How to Become a Developmental Psychologist


Humans grow and change throughout their lives – starting with the rapid changes of childhood, progressing through big changes as teenagers and finally changing less and less with adulthood until the big change of slowing down with age. Developmental psychologists study this human growth, and specialize in working with certain age groups.

Developmental psychology can help people of all ages embrace and acknowledge change. It also helps in tracking development in children – some parents will have developmental psychologists diagnose their children and set up treatment if needed. Developmental psychologists who specialize in the older population offers therapy and can help their patients determine how to live life to the fullest in a safe manner.

How does one begin the process if they are interested in becoming a developmental psychologist? Like any branch of psychology, an advanced degree is necessary. Any profession in psychology takes a few years of coursework as well several practicum or internship experiences. Additionally, a developmental psychologist can also concentrate on treatment or research, and will have to choose which advanced degree fits his interest best.

Related: Difference Between General Psychology and Developmental Psychology

What Does a Developmental Psychologist Do?

Developmental psychologists specialize in human growth and development. More specifically, they study physical, cognitive, social, emotional and personal development across the different stages of life, from infancy to adulthood. Developmental psychologists can either add to this knowledge through research or apply this knowledge in practice to help people overcome developmental problems.

In a clinical setting, a developmental psychologist may work with individuals who suffer from developmental disabilities. This might be from a young age, for example, in children who have delays in one or more developmental areas. Developmental psychologists may have the role of identifying a developmental disability in children, through observation, interaction and objective assessment. Various cognitive and developmental assessment tools are used to compare a child’s performance with the expected performance for their age range in several key areas. In cases of developmental delay or disability, early identification is important because it allows the opportunity for early intervention and support, which can mean better outcomes for the child.

On the other end of the scale, some developmental psychologists work with older people who require help with maintaining their independent living. But essentially, the role of a psychologist varies depending on what their specialty area may be, whether it is based on a specific population with special needs or an age group such as children or the elderly.

Apart from working in a clinical setting, there are many developmental psychologists who lend their skills and expertise to the field of research. Those who partake in research may work at universities and colleges, where they carry out research and additionally teach courses. Areas of research that they focus on tend to be diverse and interesting, and include such topics as the reasons behind developmental and behavioral problems, the development of moral reasoning, the acquisition of language skills, social development, mind theories, aging and much more.

What are the Requirements to Become a Developmental Psychologist?


It is important to genuinely enjoy working with people before considering a PhD or Psy.D in developmental psychology. In both therapy and research, contact with the whole spectrum of humanity – from infants to the elderly – is inevitable.

Because a psychologist must eventually get an advanced degree, the best place to start is by finishing a bachelor’s degree. A psychology or child development degree can be useful in grad school, but nearly any major will be adequate.

Choosing a grad school is especially hard for those interested in developmental psychology. Universities and colleges often specialize in certain programs – some specialize in school psychology, criminal psychology, child psychology, etc. It is important to do research when choosing where to pursue an advanced degree.

Many developmental psychologist candidates, depending on the program, choose to go straight into an advanced degree program, rather than pursuing a master’s before the doctorate. About half of incoming students decide to pursue a Psy.D, which factors in more treatment focused coursework. If you are inspired to work one-on-one with people instead of focusing on research, a Psy.D might be the better choice.

A developmental psychology doctoral program typically consists of training in social psychology, cognitive and social development of children, emotional development, language development, adolescent development, advanced statistics, and research designs and methods.

  • Talk to professors or professionals: Asking favorite professors where they gained an advanced degree is an easy way to get started. Professors can offer advice based on personal experience, which is especially helpful if they are familiar with developmental psychology. Professionals who are already in the field can offer information concerning their own research and career options.
  • Search the internet: A quick Google search will list schools that offer specialized doctorate programs for developmental psychology. Also do more research regarding the PhD v. Psy.D debate – which is better for you?
  • Talk to admissions counselors: After you’ve done some research, get on the phone with school personnel. They can give you insider information about how to be the most appealing candidate for admission: what GRE scores do you need? Who should write your letter of recommendation?


Internships are one of the last steps to completing an advanced degree. Students interview with potential directors, and rank the agencies in the order of where they’d most like to intern using Every student learns whether or not they have been accepted to an internship on “match day,” and they must complete the internship they are assigned. Internships can be at hospitals, substance abuse clinics, schools or many different public agencies.

Licensure Hours

Licensure requirements vary from state to state. However, a developmental psychologist generally must finish 3,000 hours of supervised practice before their advanced degree is considered complete. Not all doctoral programs will prepare you for a psychologist licensure. Therefore, it is important to consult with school personnel before enrolling in any program.

What Skills are Required for a Developmental Psychologist?

There are some skills which are especially important to being a successful and effective developmental psychologist:

Excellent communication skills appropriate for all ages

Whilst communication skills are important in all areas of psychology, developmental psychologists work with a uniquely broad range of patients. They can work directly with children, providing educational assessments or developmental disorders. This type of work requires the psychologist to be able to connect with and explain things to the child, gaining their trust and developing an open dialogue where the child feels safe talking to them. It also requires the psychologist to be able to work closely with the child’s parents and teachers to relay relevant information and explain any issues. This may involve breaking difficult news to parents.

Finally, some developmental psychologists work with elderly people – this may involve discussing sensitive issues with people whose communication skills may be deteriorating.


Often working with clients dealing with some form of difficulty, developmental psychologists do need the ability to work with empathy and show patients that they have a good understanding of the issues they are facing. But in addition, development psychologists also have to be able to maintain a perspective of positivity and be able to show clients that there are ways to overcome their issues and maintain a focus on their strengths.

Critical thinking skills

Developmental psychologists are often working with clients who have diverse and complex needs. To address these in the most effective way possible often requires the psychologist to thoroughly analyze the issues and come up with highly individualized strategies.

What are the Career Opportunities for New Graduates?

Many recently graduated PhD or Psy.D in developmental psychology may begin careers working for the schools or learning institutions with children.  Agencies such youth shelters or after school programs may also employ the recent graduates to lead groups and counsel students. Developmental psychologists can help children especially during the hard changes in life, such as puberty or high school graduation.

After a few years of experience in treatment, a developmental psychologist may start his or her own practice. Research focused developmental psychologists can head projects or teach at universities.

What is the Salary for a Developmental Psychologist?

The median salary for developmental psychologist is anywhere between $69,007 per year and $90,326. Top earners can make up to $101,088. The salary really depends on what institution a developmental psychologist is working for – a position at a school or prison will make a little less than someone who works for a practice.

Parents and children both appreciate the developmental psychologist, and increasingly these families that are going through big life changes are using these professionals to diagnose and treat family members.

Where Do Developmental Psychologists Work?

Developmental psychologists typically work in:

  • Hospital and mental health facilities
  • Nursing homes
  • Assisted living homes
  • Universities and colleges
  • Federal and state government agencies
  • Survey research companies
  • Research facilities
  • Welfare agencies
  • Teen rehabilitation clinics
  • Psychiatric clinics
  • Substance abuse and drug prevention clinics
  • Education counseling centers
  • Homeless youth programs
  • Private practices

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