Psychology: Choosing a career path

The word stems from the ancient Greek words psyche and logos and it is a discipline that can open up a wide variety of potential career paths.

Psychology attempts to explain the human experience and behavior.

By its very nature, the field is interdisciplinary, incorporating the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities with a foundation in anthropology. Clinical, cognitive, organizational and business psychology are just a few of the subfields students can choose to pursue.

Contrary to popular perception, psychology is an empirical science based on experience and behavior. It differentiates itself from related disciplines through its scientific research focused on mental and behavioral processes. Theories, models and hypothesis are proven empirically based on experiments, making mathematics and statistics central. 

Students who receive a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from a German university learn about the cognitive and biological basis for behavior, together with personality, differential, social and developmental psychology in terms of intra- and interpersonal processes. 

Psychology and learning

One area for students to consider where there's a great deal of research taking place is in neuro-cognitive psychology. In this field researchers look at questions like: What conditions are necessary for lifelong learning? and What critical changes occur in the brain in the course of its development that alter learning ability? 

“In our work, we want to understand how early childhood learning opportunities determine one’s learning ability later in life and how the adaptability of the brain changes from childhood to adulthood,” says Brigitte Röder, director of the Department of Biological Psychology and Neuropsychology at the University of Hamburg, in speaking about her project begun in 2010 titled CriticalBrainChanges. “Only then can specific optimized learning contexts be created for children and adults, as well as efficient therapies for those with sensory impairments or injuries to the central nervous system.”

In short, Röder’s team is trying to understand why the brain learns and adapts differently during various states of development. Most of all, the research team wants to know how a person should learn in order to increase the adaptability and learning ability of the adult brain.

In particular, the study is looking at individuals born blind or deaf whose sight or hearing was medically restored. Subjects in both groups are being studied to gain a better understanding of how underlying neural processes develop and improve cognitive performance. Because so little is known about the development of the so-called multi-sensory processes, a group of children from 6 months to 12 years will be simultaneously studied to understand the interplay of the senses.

Psychotherapy and clinical work 

Another career path for students who want to do research as well as work with patients directly, is that of clinical psychology or psychotherapy as a research practitioner. 

One study in practicing research at the Technische Universitat Dresden begun in May is looking at the effectiveness of psychotherapy in the treatment of social anxiety, a common mental condition that affects some 10 percent of the population at some point during their lifetimes. 

Patients who suffer from this condition experience severe and recurring fears if they're in performance or evaluation situations, something that has special meaning to students who are affected. “Those who suffer from social phobias fear that they will either embarrass themselves or leave a negative impression,” says David Bräuer, organizer of the TU Dresden study. 

These people endure social situations only under great anxiety. Some end up avoiding potentially stressful situations altogether, negatively impacting their academic or professional life which can eventually cause problems with self-esteem, substance abuse and depression. 

Jürgen Hoyer, director of the Outpatient Clinic and Day Hospital at the TU-Dresden is coordinating three research projects having to do with social anxiety. “As a research-practitioner, I’m interested in the role that mental, emotional and physical processes play in social phobias. Therapy is relatively successful in treating this condition, but we don’t know which psychotherapy techniques work best and for whom.”