Best Careers 2009: School Psychologist

Marty Nemko

Overview. The job outlook for school psychologists should be strong. Many are reaching retirement age. Plus, parents of children with special needs are increasingly emboldened -- and often armed with lawyers threatening to sue school districts if desired services are not provided. In addition, the media are focusing on many of the problems school psychologists deal with: autism, school violence, bullying, and Ritalin prescriptions for active boys.

Not only is the job outlook good, so are the working conditions. You are likely to follow the school schedule and work just nine months of the year. Status and job security are high, and the stress manageable. And school psychologists often get to do such rewarding tasks as conducting parenting workshops, counseling teachers and parents, and screening kids for gifted-student programs. Most school psychologists spend more time assessing students for special education, writing individualized education plans, and persuading parents and teachers to sign off on them.

A school psychologist's greatest challenge may be in persuading teachers, already burdened with mixed-ability classes, and time-consuming federal, state, and local mandates, to take additional time to provide individualized instruction for students with severe mental and physical disabilities. Not so long ago, such students would have been placed in special classes, but that occurs ever less frequently because special education advocates have persuaded school systems to adopt full inclusion.

But if you can connect well with teachers, kids with problems, and their parents, and have the patience to accept slow progress, school psychology can be one of the more rewarding of helping professions.

A Day in the Life. A teacher wants Johnny placed in a special-education class, so you make a classroom observation. You see something different, however. If the teacher provided some individualized instruction for Johnny, he probably wouldn't need special ed. The teacher isn't pleased with that assessment, but you have the final say. Next, you test another child's eligibility for special education. This time, you administer an intelligence test, an achievement battery, learning disability diagnostic tests, and personality instruments, and write the results and recommendations in a three-page, single-spaced report. The most stressful part of your day is a meeting to agree on the annual individualized education plan for a severely disabled child -- most of the time, he rocks back and forth. The parent and teacher demand more services for the child, while the principal argues they're not cost effective. You facilitate the decision-making. Next, you and a teacher show a parent how to help her dyslexic child improve his reading while coping with his "depression" about it. The final activity of the day is illuminating: your weekly Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n Roll discussion group with seventh graders.

Smart Specialty

Director of programs for the gifted. While many programs for the gifted have or are being defunded, if you can land one of these jobs, it's among the most rewarding. Just a bit of extra attention to gifted kids can yield big results. Not only do they learn quickly and usually voraciously; you're helping create a better next generation of leaders, scientists, artists, etc.

Salary Data

Median (with eight years in the field): $60,700

25th to 75th percentile (with eight or more years of experience): $53,700-$80,100

(Data provided by


In nearly all states, a three-year postbachelor's degree specialist degree (Ed.S) in school psychology is standard although a doctorate (five to seven years) gives you an edge in the job hunt and in obtaining supervisory or academic positions.

Learn more: A Career in School Psychology: Selecting a Master's, Specialist, or Doctoral Degree that Meets Your Needs.

The National Association of School Psychologists publishes a list of approved graduate programs.

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