What does a Clinical Psychologist do?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Clinical psychology is one of the largest specialties in the area of mental health. Clinical psychologists work in a variety of settings and focus on the diagnosis and treatment of patients through applied psychological methods, rather than through drug therapy. Most clinical psychologists do not have a medical degree and usually cannot prescribe medication to patients.

A clinical psychologist does not have the authority to prescribe medication.
A clinical psychologist does not have the authority to prescribe medication.

The demanding job of a clinical psychologist can take many forms. Some work in psychiatric hospitals, treating and observing the progress of patients with severe mental disorders that require continual supervision. Others specialize in the conditions associated with certain age groups, tending to focus their work around children, teenagers, or the elderly. These psychologists also work in the academic world as teachers and researchers. Through education and research, they not only bring new minds to the field but also can assist in the discovery of better and more efficient treatments as well as deeper understanding of psychological conditions.

A clinical psychologist may work with patients who have mental health problems.
A clinical psychologist may work with patients who have mental health problems.

Education for this field is extensive, and can take nearly a decade to complete. In addition to a four-year degree, a clinical psychologist typically needs a doctoral degree from an accredited program. Almost all psychologists possess either a PhD, or a Doctor of Psychology degree, also known as a PsyD. These programs must be certified by an overseeing board such as the American Psychological Association or British Psychological Society. After graduating with a four-year degree, a prospective psychologist may spend four to six years achieving their doctorate before being able to legally practice.

A clinical psychologist will first diagnose a patient.
A clinical psychologist will first diagnose a patient.

Many psychologists choose to work in a private practice, focusing on a specialty of interest to them. Some may choose to specialize in specific disorders, such as schizophrenia or eating disorders, while others may work as relationship counselors, trauma therapists, or addiction counselors. It is common for psychologists to set up practices with other medical or psychological professionals in order to offer in-house recommendations and create efficient teams to help patients deal with multi-faceted problems.

Clinical psychologists may help couples work through issues.
Clinical psychologists may help couples work through issues.

When visiting a clinical psychologist, early sessions will typically focus on diagnosis and observation. A psychologist may ask patients to undergo a variety of mental tests that can provide information about intelligence, personality, and behavior. Depending on the diagnosis and the psychologist's own personal preferences, treatment can begin once the initial assessment period is complete. There are a wide variety of methods to treat patients, and many modern psychologists choose to use a blend of different theories and techniques to help patients with complex issues.

Working as a clinical psychologist can be tremendously stressful, but also quite rewarding. In addition to being fairly financially rewarding, being able to see patients experience a higher quality of life due to treatment can be very personally fulfilling. Unfortunately, not all treatment is successful, and most psychologists will have clients who decline rather than improve. Despite the risks, the crucial importance of clinical work to mental health continues to be a heavy draw for ambitious students, causing psychology to be a consistently popular major for college and doctoral students.

Clinical psychologists may work with victims of abuse.
Clinical psychologists may work with victims of abuse.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


So how many years will I actually be in school?


Latte31 - Oh I agree with you. I wanted to add that the clinical psychologist career is also a lucrative one.

Most clinical psychologists can earn six figure salaries in private practice. Some however, choose to work in hospitals and outpatient treatment centers.

Those with a PhD can also become college professors and seek a tenured track position. The nice thing about a position like that is you get a lot of free time to conduct research, but you also get to interact with students by teaching them what you know.


Crispety -I think that a forensic psychologist is an interesting career choice but it is certainly not for me.

I would not be able to sleep at night because they deal with very dangerous people. I would rather serve as a private clinical psychologist that treats addictive disorders.

The idea of treating people that are addicted to food or alcohol is so rewarding. Usually the addiction has more to do with a void that the patient is experiencing and when this void is appropriately dealt with the patient starts to heal.

These patients go through such a transformation during their discovery journey that it is truly inspirational.


Oasis11 - You bring up a good point. I wanted to say that I always found the field of forensic clinical psychology so fascinating.

These forensic clinical psychologists serve as expert witnesses in jury trials in order to testify on the fitness of the defendant.

They also help law enforcement agencies profile dangerous criminals and really serve to understand the criminal mind.

Some forensic psychologist even work with prisoners and offer counseling in a prison setting. This is growing field that allows the most potential for clinical psychologist job openings.


Anon134512 - I agree. The article was great. I just wanted to add that clinical psychologist training for a PsyD is more for the clinical psychologist that is seeking a clinical practice.

A PhD in clinical psychology allows the psychologist an opportunity to perform clinical research. The PsyD will require an extensive clinical practicum, while the PhD requires a dissertation based on original research.

I do feel that the clinical psychologist career is a rewarding one because you get to help people change their life for the better.

Clinical psychologist do have to deal with depressed patients which can be emotionally trying so it is best to develop hobbies outside of work in order to cope so that you don’t become depressed as well.


This was a very well-written and helpful essay. Thank you.

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