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Understanding the Different Fields of Psychology

Each of the main fields of psychology can lead to a rewarding psychology career—if you earn the right psychology degree.

Every year, tens of thousands of Americans apply to graduate programs in psychology.1 That may sound like a lot, but not when you consider how many different fields of psychology exist and how different those fields are from one another.

If you’re considering earning an advanced psychology degree, you’ll want to make sure you choose the degree that’s best for the field—and, ultimately, the psychology career—you most prefer. To help you along, let’s take a look at the different fields of psychology and the psychology degree programs that fit each one best.

Understanding the Different Fields of Psychology

Clinical Psychology

Nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness.2 Clinical psychology is the field devoted to identifying mental health, behavioral, or life adjustment concerns. Clinical psychologists play an indispensable role in our mental health system, often working one-on-one with patients. Through a variety of assessment techniques, clinical psychology professionals develop a course of treatment for clients and monitor their progress, often throughout their lifespan.

Best degree: PhD in Clinical Psychology

Research Psychology

Most of what we know about psychology comes from psychology research. By asking questions and then testing theories, psychology researchers are seek to discover why our minds work the way they do and why we behave the way we behave.

Best degree: PhD in Psychology with a specialization in Research in Psychology 

Educational Psychology

How do we learn? What’s the best way to teach? How do we adapt education for different types of people in different environments? These are the questions addressed in educational psychology, a field focused on understanding how our minds learn and then using that understanding to improve teaching methods in a variety of educational settings. While some educational psychology professionals focus on children, many others concentrate on adults.

Best degrees: PhD in Psychology with a specialization in Educational Psychology, PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision

Forensic Psychology

Psychologists work throughout the criminal justice system, particularly in the areas pertaining to motivation, personality, and behavior. Forensic psychology professionals analyze criminal behavior, search for causes of crime, work to help witnesses recall and overcome crimes, and help ensure inmates, parolees, and the accused receive treatment conducive to their psychological health.

Best degree: PhD in Forensic Psychology

Industrial and Organizational (I/O) Psychology

I/O psychology lies at the crossroads of business and psychology. It is the scientific study of working and the application of that science to workplace issues faced by individuals, organizations, and teams. Just as finance professionals advise organizations on how to maximize their financial capital, I/O psychology professionals teach organizations how to maximize their human capital. I/O psychology professionals investigate issues of critical relevance to individuals, businesses, and society. Through these efforts, they advance the science of work, leading to smarter and more innovative evidence-based strategies and organizational tools and solutions.

Industrial and organizational psychology professionals typically work closely with human resources and senior management to design hiring plans, implement training, improve productivity, and/or refine management strategies to better motivate employees.

Best degree: PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology

Developmental Psychology

Simply put, developmental psychology is the study of how and why we change. Experts in cognitive, physical, emotional, social, health, and cultural aspects of development, developmental psychology professionals often help people and/or communities realize positive change.

Best degree: PhD in Developmental Psychology

Social Psychology

Social psychology professionals focus on how the social aspects of our lives—both real and perceived—affect our thoughts and behaviors. Since so much of our lives involves social interactions, the principles of social psychology apply to a wide variety of fields. As such, you can find social psychologists working in a variety of nonclinical settings, including research, evaluation, teaching, and consulting.

Best degree: PhD in Psychology with a specialization in Social Psychology

Health Psychology

Concerned with the intersection of psychology and physical health, health psychologists explore how our behaviors and psychological health affect physical illness and disease. Though this is not a clinical or licensure program, many graduates work in the field to improve health by helping patients and healthcare providers address the behaviors and social factors that can lead to negative health consequences.

Best degree: PhD in Psychology with a specialization in Health Psychology

What’s the Best Way to Earn a Doctorate in Psychology?

If you want a PhD-level psychology degree, consider attending an online university. Through online education, you’ll be more able to arrange your PhD degree studies around your life and responsibilities, making it more possible for you to complete your program.

Ideal for working adults, online PhD in psychology programs allow you to complete the majority of your coursework from home or from anywhere else you have internet access. On top of that, many online learning platforms offer flexible scheduling, giving you the power to choose when in the day you attend class.

A good PhD in Psychology program in the psychological field that interests you most can help you gain the skills and qualifications you need for a successful career in psychology. It’s a great way to get ahead—and online education can make it possible.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering multiple doctorate-level psychology degree programs online. 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,