Saturday, August 1, 2009

What Do Psychologists Do?

Some people, when they think of psychology, think of a counselor talking and listening to someone with problems or feeding a pellet to a rat after it has run a maze correctly or teaching university classes. Others, more rarely, think of that old dinosaur, psychoanalysis. Although these things are part of psychology (the psychoanalysis part is dying a well-deserved death) they are only a very minor part.

Anyone in college knows that psychologists are teachers and researchers in the academic world. Another group of psychologists work in settings like hospitals and mental health clinics. In the latest survey only twenty-nine percent of psychologists were employed in stereotypical jobs such as research, counseling, testing or education. Another twenty-one percent worked in the health care system. Less known are those psychologists who work in other settings such as government, businesses, industry, nonprofit organizations.

Some psychologists work with other psychologists, some work with non-psychological scientists, and a few work independently. Collaboration with other professions helps psychologists contribute to almost every part of our society: politics, military, engineering, computer science, legal, medicine, schools, business and even economics. One psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, even received a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.

To give you an idea of the wide range of psychological specialities, here is a partial listing of the kinds of psychologists out there. If you are interested in finding out more about any of these specialities, just click on the link.

Cognitive and perceptual psychologists
Developmental psychologists
Educational psychologists
Engineering psychologists
Evolutionary psychologists
Experimental psychologists
Forensic psychologists
Health psychologists
Industrial/organizational psychologists
Sport psychologists
Neuropsychologists (and Behavioral Neuropsychologist)
Clinical Neuropsychologist
Quantitative and measurement psychologists
Rehabilitation psychologists
Social psychologists

It might seem strange that a psychologist would work with the federal government. However, most people don’t know the US Congress has several psychologists. The first was in 1993 when Ted Strickland from Ohio was elected to the House of Representatives. Today, psychologists are politically active not only at the federal level but also in many state governments.

Psychologists also act as consultants to government agencies. Psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, who is a cognitive psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, is a consultant for two federal agencies. He is an advisor to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Committee. In his free time he chairs the Risk Communication Advisory Committee with the Food & Drug Administration. He is committed to using psychology to help government make policies and procedures more useable and efficient. Four years ago he explained to Congress how they could improve their communication with the American public.

You may have heard of Sport Psychology. This relatively new field of psychology began in Germany in 1920 with the founding of a laboratory devoted to sport psychology. Since then sport psychology has developed its own journals and training programs around the world. As you would expect, sport psychologists spend a lot of their time helping coaches and athletes with performance enhancement. They also try to help younger athletes discover ways in which physical activity can improve personal development. Sport psychologists are often former athletes, some of whom participated professionally in their sport. Dr. Roland Carlstedt who used to be a professional tennis player, coach and consultant is now the head of The American Board of Sport Psychology. His goal is to put sport psychology on a more scientific footing by minimizing guesswork and opinions about how to make athletes perform better.

Have you ever heard of a Violent Crime Resource Specialist? This is Dr. Kristen Beyer’s job description. She is a psychologist who works for the FBI conducting research on child abductors who murder and those who are serial murderers. She also is a counselor for the FBI employee-assistance program. Working alongside trained agents, Dr. Beyer helps them with any significant behavioral aspects of a case and can often provide them with valuable input based on her psychological expertise.

Some people will complete a doctoral degree in a specific field and then, instead of practicing their profession, will write about it. Some journalists who comment on legal issues, medical questions, or science problems have Ph.D.’s but really enjoy educating the public about their specialty area. One such person is psychologist, Laura Helmuth, Ph.D. who decided to look at psychology from the outside rather than the inside. She became a science writer specializing in the many areas that psychology touches. She now writes articles from a psychological perspective for the prestigious Science magazine.

Who would have thought a psychologist would be working for Microsoft? Paul ElRif, Ph.D. is one of a several psychologists at Microsoft who call themselves "usability engineers." These psychologists work with software developers to help make software easier to use. Dr. ElRIf does this by collecting information on what end users need and how they behave when using certain software. His data is collected through the use of customer roundtables and focus groups. The human element provided by Dr. ElRif helps the software developers make a product less mysterious and more accessible to those of us who use software (are there any people left who don’t use it?)

What do you suppose a psychologist does for a police department. Police psychology gained prominence years ago with the Los Angeles Police Department. Today there is a department within LAPD called the Behavioral Science Services unit. This department, headed by psychologist Dr. Debra Glasser, not only provides counseling for personnel and their families, but is involved in life and death matters that face law enforcement on a daily basis. Her team of psychologists are present during hostage negotiations, SWAT call-outs and are members of the Critical Incident Response Team. They also engage in ongoing research projects related to law enforcement.

Technology and education seem made for each other. Almost every school has computers. Students take notes on laptops, get class assignments through the Internet, and stay in touch with classmates using their cell phones. Psychology is making contributions in the field of technology and education. Dr. Marita Franzke used to work in the usability lab of U.S. West before they were taken over by Qwest but now is with Pearson Knowledge Technologies. Her research deals with helping people to learn better through the use of computers.

We all know that NASA is about space exploration: spacecraft, robots, rockets and all that high tech stuff. What about the human element? When we watch important space events, we see lots of people sitting behind consoles anxiously awaiting some technical outcome. When it occurs there is a lot of high fives, laughing and breaking out of the bubbly. Psychologist Robert McCann works at the NASA-Ames Research Center but is not one of those people at the console. His expertise in human information processing has allowed him to work on projects such as how pilots can best use a Head-Up Display in a cockpit. These "HUDs" project a picture of the instrument panel onto a glass panel mounted on the inside of the windshield. Consequently, a pilot does not have to look down and away from what is happening outside in order to see and read the aircraft instrumentation. Originally many difficulties had to be worked out because of human perception and how it works. Dr. McCann and his colleagues were able to use the psychology of perception to overcome these problems. Does he like his job? He loves it and believes that "unusual career paths can end up in very rewarding directions!"

So what do psychologists do? The is answer is just about anything that involves humans. Think of something humans do, whether mundane or critical and the likelihood is that a psychologist is lurking close by.

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