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Clinical psychologists: Everything you need to know

what is a clinical psychologist
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So what does a clinical psychologist do? What are their jobscope and roles at work like?

The clinical psychologist is a trained scientist who applies theoretical knowledge and tools to understand the current psychological state of a person, provide diagnosis, and prescribe non-pharmacological treatment in order to improve their wellbeing. 

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What does a clinical psychologist do?

A clinical psychologist is a mental health provider who specializes in abnormal psychology. This is namely the study of mental disorders that ranges from depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, sexual disorders, to personality disorders. This occurs across many settings and age groups, although some may opt to specialize in certain mental health disorders. 

Children. A clinician who works mainly with children provides psychological and educational testing, alongside therapy with their parents or families. They utilize knowledge on developmental growth and areas of functioning of children to determine normal attainment of development. Then, they provide their recommendations or interventions for the child’s home, school, or community. This could take place in a children’s hospital, home for children, or educational settings such as local or international schools.  

Rehabilitation. The psychologist who works in a rehabilitative setting for adults will likely provide neuropsychological testing that requires familiarity with the function and neural map of the brain. Intervention is likely to take place alongside other specialties such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. This takes place in rehabilitation centers or hospitals. 

Psychiatry. Others may opt to work alongside psychiatrists at a psychiatry clinic or ward to help those struggling with disabling mental health disorders (schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or trauma). This requires familiarity with the understanding of how such disorders form. It also includes identifying what maintains the problem, and how to apply current standards of treatment for their benefits. This is likely to occur at psychiatric rehabilitative centers or hospitals. 

However, there are such mental health professionals who may opt to teach or conduct research instead. As their training emphasizes the application of structured research methods, they are fully qualified to pursue a career in research or teaching, if they so prefer. The training of the clinical psychologist emphasizes a scientist-practitioner model. This means that both scientific research and therapy delivery are addressed, some more skewed to either one or another. You can find the profession in universities, research labs, or teaching hospitals. 

What is a clinical psychologist?

In one of the earliest descriptions of a clinical psychologist in research literature, David Mitchell, PhD, describes in 1919 that, “…the clinical branch is concerned altogether with the mental functioning of one person. The aim is to understand his ability, his emotions, his social reactions, to find out the existence of any special abilities or disabilities, and on the basis of all this information to make recommendations for his adaptation to a present or to a proposed environment.”

Next, “The clinician is a professional person, interested in the application of scientific principles or in the diagnosis and treatment of cases.”

Also, “…the clinical psychologist as a professional practitioner may be likened to the physician who considers the symptoms of his patient and prescribes methods of treatment.”

Put together, the clinical psychologist is a trained scientist who applies theoretical knowledge and tools to understand the current psychological state of a person, provide diagnosis, and prescribe non-pharmacological treatment for the purpose of solving a problem or dilemma. 

What are clinical psychologists like?

They are generally professionals who enjoy meeting and talking to people. Clinical psychologists exude genuine warmth and concern regarding the wellbeing of others. Most are deeply empathetic to people’s plights or difficulties. They are more tolerant of mistakes made by others due to their exposure to the “worst of life” as experienced by people they work with. When emergencies occur, you can rely on their composure to trust that they can rationally and methodically decide on a plan to work things out. They are highly intelligent and the ones in your group who always asks, “why?”. 

Are clinical psychologists doctors?

Although your clinical psychologist could have a doctoral degree, they are not medical doctors. Hence, these mental health providers refrain from prescribing medication (or psychopharmacology). Although there are some regulatory changes in the United States presently allowing for changes, it remains at an infancy stage and is still perceived as risky. 

The workplace of a clinical psychologist

At work, the clinical psychologist is efficient and thrives in a fast-paced environment. They are adept at managing relationships with clients/patients, their families, and liaising with professionals from other specialties. The importance of accuracy in diagnosis is understood, but they go further and beyond. They help to explain complex problems to their clients/patients in words that they can understand and relate to. These mental health professionals value lifelong learning, and continuously strives to improve their theoretical knowledge. This is for the bettering of lives of people they work with. They are individuals with high integrity who role models trust, fairness, and goodness for others. 

Roles and Responsibilities

  1. Identifying problems (psychological, behavioral, emotional, etc)
  2. Conducting assessments to understand abilities, strengths, and behavior
  3. Scoring and interpreting assessments 
  4. Formulating a hypothesis of the problem
  5. Conceptualizing the problem
  6. Providing a diagnosis 
  7. Suggesting recommendations based on the diagnosis
  8. Reporting results to referral sources, families or other specialties/professions
  9. Developing a treatment plan in the form of therapy or programs
  10. Identifying goals for treatment
  11. Monitor progress of treatment
  12. Evaluate effectiveness of treatment
  13. Keeping immaculate paperwork 
  14. Receiving continuous supervision for clinical practice

What do you need to become a clinical psychologist?

To be a clinical psychologist, some require a doctoral degree in the form of a PhD (research-oriented) or PsyD (clinical work-oriented) in clinical psychology. This depends on the country you are working in.  

The typical route for an education in this manner has a few steps. It requires the completion of an undergraduate degree in psychology (4 years), followed by a PhD or PsyD (4 to 6 years). The training typically consists of theoretical knowledge into human cognition, behavior, emotions, mental health disorders, psychotherapy approaches, research metho dology and statistics. A dissertation research and 1 to 2 years of clinical placements at various mental health settings will follow.  

In other countries, you may be able to practice as a clinical psychologist upon conferment of a Master’s degree in clinical psychology. The training will include one year of theoretical learning followed by one year of research and clinical placements. 


Clinical psychologists receive a median salary of approximately USD$82K each year. In the US, some states may earn the mental health provider a better pay. In terms of career progression, good growth is estimated over the next few years. For those holding a doctoral degree, you have a chance for better job prospects!

As a little nugget, let’s look at the profession from the viewpoint of history. 

The history of clinical psychology

In 1982, a 25-year-old young man trained in experimental psychology joined the University of Pennsylvania to begin his tenure. He was one of the charter members when the American Psychological Association (APA) was founded. He presented two papers during its very first annual meeting that same year. Shortly, in 896, he founded the world’s first psychological clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. This man was Lightner Witmer, the founder of clinical psychology. 

Among some of his contributions included: the establishment of the field named clinical psychology devoted to helping people, the development of the first curriculum in clinical psychology, and the founding of the first clinical psychology journal known as The Psychological Clinic. Traces of his influence in the field is seen through how scientific and experimental psychology is represented in any respectable clinical psychology departments. 

Despite what we know of how the field works today (explained later), this was the man who bridged the gap between the psychological knowledge on cognition, behavior, and emotions to the deliverance of strategies and methods to help people. This occurred during a time when academics were mostly secluded in ivory towers. Hats off to him! 

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