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Mental health disorders are one of the most significant impairments to quality of life worldwide. It’s estimated that over one in ten people around the world live with a mental health disorder, with over 264 million suffering from depression. And, unfortunately, these might be significant underestimates.
On top of this, common psychological patterns and biases may make it harder to solve important global problems. For example, people often care more about people who are geographically closer to them, even if there are people in much greater need further away. This can lead people to direct resources towards potentially lower-priority cause areas.
The field of psychology contains an array of tools that might help us to understand and address these issues, both in directly improving the mental health of many people, as well as in assisting people in making better decisions to more effectively improve the world.
However, there can be a lot of variance in the amount of good you can achieve in psychology – some roles are considerably more promising than others. So, to help the most people possible in this career path, you will need to be strategic about which roles you take, which problems you focus on, as well as which techniques you deploy.
This path profile is the result of an initial investigation.
Table of Contents
What do we mean by psychology?
By careers in psychology, we’re referring to careers that focus on studying the human mind and behavior, including how people think, feel, and act in various situations, as well as understanding and addressing their various psychological needs. The careers we discuss require a significant educational background (such as an undergraduate or master’s degree) in psychology or an adjacent subject.
This profile will explore three of the main paths within psychology: research, clinical psychology, and workplace psychology. For each of these paths, we’ll suggest how people within them might be able to best increase the amount of impact they can have.
Psychology researchers use scientific methods to generate insights into psychologically-relevant phenomena like emotions, behaviors, and decisions. Research careers might take place in academia, industry, or research-focused nonprofits, and entry into these careers will require (at minimum) a degree in psychology or a related subject. However, roles that allow one to lead research projects, rather than just assist in research, will often require a master’s or PhD. This is particularly true in academia.
How promising are psychology research careers?
Research careers can carry decent potential for what we call leverage – that is, the ability to influence decisions that affect large numbers of people. For instance, a research role could have high leverage by testing widely-deployed treatment methods. Because of this, psychological research may be one of the more psychology career tracks, at least in terms of how many people you might be able to positively affect with your work.
However, the amount of impact you’re able to have as a researcher will be highly dependent on the research topics you’re able to pursue, as much research does not optimize for how to best improve the world at scale.
On top of this, different domains in which one can conduct psychological research come with unique challenges for focusing on impact. In academia, for example, you are often incentivized to publish research papers in prestigious journals, chasing popular research topics that aren’t necessarily helping to solve important problems. And, in industry, you may be limited to working on research projects that are designed to generate profit rather than achieve the most social benefit.
Whatever sector you choose to work in, it’s important that you can find ways to either overcome these incentives that might impede impact or otherwise find areas where these incentives align with promising, impactful research.
Indeed, some psychological topics and questions could produce insights that lead to helping people on a large scale. Here are a couple of tentative areas of research where this scalable impact might be most achievable:
Help organizations that offer promising interventions to prove and improve the evidence base and cost-effectiveness of their interventions, both in mental health and other areas, as well as helping them use psychological research to make evidence-based judgements more generally.
Understand how to help people make better decisions to solve important problems. For example, how might we help people become more sensitive to important differences in scope when making large-scale decisions (like policymaking)? Or how might we help society expand its moral awareness to give greater consideration to people in different countries and cultures to us (and perhaps even even non-human animals and future generations)?
Research into more foundational questions, such as working out how we might best measure psychological wellbeing. This could help us decide how to prioritize different types of wellbeing-improvement policies and interventions.
Overall, we’re uncertain about just how promising psychological research careers could be, especially compared to some of the other paths we’ve covered. However, they’re plausibly one of the more promising tracks within psychology, and the right role could allow you to do a lot of good – but it’s vital to be able to choose the right topic and find a role that gives you sufficient autonomy to research it, otherwise you might be very limited in your capacity for producing impactful work.
Resources on psychological research
Introduction to Psychological Research Methods – an online course from edX.
Effective Altruism Psychology Lab’s research agenda.
Life Improvement Science’s reading list and research priorities – Life Improvement Science offers publications and research suggestions for high-impact behavioral science.
The Psychology of Ineffective Altruism – An academic paper exploring how and why people often choose to favor supporting less effective causes and charities over more effective ones.
Effective Thesis’s recommended research directions (filter by ‘psychology and cognitive sciences’). You can also reach out to them for advice on research, as well as connections to students, supervisors, or funding and research opportunities.
Clinical psychologists work directly with patients to deliver therapy interventions. Typically, clinical psychologists work with individuals, but they also often work with couples, families, and groups.
Relative to other kinds of therapists, clinical psychologists tend to have a more advanced educational background in psychology – often a master’s or doctorate is necessary – meaning clinical psychologists tend to conduct practice more deeply rooted in psychological research than other therapists. Because of this, they may often treat people with particularly acute mental health conditions that require greater expertise or specialization.
How promising are clinical psychology careers?
There is strong evidence that a number of therapy methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy, can provide significant benefits to people suffering from a range of mental health problems. There is also some evidence for the efficacy of pharmaceuticals such as antidepressants and antipsychotics, although psychologists are generally unable to prescribe medication (absent further training or certifications, depending on the country).
Because clinical psychologists often work directly with individuals, the total amount of impact you can have may be limited by the number of people you can personally treat. This means you may be able to help even more people in other paths, both within and outside psychology careers. Even within clinical psychology, it’s a great idea to think about meaningful ways to improve the amount of help you can provide. Here are a few ideas for how you might do this:
Making psychological interventions accessible to large numbers of people in other ways, for example by training lay people in delivering effective therapy techniques or founding or growing nonprofits that deliver mental health services at scale.
Working with people who would have no other access to psychological help. This could include offering your services pro-bono. There’s a particular lack of access to psychological care in low- and middle-income countries, who spend less than $2 per person annually on mental health treatment, compared to over $50 on average in high-income countries, so if you live in a less wealthy country, your services may be in greater need.
Find ways to increase the number of patients you treat, such as by facilitating group therapy interventions. Some research suggests group therapy can be comparably effective to individual therapy (and is used by the promising non-profit StrongMinds), and may allow you to reach more people. Teletherapy is another option that may also allow you to reduce time costs.
Even with these strategies, our sense is that there are other paths that offer even better psychology career options for large-scale counterfactual impact – for instance via research – and the typical impact of a clinical psychologist is fairly modest. However, it’s worth pointing out that it’s possible to conduct research alongside clinical work, for those who are strongly invested in maintaining clinical psychological practice. Clinical experience may also be advantageous or necessary for certain kinds of research positions, so it might be worth spending time in clinical practice even if you ultimately want to pursue research full-time.
Resources on clinical psychology
This academic paper paper gives a number of helpful strategies for increasing your impact as a clinical psychologist. Pages 9-15 are relevant for clinical psychology, but there’s advice for other areas of psychology, too.
The Gradcafe psychology forums contain lots of active discussion on psychology graduate programs – though mostly in the UK and North America.
Workplace psychology (also known as occupational psychology, industrial organizational psychology, or business psychology) is a discipline within psychology that addresses psychology-related needs for organizations like for-profit companies, governments, and others.
Workplace psychologists help with many facets of a workplace, including identifying the mental health and motivational needs of employees, creating psychometric tests and measures to improve hiring processes and employee performance, and improving the design of workspaces. Workplace psychologists can work as either internal specialists or external consultants.
Roles in this path typically require at least an undergraduate degree in psychology or a related subject, though sometimes master’s degrees are also required. Some universities also offer dedicated postgraduate courses.
How promising are workplace psychology careers?
As with other psychology paths, it’s important to prioritize within workplace psychology careers as some opportunities will allow you to provide much more help than others, either through the individuals you help directly or through increasing the impact others have. Working at some organizations could lead to having no impact at all, or even a negative impact if their activities are harmful – so choosing the right organization is vital. We’d expect that the typical role in workplace psychology doesn’t offer that much ability to have an impact, so strategizing in these careers is vital (read about our SELF framework for more on this!).
The most promising route we can see for workplace psychologists to have an impact is by working at impactful organizations to help multiply their impact. This could include both nonprofits and for-profits that have a large positive social impact by deploying evidence-based workplace psychology practices to improve various aspects of an organization.
It’s worth bearing in mind that workplace psychology is a relatively new field, and as such the evidence base for interventions at the organizational level seems to be smaller than in other areas of psychology.
From a brief amount of research, we found evidence for a few potentially effective workplace interventions. For example, certain office layouts may increase self-reported productivity and satisfaction. Additionally, a systematic literature review found that some workplace programs such as delivering behavior therapy, teaching coping skills, psychosocial evaluation, and pain prevention may increase employees’ work functioning as well as reduce the amount of sick leave taken. And an evaluation of systematic reviews found evidence for the efficacy of various similar workplace interventions in reducing sick leave and increasing employee wellbeing. Despite these potentially promising routes, the efficacy of workplace-specific interventions doesn’t seem to be as well understood as in other areas of psychology.
Additionally, we’re not aware of many workplace psychology positions within high-impact organizations. Because of this, and because the evidence base for interventions doesn’t seem to be particularly strong, workplace psychology is the area we’re least certain about within psychology. It’s possible that the right position might allow for a lot of impact, but these positions might be few in number. However, experienced workplace psychologists might be able to have some impact by offering pro-bono consulting to high-impact nonprofits who might not otherwise be able to pay for a workplace psychologist – and it may still also be worth looking for other positions within organizations (including for-profits) doing good work in pressing cause areas.
Resources on workplace psychology
What is industrial and organizations psychology? - from OpenStax
Workplace Psychology – a blog dedicated to exploring research and insights within the field
A US-based industrial organizational psychology jobs board
Overall, though some of these routes look promising, it’s unclear whether they will offer you the chance to have as much impact as you might in one of our top recommended paths. We’d love to see more people explore this space to try and find high-impact opportunities, as well as further research that estimates the impact you can have in various psychology career paths (indeed, this research might itself be a promising idea for someone with a background in psychology!).
Additionally, some of the most impactful options available to people with experience in psychology may be to use their skills in other high-impact contexts. For example, a psychology background might make you a good fit for a such as management, operations, or even human resources, as you’ll have a good understanding of people and may be able to implement evidence-based practices in these domains. Excelling in these roles within highly impactful organizations can be very promising, acting as a multiplier for the rest of the organization. See our full list of path profiles for more career ideas, as well as our career guide for more general considerations about career decisions.
And, if you’re already a psychology professional, you may want to take a look at High-Impact Psychology (HIPsy), a community of psychology professionals aiming to use their careers for good, who offer resources on achieving impact within psychology.
We’d like to thank Inga Großman, Lucius Caviola, and Jona Glade for feedback and advice for this article. Please note that any experts we interview do not necessarily endorse all the views expressed in our content, and all mistakes are our own.
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