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Neuropsychology Careers and Degree Programs

Neuropsychologist Dr. Jenni Ogden shares the story of a case she wrote about while getting her doctorate. A stroke victim presented with odd symptoms: She ignored people appearing on her left side, copied only the right sides of pictures, and ate only the food on the right side of her plate. It turned out that the cause was a neurological disorder called hemineglect, a disease that occurs after specific areas of the brain are damaged. However, researchers have yet to come up with a completely satisfactory theory about why the brain acts like this.

While this story is just one unusual example of cases clinical neuropsychologists face, it also reveals an important aspect of this career: sleuthing to understand exactly how a brain disease or disorder has affected a patient’s behavior or cognition. And it’s just one type of case you might encounter if you decide to work as a neuropsychologist.

On this page you will learn more about what neuropsychologists do, focus areas, professional opportunities, salaries, education levels, and requirements surrounding certification and licensure.

What Does a Neuropsychologist Do?

A neuropsychologist is a psychologist who specializes in understanding the relationship between brain function and behavior. Unlike neurologists, who diagnose and treat specific neurological disorders from a medical perspective, neuropsychologists focus on how injuries and diseases of the brain and nervous system affect the way a person feels, thinks, and behaves.

Neuropsychologists tend to focus on one of two areas: research and clinical work.

Clinical Neuropsychologists

Clinical neuropsychologists work directly with patients to evaluate and treat psychological symptoms related to brain illness or injury. Such symptoms might:

  • Memory difficulties
  • Mood disturbances
  • Learning difficulties
  • Nervous system dysfunction

Examples of the types of conditions and symptoms a neuropsychologist treats include:

  • Brain or nervous system injuries: These injuries can cause aberrations in memory or thinking ability.
  • Stroke impairment: Strokes can affect behavior, thinking, memory, and other brain functions in obvious or subtle ways.
  • Alzheimer’s and dementia: These conditions may cause changes in memory function, personality, and cognitive abilities.
  • Parkinson’s disease: There are a host of neuropsychological issues associated with this disease. Neuropsychologists can help determine disease progression and decreased function.
  • Developmental delays or learning disabilities in children: Neuropsychologists also work with children who have brain injuries or nervous system disorders.

Specific tasks that a neuropsychologist might perform include:

  • Evaluating patients using neuropsychological assessments of sensorimotor function, cognition, intelligence, language, development, and memory
  • Working with neurologists and other medical providers to help diagnose and understand the disease and resulting behavior
  • Developing treatment plans based on neuropsychological assessments
  • Working with patients and their families to provide counseling and/or education to help them understand and deal with behavioral and cognitive changes
  • Consulting about the need for neurological surgeries and advising on the risks associated with each type

Research

As a researcher, you will use data collection, experimentation, and the work of other researchers to learn more about neuropsychological function and disease. Some of the tasks you can expect to perform include:

  • Creating hypotheses and testing them under rules of the scientific method, employing various laboratory tools
  • Creating baseline measurements of neuropsychological health for use when conducting experiments or studies
  • Overseeing laboratory technicians and assistants who are working to carry out your research studies
  • Writing detailed reports about your research methodologies, data inferences, and conclusions
  • Presenting your research at conferences and symposiums
  • Staying up to date about emerging research in the field by conferring with other professionals, attending academic symposiums, and so on

Job Growth and Career Trends

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for neuropsychology degree holders are on the rise. Employment of these professionals is projected to grow by 10 to 14% between 2016 and 2026 — faster than the national average for all positions. Several factors contribute to this growth.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 2.87 million Americans visited emergency rooms for traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) in 2014 alone. Each of these individuals required care from surgeons, physicians, and neuropsychologists to assess injuries, create plans for treatment, and provide psychological support. Neuropsychologists are also in great demand for aging populations; a 2019 report from the Alzheimer’s Association found that 5.8 million Americans currently live with Alzheimer’s dementia. While both TBI and Alzheimer’s figures speak to clinical roles, research and teaching positions should also continue growing as emerging technologies and studies produce new methods for understanding and caring for the brain.

Neuropsychologist Salary

Given their position within the medical field and the amount of education required, it should come as no surprise that graduates of neuropsychology degree programs earn high salaries. ZipRecruiter reports that as of May 21, 2019, the average annual pay for a neuropsychologist in the United States was $128,993 per year. While ZipRecruiter is seeing annual salaries as high as $187,500 and as low as $72,000, the majority of neuropsychologist salaries range between $102,000 (25th percentile) to $146,500 (75th percentile) across the United States.

States offering the highest wages as of May 21, 2019, include:

StateMedian Annual Salary
New York$137,697
Massachusetts$136,993
Maryland$129,284
California$126,936
Nebraska$126,712

Training and Education for Neuropsychology

Many support roles exist within psychology and neurology, but you’ll need to obtain a doctorate degree if you want to work as a neuropsychologist. If you want to practice as a clinician, plan on completing postdoctoral work. In fact, you’ll need to undertake quite a few steps to join the ranks of neuropsychologists including:

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree.
  2. If necessary, earn a master’s degree. (This is discussed in further detail below.)
  3. Obtain a doctoral degree in neuropsychology.
  4. Seek licensure from your state board.
  5. Gain acceptance to a postdoctoral program if pursuing clinical work.
  6. Seek board certification.

Bachelor’s Degree

As mentioned earlier, you can’t become a neuropsychologist with only a bachelor’s degree. Rather, programs at this level serve as the foundation for future advanced coursework. Because no neuropsychology degree programs exist at the baccalaureate level, your best bet is to earn a bachelor’s in psychology. Within such a program, you can focus on coursework that prepares you for graduate study, such as behavioral and integrative neuroscience, developmental psychology, neural networks, and functional imaging.

Another great option is to look for a multidisciplinary program that combines studies in psychology, neuroscience, and biology. Some schools allow learners to create their own plans of study based on future educational and career plans; these programs can be a great option for covering many of the topics required by graduate programs.

Master’s Degree in Neuropsychology

The majority of doctorate neuropsychology degree online programs do not require a master’s degree as a prerequisite, so look at prospective programs’ admissions pages to determine whether or not this step is necessary. Because you can’t practice neuropsychology without a doctorate, most master’s programs offer degrees in psychology, with an emphasis on neuroscience.

A master’s degree in neuropsychology can vary in length based on whether a student enrolls full or part time, whether the pace is accelerated or traditional, and whether it is offered in a cohort model. With all those factors in mind, degrees can take between two and four years.

Admissions requirements for a master’s degree in neuropsychology vary by school, but in general you should expect a few baseline mandates. These include completing a bachelor’s degree in a related subject, possessing a GPA of 3.0 or higher, providing two to three letters of recommendation, submitting GRE scores, and turning in a personal statement that addresses why you want to study this topic and why this particular school best aligns with your goals. Some common courses include:

  • Sports counseling and rehabilitation: This specialized course looks at the neuropsychological implications of sports injuries and how to adequately care for athletes.
  • Psychological factors related to injuries: This course introduces you to topics such as brain injury, theories of pain, psychological development, and responses to traumatic brain injuries.
  • Personality disorders: Expect to learn about common personality disorders and how these can be assessed and diagnosed.
  • Rehabilitative neuropsychology: This course covers some of the neurocognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues associated with acquired brain injuries.

Ph.D. in Neuropsychology

To practice as a licensed neuropsychologist, you’ll need to complete a doctoral program and receive board certification. Most graduate students earn their doctorate in either neuropsychology or clinical neuropsychology; another pathway is to earn a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in clinical psychology and follow up with a postdoctoral certificate program in neuropsychology. In general, Ph.D., programs are more research-oriented, while Psy.D. programs are more practice-oriented.

The majority of Ph.D. programs take three to five years, while Psy.D. programs take four to six years. Admission requirements vary significantly by school, but they usually include a minimum mandate for a GPA of at least 3.0, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, official transcripts, and test scores. Some programs may also require relevant work and/or research experience. Examples of common coursework include:

  • Basic neurosciences: Taken in the first year, this course prepares you for advanced studies by laying a groundwork in neuroanatomy, neurobehavior, neurochemistry, neurophysiology, and neuropsychopharmacology.
  • Neuropsychological assessments: In this course you will learn the skills needed to competently and confidently conduct assessments on incoming patients. You’ll gain proficiency in both standardized and emerging assessment tools.
  • Neuroimaging: This course familiarizes you with neuroimaging techniques that help identify psychiatric and/or neurological illnesses through scans. Techniques covered include positron emission tomography (PET), diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), among others.
  • Pediatric neuropsychology: This course builds knowledge in areas of brain development, from intrauterine to adult stages, with special emphasis on neurobehavioral plasticity and common childhood cognitive disabilities (e.g., dyslexia, ADHD, language disorders).

After completing all course requirements, writing your dissertation, and successfully participating in an internship or practicum, it’s time to start looking for a postdoctoral fellowship. If you plan to work in a clinical setting, you’ll need a two-year fellowship under your belt before qualifying for patient-facing roles.

Areas of Concentration

In addition to completing general coursework toward your neuropsychology degree, you also can elect to specialize in one of several subdisciplines in the field. Two popular options include pediatric neuropsychology and forensic neuropsychology.

Pediatric neuropsychologists address issues connecting the brain with behavior in children. They are clinical psychologists who possess specialized training in brain development. They use this information to assess children for diseases, injuries, or developmental delays and help to manage these conditions.

Forensic neuropsychologists work at the intersection of clinical neuropsychology and the legal system. Specifically, they evaluate and assess individuals accused of committing crimes to ascertain whether brain dysfunction contributed to their behavior. This field is still developing, making it an exciting option for medical professionals.

Neuropsychology Licensure and Certification

If you plan to work as a clinical neuropsychologist, know that all 50 states require you to receive licensure before you can practice. Each state sets its own rules for achieving licensure, but most mandate similar steps. Some of these include:

After receiving licensure, you’re ready to begin practicing! But you may also decide to voluntarily pursue board certification to help further demonstrate your knowledge, professionalism, and skill set. The two most popular options within this field include the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology and The American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology. To obtain board certification, you must do the following:

  • Complete an online application
  • Submit general credentials for review, including proof of doctoral degree, completion of an internship, and active licensure
  • Submit specific credentials, including knowledge of eight core areas and details of postdoctoral fellowship
  • Sit for a written exam consisting of 125 questions
  • Prepare and submit practice samples
  • Participate in an oral examination

After receiving board certification, remember to engage in continuing education opportunities and pay annual membership dues to maintain your status.

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