Nature or nurture – which one is more influential in how humans develop? It is an age-old question that researchers have debated for decades. This debate highlights our desire to understand how we develop socially, emotionally, cognitively, and physically, and how the changes that occur in one stage of life influence how we develop in later stages of life. The manner in which this development takes place over the course of the lifespan and the sheer volume of changes that occur, particularly in childhood, are what make human development such a popular area of study.
What is Developmental Psychology?
The primary focus of developmental psychology is on the process of change – for children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly. The origins of developmental psychology can be found in the Industrial Revolution. As the need for educated workers began to rise, scientists sought to better understand the child mind to develop appropriate educational programs to prepare students for the burgeoning workforce.
Developmental psychologists look at a wide variety of areas in which change occurs. Much attention is paid to common issues over the course of the lifespan. Social and emotional change is heavily researched, as are cognitive and physical changes.
The field of developmental psychology is heavily influenced by several key figures, perhaps most famously by Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Both psychologists have their unique take on human development, and the theories put forth by each are still highly influential in this field even today.
Piaget posited that all human beings – regardless of their upbringing – go through specific stages of development. During each stage, individuals reach certain landmarks, such as acquiring speech or abstract thought, and then move on to the next stage to acquire further knowledge and skills. Children are helped through these stages through interactions with their parents, usually in a didactic manner. This experiential take on development is a cornerstone of developmental psychology.
The social development aspect of developmental psychology is most heavily influenced by the research of Lev Vygotsky. Like Piaget, Vygotsky believed that children advance through a variety of stages as they grow into adolescence and adulthood. But unlike Piaget, Vygotsky believed that society, as a whole, was responsible for helping children develop, not just their parents. For Vygotsky, the culture into which one is born will heavily influence how that person grows and develops over time.
What is Applied Developmental Psychology?
Applied developmental psychology is a specialization that seeks to understand how knowledge of human development can be used to solve humankind’s problems. Applied developmental psychology considers events throughout the lifespan and examines them through the lens of social, cultural, and historical influences. Essentially, applied developmental psychology takes the theoretical underpinnings that allow us to understand human behavior and applies them to research, developmental science, and education.
What Does a Developmental Psychologist Study?
Developmental psychologists study a variety of areas related to human development. For example, a developmental psychologist might study the way in which children come to understand emotion. Someone conducting research in this area might seek to understand how children learn to regulate their emotions, and the role that their parents play in acquiring that ability.
Other developmental psychologists examine how children form emotional attachments. These attachments might be examined in the context of a parent-child relationship, or between a child and another caregiver, such as a grandparent. Psychologists conducting research in this field could utilize what they learn about attachment formation in childhood to draw conclusions about how those early attachments influence the expression, understanding, and regulation of emotion throughout the lifespan.
Education is another highly popular topic of study for developmental psychologists. There might be an examination of how the social environment in schools positively or negatively impacts a child’s cognitive development. Likewise, developmental psychologists that research educational topics also examine the efficacy of various educational programs. Their studies are highly important for informing school personnel, families, and government agencies about the value of educational programming and how programs and services can be made more effective.
Yet another area of study for developmental psychologists is memory. Research in this field might be focused on issues related to memory loss, such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, in elderly populations. This might include studying intervention strategies to determine what programs are most effective in helping older adults keep a sharp memory. Other researchers might instead focus on adolescents, seeking to develop strategies such as mnemonics that can aid in information acquisition and retention.
What are the Responsibilities of a Developmental Psychologist?
Because this career area is so diverse, there are many job opportunities for developmental psychologists. Most developmental psychologists conduct research, teach or do both in an academic setting. At smaller colleges and universities, developmental psychologists might be responsible for teaching various courses in psychology, including those outside the realm of developmental psychology. However, at larger universities there is a greater likelihood that a developmental psychologist can specialize in research and teaching in their area of expertise.
A developmental psychologist that works as a researcher might dedicate his or her entire career to studying specific issues related to a certain age group. For example, a developmental psychologist might devise research into the manner in which children acquire abstract thought. In this capacity, psychologists would design, develop, and carry out research to answer that question, as well as analyzing data and reporting their findings.
Many other developmental psychologists provide welfare services, child protective services, or family support. In this context, developmental psychologists might be employed to investigate claims of child or elder abuse or neglect. They might also work to educate young mothers and fathers about pregnancy, preparing for childbirth, and providing a proper home environment in which their child can learn and grow.
Some developmental psychologists work as a part of a team of professionals to improve educational programs for children and adolescents. For example, developmental psychologists might work with a speech-language pathologist to develop a special speech-language program for a toddler that is language delayed. Other developmental psychologists might work to educate families with an elderly loved one about social and emotional issues that may arise with old age.
Likewise, psychologists with a specialization in this area might engage children and their families in counseling. Some clinicians focus on helping their clients build skills such that they can have a more successful life. For example, a developmental psychologist might work with a young adult that has a social anxiety disorder to improve his or her social skills. Other clinicians might work with parents to provide training and education that helps families provide the support a developmentally disabled child needs to develop to their potential.
Entertainment companies also employ developmental psychologists. Businesses that produce toys, TV shows, movies, and other products for children will consult with developmental psychologists to ensure their products are age appropriate. For example, a toy manufacturer would seek the input of a developmental psychologist to ensure the toy they have created for a three-year-old is safe, as well as developmentally appropriate for that age group.
Why is Developmental Psychology Important?
Without developmental psychology, our understanding of human growth and development in the context of learning, relationships, adaptation, and maturation, would be severely limited. By studying the stages of development, psychologists in this field can acquire a deeper understanding of how humans can reach their full cognitive, perceptual, social, emotional, and mental potential. In this regard, developmental psychology is an integral component of building an understanding of why people behave and think the way they do at different stages in their lives.
Developmental psychology is also important because it informs us as to the normal milestones of development. For example, the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky allow us to determine if a child is growing and acquiring skills normally or abnormally. In that regard, developmental psychology plays a key role in helping identify potential problems of social, emotional, physical, or intellectual growth. Armed with that knowledge, psychologists can develop and implement intervention strategies to try and help the child get back on a normal schedule of development.
What are the Career Opportunities for a Developmental Psychologist?
Career opportunities are abundant for psychologists with a specialization in human development. As discussed above, research settings are popular places of employment. This might take place in an academic or private setting. Education is another popular career path, with opportunities for developmental psychologists to teach at a university, work in the special education program in a K-12 school, or work independently to consult with a variety of entities, from schools to hospitals to government agencies.
The healthcare industry is a growing area of employment for developmental psychologists. Opportunities abound in clinics or hospitals, where developmental psychologists might work with families to teach them how to care for a disabled child. Developmental psychologists also work in mental health facilities to assess and treat individuals that have a developmental disability, such as Down syndrome. Likewise, as the nation’s population continues to age, there is a growing need for developmental psychologists in the elder care sector.
What Education is Needed to Become a Developmental Psychologist?
To begin a career as a developmental psychologist, students must first complete an undergraduate program in psychology. The primary goal of undergraduate psychology programs is to familiarize students with basic concepts in psychology. As such, coursework is fairly general, covering topics from statistics and research methods to physiological psychology and abnormal psychology. Courses in developmental psychology are also part of standard undergraduate programs.
After completing a four-year degree, it is necessary to continue one’s education in graduate school. Most graduate programs in psychology require students to have an undergraduate degree from an accredited institution and a passing score on the Graduate Record Exam. Some programs also require students to get approval for admittance after an interview with members of the department faculty. Concepts and topics at the graduate level focus on deepening students’ understanding of human development. Research in developmental psychology is a focus of many graduate programs, as is the application of research findings to improving services such as education and healthcare.
While entry-level and mid-level jobs may be found with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology, the most job opportunities will be available for students that have a doctorate. Doctoral programs in developmental psychology usually result in one of two degrees: a Ph.D., which is best suited for research, or a Psy.D., which prepares students to provide psychological services in a mental health setting. Both degree programs require upwards of five years of studies, research, and internships. Post-doctoral work on a specific topic in developmental psychology may also be required.
Individuals that wish to work as a licensed psychologist almost always need a Ph.D. or a Psy.D. Although licensure is handled by individual states, and result in some requirements being different, there are a few requirements that are standard from state to state. Applicants must have completed an accredited program of study and be able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills during an internship or post-doctoral placement. Supervised training experiences are often required, as is a passing score on a written licensure exam.
What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Developmental Psychologist?
Developmental psychology can be a highly rewarding, yet highly stressful career. Some of the primary advantages and disadvantages of working in this field are:
- Opportunities to make a difference – Whether working in a research setting or in a clinical setting, developmental psychologists have the opportunity to effect positive change in people’s lives.
- Many different job opportunities – From schools to hospitals to government agencies, psychologists in the field of developmental psychology can find employment in a wide variety of settings. This can make finding employment easier, and also provides the opportunity to get experience in various disciplines.
- Income potential – According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, psychologists can make a very good living, with the potential to earn a six-figure income. The place of employment and the years of experience will largely determine salary, but the potential is certainly there to earn a good wage.
- High stress – Psychologists in all disciplines can have very stressful jobs. For developmental psychologists that work in research settings, long hours and strict deadlines can cause much day-to-day stress. Those working in clinical settings might deal with very high stress related to working with clients that have faced extremely difficult life circumstances.
- Emotional burnout – All psychologists face emotional burnout as a result of working with clients in crisis. While many developmental psychologists do not work directly with clients, those that do can have difficulty protecting themselves from becoming emotionally drained from their work.
- Unusual hours – Particularly for developmental psychologists that work in clinical settings, the hours worked can be long and erratic. Nights and weekends can often be interrupted by job duties. Developmental psychologists often work on holidays as well.
What Careers are Similar to Developmental Psychology?
The breadth of career possibilities for developmental psychologists means that there are also many closely related career areas. Some of the most popular include:
Much like developmental psychologists, social workers focus a large part of their time and effort on helping people cope with challenges in their lives. Whereas developmental psychology is more research-focused, social work is more focused on practical application of that research. To enter this career field, a bachelor’s degree in social work (B.S.W.) is required.
Case managers rely on an understanding of developmental psychology to best serve their clients, be they juveniles on probation or elderly people in an assisted living center. Case managers must have many of the same skills as a developmental psychologist. They must advocate on behalf of their client, help their client achieve optimum wellness, educate clients, and work with other professionals to coordinate services. Individuals need only a bachelor’s degree to become a case manager. Degrees in psychology, social work, or even nursing are common for entry-level positions.
Consulting is closely related to developmental psychology because consultants often have traditional training, which they then apply while working with a different type of client. For example, rather than working with individual patients at a hospital like a developmental psychologist, a consultant might work with hospital staff to improve their ability to work with patients. Because consulting requires a high level of clinical and behavioral knowledge, a master’s degree in psychology or a related field is required to begin consulting work. However, most consultants have a doctorate.
Like developmental psychologists, school psychologists often work with children that have some kind of developmental disability, learning difficulty, or socio-emotional problems. Also similar is the focus on research and the use of appropriate strategies for fostering the healthy development of children. Entry-level positions in this field require at least a master’s degree in school psychology. Most often this means getting a Master of Arts, Master of Education, or Education Specialist designation in school psychology. However, generally a doctoral degree in school psychology is required to obtain psychologist licensure and officially become a “school psychologist”.
Rehabilitation psychology is a branch of psychology that allows professionals to help people suffering from an injury or illness – perhaps something chronic, something from birth, something that stemmed from an accident, or some sort of trauma – live the best possible life. The goal of a rehabilitation psychologist is to make sure these individuals can live normal and happy lives.
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