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Become a Research Psychologist: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a research psychologist. Research the education requirements, training and licensure information and experience required for starting a career in research psychology. View article »

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  • 0:02 Should I Become a…
  • 0:38 Career Overview
  • 1:25 Steps

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Video Transcript

Should I Become a Research Psychologist?

Many research psychologists work in academic settings, and some work in private industry. Those working in academic settings will likely have responsibilities outside of conducting research related to psychology. They may fill roles such as teaching undergraduate and graduate coursework, serving as academic advisors to undergraduates or training graduate students in research methods and clinical techniques. Others work in independent research, which may be quite a solitary profession. Conducting research within an academic setting may be stressful, on occasion, because of time requirements and deadlines.

Career Overview

Degree Level Doctoral degree; Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is usually preferred, but some clinical psychology students may consider a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.)
Degree Field Any field of psychology, such as cognitive, clinical, social, developmental, experimental or personality, depending on desired specialty
Licensure/Certification Required in most states to practice psychology or use the job title
Experience Internship or fellowship is required for licensure
Key Skills Analytical skills; the ability to teach (for academic positions); extensive knowledge of the human mind and anatomy of the brain
Salary $72,580 (2015 median for all psychologists)

Sources: Job postings (July 2012), U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Research psychologists typically hold a doctoral degree in a field of psychology, such as cognitive, clinical, social, developmental, experimental, or personality, depending on their specialty. This career path usually requires an internship or fellowship in order to qualify for state licensure.

People who pursue a career in research psychology have strong analytical skills, the ability to teach if they plan on seeking academic employment, and extensive knowledge of the human mind and anatomy of the brain.

In May 2015, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that psychologists in general earned a median annual salary of $72,580.

Steps to be a Research Psychologist

There are several steps to becoming a research psychologist.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The first step to becoming a research psychologist is earning a bachelor's degree in psychology or a related field. Students who are certain that they want to pursue a psychology career should consider majoring in psychology so that they can take advanced coursework and begin to develop specific research interests. Students can also pursue a different major, while taking core courses, such as introductory psychology, abnormal psychology, personality psychology and statistics.

There are some ways to stand out as an undergraduate:

Join Psi Chi or Another Psychology-Oriented Student Group

Psi Chi is the international honors society for students of psychology. Joining such an organization can provide opportunities to network with professional psychologists and gain exposure to work and volunteer opportunities related to psychology.

Look for Opportunities to Work on Research

It is advantageous for students interested in research psychology to gain experience with psychological research during their undergraduate years. Working in research can help students develop interests within the field of psychology. This can help with graduate school admissions, since most schools like to see applicants who have specific goals and interests. Working closely with professors and graduate students in research labs can also give a student contacts for letters of recommendation.

Create an Application Timeline

There are many steps in applying to graduate school, and students will need to stay organized to meet all of the requirements. Creating a list of potential graduate schools and finding out about each school's application requirements will increase the chances of having successful applications. An application timeline should include key steps such as asking for letters of recommendation, studying for and taking the Graduate Record Examination and writing personal statements.

Step 2: Earn a Doctoral Degree

A Ph.D. is the industry-standard degree requirement for research psychology positions. By the time students apply for graduate school, they should be familiar with the different sub areas of psychology, such as cognitive, neuroscience, personality, social and clinical psychology. Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) programs usually consist of 2-3 years of advanced coursework, followed by 2-4 years of conducting research and writing a dissertation. A Ph.D. program can train students to think critically, conduct research, teach undergraduate coursework and, in the case of clinical psychology programs, practice therapy.

Individuals who want to study clinical or counseling psychology have the option to complete a Ph.D. or a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) program. Although Psy.D. programs are traditionally more practice-oriented, many offer substantial opportunities to conduct original research. Which program to attend depends on a student's career goals, the research interests of the programs being considered, and which program is an overall better fit.

Take Opportunities to Attend Conferences

To get ahead as a graduate student take opportunities to attend conferences. Attending conferences will help students network with other professional psychologists, and those contacts could help when they are looking for a post-doctoral fellowship or internship.

Step 3: Complete a Post-Doctoral Placement or Internship

Research fellowships are available for graduates of doctoral programs. A post-doctoral placement allows students to develop their identity as professional research psychologists and to further build their portfolio of independent research projects. Completing an internship accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) allows clinical and counseling psychologists to complete the required number of supervised practice hours that are necessary for licensure.

Make the most of your post-doctoral work:

Find a Suitable Mentor for the Post-Doctoral Fellowship

A student's mentor could determine the quality of the post-doctoral experience. Finding a mentor with a mentoring style that meshes with the student's own working style is important for ensuring a successful fellowship.

Consider Goals and Objectives

Most students will have specific research goals they want to reach during the post-doctoral fellowship. For example, publishing research findings in well-respected journals and having one's name listed as the author who was the primary researcher is important for securing future employment. Students should communicate openly with their mentors about their goals and their progress in reaching them.

Learn the Licensure Requirements

Clinical and counseling psychologists will have to meet requirements for state licensure. How many hours of supervised and unsupervised clinical work are required for licensure varies by state, so an internship placement may need to be adjusted to meet a particular state's requirements.

Step 4: Apply for Licensure

Psychologists who will provide counseling services need to have state licensure. State licensure requirements vary by state. Typical requirements include direct clinical work, a transcript from an approved doctoral program and a passing grade on a state examination. Obtaining a license will allow for job placement and advancement in the field. Licensed psychologists can open their own practice and gain a client base.

Research psychologists must earn bachelor's and doctoral degrees and complete an internship or fellowship before earning state licensure, which prepares them to use their strong analytical skills and knowledge of the human mind and anatomy of the brain while working in academia, private industry, or private practice.

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