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Clinical Psychology Job Description: What You’ll Do

Here’s what you’ll do in your role as a clinical psychologist.

clinical psychologist with patient

If integrity, ethics and helping others are important to you, consider a career in clinical psychology. You can begin studying for work as a clinical psychologist with any type of work or educational background. The most important thing is your passion and the drive to succeed.

Career-changers currently working in fields like education, social work, and specialized care (such as with children or the elderly) will find that their people skills and organizational abilities overlap with those needed to work in psychology.

The study of psychology is enlightening, showing us how and why we behave as we do. Using that information to help people improve their lives can be deeply satisfying. Whether or not you’re new to psychology, you’ll find within it an intriguing array of potential career paths.

What does a clinical psychologist do?

A clinical psychologist plays a vital role in assessing, diagnosing, and treating individuals with mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. They offer professional support to help people navigate a wide range of challenges, from short-term personal issues to severe and chronic conditions. Utilizing diverse therapeutic approaches, clinical psychologists aim to improve individuals’ well-being by addressing psychological concerns and promoting mental health.

Through observation, interviews, and tests, the psychologist will diagnose any existing or potential disorders. Then, together with the client, they formulate a program of treatment according to the client’s needs. Psychologists monitor the client’s progress on a regular basis to ensure that their needs are met by the course of action, and to adjust it if necessary.

On the job, clinical psychologists:

  • Identify psychological, emotional or behavioral issues
  • Diagnose psychological, emotional or behavioral disorders
  • Develop and implement treatment plans and therapeutic processes
  • Help clients define goals and plan action to achieve personal, social, educational and vocational development and adjustment
  • Monitor client progress through regular meetings or sessions
  • Teach classes
  • Conduct research
  • Publish research findings in industry journals

As an example, Dr. Jennie Snell, a Washington state based clinical psychologist earned her PhD so she could focus on research besides overseeing a private practice that focuses on children, adolescents, and families.

She sees 3- to 18-year-old clients and their families, focusing primarily on cognitive, behavioral, and family therapies. She works extensively with anxiety disorders, stating, “It’s one of the most common disorders for both children and adults, and one that often goes untreated, even though we have good treatment strategies.”

She says it’s important to remember that working in a private practice means managing the administration of your own business—daily phone calls, billing, and paperwork.”

“Administration and working with insurance providers can be a challenge. I’ve chosen to be on panels for those insurers that I feel most comfortable with, and this limits who can access my services. I also have sliding-fee scale slots that allow me to provide services to some kids who would not otherwise be able to see me.”

She stresses the importance of self-care in a clinical psych career: “It’s so important to develop ways to take care of yourself, and to have a realistic sense of what you can and can’t do, and to have supports in place.” To compensate for working in her sometimes isolating private practice, Dr. Snell chose to share space with trusted colleagues and she is active in a consultation group.

What education or certification will I need to become a clinical psychologist?

Earning a four-year undergraduate degree is the first step in your education toward becoming a psychologist. A bachelor’s in education, psychology or sociology will best prepare you for your graduate school work, but if you’ve already earned a bachelor’s in another field, that’s OK.

You’ll need a master’s degree in psychology to enter the field of clinical psychology. This may take one- to-two years to obtain.

Many clinical, counseling and research psychologists earn a doctoral degree as well, which can be a PhD in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology degree. Doctoral degree programs in clinical psychology typically require an investment of five to six years. Programs in certain areas of professional psychology require a one year internship as part of the doctoral program.

If earning a PhD in psychology, you’ll also complete a residency training program under a practicing clinician; this residency can take up to three years to complete.

Licensing and certification guidelines for psychologists vary by state; be sure to check the guidelines for the region in which you plan to study.

What career paths can I take in clinical psychology?

As a clinician, you’ll be able to choose from a wide variety of career paths. Many clinical psychologists work in private practice, with their own office and schedule. Other typical workplaces include schools and universities, clinics, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and community and mental health centers. The opportunity to advance into academia increases as you gain more education and experience.

As Dr. Snell notes, “With so many therapists and counselors coming out of master’s level programs, there’s a real value in the deeper study required for clinical psychology licensure. People who want the broadest range of options should do the clinical. I was lucky to get into a strong research-based program, and it’s allowed me to do what I wanted to do.”

Learn about Pay & Job Projections for clinical psychologists.