When most people hear the word "psychologist," they think of someone who provides therapy to individuals, couples or groups. This is one possible career path for someone who becomes a psychologist, but there are many other paths. Regardless, a psychologist is typically someone who has earned an advanced degree in psychology.

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Becoming a psychologist is a career choice that can take between six and 12 years depending on the depth of study and the student's career goals.

What Is a Psychologist?

The term "psychologist" has a wide variety of applications and uses. Generally speaking, people think of a psychologist as being a psychotherapist or a counselor. This is certainly a prominent function of the term and is perhaps the one with which most people are familiar, but there are many other paths for a psychologist. All psychologists study brain function and behavior and how those two things relate to one another as well as how they impact the lives of the individual and the collective society.

Psychologists may study something as granular as the effect of exposure to light and the ensuing ramifications on human behavior and emotions or something as large in scope as propaganda and the phenomenon of mob mentality. There are two big differences between clinical psychologists and nonclinical psychologists, and this is perhaps the most important distinction in the field. Clinical psychologists are the type of practitioners who work with patients in a mental health capacity. They may be substance abuse counselors, couples therapists or school psychologists.

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Nonclinical psychologists tend to focus on research. These psychologists conduct studies and do fieldwork in order to better understand questions about the human brain and human behavior. These psychologists may work for a university doing research, or they may work for hire for a variety of companies that need the insight and research that psychologists can provide in order to better develop or market a product.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Psychologist?

The time spent pursuing a career as a psychologist can vary significantly. Students of psychology who intend to become licensed practitioners – therapists, counselors, social workers – have the longest time of study, but all psychologists must first begin by earning a bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree is the common degree that is earned at most four-year colleges. Generally speaking, if you choose not to major in psychology during your undergraduate years, that will not preclude you from pursuing an advanced degree in psychology at the graduate level.

Many students do not know exactly what they want to pursue during their undergraduate years and thus have the opportunity to delve into a master's degree in psychology regardless of their undergraduate focus. However, if you know during college that you want to be a psychologist, taking all the available psychology courses at your university may help you to get ahead of any prerequisite requirements for a master's program.

A master's degree is generally a two-year course of study in which the student delves deeply into the discipline of psychology and chooses an area of specialization or focus. Following the master's program, students who wish to be a psychologist may move on to earn either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. The Ph.D. is a research degree, preparing the psychologist to work in research. A Psy.D. is the clinical degree that allows the psychologist to work as a therapist or counselor. This can take an additional four to seven years to complete, including the time spent on a dissertation and practical clinical work and any time needed to pass a licensing examination.

What Jobs Can Psychologists Obtain?

There are a number of fields that are open to students who have pursued degrees in psychology aside from working as a clinical practitioner in a therapeutic capacity.

Psychologists head up research departments at many universities and institutions. They work to shape public policy in government and public health initiatives, both in the public and private sector. Psychologists can work on research that benefits a particular community or can work for hire conducting studies that are necessary for product development, marketing, advertising and management.

Psychologists who complete a Ph.D. will often find themselves in a position to take a postdoctoral fellowship. This often allows them to continue their research while publishing articles and studies. This visibility can bring them tenure jobs at universities and academic institutions. Psychologists can also work in the fields of health care, advertising, government, health and human services and the media.

About the Author

Ashley Friedman is a freelance writer with experience writing about education for a variety of organizations and educational institutions as well as online media sites. She has written for Pearson Education, The University of Miami, The New York City Teaching Fellows, New Visions for Public Schools, and a number of independent secondary schools. She lives in Los Angeles.