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Clinical psychologist what do they do

Clinical Psychology Job Description: What You’ll Do

Here’s what you’ll do in your role as a clinical psychologist.

clinical psychologist with patientclinical psychologist with patient

If integrity, ethics and helping others are important to you, consider a career in clinical psychology. You can begin studying for work as a clinical psychologist with any type of work or educational background. The most important thing is your passion and the drive to succeed.

Career-changers currently working in fields like education, social work, and specialized care (such as with children or the elderly) will find that their people skills and organizational abilities overlap with those needed to work in psychology.

The study of psychology is enlightening, showing us how and why we behave as we do. Using that information to help people improve their lives can be deeply satisfying. Whether or not you’re new to psychology, you’ll find within it an intriguing array of potential career paths.

What does a clinical psychologist do?

Clinical psychologists meet with clients to identify problems—emotional, mental, and behavioral—in their lives. Through observation, interviews, and tests, the psychologist will diagnose any existing or potential disorders. Then, together with the client, they formulate a program of treatment according to the client’s needs. Psychologists monitor the client’s progress on a regular basis to ensure that their needs are met by the course of action, and to adjust it if necessary.

On the job, clinical psychologists:

  • Identify psychological, emotional or behavioral issues
  • Diagnose psychological, emotional or behavioral disorders
  • Develop and implement treatment plans and therapeutic processes
  • Help clients define goals and plan action to achieve personal, social, educational and vocational development and adjustment
  • Monitor client progress through regular meetings or sessions
  • Teach classes
  • Conduct research
  • Publish research findings in industry journals

As an example, Dr. Jennie Snell, a Washington state based clinical psychologist earned her PhD so she could focus on research besides overseeing a private practice that focuses on children, adolescents, and families.

She sees 3- to 18-year-old clients and their families, focusing primarily on cognitive, behavioral, and family therapies. She works extensively with anxiety disorders, stating, “It’s one of the most common disorders for both children and adults, and one that often goes untreated, even though we have good treatment strategies.”

She says it’s important to remember that working in a private practice means managing the administration of your own business—daily phone calls, billing, and paperwork.”

“Administration and working with insurance providers can be a challenge. I’ve chosen to be on panels for those insurers that I feel most comfortable with, and this limits who can access my services. I also have sliding-fee scale slots that allow me to provide services to some kids who would not otherwise be able to see me.”

She stresses the importance of self-care in a clinical psych career: “It’s so important to develop ways to take care of yourself, and to have a realistic sense of what you can and can’t do, and to have supports in place.” To compensate for working in her sometimes isolating private practice, Dr. Snell chose to share space with trusted colleagues and she is active in a consultation group.

What education or certification will I need to become a clinical psychologist?

Earning a four-year undergraduate degree is the first step in your education toward becoming a psychologist. A bachelor’s in education, psychology or sociology will best prepare you for your graduate school work, but if you’ve already earned a bachelor’s in another field, that’s OK.

You’ll need a master’s degree in psychology to enter the field of clinical psychology. This may take one- to-two years to obtain.

Many clinical, counseling and research psychologists earn a doctoral degree as well, which can be a PhD in psychology or a Doctor of Psychology degree. Doctoral degree programs in clinical psychology typically require an investment of five to six years. Programs in certain areas of professional psychology require a one year internship as part of the doctoral program.

If earning a PhD in psychology, you’ll also complete a residency training program under a practicing clinician; this residency can take up to three years to complete.

Licensing and certification guidelines for psychologists vary by state; be sure to check the guidelines for the region in which you plan to study.

What career paths can I take in clinical psychology?

As a clinician, you’ll be able to choose from a wide variety of career paths. Many clinical psychologists work in private practice, with their own office and schedule. Other typical workplaces include schools and universities, clinics, hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and community and mental health centers. The opportunity to advance into academia increases as you gain more education and experience.

As Dr. Snell notes, “With so many therapists and counselors coming out of master’s level programs, there’s a real value in the deeper study required for clinical psychology licensure. People who want the broadest range of options should do the clinical. I was lucky to get into a strong research-based program, and it’s allowed me to do what I wanted to do.”

Learn about Pay & Job Projections for clinical psychologists.

Clinical psychologists are qualified professionals who are able to provide direct services to clients needing help with mental or behavioral issues, and are experts in psychometrics (or psychological measurement). They administer and interpret cognitive and personality tests, diagnose mental illnesses, create treatment plans, and conduct psychotherapy.

Do you enjoy learning about what makes people tick? Do you genuinely care about others? You may be the perfect fit for being a clinical psychologist!

What does a Clinical Psychologist do?

Clinical psychology is the most common psychological specialty. A clinical psychologist works directly in the mental health field with patients. They may work with patients one-on-one or in a group setting, diagnosing and treating patients for various different mental disorders.

Clinical psychologists differ from other types of psychologists in that they specialize in abnormal psychology. While some clinical psychologists treat a variety of mental disorders and behaviors, others choose to focus on one specific disorder, such as schizophrenia, for example.

It is important to note that clinical psychologists typically do not prescribe medication. By law, only psychiatrists (who are physicians) are able to prescribe psychiatric medication (however, new legislation in a few US states is now allowing the prescribing of medication, which has sparked a heated debate). While psychologists and psychiatrists may both work in the mental health field, they perform very different roles.

A clinical psychologist’s goal is to help their client identify their psychological, emotional, or behavioral issues, and then assist the client by defining goals and a plan of action to help them achieve personal, social, educational and vocational development.

Clinical psychologists use the most up-to-date version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), which is published by the American Psychological Association (APA) to guide and confirm their diagnosis, as well as their treatment plans.

Clinical psychologists must tailor their treatment plans to each individual patient, as different people have different problems, and respond best to different forms of therapy. Even two people with the same issue may respond very differently to treatment and recovery plans.

In order to develop valid and reliable ways to measure how well specific treatments and interventions are working, assessment research in clinical psychology is involved. Therefore, a large part of a clinical psychologist’s job involves assessments and the development of valid and reliable tests.

Assessments can be done by interviewing individuals, looking at medical records, and conducting clinical observations. Testing can be done in the form of intelligence and achievement tests, vocational tests, or other tests designed to measure aptitude and skill levels.

By taking a such a comprehensive assessment approach, clinical psychologists are able to decide on the most effective and appropriate psychological treatments and interventions for their clients.

Michael C. Roberts and Stephen S. Hardi state in their article, Research Methodology and Clinical Psychology: An Overview, “Measurement of treatment procedures, treatment integrity, behavioral changes, functional performance, objective measurements, perceptions of change, and satisfaction from a variety of sources, follow-up assessment, etc., are needed to establish the ‘scientific credentials’ of each therapeutic approach.”

Duties and responsibilities of a clinical psychologist may include:

  • Interviewing clients in order to understand their requirements and needs
  • Identifying psychological, emotional or behavioral issues
  • Assessing the attitude, behavior and abilities of a client using psychological testing
  • Diagnosing psychological, emotional or behavioral disorders
  • Designing behavior modification programs after diagnosing the problem of the client
  • Devising, developing, and implementing therapy or treatment for individual clients
  • Incorporating different psychometric methods for improving a client’s condition
  • Helping clients define goals and planning a course of action to achieve those goals
  • Monitoring client progress through regular therapy sessions or meetings
  • Observing, monitoring and testing the right therapy for its effectiveness
  • Maintaining accounts and keeping records of a client’s progress
  • Working with social workers, nurses, doctors, occupational therapists, and psychiatrists
  • Communicating with relatives, parents or loved ones of the client
  • Offering guidance to the caregivers of the client
  • Teaching classes
  • Conducting research
  • Publishing research findings in industry journals

What Psychologists Do

About this section


Industrial-organizational psychologists apply psychological research and methods to workplace issues.

Psychologists study cognitive, emotional, and social processes and behavior by observing, interpreting, and recording how people relate to one another and to their environments. They use their findings to help improve processes and behaviors.


Psychologists typically do the following:

  • Conduct scientific studies of behavior and brain function
  • Observe, interview, and survey individuals
  • Identify psychological, emotional, behavioral, or organizational issues and diagnose disorders
  • Research and identify behavioral or emotional patterns
  • Test for patterns that will help them better understand and predict behavior
  • Discuss the treatment of problems with clients
  • Write articles, research papers, and reports to share findings and educate others
  • Supervise interns, clinicians, and counseling professionals

Psychologists seek to understand and explain thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behavior. They use techniques such as observation, assessment, and experimentation to develop theories about the beliefs and feelings that influence individuals.

Psychologists often gather information and evaluate behavior through controlled laboratory experiments, psychoanalysis, or psychotherapy. They also may administer personality, performance, aptitude, or intelligence tests. They look for patterns of behavior or relationships between events, and they use this information when testing theories in their research or when treating patients.

The following are examples of types of psychologists:

Clinical psychologists assess, diagnose, and treat mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Clinical psychologists help people deal with problems ranging from short-term personal issues to severe, chronic conditions.

Clinical psychologists are trained to use a variety of approaches to help individuals. Although strategies generally differ by specialty, clinical psychologists often interview patients, give diagnostic tests, and provide individual, family, or group psychotherapy. They also design behavior modification programs and help patients implement their particular program. Some clinical psychologists focus on specific populations, such as children or the elderly, or on certain specialties, such as neuropsychology.

Clinical psychologists often consult with other health professionals regarding the best treatment for patients, especially treatment that includes medication. Currently, only Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, and New Mexico allow clinical psychologists to prescribe medication to patients.

Counseling psychologists help patients deal with and understand problems, including issues at home, at the workplace, or in their community. Through counseling, these psychologists work with patients to identify their strengths or resources they can use to manage problems. For information on other counseling occupations, see the profiles on marriage and family therapists, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors, and social workers.

Developmental psychologists study the psychological progress and development that take place throughout life. Many developmental psychologists focus on children and adolescents, but they also may study aging and problems facing older adults.

Forensic psychologists use psychological principles in the legal and criminal justice system to help judges, attorneys, and other legal specialists understand the psychological aspects of a particular case. They often testify in court as expert witnesses. They typically specialize in family, civil, or criminal casework.

Industrial–organizational psychologists apply psychology to the workplace by using psychological principles and research methods to solve problems and improve the quality of worklife. They study issues such as workplace productivity, management or employee working styles, and employee morale. They also help top executives, training and development managers, and training and development specialists with policy planning, employee screening or training, and organizational development.

Rehabilitation psychologists work with physically or developmentally disabled individuals. They help improve quality of life or help individuals adjust after a major illness or accident. They may work with physical therapists and teachers to improve health and learning outcomes.

School psychologists apply psychological principles and techniques to education disorders and developmental disorders. They may address student learning and behavioral problems; design and implement performance plans, and evaluate performances; and counsel students and families. They also may consult with other school-based professionals to suggest improvements to teaching, learning, and administrative strategies.

Some psychologists become postsecondary teachers or high school teachers.