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Behavioral Psychology Programs and Careers

In the late 19th century, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov studied why dogs drool. He suspected it was an automatic response to food, but he wanted to see if he could train the dogs to salivate to another stimulus. So, Pavlov placed a ticking metronome in front of the dogs before every meal. Eventually, they started drooling at the sight of the metronome; he had conditioned them to associate the noise with food.

Though the term “behaviorism” wouldn’t be coined for several decades, Pavlov’s conditioning experiment effectively gave birth to behavioral psychology, the idea that behaviors are learned. More than 100 years later, behavioral psychology has become a booming field. In the sections that follow, we’ll dive into what behavioral psychologists do and explain the training you will need to become one.

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What Is Behavioral Psychology?

Behaviorism is an approach to psychology that suggest people and animals learn how to act from their environment. In other words, we behave the way we do not because of our genes, but because we’ve learned to act a certain way. For example, a child might hit another child not because she was born violent, but because she was spanked by a parent.

Even in the field of behavioral psychology, there is some debate about the impact genes have on our actions. Some argue that the mind is a blank slate at birth, and everything is learned. Others insist genetics play at least a small role in behavior.

Behavioral psychologists don’t have much interest in how people think or feel about things. They’re mainly interested in what people do, and they assume that every action occurs as a reaction to an event or stimulus. Behavioral psychologists aim to identify what causes a specific action and predict how a person might react to a stimulus.

Behavioral Psychologist Talking To Her Young Patient After Getting Her Degree Online

What Does a Behavioral Psychologist Do?

There are multiple career paths you can take as a behavioral psychologist. To become a behavioral psychologist, you’ll need to earn a doctoral degree. Once you do, you’ll likely aim for a role in one of three broad areas: clinical practice, research, or teaching.

If you choose to get a master’s, your career options may be more limited. For example, you may be a counselor or lab assistant. However, to have the title of “psychologist,” you will need a doctorate degree.

Clinical Practice

Behavioral psychologists who work in clinical practice help people suffering from behavioral issues and develop treatment plans to help them improve their lives. They work with patients to identify triggers and rewire responses.

Addiction, eating disorders, and anxiety are three common behaviors people might seek to improve through behavioral therapy. Other serious issues include obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are several types of therapy behavioral psychologist may use, depending on the specific needs of the patient. Here are a few of the most popular:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a type of “talk therapy.” Patients identify their negative thoughts and compare them to reality. Through this process, patients become self-aware of irrational feelings and fears. A therapist can show the patient methods for modifying their behavior.
  • In aversion therapy, a therapist helps a patient associate a negative habit with something uncomfortable. An example of aversion therapy is when dogs are electrically shocked when they cross an invisible fence. For humans, aversion therapy is more about uncomfortable memories or other stimuli. For instance, someone battling alcohol addiction might practice associating the sight of liquor with an image they find disgusting.
  • System desensitization is often used for patients suffering from phobias. Sometimes, fear can hijack the body, causing irrational responses to specific stimulus. For example, a behavioral therapist might work to help a person with an extreme fear of heights to master their fear by relaxing and breathing through the panic.
  • Not for the lighthearted, flooding is a type of forced desensitization. The therapist gives a patient extended exposure to something they fear, but in a safe environment.
  • Short for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, EMDR is a type of therapy targeted at trauma. A therapist may use external stimuli to simulate Rapid Eye Movement sleep. The patient talks through the trauma in this state and reprocesses the experience so that it becomes less traumatic.
  • Therapists working with children and pre-teens might use play therapy. In this treatment, therapists watch how children play. They then recommend ways the child could better communicate or make decisions. Often, therapists involve the child’s family in these discussions.


Typically, if you want to perform research, you’ll need a Ph.D. or work with a professor in a Ph.D. program. Federal agencies supply much of the funding for psychology studies, and much of it is snatched up by university professors. Large universities often have the resources to qualify for large grants or fund their own research, creating an ideal work setting for psychology researchers, who can work independently or for a government agency.

Many of the most famous psychology experiments have taken place in colleges. Take the Marshmallow Experiment out of Stanford University. The experiment highlighted delayed gratification. Children were given a choice: eat one marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows. Most kids couldn’t wait.

Years later, the University of Rochester researchers put a behaviorist twist on the experiment: They promised two groups of children crayons and stickers. For one group, they kept their promise. For the other group, they didn’t. Then, researchers ran the same marshmallow experiment from Stanford University. The results? Kids who had been told the truth were conditioned to trust the researchers and wait for the second marshmallow.

If the idea of creating experiments to test how to condition the human brain excites you, consider becoming a researcher. But keep in mind that most university professors must also teach at least a few classes in their subject of expertise.

Career Outlook and Salary for Behavioral Psychologists

The psychology profession is projected to grow by 14% between 2016 and 2026. That’s twice the job growth rate across all careers nationwide. With diagnoses for behavioral disorders like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder on the rise since the turn of the century, there’s room for more behavioral psychologists in particular.

If you do become a behavioral psychologist, you’ll enter a profession with a median average salary of around $72,000 a year. Even earners in the bottom 10% take home nearly $50,000; some professionals report making over $120,000 annually.

Educational Requirements for Becoming a Behavioral Psychologist

There’s a good reason why many behavioral psychologists take home a large salary; you need a doctorate in most cases. With a master’s degree in psychology, you could seek out a role as a school counselor or family therapist, though neither job requires specialization in behavioral psychology. For others, a master’s degree is a milestone on the path to a doctoral degree to become a behavioral psychologist.

Master’s Degree in Behavioral Psychology

To apply for a master’s degree in behavioral psychology, you’ll first need a bachelor’s degree in any subject. Some programs want to see psychology coursework during your undergraduate career. Applicants without prior psychology courses may be required to take prerequisites prior to entering the program.

Most schools’ behavioral psychology programs are specializations within their graduate psychology degrees. As such, there’s some overlap between other psychology programs. The standard length is two years, though you might find accelerated programs that finish in one year and others that allow three years of full-time study.

During that time, you might take courses with titles like:

  • Principles of behavior analysis
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Working with adolescents
  • Psychology ethics
  • Research methods

In a master’s degree program, you should expect to gain hands-on experience in a clinical setting. You may also be required to write a thesis after performing original research.

Doctorate Degree in Behavioral Psychology

Doctoral candidates need a bachelor’s degree in psychology to gain entry; a master’s degree is a bonus on an application. If you don’t have a master’s, expect to start your program with master’s level coursework. These courses add about two years to the doctoral program, which generally requires about four years of study on its own.

There are two types of doctoral degrees in the field: a Ph.D. and a Psy.D. The Ph.D. is the traditional doctorate degree. It emphasizes research and teaching. The Psy.D. focuses on more clinical aspects, such as working directly with patients.

While both degrees require practicums and a dissertation, the Psy.D. is slightly more suited to those interested in pursuing clinical practice. Researchers and teachers can safely stick with a Ph.D.


While licensure isn’t a requirement to research or teach in the behavioral psychology field, clinical practitioners need a license to practice on patients in their state. The requirements for that license vary by state, but generally include:

  • A doctoral degree in psychology from a program that’s accredited by the American Psychological Association
  • A certain number of supervised hours practicing with patients, a portion of which needs to occur after completion of your doctoral program
  • A passing score on a state test
  • A reference and/or criminal background check

To see your state’s requirements, visit the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

Outside of licensure, a small percentage of psychologists seek board certification. The American Board of Professional Psychology is a well-known organization that provides specialty certifications in behavioral and cognitive psychology, clinical health, and other areas.

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