Cognitive Psychologist Career: Become a Cognitive Psychologist

The Basics

The brain is the most important part of the human body. It is the control center – the area that stores and processes all the information that we gather during our lifetimes and tells us how to feel about that information.

Cognitive psychologists study how the brain works – including memory, perception and learning. The brain is so complicated and often multi-tasks. For example, it allows humans to process new learning while recalling and retrieving old bits of information and associating it with smells and colors.

A healthy interest in how the brain functions is a great way to start down the path towards a career in cognitive psychology. The cognitive psychology field is perfect for someone who has always wondered how memory works – or why it doesn’t in certain cases. Or for a student that has struggled with learning issues, and would like to research and improve the ways the learning disabilities are handled.

What Does a Cognitive Psychologist Do?

The vast majority of cognitive psychologists spend their careers in research. Early on, cognitive psychologists might conduct general research into cognition. However, with time and experience, most psychologists in this field will focus in on a specific cognitive process to investigate, such as memory, childhood learning disabilities, or impairments of speech, and become an expert in that particular field of cognitive research.

Research can be conducted in a number of settings, from colleges and universities to government agencies to private research firms.

Teaching is also a popular track for psychologists trained in cognitive research. Many cognitive psychologists in academia teach at the graduate level, working with masters and doctorate students in specific areas of research.

Some cognitive psychologists, particularly those just entering the field, may work more with undergraduate students teaching general psychology classes, at least to begin with.

Teaching positions require psychologists to not only be experts in the field of cognition, but also carry out normal teaching duties, such as preparing lessons and activities, administering and grading exams, advising students, and conducting independent research for publication in journals.

There are job opportunities for cognitive psychologists in clinical settings as well. Some clinical psychologists operate from a cognitive theoretical perspective, which informs the manner in which they interpret and treat client behaviors.

Cognitive psychologists might work in medical or rehabilitative settings as well, working with patients that have cognitive dysfunctions that are related to brain injury, old age, or a developmental issue. In this context, cognitive psychologists carry out their jobs in a manner that is more closely related to clinical psychology. They assess and evaluate clients, interpret their behavior, reflect on past events with clients in a therapeutic setting, and outline a process for treatment and recovery.

What are the Requirements to Become a Cognitive Psychologist?

Education

How does one go from brain enthusiast to cognitive psychologist? The first step is committing to the years of work it will take to gain a PhD, complete practicums, internships, and supervised licensure hours.

Completing four years and obtaining bachelor’s degree is the first step towards a career in cognitive psychology. A BA in psychology is ideal, although many biology students make great candidates for a PhD in this field. A working knowledge of the human brain is going to be essential in pursuit of an advanced degree.

Once you have completed your bachelor’s degree, you need to work towards advanced degrees. Some individuals stop their education at master’s level. However, most continue their journey and earn a doctoral degree.

A master’s degree is not necessary to enter a doctorate program. Many future cognitive psychologists might go straight into a PhD program to receive a doctorate and begin work in the field. However, it depends upon the nature of bachelor’s degree and the PhD program.

Many schools offer specialized programs in cognitive psychology – choosing the right one is up to you.  Find the school that has the right program, and is a good fit: location, budget, connections to internships. It’s important to do your research before applying to just any school.

Many professors will freely offer advice based on personal experience, so a professor in the cognitive psychology field should be the first person to talk to. Professionals in the field can also be helpful – ask about their alma mater and how it helped their career path.

After identifying the cognitive psychology programs of interest, make contact with admissions counselors or professors at the school. They can offer information about letters of reference, GRE scores and other information that might not be on the admissions page of the school’s website.

Internships

Internships are important, and unfortunately, hard to find in many fields of psychology. Students must complete an internship to graduate, and if they cannot find and complete an internship they must keep trying until the do. Internships can be found at non-profit agencies, schools, research agencies, community organizations and hospitals where patients with brain disorders are treated.

Entry Level Jobs

A freshly graduated cognitive psychologist can be used at a rehabilitation center or hospital – dealing with patients recovering from trauma or those who may have disorders. Prisons, non-profits and schools might also employ these graduates.

Cognitive psychologists can start a private practice or head research studies. Some software companies also employ this type of psychologist to better understand how the brain works while interacting with computers.

Licensure Hours

Licensure requirements vary by state. In order to be considered licensed, a cognitive psychologist must complete 3,000 supervised hours of practice. Graduated doctoral students typically gain these hours at their internships, practicing therapy and entry level positions.

Certification

Certification as a cognitive psychologist is available through the American Board of Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology. Various criteria exist, including adequate graduate and post-doctoral training, completion of an acceptable internship program, and experience in the field of cognitive psychology.

Why is Cognitive Psychology Important?

Cognitive psychology emphasizes the role of thought processes in learning and behavior. The foundational premise is that how people process information influences behavior choices. Understanding how people process information and how that affects their behavior is important.

From a mental health perspective, awareness of how information is processed becomes important when working with people so that they can understand how their thought processes influence their behavior choices. In turn, they are better able to examine their internal thought processes to determine a course of action.

Understanding thought processes and behavior is not limited to psychotherapy however. Cognitive behavioral principles are used in other areas such as education and advertising. Cognitive processes include speech and language, memory, learning and retention of information. Educators are trained to use various techniques that can complement learning styles or compensate for memory or attention deficits.

Cognitive principles are even used by advertisers. Marketing to people means tapping into what resonates with them and will be most likely to elicit the behavior that companies want, which is buying their product.

Millions are spent in market research each year to determine the best way to influence consumer preferences and purchases. The data from that research results in advertising designed to influence consumer buying decisions.

How Much Does a Cognitive Psychologist Make?

As of July 2021 according to PayScale, psychologists in the United States earn an average salary of $82,234 per year. However, the salary range for psychologists varies widely based on their field of expertise.

Cognitive psychologists can expect to earn more money than average, depending upon the industry in which they work. However, cognitive psychologists working in industrial-organizational settings earn a mean annual salary of $111,150 per year.

One’s degree and level of experience will also greatly influence salary. Psychologists with advanced degrees, such as a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. will earn much more than those with only a master’s degree. As well, the more experience one has in the field, the higher the wage they can command.

What is the Career Outlook for Cognitive Psychologists?

As a whole, the field of psychology is predicted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to grow at an average rate of 6% till 2031. However, some disciplines, including cognitive psychology, should experience more robust growth in the coming decade.

Part of the reason for expanded growth of cognitive psychology jobs is the continued interest in cognitive health issues for children, such as language development, and issues related to older adults, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Additionally, the rapid pace with which research methods and technologies are advancing necessitate qualified individuals to conduct cognitive research.

The job outlook for other applications of cognitive psychology, such as teaching at the collegiate level, will likely remain stable in the years to come. Entry-level teaching positions should be fairly great in number, particularly as psychology programs continue to be offered at the vast majority of colleges and universities.

Higher paying faculty positions are more difficult to come by both because they are fewer in number and generally occupied by tenured professors.

What are the Career Opportunities?

An undergraduate degree in cognitive psychology may prepare your for following careers:

  • Human Factors Specialist
  • Research Assistant
  • Psychiatric Technician
  • Public Relations Specialist
  • Human Resources Representative

An master’s degree in cognitive psychology may prepare your for following careers:

  • Psychometrist
  • Research Assistant/coordinator
  • Research Institute Administrator
  • Human Factors Engineer
  • Operations Analyst
  • Policy Analyst

With a PhD in cognitive psychology you officially become a cognitive psychologist and my qualify for specialized roles like a professor, consultant and researcher.

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