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Top 10 Most Lucrative Psychology Careers & Sub-fields

Meeting w dataWhether or not you found yourself looking for an area of psychology that suits you, you’re researching potential career paths, or you’re warning your child about the terrible mistake they’re about to make, you must be curious to know who makes the most money in psychology. Is it the neuroscientist? The sports psychology expert? The clinical practitioner? The psychology professor? The answer is clear, but it may surprise you. Read on to find out what it takes to be a well-paid psychologist, and find out how much they make.

The List Below

Before we begin the countdown, however, a few points should be made about this list. There are tons of websites that have information on careers in psychology, but I find many of them misleading. First, some put careers like psychiatry on their lists, which I don’t think is warranted. Since psychiatrists are were required to complete a medical degree (and do a 4-6 years of residency), it should not be considered in the same area as psychology, even if the actual job itself has a lot of overlap with clinical psychology. In other words, I don’t consider psychiatry to be a sub-field of psychology. But if it was… sure, it would be #1 on this list.

Also, the salary of some of these sub-fields of psychology aren’t just based on aptitude and experience, but education. For example, you could still become a high-paying human resources manager with just a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a lot of experience at a company, but you’ll never be a high-paid clinical psychologist without advanced degrees and further certification. So keep in mind that this is a list of averages, not outliers. They are not reflecting the entry-level salary, but with several years of experience.

Lastly, I am largely using information obtained from American sources, and therefore I am using US dollars as currency. But the main point about this is not to get a sense about the true salary of these jobs (there is a massive range of salaries, so don’t just rely on the average salaries I present here). Rather, the point of showing the salaries is to show the relative differences between sub-fields.

Top 10 Most Lucrative Careers in Psychology

10) Health Psychology

  • Average Salary: Around $50,000 or $60,000 (varies greatly by specialization)
  • Top Earners: Specialized experts with PhD’s make $100,000+
  • Education: 6-8 (8 for community psychology)

Health psychology is all about helping people change their attitudes and behaviors about their health. This includes diet, eating habits, smoking, substance abuse, and even exercise. The term “health psychologist” isn’t specific enough to reliably report their salary, but most of the salaries appear quite low until you start getting into the various specializations. For example, in this category, I include substance abuse counselors, as well as occupational and community health psychologists.

Substance abuse counselors help people suffering from addictions, and make anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000 on average (salary reports vary greatly). Occupational health psychologists help those in the workplace setting, and command a salary of around $94,000 (as you will see later in the list, some of the highest salaries are from business settings). Community health psychologists may work for local governments, city councils, substance abuse centers, schools, local shelters, etc. and they try to solve problems that might involve public safety or work closely with community leaders. Community psychologists with PhD’s make around $86,000.

9) Sport Psychology

  • Average Salary: $55,000 USD
  • Top Earners: $100,000+
  • Education: 6-8 years

Sport psychology is a great choice to do with just a master’s degree (but you’ll make a lot more with a PhD). For sports lovers who want to practice psychology without the hardships of earning a doctorate, this is a very fulfilling career. Some sports psychologists work with athletes or teams to improve performance. Others conduct research on topics such as motivation and concentration to help contribute to our body of knowledge in sport psychology. If you make a name for yourself by helping enough teams or individuals win tournaments, you may land yourself a job with a famous athlete or a national team. Naturally, this is where the real money is, but of course it’s extremely competitive.

8) School Psychology

  • Average Salary: $72,000
  • Top Earners: The top 25% make around $89,000 (+other ways to supplement income)
  • Education: 6-8 years

This is a hard sub-field to place on this list, because salary information is all over the place, and very country-specific. For example, one American source says the average salary is $58,000 while another says $90,000 (again, this is not the range, but claims of the mean). In Canada, the average salary after a few years of experience would indeed be closer to $90,000, but would also cap at a certain point (at least in the public school system) unless there was further education (i.e., a PhD). In Japan, school psychology is barely practiced at all, and virtually no one even understands the concept of a school psychology. Therefore, the majority of the information on school psychology comes from America.

School psychologists make students learn better, and make teachers educate better. They may conduct cognitive assessments on children, work with the families of a student, talk to school administrators about larger issues, help teachers work with “difficult classes,” etc. They are like in-house consultants for the education system.

The #1 complaint I hear from school psychologists around the world is that there’s much more paperwork than they expected. And if I am to gleam anything from the anecdotes of school psychologists who have posted their opinions online, it’s that many people in the US are regretting getting into school psychology. This is despite the fact that US News ranks it as the #1 best social service job. And in fact, other nationals seem to have different experiences, from the levels of respect they feel as school psychologists, to the way they operate, such as by working in cohesive teams with other professionals (e.g., social workers).

There are also positive things about school psychology irrespective of location. First, you can be a practicing school psychologist with only a master’s degree, and the salary is quite good. In fact, this is one of the few things on this list that I would say you would be fine stopping at a master’s degree. School psychologists generally work regular 8-hour days (depending on the school), and get the summer off, when school is not in session, which means only 10 months out of the year. Furthermore, many school psychologists can supplement their income by running workshops during the summer or other off-time periods.

7) Correctional & Forensic Psychology

  • Average Salary for Correctional Psychologist: Around $71,000 or $80,000
  • Average Salary for Forensic Psychologist: $60,000
  • Top earners in forensic/correctional psychology: Around $110,000
  • Education: 6-8 years

If you like CSI and want to solve crimes by catching killers… well then, forensic psychology might not be for you! Sure, depending on where you work, you might be doing some of the same stuff you see on TV (such as interviewing suspects), but most forensic psychologists are just psychologists who utilize their expertise in the context of the legal system. It’s much more common for forensic psychologists to deal with things like custody disputes, performing visitation risk assessments or evaluating someone’s mental health so it can be used to help make a legal decisions. In other words, forensic psychologists are basically clinical psychologists who work in the criminal justice system, which is why many of them actually have degrees in clinical psychology.

Correctional psychologists try to assess (and possibly diagnose) and treat people in the prison system, which may include the families of prisoners. When it comes to the salaries of correctional psychologists, the range varies greatly based on location. For example, the average salary made in Mississippi is apparently $89,000 (17% higher than the country’s average) compared to $55,000 in Hawaii (27% lower than average). But from pretty much all of the sources I have seen, correctional psychologists get paid more than forensic psychologists. The reason for this is because correctional psychologists work in prisons, which can obviously be dangerous, depending on the inmates themselves.

6) Experimental Psychology & Academia

  • Average Salary: Around $70,000 or $76,000
  • Top earners in experimental psychology: Researchers with PhD’s make $116,000
  • Top earners in academia: Full psychology professors make $109,000
  • Education: 6-8 years (6 years for employment at a research center; 8 to become a professor) + 4 to 7 years for post-doctorate fellowship and/or tenure at a university (during which time you would essentially be employed on a long probationary period)

I know many people would not want me to put experimental psychology and academia in the same category. However, the description of “experimental psychologist” is considerably vague (i.e., one could study anything from social psychology to consumer psychology), I want to put it in the same category as a professor, who also does a lot of research. So let’s first talk about professors.

In the past few years there have been many articles talking about how professors have one of the best jobs, but there is always a lot of backlash from disgruntled professors now, claiming that their hours, pay, and respect, are not nearly as good as others think. People look at 5 hours of class-time per week and think it’s barely working, but obviously many more hours go into the preparation for classes, as well as creating and marking exams. Furthermore, in order to progress through your career, you have to oversee the work of others graduate students, attend and present research findings in outside meetings and conferences, and volunteer your time to join committees and peer-review others’ articles.

The holy grail of academia is tenure (e.g., full-time employment with incredible job security), but if you fail to reach tenure at one institution, you will be blacklisted from all others (hence the phrase “publish or perish”).  The silver lining is that academics generally choose when their responsibilities can be done. For example, they decide their own office hours and generally how/when their labs are run. Also, many professors write books (textbooks or otherwise) which can be a major boost to their income, especially when they manage to come out with a new edition every few years, changing only the mistakes and writing up new examples. There’s also the research grants that professors can receive, which (I have seem for myself) can reach up to more than a million dollars, depending on what you’re studying and how well you can write up a grant request.

As for experimental psychologists, you’ll definitely want a PhD if you want a high salary. Both experimental psychology and academia are great career paths for those who have something they want and love to research. But if you don’t love the research you are doing, or there’s not one topic that you’re particularly fascinated by, I wouldn’t recommend these paths for you.

5) Developmental Psychology

  • Average Salary: Around $71,000 or $87,000
  • Top Earners: Research administrators and those working in hospitals make around $110,000
  • Education: 6-8 years

Developmental psychologists deal with psychology throughout the lifespan. They know a little bit of everything in psychology, from childhood to advanced age, without going into the more specialized areas such as brain science or sport psychology.

For this reason, I consider the growing sub-field of geropsychology part of this category. Such psychologists generally work in universities or healthcare facilities, researching and helping people improve the quality of their lives. The high-paying opportunities come after earning a PhD, but no matter if you stop at a master’s level, the job prospects are looking very good, because of the aging population. In the decades ahead, the demand for geropsychology will continue to grow.

3~tied) Human Factors / Engineering Psychology

  • Average Salary: $80,000
  • Top earners: Consultants with PhD’s can make around $179,000
  • Education: 6-8 years

Unlike most of the categories on this list, the average salary from every source I have seen has been right around $80,000.

This is one of the least-known sub-fields of psychology. To understand this area, let’s first distinguish it from business psychology. Think of a business psychologist as someone who might improve a work environment by changing the behaviour of employees. A human factors or engineering psychologist would basically do the opposite – improve the behaviour of employees by altering the environment.

For example, a human factors psychologist might deal with ergonomics, such as by making their desk the right height for an individual, or using a chair with comfortable lumbar support. These are just two small examples of how they would try to make the most optimal work station possible. Other examples of what a specialist might do in this career is someone who would make changes to industrial machinery or even the cockpit of a plane, by having certain buttons configured in a user-friendly way, and making the displays eye-catching without being distracting. This sub-field is kind of like applied cognitive psychology.

3~tied) Clinical & Counseling Psychology

  • Average Salary: Around $73,000 or $87,000
  • Top earners: Private practice/self-employed clinical psychologists with many clients can make around $250,000
  • Education: 8 years (+ around 2 years of residency)

This is a very difficult sub-field to place on this list. It’s the same for most high-paying psychology sub-fields, but for clinical psychology, I feel particularly compelled to say “it depends!” Private practice or self-employed clinical psychologists generally get paid significantly more than those who work in a hospital setting. In general, you may double your salary from when you start (about $50,000) after a decade of work experience. Whatever the case, clinical psychologists generally start in a mental-health institution, and after they have enough experience (and especially after making a name for themselves as an expert in a particular area) they make the choice of doing private practice. Depending on the location, self-employed or private practice clinical psychologists can make huge sums of money. But naturally, the most lucrative areas in which to work are the most competitive.

Clinical psychologists are trained to diagnose and treat mental disorders. For this reason, I include counseling psychology in this category. Counseling psychologists generally deal with the less severe cases of mental illness, but the situation is similar in terms of salary (though clinical psychologists are more employable). In addition, I also put military psychology in this category, because it deals with the mental health and stability of people in the military, as well as their family. One source puts the median annual salary of military psychologists at $120,000, but this is surely unique to the USA. Note that while you can become a military psychologist with only a master’s degree, it requires that you have military experience as well.

2) Neuropsychology

  • Average Salary: $90,000
  • Top earners: Top 10% makes around $143,000
  • Education: 8 years

The brain sciences are not for the people who don’t like to study or research. If you want a high-paying job in neuroscience, you will have to learn a lot in school, read tons of books, and watch a lot of documentaries. It’s extremely difficult, but incredibly fascinating. Luckily for brain scientists, the money is good, especially if you specialize. Many neuroscientists perform cognitive tests and run brain scans in clinical settings, while others may do experimental research in pharmaceutical labs.

The ones in clinical settings are called clinical neuropsychologists, and they generally require a supervised clinical practicum/internship. With the aging population, there is a lot of job growth in this sub-field. But all though the starting wages and average salary are quite high, the earning potential for clinical neuropsychologists does not seem to be as high as you would expect; but the hours are usually good for these professionals, so at least there is a great deal of work-life balance. If you do not work in a clinical setting, you may be part of a research center or a university (see #5 for more).

1) Industrial-Organizational Psychology

  • Average Salary: $98,000
  • Top earners: Top 10% makes around $225,000 (a minority of adept consultants with top-tier clients make up to $350,000)
  • Education: 6-8 years

No matter what you call it – business psychology, occupational psychology, work psychology, etc. – you’re dealing with psychology in the context of business and the workplace. This means there’s a lot of data analysis involved, so it’s not the job for everyone. There are two main ways people can leverage their knowledge of business psychology in the workforce. One way is to become a consultant, such as an industrial-organizational psychologist (IOP) who is brought in to increase worker productivity or screen applicants for a position. The other is to join a human resources department in a company, who might want to climb the corporate ladder from recruiting the best people to creating the HR strategy for the company. And then there are also HR consultants, which are similar to IOP’s.

The real reason they get paid so much is, to put it simply, because the companies/clients they work for can afford it. It’s the same for other types of psychology (for example, a national football team will be able to pay much more than a local one), but in general, this is the most lucrative sub-field of psychology. In fact, if you look up any list of top-paying jobs (i.e., not limited to psychology) you will usually find industrial-organizational psychologist near the top. It’s not unheard of to see them pulling in the salary of doctors after a decade or two of experience and a proven track record. Of course, this assumes you have a doctorate degree, because they get paid much more than their less-educated counterparts.

So here’s a free tip for those of you who are considering this sub-field for the money: Graduate from a business or management department, not a psychology department. According to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the difference between earning potential for a professor who graduated from a business department rather than a psychology department is about $100,000. When it came to IOP’s with doctorates, the range of top earners was slightly above $200,000 for those who graduated from psychology departments, whereas it almost reached $350,000 for those who graduated from business departments – a difference of almost $150,000.

The best part about entering this sub-field? It’s one of the fastest-growing career paths on the market. In other words, you can get paid a great salary, and there are new opportunities popping up every day for these professionals.

The Bottom Line

If you want to make good money in psychology, your best bet is with a PhD. And as you can see, some of the most well-paying opportunities involve healthcare, but the big winner is in the business world. On average, the most well-paid psychologists are those who work in big corporations, usually as consultants.

Of course, you have to do what makes you happy to wake up in the morning – something you’re excited to do every day. Because if the only reason you’re considering a high-paying job is because money will bring you happiness, you may as well just do a job that makes you happy to begin with; because at least that way you’re guaranteed to afford it.




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