How can one pursue a career in psychology? What are the different ways?

Hi Kabir! Thanks for the A2A.

There are so many ways to pursue a career in psychology! If you open any textbook of introductory psychology, it will tell you how you can be a clinical psychologist, counseling psychologist, sports psychologist, etc. I’ll be more practical while answering this question and share my observations of my seniors, colleagues, ex-classmates, students, etc. who are all pursuing different careers in psychology.

The first choice that you have is after standard 10th, when you can decide whether you want to do Science or Arts in order to pursue psychology. If you want to be a psychiatrist – one who can prescribe drugs and perform surgeries on severely challenged people, then opt for science and go the MBBS way. If you want to be a psychologist – one who can deal with cases without altering the patient’s physiology, then opt for Arts, specialize in psychology in the third year of BA, and specialize in a subfield of psychology available in MA. You could stop after BA too, or do a diploma in Counseling after 12th or after graduation, but that’s not very wise if you have the opportunity to pursue a degree like MA, and it wouldn’t be right to call yourself a psychologist in that case.

Most universities in India offer three specializations in psychology at the postgraduate level

  • clinical psychology, for those who want to deal with patients who are suffering from psychological problems that have disabled their lives like people with schizophrenia, people with anorexia, people with depression, etc.
  • counseling psychology, for those who want to deal with clients who are going about their everyday life, but are being challenged by significant issues like people facing tremendous stress, bereavement, broken relationships, etc.
  • industrial psychology, for those who want to deal with employees, who are facing challenges in the workplace like bullying, work-related stress, lack of work skills, etc.

Some universities might offer other specializations like forensic psychology, counseling and guidance or social psychology as well, but since those courses are not very popular, their career prospects are limited.

Once you specialize in either of the three above, you can opt for independent practice or service under another professional or institution. Let’s look at the opportunities available within these categories:

  • Pursuing psychology as a professional – There are a variety of careers you can make here. At the most traditional level, psychologist choose to open a counseling center by purchasing or renting space (some even do it in an empty room of their home), and see clients just like a doctor would. If not this, you can choose to be a freelance trainer for soft skills like leadership, motivation, self-esteem, etc. and partner with different colleges, organizations, etc. to conduct your workshops. You can even become a life coach or motivational speaker, who serve as emotional guides for prolific individuals. You can also offer psychology courses, softskills, or counseling online, keeping up with the modern times. There are also freelance assessment professionals these days, who assess people for a given ability, say IQ, and generate complete reports about the status of the individual on that ability which can then be used by the individual for any intervention needed.
  • Pursuing psychology as an employee – Psychologists are chiefly found in NGOs, schools, colleges, counseling centers, hospitals, and large-scale organizations. You will also hear of some psychologists visiting prisons to counsel prisoners, or sports psychologists or forensic psychologists, but in the real situation, these are mainly employees belonging to a single organization asked to visit different settings on different days of the week. They don’t hold permanent positions as sports or prison psychologists. They have no training in such specializations, because as I said earlier, specializations like these are simply not yet available, except maybe in some private institutions whose credibility can be difficulty to determine. Whatever be the setting, the main goal is helping the people in that setting deal with emotional and behavioural problems. In a school for instance, you can be asked to counsel students for their private problems, discipline them for the classroom, or act as a shadow teacher for an intellectually challenged students. There is a wide set of responsibilities expected from the same employee. Apart from all this, you can even become a teacher or professor of psychology as an employee.

Now, let’s talk about the practical scenario. All of what I’ve listed above is very much happening in the real India. Only, the availability and demand of different jobs differs. You might find it easier to find a job as a counselor than a freelance assessor. Why? Because counselors have been made mandatory by the government in every government aided school and college, but assessors might not be in demand given that the counselors themselves are being made to carry out assessments. In the real situation, as you would expect, things do not work out as outlined in a textbook. The most viable careers in psychology upto date are the traditional ones – working in hospitals or a clinical psychologist, or in schools or NGOs as counselors. Steadily, even independent counselors and clinical psychologists have come to a good position as much of the urban society has dropped the shame surrounding consulting psychologists for emotional and behavioural problems. The rest of the careers have been lucrative only to an exceptional few.

Whether you choose to be a professional or an employee is a matter of financial resources at your disposal. Setting an independent practice requires heavy and prolonged investment before returns start to come in. A psychologist is expected to maintain comfortable work settings, purchase tests for assessments – which are typically costly, and quality assessment can require that you either outsource it, or undertake training in different tests – all of which come at a price. The most desirable scenario is to gain employment for a few years, enhance your ability, increase your resources, and then go independent. In some cases, psychologists also form a group and start counseling centers, which helps in sharing resources, and have proved to be quite successful for some of my friends.

In terms of how much you can earn as a psychologist, the higher the degree you have, the better the position you will hold in an organization, and the brighter your prospects for promotion. That is why, people who have only graduated or done a diploma in psychology will find themselves at the lower end of the payscale, and are likely to be confined to lower positions. Clinical psychologists in prestigious hospitals earn the best. I have not found the payscale for counselors to be very attractive. As an independent practitioner, the limits on earning are set by your ability and the profile of clients you deal with.

There is also one tragedy of sorts that I would like to share here. As far as a career in psychology is concerned, I know of people in India who have been practicing for years and claiming to be ‘psychologists’ when they have never touched the subject in their formal education. Astonishing as it is, this has been made possible by the lack of mandatory licensure to practice as a psychologist. A license here, only adds to a person’s credibility, but is not a precondition for practice. So, if you decide to set foot in the field, be prepared for reality which is still way off from what is desirable.

The long and short of it is, is that there are a number of ways for a person to pursue a career in psychology in our country but with the price of quite a great struggle for the most of it, because it is still a young field here. And if you want to go abroad, you will find the need for an in-depth study of the prospects of the particular country you want to enter.

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