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How To Become A Research Psychologist: Degree and Career Guide

Every facet of psychology is based on foundational theories and principles that exist. But how were these theories established and how were these theories proven to be true? Research is the answer. Research is the backbone of psychology, and it plays a vital role in establishing norms and abnormalities in the field of psychology.

In contrast to applied psychology, research psychologists don't work with patients and their goal is not to treat patients, but rather to develop and formulate research designs to establish an understanding of the mind that will, in turn, help psychologists that do work in the applied and clinical fields.

To become a research psychologist, you would need to first obtain a bachelor's degree, and find research opportunities and fieldwork opportunities. Thereafter, it is recommended that you obtain a Ph.D., complete a post-doctoral fellowship, and apply for state licensure.

Let us explore this field of study and this career path to see what steps you would need to take to pursue a role as a research psychologist.

What Is A Research Psychologist?

A research psychologist is someone who studies the brain and the mental processes of the brain from a psychological perspective.

How do we know that the left hemisphere of the brain controls the right side of the body? How do we know that language functions are lateralized to the left hemisphere? How do we know that the amygdala controls fear and threats? This is because research psychologists, together with neurosurgeons and other specialists have dedicated their careers to identifying the functions of the brain.

As actual research scientists, research psychologists aim to identify the functions of the brain and to study why people may behave the way they do. Considering how much is unknown about the human mind and that there are constant discoveries being made, the field of research psychology has an endless number of opportunities.

While applied psychologists treat patients with mental illnesses and mental disorders, research psychologists may work with patients by studying their brains, to assess deviations from existing theories and postulate why these deviations may exist.

In so doing, they establish realistic treatment plans that applied psychologists can then use to treat patients.

What Does A Research Psychologist Do?

Working in either an academic field or in research organizations, research psychologists usually focus on a specific field within psychology, and they conduct research based on that field of focus alone.

Research psychologists spend their academic careers learning about previous research conducted in the field of psychology, identifying existing gaps, and familiarizing themselves with scientific methods.

A scientific method or a research method formulates questions that the researchers will work toward studying. These questions are formulated as a result of possible gaps found in existing research or finding new avenues of research to study.

Researchers will then collect data and do a detailed assessment and analysis of the data before drawing conclusions. The results that they achieve from the study will either prove or disprove the theories they have formulated.

The nice thing about research psychology is that there are no wrong answers. Hypotheses are either proven or disproved, but both outcomes are successful. Despite whether a hypothesis is proven or not, the results of this research will make a valuable contribution to the overall field of psychology.

Types of Research Psychologists

Within the field of research psychology, there are a number of fields of focus that you can pursue. You could choose to focus on child psychology and conducting research specifically with children, you could choose to conduct research in abnormal or behavioral psychology, or you can focus on doing theoretical research and conducting comparative studies of existing research.

Steps To Become A Research Psychologist

Step One: Obtain A Bachelor's Degree

To obtain foundational knowledge, you would need to complete a bachelor's degree in psychology. You will study courses such as abnormal psychology, cognitive psychology, behavioral psychology, forensic psychology, and much more. This will set the foundation for your future career path and for future research.

Step Two: Find Potential Research Opportunities

Whether it is in a lab or field-based, you will need to start finding research opportunities that you can pursue later in your career. It may also involve selecting a specific focus for your career and working towards identifying existing gaps in that field of psychology.

Step Three: Obtain Graduate Qualifications

To be a research psychologist, you would need to obtain a Ph.D., which means first obtaining your master's degree. Having these qualifications in hand will allow you to gain insight into research fields, and you will gain experience in conducting research during your academic dissertations, which will essentially prove to be beneficial when you enter the workforce.

You may also consider getting immersed in the field of research before pursuing your graduate qualifications to gain further hands-on experience. You could work as a research assistant or as a lab assistant and this will make a valuable contribution to your expertise.

Step Four: Work Toward A Post-Doctoral Fellowship

Pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship is extremely important and valuable in your career as a research psychologist. It is here where you will begin conducting independent research while working with more experienced researchers and you can work with a mentor.

It is here where you will establish yourself as a researcher and find your fit and your role in the field.

While obtaining a Ph.D. may equip you and train you in psychology theories, it may be directed more to those who are hoping to pursue a career in applied psychology. Completing a post-doctoral fellowship will guide you more toward research.

Step Five: Obtain A License

To pursue a career as a research psychologist, you would need to obtain a state license that qualifies you to practice as a research psychologist. The requirements for obtaining your license will vary depending on the state you are in. These requirements often include having a bachelor's degree, a doctoral degree, and a post-doctoral fellowship.

What Degree Do You Need To Be A Research Psychologist?

At the very least, you would need a doctorate in psychology to be a research psychologist.

What Is The Average Salary For A Research Psychologist?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychologists earn a median annual salary of $81,040.

What Makes A Good Research Psychologist?

Being an analytical person, a curious person, and being inclined to research everything you are told are good skills to have when pursuing a career as a research psychologist.

Also, despite focusing on the research you will also be working with other people, whether they are other researchers, patients, or sample groups. This means that you need to have strong communication and interpersonal skills.


Where Do Research Psychologists Work?

They may find a role in the military, at research companies, or even within universities and academic institutes. They may also work within government and consulting firms.

What Is The Job Outlook For Research Psychologists?

The BLS states that there is a projected growth of 6% in the field of psychology.


If you want to pursue a career as a psychologist but don't want to focus on mental illnesses and disorders, psychology offers a wide variety of other fields for you to pursue. And research psychology is a phenomenal field with endless opportunities.

If you have a curious mind and you are hoping to uncover the details that are hidden in the deep recesses of the mind, then research psychology is a viable career path for you.

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