A reader writes:
"Hello! I am very interested in the field of psychology. I have browsed through articles online, and I was pleased to see numerous fields of psychology that would suit my interests. However, I am not completely clear on the differences between some of the fields. I am interested in experimental psychology, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and neuroscience (though I am not sure if this last one would be considered a field in psychology). What makes each one of these so different, and which one would be right for me?
I understand that some focus more on the data, and others focus more on the nervous system or behavioral patterns, but it is difficult to find any major differences concerning the workplace or overall purpose. Basically, I would love to research why people behave the way that they do. Why does this make a human do that? And I would love to be in a field that researches unanswered questions concerning psychology, like why we really laugh in certain situations.
Am I on the right track by picking out the fields above? Or is there another field more suitable to my interests? What is the best field for me? Thank you in advance and I hope to hear from you!"
Once you've decided to major in psychology, it might seem like you've cleared one of the big "decision hurdles." Like most students, you have discovered that the choices don't end once you pick a major. Now you have to pick an actual specialty area, and that can seem even more daunting!
So where do you begin? The reader in our question above is already off to a great start. She has a basic idea of which fields might interest her and understands the type of work and research she wants to do. Other students might not be so certain about which areas interest them the most or exactly what type of work they want to do once they enter the field.
Do Some Career Research
Some people just seem to have an easy time deciding what they want to do in terms of a career, while other people struggle with such decisions. No matter which category you fall into, it is important to spend some time researching your career options.
First, start by making a list of some of the fields of psychology that interest you the most. In the example above, the student is considering experimental psychology, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and neuroscience and she knows that she wants her career to involve research. She's off to a great start, but now is the time to start narrowing down the options. As you look over the possible careers you've listed, ask yourself an important question: What do your choices have in common?
In the previous example, the student has listed four areas that are heavily focused on the brain, cognition, and experimentation. As you look at your own choices, you might find that they all share a common theme such as working with children, conducting research, or even working in applied areas.Next, consider what makes each field different. Using our earlier example: experimental psychology tends to be more general, cognitive psychology focuses on mental process, and neuropsychology and neuroscience are centered on the structure and function of the brain.
As the reader our example learns more about each field, she may find that one area in particular is better suited to her interests. This is why it pays to research your career options carefully. Don't just read a brief description of a profession on a career website and decide that it's the perfect career for you. Spend some serious time collecting information, learning more about the field, and evaluating all of the options.
Talk to Someone in the Field
Once you have a good idea about some of the areas that interest you and how those fields differ from one another, you might find yourself being drawn to one specialty more than the others. While reading about a particular career can be helpful, sometimes the best thing you can do is to actually talk to someone who actually works in that career.
So how do you find a professional to talk to? One of the best resources is to ask a faculty member of your school's psychology department. Many students are assigned to a departmental advisor, and that person can be a great first resource. Your advisor might know of someone working in your field of interest or may know another faculty member who can offer you advice.After you have located someone working in your field of interest, set up a meeting so you can ask questions about the career. A few things you might want to ask include:
- How did you get started in this career?
- What educational path did you follow to get started in your profession?
- What is a typical day like on the job?
- Would you recommend this career?
- What's your favorite and least favorite part of your job?
If possible, you might also ask if you could "shadow" the professional for a day. Job shadowing involves spending an entire workday with your mentor in order to gain a better understanding of exactly what the job entails. It can be a great way to see first-hand exactly what working in that particular profession is like.
So back to the original question, which field of psychology should our student choose? As you've probably realized from reading this article, there's no cut-and-dry answer. Picking a specialization is a unique journey that requires not just researching, but a bit of soul searching. My advice? Learn all you can about each area, assess how each field fits in with your future plans, and seriously consider talking to people who actually work in each field. Only you can decide which area is the right fit for your goals, interests, and passions.