What is Psychology?

Psychology is the science that studies human behavior and mental processes. 
For generations humans have attempted to understand why we do the things that we do.  Philosophers and writers have speculated on this topic, while psychologists have approached it more systematically.  Wilhelm Wundt is often considered to the father of experimental psychology.  He established the first psychology laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879.  Since that time experimental psychologists have studied human and animal behavior, emotion, perception, and cognition.  
[Read More on the History of Psychology Here.]

Psychologists today work in many different settings.  Experimental psychologists continue to work in laboratories, usually connected with academic departments in colleges and universities.  They study both humans and other animals, since many principles of animal learning and behavior can be applied to humans.  Clinical psychologists are more likely to work in hospitals, clinics, and private practices. While they may also do research, their work generally involves applying the principles of psychology.  Clinical psychologists are often psychotherapists, treating mental disorders and helping people make positive changes in their lives.  They administer and score personality tests and intelligence tests to measure these psychological traits. Counseling psychologists often have similar jobs, but they tend to work with less pathological populations.   Health Psychologists work in health care settings, often working with patients who have physical disorders rather than psychological disorders.  They may help patients who have chronic pain or cancer, and they are usually included on teams that evaluate patients for organ transplants.  Industrial and organizational psychologists help companies work with their human resources.  

Much of psychology's growth in the U.S. after World War II consisted of psychologists who saw themselves as providers of mental health services. Graduate programs in clinical psychology and counseling psychology were developed to fill a perceived shortage of mental health professionals. Almost all of these programs were located in psychology departments of colleges and universities. The federal government provided funding to many graduate students through Public Health Service grants. The Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) degree joined the traditional Ph.D., and emphasized practice rather than research. Internship training programs provided a year of full-time clinical training to complete the education of new psychologists.

By the 1970s health insurance had begun to cover the services of psychologists. Clients could often use their insurance to pay for most of the cost of their therapy sessions. Most clinical psychologists were happy to participate in this "third party payer" system. Few had any idea that managed care was on the way.

The success of graduate programs in clinical psychology did not go unnoticed. The 1970s saw the birth of freestanding "professional schools" of psychology, most of which were not associated with a college or university. Like many trends, this one began in California. College students often found psychology to be a fascinating subject, and graduate school was difficult to get into. There were plenty of students to fill these new professional schools. As these schools grew the number of students competing for clinical psychology internships also grew. The number of internships could not keep up with this growth in students, and competition for the limited number of internship slots became fierce.

In 1999, for example, the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers reported matching 2,413 students with internships. 510 students were not matched, and 212 students withdrew from the process (and were likely unplaced). 218 internship positions remained unfilled. These numbers do not take into account the number of psychologists who find internship positions in other ways.

By the 1980s health costs had begun to skyrocket. Managed care appeared as an attempt to control these costs. Psychologists and other therapists found their practices directed by managed care company employees who usually have much less training. Paperwork increased dramatically and many therapists' incomes fell. Many psychologists began to look for work settings with more job security and fewer hassles. With all of this change in the field, some are asking whether we really need 2500 plus new psychologists every year.

What is the outlook for the current crop of psychology majors?
Psychology is still a broad field with careers in academic and research settings as well as clinical settings. School psychology and industrial/organizational psychology are also fields unaffected by managed care. The APA is actively encouraging clinical and counseling psychologists to consider other career niches. Health psychology is a field that places psychologists in medical settings. Psychologists have made significant contributions in fields such as chronic pain treatment, cancer care, organ transplant evaluation, relapse prevention and smoking cessation. Health insurance plans may not reimburse for a psychologist's services in these areas, but they are increasingly being seen as a valuable part of the healthcare team. The psychologist's emphasis on the whole person is becoming a helpful counterpoint to the prevailing disease model.

Other clinical and counseling psychologists are finding that their skills are useful to organizations. Organizational consultation and executive coaching are fields that utilize therapy skills to help people and organizations change in positive ways. Mediation and arbitration are also attracting some clinicians. Divorce mediation is becoming a popular alternative dispute resolution technique for helping divorcing couples develop their own agreement without getting "dueling lawyers" involved. Attorneys are still needed to assist each partner, but the cost is often less than with the traditional approach.

The American Psychological Association paints a more optimistic picture of psychology job prospects. Their Website states: "Psychology is a discipline with a bright future. Among fields requiring a college degree, it is expected to be the third fastest-growing field in America through the year 2005 and to continue to grow steadily for at least another dozen years after that." (American Psychological Association, 2002)  I'm not quite as optimistic, but students interested in this field should certainly consider it as a career. 

Leonard Holmes, Ph.D.

[Back] is becoming into a comprehensive portal for psychology.  As the premier one-word destination for psychology information, it is also for sale at the Healing Sites Network.  Visit today for more information, or to choose a distinctive domain name that will help your site stand out from the crowd.

psychology clinical health psychology social psychology research dreams careers psychology practice teaching psychology social science society psychology courses