What Do Psychologists Do? And How Do I Choose One?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated November 6, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychologists are mental health professionals with specialized training and experience. Generally focused on understanding human thought and behavior—often with a view toward helping to solve health-related challenges and social issues—psychologists can specialize in several different areas and work in widely varying arenas. In this article, we’re providing an overview of a career in psychology, outlining the different types of psychologists, and discussing how you can find the right mental health professional for you.

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Psychologists – An Overview

Psychology is a scientific field focused on understanding the human psyche—how we think, behave, and feel. Psychologists are practitioners of this field, responsible for the observations, testing, and elucidations that can lead to sociological insights, improved mental health, enhanced everyday functioning, and a wide variety of other developments.

Psychologists may be researchers, therapists, instructors, or social workers. They may work in the public or non-public sectors—for businesses, governments, non-profit organizations, or themselves.

Psychologists can be separated into two categories: clinical and non-clinical. Clinical psychologists are those who work directly with patients, while non-clinical psychologists typically work in a field known as applied psychology, which generally focuses on broader health and social concerns. Clinical and non-clinical psychologists often differ in terms of the education, licensing, and experience requirements necessary to practice. Within these two categories, there are numerous career paths psychologists can choose.

Required Qualifications

Most psychologists have a PhD, which typically means they have satisfied the academic requirements of study with a specific or generalized focus and have produced a work of research in the form of a dissertation on a topic that is considered valuable to the research community. Others have a PsyD, which is a doctorate in psychology. PhD degrees are more common among psychologists and typically take longer to complete. 

Many people conflate the field of psychology with that of psychiatry. Psychologists differ from psychiatrists in that psychiatrists are medical doctors who have a mental health specialty. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication and diagnose mental health conditions, unlike psychologists, who can generally only perform these duties in certain states. Further, psychologists provide therapy more frequently than psychiatrists.

Licensed psychologists are typically required to have completed a program of study accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA). Upon completion of the PhD, and depending upon the program of study, there may also be practicum and internship requirements that must be met before licensure is granted.

Additionally, most psychologists must be trained through case work that is observed by a supervisor. It is only when a psychologist has met all requirements that they can practice in their state. Some states will offer reciprocity to practicing psychologists, but the licensure tracks and requirements can vary from state to state.

When individuals are seeking psychological treatment, they often want to know the qualifications of the practitioner. Most psychologists will have biographical information or a curriculum vitae posted for potential clients on their website or the website of the practice or hospital with which they are affiliated. 

Psychology Practice Areas

As discussed above, psychologists can have a range of specialties. While some focus on the intricacies of our moods and emotions, others examine the different ways we develop during childhood or the sources of certain neurological disorders. There is often a significant amount of overlap between these areas of focus, and many psychologists have multiple specialties. The following are some common practice areas for psychologists.

Cognitive Psychology

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A cognitive psychologist generally has an educational background, research, and practice experience in the cognitive aspects of psychology. This means they focus on the inner workings of the mind. They can help people learn how their cognition may affect their lives and provide solutions based on a cognitive therapy framework. 

In therapeutic settings, a cognitive psychologist may take an interest in how a client processes information, what their perceptions are of their environment, and how this affects their behavior. They can then guide the individual toward a deeper understanding of how negative thought patterns can hinder relationships, family life, work, productivity, etc.

Behavioral Psychology

Often, psychopathology manifests itself in behavioral patterns that are negative or even dangerous to the individual or others. The behavioral psychologist can help clients exercise better control over these behaviors. People with compulsions or behavioral disorders are often referred to a behavioral psychologist for care. For example, an individual who picks at their skin or scalp may be advised to place a rubber band on the wrist. When they want to engage in this compulsive behavior, they can snap the band instead. This is a form of negative reinforcement, and the desired outcome is that the compulsion will be broken.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Taking elements from both cognitive and behavioral psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are related. Today, CBT is offered to help individuals not only control negative behaviors and learn more positive ones, but also gain an understanding of the psychological origins of these behaviors.

Abnormal Psychology

Abnormal psychology is a broad field within psychology that focuses on understanding behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that are considered unusual. Psychologists with a background in abnormal psychology work in those areas of psychology where there is a significant disorder or dysfunction in the individual's life. These conditions are often pervasive, affecting not only the day-to-day living of the individual but also the people around them. Personality disorders are some of the most common conditions seen by practitioners with a specialization in abnormal psychology.

Common personality disorders include:

  • Anankastic personality disorder

  • Antisocial personality disorder

  • Avoidant personality disorder

  • Borderline personality disorder

  • Dependent personality disorder

  • Histrionic personality disorder

  • Narcissistic personality disorder

  • Paranoid personality disorder

  • Schizoid personality disorder

  • Schizotypal personality disorder


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Neuropsychologists specialize in treating clients with neurological disorders that manifest in psychological symptoms. This includes bipolar disorders and other disorders related to neurochemistry disturbances or imbalances.

General Psychology

The general psychologist is much like the general practice medical doctor. This practitioner is qualified to provide therapy for most psychological disorders and mental health challenges but is ethically bound to provide a referral when a patient's challenges fall outside of their scope. Those who seek the help of a general psychologist may be experiencing depression, anxiety, or another condition that is interfering with their quality of life. If the general psychologist feels the situation or condition is outside their, then a referral may be made to a specialist.

Choosing A Mental Health Professional

If you’re experiencing mental health challenges and are interested in working with a psychologist, it can help to know how to find the right professional for you. There are several sources you can utilize in order to make an informed choice. If you’re choosing a therapist through your insurance provider, you may be able to view each professional’s specialties, experience, license number, and other important information. You can also use a compiler like the Psychologist Locator offered by the APA, which can provide you with a list of professionals in your area. When information is not readily available on a website, consider asking them questions directly about their background and level of experience and expertise. You can, for example, ask how often they have treated individuals with your particular condition. 

It is not uncommon for individuals to see several mental health professionals before finding the right one for their particular situation. Seeking initial consultation and counseling via online therapy is a practical means of exploring options. With online therapy, the client can communicate with their therapist through video call, voice call, or in-app messaging. They also have the comfort of knowing that they don’t have to wait for the next session or go through a receptionist or nurse to speak to the therapist.

Research suggests that online therapy platforms are effective methods of connecting participants with qualified mental health professionals. In a meta-analysis of 92 studies, which included almost 10,000 total participants, researchers concluded that online therapy is as effective as in-person treatment for a range of mental health concerns. 

If you’d like to address mental health concerns or life challenges with the help of a therapist, consider utilizing an online therapy platform. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you can connect with a mental health professional based on your needs and preferences, so you’ll have a good chance of being matched with someone who can address your specific concerns. All BetterHelp therapists are licensed—many are psychologists—with at least three years and 1,000 hours of experience.  


Psychologists play vital roles in society, helping us better understand how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors interact. Psychologists can be found in almost every sector and have widely varying responsibilities—but one of the most common is caring for the mental health of individuals. If you’re looking to connect with a professional who works in a similar capacity, online therapy can help. With the right support, you can experience the benefits of high-quality, experienced mental health care.

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