Difference Between General Psychology and Developmental Psychology

General psychologists typically offer a wide variety of services. They might work with families that are struggling with communication issues. They might work as a professor at a college or university. General psychologists might also work in the field of human resources, or be employed by a public school to offer counseling services to students.

Developmental psychologists have a more defined focus in terms of their work. Usually, developmental psychologists will focus on a particular period of the human lifespan, such as early childhood or old age.

Despite these differences, general and developmental psychologists share many commonalities. Both career areas require extensive education and training.

Depending on the work setting, they may or may not require licensure from the state. Income potential for general and developmental psychologists is fairly similar as well.

However, the greatest similarity between general and developmental psychologists exists in the fact that both share the purpose of helping others improve their lives.

Role and Purpose

Both general and developmental psychologists can work with clients in a clinical setting to provide insight and feedback into how a client can achieve a greater level of mental health and overall functioning. Generalists and developmental psychologists working in this setting would provide counseling and therapy to clients on an individual or group basis.

Both general and developmental psychologists might also be employed in an alternative setting that does not involve clinical work with clients. Many businesses and corporations hire general and developmental psychologists to conduct research. However, the nature of the research may differ.

For example, a general psychologist might be employed to provide feedback on the usability or appeal of a new product. Alternatively, a developmental psychologist might serve as a consultant to provide more specific information, such as how children at a particular developmental stage might interact with a new toy the company has devised.

Related: What is the Difference Between Developmental Psychology and Abnormal Psychology?

The theoretical orientation from which general and developmental psychologists operate can differ quite dramatically. Generalists might prescribe to any number of theoretical orientations. The humanistic, psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, and gestalt approaches are all highly common. Whichever approach a generalist takes will influence their interactions with clients, as well as their approach to research or other non-clinical work.

The great variability in which generalists view human behavior highlights a significant difference between general practice and developmental practice. Generalists tend to operate from a larger point of view, taking into account feelings, emotions, and events from the broad scope of a client’s life. But because developmental psychologists view behavior in terms of the stage of life in which the client is currently living, they would have a much more specific focus.

For example, a general psychologist who works with a family whose two-year-old child has not yet started to talk might examine the whole picture in which the family operates. The generalist might ask the parents about their family functioning. Do they speak to one another and to their child often? Do they read to their child? Has the child experienced any trauma that might cause mutism? In this regard, the generalist is looking for potential issues within the family structure as a cause of the child’s linguistic delays.

However, a developmental psychologist working with the same family would use his or her knowledge of typical developmental milestones to approach the problem with a very specific set of interventions in mind. They might order tests to determine if the child is hearing disabled, contact a physician to do blood work, or refer the family to a hospital or clinic to have brain scans and other testing performed to determine if there is a biological basis for the child’s lack of language production.

Rather than taking a global approach like a general psychologist, a developmental psychologist would focus on a specific problem and set a course for determining its cause and creating solutions for overcoming it.

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General psychologists and developmental psychologists also often differ in their clientele. Generalists usually work more with clients that are in emotional distress, including individuals, couples, and families.

Developmental psychologists, however, tend to work more with individuals that have developmental disabilities, or individuals that are experiencing difficulties due to the specific stage of life they are in.

A developmental psychologist working with children might engage solely in screenings for mental disorders, while a clinician working with elderly residents at a nursing home might spend their time creating programs that make it easier for residents to live independently.

Training and Licensure

To become a general psychologist, one must typically hold a doctorate in psychology. To achieve that level of education, psychologists-in-training must first complete their undergraduate studies, which usually focus on general psychological principles. From there, graduate courses in psychology are undertaken, with practicum and internship experiences to give students an opportunity to work with clients in a real-world setting.

A dissertation is required for a doctorate as well. Between undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral studies, individuals pursuing a doctorate in psychology can expect to spend 8-10 years in school.

The journey to becoming a developmental psychologist is quite similar to that of a general psychologist. Undergraduate and graduate studies are required, as are the practicum, internship, dissertation, and postdoctoral components. However, because developmental psychologists often concentrate in working with a specific age group, specialized studies are required.

Graduate and postdoctoral research will focus on developmental issues, be they specific to children, the elderly, or the developmentally disabled. Practicum and internship experiences may involve placement in special facilities as well, such as in a hospice or hospital setting with terminally ill patients, or in a school for children with mental or emotional disorders.

Students pursuing a doctorate in developmental psychology can expect to spend 9-11 years in school because of the additional time that these specialized studies require.

As with other subfields of psychology, both general psychologists and developmental psychologists are required to be licensed if they will be providing services to clients. Licensure requirements vary from state to state, but, generally speaking, all states require a doctorate degree and several thousand hours of supervised practice during the internship and postdoctoral phases.

Most states also require a testing component, in which the licensure applicant must successfully pass an exam that tests their knowledge of core areas of psychology.

General psychologists and developmental psychologists that will not be providing services to clients may not be required to obtain licensure. There are many non-clinical job opportunities for individuals with a general or developmental focus. Careers in academia are common, both for people who wish to teach as well as those who want to conduct psychological research.

Private industry and government agencies are also common places of employment for both general and developmental psychologists.

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