The American Psychological Association defines psychology as “the study of the mind and behavior.” In a sense, this is a topic that was contemplated by the Greek philosophers of ancient times, as well as one that sits at the heart of all the world’s major religions. However, the modern study of psychology as a science is relatively new, dating back to the 19th century work of pioneers of the field including Wilhelm Wundt, William James, and Sigmund Freud.
While some of these early theories are still relevant, particularly Freud’s highly influential paradigm of psychoanalysis, mainstream psychology today is vastly different from the field’s early days. Since the latter half of the 20th century, psychology has adopted scientific approaches more similar to modern medicine than classical philosophy. Through laboratory experiments, increasingly sophisticated brain imaging technologies, data analysis, and other scientific techniques, psychologists have made enormous strides in understanding the cognitive processes underlying emotions, social behavior, human development, and more.
Not all psychologists spend their time in the lab, however. Practicing psychologists apply this knowledge to help people cope with challenges in their life and mental health issues. Despite the progress made in formalizing the science of psychology in recent decades, practitioners must have a keen sensitivity to the unique history, values, and goals of each patient in order to select the most effective treatment. Approaches may vary depending on the circumstances of the patient as well as the expertise of the psychologist, with common treatments including familiar modes like “talking therapy” as well as more recent approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy. Psychologists may also prescribe psychiatric medication such as antidepressants or anxiolytics, frequently in conjunction with these other types of therapy.
The most familiar career path for someone with a background in psychology is, of course, becoming a psychologist. Like doctors, licensed psychologists have doctorates, typically taking 4-6 years to complete including a full-time, yearlong internship. Psychologists who prescribe medication are usually required to have additional training. Once they are licensed, psychologists often work in hospitals, mental health centers, or private practices.
There are other types of careers in psychology, however. Some psychologists provide counseling services at mental health centers, substance abuse treatment clinics, or social service agencies. Some counseling jobs only require master’s degrees instead of doctorates, making these types of high-impact careers more accessible than becoming a licensed psychologist.
With the importance and value of mental health becoming increasingly widely recognized, psychology is emerging as a fast-growing profession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in psychology are projected to grow 14% between 2019 and 2028, much faster than the average rate across the economy overall. It is also a fairly well-paid career path, with a median average salary of $79,010, although there is a wide spread between social workers and counselors compared to highly-paid licensed psychologists.
Regardless of the specific job, careers in psychology are opportunities for people with skills in both empathy and healthcare to make a huge positive impact on their patients’ lives.
Yes, online courses are a great way to learn about psychology, whether for your career or for improving your personal knowledge about mental health and mindfulness. Online courses can deliver the same education as on-campus versions, but at a significantly lower cost and on a flexible schedule that allows you to learn while continuing to work full-time.
People who are best suited for roles in psychology are curious about human behavior. They may wonder how environmental, societal, or hereditary factors affect a person's personality and decision-making process. They might also be driven by the goal of helping others overcome emotional barriers, including fears and trauma, so they can further grow, develop, and achieve a sense of well-being.
When you study psychology, you get to choose from a number of career paths, such as pursuing a master's degree and becoming a psychologist or mental health counselor. You can also aim for a social work degree and pursue a path that involves improving the well-being of children, families, and even communities. Another option is to become a psychiatrist. This career path can be lengthy, as it'll require you to go to medical school, complete a residency, and obtain a license. Psychiatry is a high-paying field, with an average base salary of more than $220,000 in the US as of 2021, according to Indeed.
People who study psychology are often hired to work directly with patients in an office setting in a private practice or as part of a larger organization. An office may be set up in spaces such as a school, rehab center, or hospital. People who study the subject may also be hired to work on experiments in universities or government-owned facilities.
Along with psychology, you might also consider studying the related field of neuroscience. While studying psychology may involve learning about the brain, the subject is often considered a social science and puts a heavy focus on feelings and thoughts. Neuroscience takes you a step closer to biology. It requires a more in-depth exploration of the central nervous system, including the physical structure and chemical processes of the brain.