In contemplating psychology as an occupation, thoughts wander to hands-on professions such as counseling and therapy. However, a sizable segment of the field involves little practical work, and is more concerned with theoretical aspects of psychology. Do you prefer fixed numbers to subjective diagnoses? Scientific observations to patient treatment? If so, perhaps a career in research psychology is for you.
Are You an Analytical Person?
Before jumping on the research psychology bandwagon, ask yourself if you’re truly an analytical person. An indispensable prerequisite for a career in research psychology is having a firm grasp of – and perhaps a natural inclination toward –working with numbers and data. Dictionary.com defines the term analytic thinking as “the abstract separation of a whole into its constituent parts in order to study the parts and their relations,” and that’s exactly what research entails.
Hence, questions it would behoove you to ask are: How did I cope with math in school? Did I do well in my college statistics class? If the answer is negative, could you learn to enjoy it? Are you prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to become a resourceful statistician? In going forward with this profession, a resounding “yes” should be your only answer.
What is a Research Psychologist?
Research psychologists are found in every branch of psychology. It is often not a specific job title, but rather represents an area of emphasis for psychologists when undertaking research in their specific field, such as developmental psychology, industrial-organizational psychology, biological psychology, social psychology, and the like.
For example, a social psychologist might undertake research on the manner in which children are socialized in rural, highly religious communities and compare that to the way children in urban, non-religious communities are socialized. Another example might be a health psychologist conducting research on nutrition and wellness for a government agency.
Research psychologists are trained in experimental methods and statistics. They utilize the scientific method to formulate and test hypotheses, develop experiments, collect and analyze data, and use that information to develop conclusions and report on their findings.
Two common types of studies research psychologists undertake are:
- Experiments – research psychologists conduct experiments both in controlled lab settings and out in the field. An example might be examining the social behaviors of small groups in a rural town.
- Case studies – psychologists conducting research often utilize this method when studying an individual or small group. Observing how a particular family overcomes the trauma of a natural disaster is an example of a case study.
Despite the significant differences in the ways that research psychologists conduct their studies, the tie that binds research psychologists together across disciplines is that at the heart of their research, they are seeking to understand better how humans and non-human animals feel, think, learn, and act.
What Does a Research Psychologist Do?
A research psychologist carries out many duties as it pertains to studying human behavior. Many research psychologists work for private companies or organizations conducting studies pertinent to the purpose of their employer. For example, a university might employ a research psychologist to explore methods to improve teaching and learning. Alternatively, a research psychologist working for a non-profit human services organization might study ways to improve the bonding experience between adopted children and their adopted parents.
Research psychologists also conduct much research on behalf of governmental agencies. For example, a psychologist may research the efficacy of psychosocial intervention programs implemented by the Bureau of Prisons, looking for positive outcomes for participants in the program. Likewise, a research psychologist working for the National Institute of Mental Health may investigate current rates of certain psychological disorders among the general population.
Other psychologists with training in research work in academic settings. Colleges and universities employ research specialists to conduct research or even assist with the development of on-campus policies and procedures regarding psychological research. For example, a research psychologist might devise rules and regulations pertaining to human or animal-based research in the psychology department.
Many research psychologists also teach. Again, colleges and universities – both public and private – might hire a psychologist with training in research to teach undergraduate courses in various genres of psychology. There would also be opportunity for more specialized teaching assignments, such as those that train graduate or doctoral students to conduct research of their own. Typical course assignments for research psychologists include research psychology, statistics, and ethics.
Yet other research psychologists are employed by private businesses to help them create improved working environments. Research psychologists might be employed to investigate issues like low employee morale or low production rates. They may also seek to improve workplace safety by examining the types of accidents that occur, when and where they occur, and the conditions under which they occur as well.
What are the Requirements to Become a Research Psychologist?
A career in psychology usually requires a graduate degree, and the sub-field of research psychology is certainly no different. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most research psychologists need not just a Master’s degree, but a full-out Ph.D., to land a job of pleasing stature. Hence, normally expect 5-6 years of industrious study even after graduating college, and sometimes more. Having completed coursework in experimental psychology and statistics will be of great importance, probably more so than for you than any other type of psychologist.
Obtaining psychology license generally require pre-doctoral or postdoctoral supervised experience, an internship, or a residency program, which may span 12 months or more. Sometimes more than one of them is needed.
Where Does a Research Psychologist Work?
Research psychologists typically work in the following environments:
- Colleges and universities
- Law enforcement agencies
- Consulting and private research firms
- Government research groups
- Government and Private businesses
- War veterans and disaster post-traumatic counseling
What Skills are Required for a Research Psychologist?
Successful research psychologists have the following skills:
- Research skills – It goes without saying that research psychologist must be highly trained in research methodologies, including experimental design, observational techniques, and sampling methods.
- Math and statistics skills – Research psychologists must also have a strong grasp on the statistical methods used to analyze research, including qualitative and quantitative methods of analyzing and interpreting data.
- Computer literacy – Psychologists in this field are required to be highly computer literate. Computers and computer programs are used for all phases of research, from designing research studies to analyzing data to reporting data for publication.
- Speaking and writing skills – Research psychologists must be able to clearly and accurately summarize their findings both in verbal and written forms. Good linguistic skills are also necessary for interacting with other members of the research team and with subjects participating in the study.
- Analytical skills – Analytical skills are necessary because they need to be able to see both the fine details and the bigger picture. Higher-ordered analytical skills assist researchers in identifying patterns, highlighting anomalies, and sifting through mountains of data to come to a logical conclusion.
- Skepticism – It can be difficult for researchers to avoid seeing what they want to see in their research. As a result, research psychologists need to have the ability to critically evaluate their work and the work of others.
What is the Employment Outlook for Research Psychologists?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for psychologists as a whole is 8 percent.
Unfortunately, the BLS does not offer details regarding the employment outlook specifically for research psychology. While the field will most likely not grow as quickly as other psychology disciplines, it’s still reasonable to assume that strong growth will occur. This is due in large part to an increased interest in the underlying mechanisms of behavior, such as genetics and environmental factors.
Because research psychologists specialize in conducting studies on popular topics like drug and alcohol addiction, there should be plenty of job opportunities in the coming years. This is especially true of research psychologists that have an advanced degree, like a doctorate, or have additional training in psychological research methods.
What is the Salary of a Research Psychologist?
Research psychologists earn a median salary of $81,493 (simplyhired.com). However, as in many other areas of psychology, salaries fluctuate considerably depending on the number of years of experience in the industry, as well as the sector of employment.
The select few who go into industrial-organizational psychology average as much as $112,690 annually, which is more than any other area of psychology (The Bureau of Labor Statistics – May 2020 data).
What is the Difference Between Research Psychology and Applied Psychology?
Although research psychology and applied psychology both deal in the realm of human behavior, they have very different purposes.
To begin, research psychology is focused on studying human behavior, from how people think to how people experience emotions to how people learn. As mentioned above, research psychologists propose hypotheses, design experiments and studies to prove or disprove those hypotheses, and then analyze and interpret the data they collect to draw final conclusions.
Much of a research psychologist’s work is conducted in a laboratory setting – there is an abundance of reading, writing, data analysis, and experimental design involved in one’s daily activities. Additionally, research psychologists may or may not have interaction with the subjects, and if they do, it is in a strict researcher-participant relationship. For this reason, most research psychology positions do not require workers to be licensed psychology practitioners.
Conversely, applied psychology is all about using psychological methods to help individuals achieve improved mental health and performance. Applied psychology runs the gamut from clinical psychology to sports psychology to educational psychology. No matter the context, psychologists that apply their knowledge and skills do so in direct contact with a client. Because of this, psychologists that work in an applied field must be licensed in the state in which they work.
Whatever interventions the psychologist uses, they would be informed by the work that research psychologists and others behind the scenes have done. For example, a marriage and family therapist who applies cognitive behavioral therapy to help a family overcome psychological issues would do so based on studies on cognitive behavioral techniques conducted by research psychologists. In this regard, even though research and applied fields of psychology have different purposes, they often work hand in hand to help people improve their mental health.
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