Theoretical Psychologist Career and Degree Guide [2024]

Last Updated: June 1, 2024

When explaining human behavior, which psychological theory is most appropriate? Do humans behave the way they do because of choice or biology? Is there an evolutionary component or is behavior influenced more by society? What is to be made of the widely diverse theoretical orientations that attempt to explain behavior? Are they all right, to some degree? Or are they best used in tandem, taking a metatheoretical approach to the study of behavior?

These all questions that have dogged psychologists for decades. These questions also form the basis for much of the work of theoretical psychologists.

What is a Theoretical Psychologist?

Theoretical psychologists study the relationship between psychology, philosophy, and theory. Theoretical psychologists examine human behavior through the lens of multiple theories, and, in turn, examine those theories through a scientific lens as well as a philosophical one.

Theoretical psychologists operate from a metatheoretical standpoint, meaning, they reflect on the contributions of a theory, it’s history, and it’s strengths and weaknesses. Common areas of study include ethics, morals, cultural psychology, and phenomenology.

Conceptual and theoretical research, historical research, literary research, and cultural research are popular topics among theoretical psychologists as well.

Theoretical psychologists do not operate from one strict point of view, nor do they have training specific to the field of theoretical psychology. Instead, theoretical psychologists represent a diverse group of professionals from all kinds of backgrounds, including those in school psychology, experimental psychology, clinical psychology, and biological psychology, to name a few.

Essentially, theoretical psychologists use their background knowledge to assess whether or not a particular theory is effective in explaining human behavior. They also strive to integrate research from various psychological disciplines such that psychological questions can be resolved with an interdisciplinary approach.

What Does a Theoretical Psychologist Do?

The vast majority of theoretical psychologists are employed in research, be that in an academic or private setting. An essential component of this research is examining the situations in which one theory is particularly useful or not useful.

For example, in examining the degeneration of memory in old age, a theoretical psychologist would devise experiments in which they attempt to explain memory loss via a particular psychological theory.

So, the first experiment may seek answers using a biological perspective. The next experiment may utilize a humanistic point of view. Yet another experiment might be conducted from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, and so on.

As a result of these studies, theoretical psychologists are able to examine theories for their applicability in a variety of situations. Doing so establishes the boundaries with which a certain theory can justifiably predict human behavior. It also informs theoretical psychologists about ways to improve existing theories or even discover new ways of thinking about why people behave the way they do.

Another primary duty of theoretical psychologists is to teach at the college or university level. In this case, much of their day-to-day activities would revolve around teaching courses to undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students, assisting students with research, such as dissertations, and overseeing other teaching and learning activities, such as grading papers, exams, and other assignments.

Theoretical psychologists that work in academia would also devote a significant amount of their time to research. Research in an academic setting is not unlike research in a private setting: The primary focus is to investigate various psychological theories, determine their ability to explain behavior, and revise existing theories or propose new ones to better account for the way in which humans behave.

Academic researchers in this field have several end-goals. First would be to get published and become a recognized authority in the field of theoretical psychology. A second goal is to provide learning opportunities for advanced students, such as those in graduate school, who often assist professors with their research.

Why Do We Need Theoretical Psychologists?

Theoretical psychologists play an important role in examining how and why we seek to explain human behavior. Their focus isn’t so much on the actual behavior itself, but instead on the various theories that have been posited over the years to explain that behavior. Their work is multidisciplinary and metatheoretical in nature, thus providing us with a comprehensive examination of both psychology as a science and of the philosophical underpinnings of the field of psychology.

In this regard, theoretical psychologists serve to improve the study and application of psychology as a result of their research and evaluations of existing theories. The improvements they propose, and the new theories they posit, can lead to better explanations of the human condition and why we act the way we do.

Likewise, their examinations of the history of psychology, as well as their predictions of the future of the discipline, give context to how human behavior has, is, and will be explained.

What are the Career Opportunities for a Theoretical Psychologist?

As noted above, most theoretical psychologists are employed in the research sector. Many theoretical psychologists are employed in private research firms, although a good number also conduct research either in an academic setting or independently.

Because much of their work deals with the philosophical underpinnings of psychological theory, some theoretical psychologists teach at the collegiate level. Having a deep understanding of psychological theory makes theoretical psychologists excellent candidates to teach a variety of courses at a college or university, including psychology, philosophy, research, and social science, to name a few.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become a Theoretical Psychologist?

The pathway to becoming a theoretical psychologist begins with undergraduate studies in psychology or other field. Undergraduate psychology programs are intended to introduce students to a broad range of topics within the discipline.

Common coursework includes introductory courses in statistics and research design, the psychology of learning, social psychology, biological psychology, and a survey of careers in psychology.

As one of the most popular undergraduate choices, psychology programs are available at most four-year colleges and universities. There are also robust online options for obtaining a bachelor’s degree in this field.

While having a bachelor’s degree might be adequate for procuring entry-level employment in other areas of psychology, a more advanced degree is necessary to enter the field of theoretical psychology.

Graduate studies focus on helping students develop advanced understanding of psychological theory, research strategies, and human behavior. Graduate programs in this field are usually around 30-36 credit hours and typically include a thesis option that requires extensive research on a topic selected by the student and his or her faculty advisors. There are many graduate programs in the U.S. that focus specifically on theoretical psychology.

Having a terminal degree, in this case a Ph.D. or Psy.D., is most beneficial for individuals that wish to work in the field of theoretical psychology. This level of education provides the greatest amount of training and preparation for a successful career in this field.

Doctorate programs focus heavily on research, and in this case, specialized research in the field of theoretical psychology. Students often must complete a doctoral dissertation that requires years of research and a defense of the dissertation to one’s faculty committee. These programs often take around five years to complete.

Licensure as a theoretical psychologist is typically not required because workers in this specific field do not engage in therapy with clients. Work in research and academia, as is so often the case for theoretical psychologists, generally does not require state licensure or certification. However, requirements to hold state licensure may vary from employer to employer.

What Personality Traits are Required for a Theoretical Psychologist?

There are some personal skills and qualities that equip one to be an effective theoretical psychologist. To determine whether or not this is a career area for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you inquisitive? Because of the nature of the job that focuses on asking questions and seeking answers about many different aspects of psychology, having a natural propensity for being inquisitive is a highly helpful trait.
  • Are you analytical? Research is all about having the ability to gather, analyze, interpret, and report data. As a result, strong analytical and problem-solving skills are necessary for success in this field of work.
  • Can you communicate effectively? When research is conducted, theoretical psychologists must be able to communicate their findings in written and verbal form. They must also be able to explain highly complex concepts, some of which may be extremely abstract and difficult for laypersons to understand.
  • Are you intrinsically motivated? The bulk of a theoretical psychologist’s work is the kind that does not necessarily receive much recognition. Likewise, theoretical psychologists do not work with clients, and, therefore, do not get to experience the satisfaction of having a client make a significant breakthrough. As a result, theoretical psychologists should be more intrinsically motivated such that they retain a high level of job satisfaction.

What Careers are Similar to Theoretical Psychology?

Because of its unique, multidisciplinary perspective on studying psychology, theoretical psychology has many similar careers, including:

Philosophical counselor – Philosophical counselors are closely related to theoretical psychologists in that they both seek to combine the practice of psychology with the underlying philosophical ideas of psychology to examine behavior in a greater context. Philosophical counselors put that information to practice, seeking to help their clients move towards being more satisfied with themselves and their lives.

Because philosophical counselors work with clients, they must have at least a master’s degree and be licensed by the state in which they practice.

Research psychologist – The common link between theoretical psychologists and research psychologists is the emphasis on psychological research. Where research psychologists differ, however, is in the subject matter in which they are interested. They study actual behavior – human feelings, thoughts, emotions, and the like – whereas theoretical psychologists study the theories that seek to explain behavior. The aim of research psychology is to discover explanations for psychological phenomena, as well as potential treatments to address psychological problems.

To enter this field of work, research psychologists typically must have at least a master’s degree, although many go on to get a doctorate.

Experimental psychologist – Like research psychologists and theoretical psychologists, experimental psychologists work to uncover the mysteries of human behavior and the human mind. The experiments that they design and conduct often focus on perception, sensation, memory, motivation, and learning. Although many of their studies require human subjects, many researchers in this field work with animals and generalize their findings to humans in the context of comparative psychology.

A career in experimental psychology typically requires at least a doctorate, although junior research positions may be found at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels.

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