Key Differences Between Applied Psychology and Clinical Psychology

Applied psychology and clinical psychology are at the same time very similar and very different. In fact, it might be easy to confuse the two at first glance. After all, both applied psychology and clinical psychology seek to help people understand their behavior and the behavior of other people.

Furthermore, applied psychology and clinical psychology both seek to help people adjust their behavior for improved functioning. Both fields are also interested in examining the roles of cognition, environment, biology, and other factors in influencing behavior.

This guide highlights the differences between applied and clinical psychology so you can make a more informed decision about which field is right for you – whether you want to study it in college or if you require the services of a psychologist.

Applied Psychology Vs. Clinical Psychology

Applied psychology uses psychological principles to solve real-world problems, often in business or industry. Clinical psychology, on the other hand, focuses on diagnosing and treating mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.

The primary difference between applied psychology and clinical psychology is the manner in which each is practiced.

Applied psychology seeks to solve critical problems in the way people function. For example, an organization might hire an applied psychologist to investigate a lack of motivation amongst workers. In this situation, there is a clearly defined problem afflicting a specific group of people – a lack of motivation among workers.

Using the same workplace-related problem, a clinical psychologist might work with individual workers who lack the motivation to do their work. Rather than approaching the problem from a macro-level view, a clinical psychologist works in one-on-one situations in a therapeutic setting. You might think of applied psychology as taking a systemic view, while clinical psychology is a much more individualized practice.

But applied psychology and clinical psychology don’t just have different approaches in the workplace. Another example might be in the educational psychology realm. An applied psychologist might be hired to examine students’ low test scores and devise methods that teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders might use to help improve student performance across the board.

A clinical psychologist in this situation might address the problem from a completely different point of view. For example, a clinical psychologist might work with a student that’s been identified as having a learning disability. In the context of one-on-one therapeutic training, they might teach the child some test-taking strategies to help them succeed on assessments.

Again, we see that the goal is the same, but the approach to reaching that goal is different. An applied psychologist takes a whole-group approach, while a clinical psychologist works with individual students.

clinical psychologist

Here’s a third example of the differences in how applied and clinical psychology are undertaken: an underperforming sports team. From an applied psychology perspective, you might identify ineffective team dynamics that are getting in the way of optimal performance on the field. To address this issue, you might engage the team in team-building and trust exercises.

But if you are a clinical psychologist, your approach might be to meet individually with each team member and help them work through personal issues that are hampering their performance. So, while an applied psychologist might work with the entire team on adjusting its perspective and attitude, a clinical psychologist might work with individual team members on the problems or issues that are getting in the way of them performing at their best.

Ultimately, applied psychology is a much broader field than clinical psychology. Virtually any type of psychology other than psychological research has applied components – clinical psychology included. But the inverse of that is that clinical psychology has a much more narrow focus on providing mental health care to individuals, couples, families, and small groups that aid them in improving their mental health.

Differences in Work Environment

The work environments of applied psychologists and clinical psychologists are extremely different. Applied psychologists often work in consultative settings in the field, while clinical psychologists most frequently work in therapeutic settings with their clients.

For example, let’s assume you’re an applied psychologist hired by a company that’s developing a new smartphone app. Your role in the process might be to provide expertise regarding human-technology behavior. Your insights into human behavior can help app developers create apps that are more user-friendly and intuitive.

Meanwhile, as a clinical psychologist, you might work in private practice where you specialize in treating anxiety disorders. You might use strategies like cognitive-behavioral therapy to identify core problems and causes of anxiety and work with the client to learn new ways of thinking and coping that lead to improved mental health.

Much as we saw earlier, the applied psychology approach is more broad-based, while the clinical psychology approach is much more narrow in scope. We can see this in another example of workplace differences: the criminal justice system.

Forensic psychology is a type of applied psychology that blends the study of human behavior with the study of criminal justice. For example, an applied psychologist might utilize their understanding of criminal behavior to help law enforcement agencies better understand when and where violent crimes might occur based on data from 911 calls.

A clinical psychologist, on the other hand, might work directly with the perpetrator of a crime to delve into their past and identify the triggers that led to them breaking the law. Or, they might specialize in providing trauma-informed therapy to victims of crimes. In either case, the practice of clinical psychology is much more concerned with the individual needs of the client and helping them resolve their particular problems.

applied psychologist

Another layer to this is that clinical psychology is itself a type of applied psychology – you use your knowledge and skills related to human behavior and apply them in an effort to assist your clients in becoming more mentally healthy. But there are obvious differences in how clinical psychology and other forms of applied psychology play out in real life.

For example, an applied educational psychologist might work in a public school with students that have a learning disability. Their job might include developing and directing group skills development activities with same-aged children.

But, as an applied social psychologist, you might examine the social forces of peer pressure on the social-emotional development of school-aged children. Rather than having direct contact with kids in a therapeutic environment like a clinical psychologist would, you might design and oversee psychological research that seeks to identify the characteristics that make some children more or less susceptible to the forces of peer pressure.

These are just a few of the many ways in which applied psychology and clinical psychology might look different. But the method by which each is practiced is just part of the story – these fields have differences in terms of education, too.

Differences in Education

In the strictest sense, you might only need a master’s degree in psychology to work in an applied psychology field. You can begin your career in some applied fields – industrial-organizational psychology, sports psychology, and counseling psychology, to name a few – with a master’s degree. In some cases, a master’s degree can be a terminal degree or the highest available in that field.

To become a clinical psychologist, on the other hand, you will need to have a doctoral degree in psychology (Ph.D. or Psy.D in clinical psychology). If you want to work in private practice, for example, you will need a doctorate not just to build up your credibility as a psychologist, but many states require you to have a doctorate to work in this field.

Another difference in the educational realm of these two specialties is in the curriculum that you will study. Clinical psychology programs focus on psychological theories, counseling practices, assessment, diagnosis, and other practical skills that you will need to be an effective practitioner.

Applied psychology programs focus on a specialty (e.g., forensic psychology, social psychology, educational psychology) and may or may not have a clinical focus. Instead, these programs tend to include more research and application components of psychology, whereas clinical psychology has more therapeutic training.

There are some similarities between the educational experience in these fields, though. By and large, master’s degrees in clinical psychology and applied psychology take two to three years to complete. These programs often have a field experience component in addition to coursework. A thesis or capstone research project is common, too.

Likewise, getting a doctorate in applied psychology or clinical psychology takes an additional four or five years to complete. Again, these programs have a similar mix of coursework, field experiences, and research.

Which is Better? Applied Psychology or Clinical Psychology?

Comparing applied psychology to clinical psychology isn’t so much about which one is better as it is about which one is better for your specific situation.

As we have discussed, applied psychology might be a better fit if you wish to have a career that focuses more on problem-solving at the group or organizational level. It also gives you plenty of opportunities to specialize in a subfield that truly aligns with your career interests and goals.

But clinical psychology is the clear choice if your passion is in helping individuals and working with them to solve problems, develop new skills, and progress with their mental health. And while clinical psychology has a narrower focus than applied psychology, there are still many different avenues you can take to specialize your career to fit your skills.

Whatever your choice, applied psychology and clinical psychology are both admirable fields that allow you to have a fulfilling career helping others.

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