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In this lesson, you’ll get a taste for some of the major subfields of psychology.

Check your knowledge with a quiz that asks you to match up scenarios with the field that would likely correspond to them.

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Areas of Study

Carlos is applying to graduate school and plans to work as a psychologist after graduating. He’ll need to learn about the subfields of psychology.

This will help him have a better idea of what role he would play in the world if he chooses a particular area to study. He asks his advisor, Laila, for more information to help him make a decision. This lesson follows Carlos as he learns more about the different subfields of psychology and weighs out which one fits him the best.


Laila tells Carlos right off the bat that there are more subfields than they’ll have time to cover in their first conversation, but that she’ll focus on the major ones for now.She also gives him the caveat that with any description of an area of psychology, she’ll be generalizing about each, as though each psychologist fits a certain box or mold. In reality, she says, there are sometimes overlapping interests of each subfield. Today, she says she’ll be giving him more of a characterization of what is most commonly associated with each.

‘Got it!’ Carlos says, eager to move on to hearing about each of the areas he is considering studying.

Counseling Psychology

‘Are there any subfields you already know?’ asks Laila. Carlos replies that he knows about counseling psychology. Many people in his life are seeing counselors. They help individuals adjust to the circumstances of their life, from dealing with divorce to grieving a loved one and many other challenges.

Laila confirms that this is where counseling psychologists place their focus. They meet with individuals and families and support them to address their concerns using a variety of techniques that may help them to cope with life’s challenges.

Clinical Psychology

Carlos mentions he also has a few classmates who now work in the subfield of clinical psychology. They describe seeing individuals in a counseling situation, so he wonders if there is a difference.Laila explains that clinical psychologists may do many of the same activities as counseling psychologists. However, clinical psychology involves treating behavioral, emotional and mental disorders, including those that present significant challenges to those dealing with them.Laila gives the example of a person diagnosed with severe depression who may find great difficulty performing basic activities of life, such as grocery shopping or working at a job.

This person may benefit from the expertise of a clinical psychologist who is familiar with working with these types of challenges. The psychologist may also work with less severe situations as well, similar to a counseling psychologist.

School Psychology

As he talks with Laila, Carlos remembers that when he was transitioning into high school, he got into a fight that led to some time talking with the school psychologist. He later also saw the school psychologist to be tested for dyslexia. He wonders if this area is its own subfield.Laila confirms that school psychology involves working with young people in educational environments.

These professionals may provide a variety of services, from addressing emotional and behavioral topics to testing for learning challenges. For instance, the school psychologist had worked with Carlos and his family to come up with a plan for getting him support to deal with his frustrations and to stay on track with his classes.

Social Psychology

Carlos also wonders, ‘Does everyone who studies psychology counsel people directly?’ Laila tells him that not everyone takes the path of acting in a one-on-one capacity. Many psychologists work in academic environments and as researchers.One subfield to consider that includes this type of research is social psychology. Social psychology involves studying the interactions between people and how this affects us.

For instance, the school psychologist who worked with Carlos when he was in a fight at school might have used social psychology research related to childhood fights to better understand this phenomenon.In addition to learning about conflict, this field may also look at any other type of human relationship, from romantic partnerships to strangers to colleagues who work together at a job.

Experimental Psychology

Carlos sees the value in social psychology but also wonders if everything about human behavior can be understood through looking at relationships. Laila explains that a different approach to research, experimental psychology, uses other types of studies. Just like it sounds, this subfield involves studying the responses of humans and animals to various conditions.For example, those in experimental psychology might conduct experiments that compare how different people attempt to memorize a series of numbers and how well they are able to do this task given other factors, like how much sleep they’ve had or whether they were told the task is difficult or not.

Developmental Psychology

Carlos mentions to Laila that he has a cousin who is a psychologist.

She works in an assisted living community. As he describes his cousin’s focus on individuals who are adjusting to life with more physical limitations due to age, Laila suggests that his cousin’s subfield might be classified as developmental psychology. This area is directed toward studying psychological changes during different phases of life.Developmental psychologists may also focus on other stages, like the time in life when we’re children or teenagers. As their advising session ends, Carlos thanks Laila and lets her know that he’ll start exploring university programs for the different subfields, including those that they did not have time to discuss.

Lesson Summary

Here’s a recap of the different major subfields in psychology.

First, we looked at counseling psychology, which is focused on helping individuals adjust to the circumstances of their life. Closely related to counseling psychology is clinical psychology, which involves treating behavioral, emotional and mental disorders, often with those who face significant challenges in everyday life.Experimental psychology places attention on studying the responses of humans and animals to various conditions, while social psychology examines the relationships we have with one another, studying the interactions between people, and how this affects us.Carlos was familiar with school psychology, which is working with young people in educational environments to address their emotional, behavioral and education needs. Those in the subfield of developmental psychology may also work with children or any other stage of life.

This subfield is about studying psychological changes during different phases of life.

Learning Outcomes

Strong knowledge of each area of the lesson could enable you to:

  • Describe the difference between counseling and clinical psychology
  • Contrast experimental psychology and social psychology
  • Discuss what it might be like to work in the areas of school psychology and developmental psychology

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