Fields in Psychology

This section describes some of the specialty areas of psychology. Keep in mind that some of these areas require advanced (graduate) training, so it’s never too early to start thinking about preparations for graduate school. Some students know they want to go to graduate school in psychology, but have not determined a specialty area. Selecting a specialty area is important even if you choose not to pursue a graduate degree in psychology, because it will serve as a guide when selecting among career options with a bachelor’s degree. Here are some strategies for determining a specialty area:

  • list the courses you most enjoyed and determine why you enjoyed them
  • talk to professors and professionals who are engaged in activities that interest you and inquire about becoming involved
  • obtain research or practical experience, whether paid or unpaid
  • talk to other psychology students and your advisor!

Most Psychology specialty areas can be categorized as being mostly research-oriented or applied/practice-oriented. The following areas are categorized as such. As you read these descriptions, remember that former psychology majors are everywhere, and the specialty area you choose does not necessarily dictate one particular work environment. Psychologists can be found in a broad range of settings such as classrooms, laboratories, schools, hospitals, industry, business, government agencies, and private practice.

Research-Oriented Sub-Fields in Psychology

Biological/Neuroscience: study of the relationship between nervous system function and behavior. Some topics include movement, memory, sleeping and dreaming, eating, drug use, and the biological causes and treatment of nervous system disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’ disease, and stroke. May work in colleges/universities, medical schools, hospitals, private industry, and governmental settings.

Cognitive: study of mental processes such as reading, language, decision-making, and memory. May also involve the use of computers to model cognitive processes. May work in colleges/universities, private industry, and governmental settings.

Developmental: study of normal developmental processes and issues across the lifespan, from infancy through adult development and aging. May focus on one particular period of development, such as infancy, adolescence, or old age. May work in colleges/universities or other research settings and in private industry.
Experimental: broad catch-all area that includes research on basic and applied issues in cognition, sensation, perception, learning, memory, emotion, development, or social psychology. May work in numerous settings.

Human Factors: study of the interface between humans and machines, such as the design of workspaces, cars, and computers. May focus on how the environment can be constructed so as to maximize human performance. May work in private industry or governmental settings.

Social Psychology: study of individual and group behavior in social situations. Topics also include attitude formation, stereotypes, prejudice, attraction, and leadership. May work in colleges/universities or other research settings.

Applied/Practice-Oriented Sub-Fields in Psychology

Clinical: diagnosis and treatment of mild to severe mental and emotional disorders. Specific populations of focus may include those with developmental disabilities, neurological disorders, or chronic mental illnesses. Behavioral medicine and neuropsychology may be areas of specialization. May work for governmental or private agencies, hospitals, and mental health centers.

Community: improves the quality of life by modifying behavior in natural settings — the home, the neighborhood, and the workplace. May focus on the prevention/treatment of psychological disorders within these settings. May work for governmental or non-profit agencies.

Counseling: uses various interventions to improve human functioning. May involve helping individuals, couples, or families resolve interpersonal problems, adjust to new or difficult situations, or cope with daily stressors. May work for governmental or private agencies, hospitals, and mental health centers.

Forensic/Criminal: study of emotional and behavioral issues as they relate to criminal behavior, law, and legal systems. May focus on advising legislators or judges, giving expert testimony, or screening/evaluating the accused, prisoners, or personnel in the legal system. May work in legal, judicial, and governmental settings.

Health: promotes the maintenance of health and prevention/treatment of illness. May design and conduct programs to help individuals stop smoking, lose weight, manage stress, prevent dental cavities, or stay physically fit. May work for hospitals or other agencies focused on medical treatment and health maintenance.

Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology: examines human behavior in work and other organizational settings. May focus on personnel selection, motivation, training, and job satisfaction. May work for large corporations or agencies that provide consulting to businesses.

School Psychology: helps educators, parents, and others promote the intellectual, social, and emotional development of children. May focus on staff and parent training, program assessment, and testing of children in school settings. Typically works for school systems, although may do some private practice work with children.

Sport/Exercise Psychology: counsels athletes (including rehabilitating injured and incapacitated athletes), assesses athletic talent, regulates exercise adherence and physical/emotional well-being. May work for sports medicine centers, olympic and professional sports teams, and rehabilitation centers.