Careers in experimental psychology
What is experimental psychology?
Generally speaking, experimental psychology is the scientific study of the mind. Experimental psychologists are interested in how humans and animals behave, what influences their thoughts, and how the brain responds to different environments. Because every piece of psychological research that relates to the mind can be seen as experimental, numerous subfields, such as behavioral or cognitive psychology, fall into the experimental psychology category.
Most experimental psychologists are not clinical practitioners and don’t treat individual patients. Instead, they dedicate themselves to research. For example, they might conduct a study looking at why people find it difficult to stick to healthy habits, but constantly create bad ones. Their experimental methods typically involve changing one variable at a time and then monitoring whether that change produces another variable. In this way, experimental psychologists create links between variables and publish new research about the discovered sequence of cause and effect.
Experimental psychologists are interested in how humans and animals behave, what influences their thoughts, and how the brain responds to different environments.
Experimental psychology is a broad field that spans many different areas of psychology. Therefore, those who study this subject are not limited to a single industry or area of interest within the psychology field.
What career options are available in experimental psychology?
Although experimental psychologists tend to work in academia, there are also numerous roles in research centers, government, and business. Professionals in the field are often involved in finding solutions to major problems, such as why people experience anxiety, and how to treat patients with mental illnesses. Salaries are higher than average when compared to other psychology positions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment is predicted to grow by 8% by 2030 within the broader psychology sector.
An education in experimental psychology can be a route into jobs across various psychology subfields. The skills gained in research and analysis can also be excellent training for fields outside of psychology, such as working with data to spot trends, for example. It is this combination of excellent career prospects and highly rewarding work that makes experimental psychology a highly appealing study area.
The first experimental psychology textbook— “Principles of Physiological Psychology”— written by William Wundt in 1874, promoted the examination of conscious experience.
What are the educational requirements for a career in experimental psychology?
Entering the field of experimental psychology begins with a 4-year undergraduate degree. The obvious choice is to major in psychology and choose a concentration in a closely related field. Most undergraduate psychology courses incorporate obligatory experimental psychology courses as the methodology is applicable across many psychology disciplines. Taking electives in subjects such as math, statistics, computer science, and data analysis, can also prove helpful as you progress.
Many would-be experimental psychologists choose a bachelor’s of science (B.S.) over a bachelor’s of art degree (B.A). While a B.S. has more subjects in math and science, a B.A. has liberal arts focus with greater flexibility in the choice of electives.
A typical undergraduate psychology program (M.S. or M.A) can include the following courses:
- biological and cognitive bases of psychology
- statistical methods in behavioral sciences
- introduction to psychology
- physiological psychology
- evolutionary psychology
- research methods and design
- human memory
- psychology of language
- perceptual processes
Even with a major in a non-psychology subject, it is possible to proceed to psychology at the master’s level, although you may be required to additional subjects to show you are ready for a graduate psychology program.
Although an internship is not a requirement for a bachelor’s degree, take this option if it becomes available, as early practical experience in the field can benefit future career options.
Careers with a bachelor’s degree
Although most experimental psychology positions require at least a master’s degree, you can apply for some jobs with an undergraduate degree including:
Product development specialistMedian salary: $60K
A product development specialist helps to create products and strategies for other products in the pipeline. Technically not in the psychology field, experimental psychology graduates tend to be a good fit for this position due to their strong research and analytical skills. The role often involves soliciting feedback and using findings to inform product design, all of which are skills learned during a bachelor’s in experimental psychology.
Research analystMedian salary: $58K
A research analyst examines data and isolates the most important information and trends. The role involves checking the accuracy of the research and using the data to test the hypothetical ideas and theories a company may be considering. This is usually an office-based position, and though research analysts can work in either the private or public sector, many jobs are in the financial field.
Most experimental psychologist positions require at least a master’s degree. To be accepted onto a master’s program, candidates typically need an undergraduate degree in a related field, a GPA of 3.0, and satisfactory GRE scores. A master’s program typically takes 2 years to complete.
At this level, you can choose to do either an M.S. or an M.A. – in experimental psychology. This decision usually depends on the school you attend and the classes you want to take.
The types of courses typically included in an M.S. in experimental psychology are:
- behavioral neuroscience
- cognitive psychology
- developmental psychology
- social psychology
- psychological quantitative methods
- master’s thesis
- research methods in experimental psychology
Coursework for an M.A. in experimental psychology might include:
- research design
- psychology of emotion
- psychology of the arts
- computer methods in psychology
- cognitive psychology
- master’s thesis
- neuroscience and evolution of creativity
The majority of master’s courses require students to submit a thesis. As an alternative to the thesis option, some programs offer the option or completing a series of other tracks. At most schools however, students are encouraged to take the thesis track.
Note that at master’s level, majoring in experimental psychology is just one option. Students can also specialize in another area of psychology without harming their chances of being accepted into a doctoral program in experimental psychology. In fact, if a student has an interesting research proposal from another field that they plan to work on during their doctorate studies, this can enhance their chance of acceptance.
Many master’s programs require students to participate in internships, the duration depends on the specific program. While the majority take place in laboratories, students can also get involved in projects in other settings, such as private enterprise.
Careers with a master’s degree
Outside of academia, a master’s in experimental psychology can be adequate education to gain entry to many jobs in the field. Examples of these positions include:
Consulting psychologistMedian salary: $82K
The role of a consulting psychologist is to offer technical assistance to individuals or organizations. Note that a consulting psychologist is not a licensed psychologist unless they have a doctorate degree and have fulfilled the necessary licensing requirements of the state, they work in. In this role, a consulting psychologist brings their knowledge of human behavior to tasks such as:
- assessing individuals
- coaching managers
- selecting staff or conducting appraisals
- creating research and evaluation tests
- training staff
Research scientistsMedian salary: $82K
Although this position usually requires a master’s, occasionally a graduate of a bachelor’s program may be hired. Typically, research scientists are found in academia, specifically in laboratories where a large part of the job is collecting data and understanding the results. A research scientist may be tasked with conducting their own experiments, but these are usually monitored by more senior academics and researchers in the field.
The ‘Invisible Gorilla’ is an excellent example of experimental research. Study participants were asked to watch a video of people playing basketball and count the number of passes made between the players with white shirts. Several seconds into the video, a giant gorilla enters the game. Most of the participants are so focused on counting they don’t even notice. The experiment proves that what we pay attention to affects our perception of the world.
A career in the field of experimental psychology rarely involves working in a clinical setting. 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. takes between 4 and 6 years to complete.
Most students applying for a Ph.D. program first need to complete a master’s degree. Some candidates bypass the master’s and enter a joint master’s and doctoral program. This can save time but comes with a significant study commitment.
Other students decide to gain some real-world laboratory experience before moving to a Ph.D. program. They then return to their studies a few years later, often with a better idea of what to specialize in.
Most Ph.D. programs in experimental psychology aim to prepare students for both academic work and applied research. The doctoral study program tends to be very individual, with candidates working with a faculty advisor to create a personalized program that works for them. Regardless, there is usually a heavy emphasis on the study of statistics and research methodology considered integral to working in the field.
Ph.D. students are expected to be actively involved in research for the duration of the program. A dissertation is required and usually this 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 experimental psychology offer the opportunity to specialize further. The specializations available vary across schools and programs, but can include:
- applied quantitative
- cognitive psychology
- industrial organizational psychology
- health psychology
- social psychology
College professorMedian salary: $89K
Some experimental psychology doctoral graduates choose to stay in the educational environment and share their knowledge. At most psychology faculties, in-depth knowledge of experimental methodology is in high demand, meaning there are usually plenty of opportunities to purse teaching as a career.
A college professor requires a wide variety of skills, and may need to be comfortable with:
- leading seminars and lectures
- overseeing laboratory work and student assignments
- creating course materials
- supervising research work
- participating in conferences
Experimental psychologyMedian salary: $81K
Experimental psychologists tend to work in academia, but there are also numerous government, non-profit, or private research group roles. A license to practice psychology is not a requisite, although may be beneficial when seeking employment, particularly for the most prestigious jobs. For the most part, experimental psychologists either conduct or oversee research projects related to behavior. The job consists of creating hypotheses, observing human behavior, creating test and control groups, gathering data, and assessing the results.
Experimental researchers have found that if you have a plan B it can negatively affect the chances of your plan A succeeding. It is not recommended to apply this to your college applications though.
Getting your license
As mentioned earlier, many jobs in this sector don’t require a license because positions in this field typically focus on research—rather than treating individuals in a clinical setting. But based on their career goals, some Ph.D. graduates do go on to seek licensure.
The requirements to obtain a psychology license varies according to the state, although commonly comprise of a completed postdoctoral degree and up to 3,000 hours of supervised practice. Further exams may also be stipulated, such as the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP).
Paying for your education
The sheer time duration of the education required to work in the experimental psychology field translates into large financial commitment. Thus, it is important to understand the various funding methods for the programs you apply to.
There are funding options at every degree level. The first step is to fill in the FAFSA form, which can help you to discover the federal grants, student loans, and school-based aid at your disposal. There may also be scholarships specifically connected to the experimental psychology field worth researching.
Finally, if you decide to take on a part-time job, check the rules of your chosen school as some graduate programs limit the number of hours a student is allowed to work to ensure their studies are the focus.
This society has created division 3, which aims to promote the teaching of experimental psychology and its subdisciplines.
The APA aims to promote research in psychology, and to improve both research methods and how research findings are used.
With more than 25,000 members, the APS aims advance scientific psychology across the globe.