Psychology Careers for High School Students of Color

Psychology Education & Careers Guide for High School Students of Color
Guidebook overview

The high school student of color and others. It describes various careers in psychology and explains what you can do now to prepare for those careers.

This guidebook should help you find the answers to questions such as:

  • What is psychology?
  • What is a psychologist?
  • Can I be a psychologist?
  • Are there psychologists of color?
  • Where are psychologists trained?
  • Am I prepared for the college/university experience?
  • How can I prepare for a career in psychology?

In developing a vision of your future career, we strongly recommend that you seek the advice and guidance of your high school guidance counselor, your parent(s), a teacher you trust, a college/university admissions adviser or your church leader.

As a high school student of color, you must understand and believe that you can be responsible for decisions that affect your future.

What is psychology?

The Webster’s Tenth New Collegiate Dictionary (Merriam-Webster, 1993) defines psychology as:

1. The science of mind and behavior

2. a) The mental or behavioral characteristics of an individual or group

    b) The study of mind and behavior in relation to a particular field of knowledge or activity

A  psychologist is a person who has completed doctoral training in one of the many psychology subfields (clinical, experimental, counseling, social, community, developmental, industrial/organizational, quantitative/statistics, etc.).

For many people, psychology is the "profession that understands or cures the mentally ill." Perhaps the word "therapist" comes to mind, or you may have an image of someone lying on a couch while the therapist asks questions such as: "Tell me more about that?" or "How do you feel about that?" These images, while legitimate, represent only two specialty areas of psychology - counseling psychology and psychotherapy.

Did you know psychologists design toys for children, or that they seek to understand how we see objects in color? Were you aware that psychologists are involved in crafting congressional legislation, defining the significance of bilingual education, developing ways to cope with stress, designing solutions to reduce substance abuse, exploring the complex functioning of the brain, discovering patterns of human thought and a multitude of other issues? Some psychologists are referred to as “social or behavioral scientists.” Scientific psychologists study behaviors through use of research methods including experiments. At the end of this brochure, you will find descriptions of some of the many subfields of psychology.

Why major in psychology?

Psychology has become one of the most popular and fastest growing majors in the college/university curriculum. In 1992–1993, according to the U.S. Department of Education, universities awarded 66,728 bachelor’s degrees in psychology. And about 16 percent of these degrees were awarded to students of color. Psychology now ranks as the second most popular undergraduate major, just under business administration.

If you obtain an Associate's (or Community College) Degree in psychology, you will be qualified to assume a variety of paraprofessional roles in mental health and human services agencies.

A Bachelor's Degree in psychology can qualify you to either assist a psychologist in a mental health or correctional center, or become a research assistant, or a psychology high school teacher. An advanced degree, such as a master’s degree in psychology, can prepare you for professional jobs in state hospitals, mental health centers, research settings or for teaching at a community/junior college.

A Doctoral Degree (e.g., PhD, EdD, PsyD) in psychology requires at least four or five years of full-time study after college graduation. With a doctoral degree, you can teach at colleges and universities and independently conduct research. In addition, if you acquire from your state a license to practice psychology, then you also can have a private practice, work in a psychiatric unit in a public or private hospital, or direct a mental health clinic or program.

Contributions of psychologists of color

Psychologists of color are found in every special interest area (or subfield) in psychology, where they often make significant contributions. For example:

  • Some psychologists of color are interested in the effectiveness of psychology’s traditional tools for determining what kind of psychological or behavioral problem a person has and what is the best treatment for that problem. These psychologists seek to develop tools and techniques that are tailored to the cultural behaviors and worldviews of persons of color. Examples of psychologists engaged in this kind of research are: Stanley Sue, an Asian-American psychologist who directs the National Research Center on Asian American Mental Health in Los Angeles; Lillian Comas-Diaz, a Latina psychologist who edits a journal on multicultural mental health; and Nancy Boyd-Franklin, an African-American psychologist who is on the faculty of Rutgers University where she is an expert on group and family therapy with African-Americans. For more information, see the section: Should I prepare for a psychology education and career while I’m in high school?

  • Psychologists of color are some of the leading researchers on the development of identity among persons of color. For example, African-American psychologist William Cross identified the major stages African-Americans go through in developing a positive Black identity. African-American psychologists Thomas Parham and Janet Helms have developed a test on racial identity attitudes. Martha Bernal, a Latina psychologist, has studied ethnic identity in Mexican-American children, and Richard Suinn, an Asian-American psychologist, has studied identity among Asians living in the United States and in other countries. Dr. Suinn has been elected to serve as the 1999 President of the American Psychological Association.

  • Tony Strickland, an African-American psychologist, does path-breaking research on ethnic group differences in the effects of psychoactive drugs on behavior and on the brain.

  • Psychologists of color often seek to solve real problems in communities of color. For example, African-American psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie P. Clark (1953) conducted research on identity and self-esteem of Black children. This research was cited in the 1954 Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Topeka Board of Education) that banned laws requiring racial segregation in our nation’s schools. Later, in response to the disproportionately large numbers of children of color in special education classes, African-American psychologist Asa Hilliard, III conducted research that led California to ban placement in such classes based solely on an IQ score. American Indian psychologist Joseph Trimble studied substance abuse and has developed programs for preventing alcohol abuse among American Indian youth.

Despite such major contributions, the numbers of psychologists of color remain small — they are only about 5 percent to 6 percent of all psychologists. And so, the number of research projects by or about people of color is somewhat small. As the nation’s demographics shift toward a “majority of color” by the middle of the 21st century, it is important that a lot more persons of color choose a career in psychology.

Should I prepare for a psychology education and career while I'm in high school?

High school is a good time to start taking preliminary steps toward your future career goals. Planning ahead does not mean that you must choose your psychology career path by the time you complete the 11th grade: It does mean you should begin to create a vision of your future.

Even if you have decided that attending college/university is what you want to do after graduating from high school, you may not be sure what subject to pursue. Don’t worry. Many high school and first year college students are not sure of their careers. Just remember: The better prepared you are and the more planning you do, the more able you will be to succeed in whatever career choice you make. As a student of color, with a rich cultural and ethnic background, you will find that opportunities will arise as a result of your pride, determination and hard work.

In the brochure Is psychology the major for you? (Woods and Wilkinson, 1987), the authors describe a three-step process that will help you to envision and explore your future options. This is how it works:

  1. Exploration

    This stage requires you to gather information. Talk to guidance counselors and teachers about what college study and a career in psychology are like. What are the college course requirements? Contact a professional association, such as the American Psychological Association’s Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs, the National Association of Black Psychologists, the National Hispanic Psychological Association, the Asian American Psychological Association, or the Society of Indian Psychologists. Generally, people like to be asked questions about what they do and will be happy to speak with you.

  2. Crystallization

    This stage requires you to think about your interests. You may think you automatically know what issues in psychology interest you most. However, if you take time to think about your interests, you will become more focused and better able to recognize the subfields of psychology that most interest you.

  3. Clarification

    After you have a good understanding of specific degree requirements, how long it will take to obtain your career objectives, what the coursework is like, and whether or not the major matches your interests, you have arrived at the clarification stage. At this point you are ready to make an informed decision about choosing psychology as a major.

Additional resources on careers in psychology are provided in the “Resources” section of this brochure.

How else can I prepare to study psychology in college?

The general courses/classwork you complete while in high school can help prepare you for college by helping you to recognize your academic strengths and weaknesses and by giving you skills you need for college studies. Your high school courses also may enable you to get better overall scores on PSAT, SAT or ACT tests. These are among the most important tests needed for admission to a college or university, so take the time to prepare for these tests.

Other things you can do to become ready to study psychology in college while in high school are:

  • Establish good study habits.

  • Whenever possible, take “academic” courses such as mathematics/statistics, English/writing, social studies and the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.). These courses will prepare you for the self-motivation you’ll need to tackle the increased workload you may experience at college.

Keep in mind that college psychology courses often require:

  • An understanding of scientific methodology.

  • Some aptitude and ability in mathematics/statistics.

  • An ability to organize ideas effectively in writing.

If you need to improve any of these abilities, get tutorial assistance from your school counselor or from other agencies and institutions in your community.

  • Whenever possible, take college preparatory classes and advanced placement classes.

  • Plan to work with school counselors, teachers, and your parents to ensure that you are strongly prepared for college by identifying subject areas in which you excel, as well as those areas that give you difficulty.

  • Keep in mind that you will have a greater potential for success at the college- or university-training level if you develop your knowledge and skills in science, math and English while in high school.

Continuously learn about science and human behavior. Try to do at least one or two of the following while in high school:

  • Speak out. Let family, friends, school teachers and counselors know of your interest. They may know of contacts or ways you can gain exposure to or experience with psychologists of color.

  • Participate in science competitions.

  • Contact the college or university psychology departments in your area and ask about upcoming public events that you might attend.

  • Attend lectures on human behavior and mental health at churches and organizations in your community.

  • Attend psychology conventions and lectures that are open to the public at the college or university in your local area.

  • Volunteer at a mental health clinic, community center, hospital or shelter.

  • Write school reports on issues and problems addressed by different special interest areas or subfields in psychology (i.e., community, developmental, experimental, school psychology, etc.).

Gaining admission to a college depends a lot on your high school activities, academic and others. But, few things will permanently doom your future.

If you have made mistakes, look for the solutions and use the knowledge from your errors to help you in the future.

How do I choose the college to study psychology in?

The key to deciding what type of college environment would best suit your needs is to gather information about many colleges. You should be prepared to ask your parents, teachers, guidance counselors, church leaders and other adult friends questions about different colleges or universities. As a student of color, it may be important for you to consider a college’s educational philosophy, its ethnic/cultural student and faculty composition, the likelihood of success for completing college training, and how well your personal life experiences and interests are a “good” match with the mission and values of a particular college/university.

There are several types of “postsecondary” educational institutions (colleges or universities). Here are a few examples of those types:

Community or Junior Colleges
These can be close to home, offer day and night classes, and allow for the completion of a two-year associate’s degree.

Four-Year Colleges
These institutions offer a bachelor’s degree and often place high value on the quality of classroom teaching.

Research University
These institutions offer four-year bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees (e.g., master’s and doctorate degrees). College courses might involve class sizes of 100 or 200 or 300 students. Often, faculty are heavily involved in research activities.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI), and Tribal Colleges
These can be either two-year community or junior colleges or 4-year undergraduate institutions or research universities that attract ethnic-specific students because of the culturally focused teaching philosophy in their curricula and services.

College preparation timeline for the high school years

Throughout your high school experience:

1. Keep a file of all certificates, awards or other written forms of recognition that you receive throughout your high school training.

2. Take advantage of every opportunity to examine potential career options. Talk with your family, teachers, counselors or adult friends about your interests.

3. Take courses in math, English and the sciences. Don’t shy away from the more advanced courses; your goal must be to get exposure to the problem-solving process.

Beginning of your sophomore year:

1. Do some preliminary investigating about possible colleges/universities to which you might apply.

2. Register and take the PSAT or similar practice exam.

3. Make an appointment with your counselor to ensure that you are well on your way to graduating from high school and discuss possible college/university options.

Your junior year:

1. Make a list of possible colleges and universities that you might consider attending. Keep in mind issues such as location, academic course offerings, student and faculty demographics, size, institutional mission and costs.

2. Take all required college admission tests.

Your senior year:

1. Obtain college applications well in advance of deadlines.

2. Take all required tests again, even if you are not sure you want to go directly to college.

3. Request letters of recommendation from teachers, employers, church leaders or other adult professionals familiar with your study skills and abilities.

4. Write a draft of a personal statement that is a required part of some college applications. Have your counselor, teacher, parent and other adults who care about you review and comment on the draft. Then re-write your personal statement. Be sure your statement talks about your vision of your future, your academic interests, and your personal strengths.

5. If you will need financial assistance, request and complete any financial aid applications that may be required by the schools you are applying to.

Subfields in Psychology

The American Psychological Association (APA), the largest organization of American psychologists, is affiliated with nearly 50 special interest groups called "divisions." These divisions represent the major subfields in psychology. To help you understand the variety of careers in psychology, the following are brief descriptions of just some of the subfields in psychology.

1. Clinical Psychologists

The clinical psychologist is interested in the diagnosis, causes, and treatment of mental disorders (such as depression, personality disorders, or schizophrenia). Clinical psychologists may function as professors, researchers, consultants, administrators or supervisors. They may work in clinics, community mental health centers, hospitals and/or in private practice.

2. Cognitive and Psycholinguistic Psychologists

These psychologists are research oriented and often study mental processes: thinking, knowing, feeling, learning, etc. They believe that mental processes can be examined scientifically through the conduct of experiments. Thus, cognitive psychologists are especially interested in the ways in which people perceive, interpret and store information, while psycholinguists are interested in the development, structure and meaning of language. These psychologists are usually found in academic settings, research laboratories or in technical and information-processing agencies.

3. Community Psychologists

Community psychologists focus on ordinary behavior in settings such as the home, the community and the workplace. These psychologists are interested in human behavior and the reciprocal relationships between individuals and their community. Community psychologists conduct research on such relationships and often use their research findings in designing and implementing community-based programs and interventions. Community psychologists can be found working in community health centers, universities, independent research facilities and/or in social service organizations.

4. Counseling Psychologists

Counseling psychologists, like clinical psychologists, are interested in the treatment of mental disorders. The main difference between the two is that counseling psychologists are concerned primarily with "normal" problems of adjustment or challenge, such as choosing a career, experiencing academic stress, or coping with marital problems. Counseling psychologists may also conduct research and may seek to find answers to questions such as: Are there sex differences in the way people cope with difficulties? What is the psychological impact of exposure to a major disaster? These psychologists often work in academic settings, community mental health centers, hospitals or private clinics.

5. Developmental Psychologists

These psychologists study how people change over time and the developmental stages across the human lifespan (i.e., birth to death). These psychologists are interested in such topics as emotional development, language acquisition, common traits among age groups, aging, and gender differences among infants. Developmental psychologists are often employed in academic settings, clinics, hospitals and public school systems and as day care center directors.

6. Educational and School Psychologists

Educational psychologists study the processes of learning, remembering, and thinking and then apply that knowledge to educational procedures, test development and curriculum design. School psychologists are interested in the emotional or learning problems of students. Both educational and school psychologists are often employed by universities and school districts. Also, educational psychologists work at companies that design and analyze student tests, and school psychologists may work in a private practice.

7. Environmental Psychologists

The environmental psychologist is interested in the relationship between human behavior and physical environments. These environments range from homes and offices to urban areas and regions. Environmental psychology is primarily research oriented and can be used in designing urban areas or work spaces that promote positive human behavior. Environmental psychologists may work for government or private environmental agencies or other agencies and corporations.

8. Experimental Psychologists

Experimental psychologists investigate such basic processes as learning, memory, sensation, perception, cognition, motivation and emotion. They might also research the physiological processes underlying such behaviors as eating, reading and problem solving. Experimental psychologists may be employed at research institutions, businesses, industries, government and academic settings.

9. Geropsychologists

Geropsychologists are psychologists that utilize sociology, biology, psychology and other disciplines to study the factors associated with adult development and aging. Geropsychologists find employment in academic settings, research centers, industry, health care organizations, mental health clinics and agencies serving the elderly. Others are engaged in private practice as consultants on the design and evaluation of programs for the elderly.

10. Health Psychologists

Health psychologists are interested in the promotion and maintenance of good health as well as the prevention and treatment of illness. They investigate issues concerning why people do not engage in healthful practices and then design programs to assist individuals. They may design programs to help people stop smoking, lose weight, manage stress, prevent cavities or stay physically fit. Medical centers, hospitals, health maintenance organizations, rehabilitation centers, public health agencies, and private practices are possible employment settings for health psychologists.

11. Industrial/Organizational Psychologists

Industrial/organizational psychologists are concerned with the relationship between people and organizational structures. Their main focus is on the study of people in the workforce. Such psychologists focus on organizational change, workers' productivity and job satisfaction, consumer behavior, and the interaction between humans and machines. Industrial/organizational psychologists work in government, industries, businesses, and in colleges and universities.

12. Neuropsychologists and Psychobiologists

Neuropsychologists and psychobiologists investigate the relationship between physical (body) systems and behavior. These psychologists may study chemical and physical changes that occur in the body when one experiences different emotions. Or they may study the effect of specific biochemical mechanisms in the brain to behavior, and the relation of brain structure to function. Neuropsychologists may also diagnose and treat disorders related to the central nervous system. These psychologists work in academic settings where they conduct research and train others. They might also work in hospitals and clinics.

13. Psychometric and Quantitative Psychologists

Psychometric and quantitative psychologists are concerned with mathematical or numerical methods and techniques used in psychology. These psychologists are well trained in mathematics, statistics and computer programming. They often utilize these skills to revise old (or create new) intelligence, personality, and aptitude tests. They are also qualified to interpret experimental results and design new techniques for analyzing information. Psychometricians and quantitative psychologists are mainly employed by universities and colleges, testing companies, private research firms and government agencies.

14. Social Psychologists

Social psychologists study how people interact with one another and how they are affected by their social environments. These psychologists will often study individuals as well as groups, observable behaviors and private thoughts. Social psychologists can be found in academic settings, advertising agencies, corporations, hospitals and survey (polling) firms.

  • American Psychological Association. (1996). Psychology/Careers for the Twenty-First Century. [Brochure]. Washington, D.C.: Author

  • Bernal, M. E. (1993). Theoretical conceptualizations, definitions and measurement of ethnic identity. In M. E. Bernal & P. C. Martinelli (Eds.), Mexican American identity (pp. 195–204). Encino, CA: Floricanto Press.

  • Clark, K. B., & M. K. (1953). Desegregation: An appraisal of the evidence. Journal of Social Issues, 9(14), 2-76.

  • Helms, J. E. (Ed.) (1990). Black and White racial identity: Theory, research and practice (Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies, No. 129.). New York, NY: Greenwood Press.

  • Hilliard, A. G. III. (1976). Alternatives to IQ testing: An approach to the identification of “gifted” minority children. Final report to the California State Department of Education, Special Education Support Unit. ERIC Clearinghouse on Early Childhood Education, ED 146-009.

  • Hilliard, A. G. III. (1995). Testing African American students. Chicago: Third World Press.

  • Holliday, B. G., Suinn, R., et al. (1997). Visions and transformations: The final report. (Commission on Ethnic Minority Recruitment, Retention and Training in psychology). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

  • Strickland, Tony. (1995). Comparison of lithium ratio between African-American and Caucasian bipolar patients. Biological Psychiatry, 37(5), 325-330.

  • Strickland, Tony. (1991). Psychopharmacologic considerations in the treatment of Black American populations. Psychopharmacology Bulletin, 27(4), 441-448.

  • Suinn, Richard M. (1995). The Suinn-Lew Asian Self-Identity Acculturation Scale: Cross-cultural information. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 23(3), 139-148.

  • Suinn, Richard M. (1992). Reflections on minority developments: An Asian American perspective. Professional Psychology Research and Practice, 23(1), 14-17.

  • Trimble, J. (1990). Substance abuse among Native American youth. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology®, 58(4), 408-415.

  • Trimble, J. (1992). A structural equation model of factors related to substance abuse among American Indian adolescents. Drugs and Society, 6(3-4), 253-268.

  • Woods, P. J. Wilkinson, C. S. (1987). Is psychology the major for you? Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

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  • American Psychological Association
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  • Psychology/Careers in the Twenty-First Century: Scientific

  • How To Manage Your Career in Psychology