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Understanding the Different Fields in Psychology

Psychology is a vast field of study with key differences between focuses.

If you’re ready to earn an online PhD in Psychology, you’ll find a growing and diverse profession in which to put your education and training to work. Understanding the different fields of psychology can help you decide where to focus your career goals and how you can use your doctorate in psychology to best serve others.

“Opportunities for people with advanced degrees in psychology are expanding in number as well as in scope,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA), a scientific and professional organization with over 115,000 members.1

Understanding the Different Fields in Psychology

There are dozens of subfields within the psychology profession, many of them offering opportunities for PhDs with research degrees, and for those whose specialty is teaching. Here are some diverse fields where you can hang your doctorate in psychology:

Clinical Psychology

Practitioners of clinical psychology—one of the profession’s biggest specialty areas—diagnose and treat individuals with short-term or chronic mental, emotional, and behavioral issues.

  • APA insight: “Psychologists who provide clinical or counseling services are trained in a range of techniques and theoretical approaches, making hospitals, schools, counseling centers, group or private healthcare practices, and hospital systems all good places to launch a career.”2

Cognitive and Perceptual Psychology

Psychologists in this discipline study human perception, thinking, and memory.

  • APA insight: “Cognitive and perceptual psychologists frequently collaborate with behavioral neuroscientists to understand the biological bases of perception or cognition, or with researchers in other areas of psychology to better understand the cognitive biases in the thinking of people with depression, for example.”1

Community Psychology

You may find psychologists in this specialty working in communities affected by natural disasters or shaping anti-bullying efforts for schools.

  • APA insight: “Community psychologists blend research and practice, partnering with diverse citizens to plan and implement community changes, advance social justice, and use research to inform and evaluate this work.”1


These practitioners provide psychotherapy and counseling and teach and conduct research. There are many similarities between the work of counseling psychologists and clinical psychologists. The Society of Counseling Psychology offers this clarification: “Clinical psychologists have traditionally studied disturbances in mental health, while counseling psychologists’ earliest role was to provide vocational guidance and advice. Today, though, the differences between psychologists from each specialty are more nuanced, and there are perhaps more similarities than differences among individual psychologists from each field.”3

  • APA insight: “Counseling psychologists also consult with organizations (e.g., businesses) and work groups to help provide a work environment in which people can succeed, and to enhance the ability of organizations to increase productivity and effectiveness.”4

Educational Psychology

In educational psychology, practitioners study the various ways in which people learn at all stages of life. Research can lead to more effective teaching methods, for example, creating a win-win for teachers and learners.

  • APA insight: “How much does the time of day when new information is introduced influence whether a person retains that information? What does culture have to do with how we process new ideas? How does age affect our ability to develop new skills, like language? … These are all questions that educational psychologists are asking—and answering—in settings as diverse as government research centers, schools, community organizations, and learning centers.”5

Engineering Psychology

Have you ever marveled at an unusually user-friendly piece of technology? If so, an engineering psychologist may have been involved in its design by studying how humans interact with technology and machines.

  • APA insight: “Most engineering psychologists work in industry, but some are employed by the government, particularly the Department of Defense.”1

Forensic Psychology

Legal issues flavor the work of these psychologists, and most have training in the law. Child custody, mental competence, and jury behavior are some areas in which forensic psychologists are engaged.

  • APA insight: “The distinctiveness of forensic psychology is its advanced knowledge and skills reflecting the intersection of legal theory, procedures, and law with clinical issues, practice, and ethics.”6

Health Psychology

A PhD psychology program with a health specialization lays the groundwork for professionals interested in studying the complex factors that comingle to influence health.

  • APA insight: “They study how patients handle illness, why some people don’t follow medical advice, and the most effective ways to control pain or change poor health habits. They also develop healthcare strategies that foster emotional and physical wellbeing.”1

Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology

I/O practitioners put their doctorates in psychology to use by helping organizations maximize their human capital in areas such as hiring, employee retention, and productivity. I/O psychologists often provide a range of services both for the organization and individuals, from training and coaching to designing employee performance evaluations.

  • APA insight: Many I/O psychologists work as human resource specialists and management consultants.1


In this specialty, psychologists work with the injured and disabled to identify and address issues their conditions present and to incorporate quality of life improvements when possible. They often work in concert with other healthcare professionals.

  • APA insight: “Rehabilitation psychologists are also involved in public health programs to prevent disabilities, including those caused by violence and substance abuse. And they testify in court as expert witnesses about the causes and effects of a disability and a person’s rehabilitation needs.”1

School Counselor

These in-demand professionals work with children and their families to create effective learning and behavior strategies and to promote mental wellness. Job opportunities in this field are growing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “because of the raised awareness of the connection between mental health and learning, and because of the increasing need for mental health services in schools.” 7

  • APA insight: “School psychologists are accountable for the integrity of their practice. They protect the rights of children and their families in research, psychological assessment, and intervention. Their work reflects knowledge of federal law and regulations, case law, and state statutes and regulations for schools and psychological services.”8

Social Psychology

In social psychology, practitioners study how human interactions influence behavior and mental health. They may conduct psychology research within academic settings or teach at the college level after earning a PhD in Psychology. They also bring their skills to diverse fields such as marketing and political consulting.

  • APA insight: “Social psychologists study how individuals think about, influence, and relate to one another and how those interactions affect issues as wide-ranging as prejudice, romantic attraction, persuasion, friendship, and aggression.”9

Choose a Field, Choose a School of Psychology

It’s an exciting time to earn a doctorate in psychology, with so many compelling specialties and such an expansive array of job settings. A PhD in Psychology can help take you to the field of your choice.

With your career goal in mind, look for doctorate in psychology programs that are the best fit for your particular specialty. Self-designed specializations are often an excellent choice for the flexibility they provide in matching your education and training to your personal and professional goals. An online PhD in Psychology program is another flexible option, ideal for working professionals who want to keep working and gaining valuable experience while they earn a degree.

A doctoral degree in psychology can ignite your intellectual curiosity and power up your career. Teach, advise, research, counsel, consult… find your passion and use your education and talents to help change the world.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a PhD in Psychology with six specializations to help you meet your professional goals. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,