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What Is ClinicalPsychology?

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Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychology often involves helping clients overcome psychological distress.

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Question: What Is Clinical Psychology?

Clinical psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the assessment and treatment of mental illness, abnormal behavior and psychiatric problems. This field integrates the science of psychology with the treatment of complex human problems, making it an exciting career choice for people who are looking for a challenging and rewarding field.

American psychologist Lightner Witmer first introduced the term in a 1907 paper. Witmer, a former student of Wilhelm Wundt, defined clinical psychology as "the study of individuals, by observation or experimentation, with the intention of promoting change."1 Today, clinical psychology is one of the most popular subfields within psychology.

Clinical Psychology Education

In the U.S., clinical psychologists usually have a doctorate in psychology and receive training in clinical settings. The educational requirements to work in clinical psychology are quite rigorous, and most clinical psychologists spend between four to six years in graduate school after earning a bachelor's degree.2

There are two different types of degrees available in clinical psychology - a Ph.D. and a Psy.D. Generally speaking, Ph.D. program are centered on research, while Psy.D. programs are practice-oriented. Some students may also find graduate programs that offer a terminal master's degree in clinical psychology.

Before choosing a clinical psychology program, students should always check to be sure that the program is accredited by the American Psychological Association. After completing an accredited graduate training program, prospective clinical psychologists must also complete a period of supervised training and an examination. Specific licensure requirements vary by state, so students should always check with their state's licensing board to learn more.

U.K. students can pursue a doctorate level degree in clinical psychology (D.Clin.Psychol. or Clin.Psy.D.) through programs sponsored by the National Health Service. These programs are generally very competitive and are focused on both research and practice. Students interested in enrolling in one of these program must have an undergraduate degree in a psychology program approved by the British Psychological Society in addition to experience requirements.

Clinical Psychology Work Settings and Job Roles

Clinical psychologists often work in medical settings, private practice or in academic positions at universities and colleges. Some clinical psychologists work directly with clients, often those who suffer from severe psychiatric disorders.

Some of the job roles performed by those working in clinical psychology include:
  • Assessment and diagnosis of psychological disorders
  • Treatment of psychological disorders
  • Offering testimony in legal settings
  • Teaching
  • Conducting research
  • Drug and alcohol treatment
  • Creating and administering program to treat and prevent social problems

Other clinical psychologists may work in private therapeutic settings offering short-term and long-term outpatient services to clients who need help coping with psychological distress. Some clinical psychologists work in other settings, often performing research, teaching university-level courses and offering consultation services.

Approaches to Clinical Psychology

Clinical psychologists who work as psychotherapists often utilize different treatment approaches when working with clients. While some clinicians focus on a very specific treatment outlook, many use what is referred to as an eclectic approach. This involves drawing on different theoretical methods to develop the best treatment plan for each individual client.

Some of the major theoretical perspectives within clinical psychology include:

  • Psychodynamic Approach: This perspective grew out of the work of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who believed that the unconscious mind played an important role in our behavior. Psychologists who utilize this perspective may use techniques such as free association to investigate a client's underlying, unconscious motivations.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Perspective: This approach to clinical psychology developed from the behavioral and cognitive schools of thought. Clinical psychologists using this perspective will look at how a client's feelings, behaviors and thoughts interact. Cognitive-behavioral therapy often focus on changing thoughts and behaviors that contribute to psychological distress.

  • Humanistic Perspective: This approach to clinical psychology grew out of the work of humanist thinkers such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. This perspective looks at the client more holistically and is focused on such things as self-actualization and helping people realize their full potential.

Is Clinical Psychology Right for You?

Clinical psychology is one of the most popular areas within psychology, but it is important to evaluate your interests before deciding if this career is right for you. If you enjoy working with people and are able to handle stress and conflict well, clinical psychology may be an excellent choice. Take the psychology career quiz to learn more about the specific careers that are best-suited to your personality and needs.


1 Compas, Bruce & Gotlib, Ian. (2002). Introduction to Clinical Psychology. New York, NY : McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

2 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, Psychologists, on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos056.htm

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