How to Become a Health Psychologist

Health psychology explores the intersection of the body and the mind, focusing on the impact that psychological health has on physical well-being. It is a clinical psychological specialty, with a body of practice and research to promote health, prevent illnesses and improve health care delivery systems. There are career possibilities with a bachelor's degree, a master's degree and at the doctoral degree level.

5 Steps to Become a Health Psychologist

Like many medical and science professions, there’s an academic path to follow to become a health psychologist, but not everyone’s journey is the same. Below are five common steps to start a career in health psychology.

Step 1: Bachelor’s degree in psychology

A bachelor's degree is the foundation for a career in health psychology. A bachelor's degree in health psychology may be listed as a clinical health psychology program or offered as an area of concentration in a general psychology curriculum.

Graduates with a bachelor's degree are eligible for positions such as a community health education specialist or an occupational health specialist or in research-based jobs. Or, you could put your psychology skills to work in many industries that benefit from understanding how people think, such as education, communications or sales.

If you'd like to make psychology your career, a master's degree is necessary to work at the professional level.

Step 2: Master's degree in psychology

A master's degree in psychology typically requires two years of graduate-level coursework. Master's programs include a practicum to build clinical skills. You can take advantage of online psychology master's degree programs to fit your lifestyle and budget. Online degree programs also include internship or practicum hours to meet state licensing board requirements.

Depending on the state, master’s-level professionals work in clinical, counseling and school psychology as therapists, counselors and other mental health clinicians. There are opportunities to put the degree to work in human resources, advertising or market research. Some professionals work for state, local and federal agencies in criminal justice, social services and employment counseling.

In clinical psychology, there are typically two options, Master of Arts and Master of Science degrees. Either one may be available with an emphasis on health psychology as a specialty area. An MA degree is geared toward students who want to work in client care with a foundation built on liberal arts and humanitarian studies. An MS degree has a focus on research and statistical science for those seeking a career in research or academic writing.

Practicing independently as a health psychologist requires completing a health psychology doctorate program as well as an internship and licensing exam.

Earn Your Master of Arts in Psychology from Pepperdine University

Sponsored

Step 3: Doctorate in psychology

Depending on your career interests, there are several doctoral degree options: Ph.D., PsyD and EdD. A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is a more research-focused course of study. A Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) is aimed at those who want to work in a clinical setting (to learn more, see our article on the differences between Ph.D. in Psychology and PsyD). An EdD is a doctorate in education, granted by a psychology department that is part of a college of education at a university. It's a degree for those who may want to practice in a clinical or educational setting. Earning a doctorate in psychology typically requires five to seven years of study, including coursework, research and writing and defending a dissertation for the Ph.D. program.

Step 4: Licensure

A health psychologist, like any clinical psychologist, must become licensed through the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) to practice in the state where they live. To gain licensure, students must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology administered by the ASPPB. Also, students must complete 1,500-6,000 practicum hours, depending on the state.Requirements may change, make sure to confirm the requirements with the state in which you attend to practice.

Step 5: Board certification in clinical health psychology

After obtaining licensure, Ph.D. holders may also obtain board certification in clinical health psychology through the American Board of Professional Psychology. Board certification is becoming a valued credential that sets a psychologist apart from other practitioners. It's especially valued for those working in direct patient care. This effort includes working in a postdoctoral internship in the health psychology specialty for one to two years.

Health psychology postdoctoral practice experience

To be certified as a clinical health psychologist, the American Board of Professional Psychology requires preparation beyond the doctoral requirements.

  • Certification after one postdoctoral year upon successful completion of at least one year of an APA/CPA accredited Clinical Health Psychology postdoctoral fellowship OR certification after two postdoctoral years upon successful completion of either:
  • An APA/CPA accredited postdoctoral fellowship in an area other than clinical health psychology if at least half of the training was in clinical health psychology, and one additional postdoctoral year of clinical health psychology experience OR
  • A non-accredited but APPIC listed clinical health psychology fellowship and one additional postdoctoral year of clinical health psychology experience OR
  • The applicant can apply for certification after three postdoctoral years, including a one-year postdoctoral supervised experience in professional psychology, and two additional years of postdoctoral experience in clinical health psychology.

Source: American Board of Professional Psychology

What is Health Psychology?

Health psychology is a clinical specialty that examines how biological, social and psychological factors influence health and illness.

Definition of health psychology

Health psychology explores the motivations behind health-related behaviors and studies the factors that help people cope with a chronic condition, recover from an illness or change their behavior to improve their health.

Health psychologists were involved with research that revealed the health impact of lead exposure for children. They have studied how to help people quit smoking and improve their diets. The discipline explores the connection between our behavior and our health. By looking at how patients manage illness successfully, they can prepare other patients to manage stress and pain. One of the common questions is why people don't follow medical advice to improve their health, such as better eating habits. A key focus of the work is examining the consequences between people's emotions and behavior and its impact on their health.

The field involves knowledge of the impact that learning, memory, perception, cognition and motivation influence health behaviors have on mental and physical illness and injury.

A clinical psychologist may be involved with treatments and research for:

  • Acceptance of severe and chronic disease
  • Adherence to medical treatments
  • Pain management
  • Weight management

Why do we need health psychologists?

Health psychologists help us understand fundamental questions about our minds and bodies and devise treatments to promote health and prevent illnesses. They conduct research into why people ignore sound advice and continue bad habits. They look at the effects of stress on people's health.

By undertaking research, health psychologists can develop health care strategies that promote physical and emotional well-being. Their work can help reduce health care costs and guide medical and social policy. They also work one-on-one with patients to follow a treatment regimen or understand a diagnosis.

What Does a Health Psychologist Do?

Clinical health psychology integrates psychological, social, cultural and biological factors to prevent, treat and manage illnesses and disabilities. Practice for a health psychologist will occur in an array of settings. Duties may include

  • Research
  • Clinical services
  • Consulting with health care providers and other psychologists
  • Advising organizations, institutions, policymakers and the public

Practitioners employ a set of skills learned and honed through hours of classroom and clinical work.

  • Assessment
  • Consultation
  • Evaluation
  • Intervention

Health psychologists work with individuals and groups of people to help them change behaviors that have adverse effects on their physical health. Also, they work with individuals and teams to reduce stress and improve performance, such as athletes, performers and business executives.

They may consult with education administrators to guide school reform, and advise attorneys on selecting a jury. After a traumatic incident, psychologists help survivors recover more quickly. They work with at-risk populations to examine problems such as poverty, homelessness and violence.

Psychologists in private practice work independently and set their own hours. Those employed in hospitals or other clinical settings may work evenings and weekends to meet clients. Those in government, industry and university settings typically work during business hours.

Where do health psychologists work?

Health psychologists are vital contributors in a variety of settings as educators, facilitators as well as direct clinical practice and research.

  • Athletes and sports teams
  • Corporations
  • Government agencies
  • Group intervention sessions
  • Hospitals and primary care programs
  • Law enforcement and corrections
  • Private practice
  • Specialty health care practices, including oncology, pain management, rehabilitation and smoking cessation
  • Universities

Licensing Requirements

Each state sets the requirements to be a licensed health psychologist. While specific requirements may vary, most state psychology boards require a candidate to hold a doctoral degree in psychology. Make sure to confirm requirements with the state in which you intend to practice.

The requirements also include a minimum number of practice hours overseen by an appropriately licensed supervisor. The practice hours are usually completed during or immediately following the doctoral degree program. Experts advise students to start planning their licensure during the second year of their doctoral program to understand the requirements for the states where they would like to practice. Because there are differences in the supervised practice hours, students should structure their supervised hours accordingly.

Education: Doctoral degree in psychology from an accredited institution.

Documentation: Record clinical experiences in internship and postdoctoral stages and coursework.

Testing: Candidates in the U.S. and Canada must pass the EPPP developed by ASPPB. Each state sets passing grades, but it's usually at least 70%. Some states may require a competency-based oral exam or a test of laws and ethics.

Clinical hours: Expect to accrue 2,000 supervised clinical hours during the internship and 2,000 hours during the post-doc phase. The requirements vary jurisdiction; for example, some states require 3,000 hours while others set the standard at 6,000 hours.

Clinical health psychologists can also become board certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology.

Salary and Career Outlook

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data on psychologists, the top 10% of psychologists earn more than $132,070, while the bottom 10% earned less than $45,380. For all psychologists, the median annual income was $80,370.

Employment for psychologists is expected to grow in response to demand for services in schools, social service agencies, mental health agencies and hospitals. As people seek help to deal with aging, trauma and conditions such as autism, psychologists will have new opportunities in clinical, counseling and school psychology positions.

Job openings for all psychologists are expected to grow 14% through 2018, faster than the average rate for all jobs according to the BLS.

Different Careers in Psychology and Mental Health

Psychologist

Psychologists are doctorate-level professionals who study human behavior and therapeutic approaches. A psychologist can specialize in a variety of areas. Some are research-based, while others focus on clinical interaction. Pursue your interests in brain science, environmental, organizational, counseling, forensic or developmental psychology. As a psychologist, you can help individuals with mental and behavioral disorders maintain or improve their well-being.

Applied Behavioral Analysis

Behavior analysts work with clients to develop appropriate treatment plans to decrease unwanted behaviors and emphasize desirable behaviors. While many behavior analysts assist clients with Autism Spectrum Disorder, they also will work as occupational therapy assistants, drug and alcohol counselors and psychological assistants. They typically work with educators, medical professionals and family members to provide treatment for clients.

Social Work

Social workers provide essential services to disadvantaged groups to improve their situations. A master's in social work is required to become a licensed social worker. To work directly with clients in a therapeutic setting, graduates must obtain an additional license, licensed clinical social worker. This level requires hours of supervised clinical work after completion of the master's program. Due to the demand for social workers mentioned abvoe, online classes make it easy for students to juggle demands on their time while completing the online MSW program.

Marriage and Family Therapy

An MFT degree prepares students for a career as a marriage and family therapist offering professional mental health care for couples, families and individuals. In addition to direct counseling, a therapist may also be involved in case management, insurance utilization reviews, community education and support with other healthcare providers. Requirements for the number and types of hours students must accrue will vary by the state.

Mental Health Counseling

A degree in mental health counseling prepares students to become a mental health counselor to meet the mental, emotional and behavioral needs of different populations. Even with an online degree, in-person clinical experiences are a vital component of the course. To practice, students must obtain counseling licensure under the regulations in the state where they live. After sitting for the licensing exam, students can apply for licensure. Then, students can also seek accreditation with professional organizations to reflect their commitment to meeting career standards.

FAQs

How long does it take to become a health psychologist?

To become a licensed clinical health psychologist with a doctoral degree, expect to spend eight to 10 years in school and field experience.

Why study health psychology?

Health psychologists help people improve their mental and physical health by examining underlying behaviors and attitudes. You could work in clinical practice, helping clients deal with mental and physical health issues, or conduct research to better understand people's actions in relation to their health.

How much do health psychologists make?

Average earnings for a clinical psychologist was $80,370 per year in 2019 according to the BLS.

Which degree do you need to become a health psychologist?

You will need to earn a doctoral degree—a Ph.D., PsyD or EdD—to become a health psychologist.

What do you learn in health psychology?

Health psychology curriculum includes courses in psychological theory and practice, stress and coping mechanisms, and promotion of healthy behaviors.

What is community health psychology?

Psychologists study mental and physical illnesses that occur in various communities and seek potential causes for patterns and how they impact an individual's health.

What does health psychology focus on?

The clinical discipline of health psychology focuses on the relationship between psychological health and behavior and the impact on physical wellness in communities and individuals.

Last updated: July 2020