Child psychology emerges as top concentration

By Catherine Robertson Souter
March 29th, 2022
Stacey Lambert, Psy.D, (left), vice president for academic affairs and chair of the clinical psychology department at William James College is shown with Jason Osher, Ph.D, whose titles include director of the neuropsychology concentration and the Office of Educational Development and Innovation.

Forensic and neuropsychology are other popular choices

Even before the pandemic, there were reports of a shortage of mental health professionals across the country. The shortages hit hardest in rural and low-income areas and for minorities, children, adolescents, and seniors.

The pandemic has only exacerbated that need. Therapists have reported turning away new clients amid an increased demand from those they already see. At one point, some professionals were considering splitting sessions in order to see more clients in a day.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologist positions are expected to continue to grow by eight percent from 2020 to 2030 with 13,400 openings projected each year on average. While this growth matches the predicted growth for all occupations, without a corresponding increase in therapists, the workforce shortages will continue to hit those groups hard.

As new therapists come on line, how they help to ease the workforce shortage remains to be seen. And, depending on where these new therapists choose to specialize, shortages for some areas may continue to be a concern. Some specialties continue to grow while others, especially those where earnings can be difficult to sell to a young professional, will continue to see shortages.

In one area, there appears to be a promising trend. An APA report showed that, thanks to efforts to recruit greater diversity by graduate schools, “the percentage of racial and ethnic-minority psychology graduate students grew from 27 percent in the 2006–07 academic year to 35 percent in 2016–17.”

At William James College, where 43 percent of students choose to declare a concentration at the graduate level, current trends show that the shortage of child psychologists could be improved in future. Most of the students who declare a specialty focus on the school’s Children and Families of Adversity and Resilience program.

“People love working with children,” said Stacey Lambert, Psy.D, vice president for academic affairs and chair of the clinical psychology department. “Over the last five years, the number of graduates in this concentration has grown by about 344 percent. Twenty-eight percent of our graduating class in 2021 had CFAR as a concentration.”

The second and third most popular areas are forensic psychology and neuropsychology which has seen the fastest growth in the same time period of about 500 percent, she added.

Karen Stamm, Ph.D, director of APA’s Center for Workforce Studies, confirmed the overall growth in psychologists seeking board certification in neuropsychology.

“Having that kind of recognized status or credentials in that area can be an advantage,” she said.

Areas that are not as popular? Those include clinical health psychology, Stamm said.

“These are the psychologists who are looking at the intersection of health and mental health conditions,” she said, “like managing chronic pain for instance or cancer.”

It is a specialty that could be in great demand, she added, as people learn to deal with the health effects of the pandemic.

“Long COVID is a great example of where a clinical health psychologist could have the expertise to help people with that long-term outcome.”

For most areas, true specialization does not happen until post-doc, even though graduate schools offer programs that allow students to explore. To really find their niche, said Lambert, she reminds students to take the opportunity to try on different specialties, a practice which could also help to combat shortages.

“People declare concentrations because they did a volunteer job or worked with children,” said Lambert, “but we say to try things out before you go too far on any one path.

“For instance, our area of least interest is gero-psychology and there is tremendous need there,” she said. “We would not have anyone sign up but we realized when they got exposure to it, there are people who would fall in love with gero-psychology.”

There has been growth in some non-traditional areas, she added, like working with Asian or LGBTQ clients. A program for military and veterans-based psychology has become more popular also.

“There is a distinct interest in serving the underserved,” she said.

While the choice of a specialty should not rely solely on financial gain or stability, it needs to be one factor. With a shortage throughout the field, new psychologists in nearly any specialty should not have difficulty finding work or building a practice. Still, it can help to pay attention to locales and specialties that have greater need.

“It is about supply and demand,” said Lambert. “If you have expertise that not everyone has, it does you well in the job market. I always tell my students, follow market trends.”

One of the most consistently well-paying specialties, Stamm added, is in industrial organizational psychology.

“These psychologists are typically working with corporations and they command higher salaries,” she said.

People with backgrounds in qualitative psychology or those with a data science background also do well, Stamm added.

But here is the dilemma and one that needs to be addressed with better funding of low-income mental health centers and increased insurance reimbursements. If new therapists base their specialty on what is best for their personal finances, as they have a right to do, underserved and minority populations will continue to have greater need, even with recent gains in graduate school enrollment.

And increasing diversity is another difficult goal that would only come with a concerted effort.

“The size of the workforce would have to increase by nearly one-third in order to bring it up to numbers where we would achieve racial and ethnic equity in service delivery,” said Stamm. “That is a staggering number and we do not expect to get there.”

Supporting minority students earlier in their educational careers with guidance and mentoring can be one key factor.

“We need to be reaching out to students at earlier points in their education pathways as well as programs that support graduate training,” said Stamm. “There are a lot of systems at play that would need to happen to individually increase the representation of BIPOC psychologists. There are some changes happening slowly but we have a lot of work to do to diversify our profession.”

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