The American Psychological Association (APA) currently recognizes 14 different specialties in psychology. It is important for consumers to understand specialties in psychology so they can find the best professional to address their unique concerns.
Unfortunately, the differences between psychologists from each specialty are more nuanced, and there are perhaps more similarities than differences among individual psychologists from each field. All practicing psychologists have the professional training and clinical skills to help people learn to cope more effectively with life issues and mental health problems. Psychologists are also trained to administer and interpret a number of tests and assessments that can help diagnose a condition or tell more about the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves. The distinctions between the different specialties in psychology become important in determining how a psychologist helps a patient to cope more effectively with problems and what issues a particular specialist focuses on.
The section below is summarized from the APA’s website. New specialties can appear at any time, so consumers are encouraged to consult the APA’s website at apa.org for the most up-to-date information.
Dr. Gretchen-Doorly is a Counseling Psychologist. Counseling psychologists are specially trained to: (1) focus on the healthy aspects and strengths of people; (2) value the role of career and work in peoples’ lives; (3) understand how cultural, gender and lifestyle issues shape people’s experiences and concerns; and (4) engage in social justice and advocacy. Traditionally, counseling psychologists work with healthier, less pathological populations and conduct more career and vocational assessment than clinical psychologists.a In addition to conducting psychotherapy, counseling psychologists also consult with organizations and work groups to help improve work environments and enhance the ability of organizations to increase productivity and effectiveness.
Clinical Psychology has a special concentration in the areas of personality and the prevention and remediation of psychopathology. Historically, clinical psychologists tend to work with more seriously disturbed populations (e.g., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, affective disorders, chronic mental illness, personality disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia) than counseling psychologists, but that is less of a distinction that it was years ago. Clinical psychology focuses on problems related to intellectual functioning as well as maladjustment, disability, and mental disorder with a primary goal of enhancing psychological functioning and preventing dysfunction.
Psychoanalysis in psychology provides a systematic explanation of unconscious processes through the use of psychoanalytic personality theories, most of which grew from traditional Freudian theory. This specialty has been a leader in treating those who have entrenched character pathology or who have proven resistant to alternative forms of treatment, such as those with borderline personality disorders and other severely crippling disorders of the self.
Behavioral and cognitive psychology is distinguished by its use of principles of human learning and development and theories of cognitive processing. Specialized knowledge in applied behavior analysis, behavior therapy and cognitive therapy is key to the specialty. Commonly used treatments with include behavior modification, classical conditioning, social learning, cognitive therapy, and behavioral skills training, among others.
Clinical child psychology involves research and service delivery for infants, toddlers, children and adolescents. Clinical child psychologists have an understanding of the basic psychological needs of children and adolescents, and how the family and other social contexts influence the emotional adjustment, cognitive development, behavioral adaptation and the health status of children and adolescents.
School psychologists provide services to learners of all ages and the systems and agencies that serve them. Members of this specialty have advanced knowledge of developmental and social psychology, developmental psychopathology within cultural contexts, and in the areas of learning and effective instruction, effective schools, and family and parenting processes.
The interpersonal system of the family is the focus of assessment, intervention and research in family psychology. Examples of problems addressed by family psychologists include family relationship issues, parenting challenges, caregiver burden, work-family stress, behavioral problems of children or adolescents, and communication difficulties.
Professional geropsychology addresses many problems encountered by older adults and their families. This specialty helps older persons and their families maintain well-being, overcome problems and achieve maximum potential during later life.
The distinct focus of Clinical Health Psychology (also known as behavioral medicine, medical psychology, and psychosomatic medicine) is at the juncture of physical and emotional illness. Clinical Health Psychology requires a broad understanding of biology, pharmacology, anatomy, human physiology, pathophysiology and psychoneuroimmunology. In addition to treating individual patients, clinical health psychologists strive to improve the health care system.
Clinical neuropsychologists address neurobehavioral problems related to acquired or developmental disorders of the nervous system. They have specialized knowledge of functional neuroanatomy, principles of neuroscience, brain development, neurological disorders and etiologies, neurodiagnostic techniques, normal and abnormal brain functioning, and neuropsychological and behavioral manifestations of neurological disorders.
Sleep psychology addresses the behavioral, psychological and physiological factors involved with the full range of sleep disorders for all ages and diverse populations. It also requires the understanding of sleep measurement procedures and methods, and standard medical and medication‐related therapies for sleep disorders.
The distinct focus of Industrial and Organizational Psychology is on human behavior in work settings. Specialists in this area address issues of employee recruitment, selection and placement, training and development, performance measurement, workplace motivation and reward systems, quality of work life, organizational development and consumer behavior.
Forensic psychologists address psychological problems and questions that arise in the course of legal proceedings. They focus on the evaluation and treatment of clinical disorders and other relevant characteristics in a legal context, and on providing reports, expert testimony and consultations on relevant findings. Forensic psychologists are also consultants used by courts, attorneys and other administrative bodies.
Police and public safety psychology is concerned with assisting law enforcement and other public safety personnel and agencies. Intervention strategies primarily include short-term cognitive behavioral treatments and approaches to address, in particular, post crisis interventions unique to law enforcement personnel (e.g., post-shooting incidents, line-of-duty deaths, deep undercover stress reactions, etc.).
a For an excellent in-depth discussion of the differences between counseling and clinical psychology, please refer to the article by Dr. John C. Norcross. Norcross, J. C. (2000). Clinical versus counseling psychology: What’s the Diff? Eye on Psi Chi – Official Newsletter of Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology, 5(1) 20-22.