Cognitive Psychologist

What affects a person’s memory? Why might two individuals perceive an image differently? How do emotions play a role in decision making? How to address various learning styles? These are just some of the questions that cognitive psychologists explore.

Cognitive Psychologists Career At a Glance

  • Degree Level Requirements: Ph.D. in (Cognitive) Psychology although there are cognitive psychology-related careers available to those with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree.
  • Licensure Requirements: Generally licensure is not required unless the cognitive psychologist will be practicing psychology in a clinical/counselling and possibly a consulting role.  However this could be changing (see Licensure section below).
  • Specializations: There are numerous specialties, including those related to memory, learning styles, perception, behaviour and decision making.
  • Median Annual Salaries: $68,640*
  • Job Outlook: 22% growth from 2010 to 2020**

What affects a person’s memory? Why might two individuals perceive an image differently? How do emotions play a role in decision making? How to address various learning styles? These are just some of the questions that cognitive psychologists explore.

“[Cognitive psychologists] work to understand the nature of human thought,” state Tara L. Kuther and Robert D. Morgan in their book Careers in Psychology: Opportunities in a Changing World, (4th edition), 2013. “Cognitive psychologists are interested in topics like attention, visual and auditory perception, memory, reasoning, retrieval and forgetting, and problem solving.”

“Cognitive psychologists work to understand the nature of human thought”

Often times, cognitive psychologists are researchers, either in an academic setting (where they might also teach as a professor), a research center or in another sector, such as in the corporate world, the technology field or for the military. The goal of their research is to develop a better understanding of how our minds work, and they do this for beneficial reasons, such as helping those that have learning difficulties or memory deficits. In some cases, cognitive psychologists may choose to practice psychology, as in working directly with patients/clients.

Cognitive Psychologist Career & Job Description

“[Cognitive psychologists] are research oriented and often study mental processes: thinking, knowing, feeling, learning, etc.,” states the American Psychological Association. “They believe that mental processes can be examined scientifically through the conduct of experiments.” To fulfill this role, cognitive psychologists employ skills relevant to the scientific model, research, statistics and communications.

A common profession associated with cognitive psychologists is as the academic researcher-professor. In this case they balance their time with teaching university students and supervising those students working on their thesis/dissertation, along with conducting their own research and publishing their findings in scholarly journals or reports.

However, some cognitive psychologists do not work for universities. Instead they might conduct research on behalf of companies (such as evaluating how user-friendly a product is), as part of the legal community (such as acting as an expert witness with regards to eyewitness testimony), for school districts/boards (such as evaluating curriculum and teaching methods), for agencies or contractors affiliated with the military (such as to analyze performance or service-related stress), as human factors specialists (for government, private firms, non-profits, consulting companies, etc), and more.

Additionally, there are some cases where a cognitive psychologist chooses to provide direct psychological services to patients/clients. A cognitive science expertise is especially fitting for working with individuals with “neurological disorders and learning disabilities,” states the University of California Santa Cruz’s Psychology Department.

Father of Cognitive Psychology

Many refer to Dr. Ulric Neisser (1928-2012) as the “Father of Cognitive Psychology”. He was a professor, author, researcher, founder of the Emory Cognition Project and worked with several prestigious organizations, including the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

For one of his most famous memory experiments, he asked his students to write down their reactions the day after the Challenger space shuttle explosion, and again three years later. “Most of the accounts were remarkably different—supporting Neisser’s theory that the mind distorts and reshapes the past, drawing on layered memories rather than actual events,” wrote Paige Parvin in her Emory News Center report.

Specializations & Concentrations

According to Kuther and Morgan, cognitive psychologists (like other types of psychologists) tend to specialize in one or just a few areas. Some examples of subfields within cognitive psychology include cognitive modeling, cognitive neuropsychology/neuroscience, cognitive engineering, developmental science, psychology of reasoning, aging and cognition, psycholinguistics, and more. These are scholastic terms that you will begin to explore as you pursue your academic journey. But for now let’s look at just some of the topics that esteemed cognitive psychologists have or are currently investigating:

  • Motivation (related to school or work)
  • Visual processing
  • Language development and its relationship to memory
  • The relationship between morals, emotions and decision-making
  • The relationship between culture and development
  • Reading comprehension
  • Memory disorders
  • How children understand their emotions
  • Memory retrieval
  • Conscious and unconscious behavior
  • Self-awareness, personality and interests
  • Factors that affect attention/focus
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Varied learning styles
  • And many more…

The Educational Journey

Bachelor’s Degree

Complete a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology that offers the option of concentrating or taking courses in Cognitive Psychology. There are also some schools that specifically offer a Bachelor of Cognitive Psychology, Cognitive Science, Behavioral Neuroscience, and similar degrees.

Relevant Careers

Completing an undergraduate degree in cognitive psychology or a related field will prepare you for several careers. These include human factors specialist, research assistant, psychiatric technician, public relations specialist or human resources representative. Additionally, if you have developed key quantitative, statistic and technological skills during your undergrad, Kuther and Morgan recommend jobs such as an insurance underwriter, budget analyst and computer support specialist.

Master’s Degree

Complete a Master’s Degree in Cognitive Psychology. Related programs offered at the Master’s level include a Master in Cognitive and Biological Psychology, a Master in Brain, Behavior and Cognition, a Master in Cognitive Neuroscience, a Master in Cognitive and Social Processes, and more.

Relevant Careers

Upon graduating from a Master’s degree in Cognitive Psychologist, you might want to enter the workforce and pursue careers, such as a psychometrist, research assistant/coordinator, an administrator at a research institute, human factors engineer, an operations or policy analyst, a cognitive therapist (with supplementary training/certification), and more.

PhD Degree

Complete a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology to be deemed an “official” cognitive psychologist and to become qualified for expert roles such as a professor, consultant and researcher for academe or another sector.

Certification & Licensing Requirements

Normally cognitive psychologists pursuing a career in academe, start off as assistant professors. Ideally they move up to the level of tenure/tenure-track associate professor, followed by full professor and then to Endowed Chair (also known as Distinguished Professor or Department Head).

Generally speaking, a psychologist must be licensed if they are providing services in the form of assessment, therapy and/or consultation, state Kuther and Morgan. Technically speaking, since many cognitive psychologists may not fill such such as diagnosing patients or providing psychotherapy, they generally do not require licensure, although this could be changing.

“There are exemptions from licensure requirements that vary across jurisdictions; for example, those who practice psychology in a state or federal institution or agency, in a college or university, or in a research laboratory may be exempt from licensure in some jurisdictions,” states the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB), which represents the coalition licensing boards (and outlines each state’s licensing requirements). “However, the trend is toward requiring licensure of government agency employees to ensure the same level of protection for consumers of services in both the public and private sectors.”

” Psychology grads that might previously have found jobs in academia are now building research careers in corporations, non-profit organizations, the U.S. military and the government, at both the state and federal levels. “

Furthermore, David DiLillo et al. recommend (in their academic paper “The Path to Licensure for Academic Psychologists: How Tough is the Road?”) that academic psychologists (such as cognitive psychologists) become licensed. They suggest that since psychology professors, for example, are teaching and supervising students (i.e. future psychologists) that this should be considered a form of practice linked to public welfare, not to mention if they have to supervise students in clinical settings. Plus, licensure, as well as certification (such as Cognitive & Behavioral Psychology certification through the ABPP/ABCBP), adds credibility to the fact that a cognitive psychologist is an expert in his or her field. Additionally, David DiLillo et al. add, “Licensure also aids graduate training by permitting faculty who choose to engage in independent clinical practice to draw upon those experiences in the instruction and supervision of students.”

Other Workplaces For Cognitive Psychologists

In some cases, the competition is quite intense to acquire a heralded cognitive psychology position at a university. But there are new opportunities for academic psychologists, states Kirstein Weir, in her APA article “The New Academic Job Market”. “In particular, psychologists are needed in the service industry, where retail and restaurant chains and hospitals are hiring research psychologists to help them track, measure and respond to employee behaviors,” writes Weir.“Psychology grads that might previously have found jobs in academia are now building research careers in corporations, non-profit organizations, the U.S. military and the government, at both the state and federal levels.” Check out the APA’s career profiles page for intriguing jobs (from a researcher at a toy company to an advocate) for cognitive and other academic psychologists.
  • References:
  • * May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • ** May 2010 (for Psychologists Overall, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • † Salary data from US BLS
  • ‡ Job Outlook data from US BLS