Research vs Practice

“I have narrowed down my specific mental health helping field of interest, but I am hearing that there are differences between academic and applied careers–is this important?”

Yes! This distinction matters.

What are the options?
This is complicated, but let’s start with an oversimplified version of the truth: some mental health professionals are primarily engaged in research/academic pursuits while others are primarily engaged in practice/treatment pursuits.

-Research / Academics
Think about it for a moment: the entire pathway leading up to your independence in a given mental health field is shaped by the folks who are engaged in scholarly work. Professors, supervisors, researchers, grant coordinators, statistical analysts, theory developers, lead investigators on clinical trials, authors of treatment manuals, etc., these people are engaged in the research-side of the field, whatever specific field it may be. Somebody somewhere wrote the articles and textbooks you’re reading, and if they were seeing clients full-time, they simply wouldn’t have had time to do so. In fact, many of the mental health scholars who become most productive in their respective fields spend relatively little time (and sometimes no time at all) in practice. [This separation causes problems, in the form of what we call the “research-practice gap,” but that can be explored elsewhere.] The point is that some training pathways and some careers are focused heavily on the scholarly side of things, the creation and curation of what the knowledge in the field *is* for the future. These are the people who teach the helpers.

-Practice / Treatment
On the other end of the spectrum are, of course, the mental health professionals who primarily spend their time in practice. These are the people whose schedules are full with treatment sessions conducting psychotherapy/counseling, or doing assessment work and report-writing, or being active in advocacy/outreach efforts, or engaging with clients/patients and communities in other ways. This is probably the more obvious sort of career identity you may have envisioned when you first decided upon being a mental health helper. These are the people who will be the helpers.

The More Complicated Truth: Those Who Can Do May Also Teach!
Separating “practicing clinicians” from “academic scholars” is somewhat of a false dichotomy, because in fact there are many careers and training pathways which blend the two skillsets. The old adage “those who can’t do, teach” doesn’t reflect reality. Many professionals do indeed fit neatly into one category or the other, but there are also many who engage in some mix of the two. For instance, it is not uncommon for a full-time clinician to also teach on the side (e.g., pick up a course or two per year as an adjunct college instructor for some extra money and to diversify their work experiences). Nor is it uncommon for a full-time academic to see a small caseload of clients (e.g., join a group clinical practice on a part-time basis). The possibilities are essentially endless, but what’s crucial is that you give consideration ahead of time to whether you want such flexibility or if you would prefer to be clearly categorized into one role or the other. This is because the type of training program you pursue will determine (to a large extent) the range of options you have afterwards.

Oops, I’ll Never Do Research?
While “never” is a strong word, there are certain graduate training programs which are simply not intended to train students on the academic skills necessary to become a researcher, professor, or other scholarly-inclined role. These would be programs, often at the master’s level, which do not include much of any coursework on statistics and research methods, and which do not require students to conduct a “master’s thesis,” “doctoral dissertation,” or other formal thorough research project of their own. For example, most master’s in Counseling programs and master’s in Social Work programs are oriented completely (or nearly-completely) toward preparing students for applied practice careers rather than academic careers (but there are exceptions). Similarly, choices you make in the early stages of your post-graduate career will greatly impact the likelihood that you ever get involved in research/scholarship. Ask yourself: how do you expect to be compensated? University faculty and some hospital staff, for instance, are paid either by the institution itself or by grant money to conduct research projects. For them, scholarly productivity such as publications and presentations is a formal part of their job description. But for full-time clinicians unaffiliated with an academic setting, they likely do not have structural incentives for scholarly endeavors. If most of your career work is seeing clients in private practice, for instance, then there just simply isn’t a high probability that you’ll also find a way to make money using research skills part-time. (Adjunct teaching would perhaps remain an option though, and it may also be worth mentioning that there are many industry roles outside mental health which utilize data analytic skills with great pay.) Because there are no licensure laws preventing one from conducting studies, presenting at conferences, and publishing articles/books, you could say “where there is a will there is a way!” with regard to involvement in academics. However, some career choices will make it much less likely to be compensated and thus much more difficult to continue as the years go on. Can you imagine a future in which you’re writing a research paper just for fun..?

Oops, I’ll Never See Clients?
For many of you reading this page, this is the bigger concern. Because licensure laws or certification rules mandate who is eligible to conduct mental health services, this is a bit more rigid than whether one will ever conduct research. There are many training programs which are not accredited/approved and their graduates would be ineligible to pursue licensure in a given mental health helping field. Programs in the social sciences and humanities which are likely fascinating to you, of some relevance to mental health, and of great importance to society, may have absolutely no training for active applied practice in mental health. For instance, master’s or doctoral degrees in the following fields will not set you on track to pursue a mental health license: Anthropology, Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Philosophy. Perhaps those are obvious to you, so let’s consider some more nuanced examples. Say you’re interested in working with children in a therapeutic context–you’ll want to avoid training programs labeled “Developmental Psychology” and instead apply to those with titles such as “Clinical Child Psychology” or a “Clinical Psychology” program with a “specialization” or “concentration” in children or adolescents. Developmental Psychology is the scientific study of psychological development, and its degree programs do not include an applied clinical component; so a degree in that field does not move you toward state-sanctioned license-eligibility. Another tricky example is Forensic Psychology. There are many programs which train students to engage in the scholarly study of legally-relevant psychological phenomena (e.g., veracity of eye witness testimony, personality variables involved in juror selection) but they may not involve any clinical work in that realm (however, some have both). So, it is imperative that you read carefully about the programs to which you are applying–some training sites are simply not geared toward training clinicians, instead they are preparing future scientists/academics and industry workers. Programs with accredited curricula, which will make you license-eligible in an applied field, are usually very clear about that in their promotional materials and websites.

Specific Training Models in Psychology
One more wrinkle to add to all this is that graduate programs in psychology, in particular those graduate psych programs which *do* have an applied training component, have a more detailed system of describing the goals and philosophy of training. This is done by the program articulating its alignment to one of three nationally recognized training models, which exist along a spectrum from most practice-focused to most research-focused. Importantly, graduates from all three types of programs *can* go on to build careers which are applied, academic, or both; but the training model chosen helps steer students in a particular direction. These philosophies of training are called the practitioner-scholar (most practice oriented), scientist-practitioner (blend), and clinical-scientist (most research oriented) models. You can read more about the three models here, as well as a discussion about pursuing the PhD degree versus the PsyD degree.

How Do I Decide?
This is complicated. You will need to give serious consideration to the type of person you are, and the type of person you envision becoming. How much you have enjoyed school? If activities in your undergraduate years such as in-class presentations, research papers, statistical analyses, and other scholarly pursuits have been enjoyable for you, then perhaps you will want to pursue training and an eventual career which has academic components (even if you are primarily a clinician). How much have you enjoyed hands-on work with other people? If activities in your undergraduate years such as mentoring younger children, volunteering with local organizations, and working with people in other applied ways has been enjoyable to you–so much that you are certain you want to exclude any academic components from your career–then that probably makes clear that you should steer toward applied practice.

You Can Change Your Mind*
A personal note: from childhood up until late in my sophomore year of college, I was convinced that I wanted solely to be a “therapist” and that my eventual career would be 100% applied therapeutic practice with clients. Well, then professors started telling me “you should get some research experience if you intend to get into graduate school,” so I did, and then I ended up really liking it, and then I ended up wanting to have a career with academic components, and here I am teaching at a university. So if you are part-way through school and think for instance “I don’t like statistics,” you may want to hold that opinion loosely in case it may change. Goals and interests will likely shift over time, and that’s ok, but certain choices will impose barriers (e.g., attending a graduate program with no applied training). Therefore, I usually tell people to keep “opening doors” with regard to their future plans as long as possible and then only close doors to certain pathways once absolutely sure about it. Perhaps it is also worth noting that hiring in academic/scholarly contexts is rather competitive, and has a lot to do with one’s track record of prior productivity (e.g., published papers, conference presentations, and grants earned). Given this, it is often said that it’s easier to move from academics into the fully-applied realm than to move the other direction.
*So, as you work to decide which path is right for you, know that it’s not a permanent decision and you can make adjustments along the way–but it is nevertheless a consideration to ponder in serious depth!