Psychologist Definition

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated July 8, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Just as there’s a wide array of medical doctors who specialize in specific areas, the field of psychology has a variety of professionals who specialize in different psychology disciplines as well. Some examples include psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, and psychology counselors. The services these providers and psychologists offer can vary widely depending on the type of psychology they’re specifically trained in. 

If you’ve decided that you’d like to speak with a mental health professional, the diversity of titles and areas of expertise can make it challenging to narrow down the type of specialist you need to see. Many psychologists can also be referred to as therapists. The therapist meaning is a trained and licensed psychologist that can rehabilitate and improve the mental health of the patients. It may be helpful to learn more about what a psychologist is and what types of support they can offer for people in your situation. Learn more below about the definition of “psychologist”.

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There are many kinds of psychologists

Definition of psychologist

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a psychologist is an individual who is trained in a branch of psychology, or “the study of the mind and behavior”. They focus on both women’s and men’s health.

As you can imagine, the definition of psychology is broad since there’s such wide variety in the way people think and behave. Consider, for example, the varying needs of an adult with a specific phobia and a child with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not only are their psychological conditions different and require different treatment modalities, but their minds are in completely different developmental states. That’s why there are psychologists who focus on all kinds of diverse areas of the field of psychology, from specific conditions to individuals in a particular age range. Hence, the definition of a psychologist is also broad.

Education required for psychologists

To become a psychologist, an individual needs to get a master's degree or a doctoral degree in psychology after completing their undergraduate studies. At the graduate level, future psychologists have the opportunity to specialize in a certain subcategory of the broader field of psychology if desired. An advanced doctoral degree in psychology can enhance their knowledge and expertise, but is not always required. The title of a psychotherapist will often indicate their level of expertise in psychology. For example, a clinical psychologist will have the same base of knowledge as a general psychologist, however, they will have also received further training in clinical psychology.

Psychiatrists, on the other hand, must attend medical school and must have an advanced degree in medicine in order to practice psychiatry. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication and perform medical procedures, and psychiatrists often work in tandem with a psychologist who meets with the patient in a clinical setting. 

Some psychologists choose to stay in the academic realm and work as researchers, conducting psychology studies and writing scholarly papers. Other psychologists study business management to work within corporations and organizations. These types of psychologists often assist managers and human resource departments in hiring, training, and team building. The other psychologists usually turn to practicing at a clinical level. In these cases, psychologists (also referred to as psychotherapists) work with patients either one-on-one or in group settings. Broadly, the goal of clinical psychology is to help individuals better understand their thought patterns in order to learn to handle emotions and choose behaviors in a healthy way.


Potential areas of specialization for psychologists

There are many different fields of psychology, each of which is based on helping a specific type of individual in a specific type of situation. Below is an overview of some common areas of specialization for psychologists.

  • Clinical psychology. This specialization combines social science, clinical knowledge, and theory to treat psychologically rooted issues. Most clinical psychologists use psychological assessments and clinical formulations to develop a treatment plan. When the accuracy of the result is crucial, these psychologists use algorithm psychology. Clinical psychologists may also engage in teaching, research, and other specific aspects of the mental health field.
  • Cognitive and perceptual psychology. A psychologist who specializes in this branch of psychology studies human perception, including the way that we think and how our memory works.
  • Counseling psychology. Counseling psychologists provide support and treatment for people with mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and trauma-related disorders.  
  • Developmental psychology. This area of psychology studies an individual’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development over the course of their lifespan. Developmental psychologists can cross-specialize in other areas as well, such as developmental/cultural psychology, child development, or forensic/developmental psychology.  
  • Educational psychology. Mental health professionals in this field specialize in the study of behavioral and cognitive learning processes, just like in the behavioral psychology definition
  • Engineering psychology. Sometimes referred to as “human factors engineering”, engineering psychology is the study of the relationship between human behavior/cognitive ability and technology. The goal is to improve the interface between people and machines by designing technology that’s best suited for use by humans. 
  • Industrial and organizational psychology. This subcategory of psychology focuses on human behavior in the workplace. Industrial/organizational psychologists often work in research to develop methods for improving workplace dynamics and increasing employee satisfaction.  
  • Experimental or research psychology. This type of psychologist focuses on the study and research of behavioral/cognitive processes. They often work at universities or other research centers to conduct experiments that can help provide a better understanding of the mental and physical behaviors of humans and animals.
  • Forensic psychology. Those who work in this area of psychology often collaborate with other professionals in law and public safety. Forensic psychologists may do research to learn more about preventing crime. Or, they may work with law enforcement on criminal profiling to help apprehend those responsible for serious crimes or to solve cold cases. 
  • Geriatric psychology. Individuals who specialize in geriatric psychology focus on working with those in the later stages of life and addressing the unique psychological issues they may face as they age. Geriatric psychologists often work with patients in areas of cognition, but they may also treat depression and other mental illnesses that can result from loneliness, dementia, and other common age-based challenges. 
  • School psychology. School psychologists apply their psychological expertise in the areas of behavior, mental health, and learning to help support students, teachers, and parents in the educational system. They develop relationships with these groups as well as with school administrators and other professionals to cultivate strategies to improve the students’ mental health and well-being in the context of a learning environment. 
  • Sports psychology. These psychologists work with college and professional athletes to improve their focus and performance through mental health support. Oftentimes, sports psychologists treat individuals for mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, and trauma that may directly influence sports performance.

As a side note, social workers are similar to psychologists in that they focus on human services, but according to the psychologist definition, they are distinct. A social worker’s primary goal is to connect people with health resources, whereas a psychologist administers mental health services.

Psychology treatment methods

Before moving on to the forms of psychotherapy, we must first know psychotherapy definition which is the application of psychological techniques, particularly those that are based on regular interpersonal contact, to assist a person in changing behavior, increasing happiness, and overcoming problems. There are many different forms of psychotherapy (sometimes called “talk therapy”). The method a psychologist may use to treat an individual depends on what they learn about them during their preliminary psychological assessment and any psychological diagnoses they may make, as well as the specific types of psychotherapy they may be trained in.

One of the most common types of psychotherapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of psychotherapy aims to help a person uncover unhelpful thought patterns so they can shift their emotions and behaviors in a healthy direction and develop appropriate coping mechanisms. Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is another form of psychotherapy that focuses on improving a person’s interpersonal behaviors. This psychotherapy is based on the idea that psychological issues can be understood through the lens of an individual’s relationships with others. Another common type of psychotherapy is psychodynamic therapy, which examines the potential psychological causes of emotional challenges. This psychotherapy supports the individual in looking inward and using self-examination as part of their psychological treatment.

These are only a few forms of psychological treatment that a psychologist may employ. Remember, the treatment you receive will generally be unique to you and your particular situation. Regardless, the end goal of a psychologist’s work is typically to help the individual develop essential skills that will help them address challenges in their lives now and in the future.

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There are many kinds of psychologists

Choosing the right psychologist

Choosing the right psychologist for you depends upon your unique needs and preferences. If your situation may be best addressed by a certain type of psychological specialist, seeking that type of psychologist out for a consultation or evaluation may be a good first step. For example, if you're looking for support in your romantic relationship, you may wish to enlist the support of a trained couples psychologist.

If you’re looking for more general mental health support, you still may have particular preferences that can help you narrow down which psychologist to see. For instance, some people may be more comfortable with a psychologist of a specific gender, a psychologist who specializes in working with LGBTQIA+ individuals, or a psychologist who has experience working with people from a specific culture. 

Finally, with the exception of those experiencing some severe mental health conditions, you can choose whether to meet with a psychotherapist in person or virtually. Research suggests that both psychotherapy formats can offer similar benefits, so you can decide what’s most comfortable for you. If you’re interested in meeting with a qualified psychotherapist from the comfort of your own home, you might consider a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. You can get matched with a psychologist who meets your needs and preferences and speak with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat.


There are many different types of psychologists out there since the field is so broad and diverse.  A psychologist is trained to treat a patient’s emotions, mind, and behavior patterns; they focus on mental health problems. They differ from psychiatrists—who are medical practitioners and can prescribe medications. There are many specialists in psychology, ranging from clinical psychologists, to research psychologists, and more. 

If you’re interested in meeting with a psychologist of some kind, this article may equip you with the knowledge you need to find the right one for you.

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