptoms. The Society of Counseling Psychology describes the field as "a psychological specialty [that] facilitates personal and interpersonal functioning across the life span with a focus on emotional, social, vocational, educational, health-related, developmental and organizational concerns."

Forensic Psychologists

Forensic psychologists work in the specialty area that deals with the intersection of psychology and the law. Forensic psychologists are often involved in custody disputes, insurance claims and lawsuits. Some professionals work in family courts and offer psychotherapy services, perform child custody evaluations, investigate reports of child abuse and conduct visitation risk assessments.

Those working in the civil courts often assess competency, provide second opinions and provide psychotherapy to crime victims. Professionals working in the criminal courts conduct evaluations of mental competency, work with child witnesses and provide assessment of juvenile and adult offenders.

Human Factors Psychologists

Human factors is a specialty area of psychology that focuses on a range of different topics, including ergonomics, workplace safety, human error, product design, human capability and human-computer interaction. In fact, the terms human factors and ergonomics are often used synonymously, with human factors being commonly used in the United States and ergonomics in Europe.

Human factors works to apply principles of psychology to designing products and creating work environments that boost productivity while minimizing safety issues. The field of human factors formally began during World War II, when a range of experts worked together to improve the safety of airplanes. Since that time, human factors psychology has continued to grow and today plays an important role in many other fields, including computing, manufacturing, product design, engineering, military and government industries.

Industrial-Organizational Psychologists

Industrial-organizational psychology focuses on workplace behavior and is one of the fastest growing specialty areas in psychology. The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychologists (SIOP) describes I-O psychology as a field that "tries to understand and measure human behavior to improve employees' satisfaction in their work, employers' ability to select and promote the best people, and to generally make the workplace better for the men and women who work there."

The rising demand for skilled psychologists has led to an increase in the number of university programs offering degrees in industrial-organizational psychology. I-O psychologists perform a variety of functions, including hiring qualified employees, conducting tests, designing products, creating training courses and performing research on different aspects of the workplace.

School Psychologists

School psychologists are part of a specialty area that involves working within the educational system to help children with emotional, social and academic issues. The goal of school psychology is to collaborate with parents, teachers, and students to promote a healthy learning environment that focuses on the needs of children. School psychologists work with individual students and groups of students to deal with behavioral problems, academic difficulties, disabilities and other issues. They also work with teachers and parents to develop techniques to deal with home and classroom behavior. Other tasks include training students, parents and teachers about how to manage crisis situations and substance abuse problems.

Social Psychologists

Social psychologists are focused on understanding how interactions with other people impact individual and group behavior. These professionals often work in areas such as market research, organizational management, systems design and other applied areas. Prominent areas of study include group behavior, leadership, attitudes and perception.

Experimental Psychologists

Experimental psychologists (or research psychologists) conduct research on the behavior of humans and animals. They often work at universities, private research centers, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Some major areas of research include substance abuse, genetics, neuroscience, motivation and cognitive processes.

Reference: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, Psychologists, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos056.htm

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