How to Become a Genetic Psychologist

What is Genetic Psychology?

Genetic psychology, or behavioral biology, looks at the genes that, along with environment, influence personality. How people think and act is determined by both the DNA with which they were born and the events going on around them. Studies of identical twins and children growing up in the same and different environments have shown a complex interaction between children’s genes and environment that forms their personalities.

What Does a Genetic Psychologist Do?

Genetic psychologists conduct studies of behavior and genes to tease out the influence certain genes have upon how children grow up and how their personalities develop. Some day it might be possible to conduct genetic studies at birth to determine what kind of environment, i.e. what kind of nutrition or what kind of behavioral training and education a child with a given set of genes needs to thrive and achieve his or her full potential. Genetic psychologists are looking for new knowledge to make that goal a reality.

Genetic psychologists mostly are involved in research and academics. While usually employed by a University, they have both teaching responsibilities in addition to activities that revolve around their research. There are a few independent research facilities that employ genetic psychologists but the majority are employed by universities. In addition to any academic responsibilities, like teaching, advising, and mentoring, research related activities can include:

  • Grant Writing
  • Researching Previous Studies
  • Developing a Research Study
  • Data Collection and Interpretation
  • Present and Publishing Findings

It is uncommon for a genetic psychologist to work alone. The research team can be made up of psychologists, neurobiologists, other scientists, lab technicians, and graduate students among others involved in the research. Research can also be done by graduate students working on their advanced degrees and supervised by faculty.

Unlike a clinical Psychologist, genetic psychologists focus on how genetics play a part in human development. They look for the genetic link to a behavior, illness or future needs. They do not council individuals but supply the research needed for others in the field of psychology. For the basis of their studies, genetic psychologists will look at specific population groups. These can be:

  • Identical Twins
  • Those with a family history of mental health
  • Those exhibiting a personality trait that is being studied
  • Control subjects (those not with the family history or personality trait)

They compare their test subject’s DNA to see if there is a specific gene (or genes) that are related to a trait, medical condition, or ability. They use the scientific method to prove or disprove their hypothesis and publish the results so that the entire field of psychology and biology can benefit. They are answering the age old question: nature versus nurture or in other words: genetic verses environment. With the information gathered, they and others in the field of psychology can eventually use the research to predict the strengths and weaknesses of individuals long before there is a problem or to be able to take full advantage of the strength.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become a Genetic Psychologist?

The first stepping stone for becoming a genetic psychologist is undergraduate school. Many four year universities offer courses in psychology, biology, genetics, and biochemistry. Some universities, such as Columbia, offer combined majors in psychology and biology for students wanting to study the science of behavior. Courses offered for the combined major include neurscience of behavior and physiology of stress. UCLA offers a major in psychobiology with courses in biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology. Neuroscience, developmental biology, and physiology are among the course offerings. Stanford University offers courses in cognition and the brain, cognitive  neuroscience,  in its undergraduate psychology program.

Undergraduates majoring in psychology and wanting to become genetic psychologists should plan to complete as many classes as possible in the biology of the the brain and behavior. High school students thinking of genetic psychology as a field of study would do well to look up what courses are offered and discuss them with college counselors prior to choosing a university.

Graduate Programs

After the student achieves his or her bachelor’s degree he or she will need to progress to graduate school. Graduate schools look at applicants’ undergraduate grades, letters from faculty, and test results to determine which candidates are likely to do well in their doctoral programs. The Graduate Records Examination is required for application into some programs. Undergraduates should consult the catalogs of schools in which they are interested and speak to graduate school faculty members about what requirements must be met for entrance.

PhD

Once admitted to a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) program, the graduate student is required to choose a faculty adviser and graduate committee to help him or her plan and carry out a research study. In planning a study the student needs to choose a specific area where little is known, formulate a hypothesis, and try to answer a specific question in genetic psychology. The question could have to do with a certain gene thought to be related to a certain psychological characteristic, such as aggression or shyness.

The PhD candidate might then look for volunteers showing the characteristic of interest and compare their genetic makeup with control participants who do not have the characteristic under study. Twin studies can also be illuminating. Identical twins of patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, for example, have a much higher risk of developing the illness than individuals without a positive family history of schizophrenia.

After the student has carried out his or her study and analyzed the results, he or she will be required to present those results and a final conclusion to the faculty committee. At that time the faculty committee will vote on whether to grant the candidate his or her diploma. The report should be eligible for publication in a scientific journal of biology or behavioral science.

What are the Career Opportunities in Genetic Psychology?

Universities, as seats of learning, are also important institutions for research. A PhD who can achieve a teaching position will have facilities and time available for research, as well as the opportunity to apply for research grants. Recently researchers at the University of Western Ontario in Canada published a paper on genetic analysis in twins and their levels of emotional intelligence. Research institutes also offer opportunities for genetic psychologists. Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have looked at the causes of genetic diseases and their effect upon cognition and behavior.

What is the Salary of a Genetic Psychologist?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the average salary for a biological scientist as $74,050 per year. The Bureau goes on to list the average salary for a biology professor as $86,060 per year. Many individuals function as both scientists and teachers.

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