Become a Biological Psychologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Jul 16, 2018

There are multiple educational pathways you can take to become a biological psychologist, depending on the career you choose. Find out about the different research career options and what to expect from the graduate degree programs that you must finish in order to qualify for a job in this field.

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Should I Become a Biological Psychologist?

Biological psychology, also known as behavioral neuroscience, is concerned with exploring the biological underpinnings of psychological phenomena, such as memory, cognition, learning, and emotion. Biological psychologists usually do research in academic settings. Many biological psychologists who work in academic settings will have responsibilities outside of research. They may teach, serve as academic advisors or train graduate students. Therefore, those who plan to work in academia will want to gain teaching experience alongside their research experience.

Career Requirements

Degree Level PhD
Degree Field Biological psychology or behavioral neuroscience
Experience 1-2 year post-doctoral fellowship for entry-level professorships
Key Skills Analytical, writing, critical thinking, teaching, mentoring, collaboration
Salary $76,390 per year (mean salary for Postsecondary Teachers as of May 2014)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree with some exposure to psychology is a prerequisite for graduate school. Students may want to major in psychology in order to take as many classes as possible in the discipline. A major in a related subject area, such as biology or chemistry, is another choice, as long as some psychology coursework is included. Introductory level courses in statistics, research methods and, if available, biological psychology are also important.

Success Tips:

  • Join an on-campus group for psychology students. Organizations such as Psi Chi, the international honors society for psychology students, present opportunities to meet professional psychologists and attend conferences. Involvement in a group may help define psychology interests, as well as providing academic contacts for advice when applying to graduate school.
  • Participate in research as early as possible. Biological psychology is primarily a research field, as opposed to a clinical practice field. Working or volunteering as a research assistant can demonstrate the ability to conduct research and help develop specific goals, both of which are needed for admittance to graduate school. Research mentors may also be able to supply letters of recommendation.
  • Create an application timeline. Graduate school applications have many requirements, which vary by institution. Get organized early on in the process by creating a list of all potential programs and their specific requirements. Keep key steps in mind, such as studying for and taking the Graduate Record Examination, asking for letters of recommendation and writing personal statements.

Step 2: Earn a Doctoral Degree

PhD programs typically require 2-3 years of advanced coursework, as well as 2-4 years devoted to research and writing a dissertation. Coursework is usually determined by individual interest and need, although some courses, such as research methods and statistics, are taken by most students. Most PhD programs also include instruction in teaching.

Success Tip:

  • Look for opportunities to attend and present research at conferences. Presenting research contributes to a professional reputation, along with developing poise and communication skills. Conferences also provide the chance to expand professional networks and learn about new research.

Step 3: Complete a Post-Doctoral Placement

Most PhD graduates follow their doctoral training with a research fellowship. Fellowships give new psychologists the chance to develop a professional identity and build a portfolio of published research. A successful fellowship prepares psychologists for permanent positions at academic institutions.

Success Tips:

  • Find a suitable mentor for the post-doctoral fellowship. Fellowship mentors have a big impact on the success of a post-doctoral experience. Look for someone with a compatible working style and good communication skills.
  • Understand the fellowship parameters. Once a mentor is on board, clearly discuss expectations, goals and objectives, such as authorship of research publications, teaching responsibilities and research project funding.

Step 4: Find a Position and Pursue Tenure

Typically, a biological psychologist would first find a job, within a university system, as an assistant professor. They would then become an associate professor and ultimately a professor. The ideal goal is to become a professor with tenure. Tenure is job security in that it ensures a professor cannot be fired over something that is out of their hands.

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