What do practicing psychologists do?

Practicing psychologists have the professional training and clinical skills to help people learn to cope more effectively with life issues and mental health problems. After years of graduate school and supervised training, they become licensed by their states to provide a number of services, including evaluations and psychotherapy. Psychologists help by using a variety of techniques based on the best available research and consider someone's unique values, characteristics, goals and circumstances.

Psychologists with doctoral degrees (either a PhD, PsyD or EdD) receive one of the highest levels of education of all health care professionals, spending an average of seven years in education and training after they receive their undergraduate degrees. The American Psychological Association estimates that there are about 85,000 licensed psychologists in the United States.

What they do

Practicing psychologists help a wide variety of people and can treat many kinds of problems. Some people may talk to a psychologist because they have felt depressed, angry or anxious for a long time. Or, they want help for a chronic condition that is interfering with their lives or physical health. Others may have short-term problems they want help navigating, such as feeling overwhelmed by a new job or grieving the death of a family member. Psychologists can help people learn to cope with stressful situations, overcome addictions, manage their chronic illnesses and break past the barriers that keep them from reaching their goals.

Practicing psychologists are also trained to administer and interpret a number of tests and assessments that can help diagnose a condition or tell more about the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves. These tests may evaluate intellectual skills, cognitive strengths and weaknesses, vocational aptitude and preference, personality characteristics and neuropsychological functioning.

How they help

Practicing psychologists can help with a range of health problems and use an assortment of evidence-based treatments to help people improve their lives. Most commonly, they use therapy (often referred to as psychotherapy or talk therapy). There are many different styles of therapy, but the psychologist will choose the type that best addresses the person’s problem and best fits the patient’s characteristics and preferences.

Some common types of therapy are cognitive, behavioral, cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, humanistic, psychodynamic or a combination of a few therapy styles. Therapy can be for an individual, couples, family or other group. Some psychologists are trained to use hypnosis, which research has found to be effective for a wide range of conditions including pain, anxiety and mood disorders.

For some conditions, therapy and medication are a treatment combination that works best. For people who benefit from medication, psychologists work with primary care physicians, pediatricians and psychiatrists on their overall treatment. Two states, New Mexico and Louisiana, have laws allowing licensed psychologists with additional, specialized training to prescribe from a list of medications that improve emotional and mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

How they are trained

A doctoral degree to practice psychology requires at least 4-6 years of full-time study after completing an undergraduate degree. Coursework includes areas such as ethics, statistics, individual differences and the biological, cognitive-affective and social bases of behavior, as well as specific training in psychological assessment and therapy.

While in graduate school, psychology students may also participate in research and teaching. A one-year full-time supervised internship is required prior to graduation and in most states an additional year of supervised practice is required before licensure. Psychologists must pass a national examination and addition examination specific to the state in which they are being licensed.

Once licensed to practice, psychologists must keep up their knowledge, which is demonstrated by earning several hours of continuing education credits annually, as required by their state’s license and regulations.

For the states where psychologists are allowed to prescribe medication, they must have advanced training after they are licensed. Specific education guidelines vary by state, but they must complete a specialized training program or master’s degree in psychopharmacology.

Where they work

Many practicing psychologists manage their own private practice or working with a group of other psychologists or health care providers. Practicing psychologists work in many other places too. They are found in schools, colleges and universities, hospitals and prisons, veterans’ medical centers, community health and mental health clinics, businesses and industry, nursing homes, and rehabilitation and long-term care centers.