Clinical Psychologist vs Educational Psychologist – Key Differences

Clinical and educational psychologists share the common thread of studying human behavior in an effort to help others improve their day-to-day functioning. Both clinical psychologists and educational psychologists are involved with patient assessments, developing interventions, and providing therapy to clients.

However, these professionals also use different techniques in different environments and with different populations. There can also be differing educational pathways to entering these fields.

Clinical psychologists focus on assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental health disorders, while educational psychologists work to understand and enhance learning processes, educational environments, and student development. Clinical psychologists primarily assist individuals with mental health issues, whereas educational psychologists support educational institutions, teachers, and students to optimize learning outcomes.

In this guide, you will learn about these and other similarities and differences between clinical psychologists and educational psychologists and explore the steps needed to enter both fields.

Clinical Psychologist Vs Educational Psychologist

Scope of Work

Perhaps the biggest difference between clinical and educational psychologists is in the scope of work.

A clinical psychologist focuses primarily on psychological treatments, while educational psychologists focus primarily on assessment. So, where a clinical psychologist might meet with a child to conduct play therapy to explore past physical abuse, an educational psychologist might assess the same child to determine if the child is struggling in school because of a learning disability, such as dyslexia.

As another example, a clinical psychologist might see a college student who has depressive symptoms. To help guide the course of treatment, the clinical psychologist would conduct an assessment like the Beck Depression Inventory to determine the level and severity of the depression. They would also consult the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a reference for the criteria needed to diagnose the client with a depressive disorder.

On the other hand, an educational psychologist might work with school psychologists, school counselors, and school social workers to devise programs that teach students about mental health issues like depression. These programs could be implemented into classroom learning with group and individual therapy available for students struggling with depression or other mental health problems.

Another difference is the level of collaboration with others. Clinical psychologists often work with their clients in one-on-one settings, though this is not strictly the case. For example, suppose you see a clinical psychologist for help with mental health struggles. In that case, it’s highly likely that you’ll work with your psychologist in individual therapy unless you pose a danger to yourself or others.

However, if you work with an educational psychologist, it’s highly likely that other people will also be involved in the process. For example, let’s assume a high school-aged student is exhibiting some behavioral issues in school. That student might see the educational psychologist for assistance staying on task during class, work with teachers and administrators on a behavioral plan, and the student’s parents or guardians will also be involved.

Additional differences exist in the specific work environments and educational requirements for these careers. These elements are described in detail below.

Work Environment

Unsurprisingly, clinical psychologists work in clinical settings. This might be anything from private practice to an inpatient mental health facility to a non-profit community mental health center. In this regard, you will have a wide range of employment opportunities that you can tailor to your specific professional goals as a clinical psychologist.

For example, let’s assume your training is in working with geriatric mental health patients. That being the case, you might open a private practice where you work exclusively with that population, perhaps focusing on end-of-life issues or providing counseling for elderly people who have lost a spouse.

Alternatively, you might work for a state agency that supports independent living for geriatric patients with intellectual disabilities. In this role, you might conduct home checks and periodic evaluations of the client’s continued ability to live independently. You might also provide diagnostic services to check for common mental health issues among older adults, such as dementia.

By contrast, many educational psychologists work in school settings, in particular, pre-K through 12th grade. Many public and private school districts employ educational psychologists to work with teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders to improve the educational process.

Educational psychologists also work in other academic settings, like colleges and universities. For example, you might use your expertise in educational psychology to examine a college’s online learning platform and how student learning outcomes might be different from in-person learning. Your analysis could lead to changes that make online learning more interactive and supportive to affect improved student learning.

But not all educational psychologists work in schools. For example, the U.S. Department of Education employs educational psychologists as part of its staff to help set educational standards. Local and state educational agencies do the same.

In some instances, educational psychologists also provide services in professional workplaces. For example, a company might hire you to study the processes by which new employees are trained to identify ways in which the training can be streamlined or otherwise improved based on the psychology of how people learn.


There are some similarities between these fields in terms of the general education requirements. In both cases, you need to complete a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a doctorate (though sometimes you can work on a doctorate without first having a master’s degree).

Given these general similarities, you can expect to spend around 8-10 years completing the necessary educational requirements to become an educational psychologist or a clinical psychologist. There are other similarities, too:

  • Clinical psychology and educational psychology programs both require field experiences as part of graduate and doctoral work.
  • Both fields require state licensure to practice, which you can pursue upon completion of a master’s or doctorate.
  • Certifications from professional organizations are available in both fields.

However, these fields diverge in terms of the specifics of academic studies. At the undergraduate level, it’s common for clinical psychologists to major in psychology, social work, or a closely related field. Many educational psychology students study education, developmental psychology, or closely related fields during their undergraduate years.

At the graduate level, prospective clinical psychologists commonly enroll in Master of Science or Master of Arts programs in clinical psychology. These programs usually take about three years to complete, including two years of coursework and a year-long clinical placement.

Additionally, graduate-level clinical psychology programs are often what’s called a “pre-licensure” track, meaning, upon graduation, you are eligible to be licensed at the master’s level. Usually, master’s-level work is not as a clinical psychologist but as a professional counselor or mental health counselor.

Most states require a doctorate for you to be licensed as a clinical psychologist. That being the case, you should expect to complete a doctoral program, which can take anywhere from three to five years, depending on whether you already have a master’s degree or not.

Doctoral programs in clinical psychology involve coursework and seminars that focus specifically on clinical practice and techniques. For example, you might have a seminar that explores cognitive-behavioral therapy and its application in treating clients with PTSD. As at the graduate level, you will also have field placements during which you will work directly with clients while under the supervision of an experienced clinical psychologist.

Prospective educational psychologists usually complete a Master of Science or Master of Arts in educational psychology. These programs usually take two to three years to complete if they are licensure-based tracks. Some educational psychology graduate programs can be completed in less than two years, but many such programs don’t offer a pathway for licensure.

At the doctoral level, educational psychologists hone in on the processes of teaching, learning, and the social and emotional development of students. For example, if you want to work in an elementary school setting, you might focus your doctoral work on how young children learn and encode language.

As another example, you might focus on adult learning and the most successful techniques in helping adult learners master new material.

Can a Clinical Psychologist Work as an Educational Psychologist?

Though clinical psychologists can work in school settings, this is done in their own specialty, not in educational psychology. The training that a clinical psychologist gets is not preparatory for the duties of an educational psychologist. As such, it is not common for a clinical psychologist to work as an educational psychologist.

However, with additional education and training, a clinical psychologist might be able to work in the educational psychology field. This would likely require completing a graduate or doctoral program in educational psychology, though.

Additionally, the pathway for a clinical psychologist to be an educational psychologist likely requires satisfying state certification requirements for educational psychology. This might entail completing tasks beyond basic academic requirements, including continuing education, supervised field placements, and the like.

Which is Best? Clinical Psychology or Educational Psychology?

Determining which of these specialties is best really depends on your perspective and your goals. If you want to assess clients, engage in short- and long-term therapy with clients, and have the opportunity to work with clients of all ages with all manner of mental health issues, clinical psychology is the clear choice.

On the other hand, if you are passionate about teaching, learning, academic development, and social development, educational psychology is likely the better choice. Moreover, if you’re interested in working within a school system – preschool, K-12, or post-secondary – educational psychology might be a better fit.

Ultimately, in either of these fields, you will have the opportunity to use your skills for the betterment of others. You just have to decide the specific skills you want to use and the clientele with whom you wish to work.

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