So, you’ve decided you want to pursue psychology, that’s amazing. Psychology is a rewarding field, and studying the human mind is fascinating; but did you know about all the different paths you could go down? Whether you’re looking to start a career in psychology or already well into your degree, it’s never too early (or late) to prepare for your future and think about the potential career options. Psychology is also flexible, whether you want to get hands-on and help people directly, or you’d prefer to do research and studies behind the scenes—there’s a path for everyone.
The main three career paths when it comes to psychology are clinical, counselling, and research. If you’re looking to study psychology, it can be beneficial to plan ahead which path you want to choose. That way you can incorporate it into your study plans, potential placements, and courses you pick, because the different areas may require different qualifications. Initially, this might all seem daunting—but we’re here to help you explore the differences between clinical psychology, counselling, and research, so you get a better picture of each one, and we can set you on the path to success.
If you’ve always had a strong passion for understanding the social and biological factors that contribute to mental health and possible therapeutic solutions, then clinical psychology might be for you. This area of psychology utilises science-based research, integrating theory and clinical practice to help treat, prevent, and further understand disorders and psychological problems. If you’re looking to train as a clinical psychologist, it takes longer than a general psychology degree or counselling qualification, requiring a minimum of 8 years.
Usually, students undertake a 4-year Honours degree in psychology, then a 2-3-year accredited post-graduate degree, and then a 1-2-year registrar program overseen by the Psychology Board of Australia. This study is specifically focused on the assessment, treatment, and prevention of mental disorders.
At first glance, the difference between clinical and counselling psychologists may seem miniscule. The main difference lies in what they do and their training. A clinical psychologist is more focused on psychopathology, meaning the study and treatment of mental illnesses and disorders, whereas a counsellor focuses on helping their clients or patients with physical, social, or emotional issues that impact their lives. If you choose to go down this route, you could see yourself placed in either the public or private health sector, working in hospitals, universities, private practices, inpatient settings, and similar environments.
When most people think about visiting a psychologist, they probably picture a counsellor. They provide a professional service, guiding and assisting people in solving their personal problems or psychological issues that are impacting their quality of life and causing stress.
If you’d prefer to be more hands-on and have a front-facing role, counselling psychology might be a great area to look into. Your daily routine will be talking to individuals, couples, or families—listening to their difficulties, whether it be physical, emotional, or social stressors, and assisting them to gain clarity and work on the issue.
Counselling psychologists are often employed at educational institutions like schools or universities, community mental health centres, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, or in an independent practice.
You’d be applying therapeutic techniques, typically talking therapy, and other evidence-based practices to treat your patients. The main difference between this role and a clinical psychologist is the focus on psychopathology. The goal of a counselling psychologist is to assist people in their everyday lives, and whilst doing so might improve their mental health—a clinical psychologist would instead specialise in this area, diagnosing and treating mental disorders.
If you always loved conducting studies, testing and proving psychological hypotheses, then research psychology might be for you. Research psychology is ideal if you have a pure love for learning more about the human brain, and trying to understand the inner workings of the mind, while also advancing the field with your findings. Whilst your role isn’t as front-facing as a clinical or counselling psychologist, you will still be interacting with patients as part of your studies.
Your day-to-day life will consist of conducting studies to observe, collect, and analyse data for psychological research. This may include meeting with study participants, observing counselling sessions, writing research papers, presenting research, and proposing studies. If you’re interested in becoming a research psychologist, it takes years of study, including postgraduate study such as a Master’s and then pursuing research positions with an eventual PhD.
So, which one is right for you?
At the end of the day, the right psychology path for you will come down to passions and personal preferences. Figuring out what you want to do with your degree or the next step in your studies might also take some trial and error before it clicks. If you love studying and working a bit more behind the scenes, research psychology is a great option. However, if you prefer being hands-on in a face-to-face therapeutic setting, it’s worth looking into clinical and counselling psychology.
Keep in mind, if you’re studying psychology—it isn’t just limited to those above paths. There are also different specialised areas, such as forensics, business, and school psychology. For example, forensic psychologists apply their psychological knowledge, theory, and abilities to help in the legal and criminal justice system. If you have any doubts or want further clarification on what the different psychology paths might look like—it’s worth speaking to someone qualified in the field or getting in touch with the career advice services at your University.
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