Psychology Specialties: Which Area Should You Specialize In?

Psychology specialty areas
(Last Updated On: August 3, 2017)

While there are many different psychology specialties to choose from, people tend to focus attention on some of the bigger areas such as clinical and counseling psychology. Clinical psychology is the single largest subfield within psychology, but that certainly does not mean that it is your only option. Many students find themselves faced with a choice as they prepare to apply for graduate school: Pursue a degree in clinical psychology or in another subfield such as industrial-organizational psychology or counseling.

How to Decide Which Psychology Specialty Is Right for You?

How do you decide from among the many different psychology specialties that are out there? There are a number of things you need to think about before you make such an important choice. Let’s take a closer look at the situation by analyzing one question from a reader and thinking about some of her options.

Annelise writes:

“I am in need of advice since I am about to make an important decision about what career to choose. I just graduated with a Bachelor in Applied Psychology. I am going towards my master’s and I am thinking of attending an online school. I am between Clinical psychologist and I-O psychology. What degree do you recommend the most? Unfortunately, I do not know anyone who can help me with this so I will really appreciate if you can help me.”

One thing I would caution when looking at online schools is to check to see whether or not you can actually practice psychotherapy post-graduation. I’ve recently received a number of emails from students who have enrolled in online programs and fulfilled all the course requirements only to find that they are not able to become licensed to practice in their state because the program does not offer a supervised clinical practicum or a path to licensure.

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While many who earn a master’s in clinical psychology later go on to pursue a doctorate, many others instead choose to enter the field of work immediately as a licensed counselor, a marriage and family therapist, or other similar sort of profession.

Clinical vs. I-O Psychology: Two Interesting Psychology Specialties

Let’s look at some of the key differences between clinical and I-O psychology.

  • Job duties: Clinical psychologists typically work directly with patients experiencing mental illness or psychological distress. I-O psychologists on the other hand perform a number of things ranging from assessing how suitable job candidates are for a position to designing job training programs.
  • Education: Licensed clinical psychologists must have a doctorate degree in psychology, complete a supervised period of training, and pass state exams. The minimum training for I-O psychologists is usually a master’s degree in psychology, although some choose to earn a doctorate.
  • Salaries: The Occupational Outlook Handbook suggests that as of May 2015, the median annual salary for clinical psychologists was $70,580. They also suggest that the median annual salary for I-O psychologists was $77,350.
  • Work Settings:  Clinical psychologists are often employed in hospitals, mental health clinics, government offices, or in private practice. Those who are in private practice are often able to set their own hours, but many who work in this area have to work evening and weekends in order to accommodate client needs. I-O psychologists also work in a range of areas including management, scientific, consulting services, academic institutions, government offices, and other business settings. I-O psychology can also be employed as independent freelance consultants.
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Psychology Specialties: Which Degree Path Is Right For You?

The choice between clinical psychology and industrial-organizational really comes down to your goals and interests. Do you want to work in mental health or would you prefer a more business/research oriented career? Without a doubt, clinical psych offers more job opportunities. I/O psych is predicted to grow a great deal in the next decade, but it is still a relatively small field. Clinical, on the other hand, is huge and there will always be a strong demand for mental health professionals.

Start by checking into whether or not you can become licensed to provide mental health services in your state post-graduation and consider whether you plan to also pursue a doctorate degree before making the decision to pursue a master’s in clinical psychology.

My personal advice – if your goal is to practice psychotherapy or work in mental health and you do not want to earn a doctorate degree, your best bet is to earn either a master’s in social work (MSW) or a master’s in counseling. Both options offer immediate routes to become a practicing therapist or counselor.

If you are interested in doing research, working in organizational settings, or prefer not to work directly in mental health, then a master’s in I-O psychology or another applied field such as forensic psychology or health psychology might be a good choice.

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Choosing a psychology career is never easy, but spending some time researching different psychology specialties can help you narrow down your options.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Kendra, thanks for that extremely well written article. As someone who will be finishing an undergrad degree in Psychology next year, I have many questions regarding a specialization for my masters degree. There are now Psychology MA and MSc degrees, as well as specialized degrees in say social or industrial psychology offered and I am confused as to whether or not to pursue a general Psychology masters degree or move into the more specialized area of Developmental Psychology that interests me. However, I’m afraid that specializing will narrow down my job prospects later on, as I would only be suited for developmental psychology work. Would love to know your take on this! Specialize for masters, or pursue a more general degree?

  2. Great questions, Ava! Unfortunately, I don’t think there are ever any easy answers. Definitely consider your future plans. Where do you want to work? What type of work are you planning to do? Also consider WHERE you want to work. I see a lot of students pursuing careers that realistically require relocating, so you need to consider if you are willing to pack up and move somewhere else for a job – and if so, just how far you are willing to go for a job. The more highly specialized you go, I think the more likely it will be that you have to move to employment in that field, so that is certainly something to think about.

    I would highly recommend talking about this type of question with your academic advisor and even other professors who teach at your school. They can offer a variety of insights and opinions that might help you make a decision.

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