8 Careers To Consider For Research Psychologists

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published March 8, 2021

While many people might think of psychologists as mental health professionals, not all psychologists work in clinical environments—some psychologists serve scientists performing active research. Research psychologists play a key role in helping society understand how human brains function and why certain behaviors occur. If you're considering becoming a research psychologist, there are a few foundational steps you can take to become one. In this article, we explain what a research psychologist is, outline six steps to becoming a research psychologist and provide information on eight different roles you can pursue within the field of research psychology.

What is a research psychologist?

Research psychologists are scientists who study the human brain and behavior. The goal of their work is to discover unknowns and answer questions about how the brain functions and how biological factors, social settings and environmental factors affect the way people act, think and feel. Research psychologists differ from applied psychologists in that they do not treat patients or do clinical work with those experiencing mental health challenges. Rather, research psychologists perform tests and study data on subjects who can provide insight into the science behind how brains work and why certain behaviors manifest themselves.

Research psychologists often work in academic or industrial settings. Those who work in academic settings often hold responsibilities other than those related to research, such as teaching and advising students. Research psychologists may also work for specific companies doing independent research. Many research psychologists work in the pharmaceutical industry on important projects that help develop effective mental health medications, such as antidepressants, anxiolytics, anticonvulsants and more. Regardless of the environment they work in, the research performed by such psychologists is often applied to inform the development of educational programs, public policy, mental health treatment and social programs.

How to become a research psychologist

To become a research psychologist, you must possess strong analytical and technical skills developed by years of schooling and experience in laboratories. Most research psychologists earn doctoral degrees in psychology and often concentrate their work on a specific sector of the field. While your specific path may differ depending on your career trajectory, here are a few basic steps to becoming a research psychologist:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

The first step to becoming a research psychologist is earning a bachelor's degree in psychology or a related field. As an undergraduate student, you'll learn the fundamentals of psychology and work your way toward studying advanced course materials. This knowledge can give you the background necessary to work in the research field and develop research interests in different branches of psychology, such as:

  • Abnormal psychology

  • Behavioral psychology

  • Biological psychology

  • Clinical psychology

  • Cognitive psychology

  • Comparative psychology

  • Development psychology

  • Forensic psychology

  • Industrial-organizational psychology

  • Social psychology

2. Seek research opportunities

As an undergraduate student, you should seek research opportunities that can help you get started in the field. You can serve as a lab assistant for your professors while working on their research projects. It can even be helpful to design a research project of your own through writing an honors dissertation. Research opportunities can help you develop vital skills and gain necessary experience to succeed as a graduate student and researcher.

3. Find work in the research field

After graduating with your bachelor's degree, you might consider taking a few years off from schooling to find work in the research field. There are a few entry-level research jobs available to those who hold bachelor's degrees in psychology, including roles like research assistant, research analyst and research coordinator. Serving in such capacities can help you further hone your skills, focus your interests and prepare yourself for when you eventually attend graduate school.

4. Apply to a doctoral program and earn your Ph.D.

Earning a doctoral degree, or a Ph.D., is the industry standard for a research psychologist. Therefore, when you're ready to do so, you should apply to a doctoral program where you will commit to 2-3 years of advanced coursework followed by 2-4 years of research. Ph.D. programs will teach you how to think analytically, conduct your own research projects, teach psychology courses and more. It is important to note that some Ph.D. programs focus heavily on practicing applied clinical psychology, so make sure that you apply to a research-oriented program.

5. Complete a post-doctoral fellowship

After graduating with your Ph.D., you should plan on completing a post-doctoral fellowship. During this fellowship, you will develop your skills further by performing independent research projects. Doing so can help you build your identity as a professional research psychologist. You'll want to make sure that you find a mentor for your post-doctoral fellowship who is a good fit for your professional needs and can help provide you with opportunities to lead investigations and publish research.

6. Apply for state licensure

Once you complete your post-doctoral fellowship, you may need to apply for state licensure. The type of license you will need to practice as a research psychologist will differ depending on the state that you live in. You will most likely have to take an exam and provide documentation of your past educational and research experiences. After you earn your license, you'll be able to use the skills you developed to work as a research psychologist in academia or private industry.

Research psychologist careers

There are many job options for research psychologists at different stages in their careers. Here are eight compelling career opportunities that aspiring research psychologists can pursue:

1. Research assistant

National average salary: $37,548 per year
Primary duties: Psychology research assistants are typically responsible for administrative and operational duties. They may administer surveys, perform data collection, manage correspondence and summarize results. Research assistants are often tasked with the clerical duties of performing research studies.

2. Professor

National average salary: $64,353 per year
Primary duties: Many research psychologists serve as academic professors within their discipline. Professors teach coursework to undergraduate and graduate students, serve as an academic advisor, perform research and obtain funding through grant programs. Professors who are research psychologists may also provide opportunities for students to get involved with their projects.

3. Research manager

National average salary: $68,302 per year
Primary duties: Psychology research managers supervise teams of researchers to effectively perform and complete research projects. Research managers may draft proposals, consult on research methods, oversee budgets and synthesize research findings in writing.

4. Research analyst

National average salary: $69,771 per year
Primary duties: Psychological research analysts manage data and ensure that it is recorded and collected efficiently. Research analysts may run statistical analyses on different data compiled from studies in order to prepare reports. Research analysts often interface with principal investigators and other scientists to ensure that data meets the needs of the study at hand.

5. Laboratory manager

National average salary: $73,154 per year
Primary duties: Laboratory managers hold both administrative and technical responsibilities. They often hire and supervise research assistants, coordinate research spaces, create schedules, assist with grant applications, perform specific research tasks and assist with the generation and collection of data.

6. Clinical research associate

National average salary: $97,247 per year
Primary duties: Psychological clinical research associates perform research-related tasks on clinically focused projects. They often work with specific populations, such as those who experience mental health challenges or struggle with substance use, in order to draw conclusions about different brain-related processes. The findings of clinical research associates often inform mental health treatment programs.

7. Clinical trial administrator

National average salary: $105,000 per year
Primary duties: Psychological clinical trial administrators typically manage the administrative duties behind clinical studies, or controlled research projects, that study the effects of medicine and treatment on humans or animals. Clinical trial administrators may help design trials, create protocol, track clinical processes and file trial documents.

8. Research scientist

National average salary: $112,880 per year
Primary duties: Research scientists, often called principal investigators, are the lead researchers of grant-funded projects. These scientists are responsible for research decisions and may oversee financial and administrative matters. They hire other researchers, design experiments and write research articles about their findings.

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