How to Become a Cognitive Psychologist

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Cognitive psychology emphasizes the scientific study of the mind's various processing methods. Cognitive psychologists examine the ways people process and interpret information like language, attention, memory, and consciousness. Informed by the theory that one's thoughts and mental processes determine their behaviors, these professionals rely on science and scientific methods to study and understand behavior.

Cognitive psychologists help patients develop healthier behaviors and coping mechanisms to deal with behavioral issues, including anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Many work in traditional clinical settings, interacting directly with patients, and others may work as psychology professors and researchers at universities, among other areas.

Keep reading to learn more about cognitive psychology, including educational paths and career opportunities in this exciting field.

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What Does a Cognitive Psychologist Do?

Those interested in this field may wonder, "What does a cognitive psychologist do?" Their roles and duties depend largely on where they work and the populations they work with. Cognitive psychologists may work with patients from all age groups and demographics, addressing a wide variety of behavioral and mental health issues.

Clinically, cognitive psychologists practice like other psychologists, providing one-on-one therapy with patients. They may also work in settings like hospitals and substance abuse facilities, providing cognitive behavioral therapy to individuals and groups. Cognitive psychologists may emphasize certain specialty areas, such as memory care, behavioral development, or learning disabilities.

Alternatively, cognitive psychologists may pursue careers in higher education, working as psychology professors and researchers.

Skills and Competencies

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of cognitive psychology?

Cognitive psychologists often work with patients to overcome behavioral disorders, including substance abuse. A cognitive psychologist may work with a patient struggling with addiction by helping them recognize the correlation between their mental processes and their substance abuse. Then the cognitive psychologist can help the patient develop a new awareness of this connection, using that awareness to work towards creating new, healthier behaviors.

Are cognitive psychologists in demand?

Cognitive psychologists specialize in the science of the brain, emphasizing how mental processes impact behavior. Due to a rise in brain health issues like memory disorders, the need for cognitive specialists has also increased. Similarly, with the opioid epidemic impacting hundreds of thousands of people, cognitive psychologists remain in demand for their skills in substance abuse treatment.

Who do cognitive psychologists work with?

Depending on where they work, cognitive psychologists may work with patients of any demographic dealing with a wide range of behavioral and mental health issues. This includes children, teens, adults, and older adults who may suffer from memory issues, for example. They may also work with students as professors and researchers at universities rather than practicing clinically.

Where do cognitive psychologists work?

Cognitive psychologists may work in a variety of environments. They may serve patients in clinical settings, including private practices, hospitals, clinics, schools, and correctional facilities. Alternatively, they may work as researchers or professors in higher education at community colleges, universities, and other institutions.

Cognitive Psychology By the Numbers

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earn a median salary of $46,240 each year. This wage includes counselors with all degree levels; those with a higher degree like a doctorate may expect to earn more. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors in Utah ($67,410), Nevada ($63,910), and Oregon ($60,960) earn the highest annual salaries compared to other states.

The BLS projects jobs for these mental health providers to grow by 22% in the coming years, much faster than the national average for other occupations. California, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts serve as the states with the highest employment level for these counselors. More specifically, the metropolitan areas with the highest employment levels include New York, Newark, Jersey City, and eastern Pennsylvania, with a mean annual wage of $58,750.

Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania offer the highest concentration of jobs for substance abuse, behavioral, and mental health counselors.

How Do I Become a Cognitive Psychologist?

Generally, an undergraduate degree in psychology or a related field serves as the first step to working in clinical psychology. However, to practice any kind of clinical psychology, you must earn a graduate degree in the field. Typically, states require a doctorate in psychology to earn clinical licensure. Some positions, though, like those in schools, may accept a master's degree.

Cognitive psychologists must complete a minimum number of supervised practice hours prior to licensure. This minimum may vary from state to state, as may other licensure requirements. Check with your state's board of psychology for specific licensing information.

Below are several options for those looking to pursue a career in cognitive psychology. Choose which one best describes you.

I'm an Undergraduate or Have Completed my Undergraduate

  • Declare as a psychology major.

    Once you declare a major in psychology, you can begin to complete the required major courses in this area. The list below features a sampling of potential courses. Keep in mind, course offerings and requirements vary from school to school.

    • Psychological Statistics
    • Social-Behavioral Sciences
    • Abnormal Psychology
    • Cognition
    • Personality Theory
    • Research Methods in Psychology
  • Consider a specialty

    • Undergraduate psychology students often take general, foundational psychology courses. However, you may want to specialize your psychology degree to prepare for graduate study. Consider choosing elective courses that align with cognitive psychology, including those in behavioral science, cognitive processing, substance abuse and addiction, and similar areas.
    • If you cannot find specialty courses to pursue, try finding a student organization in cognitive psychology, or identify a professor whose research emphasizes that area.
  • Take the GRE

    • Many graduate programs require applicants to submit scores from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). The GRE consists of three core sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Additionally, some schools may require scores from the psychology subject test, depending on the program.
    • Students use the GRE website to register for the exam. At the time of the exam, students may select a set number of schools to send official score reports, and may add more later. The GRE website also offers study guides.
  • Get Reference Letters

    • Graduate programs generally require at least one letter of recommendation from a former professor or mentor. Request letters from professors and mentors who can speak to your abilities as a student, especially those who can speak to your experience in psychology. These letters help to demonstrate your potential for success in graduate studies.
    • Give recommenders at least six weeks prior to the application deadline to write and submit your letter. Provide each recommender with a list of schools you plan to apply to, and the application guidelines for each.
  • Choose a Graduate School

    • Use our exclusive psychology database to search the top graduate cognitive psychology programs.
I'm Pursuing a Graduate Degree

  • Come Up with a Thesis

    • Your thesis serves as the culminating project of your graduate degree. Depending on the length of your program, you may start planning your thesis topic about halfway through your studies. Generally, students work alongside professors in their subject area to craft a thesis topic and conduct research.
    • Your thesis prepares you for further graduate study, but also for the specialty area you plan to practice in. For instance, completing a thesis that emphasizes cognitive psychology can prepare you for starting your career in the field.
  • Find an Internship

    • To earn licensure in psychology, most states require a minimum number of supervised practice hours, completed during a post-graduate internship. This internship may take place following the master's program or the doctoral program, depending on which license you pursue and which degree you complete.
    • Some programs help students find internships, and others may leave that responsibility with each student. Choose an internship in the field you wish to practice in. In this case, locate a supervisor who also works in cognitive psychology.
  • Network with Professors and Professionals in the Field

    • Networking serves as one of the best ways to stay current in the field and to connect with potential jobs and research opportunities. You can begin networking as early as undergraduate studies, connecting with other students in psychology, joining campus psychology groups, and studying with professors whose research and practice align with your interests.
    • Networking also helps develop communication skills, and offers opportunities to learn more about your field from other professionals working within it.
I have a Master's or Ph.D.

  • Refine Your Resume and Keep It Current

    • Even while still in school, you should keep your resume updated and current. Your resume serves as a record of your experience and education, and will help you land the internships and eventual careers you want. While in your graduate program, keep your resume updated with all of your research, scholarly publications, internships, and conference presentations.
    • Refine your resume to include the experience that specifically pertains to the job you hope to obtain. In this case, tailor your resume to highlight your experience, education, and publication record in cognitive psychology.
  • Start Sending Out Job Applications

    • Once you earn your license, or while you work towards earning it, you may start looking at available jobs. Some graduates may land positions in the environment where they completed their internship, and others may seek employment in different industries and with other employers.
    • Stay motivated throughout your job search. Consult with your mentors and supervisors for tips and connections to job openings, and explore job boards offered by professional organizations in cognitive psychology.
  • Prepare for Interviews

    • Before going into a job interview, do your research. Find out about the employer and their practice, and learn more about the other psychologists who work there. For instance, look up their research areas and gather some knowledge about their areas of interest. This will help you feel more prepared to engage in thoughtful conversation about the job.
    • Dress for the job when you go for the interview. For psychologists, this generally means business attire.
  • You're Now a Cognitive Psychologist

    • Congratulations! Ideally, following these steps should help you land the job you want, whether at the school or organization of your choice or in a private practice.
    • Remain diligent about advancing your career. Stay current on the latest developments and opportunities in cognitive psychology. Continue to research new opportunities for ongoing professional education and higher salary positions.

Licensure for Cognitive Psychologists

The American Psychological Association (APA) provides accreditation to doctoral programs in psychology. Many states require students to graduate from APA-accredited programs in order to sit for required licensing exams. The APA website offers a searchable database of accredited programs for students to explore and locate the best program for them.

To earn your license as a cognitive psychologist, obtain an accredited doctoral degree. Then, you must complete the required internship or supervision hours and pass a credentialing exam. These serve as general guidelines. However, each state holds its own specific licensing process.

Consult your state's board of psychology to learn more about the specific requirements in your state and guide your licensure process with those requirements. This includes requirements for education, internships, continuing education, and license renewal.

Psychology Internship Opportunities

An internship serves as a critical component of beginning a career in cognitive psychology. Whether you plan to pursue a career in clinical practice or a career in research and scholarship, an internship in your area of interest provides important experience and fulfills crucial prerequisites for licensure.

Internships not only provide necessary experience practicing in your interest area, but also instill interpersonal and communication skills critical to succeeding in psychology. With the help of licensed supervising professionals, you will learn about the practice and have opportunities to gain valuable experience and skills prior to entering the job field. Internships take place in many settings, including hospitals, private practices, in- and out-patient clinics, and university counseling centers.

Consult with your state's psychology licensing board for internship hour requirements for licensure.

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