How to Become a Social Psychologist – Schooling and Career Guide [2024]

Last Updated: May 22, 2024

What is Social Psychology?

Social psychologists are interested in how individuals impact and are impacted by other people, social settings, and social environments. Social psychology as a field of study is closely related to sociology.

However, the focus of a social psychologist is on individual behavior, not that of the whole group as a sociologist would study. In that regard, social psychologists examine how individual actions, thoughts, and choices are influenced by the actions, thoughts, and choices of the larger society.

As a result, much of social psychology revolves around the study of interpersonal and group dynamics.

Social psychology also focuses much attention on researching and devising solutions to social challenges. Social psychologists might study the nature of bullying in public schools and devise programs to reduce or eliminate those negative behaviors.

Social psychologists might also study prejudice and racism in an effort to devise public programs to bridge the gaps between different groups of people.

Public health problems, such as smoking and drug addiction, are also of particular interest for social psychologists, who might create informational programs to inform the public about the dangers of engaging in drug use.

What Does a Social Psychologist Do?

The duties of a social psychologist will largely depend upon the environment in which he or she is employed. If employed at a college or university, a social psychologist might spend the majority of his or her time engaged in research on various social issues, such as gender equality, conflict management, or race relations. This research might take place in a controlled setting, such as a laboratory, or out in the field in a natural setting.

Other social psychologists employed in academia may focus on teaching and training students to become psychologists themselves.

Typically, social psychologists will teach or conduct research in the psychology department, but because of their training in both human behavior and research methodologies, social psychologists might work elsewhere, such as in departments of education, business, law, medicine, political science, or health science, to name but a few.

There are an abundance of private sector jobs for social psychologists as well. Some conduct research for private firms or government agencies. This research might include evaluating public perception regarding new government programs or regulations.

Others help develop public policies that address a social ill, such as obesity, poverty, or homelessness. For example, a social psychologist might design a public awareness campaign to bring attention to childhood obesity.

Still others work as consultants, offering their expertise in the areas of interpersonal and intergroup dynamics to help companies and industries design and market goods and services that are more attractive to consumers.

Another area of work for social psychologists is in evaluating the efficacy of educational programming and human resources practices.

For example, a social psychologist might be hired by a school district to examine their educational programs for effectiveness amongst groups of children based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or some other sociocultural factor.

Social psychologists might also work to develop more suitable hiring practices for companies or design performance review procedures for workers with the aim of improving productivity.

Related: Social Psychology Careers: What Can You Do With a Degree in Social Psychology

What is the Difference Between a Social Psychologist and a Sociologist?

On a fundamental level, the primary difference between the fields of psychology and sociology is the focus of professional attention, primarily, working with individuals versus working with groups.

Social psychologists are more concerned with individual behavior, and as a result, they focus their attention on why individuals behave the way they do. However, their study of individual behavior doesn’t take place in a vacuum.

Instead, social psychologists seek to identify the manner in which an individual’s behavior is influenced by his or her surroundings – including both the physical surroundings and their social interactions with others.

For example, a social psychologist might be interested in studying how a person’s interaction with people on social media might influence that person’s self-esteem. As another example, a social psychologist might explore the effects of groupthink on an individual’s behavior.

Conversely, sociologists are more concerned with human behavior on a group level. So, where a social psychologist might seek to understand how the experience of growing up in poverty impacts an individual’s IQ, a sociologist would be interested in understanding why one group of people is more likely to vote for a Republican political candidate over a Democrat.

What’s more, sociologists study human institutions as well. For example, sociologists might study how policing practices impact a certain group of people or explore the causes and effects of human migration.

Sociologists spend much of their time reading, researching, gathering evidence, and so forth, in an effort to build an informed understanding of why human groups behave and think the way they do.

Another difference between these two fields is that you’ll commonly find social psychologists who work directly with clients. For example, a social psychologist might specialize in training children with special needs to have improved social skills.

Conversely, sociologists are much less likely to work with clients, and instead typically work in a research capacity.

What Education is Required to Become a Social Psychologist?

Students in social psychology programs are involved in advanced studies on how people relate to one another. These studies include an in-depth analysis in intergroup dynamics, multiculturalism, attitude formation, discrimination, prejudice and other social topics that influence human interactions and attitudes.

The process of becoming a social psychologist begins with undergraduate studies in psychology, which generally takes four years. At this level, students acquire basic skills and knowledge with regard to the discipline of psychology.

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree is required. Graduate studies typically include between 30-35 credit hours of coursework, in addition to practicum and internship experiences that place the student in teaching or research settings.

Practicum experiences require several hundred hours of clock time, while internships usually require around 1,000 hours of clock time. Most students can complete their graduate studies in 2-3 years.

Individuals that wish to pursue a doctorate might face stiff competition. There are more applicants for social psychology doctorate programs than there are spots, so applicants must demonstrate high academic success at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Applicants must also perform well on the Graduate Record Exam, showing strong verbal, quantitative, and analytical skills. Those who do gain admittance to a Ph.D. program will need an additional 4-6 years to complete their studies.

Doctorate programs require much research into social psychology topics, including research and defense of a dissertation. Some Ph.D. programs also require students to pass a doctoral candidacy exam in order to graduate successfully from the program.

Most job opportunities, generally, are reserved for individuals with a doctorate/licensure. In most states, licensure is required to use the title “psychologist”. Requirements for licensure generally include (but not limited to) an APA accredited doctoral degree in psychology, supervised experience under a licensed psychologist, and passing licensure examination (some states may have additional requirements).

What Does It Take to Be a Social Psychologist?

Here are some of the most important skills and qualities needed by social psychologists:

  • Communication skills. Much of the research conducted by social psychologists involves interviewing people, so it’s important to be able to communicate effectively; this includes being a good listener and learning to read body language.
  • Open-mindedness. Social psychologists deal with people of various races, cultures and belief systems, so they mustn’t let prejudice, personal biases or subjective opinions contaminate their interviews.
  • Detachment. Social psychologists often deal with people who live in difficult environments or have disturbing problems, so it’s important for psychologists to maintain a certain detachment, not letting personal feelings influence their research findings.
  • Research skills. They must be able to not only conduct objective and rigorous research of their own, but must also be able to locate, study and understand the research conducted by scientists from various fields.
  • Presentation skills. Social scientists must be able to present their research findings in a clear and convincing fashion, or all their research is for naught. They must be able to use graphs, tables, verbal descriptions and other forms of research data in an organized and attractive presentation of their findings.

How Much Does a Social Psychologist Make a Year?

Data on the salaries of social psychologists is extremely limited. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not specifically note incomes for social psychologists, instead covering psychology on a general basis. As of May 2023, psychologists can expect to make an average salary of $106,420 each year.

The annual salary will be largely dependent upon the place of employment. Social psychologists that work in the public sector, such as public schools, colleges, or for non-profit agencies, can expect to earn less-than-average salaries.

However, social psychologists employed as consultants, strategists, or researchers will earn higher-than-average salaries.

Salaries are also impacted by the geographic location in which one lives. Higher gross annual salaries can be expected in urban and suburban areas while social psychologists in rural locales are paid less, on average.

However, the cost of living in urban and suburban areas is much higher, so the net income is actually much more comparable to what a social psychologist would earn in a rural town.

What is the Career Outlook for Social Psychologists?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for psychologists in general is quite good. Growth is expected at a rate of 6 percent over the next decade. However, more job opportunities are available as the level of education increases. As a result, social psychologists that have a Ph.D. may enjoy more job opportunities than those with only a master’s degree.

Additionally, because of the nature of their work researching and evaluating social issues, social psychologists in the private sector will continue to be in demand as the nation becomes more and more diverse and continues to tackle issues of race, religion, personal freedom, and the like.

In particular, social psychologists that conduct research at universities or for government agencies can expect a positive long-term employment outlook.

However, individuals who wish to pursue a career teaching social psychology at the college or university level can expect very few opportunities. Teaching positions are hard to come by, particularly at the university level. If interested in pursuing a teaching career, starting out at a community college or small four-year institution may be required.

What Careers are Similar to Social Psychology?

As mentioned above, social psychology seeks to understand how individual people are impacted by their social environment, as well as how individuals impact and are impacted by one another. There are several careers that are similar in nature or practice to social psychology. These careers include:

Sociologist – Where social psychologists examine the social behavior of individuals, sociologists study social behavior on a societal level. Nevertheless, both disciplines focus heavily on social research, including crime, health, gender issues, issues of race, religion, and poverty, to name a few.

Personality psychologist – Like social psychologists, personality psychologists are interested in the social nature of human behavior. However, personality psychologists typically examine how an individual’s personality characteristics influence the manner in which a person behaves in society. For example, a personality psychologist might explore how a person’s level of aggressiveness impacts their ability to form relationships with others.

Organizational psychologistOrganizational psychologists study many of the same topics as social psychologists, but simply apply those insights to the workplace. Whereas a social psychologist might be interested in learning about how social media plays a part in bullying, an organizational psychologist would be interested in learning the impacts of bullying specifically in the workplace.

Environmental psychologistEnvironmental psychology is the study of how one’s environment impacts their wellbeing and overall health. These environments include the natural physical environment, the social environment, and environments that are man-made, such as the family unit. These are the primary topics of inquiry whether a student pursues a degree on campus or online.

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