How to Become a Behavioral Psychologist: Career Roadmap

Mar 04, 2020

Learn how to become a behavioral psychologist. Research the education and career requirements, licensure information, and experience required for starting a career in behavioral psychology.

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Should I Become a Behavioral Psychologist?

Behavioral psychologists use research-based learning theories to help patients modify their behaviors, and use behavior therapy to treat anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, and mental illness. The field is sometimes also known as cognitive-behavioral psychology.

Psychologists who work from a private practice have the ability to set their own hours, but most psychologists work on a full-time basis. The individual practitioner may choose to offer weekend or evening hours to his or her clients. Those that are employed by other organizations, including hospitals, in-patient mental health facilities, and schools, will likely work full-time schedules during regular business hours. There is a small amount of risk associated with careers in the field of mental health, especially for those who are working directly with patients who may become agitated or physically aggressive.

Career Requirements

Degree Level | Doctoral degree required for clinical psychologists

Degree Field Psychology
Experience 1-3 years of experience in the field
Licensing/Certification State license required to practice; certification optional but common
Key Skills Strong verbal and written communication, analytical, observational, and problem-solving skills; knowledge of research and data collection
Median Annual Salary (May 2018) $76,990 (for all Psychologists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Board of Professional Psychology

Clinical psychologists are required to have a doctoral degree in a field such as psychology. They should also have 1-3 years of experience in the field, as well as state licensure. Some key skills associated with the career include strong verbal and written communication skills, analytical skills, observational skills, and problem-solving skills. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists earned a median annual salary of $76,990 in 2018.

Earn a Bachelor's Degree

As mentioned earlier, psychologists are required to take a doctoral degree. It is not, however, mandatory for psychologists to have an undergraduate degree in psychology, although students without a bachelor's degree in psychology may be required to take prerequisites when pursuing graduate study. Many schools do offer bachelor's degree programs in psychology, which include courses in general, developmental and behavioral psychology. In addition, students usually take courses in research methods and statistics.

Although some students pursue a master's degree prior to their doctorate, it is common for many aspiring clinical psychologists to apply directly to a doctoral degree program. Students still have to take graduate admission tests, write personal essays and get recommendations. Undergraduates may need to begin preparation for applying to graduate school during their junior year.

Earn a Doctoral Degree

To meet the eligibility requirements to become a licensed clinical or counseling psychologist, students generally must earn a Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology or a Doctor of Psychology. These degree programs focus more on patient treatment rather than just research. At this level, students can choose coursework in cognitive and behavioral studies, as well as a specialized research area. Students can also take coursework in assessment techniques, psychopathology and developmental psychology. Students may be required to complete a thesis and will likely be required to complete a dissertation. Clinical psychologists must also complete a 1-year internship as a requirement for graduation.

To become eligible for certification, psychologists must present proof of coursework in cognitive psychology, as well as proof of supervision in the area. Students should work closely with an advisor or trusted faculty member to chart a course that can ultimately lead them to certification.

Gain Supervised Experience

Behavioral psychologists will need up to two years of supervised postdoctoral experience to receive their license or become certified. This experience should focus on one or more areas of behavioral psychology. Although some states provide provisional licenses for postdoctoral psychologists, most require that psychologists have the experience prior to receiving their license. Students can gain experience through a residency or fellowship that focuses on cognitive behavior.

Become Licensed

To work as a clinical or counseling psychologist, individuals must be licensed by their state. Although the details of licensing requirements vary by state, students generally must earn a doctoral degree and supervised experience. To be licensed, individuals must also pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). Some states offer licenses according to an applicant's psychological specialty.

Earn Certification

Behavioral psychologists can earn certification from the American Board of Professional Psychology, which will provide recognition of competence, distinguish a psychologist's specialty expertise, and ensure stronger opportunities for employment and career growth. Individuals must submit proof of coursework and experience (including an internship) in cognitive and behavioral psychology. In addition, they must submit reference letters from supervisors or colleagues. Applicants also have to pass an oral exam.

Psychologists usually need to earn continuing education credits to maintain their certification or licensure. These requirements can vary by state. Credits typically can be earned through online or in-person courses and workshops.

Behavioral psychologists must have a doctoral degree, experience, and state licensure to work in their field. Master's degree programs in psychology and certifications are also available.

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