What is developmental psychology?
Developmental psychology is the study of changes across the human lifespan, including cognitive, physical, social, intellectual, emotional, and personality growth. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the field focused entirely on babies and children. It has since expanded to include people of all ages, which is reflected in its alternate name, lifespan psychology. Research has increasingly indicated that learning and cognitive development, while most active in childhood, continue throughout our lives.
Cognitive psychologists examine the interactions between nature and nurture to understand the mechanisms driving developmental change. Due to the profession’s initial focus on infancy and childhood, and because of the significant changes and formative experiences that happen in the first few years of life, developmental theories remain focused on these populations.
The 7 stages of psycho-social development
The following stages of psychological-social development were proposed by German-American psychologist Erik Erikson. At each stage, a new level of complexity is achieved. Each stage is also associated with a particular core issue, presented as a polarity. Examples are trust and mistrust in infancy, and ego integrity versus despair in old age.
The first stage of Erikson’s theory begins at birth and lasts throughout the first 2 years of life. At this stage of development, an infant is completely dependent on their adult caregivers. Food, love, warmth, safety, and nurturing are the primary resources sought and needed. If a caregiver fails to provide these, the child will come to feel that they cannot trust or depend upon the adults in their life. The key conflict at this stage is thus between trust and mistrust.
Ages 2-5 are a period of rapid growth and change in a child’s life, when independence begins to develop. Potty training and learning to eat and drink are the focus of learning.
Erikson believed that learning to control bodily functions assists the development of a sense of independence. The key conflict at this stage is between autonomy and shame.
During this period, children begin their formal education journey and are strongly influenced by social factors. They also begin asserting their power and control over the world through directing play and other social interactions. This need for greater control over their environment leads to the conflict between initiative and guilt.
The main event at this stage of development is full-time attendance of a school. Children have greater focus on their abilities and accomplishments They are also focusing on many new social and academic demands. The primary conflict at this stage is between industry and inferiority.
During these turbulent few years, when many physical and psychological changes are rapidly occurring, teenagers begin developing a sense of a unique and separate identity. At the same time, they are looking for ways to fit into the broader social community. The primary conflict at this stage is thus between identity and confusion.
Young adulthood is when Erikson believed individuals need to build close, loving relationships with individuals outside of their family. At this stage, the first serious romantic relationships begin to develop, as do life-long friendships built at college. The primary conflict at this stage is between intimacy and isolation.
At this stage, the need to leave behind creations that will outlive us begins to emerge. This can include having children, or creating something meaningful that will last long after we are gone. Career and family are the main focus at this stage, and individuals who don’t feel successful in either realm can experience difficulties. Thus, the main conflict at this stage is between generativity and stagnation.
At this final stage of life, there is often a lot of looking back and reflection on one’s life choices and experiences. Erikson defined success as this stage as the development of wisdom. Naturally, each developmental stage builds upon the previous stages. At this final stage, the main conflict is between ego integrity and despair, which will be connected to how all the previous stages were experienced.
What do developmental psychologists do?
Most developmental psychologists are primarily researchers and theorists, focused on answering questions such as:
- What psychological changes happen to us as babies, children and grownups?
- How do we reach our developmental milestones?
- What psychological processes drive children’s development?
- How do thoughts, language, and social skills develop?
- When does real self-awareness emerge?
- Are the changes we go through in life gradual or abrupt?
- How can we help with autism and neurologically atypical patterns of behavior?
- Are children’s behaviors related to age, family relationships, or temperament?
Developmental psychology is primarily an indirect psychology practice. This means it is not considered a form of health service delivery. Developmental psychologists are primarily researchers employed by universities to investigate human development and teach the subject to postsecondary students. They also may work in more applied settings, such as healthcare and mental health clinics, assisted living homes, and homeless shelters, although this is far less common.
What are the educational requirements for a career in developmental psychology?
The first step towards becoming a developmental psychologist is a bachelor’s degree. A typical undergraduate program takes 4 years to complete. Most students opt for either a B.A. in or a B.S. in psychology. The main difference between the 2 types of degrees is that B.A. students have more opportunities to take elective courses outside of psychology. A B.S. may be more beneficial for aspiring developmental psychologists because of its emphasis on science and math.
A typical undergraduate psychology program (M.S. or M.A) can include the following courses:
- introduction to psychology
- physiological psychology
- statistical methods
- research methods and design
- human memory
- psychology of learning
- perceptual processes
- biological bases of behavior
You may be able to find psychology bachelor’s programs with a concentration in developmental psychology, but many of the courses in such a program will likely be the same foundational subjects taught in a non-specialized undergraduate psychology program. Be aware that if you choose a non-psychology bachelor’s degree, you may have to take prerequisite courses to be able to enter a graduate program in psychology.
Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee offers an extremely popular developmental psychology course entitled “Harry Potter and Child Development”. The course focuses on Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s behavior throughout the books, how the 3 change with age, and what causes those changes. It touches on topics like depression, perfectionism, and the need for a growth mindset.
Career options with a bachelor’s degree
A psychiatric technician works with individuals suffering from mental or physical disabilities. They provide therapeutic care to their patients, listen to their concerns, and monitor and record their condition. Their job may also entail travel to and from medical facilities that patients visit for different services. Psychiatric technicians often work in residential healthcare facilities, psychiatric treatment centers, and hospitals.
Most developmental psychologist positions require at least a master’s degree. To be accepted into a master’s program, candidates typically need an undergraduate degree in a related field. A master’s program takes about 2 years to complete.
Graduate programs are where you can begin to specialize your study of developmental psychology. There are a limited number of colleges that offer developmental psychology as a 2-year master’s program. Depending on the institution, you can develop a strong understanding of the research, theories, and practical applications of knowledge about developmental stages in the areas of cognitive, behavioral, social, language, and personality development.
Your master’s program will likely include the following structure:
- a basic course in methods of research
- required courses in cognitive development, personality development in atypical populations, and social and personality development
- a basic course in statistics
- a research practicum
- electives in developmental psychology plus relevant electives offered by other programs
- a project-based course
Possible master’s-level courses include:
General development psychology
This course provides students with a broad understanding of developmental psychology and how its principles can be applied to people throughout the different stages of their lives.
Child and adolescent development
This course looks at abnormal psychology and behavior analysis in children and adolescents. This will cover topics of general psychological and physiological development as relevant to the well-being of children at home and school.
Adult development and gerontology
Students learn about the psychological, emotional, cognitive, and biological aspects of aging. It also incorporates the adoption of various psychological theories to understand people at different life stages.
Health and human development
This course covers how different theoretical approaches in developmental psychology can be applied to real-life situations within health and social care.
The majority of master’s courses require students to submit a thesis. Note that students can specialize in another area of psychology without harming their chances of being accepted into a doctoral program in developmental psychology. Many master’s programs require students to participate in internships. While the majority take place in laboratories, students can also get involved in projects in other settings.
Career options with a master’s degree
A rehabilitation counselor works with people who have emotional and physical disabilities, to ensure they can live as independently as possible. Counselors assess the strengths and weaknesses in all areas of their clients’ lives to plan and promote client independence wherever possible. They can help a client to find and hold down a job, develop independence, and apply to different services for the help they may require. Generally, a rehabilitation counselor works in healthcare facilities, social services, and community agencies.
Marriage and family therapist
As you might expect, marriage and family therapists work with people in relationships, married couples, and families. They work with people who are facing issues such as divorce, infidelity, substance abuse, grief, and behavioral issues. Therapists work with groups and individuals to address negative behaviors that damage relationships. Marriage and family therapists work in private practice, healthcare facilities, and community centers.
Human personality was long thought to stay relatively static after the age of 30. Recent research into this question has demonstrated that we do change over time, but that these changes don’t happen overnight. Rather, they span many decades. Luckily, most of us change for the better, becoming more agreeable, conscientious, and emotionally resilient with age.
A career in developmental psychology rarely involves working in clinical settings. Therefore, the doctoral qualification usually comes in the form of a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.), rather than doctor of psychology (Psy.D.). Typically, a Ph.D. in psychology with a focus on developmental psychology takes between 5 and 7 years to complete.
Most students applying for a Ph.D. program first need to complete a master’s degree, but it is not uncommon for psychology students to enter a joint master’s and doctoral program. In such programs, the master’s degree is usually completed in the first 2 years of study.
Ph.D. students are expected to be actively involved in research for the duration of their program. A dissertation is required, and frequently takes the form of a student designing an experiment in an area of interest, and then analyzing the results.
All doctoral programs that are accredited by the APA require an internship. Internship details are agreed upon after consultation with the faculty advisor.
Note many Ph.D. programs in developmental psychology offer the opportunity to specialize further. The specializations available vary across schools and programs, but can include:
- applied developmental psychology
- developmental psychopathology
- gerontology/geriatric psychology
- social and emotional development
- childcare, early education, and child development
Career options with a doctorate degree
Many developmental psychologists are employed in educational settings, at colleges and universities. In such positions, they usually focus on conducting research on developmental topics while also teaching courses to psychology students.
Others may work in government agencies, helping assess and treat individuals with various developmental disabilities. Assisted living homes for the elderly, teen rehabilitation clinics, centers for the homeless, psychiatric clinics, and hospitals are other possible areas of employment.
Post-secondary teacher (professor, lecturer, instructor)
Postsecondary teachers can be either tenure-track, which begins with an assistant professorship and leads to a full professorship, or lecturers and instructors. Full-time instructors spend more time teaching and less time engaged in other professional duties, such as faculty governance, compared to tenure-track professors. Professors are also often also engaged in research and scholarly writing and theory, which is less common for instructors and lecturers. Research and writing is often a mandatory task for professors, with their research often funded by the university that employs them.
Federal aid and scholarships are available for graduates embarking on a doctoral degree in developmental psychology. It’s important therefore to begin your applications with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Many universities also offer funding to doctoral students in exchange for teaching or research assistant positions. Some universities offer full funding to Ph.D. students on this basis.
Tuition waivers are possible under the student-practitioner model, in which doctoral candidates contribute to research and care in the community while they are studying.
Psychology students seeking financial aid should start with the Scholarships, Grants, and Awards department of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS). The same organization offers a dissertation research award, minority fellowship programs, and Psi Chi research grants.
It is important to ensure that your doctoral program is accredited. There is variation between states, yet most stipulate attending attend a regionally or nationally-accredited program, or a program accredited by the APA. Some states also offer licensure to psychologists from Canadian Psychological Association (CPA)-accredited programs.
Accreditation informs future patients, employers, and licensing boards that your qualifications have met the highest standards to provide appropriate care to your patients. Colleges and programs with accreditation also update their programs to stay current and ensure that those studying psychology are informed about new developments in the discipline.
Frequently asked questions
The majority of developmental psychologists are primarily researchers and/or postsecondary teachers. However, there are positions for developmental psychologists in business, government, and clinical settings.
Most practicing psychologists need to be licensed by their state’s licensing board. Those who work at colleges or universities or in government institutions or research laboratories may be exempt from having to be licensed in some states. This may be particularly relevant for developmental psychologists, are they often focus on research and teaching rather than providing psychological services. Rules vary by state, so it’s important to check your state’s specifications about exemptions from licensure.
Developmental psychology is a specialization, meaning the majority or programs focusing on this field will be at the doctoral level. It can be difficult to find accredited online doctoral programs in psychology. You are more likely to find online master’s degrees in developmental psychology. If becoming a Ph.D.-level psychologist is your end goal, look for accredited online programs only.
This is a professional membership organization for developmental psychologists. The organization supports research and the academic and professional growth of students and professionals. Division 7 also advances the understanding of human development in both applied and public policy settings.
The AACAP is the leading association dedicated to treating children and adolescents who suffer from developmental, behavioral, or mental disorders. Members of this association research, evaluate, and treat different psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents.
The AAMFT represents more than 50,000 marriage and family therapists in the United States and internationally. The board of directors offers insight and experience to help professional psychologists interested in this field.