Overview of Graduate Degree Options in Applied Behavior Analysis

Practitioners of applied behavior analysis (ABA) use techniques based on learning theory to establish and shape behaviors in individuals who possess specific behavioral excesses or deficits. ABA graduate programs provide these experts with the competencies necessary to engage in various types of work, in various settings. A master’s or higher degree is the minimum educational requirement to serve as an independent practitioner and is required for both state licensure and national certification.

Due to the wide range of settings in which ABA is practiced, graduate programs in ABA are designed a number of ways. However, they all have several things in common:

Graduate Degrees in Applied Behavior Analysis: An Overview

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s (BACB) Model Act for Licensing/Regulating Behavior Analysts establishes qualifications for competency in ABA practice that may states have adopted in establishing licensing laws. The BACB’s Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®®) master’s-level certification is the recognized standard qualification for full-authority behavior analysts to practice without oversight.

Many states that license applied behavior analysts now require BCBA®® certification for licensure or accept it as a pathway to licensure. Even in states that do not license applied behavior analysts, the BCBA®® has become a standard pursuit for these professionals, a required credential for insurance reimbursement through autism insurance mandate laws, and a common requirement among employers.

Applied behavior analysts with their sights set on earning the BCBA®® credential must earn an acceptable graduate degree from an accredited college or university and complete graduate coursework in behavior analysis that meets board requirements.

Types of Graduate Programs Acceptable for Certification

Graduate degree programs must be in one of three fields of study:

  • Behavior Analysis
  • Education
  • Psychology

They must also meet one of the following requirements:

OR

  • Be accredited by the Association for Behavior Analysis International’s (ABAI) Behavior Analysis Accreditation Board (BAAB) (all BAAB-accredited programs include a pre-approved course sequence)

OR

ABAI-BAAB-accredited master’s programs consist of 405 hours of instruction, including coursework and supervised experience in:

  • Principles of Behavior: 45 contact hours
  • Research Methods: 45
  • Conceptual Analysis: 45
  • Applied Behavior Analysis: 90
  • Basic Behavior Analysis: 45
  • Ethics 45
  • Supervised Experiential Learning: 90
  • Thesis or the equivalent: As required by the institution

Programs with a BACB-ACS must include at least 18 hours (270 semester hours) of coursework in:

  • Ethical and Professional Conduct: 45 hours
  • Concepts and Principles of Behavior Analysis: 45
  • Research Methods in Behavior Analysis
    • Measurement (including Data Analysis): 25
    • Experimental Design: 20
  • Applied Behavior Analysis
    • Fundamental Elements of Behavior Change and Specific Behavior Change Procedures: 45
    • Identification of the Problem and Assessment: 30
    • Intervention and Behavior Change Considerations: 10
    • Behavior Change Systems: 10
    • Implementation, Management, and Supervision: 10
  • Discretionary: 30

Applied Behavior Analysis Graduate Options: Choosing an ABA Program

The type of graduate program you choose will largely depend on your current profession, area of study, or future career plans.

Master’s Degrees: Designed for students or for early- to mid-level professionals in behavior analysis, social work, public health, education, psychology, or counseling who want to complete a master’s degree to become an applied behavior analyst, psychologist, educator, or other graduate-prepared professional with a specialization in applied behavior analysis.

Post-Master’s Certificate Programs: Designed for professionals who already hold a master’s degree in a related field and want to focus or specialize their work in psychology, speech-language pathology, social services, education, or a similar field on behavior analysis.

Independent Approved Course Sequences (ACS): Designed as an add-on course sequence in ABA for individuals who already hold a master’s degree in an acceptable field or are in the process of earning their master’s degree.

Doctoral Programs: Designed for applied behavior analysts who want to focus their work on research or teaching.

Many institutions offer ABA graduate programs through online study, thereby allowing busy professionals and individuals not residing near a campus-based program to complete their graduate degree program from the comfort of their home. Many institutions provide students with practicum assistance, locating and securing a fieldwork experience at a site close to home.

Behavior analysis graduate degree programs may be located in any number of colleges/departments, although the majority are located in departments of applied behavioral science, psychology, or education:

ABA Graduate Programs in Applied Behavioral Science

Applied behavior analysis graduate programs located in schools or departments of applied behavioral science are designed to produce professionals with broad knowledge in applied behavior analysis, including developmental services, special education, and mental health.

As such, the curriculum of these programs focuses on:

  • Principles and procedures of basic and applied behavior analysis practice and research
  • Using behavior analysis and behavioral support in multiple education and human service settings, including community, school, home, and institutional settings
  • Development and completion of independent research in behavior analysis

ABA Graduate Programs in Education/Special Education

Just some of the ways an ABA graduate program through a college or university’s school of education may be structured include:

  • Master of Education (MEd) in Special Education with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Master of Education (MEd) in Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Post-master’s certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Non-degree ABA certificate
  • Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) in Special Education with a graduate certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Master of Science (MS) in Special Education with a specialization in Applied Behavior Analysis
  • S. in Behavior Analysis

ABA programs with an emphasis on education or special education may be designed for students with no previous teaching experience who want to earn their degree, initial teaching license, and BCBA®® certification, or for practicing teachers who want to earn a special education endorsement and/or BCBA®® certification.

Just a few of the educational professionals who may complete an ABA grad program include:

  • General education teachers
  • Special education teachers
  • Behavior coaches
  • Counselors
  • Clinicians and therapists
  • Administrators

ABA programs in education allow educators and other professionals in education to gain competencies in:

  • Effective instruction and classroom management
  • Teaching strategies for effective behavior management
  • Designing and improving performance and productivity in organizations
  • Utilizing research-based procedures for teaching preschool and elementary-age children
  • Managing classrooms and schools using positive and non-coercive practices
  • Mastering how to continuously and directly measure student progress in achieving standards and new developmental stages
  • Scientifically analyze the source of student learning problems and inadequate teaching

ABA Graduate Programs in Psychology

An ABA graduate program through a college or university’s school of psychology may be structured as:

  • Master of Arts (MA) in Behavior Analysis
  • Master of Arts (MA) in Clinical Counseling with a concentration in Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Master of Science (MS) in Psychology with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Post-master’s certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis
  • PhD in Behavior Analysis

Psychology ABA programs at the master’s level include courses in both experimental analysis of behavior and applied behavior analysis and often include immersive experience in animal and human research facilities and local practicum sites.

Just some of the specialty areas studied within a psychology grad program in ABA include:

  • Developmental disabilities
  • Organizational behavior management and performance management
  • Behavioral pharmacology
  • Behavioral gerontology
  • Behavioral medicine

These programs are ideal for students studying psychology or social work or for practicing professionals seeking the BCBA®® certification. They prepare students for work with individuals and organizations in:

  • Business and industry
  • Community mental health
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Education
  • Government
  • Mental illness
  • Substance abuse

Graduates of psychology grad programs in ABA often seek roles in residential and outpatient treatment facilities, local and state governments, and private practice.

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees in psychology with an ABA emphasis are designed for master’s-prepared candidates with an interest in pursuing careers in ABA research or teaching.

Admission Requirements for Graduate Programs in Behavior Analysis

Admission requirements for master’s degrees in behavior analysis include:

  • Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university; depending on the institution, the undergraduate degree may need to be in a related field, such as:
    • Applied behavior analysis
    • Education
    • Psychology
    • Counseling
    • Mental health
    • Social work
    • Social science
  • Minimum undergraduate GPA (usually 3.0 or above)
  • A current resume/curriculum vita detailing:
    • Educational background
    • Relevant employment history
    • Community service/volunteer experience
    • Evidence of leadership, career progression
  • Essay/statement describing professional goals and reason for pursuing a graduate degree
  • Letters of recommendation (professional and academic)

Admission requirements for PhD programs in ABA are highly selective, sometimes admitting just a handful of students each year. A master’s degree in applied behavior analysis or psychology with a minimum GPA, a current BCBA®® certification, and several supporting documents such as admissions essays, GRE sores, and letters of recommendation are typical requirements when being considered for admission.

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