Clinical Psychology Careers

Find out about the wide range of career paths in clinical psychology.


Clinical psychology professionals complete a rigorous training program and earn a PhD before being licensed to practice. Licensed clinical psychologists work with all kinds of people: children with school anxiety, adults with depression, families struggling with major problems or ordinary challenges of life. Some psychologists specialize in issues of loss and adjustment associated with aging.

Research psychologists study how different therapeutic techniques work, which are most effective, and exactly how therapy affects a person’s well being and even brain structure. Some clinical psychologists train other psychologists and counselors. Some have private practices, while others work in universities, medical schools, public agencies, schools, and hospitals.

Challenging and Lengthy Training Process

The path to a degree in clinical psychology is a long one, usually 5-to-7 years post-baccalaureate and the admissions process can be daunting. Coursework, research, and clinical practice may take from 3-to-5 years, and a 1-year postdoctoral internship is required by most states before final licensing. The doctoral dissertation, a book-length analysis of a research project designed and directed by the candidate, may be done concurrently with the internship or take additional years to complete.

Alex Onno, an MA therapist in practice for 10 years who is completing her doctoral dissertation, notes, “By the time you’ve finished the PhD, you’ve got four solid clinical supervised years. It takes a lot of time ‘in the room,’ working directly with patients.”

“Only highly qualified candidates are admitted to doctoral programs in clinical psychology. Admitting only one to three students for every 100 applicants is a typical ratio. Typically, the student applies to work with a specific professor whose research interests match the student’s scholarly interest. It’s really important to like your mentor,” emphasizes Rebecca Gloria. Professors select candidates whose skills and abilities will enhance their projects, and strong bonds often develop among students in the small, tightly-knit departments.

Why Clinical Psychology?

Why do people take on the challenging and lengthy pursuit of a doctorate, instead of less rigorous programs, such as an MA in Counseling, or a Master’s in Social Work? Deborah Kerr, a second-year student in clinical neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, emphasizes the wide range of job opportunities. “The payoff is that I’m going to be able to do what I want to do for the rest of my life. I’m going to be able to help people, go places, do things. If you’re passionate about the work, you won’t mind the time it takes to reach your goal.”

Kerr also appreciates the process of research itself. “When you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you don’t mind working a lot. I found it very exciting to initiate my own projects and follow my own ideas.” Dr. Leslie Cohn, who earned her doctorate in 2001, says “I wanted to have a maximum amount of career opportunity, and I’ve been able to see patients and do research as well. You have to do this because you love it, not because you think it’s going to make a lot of money.”

What Makes People Tick

“It’s wonderful to see people change,” says Dr. Karen Lindner, who has been a private clinical psychologist for almost 30 years. “When people come to see me they’re dysfunctional in different areas of their life. After a short while, things start improving in all areas of their lives. People who continue therapy tend to make positive life changes such as getting a better job, becoming more satisfied with their home life, or getting along better with their kids. When there’s a place to talk about problems, the problems don’t migrate into their lives.”

Many clinical psychologists enter the field out of a desire to help people. Dr. Lindner says, “When I was 25, I realized that the part I liked best about the jobs I’ve had was crisis counseling.” Rebecca Gloria, in her third year of clinical psychology school, says, “Having 12 brothers and sisters made me interested in what makes people tick. My parents were good amateur psychologists, and I was curious about why people act the way they do.”

Bearing Witness to Life

Psychology is a dynamic and ever changing field; practitioners are continually integrating new research and methods that make them more effective in helping patients. Dr. Michael Miller, who has been working in private practice and as a teacher for 30 years, explains “Today we’re able to treat people with more severe problems. We know more about the brain, human development, and how people form relationships.” Dr. Snell, who works with children and families, says “Research is backing up the importance of family involvement in children’s mental health. There’s less stigma than there used to be about seeking out mental health services – it’s a form of prevention. Learning to manage worry and anxiety at a young age can be a really important skill.”

Working clinical psychologists report a high degree of job satisfaction. “It’s highly rewarding to work with children and teens – there’s a lot of room to have a positive impact,” says Dr. Jenny Snell. Alex Onno reflects, “I’m interested in the human capacity for meaning-making. We’re keepers of stories – it’s part of bearing witness to life. This is what makes us human beings.”


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