What Is a Cognitive Psychologist? (Plus Duties and Salary)

Updated October 4, 2022

A home health professional or caretaker laughs with an older person sitting in a chair. The professional wears a uniform top and holds a cup of coffee or tea. Another cup is on a table next to the patient or client.

Cognitive psychologists study the science behind a wide range of mental processes. They explore various cognitive activities, such as how people think and perceive their environments, how they form memories, how they use language and how they solve problems and recall information. Learning more about this career path can help you determine if it's right for you.

In this article, we explain what a cognitive psychologist is, what they do, how to become one, what skills they need, their salary and job outlook and tips when considering a career in cognitive psychology.

What is a cognitive psychologist?

A cognitive psychologist is a mental health professional who studies internal processes of the mind. This can include a broad range of subjects, such as how people learn and acquire language capabilities and how their thinking impacts their behavior. These professionals study the brain to understand how it works and develop treatment strategies for individuals with psychological disorders. For example, cognitive psychologists can use their knowledge of the brain to treat individuals with learning disorders, brain trauma and Alzheimer's disease.

Cognitive psychologists help researchers, doctors and mental health workers gain a deeper understanding of how the human brain works. This enables medical and mental health professionals to tailor treatments to specific disorders and develop new strategies and methodologies that can assist people with psychological issues. Cognitive psychologists work in many environments, depending on their preferences and areas of study. Some may choose to work in colleges and universities where they conduct research and teach students, while others may work for mental health facilities, research organizations or educational policy bodies where they treat patients.

Related: What Is Cognitive Psychology? Everything You Need To Know

What does a cognitive psychologist do?

The duties and responsibilities of a cognitive psychologist include:

  • Helping individuals recover from brain injuries

  • Diagnosing and treating memory problems in patients

  • Studying mental illnesses and developing effective management options

  • Aiding patients in developing healthier behaviors through cognitive-behavioral therapy

  • Providing therapy for patients with mental and emotional illnesses

  • Conducting research and publishing findings in professional journals and publications

  • Assisting educational policymakers in structuring learning systems to facilitate easier learning for students

Related: What Do Psychologists Study? (Disciplines and Research Areas)

How to become a cognitive psychologist

Follow these steps to become a cognitive psychologist:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

The first step in becoming a cognitive psychologist is getting a bachelor's degree in a field such as cognitive psychology, sociology or another similar area of study. Students can take courses on cognitive learning, social psychology, neuroscience and lifespan development. They also study research methods, statistics, psychometrics and abnormal psychology.

Related: 15 High-Paying Jobs With a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology

2. Select a specialization

Cognitive psychology has different branches, so you may want to specialize in a certain area to pursue a specific job. Examples of cognitive psychology specializations include:

  • Psycholinguistics

  • Mathematical psychology

  • Developmental science

  • Neuropsychology

  • Psychology of reasoning

  • Behavioral neuroscience

Choosing a specialization early might help improve your chances of advancing quickly in your career as a cognitive psychologist. It can also help you focus on an area that offers more opportunities and allow you to cultivate the specific skills needed for the role.

Related: 16 Areas of Specialization in Psychology: How To Choose One

3. Complete a postgraduate program

To practice cognitive psychology, you need a postgraduate degree. A master's degree can qualify you for some teaching and research roles, but you need a doctorate to apply for licensure and to treat patients. Check your state's specific licensing and educational requirements to ensure you're focusing on the right direction for your particular career path.

Depending on the doctorate program for which you're applying, there may be specific requirements to meet, such as having a certain grade point average or Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score. You may need to obtain letters of recommendation and university transcripts of your undergraduate work and develop a doctoral thesis, or an original piece of research, to graduate from a doctorate program.

Related: 19 High-Paying Jobs You Can Get With a Master's in Psychology

4. Acquire field experience

To become a licensed cognitive psychologist, most states require candidates to earn a number of supervised clinical hours through an internship or practicum. You typically complete this experience during your postgraduate education. If you're completing an internship, you may perform more independent duties and responsibilities. As part of a practicum, you work closely with a licensed psychologist. Whichever professional training you choose, you can work at a mental health clinic, community mental health center, private counseling practice or clinical research facility.

Related: Which Psychology Field Is Right for Me? (Tips and Examples)

5. Obtain a license and certification

Once you've completed your education, you need to earn a state license, which typically involves passing a state-administered exam. You may also need to submit proof of graduating from a doctorate program and completing clinical hours with a licensed psychologist. Upon receiving your license and certification, you must renew it periodically to remain updated on the latest cognitive psychological practices.

Certifications are also available for cognitive psychologists. A common certification that psychologists can pursue is the Certified Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist credential from the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists (NACBT). To earn this certification, you need to meet the following requirements:

  • Have a master's or doctorate degree in psychology or a closely related field from an accredited university

  • Have six years of cognitive behavioral experience that a supervisor approves

  • Provide three letters of recommendation from mental health professionals who are familiar with your skills

  • Complete an introductory certification program, such as the Primary Certificate Program in Rational Behavioral Therapy or Level-One Certification in Rational Living Therapy

Related: Psychology Certifications: Definition, Types and Tips To Earn One

6. Apply for positions

Once you have a license, you can start applying for jobs. Some employment options for cognitive psychologists include:

  • Academic institutions

  • Military organizations

  • Law enforcement agencies

  • Judicial systems

  • Large corporations

  • Research laboratories

  • Mental health facilities

  • Private practices

  • Hospitals

  • Neuroscience facilities

You can also research other organizations that need the services of a trained cognitive psychologist. Use job search sites to find jobs and add filters to further refine your search based on factors such as location or experience level.

Related: 20 High-Paying Psychology Jobs

Cognitive psychologist skills

The following skills might help improve your performance as a cognitive psychologist:

  • Analytical skills: Many duties involve gathering data and using it to identify the source of patient issues, which requires excellent analytical skills.

  • Active listening: Having exceptional communication skills, especially active-listening skills, can be beneficial in the field. Active listening can help you pay attention to a patient's concerns while also noting their body language to develop a more accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

  • Attention to detail: Attention to detail can help you make meaningful observations about patients and their history, which can enhance patients' health and help you better assist their overall well-being.

  • Research skills: Cognitive psychologists not only participate in studies and experiments but also publish findings and deliver lectures to discuss their scholarly contributions.

  • Organization: Cognitive psychologists also need excellent organizational skills. These skills help them solve problems, organize research and perform their daily activities effectively.

  • Problem-solving: To be a successful cognitive psychologist, it's important to have problem-solving skills. Whether you treat patients, perform clinical trials or create policies, most of your work requires identifying challenges and solving them.

Related: 20 Skills Needed To Be a Psychologist

Cognitive psychologist salary and outlook

Psychologists, including cognitive psychologists, make an average salary of $120,416 per year. Factors such as qualifications, experience, employer, industry, location and job duties can affect pay. For example, a cognitive psychologist with a private practice may earn more than someone working in a clinic or health care facility because they can set their own rates.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates the demand for psychologists to grow by 6% from 2021 to 2031. This growth is as fast as the average growth for all occupations. The BLS also projects an average of 14,100 positions per year for psychologists during this time period. Reasons for this growth include:

  • Replacement of cognitive psychologists who transfer to different occupations or retire

  • Demand for psychological services in hospitals, mental health facilities and social service agencies

  • Necessity to help students whose educational, behavioral or developmental issues impact their learning abilities

  • Assistance for organizations and corporations as they hire and train employees, increase productivity and efficiency, manage employee conflicts and improve office morale

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the link provided.

Related: How To Become a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist in 5 Steps

Tips for becoming a cognitive psychologist

When pursuing a career as a cognitive psychologist, these tips might help you gain more experience, become a more competitive candidate and improve your chances of finding a relevant position :

  • Consider volunteering. You can pursue volunteer opportunities in your particular field of study.

  • Maintain ethical practices. Demonstrate professional values such as honesty, accountability and reliability.

  • Update your knowledge. It's helpful to read and study different publications, journals or books to learn more about particular fields of cognitive psychology.

  • Join professional organizations. You can join cognitive psychology professional organizations such as the Cognitive Science Society or the Society for Experimental Psychology and Cognitive Science.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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