What Do Psychologists Do? (And How To Choose One)

Updated April 5, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The word psychologist is often associated with the image of Sigmund Freud (known for his theory of human personality that it is comprised of, ego, superego, and id psychology) and his analytical couch with his patient lying supine, pouring out latent feelings over his relationship with his parents. The analytical couch may have been a good idea at the time, and it can still serve a purpose for some forms of therapy. Today, most clinical and counseling psychologists prefer their clients/patients to sit in a chair across from them so they can exchange ideas equally.

The two terms “clinical” and “counseling” to describe a psychologist are distinct and refer to not only how the psychologist practices, but also the educational path, research, and internships the psychologist took before entering a practice setting. In addition to practicing psychologists, there are also research psychologists and those who work in a variety of environments. They may consult and design programs to resolve work-related issues and improve various environments, for instance. The field is an ever-growing one.

There Are Various Types Of Mental Health Professionals

Overview Of Psychologists

In this article, we will look at the various types of psychologists, the differing degrees, study programs, and various methodologies employed to work with mental health clients. In addition, we will also look at various career paths psychologists take, as not all are related to the practice of patient care. 

Psychology is a field people enter because of a desire to understand the human psyche and to help those who are in psychological distress or pain. However, none of these could effectively do their jobs if it were not for the research psychologists who spend their time studying individuals or groups of people who have common psychological phenomenon.

Education Of A Psychologist

Most individuals who are called psychologists have a Ph.D., a doctorate in philosophy in psychology. This means they have satisfied the academic requirements of study with a specific or a 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 Psy.D., which is a doctorate in psychology. Many academic institutions and teaching hospitals prefer hiring Ph.Ds., as they have more focused research experience. 

psychologist is also different from a psychiatrist in that a psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has chosen psychiatry as the focus of his or her practice of medicine. While a psychiatrist has received an education in psychological theory, the primary focus of the psychiatrist is healing, usually through a combination of treatment with prescribed medicines and therapy.

Therapy sessions with a psychiatrist are usually focused on how the medicines are working. If the patient has issues that would best be served by weekly sessions, typically the psychiatrist will refer these to a psychologist or a master's level licensed mental health therapist. It is only in some states that psychologists are granted prescribing privileges, and this is only with an educational background in neurology and psychopharmacology.

In most states, a practicing, licensed psychologist is required to have completed a program of study accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).  Even research institutions usually prefer or even require that their research psychologist have degrees from APA-accredited programs. Upon completion of the Ph.D., and depending upon the program of study, there may also be practicum and internship requirements that must be met before licensure is granted.

There is also a required period of  supervision as set forth by each state. It is only when a psychologist has met all requirements that he or she can practice in his or her state. Some states will offer reciprocity to practicing psychologists, and some will not, as the licensure tracks and requirements can vary from state to state.

When individuals are seeking psychological treatment, they need 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. A potential patient or client may want to review the qualifications of each psychologist as if they are an employer seeking the best-qualified candidates for a job. 

Just like medical doctors, psychologists typically have specialties or focus areas for their practice. If an individual is seeking the help of a psychologist for sleep-related problems, it might be futile to obtain therapy from a psychologist whose primary body of research was on the texting habits of 20-35-year-olds. A psychologist who had not only past research, but continuing research, or at a minimum a continuing education on the subject matter, as well as practice experience may be a better choice. 

Cognitive Psychology

A cognitive psychologist has an educational background, research, and practice in the cognitive aspects of psychology. This means they focus on the inner workings of the mind. They can help people learn how they think, often called metacognition, and how to change patterns of negative thinking and employ positive ways of thinking. The cognitive psychologist may take an interest in how the patient/client processes information, what their perceptions are of gathered information, and how they perceive their behavior. The patient/client will often provide exercises in which he or she will write down thoughts or detailed events and then describe feelings and thoughts regarding these. During therapy, the cognitive psychologist can help the patient explore these thoughts and feelings and guide the individual toward a deeper understanding of how faulty 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 will help the patient/client to develop a system whereby they can exercise better control over these behaviors. Often, individuals with compulsion disorders are referred to a behavioral psychologist for care. Individuals with physical compulsions will often be provided an alternate physical activity to replace the negative compulsion. For example, the individual who picks at his or her skin, or scalp, or may be advised to place a rubber band on the wrist. When feeling the compulsion to pick at the skin or scalp, 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

Many years ago, cognitive and behavioral psychologists worked exclusively with one another, but today the disciplines are more often combined or overlapping. This is because the body does not work of its own volition. Instead, there may be an underlying psychological or neurological issue that promotes the behavior. Today, CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) 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

Over the past few decades, the DSM has been revised several times as researchers and practitioners have gained a greater understanding of what “normal” is based on culture, gender, and gender identity. For example, in some cultures, it is considered rude for an individual to look straight into the eyes of another. In Western cultures, this might be viewed as a form of psychopathology, perhaps due to paranoia. In the 1970s, homosexuality was considered deviant behavior and was classified among sexually deviant disorders such as pedophilia and sexual fetishism.

Not since the DSM-3 has homosexuality been treated as deviant behavior. There is great controversy over this with some religious communities, including those that have programs for treating homosexuality and other gender identity-related issues as disorders. 

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 so pervasive that they affect not only the day-to-day living of the individual but also those around him. Personality disorders are some of the most common cases seen by practitioners with a specialization in abnormal psychology.

Common personality disorders are:

  • 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

There Are Various Types Of Mental Health Professionals

Antisocial, avoidant, dependent, and anankastic personality disorders are often confused with anxiety-related orders. The thing that distinguishes each of these diagnoses from anxiety disorders is self-absorption. Each carry with it this common trait of narcissistic personality disorder.

None of the personality disorders are easily treated. Most do not respond well to CBT, and except for those most closely related to anxiety-related disorders, psychopharmacological modalities are largely unsuccessful. 


Neuropsychologists specialize in the myriad of neurological disorders that manifest in psychological symptoms. They specialize in depressive disorders related to chemical imbalances. 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 issues fall outside of his or her scope. Those who seek the help of a general psychologist are those who are experiencing a disturbance of mood, depression, anxiety, or other condition that is interfering with their quality of life. If the general psychologist feels the situation or condition is outside his or her scope, then a referral is often made to someone with a more extensive background or a psychiatrist.

Choosing A Mental Health Professional

It is important to know the background of any professional hired to assist with a problem. Medical doctors and psychologists are not excluded from this. It may be wise to do your research to make an informed choice. When information is not readily available on a website, consider asking questions about their background and level of experience and expertise. Ask how often they have treated individuals with your particular situation or condition, for instance. 

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. 

Before committing to long-term therapy, speak to someone qualified to help you explore your situation as well as future options. This type of exploration isn’t always feasible in weekly half-hour to hour-long sessions. With online therapy, the client can communicate with his or her therapist via messaging, phone calls, or video sessions. 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.

This type of therapy is also backed by research. One comprehensive meta-analysis of studies revealed no significant difference between online therapy and in-person therapy in terms of outcomes. Researchers examined years of treatment delivered to various populations experiencing an array of mental health challenges and disorders. 


When selecting the right doctor or therapist, you are in the driver's seat. Choosing to take part in therapy is an important choice, and so is choosing the doctor or therapist who is right for you and your situation. Reach out to BetterHelp and get matched with a therapist today

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