Doctorate in Behavioral Psychology – PsyD and PhD Programs

Behaviorism is the theory that observable acts are the sum of human behavior, and that these can be managed and modified with the right conditioning. We all have some experience with behavioral ideas… whether it’s threatening a time-out for a kid who is throwing a tantrum, or promising workers bonus incentives for following safety practices on the job.

So much of the public tends to subconsciously incorporate the precepts of behaviorism in their everyday perspectives that it seems incredible that some of the earliest experiments to prove the theory didn’t happy until the early 20th Century.

What is Behavioral Psychology?

Behavioral psychology goes further than just stating that stimuli and conditioning effect behavior. Instead, it says that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning.

That makes behavioral psychology a powerful tool both shaping society and helping people with mental illness. Strict behaviorists believe that anyone, no matter what their personality or thoughts are, can be trained to behave in any way that is physically possible through the proper application of conditioning. Operant conditioning is a system for applying this concept through rewards and punishment. It is routinely used with both humans and animals.

Bob Bailey was the first director of training for the Navy’s dolphin program. But his claim to fame in behavioral conditioning circles comes from a smaller and less waterlogged trainee… a spider.

Bailey happened to notice a small spider in his bathroom one day. On a whim, he shined a laser pointer on it and blew on it. Spiders hate wind—it destroys webs and can lift them away from home. So they tighten down into a ball when they feel it, as this one did.

At intervals, when he visited the bathroom over the course of the day, he would shine the light and blow. The spider would ball up. By the end of his course of conditioning, Bailey had only to shine the light, and the spider would curl into a ball… with no wind at all.

The idea that humans can be conditioned as directly as dogs or dolphins or spiders isn’t always a popular one. But the studies and experiments have piled up proof over the years. And the application of those theories has proven remarkably effective in psychological treatment. It remains one of the dominant practices in the field today.

Imagine you are a small child again. You are put in a small room. A man and a woman come in and present a variety of objects you’ve never seen before… a dog, a monkey, a small fire, a rabbit, a white rat. You’re fascinated. Everything is new, and nothing is scary. You even like petting the rat.

But the next time you reach to the rat, the world rattles. A loud clanging noises shocks you. You pull back, then try again. The clanging returns, and you cry.

Soon, every time you see the rat, you cry immediately, even when there is no noise. When other things are brought in, like the dog, you are cautious, even though you don’t cry right away. Even a fur coat is treated with skepticism. You’ve learned about the bad things that can happen when fur shows up. Your behavior has been changed by that experience.

It’s not an experiment that anyone could get away with today, but the so-called Little Albert experiments conducted by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner at Johns Hopkins in 1919 laid part of the groundwork for one of the most influential concepts in modern psychology: behaviorism.

In Little Albert’s case, the form of conditioning was an assistant banging on a big metal pipe behind him when the rat was shown. But there are many less obvious stimuli and conditioning effects that behaviorists have researched in everyday situations. Operant and classical conditioning, reinforcement and punishment… these are the concepts and tools behavioral psychologists work with every day. And a doctorate in the field can give you the insights you need to conduct your own experiments and breakthroughs… hopefully without frightening any toddlers.

What Do Doctors of Psychology Do in Behavioral Psychology?

So where do PsyD graduates find work with that kind of expertise in their toolkit? Just about anywhere! They do it on large scales and small, working in medicine and in industry and government. They might perform operant conditioning on their own individual patients, or they might use their knowledge of the subject to design campaigns designed to change the behavior of millions of people.

Behavioral psychology has implications in healthcare, of course, both on the individual and the community level. Behavioral psychologists have been a key part of public health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the ground, they are slammed with PTSD treatment for survivors and their families, an area in which behavioral psychology has proven enormously effective. At high levels, they consult with government agencies shaping pandemic response messaging, such as advising the White House on whether or not to take out Super Bowl ads to push vaccination information.

Applied behavioral analysis has become one of the go-to treatments for the autism epidemic. Behavioral psychologists draw up treatment plans and conduct therapy sessions, or supervise applied behavior analysts handling day-to-day therapies. Behaviorists find jobs in sports conditioning, in corporate marketing, and in the vital work of public health… anywhere that conditioning and responses can play a role in helping people.

Not all of these roles require the advanced education of a doctorate in psychology. You will find that those that do, though, give you the greatest flexibility, responsibility, and salaries in the field. You’ll learn the field in-depth and have the opportunity to make a major difference in people’s lives. And you’ll be eligible to become licensed as a clinical psychologist.

Choosing a PsyD or PhD Program for Advanced Study of Behavioral Psychology

Behaviorism is as much an approach to clinical psychology generally as a specialization. Most PsyD, or Doctor of Psychology, programs will cover behaviorism to some extent. Your choice to focus on the skill will come through your selection of electives and your research and dissertation choices. Some PsyD programs may offer specializations in closely related fields like behavioral management, however.

You’ll find more doctoral programs that are specific to behavioral psychology that are offered as Doctors of Philosophy, or PhDs. Your choice will depend in part on how you plan to practice behavioral psychology.

The Differences in PhD and PsyD Behavioral Psychology Programs

As you probably know if you’ve researched this far, a PsyD is the preferred degree for anyone planning to go into clinical practice as a psychologist. The coursework and focus is on patient treatment and practical applications of psychological knowledge.

A PhD, on the other hand, is viewed as a degree designed to prepare students for research and academic pursuits in psychology. There is more coursework in clinical research, psychological theory, and experimental design, and less training in psychological assessment and healthcare systems.

Don’t write off PhD programs just because they are aimed mostly at theory, though. Theory and experimentation are bread and butter work in behaviorism. Conducting research on stimuli and conditioning are elementary parts of behavioral treatment. In fact, you’ll find far more PhD programs offering behavioral specializations than PsyD programs. The extra helping of research design and conduct you’ll get in a PhD program can pay off big-time in your professional career.

In practice, it’s entirely possible to become a licensed clinical psychologist with a PhD in hand, just as it’s possible to take on an academic or policy role having earned a PsyD. You’ll want to look at the particulars of each program to decide which is the right one for you.

Should You Choose an Online Doctoral Degree in Behavioral Psychology?

Only you can know whether or not remote learning is a style that can work for you. The operant conditioning that comes with a classroom environment can have greater or lesser effects on different people.

But one thing you don’t need to worry about is the acceptance and the equality of online degrees in behavioral psych compared to their traditional counterparts. Although the pandemic greatly accelerated online learning in all its forms, psychology doctorates have been offered online for decades now. And graduates go on to find every bit of the same salaries and success as those from on-campus programs.

Of course, psychology is an intensely hands-on profession. No online degree is actually fully online. They are delivered in hybrid formats, with your classroom sessions held through remote study, and the vital practicum and internship hours conducted on site.

But simply having the greater load of your coursework available through asynchronous study, available at any hour, from any location, can give you the sort of flexibility you need to get through a program that otherwise wouldn’t be attainable. If you have to hold down a job while you are going to school, have family to take care of, or simply couldn’t afford to relocate to the city where your perfect degree lives, online programs make all that possible.

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Earning Admission to a Doctoral Program in Behavioral Psychology

Whether it’s a PsyD or a PhD, you can expect strict standards and stiff competition to get into a doctoral program in behavioral psych.

Having done well at the undergraduate level is a must. Most programs require a 3.0 GPA at the bachelor’s level.

You might also need to have completed certain specific college coursework related to the major. Either at the graduate or undergraduate level, you may need to have completed a certain number of credit hours in classes like:

  • Behavior analysis
  • Behavioral science
  • Psychology
  • Experimental methods
  • Statistics

Some schools require the submission of standardized test scores, such as those from the Graduate Record Exam. There isn’t usually a fixed score for admission, but the results are weighed with your other academic achievements.

On top of the checklist requirements, you will face some tougher tests. You will usually need to supply a number of letters of recommendation from previous professors or professional associates. You’ll have to submit a CV with your current experience and accomplishments. A personal statement or essay is usually required that describes your goals and interests in the field of behavioral psych.

In some cases, you’ll also need to do some homework before applying, studying the department and faculty to see how their current expertise aligns with your goals. You may need to individually approach faculty as prospective advisors, and convince them to work with you. At this level of study, the effort is collaborative. Both you and the department need to make sure there is a good fit before you commit to years of focused studies.

The Importance of Accreditation in Behavioral Psychology Doctoral Programs

The quality of each of those classes is important to you. The field of behavioral psychology is changing constantly. You need to be up-to-date and ready to go the moment you graduate. That means learning from some of the best instructors in the business, and it means learning from the most current curriculum.

You can make sure that you are getting only the best by picking a program that has been fully accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Their Commission on Accreditation is made up of both educators and independent practitioners. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and specializations. There are even members from outside the profession to represent the interests of the public and of the healthcare industry. Together, they have the ability to look at what a doctoral program has to offer and ensuring that it matches the current best practices and requirements of the profession.

They put schools through laborious paperwork reviews, site visits, and interviews. The process looks at aspects of education including:

  • Professional values
  • Program resources
  • Discipline-specific knowledge
  • Student selection process
  • Faculty leadership qualities and qualification
  • Communications practices
  • Internship options

It’s a comprehensive review of the ability of the program to deliver a well-respected, quality doctoral education.

Behavioral psychology is a broad field of practice, however, and you might need to look for programs that have an additional specialty accreditation to fulfill licensing requirements in some of those fields. In particular, if you are heading for work as a school psychologist, you might need a program that has been dual-accredited by APA and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP).

What You Can Expect Once Accepted to a Doctoral Programs in Behavioral Psychology

Different doctoral programs have different designs. Some are structured like many undergraduate studies, with a number of required areas and the option to choose from electives to fill those requirements. Others are more structured, with a linear set of classes you must take. In either case, you’ll probably find classes such as the following:

Quantitative experimental methods and research design – Behaviorism is tied closely to experimentation. You can expect to spend a lot of classroom hours studying how to conduct those experiments. You might even study the Little Albert experiments, as a case study of what not to do. Many of the conclusions were later brought into question by sloppy methodology. But these courses will teach you the latest scientific approaches, and limitations, in behavioral experimentation.

Ethical, Legal, and Professional Issues – Always important in psychology, and doubly important in experimental areas, ethics and professionalism receive a lot of attention in behavior psych studies. You’ll learn about consent issues in mentally fragile populations. You’ll study implicit bias and how to avoid it in both diagnosis and reporting. Finally, you’ll study how to address conflicts of intrest and reports of professional misconduct in the course of your duties.

Principles of Behavior Analysis – You will start at the ground floor of behavioral science with coursework in the philosophy and practice of the field. You’ll cover the analysis of psychological issues from the behavioral perspective and compare them to social and cognitive approaches.

History of Behaviorism – From the early work done by Watson and Rayner, itself drawing on Pavlov’s groundbreaking conditioning studies, to learning about the controversial but influential B.F. Skinner, you can’t really grasp the modern practice of behavioral psychology without studying the history of behaviorism. These classes will not only take you through the theories and changes in the field, but review how the general practice of psychology has both perceived and been influenced by behavioral theory.

Practicum – Both PhD and PsyD programs include direct practical experience, although a PsyD will involve much more of it. Also, PhD doctoral practicum is often research-oriented, where a PsyD will involve direct supervised clinical treatment. In both cases, it’s an opportunity for you to put your knowledge to the test in real-world environments. These placements will be where you get your hands dirty in direct patent treatment or conducting live experiments. You’ll draw conclusions and write up your findings for review with instructors and practicing psychologists.

Crafting a Dissertation to Cement Your Learning Experience

To cap it all off, you’ll be expected to produce a dissertation that develops your core competencies. These original studies and thoughts on a topic that you and your faculty advisors select serve as a synthesis of all of your studies. You’ll bring together research results, historical perspectives, and modern theories of behaviorism together with your own independent thoughts on the subject. It should demonstrate your ability to contribute meaningfully to behavioral psychology.

The actual writing of a dissertation can take years of your degree. You’ll have to defend it orally in front of a committee of professionals, and you may well be asked to revise it from their guidance. At the end, you’ll have a publication-quality piece of work that serves as your introduction to the field of behavioral psychology practice.

Do You Need a License to Work as a Behavioral Psychologist?

Most states require APA-accredited degrees for psychology licensure, as well. But whether or not you need a license will depend a lot on the kind of job you plan to take on.

Most PsyD programs are focused squarely on training students to become practicing clinical psychologists. These roles are designed for direct patient treatment, in individual or group therapy settings… and the state is definitely not going to let you do that without a license.

State psychology licensing boards require not just the degree, but also that you take and pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology from the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards. The test has components that evaluate both knowledge and skill and a variety of question formats that cover everything from the bases of human behavior to research practices and statistical analysis. It’s a formidable test that most people prepare for through third-party test preparation courses or the ASPP practice exams.

Your degree will teach you everything you need to know, but some of that will have been taught to you more than four years ago by the time you get to the test. A refresher is almost mandatory.

Many behavioral psychologists work outside of direct patient treatment, however. Those who work in educational settings may need a license from a separate state board, with different standards and accreditation requirements. The same is true for behavioral psychologists who plan to go into social work or marriage and family therapy practices. And those who work in public policy, as advisers at non-profits, or in academic settings might not need any sort of credentials at all.

The only way to be sure is to check into your state’s specific requirements for counseling and psychological treatment. You’ll want to have a clear idea of the rules before you pick your program.

How Much Does it Cost to Earn a Doctorate in Behavioral Psychology?

No doctoral degree program is going to be cheap. That’s particularly true in healthcare fields, where long years of study are required. That is typically four to six years for a PsyD, and as long as seven years for a PhD.

The APA conducted a study in 2016 to look specifically at the costs of earning a psychology doctorate. They found significant differences in tuition rates based on the type of school and location:

  • Public in-state university – $11,000 per year
  • Public out-of-state university – $24,000 per year
  • Private university – $34,000 per year

Those costs have been going up steadily. The same survey found that in-state tuition rates had gone up by 50 percent between 2009 and 2015. Almost 90 percent of PsyD graduates are estimated to have some level of student loan debt to pay off by the time they graduate.

The National Center for Education Statistics has a less specific but more recent set of data for graduate program costs in general. For the 2018-19 school year, they found that public universities cost an average of $12,171, while private schools charged $25,929. For the six years of a PsyD, that’s more than $73,000 at a public university and more than $155,000 at a private university.

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Jobs and Salary Expectations Available With a Doctoral Degree in Behavioral Psychology

What kind of money can you earn after having paid that much for your behavioral psychology education? Well, it depends.

There are a wide range of possible jobs that make good use of doctoral-level training in behavioral psychology. That means a wide range in possible salary levels, depending on where your career path leads.

Starting at the top, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found in 2019 that the average psychologist in the country made $80,370. But that includes many types of psychologists without a doctoral degree or formal clinical practice licensure. The top ten percent in the profession, who have those skills and that education, earned more than $132,070.

It’s difficult to break that number down any further since BLS doesn’t track salaries by practice area. But they do separate out psychologist pay by industry, which offers some clues. The clinical, counseling, and school psychologists category includes psychologists working in other health practitioner offices—that median pay came to $100,300 per year. Psychologists working in industrial-organizational roles, which are often behavioral in nature, had a median of $92,880. That is likely diluted by non-doctoral psychologists, however.

Those offering individual and family services made $95,960. Many behavioral psychologists work in these practices offering autism therapy. Others work for government agencies, filling roles in residential care or correctional facilities. Psychologists employed by the government made $96,870 in 2019 according to BLS.

Many doctors of psychology with a behavioral focus also go into education. The APA conducted a study in 2016 that showed that PhD graduates could make as much as $10,000 per year more than PsyD graduates. The study also offered an independent breakdown of salary levels by specialty:

  • General psychology – $73,606
  • Clinical psychology – $107,183
  • Counseling psychology – $89,108
  • Educational psychology – $87,257
  • Experimental psychology – $113,747
  • Industrial/organizational psychology – $149,912
  • Social psychology – $85,860

No matter where you end up with your doctorate in behavioral psychology, you will be in a position to make a difference in people’s lives. That’s never something that is listed in the compensation section of a job description, but it’s a real motivator for many psychologists. Specializing in behavioral psychology gives you some of the broadest opportunities to do that of any practice area in the field.

(Salary data reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2019 for psychologists. Figures represent national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Information accessed Feb 2021.)