Physiological Psychologist Career Guide

The Basics

Have you ever wondered about the difference between the brain and the mind, and how they affect our actions? Scientists in the field of physiological psychology study the relationship between the brain and a person’s behavior. They focus on the biological basis of behavior, and not the social influences that concern other types of psychologists. Physiological psychologists take on issues like the nature of consciousness and emotions.

The field began when scientists noticed that an individual’s behavior changed when areas of the brain were damaged. They found that people who sustained brain injuries through accidents and other means often act differently, and they set about finding out how specific areas of the physical brain caused certain types of behavior.

It has long been known that each section of the brain specializes on a specific aspect, with visual and auditory senses residing in the temporal lobe and problem-solving and motor function residing in the frontal lobe. The spinal cord, part of the nervous system, connects the brain with other parts of the body. Physiological psychologists believe that once we recognize how the nervous system works, we will able to understand how people think, how they perceive information, how they remember and how they behave.

What is a Physiological Psychologist?

Physiological psychologists are biological psychologists who conduct research and diagnose emotional and behavior disorders. They focus on connecting what we say and do with the actual physical operation of the brain cells, structures and chemistry. Physiological psychologists also study how people receive information through the five senses and they conduct research in order to develop theories about brain-behavior relationships.

Physiological psychologists take a practical approach to discover how the nervous system relates to other body systems and how the brain produces a particular behavior. Scientists in the field of physiological psychology believe that a person’s mind is a result of workings of the nervous system. Physiological psychologists deal with issues like emotions, sleep, the senses, learning and memory, communication, ingestion and reproductive behavior. They also focus on neurological disorders, and study psychopharmacology to determine how drugs impact the brain.

What Does a Physiological Psychologist Do?

Physiological psychologists use a range of techniques to conduct research and help people with brain injuries. Technological advances for machinery that allows us to view the brain, such as the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and the PET scan (Positron Emission Tomography) can be used to visualize the functional activity and the physical structures of the brain. A person with brain damage can benefit from an MRI to diagnose which section of the brain was injured. The physiological psychologist then determines the corresponding effect on the person’s behavior.

Physiological psychologists conduct research on people who are undergoing surgery for other conditions like epilepsy and cancer. Physiological psychologists conduct research by interviewing conscious brain surgery patients while different parts of the brain are stimulated to learn about brain function. This approach is possible because of the lack of nerve endings inside the brain, so patients do not feel pain. However, MRI’s are a more accurate and less invasive means of obtaining data for research.

Physiological psychologists may also perform animal research, a controversial ethical issue. This practice is opposed by animal rights groups and others. Animal researchers follow ethical guidelines for the care and treatment of animals and research findings are helpful to many people, yet there is some suffering to the animal subjects. Animal experimentations conducted by physiological psychologists have yielded information about disorders including Parkinson’s disease, strokes, schizophrenia, anorexia and anxiety disorders.

Why Do We Need Physiological Psychologists?

We need physiological psychologists to help us understand the relationship between the brain and the rest of the body. Physiological psychologists help us understand the mind and self-awareness. They examine the role of natural selection in the evolution of human and animal behavior, and they attempt to find out how people take in information, how they think and how they commit thoughts to memory. Physiological psychologists look into the relationship between communication and consciousness, they conduct research to help people who have brain damage, and they focus on ways that drugs affect consciousness.

Research findings by physiological psychologists have far-reaching implications for teaching and learning, helping people recover from brain injuries, and finding treatments to help people with neurological disorders like manic depression, obesity, substance abuse problems, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, anorexia nervosa and Parkinson’s disease. The results of their studies can also be use to develop treatments for people with psychosomatic illnesses, obsessions and compulsions, depression and phobias.

Where Do Physiological Psychologists Work?

A great many physiological psychologists are employed by universities, where they conduct research and teach students. The research may be based on animal studies, and study results may have implications for treating people with such disorders as dementia.

Other physiological psychologists are employed by private research laboratories, pharmaceutical companies or by the government. They analyze the data they obtain from experiments to find the answers to questions in human psychology. Research results may be published in an academic journal such as Pharmacology or Journal of Neuroscience. Physiological psychologists in these positions are required to have a doctoral degree as well as several years of post-doctoral experienced under the supervision of an experienced researcher.

What Degree is Required to Become a Physiological Psychologist?

Like other psychologists, physiological psychologists are required to earn a bachelor’s degree, a doctoral degree and complete a post-doctoral fellowship. The Ph.D. or Doctor of Psychology degree is a research degree that requires a dissertation based on original research and a comprehensive examination. A one to two year fellowship is required for an entry level professorship.

Earning a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite to be admitted to graduate school. Aspiring physiological psychologists typically major in psychology or a related subject area like chemistry or biology. Additional coursework in statistics, biological psychology and research methods are recommended. Ph.D. programs generally require two to three years of advanced coursework and two to four years of research prior to writing a dissertation. Students generally take courses in research methods and statistics. Many Ph.D. courses provide instruction in teaching as well.

Ph.D. graduates obtain fellowships to have the opportunity to build a portfolio of published research to prepare them for positions at an academic institution. The post doctoral fellowship provides experience and takes one to two years to complete.

Physiological psychologists generally must obtain a license to practice, although requirements vary by state and by the position. The Association of State and Provincial Licensing Boards provides specific information on the requirements by state. The American Board of Professional Neuropsychology offers a certification in neuropsychology. Board certification, while not a specific requirement for some positions, can show professional expertise in a specialty area. Some employers do require certification as well as a license and a doctoral degree.

What Does it Take to Become a Physiological Psychologist?

  • Curiosity and Creative Thinking: A physiological psychologist should be able to “think out of the box” and have the curiosity to explore new ways of thinking.
  • Observational Skills: A physiological psychologist should have good observational skills when conducting research to garner information from scientific experiments.
  • Analytic Skills: A physiological psychologist must be able to analyze information and draw conclusions.
  • Problem-solving Skills: A physiological psychologist needs problem-solving skills to reveal connections between the brain and behavior.
  • Patience: A physiological psychologist needs the patience to perform studies accurately.

How Much Does a Physiological Psychologist Make?

According to the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for psychologists for the years 2012 – 2022 is a projected increase of 12 percent, as fast as average for all occupations. Job prospects are expected to be the best for psychologists who have a doctoral or specialized degree.

The median average wage for all psychologists was $89,810, with the lowest salaried 10 percent earning around $42,200 and the top 10 percent earning over $120,000.

Industrial-organizational psychologists earned a median annual salary of $90,070, while clinical, counseling and school psychologists earned a median annual salary of $74,030.

What Careers are Similar to Physiological Psychology?

  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors: Substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors help people with behavioral problems like drug addiction, alcoholism and eating disorders. A high school diploma is the minimum degree required.
  • Survey Researchers: Survey researchers design surveys and analyze data collected to understand preferences, beliefs, desires and opinions of a group of people. The minimum degree required is a master’s degree.
  • Market Research Analyst: A market research analyst studies market conditions to advise companies about what products people are willing to buy, who will buy the products and how much they are willing to pay.
  • Physicians and Surgeons: Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries. A doctoral or professional degree is required.
  • Mental Health Counselor: Mental health counselors help people overcome emotional and mental problems with their families. A master’s degree is required.

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