Once deciding to pursue a career in psychology, it can be a daunting task to determine the best graduate program and professional specialization to support achievement of one's professional goals. You may be interested to learn of community psychology, a lesser-known area of psychology that has experienced significant growth in recent years. In this article, we illustrate the fundamental principles of this exciting field and provide a picture of the range of possible careers that may be pursued with a community psychology degree. General information on training, educational requirements, career development resources, and connecting to others is provided.
Sometimes it's easy to see a bit of yourself in many different areas of psychology, but it is hard to find one area that fits just right. If this sounds like you, then consider this: There is an area of psychology for students who respect diversity and multiculturalism, believe in social equity, and wish to respectfully empower others to make long-term changes in their own lives.
What Is Community Psychology?
Community psychology is a branch of psychology wherein research, intervention, policy, and teaching are utilized to effect change in people's lives (see Dalton et al., 2007 and Revenson et al., 2002). Community psychology is built on a premise acknowledging that all individuals are part of a larger system. Because people are social beings who are both affecting others and affected by others, "community psychology is about understanding people within their social worlds and using this understanding to improve people's well-being," (Orford, 1992, as cited in Goldstein, 1998, p. 20-21).
The hallmark of community psychology is its emphasis on using a systems approach to understand, support, and implement change. As such, community psychology is not a field focused on research alone; research is used only to identify policies, practices, and solutions that can be implemented in the real world. From identifying an individual or community problem, to researching prevention programs, to advocating for policy change, community psychologists are trained to make lasting changes to improve any mental, physical, or social issue that affects people and their communities. By helping individuals while actively addressing larger social issues that influence mental health and well-being, community psychologists are always focused on the "big picture".Continue reading to learn about a few of the activities community psychologists can do.
The Practice of Community Psychology
Tom Wolff is a community psychologist who started his career as a clinical psychologist helping people with mental health needs through individual and group psychotherapy approaches. His interest shifted to concern for the larger, systemic issues that cause mental health problems and challenge optimal well-being. Tom found a way to address issues that affect people's well-being through his work in various community psychology positions, and most recently, as a consultant on coalition building and capacity building.
Coalition building and capacity building are two central strategies that community psychologists use to improve the mental health and overall well-being of individuals. Coalition building involves uniting individuals, groups, organizations, or institutions to achieve a common goal. Because community psychologists are specialists trained to unite people with differing and overlapping goals into organized efforts, they are skilled at achieving results in an efficient and "win-win" fashion.
Tom reaches these solutions by capacity building, which involves collaborating with a group and developing its ability to solve the problem. Capacity building helps empower people. Tom might do this by mediating discussions on problems and concerns, providing training for group members, or helping the group locate a funding source to reach its goals. As a consultant, Tom employs his knowledge of group processes, which he first learned as a group therapist, to help group members communicate effectively about how to reach their goals.
Tom collaborates with a variety of organizations, such as neighborhoods, nonprofit organizations, and governments, to name a few. He has helped with issues related to the environment, domestic violence, health, childcare, job loss, and many other areas of concern to a community, or group of people. In each case, understanding how people and groups work provides guidance for achieving common goals, while the scientific training gained as a community psychologist offers a way to analyze progress towards goals. If you want to know more, you can read about collaborating with organizations in Tom's newest book, The Power of Collaborative Solutions.
Tom enjoys the fact that community psychology allows him to address problems from many perspectives. As more professions collaborate, the need for the community psychologist's unique training to unite these professions will continue to grow. Community psychology gives you an opportunity to look at the 'big picture' and truly make a long-lasting impact on society.
Community Psychology Reaches Government and Policy
Lenny Jason has dedicated over twenty years of his career to combating teenage tobacco use. As the director of a prevention center, he focuses on bringing about change by targeting public policies and organizations. In one town, he worked to decrease the supply of tobacco to minors. Lenny first tried working directly with teens to discourage tobacco use. He then examined environmental factors that might influence tobacco use. Once he found that many teens were able to use tobacco simply because it was widely available, he sought to reduce accessibility to tobacco.
Lenny recognized the shared responsibility of the community and local government to make it more difficult for teens to get cigarettes. He advocated for stiffer consequences for merchants who sold tobacco to teens and helped develop policies that affected both merchants and teens, making it difficult for teens to purchase tobacco. He also reduced public smoking in communities by having minors given a fine like a traffic ticket for smoking publicly. Lenny uses his research to provide evidence and support for changes that would benefit the community.
Sometimes Lenny uses his research to influence the recommendations he makes to policy makers. For example, as a member of an advisory committee for the federal government, he has been consulting and making recommendations for legislation and policy affecting individuals with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Through his work with CFS, he has worked on research projects that challenge myths about the disorder and reduce stigma for those affected.
Lenny tells his students that a career in community psychology is the perfect job for people who want to bring about change in the world. Itâ€™s not for those who just want to study or understand change, but for those who want to be in the thick of it! This is a career for activists. Here is your chance to do something meaningful and make a real, tangible difference. It seems complicated, but it is not—it's spicy and never dull work.
Community Psychology Research
As a professor and as the director of a self-help resource and research center, Greg Meissen's career has integrated community psychology research, practice, and teaching. As a faculty member, Greg teaches, advises students, and conducts research in a community psychology doctoral program. He and his students engage in community-based research and the practice of community psychology through community organizing, collaboration, and consultation with a variety of community organizations—similar to the work of Tom Wolff. Program evaluation and applied research are also built into many of Greg's projects, which have provided community psychology students a steady stream of research funding, journal articles, and opportunities for graduate-level researchâ€”particularly dissertations.
As the director of a self-help group clearinghouse and research center that gathered and disseminated information on self-help groups for potential group members, Greg's research focused on understanding the usefulness and effectiveness of self-help and support groups' such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Community psychology graduate students helped by starting new self-help groups and assisted thousands of people in finding a self-help group.
Greg and his staff also provided professional support to mental health consumer-run organizations (CROs), which are self-help organizations that are staffed and governed by people with a mental illness. They assisted with staff development, service provision, and program evaluation, which enabled many of these organizations to effectively operate drop-in client service-centers providing improved peer support, advocacy, public awareness, and many other activities for individuals with mental illness.
Greg has stepped down as director and now focuses more on writing and teaching as a community psychology professor. Greg appreciates that his degree in community psychology has provided a unique set of skills that has allowed him to pursue different topics important to the development of his community, and to work with others in achieving effective changes in their communities.
The Unifying Principles of Community Psychology
You might wonder what Tom, Lenny, and Greg have in common, aside from awesome careers. Well, it is their approach. All psychologists want to help people. As community psychologists, these three are set apart from other psychologists by their conviction to use approaches consistent with the principles of community psychology. There are many principles of community psychology. Respect for diversity, consideration of values, understanding of context, promotion of social justice and empowerment, and emphasis on individual strengths and competencies are just a few of the core principles that guide research, teaching, and practice in community psychology (Levine et al., 2005; Rudkin, 2002).
Each of us has unique personal characteristics, familial upbringings, community contexts, and cultural backgrounds that have shaped who we are, what we think, and how we behave. These qualities affect how we perceive and deal with the world. Community psychologists consider these differences when working to improve people's well-being, recognizing that some policies or interventions might not work equally well for everyone. Community psychology focuses on improving health, mental health, and social conditions by developing ways to prevent problems; evaluating programs designed to address problems; capturing opinions from those involved; and advocating for fair policies.
In research and practice, community psychology emphasizes existing assets within people, organizations, and communities served. People or organizations with problems are not viewed as helpless. With this respect for diversity, community psychologists use peoples' strengths to work collaboratively in solving social problems and improving health/mental health conditions (Trickett et al., 1994). This might include working with residents, health or mental health clients, organizations, families, youth, elderly, or others, in addition to working with researchers, experts, and other professionals. Each perspective brings relevant and valuable information. In community psychology, everyone has a voice.
Unfortunately in our society, everyone does not have a voice. Some groups are disproportionately affected by unfair laws and government practices. Understanding the harmful effects of such inequality, community psychologists support change for social equity. In consultation, they make recommendations that are fair by considering the "big picture." They use their research findings to advocate for change in unjust policies.
Community psychology approaches individual, community, and organizational problems from a systems perspective with careful consideration of causes and consequences of those problems, identification of unmet needs, and advocacy for needed change in society. If this fits with how you view others and how you would like to help others, you might enjoy a rewarding career in community psychology—an area of psychology that takes these factors into consideration in the study and application of psychology.
What Can You Do With a Degree in Community Psychology?
Community psychologists are involved in projects and programs aimed at improving well-being through a number of methods. They can work in communities, academic settings, or research settings. People trained in community psychology have the skills to develop, coordinate, and manage community-based programs. They can conduct research, write grants, organize community efforts, consult for organizations, evaluate services, and assess service needs. Many graduates work in policy development, policy effectiveness evaluation, program development/evaluation, political advocacy, and academia. Community psychology is at work in a variety of settings—from research foundations and nonprofit organizations to government and neighborhood coalitions.
Community psychologists use research, evaluate programs and policies, assess how well projects are addressing the targeted need, and make recommendations that help these programs to work better. Community psychology researchers matriculate with skills sensitive to the utility and applicability of findings, considering factors such as age, ability, identity, and regional factors that might affect how basic and applied research is interpreted. Clinical-community psychologists (who are dually trained in both providing treatment and community skills) graduate with interdisciplinary skills to prevent and treat client concerns from a perspective sensitive to contextual nuances.
What Kind of Training Is Required for Community Psychologists?
Community psychologists have advanced degrees. Some graduate programs require certain basic undergraduate courses in psychology, but many do not. After graduate school, community psychologists often complete a fellowship to solidify their training in a specific area of emphasis, such as health promotion. Professionals in community psychology can have master's degrees in community psychology, clinical-community psychology, environmental psychology, social work, or public health, among other degrees. With a master's degree, students gain the necessary practical skills (see scra27.org and ctb.ku.edu/en/) to work within community organizations and agencies, where they work to promote well-being, social justice, and change. With a doctoral degree, community psychologists gain advanced training in research, intervention, and evaluation that allows them to work, for example, as faculty in university settings or as researchers in federal government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health. Visit web sites scra27.org and idealist.org for other examples of settings and jobs related to community psychology.
Are You In?
If you want more information on this exciting and fulfilling career, check out the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA)—a part of the American Psychological Association (Division 27). SCRA helps connect students, community psychologists, and other professionals; provides information pertinent to the field for those interested in the field; and supports development of careers in community research and practice. Visit the webpage www.scra27.org to check out membership benefits, join the student listserv, and find out more about the field. Attend conferences to meet other students and professionals with similar interests to your own and find ways to get involved early in your career. You may wish to join SCRA and receive all the great information that comes in the journal and newsletters. Membership is inexpensive for students.
There are billions of people in the world. There will never be enough clinicians to help everyone in need. Through prevention, program development and evaluation, advocacy for social change, and the use of other community psychology approaches, one person can reach more people than ever before. Are you interested?
Dalton, J. H., Elias, M. J., & Wandersman, A. (2007). Community psychology: Linking individuals and communities (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.
Goldstein, M.B. (1998, Winter). Community psychology: The career for champions. Eye on Psi Chi, 2(2), 20-21, 42.
Levine, M., Perkins, D. D., & Perkins, D. V. (2005). Principles of community psychology: Perspectives and applications (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Orford, J. (1992). Community psychology: Theory and practice. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.
Revenson, T.A., D'Augelli A.R., French, S.E., Hughes, D.L., Livert, D., Seidman, E., Shinn, M., & Yoshikawa, H. (Eds.) (2002). A Quarter Century of Community Psychology: Readings from the American Journal of Community Psychology. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
Rudkin, J. K. (2002). Community psychology: Guiding principles and orienting concepts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Trickett, E. J., Watts, R. W., & Birman, D. (Eds.) (1994). Human diversity: Perspectives on people in context. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.Biographical Statement