Lit Review: Career Pathways for School Psychologists

Literature Review by Marko Oksanen (2020)

Career Pathways for School Psychologists

School psychology was recently ranked as the number two social services job by U.S. News & World Report. Yet, few people know what school psychologists do and even fewer consider it a career option after graduating from college. Those who have found their way into the field report being quite happy with their career choice, as job satisfaction rates among practicing school psychologists are high and attrition rates are relatively low. Also, given the long-term shortage of school psychologists, changing locations and/or school districts is relatively easy, as the demand for competent psychologists is high in almost every region of the country.

This paper looks at the literature related to some key issues related to careers in school psychology. These issues include recruitment of undergraduate students into the field, the impact of the persistent shortage of school psychologists, the role of job dissatisfaction and burnout in decisions to exit the field, and career pathways available to veteran school psychologists.

Issues in Recruitment

Recruitment into school psychology programs typically happens in undergraduate psychology programs. However, school psychology is rarely mentioned in undergraduate textbooks. It is also not well covered in most psychology curricula and is usually not discussed by psychology department faculty unless the university has a school psychology program (Stinnett & Solomon, 2014). In addition, there are several misconceptions about the field and the work that school psychologists perform, and such misconceptions may influence the likelihood that an undergraduate student would be interested in the field. For example, most people do not know the difference between school counselors and school psychologists. The students who choose to pursue graduate training programs in school psychology are typically interested in working directly with children, display a positive attitude toward research, and want flexibility in choosing where to work (Stinnett & Solomon, 2014).

To illustrate the lack of coverage for school psychology as a profession, a recent study by Bocanegra, Gubi, Callan, Grapin, and McCall (2019) showed that students’ knowledge of the field of school psychology did not increase among students enrolled in a course specifically designed to explore various careers in professional psychology. This confirms previous research findings that school psychology is rarely included in undergraduate coursework. Prior studies also suggest that increased knowledge and exposure to school psychology are associated with increased intentions to enroll in a school psychology program (Bocanegra et al., 2019). Therefore, increasing the visibility of the field within undergraduate psychology courses would likely lead to higher enrollment in school psychology graduate training programs.

The limited success in recruitment efforts has contributed to a persistent shortage of school psychologists over the past several decades. Castillo, Curtis, and Tan (2014) forecasted that the shortage would extend through 2025 due to increases in the K-12 student population outstripping the increases in the number of school psychologists employed. In addition, school psychologists as a group have become older which has led to increased retirements, especially among males and faculty. This puts additional pressure on efforts to recruit new school psychologists to replace those who are retiring. The shortages of school psychology program faculty make it more difficult to recruit new graduate students. These shortages are almost universal across the U.S., except in the Mid-Atlantic region where the projected number of new school psychologists is predicted to be slightly higher than the number of those leaving the profession (Castillo et al., 2014).

There have been attempts to address the shortages on at least two fronts: recruitment and retention. The authors of one study suggested that the ever-changing roles and added responsibilities for school psychologists may have contributed to some attrition, although more study is needed to further explore this hypothesis (Castillo et al., 2014). While NASP recommends the ratio of students to school psychologists to be either 500:1 or 700:1 depending on the scope of practice, the majority of school districts report much higher ratios, putting strain on school psychologists working in those districts. Initiatives by the government as well as the professional organizations (e.g. National Association of School Psychologists, American Psychological Association) also exert pressure for the school psychologists to engage in additional practices (Castillo et al., 2014). These factors may be enough for some school psychologists to decide to leave the field. Clearly, solutions are needed to bring the number of practitioners to a better balance with the workload they are expected to carry.

It is interesting to note that similar shortages are not being reported in other applied specialties in psychology; for example, there is no shortage of clinical psychologists (McIntosh, 2004). An article by McIntosh (2004) addressed the shortage of school psychologists by discussing related issues and potential solutions, such as respecialization of clinical and counseling psychologists to work in school settings, low number of minorities in the profession, the need for increasing the number of doctorate-level school psychologists, and the need to provide more mental health services in schools. The author concludes that school psychology as a field must act quickly to address the shortage so that school psychologists’ ability to provide high-quality mental health services within school settings is not compromised.

Not only is there a shortage of school psychologists in the field but there is also a shortage of persons from culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds in the profession. It has been estimated that less than 10% of practicing school psychologists are from minority backgrounds, while more than a third of the U.S. population come from minority backgrounds and almost half of public school students are minorities (Bocanegra, Gubi, Fan, & Hansmann, 2015). As previously mentioned, studies have shown that there is a general lack of awareness when it comes to school psychology in comparison to counseling and clinical psychology. Some of this lack of awareness stems from the fact that school psychology is only minimally represented in undergraduate textbooks in comparison to other specialties in psychology (Bocanegra et al., 2015). Therefore, undergraduate psychology students, whether minority or not, know less about school psychology than counseling and clinical psychology programs. Increased exposure and knowledge of school psychology would likely increase the number of minority students entering the field.

For many years, both NASP and APA have tried to find ways to recruit more minorities into school psychology. However, these efforts have not resulted in a notable increase in minority students entering the field. Another study into minority undergraduate psychology students’ perceptions about school psychology suggested that their exposure to the field should start in the K-12 setting rather than in college (Bocanegra, Newell & Gubi, 2016). In addition to early exposure, more in-depth knowledge should be provided to targeted students about the benefits of a career in school psychology, and being a school psychologist should be presented as an exciting career option (Bocanegra, Newell & Gubi, 2016). A comprehensive recruitment plan should highlight the profession’s commitment to cultural diversity and cultivate the understanding that minorities can do well in school psychology programs (Bocanegra, Newell & Gubi, 2016).

Finally, there has been some research examining the effectiveness of various ways to recruit students into school psychology programs. One such study looked at the impact of a one-time video presentation on students choosing and applying to school psychology programs (Bocanegra, Gubi, Callan, & Clayson, 2019). The study found that watching a 5-minute informational video about school psychology showed increased knowledge and interest in the field in the short-term. However, a follow-up study showed no long-term effects, although exposure to school psychology was found to be a predictor for later application to a school psychology program (Bocanegra et al., 2019). Early and repeated exposure to school psychology from many sources seems to increase the likelihood of students eventually choosing the field as a career.

Gaps in current literature related to recruitment efforts include the extent to which practicing school psychologists are involved in promoting the field to potential entrants and the general public. Another area for future study is how Social Cognitive Career Theory could be applied to a more thorough understanding of various issues in the recruitment of undergraduate and minority students. Longitudinal studies may provide further evidence for the role of learning experiences in undergraduate students’ decision making regarding their career choices, or in students’ variables of interest related to their choice actions. Since school districts have struggled with personnel shortages for a long time, it may be interesting to learn how districts have addressed their recruitment and retention needs. Finally, specific minority groups could be investigated to identify how they are impacted by various learning experiences and what effect those experiences might have on their choice intentions.

Issues after Entering a Career in School Psychology

Entering a new career after graduation is typically a period of adjustment. Guest (2000) conducted interviews with a group of school psychologists who indicated that time management, internal feelings of inadequacy, and consultation skills were the most common difficulties they had experienced as novices. School psychologists most frequently cited colleagues as the source for help in responding to difficulties. The same participants also reported that increased tolerance, empathy, self-knowledge, confidence, knowledge and skills were changes they had most often experienced during their careers. These changes were helpful in adjusting to a new career and prerequisites for becoming successful in it.

Early career school psychologists are more likely to become successful in their careers when they participate in professional development and training. A recent survey reported that early career school psychologists had a strong interest in a variety of professional development topics, such as developing short- and long-term career plans and work-life balance (Arora, Brown, Harris, & Sullivan, 2017). In addition, the participants reported interest in various training formats, such as workshops and conferences. While professional organizations, like NASP, were reported to meet the needs of early career school psychologists moderately well, the participants also looked to a number of other sources for their professional development (Arora et at., 2017).

Having access to supervision and mentoring is another key aspect of career development among school psychologists. In a recent survey of 700 school psychologists, only 38% reported having adequate access to supervision (Silva, Newman, Guiney, Valley-Gray, & Barrett, 2016). The barriers most commonly mentioned were shortage of time, as well as availability and proximity to a supervisor. Because of the lack of supervision and mentoring opportunities, nearly 30% of the participants had felt pressure to practice in areas that they felt were outside of their competence (Silva et al., 2016). Not only does the lack of supervision and mentoring make it more difficult for new school psychologists to gain competence in a variety of areas but it can also become an ethical issue, as professional ethics require school psychologists to practice within the boundaries of their competence.

A significant part of a school psychologist’s job is related to assessing students for various disabilities. The most common of these is the specific learning disability (SLD). A study by Cottrell and Barrett (2015) set out to understand how assessment practices relate to overall job satisfaction. Their survey of nearly 500 school psychologists indicated that while about 60% of the participants were generally satisfied with the SLD assessment practices in their school districts, the levels of job satisfaction varied depending on the SLD identification method (Cottrell & Barrett, 2015). Interestingly, those using RTI for SLD identification experienced slightly lower levels of job satisfaction than those using the discrepancy model. The same study reported high satisfaction related to working with others on assessments and lower satisfaction regarding school guidelines on assessment practices.

Job satisfaction is an important factor in retention of school psychologists who have traditionally reported high job satisfaction rates. They are paid fairly well, have generally good benefits, and get more time off than professionals working in other fields. A study done in 2006 looked at trends in job satisfaction among school psychologists over more than two decades (Worrell, Skaggs, & Brown, 2006). The participants reported a slight increase in overall job satisfaction from already high levels. They were most satisfied with the independence, social service, and values aspects of their jobs, and also very satisfied with their co-workers and job activities. In addition, the participants reported improved satisfaction in the areas of compensation, job security, and working conditions (Worrell et al., 2006). Consistent with previous studies, some job dissatisfaction was reported in relation to career advancement opportunities and school system policies and practices.

While job satisfaction rates are generally high in the field, school psychologists are not immune to job burnout. Job burnout is defined as a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion related to one’s work. A recent survey studied job burnout among school psychologists and found that most participants (90%) had experienced feelings of burnout at some point in their careers, most often due to a role overload and lack of support from administration (Schilling, Randolph, & Boan-Lenzo, 2018). Burnout can lead to such negative consequences as stress and emotional strain, imbalance between work and life, and in some cases, exiting one’s job or field of employment (Schilling et al, 2018). School psychologists may be increasingly vulnerable to job burnout given the increase in caseloads in recent years, the lingering shortage of qualified psychologists, and the pressure put on school staff because of that (Schilling et al, 2018). Support from colleagues or one’s direct supervisor is often more helpful in preventing or responding to burnout than support from friends or family (Schilling et al, 2018).

Practicing school psychologists can also suffer from job dissatisfaction and burnout due to administrative pressure to practice unethically. Nearly one-third of school psychologists who participated in a study by Boccio, Weisz, and Lefkowitz (2016) reported having been pressured to act improperly in their practice. Administrative pressure to agree with inappropriate placement decisions or to withhold recommendations for support services were the most common issues experienced (Boccio et al., 2016). Such directives create not only ethical problems for practicing school psychologists but also negatively impact levels of job satisfaction and burnout, and can lead to attrition. Self-care, support from colleagues, and fostering positive relationships with superiors are some productive ways of dealing with such pressures at work (Boccio et al., 2016).

Further research has been suggested in a number of areas related to practicing school psychologists. For example, it would be interesting to know why some early career professionals seek supervision opportunities and others do not. It may be helpful to study supervision and mentoring separately and identify best practices associated with positive outcomes for each. Another area to investigate further would be administrative pressure and its role in job burnout and the desire to exit the field. It may be interesting to look into why using RTI for SLD identification was associated with lower levels of job satisfaction than those using the discrepancy approach. Finally, investigating outcomes associated with dissatisfaction related to the assessment aspects of the school psychologists’ job could help us understand whether they contribute to personnel turnover and shortages.

Career Pathways for Veteran School Psychologists

As mentioned earlier, school psychologists are generally happy with their career choice and satisfied in their jobs. Other than for retirement, overall attrition rates are quite low, although exact figures are difficult to find. Most researchers estimate that 5% of practicing school psychologists leave the field each year (Wilczenski, 1997). It is interesting to note that attrition rates vary at different career stages, and that attrition among school psychologists seem to differ from attrition among teachers. Teachers usually leave early in their careers, while school psychologists typically leave later (Wilczenski, 1997). School psychologists seem to leave in the greatest numbers when they have six to ten years of experience (8.5% attrition rate), followed by those with 11 to 15 years of experience (Wilczenski, 1997). During the first five years and after 15 years of experience, attrition is very low, except for retirements.

Most school psychologists have worked in another field prior to entering school psychology. The Wilczenski (1997) study found out that nearly half of those entering school psychology had prior experience in education. Of those with education experience, a third had been regular classroom teachers, 15% had been special education teachers, and a small percentage had been counselors. The remaining 46% reported multiple positions in teaching, counseling, or administration (Wilczenski, 1997). Of those entering school psychology, a third indicated an uninterrupted career track, meaning that they had not come from other professions. Eighty-six percent of respondents said they would “definitely” or “maybe” choose to enter school psychology again, while 18% said that they planned to exit the field in the next five years (Wilczenski, 1997).

Understanding aspects of the background of practicing school psychologists is helpful in investigating their career options. For some school psychologists, a move into administration may look as an attractive option after they have practiced for a while. However, since there are no formal career advancement opportunities for school psychologists, most often the only viable option for those looking for a career change is to move to a different school district. The shortage of qualified school psychologists makes it relatively easy to find new opportunities in different geographical areas.

One career option available to school psychologists with doctorate degrees is a career in academia. According to a survey done at the University of Texas at Austin, graduate students were drawn to academic careers because of a perceived variety in job responsibilities (Stark, Perfect, Simpson, Schnoebelen, & Glenn, 2004). On the other hand, students who chose applied practice often did so because of their desire to work directly with children. In either case, students made their choice based on their interests and what they thought was a better fit for them, rather than trying to avoid aspects of either career path (Stark et al., 2004).

Some topics for future research in this area include investigating gender and geographic differences in attrition rates and reasons for leaving the profession. Also, one could study whether there are distinct stages in the development of school psychologists, and if so, what experiences would be helpful at various points in their careers. Lastly, one could examine the impact of personnel shortages on the school psychologists’ capacity to deliver comprehensive services.


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Boccio, D. E., Weisz, G., & Lefkowitz, R. (2016). Administrative pressure to practice unethically and burnout within the profession of school psychology. Psychology in the Schools, 53(6), 659-672.

Bocanegra, J. O., Gubi, A. A., Callan, G. L., & Clayson, E. (2019). The impact of video exposure on students entering school psychology. Psychology in the Schools, 56(8), 1287-1300.

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Bocanegra, J. O., Newell, M. L., & Gubi, A. A. (2016). Racial/ethnic minority undergraduate psychology majors’ perceptions about school psychology: Implications for minority recruitment. Contemporary School Psychology, 20(3), 270-281.

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