What are the most popular areas in Psychology?

Psychology is a diverse field with many areas of specialization. As such, there is no simple answer to the question of what a psychologist does. The answer inevitably depends on the type of psychologist you’re talking about.

Some psychologists treat patients who struggle with mental illness, some work at colleges and universities where they teach and carry out scientific research, and still others work in schools and private businesses providing consultation and assessment.

If you’ve ever considered pursing an education in psychology, then you’ve no doubt spent some time trying to figure out which specific area of the field would be best for you. If you always saw yourself as a clinician working with patients in a private practice, then you should certainly opt for Clinical Psychology. On the other hand, if you’d prefer to work with children and at risk-teens, then perhaps Developmental and Child Psychology would be most appropriate. And if you’re interested in human biology, physiology, and the brain, then you’d do right to steer toward either Cognitive Psychology or Physiological Psychology/Biopsychology.

Aside from simply thinking about what topics interest you most, however, another important thing to consider is which areas of psychology are gaining and losing popularity. After all, changes in the popularity of a field could reflect changes in society’s demand for a specific set of skills, which would obviously translate into greater or lesser chances of finding a job following graduation.

Fortunately, the entire field of psychology is expected to grow about 12% through 2021. That’s according to a 2011 report by the American Psychological Association, citing official predictions from the U.S. Department of Labor.

In this post, I’ll address the matter of which areas of psychology are growing (and which are shrinking) by taking a look at some data on the number of people that graduate with doctoral degrees in each specific sub-field.

Note that the sub-field classifications I use here come directly from the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. All data I will present were obtained from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

Figure 1 below shows the number of people who graduated with a doctoral degree in each area of psychology in 2013 (the most recent year for which data are available).


From the figure above, we can certainly understand why most people tend to think of psychologists as people who conduct therapy and work to treat symptoms of disorders such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. Approximately 40% of all doctoral degrees in psychology go to clinical psychologists, making this by far the most popular area of specialization in the field.

But how has the field of psychology changed over time, and which areas have been gaining (and losing) popularity? Figure 2 shows changes in the number of doctoral graduates from each area of psychology between 2003 and 2013.

Note that you can toggle through the various sub-fields by clicking on the left and right arrows under “Filter by sub-field.” Doing so reveals that most areas of psychology have grown in the last 11 years, albeit some much more than others.

In fact, 16 of the 20 sub-fields graduated more doctoral students in 2013 than in 2003. The only areas that did not were Geropsychology, Family Psychology, Developmental and Child Psychology, and Physiological Psychology/Psychobiology.

To compare sub-fields and determine which areas are growing most rapidly, I standardized the number of doctoral graduates from each year by converting the raw numbers to z-scores and then fit each set of standardized scores to separate linear models.

The results are shown below in Figure 3:

Although this figure seems busy and complicated, it’s really rather straightforward and simple. And again, you can toggle through the various sub-fields by clicking on the left and right arrows under “Filter by sub-field.”

Each line in Figure 3 represents a different sub-field, and the steepness (i.e., slope) of each line reflects each sub-field’s rate of growth from 2003 to 2013. Lines with steep positive slopes (i.e., lines that start at the bottom left area of the figure and extend into the top right area of the figure) depict areas of psychology that are growing in terms of number of doctoral graduates, whereas lines with steep negative slopes (i.e., lines that start at the top left area of the figure and extend downward into the bottom right area of the figure) depict areas of psychology that are shrinking in terms of number of doctoral graduates.

All 20 sub-fields are ranked below according to rate of growth, with slope (s) and percent change in number of doctoral graduates from 2003 to 2013 indicated in parentheses:

  1. Clinical Psychology (s = 0.93; change from 2003 = 45.22%)
  2. Psychology, General (s = 0.90; change from 2003 = 15.65%)
  3. Forensic Psychology (s = 0.87; change from 2003 = 4,200.00%)
  4. Community Psychology (s = 0.86; change from 2006 = 1,066.67%*)
  5. Industrial and Organizational Psychology (s = 0.85; change from 2003 = 158.73%)
  6. School Psychology (s = 0.85; change from 2003 = 38.77%)
  7. Experimental Psychology (s = 0.80; change from 2003 = 51.56%)
  8. Counseling Psychology (s = 0.79; change from 2003 = 65.57%)
  9. Clinical Child Psychology (s = 0.79; change from 2003 = 433.33%)
  10. Educational Psychology (s = 0.76; change from 2003 = 10.95%)
  11. Psychometrics and Quantitative Psychology (s = 0.71; change from 2005 = 550.00%*)
  12. Environmental Psychology (s = 0.70; change from 2006 = 25.00%*)
  13. Cognitive Psychology and Psycholinguistics (s = 0.27; change from 2003 = 85.71%)
  14. Social Psychology (s = 0.16; change from 2003 = 23.26%)
  15. Health Psychology (s = 0.05; change from 2003 = 120.00%)
  16. Geropsychology (s = -0.02; change from 2006 = -100.00%*)
  17. Psychology, Other (s = -0.08; change from 2003 = 38.06%)
  18. Family Psychology (s = -0.19; change from 2005 = -88.89%*)
  19. Developmental and Child Psychology (s = -0.39; change from 2003 = -16.00%)
  20. Physiological Psychology/Psychobiology (s = -0.76; change from 2003 = -79.17%)

*There were no doctoral graduates in 2003 for these sub-fields. Therefore, the numbers reflect percent change from the next earliest year for which number of doctoral graduates was greater than zero.

It’s interesting to note that Geropsychology and Psychobiology have not shown much growth since 2003. In fact, Pschobiology has shrunk considerably.

Although the decrease in number of doctoral graduates from Psychobiology programs might be partly due to increased competition from graduate neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience programs, the lack of growth in these two areas is nonetheless surprising. Indeed, due to an aging population and increased interest in the brain, there will likely be increased demand for Geropsychologists and Neuropsychologists/Psychobiologists in coming years.

Nonetheless, Clinical Psychology, Forensic Psychology, Community Psychology, Industrial/Organizational Psychology, and School Psychology have experienced tremendous growth in the last decade, with a median 159% increase in number of doctoral graduates.

Now the only question for these areas of psychology is whether these high rates of growth are a good thing or a bad thing. Specifically, does growth in a particular sub-field reflect increased career opportunities or merely increased competition among graduates for the limited number of jobs that are out there?

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