Specialization: Is it Necessary?

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Specialization: Is it Necessary?

I remember the first time I saw the letters ABPP after the Ph.D. of one of my supervisor’s names in graduate school.  When I asked more about this, I was told that one of the keys to success as a psychologist was to become board-certified in a specialty.  

So all these years later, I sit here, licensed, still without the ABPP behind my name.  And I still have that advice lurking in the back of my mind, telling me that to really be successful, it is necessary.  But is it?


Job Security

There comes some level of job security when you have a specialization.  Being board certified may make it easier to get approved as a provider for insurance companies, as many are now asking this of applicants.  If your practice takes insurance, then this is really something to consider.

Likewise, some medical centers or hospitals require board certification for privileges.  If having hospital privileges is important to your practice, then this is definitely something to consider.    

Known as the Expert/Referrals

We all, at some point, want to know who to go to when we have a specific problem or want help.  By specializing, you can be known amongst your colleagues and community as that “go-to” therapist.  You’ll have people saying, “you have to see Dr. X”, whenever someone starts talking about how much they’re struggling with ….insomnia…marital problems…whatever your specialty is.  Over time, by being known as the one who treats something so specific, referrals can come without you even trying.  

Furthermore, once you are board-certified, you can access ABPP online resources for even more networking and referrals.  


When you offer specialized treatment, those clients who are seeking you out are doing so very deliberately.  They know why they are coming to you and want your help.  They did not just pick any old name out of the phone book.  Your extra training and the time you spent to be able to provide such specialized treatment is worth more. 

Having board certification distinguishes you from other psychologists. 

Having this validates your background, training, and experience.  Whether it is another colleague or a potential client searching for help, once they see you are board-certified and others are not, you will automatically stand out.  



People choose their specialty for many reasons. But even someone who chose a specialty that they found fascinating runs the risk of limiting themselves during their career.  Even if someone chooses to specialize in school psychology, for instance, they may not only want to practice within this specialization for the next 20 years.  But if they are successful due to the consistent stream of referrals and calls coming in due to being known as the local school psychologist, that just may be what happens.  

Financial difficulties

Whereas I mentioned above that specializing can potentially be a pro to specializing, it can also be a con.  Sometimes having a specialty can negatively impact how many referrals or calls you may get.  Just because you have a specialty, it does not necessarily mean that is the only focus of your practice. But a potential client or referring colleague may assume otherwise and not contact you. For example, if you are board-certified in group psychology, someone may erroneously assume that you do not see individuals. So, they contact another therapist, and you miss out on a new client.    

Board certification is also a process that takes time, commitment and money

 The time to complete the application and examination processes can be quite lengthy.  There are fees required for the application, exam(s), and annual maintenance.  And, if certified after January 2015, there is a requirement to demonstrate maintenance of certification every 10 years. 

So, does specializing as a therapist bring success?  As with most things, the answer is not cut and dry.  If you are a psychologist out there wondering if you need to go the extra step to get board-certified and specialize, first consider some of the pros and cons.  Certainly, there is no right or wrong answer.  I look at other specialties, like being a Christian Counselor, and see that a license is not needed yet they are still considered a specialist in this field.  There is just what feels right for you and what you believe will be best for you and your practice.

If you are looking to grow your practice and already have a specialty you may want to check out these 3 reasons why your practice may not be growing.

Cristina Castagnini, Ph.D., CEDS, is a licensed psychologist and is recognized as a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist by the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP). She graduated with honors, earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from The University of California, Santa Cruz, her Master’s Degree in clinical psychology (with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy) from Pepperdine University, and her doctoral degree in counseling psychology at the University of Southern California. Find out more here.