How to Become a Cognitive Psychologist

A cognitive psychologist works to understand the nature of human thought. Most cognitive psychologists are interested in problem-solving, reasoning, memory, attention, and auditory and visual perception.

Cognitive psychologists work in research, academia, or technology or the corporate world. The goal of research in this field is to understand how the human mind works. This work is done to help others, such as people who have learning problems or memory disorders. Some cognitive psychologists work in private practice and work with clients directly.

If you are thinking about a career as a cognitive psychologist, please use the information here to learn about what cognitive psychologists do, where they work, job demand, and more.

What Is Cognitive Psychology?

The American Psychological Association states that cognitive psychology uses principles of human learning and development as well as cognitive processing to overcome problem behavior and emotional thinking. It uses these principles to help people improve their daily lives.

There are many practical applications for cognitive research, such as providing assistance to people with memory problems, enhancing decision-making accuracy, helping people to recover from brain injury, and treating learning disorders.

Learning how people think and process information helps the cognitive psychologist to understand how the brain works and allows them to devise new ways to help people with psychological problems.

Cognitive psychologists must understand behavior therapy, applied behavior analysis, cognitive therapy, and cognitive psychology. They also need to know how to apply this knowledge to the human condition. ( Cognitive psychology serves many populations, such as adolescents, children, and the elderly.

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What Do Cognitive Psychologists Do?

Cognitive psychologists measure cognitions and behaviors and create case conceptualizations based on learning principles and whys that cognitions and emotions are processed. These psychologists also use evidence-based treatments that are adapted to the individual patient, and they perform a regular assessment of how effective the interventions are.

Cognitive psychology is applied to many problems, including:

  • Anxiety problems
  • Depressive disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Personality disorders
  • Health-related problems
  • Developmental and intellectual disabilities
  • Academic performance
  • Relationship problems
  • Trauma
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Stress management
  • Problems in daily living

Where Do Cognitive Psychologists Work?

Most psychologists working in cognition and brain science work in a university where they teach, perform research, or both. But there has been growth in other areas, such as computer-human interaction, organizational psychology, and software development. This growth has led to more job possibilities for cognitive psychologists in the private sector. (

Cognitive psychologists also may work in a clinical environment to treat issues related to mental processes, such as speech problems, Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, perception, and sensory problems. These professionals may work in private research centers and treatment facilities, such as mental health centers and hospitals. Some cognitive psychologists work as consultants or expert witnesses.

BLS reports that all psychologists held 181,700 jobs in 2018. Employment in specialties of psychology was as follows:

  • Clinical, counseling, and school psychologists: 162,000
  • All other psychologists: 18,300
  • Industrial/organizational psychologists; 1,400

Largest employers of psychologists were:

  • Self-employed: 29%
  • Elementary and secondary schools: 24%
  • Ambulatory healthcare services: 18%
  • Government: 10%
  • Hospitals: 6%

Some cognitive psychologists work on their own doing independent research, while others counsel patients. Some also will work as part of a healthcare team, working with doctors and social workers to treat mental illnesses. (

What Is the Job Outlook for Cognitive Psychologists?

The job outlook for psychologists is strong. Employment in the field is expected to grow 14% by 2028, which is much faster than average. Employment growth will vary somewhat by specialty and location.

Employment of clinical and counseling psychologists will grow as there is more demand for mental health services in hospitals, mental health centers, and social service agencies. There also should be more demand for cognitive psychologists in many research facilities as there is a desire in society to understand the causes of memory and learning problems in the elderly, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

More psychologists will be hired to provide psychological services to a growing, aging US population. They also will be needed to help the elderly to deal with physical and mental problems of aging. (

How Can You Become a Cognitive Psychologist?

There are limited entry-level opportunities for cognitive psychologists with a bachelor’s degree. Most professionals in cognitive psychology have a master’s or doctoral degree.

SEE ALSO: Online PhD in Cognitive Psychology Programs

For the cognitive psychologist with a master’s degree, significant career options are in human performance research, such as doing tests on how well a patient who has not slept for hours can remember a short story. They also might be employed in organizational and industrial psychology, and some with a graduate degree may work in junior teaching positions. Most of the work of cognitive psychologists with a master’s degree is supervised by a psychologist with a doctorate.

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What Do Exams and Licensing Involve?

In most states, practicing any type of psychology requires a state license. All psychologists who work in private practice must be licensed in their state.

Licensing laws are different by state. Most practicing psychologists need at least a master’s or preferably a doctorate in psychology. You also need to have an internship and one or two years of supervised clinical experience. The student also is required to pass the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology. In many states, psychologists are required to complete continuing education credits annually to maintain their licenses.

To further your psychology career, you may want to earn a specialty certification in cognitive psychology. The American Board of Professional Psychology awards certifications in 15 areas of psychology. Board certification demonstrates a higher level of professional expertise in cognitive psychology. While certification is not required in all cases, some hospitals and mental health facilities like to see certification.

Becoming a cognitive psychologist allows you to do valuable work on the nature of thought and to help people with memory deficits and learning problems. The field of psychology is growing quickly in the next decade, so you should be able to find many rewarding positions in this field in the public or private sector.