How to Know if You Should Become a Clinical Psychologist: Top Signs to Look For
In a culture where mental health awareness is growing, you might be considering a career in clinical psychology.
A career in clinical psychology requires significant education and training, but the rewards of a long impactful career in mental health care can make that front-end time investment worthwhile. Clinical psychologists work with patients from a variety of backgrounds, they have multiple career options, and they commonly embody some key attributes.
If you’re wondering, “Should I become a clinical psychologist?” you’ve come to the right place. This article will explore the various roles of the clinical psychologist and some of the common traits they possess to help you determine if a career in clinical psychology is right for you.
What Do Clinical Psychologists Do?
The American Psychological Association defines clinical psychology as “the study of individuals, by observation or experimentation, with the intention of promoting change.”1 But what do clinical psychologists do? Let’s explore a few crucial roles.
Like any other medical provider, the first step a licensed clinical psychologist must take when treating a new patient is assessing their current mental health needs. A thorough mental health assessment is useful to the clinical psychologist for several reasons:
- It helps providers identify the symptoms—and potentially even root causes—of a patient’s mental illness or disorder.
- It allows patients to connect with their providers and begin to build a trusting relationship.
- It helps providers determine how treatment options can fit into a patient’s everyday life or overall treatment plan.
Since the assessment is so integral to creating a successful treatment plan, clinical psychologists employ a variety of different tactics to gather data during an assessment. They’ll choose the assessment method that they predict will work best for the patient, but often pivot to another method if needed. Some assessment methods include:
- Diagnostic interviews – Clinical psychologists ask patients a variety of questions, allowing them to open up about their thoughts and common behaviors. Providers take note of behavior and speech patterns and look for common themes in patient responses to create a treatment plan.
- Behavioral assessment – The clinical psychologist observes patients, either in a comfortable environment or in a clinical setting, to identify pattern behaviors.
- Psychological tests – The clinical psychologist will sometimes administer a diagnostic checklist or questionnaire to determine a patient’s symptoms and habits.
Once a provider assesses a patient and uncovers their current mental health needs, they create a treatment plan specifically tailored to the needs of that patient.
A variety of intervention theories inform a clinical psychologist’s treatment plan for a patient. You may even be familiar with some of these, such as:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on changing thoughts and behaviors
- Psychodynamic therapy, which promotes exploring the unconscious mind
- Humanistic therapy, which promotes acceptance and self-awareness
While some clinical psychologists show a preference for one or two intervention methods, others incorporate multiple different methods in an effort to achieve the best patient outcomes.
Intervention timelines look different for every patient, and clinical psychologists must also use the therapy method that can realistically provide results within each patient’s context. A treatment plan for a short-term inpatient case, for example, will vastly differ from that of a long-term private practice client.
It’s up to the clinical psychologist to identify an intervention method and put it into practice throughout a patient’s treatment.
Along with assessing and treating individual patients, one of the clinical psychologist jobs is to consult on mental health-related projects, assist a team of other healthcare providers, or provide their expertise in some other way.
Community mental health initiatives spearheaded by a non-profit, for example, often consult with at least one clinical psychologist to create programs that can adequately address mental health concerns relevant to the non-profit’s target audience.
Clinical psychologists may also consult on medical teams where a patient has a history of mental illness but may not presently need psychological treatment. They also may assist with establishing mental health services at companies, schools, or other large institutions.
While some clinical psychologists aim to spend all of their time treating patients, others may choose to provide their expertise to larger mental health care efforts.
Research and Academics
Some clinical psychologists only treat patients for a short time before turning to psychological research or other academic opportunities. For instance, colleges and universities often hire clinical psychologists to:
- Spearhead psychological research in on-campus labs
- Serve on teaching faculty and train the next generation of clinical psychologists
- Organize, run, or care for patients in a university counseling program
Clinical psychologists’ experiences treating patients provide a wealth of knowledge to the academic community, and some choose to share that expertise with the world via academic engagement.
While there are a variety of career paths available to clinical psychologists, it’s important to note that you don’t just have to pick one—you can pursue engaging with all three of these crucial roles as a clinical psychologist, either simultaneously or throughout your career.
Key Attributes of Clinical Psychologists
Now that you’re familiar with some common responsibilities of clinical psychologists, let’s explore some of their shared traits. While exemplifying these traits might mean you should consider a career in clinical psychology, remember that these skills may also be vital to your success in the field.
On the whole, clinical psychologists are adept at problem-solving. Whether they choose to treat patients, consult, or engage in academic work, problem-solving is at the root of every clinical psychologist’s job description:
- While identifying a patient’s mental health issues via assessment is critical to a successful treatment plan, determining an intervention method for a patient’s specific array of issues requires acute attention to detail, recollection of past patients’ outcomes, and a willingness to adapt to a patient’s responses to an intervention method.
- When consulting on a care team or during the creation of a community mental health initiative, clinical psychologists must apply the same principles—identify a problem, determine a method for fixing it, and tweak the intervention plan as needed.
- Clinical psychologists must also undertake these problem-solving capacities in research roles. After all, asking questions, testing out a solution, and integrating necessary changes are all crucial elements of the scientific method.
Clinical psychologists tend to exercise flexibility during the problem-solving process in order to make changes to intervention plans where necessary. Being adaptable can also be a crucial attribute to a successful career in mental health care.
While some clinical psychologists prefer one or two intervention models, they must be willing to try any method necessary to achieve positive patient outcomes. An open mind and a willingness to adjust the established plan will usually lead to improved patient care.
Since there are many career paths for clinical psychologists, graduate programs can’t possibly prepare the mental health care providers of tomorrow for every possible scenario. So, clinical psychologists must apply the general principles they learned in the classroom and during their supervised training to a variety of possible scenarios in the field. When they encounter a new experience after licensure, clinical psychologists must remain flexible to solve the problem at hand.
Anyone pursuing a career in the mental health field will most likely have the attribute of showing empathy and compassion to patients experiencing hardship. While they can’t possibly sympathize with every set of circumstances, clinical psychologists do need to be able to communicate care and concern to their patients.
Showing compassion in one-on-one patient care, group settings, or any other role allows clinical psychologists to:
- Encourage openness among others, leading to improved problem identification
- Establish trust with their patients and communities
- Affirm the hardships of others so that they may be addressed
Compassion is more than comforting people in turmoil—it’s a clinical tool that psychologists can use to connect with patients and provide healing.
Clinical psychology is a science, and science is always changing. As researchers publish new theories, scientific knowledge and processes adapt to accommodate new information, and clinical psychology methods are no exception. Because clinical psychology is constantly evolving, continuing education is important to keep abreast of crucial developments.
When you commit to a career in clinical psychology, you should also commit to lifelong learning. If a psychology research journal publishes a journal proposing changes to a long-standing intervention model, for instance, the clinical psychologist must take this new information into account while treating their patients. They may choose to accommodate these changes in some patients’ plans but not in others, but they still must be aware of how new developments in the treatment model can impact patient outcomes.
Lifelong learning is more than just deference to scientific discovery—it’s ethical. As new information and more refined theories develop over time, clinical psychologists have a responsibility to their patients to provide the best possible care based on up-to-date data and best practices.
Potential Career Paths in Clinical Psychology
Here are some of the clinical psychologist jobs you can aspire to:
- School Psychologist
- Child Psychologist
- Counseling Psychologist
- Forensic Psychologist
Start Your Path Toward Clinical Psychology at Alliant International University
The career path of a clinical psychologist is quite diverse. Clinical psychologists perform a variety of roles, from treating patients to contributing to new scientific developments. But, a successful career in clinical psychology may depend upon a provider’s problem-solving skills, flexibility, compassion, and commitment to lifelong learning.
Do you want to become a licensed psychologist? If you’re considering a clinical psychologist career, Alliant offers a variety of academic tracks to help prepare you for a long and impactful tenure in mental health care, starting with our graduate program. We offer psychology degree programs in-person, online, and via hybrid learning, accommodating a variety of learners and their academic timelines.
- “Clinical Psychology Solves Complex Human Problems.” American Psychological Association. American Psychological Association. Accessed January 4, 2022. https://www.apa.org/education-career/guide/subfields/clinical. Accessed January 4, 2022.
- “Psychologists : Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 20, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists…. Accessed January 4, 2022.