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Developmental Psychology Careers and Degree Programs

Featuring expert contributions from:

Lara Mayeux

Lara Mayeux, Ph.D., developmental psychologist and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma

Kevin M. David

Kevin M. David, Ph.D., developmental psychologist and Portfolio Director at CampusWorks

Although some types of change seem random or unpredictable, others adhere to general patterns—including human development. Developmental psychologists seek to understand these patterns and use that understanding to better people’s lives.

What Is Developmental Psychology?

Developmental psychology is the study of how people change and grow across their lifespan. There are three goals of developmental psychology: to describe, explain, and optimize development. This development includes not only physical growth but also intellectual, emotional, cognitive, and social growth. In this sense, it is an interdisciplinary field that touches on other areas of psychology—as well as the life sciences.

Developmental psychologist Kevin David shares his perspective on the field. “I kind of view it as a meta-psychological field in that it spans many of the other areas of psychology. For instance, in cognitive, social, personality, and clinical psychology, a number of variables are looked at, including development.”

Developmental psychologists have a tricky challenge: to study and understand “typical” developmental processes (known as normative development) while also taking into account the fact that people reach developmental milestones at different rates (ideographic development). The definition of what constitutes each type of development has changed over the years, and even today not all developmental psychologists agree.

I think that focus on change is really what sets us apart from other fields in psychology.

—Lara Mayeux, Developmental Psychologist

Some people equate developmental psychology with child psychology, or consider the latter to be a subfield within the former. However, the American Psychological Association (APA) has separate divisions for each. Also, when someone calls themselves a “child psychologist,” they usually mean that they work with patients from infancy to puberty to diagnose and help them overcome developmental difficulties. “Developmental psychologist,” however, is a fuzzier term. They study people of all ages and tend to work in research and academia.

Developmental Psychologist Careers

There are generally two “tracks” when it comes to careers in developmental psychology: research/academic and clinical. Within each track, there are additional career possibilities.

Developmental Psychologist Career Paths

What They Do

Research / Academia

  • Evaluate existing research
  • Conduct new research
  • Teach at the postsecondary level

Clinical

  • Conduct assessment tests
  • Identify developmental setbacks
  • Develop treatment approaches
  • Work one-on-one with clients of all ages to help them reach their full potential

Where They Work

Research / Academia

  • Colleges and universities
  • Research facilities such as think tanks
  • Government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health
  • Medical schools

Clinical

  • Children’s hospitals
  • Outpatient healthcare clinics
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Retirement or assisted living facilities
  • K–12 schools
  • Private practice

Research and Academia Careers for Developmental Psychologists

Understanding how humans change and grow can help us ensure that at all stages of life, humans are meeting their potential. Conducting research is essential to this understanding.

Developmental psychology researchers focus on growth in a wide range of areas, including physical, cognitive, social, intellectual, perceptual, and emotional. They research specific topics such as language acquisition, alcohol and its effects on brain development, assessment and evaluation techniques, prenatal development, and many others.

Some may concentrate on development in particular life stages—infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Their research would center around developmental issues that are associated with each stage.

David talks about his research focus. “I am what we call a ‘social developmental psychologist,’ as opposed to a ‘cognitive developmental psychologist.’ I study social processes in particular.

My own specific research has focused on how both positive and negative marital relations are associated with children’s and adolescents’ social competence.”

Many researchers also teach at the postsecondary area. They often work with and supervise graduate students who aid them in their research.

Exploring Peer Relationships with Lara Mayeux

Lara Mayeux, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Social & Developmental Psychology at the University of Oklahoma, describes the research she is conducting about peer relationships.

“I study peer relationships among children ranging from the age of three up through high school age. Some of my research looks at ‘popularity.’

“We look at people who are very socially dominant and visible and have a high level of social power. A lot of my research is aimed at investigating what these kids are like.

“The kids who are popular and who know they’re popular—the kids who have a lot of social power and seem to get that—are much more aggressive than the kids who are popular and maybe not so aware of how much power they have over their peers.

“There’s this interesting social causative component in which it’s not just about status. It’s about status and being aware of that status that leads to some decisions about using aggression that we wouldn’t want kids to make.”

Clinical Career Track for Developmental Psychologists

Developmental psychologists in clinical practice work with individuals who are facing developmental roadblocks that adversely affect their life. This work can take different forms depending on the age group psychologists are working with.

During the period of infancy through puberty, many changes occur, and developmental issues can seriously affect growth. An important component of working with people in this stage of life is diagnosis. This step often begins with observation, which can help a developmental psychologist get a sense of what the developmental issues are and next steps. They might use a checklist or rating scale to record their observations.

The next step in diagnosis often involves testing. Dozens of tests are used for diagnosis, each with a particular developmental focus. Neurological tests include the Grip Strength Test, Speech Sounds Perception Test, and Wechsler Memory Test. Psychological tests include Kovac’s Children’s Depression Inventory, the Conduct Disorder Scale, and the Sentence Completion Test.

Once a developmental psychologist evaluates the test, they form a treatment plan that might involve medical doctors or psychiatrists.

Those who work with adults also make assessments, sometimes using tests, but a big focus is on helping clients deal with the aging process and adapt to changes that are a part of it. For example, a developmental psychologist might work in an assisted living facility to help older adults find ways to live more independently.

Developmental Psychologist Salary and Career Outlook

Developmental psychologists, researchers, teachers, and practitioners are needed in the U.S. Projected job growth for postsecondary psychology teachers, clinical psychologists, and the category of “All other psychologists” is 11% between 2018 and 2028—which is much faster than the national average for all occupations in the U.S.

Following are median salaries as of May 2019 for general job categories that may encompass developmental psychology.

  • Psychology teacher, postsecondary: $76,620
  • Clinical psychologist: $78,200
  • All other psychologists: $101,790

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020)

How to Become a Developmental Psychologist

To earn the title of “psychologist,” you do need a doctorate. But you don’t have to be a bonafide psychologist to work in developmental psychology—particularly in the clinical realm. With a master’s degree, you can become a counselor, therapist, associate professor, or research assistant. However, most researchers and postsecondary teachers have doctorates, and most universities and colleges require this degree for their professors.

The starting point for any of these career paths is earning a bachelor’s degree. You might get a bachelor’s in general psychology or a more specific area, such as developmental or cognitive psychology. Either way, earning your bachelor’s degree will provide you with a solid understanding of the fundamentals of psychology.

Once you graduate, you can move to a master’s program or, in many cases, directly to a doctoral program.

Master’s in Developmental Psychology

There are very few master’s degree programs specifically in developmental psychology. Some programs offer master’s degrees in different life stages, such as childhood and adolescence or gerontology. Other schools offer a master’s in general psychology with a concentration in developmental psychology. There are a few master’s counseling programs that allow you to focus on developmental psychology.

Doctorate in Developmental Psychology

Although there are two types of doctoral degrees in psychology—the Doctor of Psychology degree (Psy.D.) and the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in psychology—most developmental psychology doctorates are Ph.D.s. Even for those interested in a clinical track—which is usually the focus of a Psy.D.—instead you will find Ph.D. degrees in applied developmental psychology or Ph.D. programs that allow you to choose a clinical track.

Doctoral programs can take five to seven years and often require a dissertation or capstone project. Students who plan to work in applied developmental psychology will also need to complete hands-on clinical experiences. Many doctoral programs accept students with a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a related area.

Whether you choose a research or clinical track, you will most likely take courses in developmental psychology research methods, as well as classes about the different psychological processes, such as cognitive and social/emotional. Beyond the core curriculum, those following a research track usually take more advanced research courses. In contrast, those on a clinical track will take courses in diagnosis and assessment, clinical intervention methods, and ethics in clinical psychology.

Licensing Requirements

Most states require practicing psychologists or counselors to have a license. The type of license and requirements vary by state, so consult your state board for more information.

Those working in research and academia are generally not required to be licensed, but it can depend on your employer and location.

Changes and Trends in Developmental Psychology

As with most disciplines in psychology, developmental psychology has changed over the years—and new changes are on the horizon. For example, a major change in recent years has been about scope. “More traditional developmental psychology has focused on infants, children, and teens,” says Mayeux. “There was this assumption that once you turned 18 or 21, you were developed and done. There hasn’t been a lot of focus on change during adulthood, and that’s really starting to shift.”

Changes in technology have played a role as well. “There have been a lot of technological advances, which allow developmental researchers to study much more interesting things,” says Mayeux. “We have much better brain imaging technology, for example, that allows researchers to add a physiological component to the research that they do.”

And David notes that “…we’ve become increasingly sophisticated in our technological advances with regard to statistical analyses and modeling theory.”

As for the future, both Mayeux and David agree that developmental psychology will become more interdisciplinary. “Most researchers are trained in a specific area: developmental, social, cognitive, etc. And, we typically conduct research in our own pretty narrow field of expertise, but what we know is that that’s not the way humans develop. There’s a real need for research across disciplines.”

The cognitive developmentalist and the social developmentalist need to talk to each other, and that is starting to happen more frequently.

—Lara Mayeux, Developmental Psychologist

According to David, “The field is growing more and more biological. You can’t separate the psychological phenomena that we study from the biological phenomena going on underneath. With advances in other fields like molecular genetics, we’re starting to get a much fuller and more complete understanding of human development. Related to that is an increasing recognition of the dynamic nature of human development. We no longer believe that there’s this kind of static ‘genes vs. environment.’ ”

Developmental Psychology Resources

Use the following resources to learn more about developmental psychology, stay informed about new research, and find resources and links about training and career opportunities.

Meet the Experts

Lara Mayeux

Lara Mayeux

Lara Mayeux, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma. At UO she works with grad students to research how peer relationships and friendships in childhood and adolescence develop and change. Mayeux is co-author of a number of publications about peer relationships.

Kevin M. David

Kevin M. David

Kevin earned his Master of Science and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Oklahoma. He has served as associate professor at the University of Puget Sound (WA) and Northeastern State University (OK), as well as Director of Planning and Institutional Research at Tulsa Community College. He is a contributing author of the book The Parents’ Guide to Psychological First Aid. David is currently the Portfolio Director at CampusWorks, a company that collaborates with colleges and universities to enhance the institutional environment for faculty and students alike.