In her six years working at a homeless services nonprofit for young adults, Lauren Cross heard stories of domestic violence, child abuse and trafficking. She knew she could do more to support victims than just listen.

“That’s really what pushed me to go back to graduate school,” says Cross, 31. “I liked my job, but I felt like I wanted to do more than what I was doing.”

She enrolled in the doctor of psychology professional psychology program at George Washington University, where she just finished her pre-doctoral internship, the last requirement before officially getting her degree. Her next step? A yearlong postdoc fellowship in the trauma disorders unit at Baltimore’s Sheppard Pratt Health System.

“Trauma of any kind can impact every aspect of a person’s life,” she says. “Providing therapeutic services can be life-changing in helping a person readjust and be able to live life in the way they want.”

Mass shootings and other tragic events in recent years have thrown a spotlight on the need for mental health services, especially in dealing with trauma. While there are no statistics illustrating that those kinds of events are leading more people to get graduate degrees in psychology, it is a field that’s showing strong employment growth.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of psychologists is projected to grow by 14 percent from 2016 to 2026 — double the growth rate for all occupations over the same time period. The BLS expects demand for clinical and counseling psychologists will increase as more people look to them for help, and that candidates with doctoral or education specialist degrees will have the best job opportunities in those kinds of positions.

The first step for prospective students is choosing the degree that matches their interests and career goals. At first, Cross thought a research-heavy Ph.D. was her only option, and she wasn’t thrilled by that.

“I know that research is really important and it’s great that people are interested in that, but it’s not an area of interest for me,” she says.

She thought she would have to “suffer through” years of doing research, but then discovered the option of a Psy.D. doctoral degree. At about four to six years in length, Psy.D. programs are shorter than Ph.D. programs, which tend to take five to seven years and emphasize clinical training over research.

“It’s … more focused on working with patients, which is what I wanted to do,” Cross says.

If you want to contribute to the general knowledge of how trauma affects people, “a clinical psychology Ph.D. is for sure the way to go,” says Nathaniel Herr, associate professor of psychology at American University. “But if you’re interested in the practitioner side, there are other paths that are more direct.”

In addition to the Psy.D., those include options like master’s degrees in social work (Howard, Gallaudet and Catholic universities have programs locally) or master’s degrees in clinical mental health counseling (check out area programs at Trinity Washington, Gallaudet and George Washington universities).

Counseling only requires a master’s degree and state licensure for independent practice, as opposed to the doctorate required for psychologists to practice independently. It’s a faster route for some people interested in working with trauma victims or others needing mental health services, but it’s also a different approach to treatment.

Psychologists use more testing and assessments to diagnose patients, while counselors “look at the world through a wellness and whole-person perspective,” says Lynn Linde, senior director of the Center for Counseling Practice, Policy and Research at the American Counseling Association. Psychologists would also be more likely to work with patients with serious mental illnesses, while a counselor would deal more often with more general therapy issues.

Linde likes the job prospects for students who complete counseling graduate degrees. “Nothing will ever take the place of that one-on-one or small-group intimate relationship developed through the counseling process,” she says. “Counselor jobs aren’t likely to be outsourced by AI or any other technology coming down the pike.”

In the past couple years, Katherine Marshall Woods, adjunct professor in George Washington University’s professional psychology program, began including more information about trauma and threat assessment in classes she teaches. That includes instruction on how to assess whether a person is at risk of endangering him- or herself or others on a large scale.

“I always have a group of students who come to my office after [class] and say, ‘How can I learn more about this?’ ”

Whether a student decides to go for a master’s or doctorate degree, getting some relevant prior experience in the field is a good idea. That could include working at a suicide hotline or volunteering at a community services center.

“It’s a big commitment to go into a Ph.D. program for six years of your life,” Herr says. “If you haven’t had a taste of what it’s like to talk to someone who’s in crisis in a more formal setting, you might get in and then realize it’s not for you.”

Students who study trauma will likely find lots of options for putting their degree to use.

“You could do crisis work; you could work abroad,” says Marshall Woods. “Students … find there’s not just one path they can take to work with individuals with trauma. They can certainly have a very varied career.”

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