How to become a community psychologist

Community psychology is quickly becoming one of the most dynamic branches of psychology today. The discipline focuses on how people affect and are affected by their environments. More than other types of psychology, community psychology is focused on the big picture. Since community psychology focuses on the social system at large, those with a degree in the field have access to a broad range of career options.

But what degrees or licenses do you need to pursue a career in community psychology? The educational trajectory of someone who wishes to become a community psychologist is outlined here.

Step 1: Bachelor’s Degree

Like any psychology professional, community psychologists must start with their bachelor’s degree. Many psychology programs may be suitable to prepare you for the next step toward becoming a community psychologist, but some programs are more focused than others.

Receiving a bachelor’s specifically tailored to community psychology can provide students with a strong foundation in the field,  yet very few colleges offer such a degree. Pacific Oaks College offers in-person and online programs specifically for community psychology to help students develop their skills and graduate with a firm understanding of the discipline.

Whether or not a student pursues a master’s or doctoral education afterward, a bachelor’s degree in community psychology  can prepare them for a career in education, government, or community development.  It can also empower students to become social workers, digital marketers, counselors, and more.

Step 2: Graduate-level Degree

While a degree in community psychology certainly provides access to an array of related careers, those looking to become a community psychologist are encouraged to further their education by enrolling in a graduate-level degree program.

It’s most common for community psychologists to pursue their Doctorate. However, pPrior to earning a Ph.D. or Psy.D., students may or may notsometimes choose to receive earn a master’s degree in community psychology. A master’s degree qualifies individuals to pursue careers in research and public policy but doesn’t qualify them to be a clinical community psychologist.

Doctoral programs for community psychology generally include internships and include research that provides students with field experience. Through this experience, students can confidently enter a career as a clinical community psychologist, where they will be able to provide mental health services directly.

Step 3: Licensure

To practice as a clinical community psychologist with a doctorate degree, state licensure is required. If you pursue a career in a related field, licensure may not be required. In addition, licensure is not usually required to conduct research as a community psychologist.

While some licensed psychologists seek board certification through the American Association of Professional Psychology (ABPP), it is important to know that the ABPP does not offer certification in community psychology. Clinical community psychologists must receive a doctorate that has been APA approved. Studying at an accredited universityaccredited university can help ensure graduates are well prepared to pass state licensure exams.

Step 4: Careers

Once students have completed their education and earned the license they need, they are ready to start their professional career. To learn more about which possible avenues community psychologists could pursue, continue reading our Voices post 5 Community Psychology Career Paths You Can Explore.

Learn more about Community Psychology

Following these steps, you can feel confident when pursuing a career in community psychology. For more information on this dynamic career path, or to learn more about Pacific Oaks’ degree in community psychology, visit our program page. You can also fill out the information below to request more information.






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What Is Community Psychology?

Group of Ten FriendsThe health of a community as a whole often affects each individual person in that particular community. If several individual community members suffer from a particular mental disorder, social problem, or negative economic status, the overall health of the community will often suffer as a result. These are the types of ideas that community psychologists focus on.

Community psychology is a branch of psychology that involves the study of how individuals relate to their communities and the reciprocal affect of communities on individuals. Researching unpleasant, undesirable, or problem situations in a community allows these psychologists to uncover ways to make improvements.

In general, there are a couple ways to change a community problem:

  • First-order change involves changing the individuals themselves. Treating each individual’s substance abuse problem, for instance.
  • Second-order change involves researching and changing a system or structure, more or less to help prevent problems before they start. In conjunction with the first example, this may involve researching and understanding why so many community members are abusing drugs or alcohol and working toward preventing it.

Community psychology started sometime around the middle of the 20th century. It was around this time that society as a whole was becoming slightly less conservative. This, in turn, made some less common social problems more prominent. Because of this, social psychologists at this time began to become more and more interested in certain social problems and community well-being.

In 1965, nearly 40 psychologists met in Swampscott, Massachusetts. The purpose of the Swampscott Conference was to discuss and consider the possibility of training professionals to focus on the mental and social health of communities. This conference was the beginning of community psychology as we know it today.

What Are the Education Requirements to Become a Community Psychologist?

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In order to start community psychologist careers, individuals will typically need to enroll in a four year psychology degree program. Some universities and colleges may even offer community psychology degrees for those interested in a more focused education.

Although a four year degree may open some career doors, more advanced degrees are usually recommended. After graduating from a four year psychology degree program, those looking to pursue community psychology careers should consider earning Master’s degrees and a Doctorate degree.

Why Do We Need Community Psychology?

At times, the problems of the individuals in a community can quickly become the problems of the community. Problems such as homelessness, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, and AIDS or HIV can be very draining on a community’s resources.

Community psychologists help keep prevent these problems by examining their causes. Without the help of these psychologists, community problems would most likely be much worse.

What Does a Community Psychologist Do?

In short, a community psychologist is a problem solver. These types of professionals are often presented with problems that are affecting certain communities. They will then research the problem and find out why it is a problem, and what the best way to fix it would be.

When solving community problems, community psychologists will often work closely with several important community members. This may include local government officials, law enforcement officers, social service employees, and school officials. During their research, community psychologists will also speak and interact with all types of other community members, from the “Average Joes” to the more down and out sorts.

Where Does a Community Psychologist Work?

A community psychologist might work in several different types of settings. In some cases, who a community psychologist works with may be determined by the type of problem a community faces.

Some may work directly for local governments, such as city councils or town board members. Others might work at local shelters, substance abuse treatment centers, or schools. Research centers might also have a need for community psychologists as well.

What is the Median Salary of a Community Psychologist?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), community psychologists (categorized by the BLS as psychologists, all other) earned a median salary of $101,790 as of May 2019.

Community psychologists often work for local, state, and federal governmental agencies, for community health agencies, in substance abuse treatment hospitals, and in schools, among others, where they earn the following average salaries:

  • Federal government: $94,670
  • State government: $104,280
  • Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals: $73,000
  • Elementary and secondary schools: $106,860

Influential Community Psychologists

  • Paul Watzalwick – along with John Weakland and Richard Fisch – explains first-order change and second-order change in the book Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. In this book, it is also stated that the solutions to certain problems can usually be found by studying the problems themselves.

  • Robert Reiff was elected as the first president of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Community Psychology in 1967. In 1974, the division awarded him for “distinguished contributions to community psychology and community mental health.”

Additional Resources and Further Reading

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What is Community Psychology?

Community psychology is a new discipline within psychology that blends various aspects of psychology, sociology, social work, ecology, and public health into one career field. The primary mission of community psychology is to study how individuals relate to one another in the context of a community and in society as a whole.

There is much emphasis placed on resolving social problems that result in interpersonal conflicts, diminished health and wellness, and an increase in the prevalence of mental health issues among members of a community.

What Does a Community Psychologist Do?

Community psychologists engage in a wide variety of job duties. The type of training received in college, the specific areas of interest of each psychologist, and the needs of the community can heavily dictate the day-to-day tasks that a community psychologist undertakes.

Because their focus is on the health and functioning of the community as a whole, most community psychologists participate in research to develop and implement programs that benefit the community.

For example, in a neighborhood in which there is a high rate of teen drinking, a community psychologist might devise and institute an after-school program to educate young people about the dangers of drinking alcohol.

In addition to creating and carrying out the program, community psychologists are responsible for evaluating the efficacy of the programs and interventions they implement.

Community psychologists must also work to build relationships with community leaders if their work is to be successful. In this regard, community psychologists operate much like a community organizer, contacting local leaders and organizations to work collaboratively on addressing the most pressing issues facing members of the community.

For example, to address the high number of homeless individuals in a community, a community psychologist might bring together representatives from local churches, soup kitchens, law enforcement agencies, and the like, to develop a clear plan to address the problem.

Community psychologists might develop the central goal of providing shelter for the city’s homeless individuals and organize local stakeholders to achieve that goal.

Many community psychologists work with highly specific groups of people in controlled settings such as substance abuse treatment facilities, jails or prisons, homeless shelters, or retirement homes. Job duties in these settings might include devising programs to boost social skills, organizing educational programming to benefit the residents of the community, or working with local stakeholders to ensure a smooth transition from the larger community into the controlled environment, or vice versa.

Still other community psychologists work behind-the-scenes on the policy development side of things. In this setting, community psychologists might work with government agencies to develop health-promotion programs for specific communities, such as at-risk youth, young adults that have been incarcerated, single parents, or the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Policy development requires community psychologists to take part in much research and analysis to better understand the issues at hand and inform the best methods by which to address those issues.

Once they have experience working in the field, some community psychologists choose to enter education and teach at the collegiate level. In this capacity, work might be done with undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral students that are pursuing a career in community psychology.

In addition to normal teaching duties such as leading classes and administering exams, community psychologists in this setting serve as mentors to the next generation of community psychologists. They might provide insight into what students need to do to have a successful career, help students make connections with potential employers, and provide feedback to students that take part in practicum and internship placements.

Why Do We Need Community Psychologists?

Community psychologists are needed if there is to be progress made regarding individual issues that impact the greater community. While disease, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and homelessness impact individuals in unique ways, they nonetheless negatively impact the greater community due to the time, expense, and psychological and physical traumas that they inflict.

With the assistance of community psychologists, groups can get the support they need to address the issues of importance in their community. In this regard, community psychologists are important and necessary, lest communities try to deal with these issues on their own. Without the expertise and support of community psychologists, these problems would almost certainly be even more negatively impactful on the community than they already are.

What to Become a Community Psychologist?

Community Psychologist Degrees

To become a community psychologist, a number of years of formal education are required. Undergraduate studies should focus on psychology or a closely related field, such as social work.

Most undergraduate programs involve 120 credit hours of coursework, with 60 of those credits coming in the major area of study. If students attend school full-time, an undergraduate degree can be obtained in approximately four years.

The next step is to pursue a graduate degree in psychology. Depending on the program, graduate studies might involve as little as 30 credit hours of coursework, or as much as 60 or more credits of coursework.

Graduate programs almost always include internship requirements so students can get practical experience working in the field before they graduate.

As with other disciplines within psychology, the greatest numbers of job opportunities are available to individuals with a doctorate in psychology. There are a variety of doctoral programs related to this field of work, including interdisciplinary programs that combine the study of community psychology with related issues, such as community health, public policy, or social justice. These programs typically last for at least five years, with additional time required for post-doctoral studies.

Necessary Skills/Qualities

Community psychologists have a primary focus in encouraging the well-being of people in their community. They use many different skills which include promoting theory and research to increase individual’s understanding of behavior in the community context.

Some of the important skills and qualities that a community psychologist must have include:

  • Commitment to action and research. Community psychologists must constantly engage in research and opportunity for discovering new ways to promote the well-being of communities throughout the local, regional, national, and international structure.
  • Diversity. Community psychologists often work in a very diverse environment. It is important to understand diversity and have a commitment to multiculturalism.
  • Advocacy. Community psychologists are constantly working to help promote social policy that will enable greater knowledge sharing and help promote community principles that engender greater social justice for the people that psychologists work with in the communities they serve.
  • Empathy. Community psychologists work with people from very diverse backgrounds that experience many emotions, pains, injustices, and other experiences. Having a compassionate and empathic nature will help a community psychologist succeed in this field.

What Does a Community Psychologist Study?

Because community psychology incorporates a wide array of fields, it is important for community psychologists-in-training to have a similarly wide variety of educational experiences.

In undergraduate studies, students undertake courses that introduce core concepts of psychology, human behavior, sociology, and research methods.

Once in graduate school, the focus of studies shifts to more specific topics that are related to providing services to people and communities in need. Graduate studies might entail an examination of specific social justice issues, such as poverty, and its impact on the functioning of individuals and communities.

Since community psychology is such a new field, not many colleges and universities yet have specific graduate programs of study in the field. Instead, aspiring community psychologists can major in a closely related area, such as developmental psychology, social psychology, community development, or public health. However, students can seek to specialize their studies in community psychology during their practicum and internship placements.

At the doctoral level, students can further narrow their focus to issues specifically related to community psychology. Here, time spent is much more on research and methodologies, as opposed to learning practical skills, as is the case during graduate school.

Ph.D. candidates might instead pose an important question related to community psychology and use the bulk of their time in a doctoral program conducting research, analyzing data, and presenting and defending their findings in their dissertation.

Where Does a Community Psychologist Work?

As discussed above, the type of job that a community psychologist undertakes depends heavily on their education, area of interest, and community need, among other factors. Likewise, these factors will influence their employment setting. But because community psychology is such a wide-ranging field, there are many, many potential places of employment.

Some community psychologists work for local, state, or federal government agencies. Research centers are another primary place of employment. Other community psychologists work for non-profit organizations, such as charities, shelters, or advocacy groups. Some religious groups employ community psychologists as well.

Some school systems employ community psychologists, particularly in cities in which there is a high incidence of physical or mental health problems, social justice issues, inequality, or other sociocultural or economic problems. There are also a good number of community psychologists that work at colleges or universities.

What is the Career Outlook for Community Psychologists?

Because community psychology is a relatively new – and highly specialized – field of work, there is little specific information available on the career outlook. With that being said, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that all psychology jobs will experience average growth at a 6% annual rate through 2031.

One might predict that the growth for community psychology jobs might be higher than average. This is due to two factors. First, community psychology integrates a number of different disciplines into one, including social work, advocacy, research, and education, to name a few. Because of this, a community psychologist could be qualified to take on a wide variety of jobs, thereby improving their overall job outlook.

A second factor that could promote rapid growth in this field is the focus on resolving community issues in the social, cultural, and economic spheres. With increased attention being paid to social justice issues, multiculturalism, respect for diversity, and the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, many significant problems exist that community psychologists are well equipped to address.

As communities continue to pay attention to these and other issues, the desire and need to find specialists in this field may drive up the demand for community psychologists.

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