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Careers in the Health and Helping Professions

By Lynn Friedman, Ph.D.
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 18, 2004; 2:41 PM

You think that a career in the health and helping professions might be the one for you but the question is, which one? What are the options and how do you decide on which option is the best fit? It all depends on what you like to do. Ask most people why they are considering a career in counseling or psychology and many say that they want to "help" people. But, what do they mean by that? What kind of people do they want to help? And, with what kinds of difficulties do they want to help them? While some psychologists and counselors help people, not all psychological and counseling training is devoted toward this sort of endeavor. Others do research and/or teach in universities. What kinds of options might you consider?

Listening to Other People's Problems

Imagine that you like hearing about people's problems and helping them find solutions. There are many non-health related careers that you could consider. For example, attorneys and accountants help people but aren't involved on the medical side. But maybe you like learning about problems that people have getting along in the world, such as family problems or problems with self-esteem. Or, maybe you are interested in helping very troubled people such as those with a debilitating mental illness. If this is the case, then a career in the health and helping professions is right for you. Now, what sorts of academic preparatory steps should you take?

Counseling or Psychotherapy

If your goal is counseling or psychotherapy, there are many options. If you want to devote two years in graduate school, you can consider a master's in social work, counseling, psychiatric nursing or even a master's in pastoral care. Although each of these professions have doctorates associated with them, in most states, you can get your license with a master's degree.

Doctorates and Medical Doctors

What if you want extensive training in providing psychotherapy? What if you'd like to devote more than the requisite two years required for a master's degree? You have several options. You can earn a master's degree and enter a certificate program. This way, you can complete advanced training in a special interest area. Or, you can pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology or counseling psychology. You could pursue an Ed.D. or a Ph.D. in education. Alternatively, you can go to medical school, become a physician and then complete a residency in psychiatry.

Careers in Psychological Research

What if you don't want to help individuals or couples to solve their problems directly? What if you prefer to help from a distance by learning about the nature of people's difficulties? For example, you may prefer to investigate psychological difficulties rather than treat people with eating disorders or schizophrenia.

If this is the case, then you might consider a doctorate in health psychology, behavioral medicine, or public health. On a related vein, you may want to consider a career in cognitive psychology if you are interested in studying how people think and remember.

Health Care

If your goal is to work in health care, but not necessarily to do psychotherapy, you might want to consider a degree in occupational therapy, exercise physiology, physical therapy or even becoming a non-psychiatric physician such as a family doctor or a pediatrician. Alternatively, you might consider dentistry.

Helping but Not Health Care

If you'd like to help people, but not as a psychotherapist, consider a degree in higher education, student affairs, or teaching.

Still Uncertain?

Are you more lost now than you were when you began reading this article? If you haven't had any previous exposure to these professional options, how can you make a selection?

You need to gain exposure. Go see the health careers advisor at your university. And talk about your options.

Interview several people from any of these professions that interest you. Ask them what they do all day, what they like most about their jobs and what they like least about them. Ask them how they got into their line of work.

If you are still in school, become involved in both clinical work and research. Go to your campus volunteer center, psychiatric hospital, rape crisis center or hotline, where you can receive useful paraprofessional training. Gain research experience by approaching the faculty in your psychology and/or biology departments and ask them how to become involved in research. You can often do this for academic credit. Otherwise, seek a full or part-time job as a research assistant.

Lynn Friedman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland. She specializes in worklife and organizational consultation and psychotherapy.

Editor's note: This article by Lynn Friedman, Ph.D., was acquired by washingtonpost.com in June, 2003.

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