Become a Cognitive Psychologist: Education and Career Information

Aug 26, 2018

In this lesson, you'll learn how to become a cognitive psychologist. You'll discover the job description and education requirements, and find out how to start a career in cognitive psychology.

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  • 0:03 Cognitive Psychologists
  • 0:47 Earn a Bachelor's Degree
  • 2:47 Earn a Doctoral Degree
  • 3:53 Complete a…

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Cognitive Psychologists

Cognitive psychology is the study of internal mental processes that affect behavior. These processes include memory, perception, learning, and information processing. Individuals studying cognitive psychology usually work in research and academic settings. Many psychologists are self-employed, and weekend or evening hours may be required. Others are in clinical practice either at a hospital, community clinic, or private clinic. Some cognitive psychologists work in academic settings conducting research, teaching, serving as academic advisers, and training graduate students.

Degree Level Ph.D.
Degree Field Cognitive psychology; sub-fields might include cognitive neuroscience, cognitive neuropsychology, computational cognitive science, or another field of cognitive psychology
Experience 1-2 year post-doctoral fellowship is often recommended and may be necessary to develop the research record required for many academic positions
Key Skills Analytical skills, critical thinking skills, teaching skills, mentoring skills, patience, excellent listening skills, research skills
Additional Requirements Commitment to scholarship, ability to establish grant-supported research, record of publication
Salary (2015) $94,590 (median salary for all psychologists)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Students who want to pursue a career in cognitive psychology have various choices for study at the bachelor's degree level. One option is to major in psychology and take a large breadth of psychology classes and advanced courses in cognitive psychology. Students may also major in another field, such as computer science, chemistry, or biology, making sure to take introductory-level courses in abnormal psychology, personality psychology, statistics, research methodology, and cognitive psychology. Such courses will assist the student in learning the fundamentals prior to graduate school.

Students should also look for campus organizations for psychology students. Psychology-oriented student groups, such as Psi Chi, the international honor society for students of psychology, can offer opportunities to build a professional network and gain exposure to new research by attending conferences. These types of opportunities can help students refine their research interests and develop relationships with professionals who might be able to offer advice or recommendations for graduate school applications.

It's also a good idea to look for opportunities to participate in research as early as possible. Cognitive psychology is primarily a research field as opposed to a clinical practice field. Working as a research assistant can help students learn to think creatively about research questions, understand effective research methodology, and analyze data. It also can help them stay abreast of cutting-edge research. Research assistants also have an opportunity to be mentored by one or more professors.

Remember to stay organized when applying for graduate school. Graduate school applications can be complicated, and the application requirements vary from school to school. Students can stay organized by creating a list of all of their potential programs and their corresponding application requirements. Students should pay particular attention to deadlines for taking the Graduate Record Examination, asking for letters of recommendation, and writing personal statements.

Earn a Doctoral Degree

Ph.D. programs in cognitive psychology usually consist of two to three years of advanced coursework and two to four years of researching and writing a dissertation. Coursework at the Ph.D. level is usually highly individualized and determined in conjunction with an academic adviser. Many doctoral students also serve as teaching assistants in order to build their teaching skills. In addition, most, if not all, Ph.D. programs are free to students because the university requires them to teach for the school and conduct research. This can be incredibly useful for students concerned about the financial stressors of attending graduate school. In addition, students can receive their master's degree while in a doctoral program.

Attending conferences and presenting research is also part of a well-rounded doctoral program. Effectively communicating research findings to an audience can help a student demonstrate a commitment to research and publication and build a professional reputation. Conferences also offer an opportunity to expand one's professional network and stay on top of new research in one's field.

Complete a Post-Doctoral Placement

Research fellowships after the Ph.D. program give early-career psychologists an opportunity to develop a professional identity in the field of cognitive psychology. Completing a fellowship can help students develop a robust record of research and publication, which is often a requirement for entry-level professorships at academic institutions.

Recent graduates should look for an appropriate mentor for the post-doctoral fellowship. The mentor can affect the quality of the post-doctoral experience. It's important that each Ph.D. graduate finds a mentor with an effective didactic style and support system that meshes with the student's own working style.

Students must also make sure to communicate with their mentors about their specific goals and objectives often. Most students want to reach certain milestones during their fellowship, such as publishing research findings with one's name listed as the primary researcher. Communicating clearly about these career goals can help avoid misunderstandings and increase chances that the goals are met and that the fellowship is successful.

Remember, in order to become a cognitive psychologist, you must complete an undergraduate program, earn a doctoral degree in cognitive psychology, and finish a professional fellowship, under the supervision of an experienced psychologist.

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