What is Community Psychology?
Community psychology is a new discipline within psychology that blends various aspects of psychology, sociology, social work, ecology, and public health into one career field. The primary mission of community psychology is to study how individuals relate to one another in the context of a community and in society as a whole.
There is much emphasis placed on resolving social problems that result in interpersonal conflicts, diminished health and wellness, and an increase in the prevalence of mental health issues among members of a community.
What Does a Community Psychologist Do?
Community psychologists engage in a wide variety of job duties. The type of training received in college, the specific areas of interest of each psychologist, and the needs of the community can heavily dictate the day-to-day tasks that a community psychologist undertakes.
Because their focus is on the health and functioning of the community as a whole, most community psychologists participate in research to develop and implement programs that benefit the community. For example, in a neighborhood in which there is a high rate of teen drinking, a community psychologist might devise and institute an after-school program to educate young people about the dangers of drinking alcohol. In addition to creating and carrying out the program, community psychologists are responsible for evaluating the efficacy of the programs and interventions they implement.
Community psychologists must also work to build relationships with community leaders if their work is to be successful. In this regard, community psychologists operate much like a community organizer, contacting local leaders and organizations to work collaboratively on addressing the most pressing issues facing members of the community. For example, to address the high number of homeless individuals in a community, a community psychologist might bring together representatives from local churches, soup kitchens, law enforcement agencies, and the like, to develop a clear plan to address the problem. Community psychologists might develop the central goal of providing shelter for the city’s homeless individuals and organize local stakeholders to achieve that goal.
Many community psychologists work with highly specific groups of people in controlled settings such as substance abuse treatment facilities, jails or prisons, homeless shelters, or retirement homes. Job duties in these settings might include devising programs to boost social skills, organizing educational programming to benefit the residents of the community, or working with local stakeholders to ensure a smooth transition from the larger community into the controlled environment, or vice versa.
Still other community psychologists work behind-the-scenes on the policy development side of things. In this setting, community psychologists might work with government agencies to develop health-promotion programs for specific communities, such as at-risk youth, young adults that have been incarcerated, single parents, or the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Policy development requires community psychologists to take part in much research and analysis to better understand the issues at hand and inform the best methods by which to address those issues.
Once they have experience working in the field, some community psychologists choose to enter education and teach at the collegiate level. In this capacity, work might be done with undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral students that are pursuing a career in community psychology. In addition to normal teaching duties such as leading classes and administering exams, community psychologists in this setting serve as mentors to the next generation of community psychologists. They might provide insight into what students need to do to have a successful career, help students make connections with potential employers, and provide feedback to students that take part in practicum and internship placements.
Why Do We Need Community Psychologists?
Community psychologists are needed if there is to be progress made regarding individual issues that impact the greater community. While disease, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and homelessness impact individuals in unique ways, they nonetheless negatively impact the greater community due to the time, expense, and psychological and physical traumas that they inflict.
With the assistance of community psychologists, groups can get the support they need to address the issues of importance in their community. In this regard, community psychologists are important and necessary, lest communities try to deal with these issues on their own. Without the expertise and support of community psychologists, these problems would almost certainly be even more negatively impactful on the community than they already are.
Where Does a Community Psychologist Work?
As discussed above, the type of job that a community psychologist undertakes depends heavily on their education, area of interest, and community need, among other factors. Likewise, these factors will influence their employment setting. But because community psychology is such a wide-ranging field, there are many, many potential places of employment.
Some community psychologists work for local, state, or federal government agencies. Research centers are another primary place of employment. Other community psychologists work for non-profit organizations, such as charities, shelters, or advocacy groups. Some religious groups employ community psychologists as well.
Some school systems employ community psychologists, particularly in cities in which there is a high incidence of physical or mental health problems, social justice issues, inequality, or other sociocultural or economic problems. There are also a good number of community psychologists that work at colleges or universities.
What is the Career Outlook for Community Psychologists?
Because community psychology is a relatively new – and highly specialized – field of work, there is little specific information available on the career outlook. With that being said, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that all psychology jobs will experience average growth at a 8% annual rate through 2030.
One might predict that the growth for community psychology jobs might be higher than average. This is due to two factors. First, community psychology integrates a number of different disciplines into one, including social work, advocacy, research, and education, to name a few. Because of this, a community psychologist could be qualified to take on a wide variety of jobs, thereby improving their overall job outlook.
A second factor that could promote rapid growth in this field is the focus on resolving community issues in the social, cultural, and economic spheres. With increased attention being paid to social justice issues, multiculturalism, respect for diversity, and the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, many significant problems exist that community psychologists are well equipped to address. As communities continue to pay attention to these and other issues, the desire and need to find specialists in this field may drive up the demand for community psychologists.
What Education is Required to Become a Community Psychologist?
To become a community psychologist, a number of years of formal education are required. Undergraduate studies should focus on psychology or a closely related field, such as social work. Most undergraduate programs involve 120 credit hours of coursework, with 60 of those credits coming in the major area of study. If students attend school full-time, an undergraduate degree can be obtained in approximately four years.
The next step is to pursue a graduate degree in psychology. Depending on the program, graduate studies might involve as little as 30 credit hours of coursework, or as much as 60 or more credits of coursework. Graduate programs almost always include internship requirements so students can get practical experience working in the field before they graduate.
As with other disciplines within psychology, the greatest numbers of job opportunities are available to individuals with a doctorate in psychology. There are a variety of doctoral programs related to this field of work, including interdisciplinary programs that combine the study of community psychology with related issues, such as community health, public policy, or social justice. These programs typically last for at least five years, with additional time required for post-doctoral studies.
Important: In most states licensure is required to use the title “psychologist”.
What Does a Community Psychologist Study?
Because community psychology incorporates a wide array of fields, it is important for community psychologists-in-training to have a similarly wide variety of educational experiences.
In undergraduate studies, students undertake courses that introduce core concepts of psychology, human behavior, sociology, and research methods. Once in graduate school, the focus of studies shifts to more specific topics that are related to providing services to people and communities in need. Graduate studies might entail an examination of specific social justice issues, such as poverty, and its impact on the functioning of individuals and communities.
Since community psychology is such a new field, not many colleges and universities yet have specific graduate programs of study in the field. Instead, aspiring community psychologists can major in a closely related area, such as developmental psychology, social psychology, community development, or public health. However, students can seek to specialize their studies in community psychology during their practicum and internship placements.
At the doctoral level, students can further narrow their focus to issues specifically related to community psychology. Here, time spent is much more on research and methodologies, as opposed to learning practical skills, as is the case during graduate school. Ph.D. candidates might instead pose an important question related to community psychology and use the bulk of their time in a doctoral program conducting research, analyzing data, and presenting and defending their findings in their dissertation.
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