Becoming a Religious Psychologist

A desire to help others work through their personal issues can often lead to a career in the mental health field as a psychologist. Whether working as part of a larger healthcare team or running his or her own private practice, psychologists are experts in emotional, mental and social behaviors, and can greatly improve the quality of life for their patients. The wide-ranging field opens the doors for faith-based professionals to provide services to religious schools; treat faith leaders and members of a parish; and/or work with patients belonging to specific Christian organizations.

Job Activities & Responsibilities

Using techniques in observation and experimentation, a psychologist assesses and then treats clients or groups of people based on the emotions, feelings, thoughts and behaviors they exhibit. For the faith-based professional, religion plays an important role in the diagnosis and prescribed solutions. The job responsibilities of a psychologist also depend on the specific field that an individual is trained to work in, which ultimately determines his or her work schedule.

School psychologists work during school hours, while clinical psychologists must demonstrate flexibility (and are able to meet with clients in the evening and on weekends). Those with advanced degrees may conduct research, write articles and submit reports of findings that educates and contributes to the field as a whole.

Overall, the day-to-day activities associated with a psychologist’s workload often include:

  • Observing and interviewing individuals
  • Analyzing data on brain function and the behaviors of clients
  • Identifying emotional, behavioral and psychological issues in clients
  • Diagnosing disorders and treatment barriers in patients
  • Discussing treatment plans and medications with clients
  • Supervising interns, counselors and clinicians


Having a master’s degree is adequate enough for a graduate to qualify for some positions within the psychology field, but generally, employers seek to hire psychologists holding a doctoral degree. The majority of job candidates are also expected to have a license in order to practice. Faith-based professionals often blend psychology coursework with theology and divinity classes. The most common degrees in the field include a Ph.D. in psychology (where students complete a comprehensive exam and write a dissertation) and the more clinical degree, the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.), which involves practical work and passing the appropriate examinations.

Career Salary & Job Outlook

The majority of psychologists are hired to work at elementary and secondary schools (on the state, local and private level), healthcare agencies, the government, and at hospitals. Nearly 25% of professionals become self-employed and hold private office hours for clients or are hired as a consultant. Because of this, yearly salaries vary and are affected by a variety of factors.

A psychologist’s specialty, years of experience, work schedule, employer, educational background and geographic location all play a role in determining his or her salary. For example, while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a median annual salary of $77,030 for the occupation in 2017, psychologists in New Jersey earned one of the highest mean wages in the country ($97,790) that same year.

The employment of psychologists is also anticipated to grow 14% from 2016 to 2026, which is at a faster pace than the average of all other occupations in the United States. An estimated 23,000 new job openings are expected to become available during this time period. Those who have a doctoral degree in an applied specialty tend to experience the greatest job prospects. Professionals that can provide psychological services in schools, hospitals and social service agencies will also find increased job opportunities, as their demand is projected to increase.

Q and A

Dr. Thomas Plante

What made you want to become a Psychologist?

As a kid watching the Bob Newhart show on TV in the 70s. It was a sitcom where he played a psychologist. My father was a high school dropout and worked construction. He wanted me to follow his path and I wanted something that used education and my head rather than my body.  And since I was always so interested in human behavior and was rather nosy as a youth, being a psychologist made a lot of sense. And by the way, in 2000 he came to our university as the commencement speaker and I was able to host him for the day, introduce him and hood him at commencement, and give him an honorary degree to practice as a psychologist. I was chair of the psychology department at the time. What fun!

Once you got out of  school were things different then what you expected?

Sure. I thought psychology was about counseling only. But it is so much more. Research, consulting, assessment, and so forth were additional skills and interests that I discovered along the way.

What was a day like for you?

It depends on the day.  I’m a full time tenured professor at Santa Clara University where I teach classes to undergraduates on abnormal psychology, heath psychology, the psychology of religion, and ethics. I teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays and do research on Mondays and Fridays regarding the psychological benefits of exercise, ethics, and psychology of religion topics and especially about sex offending clerics and assessments of applicants to become priest, nuns, and deacons (see my web page for details if desired). I have a private clinical practice on Wednesdays where I also teach an ethics and professional issues class as a clinical professor at Stanford Medical School for psychology interns and postdocs  in the psychiatry department.

Do you enjoy your job?
Yes indeed. I love being a psychologist and a professor. It totally suits me!

What are the best parts and worst parts of your job?

Helping others, engaged in the life of the mind, having control over your schedule, having a job for life, and researching and writing what you wish are all great gifts.  The pay could be better while living here in the very expensive Silicon Valley and the profession does sometimes attract folks who really aren’t qualified to do the work, especially in the counseling area.

What kind of advice would you offer students?

I do  a lot of advising of students. I tell them to follow the 4 D’s (see attached). Discover your gifts, detach from the will of others, discern your path reflecting on what gives you consolation vs. desolation, and find your direction with eyes wide open knowing that the path is often not a direct one.