How to Start a Career in Clinical Psychology?

Clinical psychology deals with the assessment, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of intellectual, behavioral, biological, social and emotional disorders. It promotes human adaptation, adjustment, health and development. Clinical psychologists normally focus upon treating patients with severe or chronic disorders.

Though the focus of clinical psychology is upon patients, clinical psychologist can also be involved in a wide assortment of tasks that directly or indirectly promote the betterment of their patients, such as speaking with politicians or local health officials about public policy that pertains to their patients. They can also serve as advocates for their patients to other organizations, as well as to help promote education that benefits the public’s mental health.

One handicap that most psychologists face is that, because they aren’t physicians, they can’t prescribe or administer pharmaceuticals in the US, except in Louisiana and New Mexico; this requires them to consult a physician—normally a psychiatrist—in cases where pharmaceuticals are needed.


Clinical psychology is a very broad field, so nearly all clinical psychologists choose a sub-specialty, allowing them to narrow their area of expertise to a manageable level. Some choose a sub-specialty based upon the age range of clients they want to serve, such as children (ages 1-12) or adolescents (ages 12-18). Others choose a sub-specialty based upon the types of mental or emotional disorders they want to treat. Still others choose a sub-specialty based upon a type of psychology, such as behaviorist.


Coursework at the undergraduate level should include biology, anthropology and sociology, which afford a background in understanding the human condition. Statistic and math courses are valuable for understanding psychological research. Because clinical psychologists deal with such a wide variety of clients and professionals on a daily basis, courses in communication are highly recommended.

Getting good grades is vital at the undergraduate level, because psychology is a highly competitive field; a large majority of candidates get turned away from graduate school. It’s important to gain some volunteer experience in a psychologically oriented field, particularly if it’s related to your chosen sub-specialty.

If you take a variety of psychology courses in your junior year of undergraduate study, it will help you decide what sub-specialty you like best. While it isn’t necessary to decide upon a sub-specialty until after you’ve gotten a master’s degree, it’s a good idea to decide at the end of your junior year of undergraduate study so that you can begin taking sub-specialty courses in your senior year.

To gain a license as a clinical psychologist, a candidate must acquire a doctoral degree—either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD). After attaining a doctorate, candidates must enter a year-long internship. There are some minor job positions in the field available with only a master’s degree, but almost none with only a bachelor’s degree.

Required Capabilities

To become a licensed clinical psychologist, a candidate must exhibit expertise in the following areas:

Research. The candidate must be conversant in the language of clinically relevant research, and must be able to apply this research toward the betterment of patients.

Assessment. Clinical psychologists must be able to assess patients by interviewing and observing them and by administering psychological tests. They must also be able to interactive in a constructive and professional manner with patients from any culture and background.

Intervention. They must be able to draw up and administer an appropriate treatment plan for patients, which might include psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, biofeedback, behavior therapy, marital therapy, family therapy, group therapy, cognitive retraining and social learning approaches. They must also know how to draw up a behavioral modification plan for certain patients.

Consultation. Candidates must demonstrate an ability to serve as a consultant to numerous other professionals who might need their expertise. They must also be able to work constructively with professionals in rehabilitation centers, drug clinics, the legal system, the educational system, nursing homes and public offices, while staying within the law and avoiding breaking their patients’ rights to confidentiality.

Supervision. Because clinical psychologists often team up with other professionals, they must know how to properly supervise a wide variety of care-givers. They must also be able to demonstrate clinical psychology to students, interns and colleagues, and must be able to perform administrative tasks when necessary.

Personal Qualities

Clinical psychologists must be excellent listeners and communicators who can feel comfortable working with a wide variety of clients and professionals. They must also have the patience when dealing with patients who have emotional or mental issues. They should be able to remain objective and dispassionate when they’re faced with emotionally charged outbursts from their clients.

Work Settings

Clinical psychologists can work in a wide variety of settings, including mental health institutions, hospitals, clinics, military bases, schools, court systems, counseling centers and governmental agencies. Many counselors choose to set up their own private practices, which affords them the ability to set their own hours.

Related Reading

Further Reading

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