What are the Differences Between Research Psychology and Applied Psychology?

Are you interested in pursuing a career in a research branch of psychology, but cannot, for the life of you figure out the difference between research psychology and applied psychology? If so, you have come to the right place.

While both are essential and interconnected, they have distinct goals and methods. In this article, we will discuss the unique aspects of each, helping you distinguish between the thinkers and the doers in the world of psychology.

Research Psychology Vs. Applied Psychology

Research psychologists typically conduct their experiments in research laboratories with participants, while applied psychologist treat clients in clinics, mental health hospitals, social service agencies, schools, etc. Every practicing psychologist uses applied psychology.

In its simplest form, research psychology involves actual experimentation. In other words, a research psychologist conducts research studies with participants (i.e. testing how quickly toddlers learn to walk, examining how traumatic brain injury patients process information, etc.). These psychologists are “field psychologists,” which means they work in the field with people (i.e. volunteers and participants).

Applied psychology involves applying psychological principles to the treatment of clients and patients. For example, if an individual is a school psychologist, he or she, applies clinical psychology and educational psychology principles, concepts, and theories to the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of students’ with learning disabilities, developmental delays, and behavioral problems.

What is Research Psychology?

A research psychologist is a mental health professional, who conducts experiments. In fact, research psychologists are often referred to as experimental psychologists. Specifically research psychologists spend the majority of their time conducting research studies with participants.

However, most do not treat patients and clients with psychological disorders or mental illnesses. The work of this type of psychologist is normally limited to participant involvement. Ironically, this branch of psychology is small. In fact, a relatively small number of individuals enter this industry.

Related: Becoming a Research Psychologist

The goal of research psychology is to help mental health professionals, along with the public, better understand thought processes, behaviors, and the factors that influence them.

These mental health professionals tend to concentrate on the following subjects: learning processes, memory (short-term and long-term), thought processes, motivation, attention, and sensory processes. They also may examine the connection between genetics and substance abuse, in an effort to determine how these factors influence thought processes and behaviors.

Most of the research studies/experiments occur in college/university laboratories, and/or research laboratories. In addition, most research psychology positions require a master’s degree, and/or doctorate in a psychology field.

Truth-be-told, research psychologists also use applied psychology. How? Well, research psychologists have to have something to base their theories, hypotheses, results, and experiments on. The foundation comes from the applied principles in their branches of psychology.

What is Applied Psychology?

All practicing psychologists and some non-practicing psychologists (i.e. psychological researchers and psychology instructors) use applied psychology principles.

Applied psychology is the use of psychological principles, concepts, and theories to help clients, and/or patients manage or resolve emotional distress, psychological disorders, and/or mental illnesses. In other words, applied psychologists help other people cope with their life situations.

Applied psychologists applies psychological theories, principles, concepts, techniques, strategies, approaches, and methods from their branches of psychology (i.e. sports, family, health, social, school, etc.) to their practices.

Applied psychologists use the psychological resources available to treat clients and patients experiencing psychological disorders, mental illnesses, adjustment disorders, and emotional distress. Every practicing psychologist uses applied psychology.

This branch of psychology is extremely large. In fact, most psychologists are considered applied psychologists, in the broadest forms.

The following psychology branches use applied psychology concepts, methods, and principles to provide mental health services to clients, and/or patients: counseling psychology, clinical psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, school psychology, neuropsychology, legal psychology, health/medical psychology, occupational health psychology, forensic psychology, sports psychology, and social/community psychology.

Basically “applied psychology” refers to applying the concepts, theories, and principles from a particular branch of psychology to the treatment of clients and patients.

Salary Comparison

Some organizations may hire an individual, who holds a bachelor’s degree in research psychology or a similar field, for subordinate positions (i.e. research technicians, or research assistants) to perform administrative services.

As of October 2023, according to ZipRecruiter, research psychologists typically make $95,145, per year, on average. If the research psychologist falls in the upper 10%, he or she can make well over $135,000, per year, on average.

Because applied psychology jobs involve many different psychology branches, they are listed under the “psychology” heading in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the BLS (2022), psychologists (in general) typically make about $106,420, per year. If the psychologist falls in the lower 10%, he or she makes about $40,000, per year, but if he or she falls in the upper 10%, he or she makes about $138,860, per year.

The career outlook for psychology jobs in general is somewhat positive. The Bureau estimates that career prospects will increase by 6% by the year 2032.

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