When people think of psychologists, they might be inclined to think of clinical or counseling psychologists who work with clients to help them through social, emotional, behavioral, or mental problems.
However, clinical and counseling psychology is just one of many common applications of psychology. Arguably one of the other most common fields is experimental psychology.
Where clinical and counseling psychologists are trained to apply psychological principles to aid in behavior modification, experimental psychologists apply scientific techniques to analyzing human behavior. So, as a clinical psychologist, you might apply techniques in therapy with a client that were analyzed, tested, and reported on by an experimental psychologist.
At the end of the day, all psychologists work towards the goal of having a better understanding of human behavior. But the contributions that various types of psychologists make to this endeavor might be a little different.
If you’re interested in pursuing an education and career in experimental psychology, there are many different avenues you can take. Below, we explore some of the most popular and interesting jobs in the field of experimental psychology.
What is Experimental Psychology?
A basic definition might be that experimental psychology is an integrated study of the brain, cognition, and human behavior. Experimental psychologists work within every major branch of psychology. This is because experimental psychology is practiced through controlled lab research and experiments.
Experimental psychology is a very objective field that interprets the human experience through testable hypotheses, data collection, variable correlations, and experimental validity and reliability. Therefore, experimental psychologists must have excellent analytical, administrative, and statistical skills.
As noted earlier, the ultimate goal of experimental psychology is to understand why humans behave the way they do.
Experimental Psychology Educational Requirements
The field of experimental psychology covers a vast array of sub-discipline specializations, such as neuroscience, behavior analysis, and quantitative psychology, to name but three.
Most experimental psychologists will need to obtain a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then a specialized master’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In graduate school, you might major in psychology, experimental psychology, neuropsychology, or a closely related field.
Most experimental psychology programs include core topics regarding advanced cognition, neuropsychology, human development, and psychometric assessments. Experimental psychology programs all include thesis projects that focus on applied research and experimentation, usually in an area of your choice (though your thesis topic must be approved first).
The next step to becoming an experimental psychologist is to get a doctorate. In most cases, it’s appropriate to get a Ph.D. rather than a Psy.D., though there might be exceptions to this rule.
The reason a Ph.D. is preferable is because the curriculum of a Ph.D. program tends to be more research-focused, whereas a Psy.D. program tends to be more focused on the application of psychological principles in a therapeutic setting.
Nevertheless, a doctorate in psychology will prepare you well for a career as a psychological researcher. These degrees include high-level coursework in cognition, learning, sensation and perception, experimental design, and statistics, to name a few. Additionally, you’ll have to complete a dissertation, which is a lengthy research project that you must present and defend to a committee before you’re allowed to graduate.
Once you successfully defend your thesis and complete your studies, you will be ready to enter the world of work as an experimental psychologist. Below is a list of some potential career pathways you might choose.
Major areas of research interest in cognitive psychology include memory, attention, problem-solving, and decision-making. Most cognitive psychologists perform applied or advanced research in universities, though some also work for private companies.
For example, cognitive psychologists have pioneered the exploration of the brain’s biological and neurological functions and shed light on the connection between the brain and behavior. Related to this is neuropsychology, which is the scientific study of brain functions as they relate to human cognition and behavior.
In fact, cognitive neuropsychology is a new branch of psychology that combines cognitive and experimental psychology. For example, neuropsychologists might monitor people’s brain activities during specific activities, such as meditation, studying math, or watching TV, to determine which parts of the brain are activated during these kinds of activities.
So, not only does cognitive psychology offer insight into which brain systems are responsible for what behaviors, but it also sheds light on the interrelationship between physical structures in our brains and psychological processes like motivation and how those things lead to certain behaviors.
For example, research in cognitive psychology has led to a greater understanding of a wide range of cognitive conditions, like learning disorders and memory disorders. Experimental psychologists have helped discover possible causes for these conditions, and as a result of that, interventions that might help treat these conditions have been developed.
As another example, cognitive psychologists have studied people with brain injuries in order to determine improved methods of treating their injuries.
Developmental psychology is the study of human growth and development through every life stage from birth through death. However, developmental psychologists typically work with specific populations, such as children or the elderly.
For example, a developmental psychologist might study toddlers with the goal of understanding how children acquire new information about their surroundings. As another example, they might devise an experiment in which they study how infants socially interact with strangers.
This type of psychological research would most likely be carried out by an experimental psychologist that works in academia (e.g., is a college professor) or who is employed by a government agency or a private organization.
In some cases, however, developmental psychologists work for educational institutions, like a public or private school. In this case, they might consult with schools and families on how to best help children and adolescents develop from a social, emotional, and mental standpoint.
For example, if you’re a developmental psychologist that works for Head Start, you might conduct research on the best methods of socializing children from different socioeconomic groups. As another example, you might investigate the long-term social effects on children from having to do home-based school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another interesting application of developmental psychology is studying how our minds and bodies change as we age. So, you might research diseases that affect older adults, like Alzheimer’s disease, to explore potential causes and treatments. You might also focus your research on the most efficacious treatments for individuals that show reduced motor skills after a stroke.
No matter what age group you prefer to work with, developmental psychology offers many opportunities for scholarship. Likewise, the potential for making discoveries that have significant, positive impacts on people of all ages cannot be understated.
Social psychology is a fascinating field that explores collective human behaviors.
For example, pioneering social psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted his infamous Stanford prison experiment in the early 1970s that studied the true psychological effects of imprisonment and social power. His research, while questionable from a modern ethical standpoint, was groundbreaking in that it revealed how quickly people can conform to social roles. Additionally, this research highlighted how having social power can quickly lead to some disturbing behaviors.
Modern social psychology has plenty of practical applications in business, education, and other real-world applications. To illustrate, social psychologists may work with correctional facilities to reduce recidivism rates through improving transition programs for inmates.
In contrast, social psychologists may work with businesses to analyze the work environment and improve upon it in order to decrease turnover.
Finally, social psychologists may even work for major corporations researching collective consumer behaviors to gain a better understanding of why people buy the products they do. The information they glean from that process can help businesses make more informed marketing decisions.
Many educational psychologists work for K-12 school districts. If you were to get a job in this field, you might spend your days evaluating standardized assessments and making recommendations for making them more informative of a child’s intellectual capabilities.
As another example, you might conduct research in which you evaluate different types of teaching strategies to determine which is best for learners who have ADD or ADHD.
Some educational psychologists work at the collegiate level as well. For example, you might become a college professor and teach psychology courses. You might also work as an educational psychologist for a college or university and conduct research on the relationship between the time of day that studying occurs and a person’s ability to retain the information under study.
Naturally, the research that educational psychologists do has much to do with developmental psychology, so there is a fair amount of overlap between these disciplines. Like developmental psychologists, educational psychologists might specialize in a certain area, like developmental disabilities, or a specific age group, like adult learners.
Speaking of adult learners, while we tend to think of education as being the formal education we receive as children and young adults, educational psychology research goes well beyond that. In fact, educational psychologists are interested in how people learn over the course of their entire lifespan.
Human Factors Psychologist
Human factors psychology is a specialty that explores how humans interact with the environment around them. Specifically, human factors psychologists are concerned with topics related to ergonomics, product design, and human-computer interaction.
More specifically, research in this field tends to focus on how to improve human capabilities through improving their work environment and the tools they use. For example, as a human factors psychologist, you might study current designs of airplane cockpits to determine any sticking points for a quick and efficient workflow. In doing so, you can improve the ability of pilots to interact with the plane’s systems while also reducing the likelihood of pilot error.
Another example of human factors research is connected to product design. Before a new product is brought to market, companies spend a lot of time and money to ensure the product is ergonomic, easy to use, intuitive, and well-made. Human factors psychologists are part of the process of evaluating products on these metrics.
So, you might find that a new product’s buttons are placed in a way that makes it difficult for left-handed users to efficiently utilize the product. As a result of that research and analysis, the company that makes the product can implement design changes that take your findings into account.
Psychology professors, particularly those at major universities, are usually required to conduct original research as part of their employment. So, as a college professor, you might conduct research on any number of psychological topics that are of interest to you.
For example, if you have a background in clinical psychology, the experimental research you conduct might focus on specific therapeutic strategies, like cognitive-behavioral therapy. As another example, if your background is in comparative psychology, your research might revolve around studying the behavior of non-human animals as a way of generalizing what those behaviors might mean for human populations.
Of course, as a college professor, you have to also teach students. If you choose this career pathway, expect to teach courses related to experimental psychology, psychological statistics, history and systems of psychology, and other relevant courses to conducting psychological research.
Experimental Psychology is an Interesting and Rewarding Field
In review, experimental psychology is an extensive field that integrates into all major branches of psychology. Careers in experimental psychology aren’t just limited to lab work but also include hands-on careers in the field working directly with clients.
No matter which career path you choose in experimental psychology, you will likely find highly rewarding work that allows you to have a measurable impact on other people’s lives. While most experimental psychologists don’t work one-on-one with clients, you can still work with the knowledge that your contributions to research in this field have wide-ranging, positive impacts.
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