Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a natural science that seeks to understand the behavior of individuals. It is an extension of psychology, as it uses the principles of behavioral psychology to understand the relationship between behavior and the environment.
A psychology degree with a focus on, or specialization in, applied behavior analysis is a natural fit, providing students with a solid foundation in psychology, along with a comprehensive course of study in the science of behavior analysis.
A psychology degree with an ABA focus or concentration provides students with the skills necessary to bring about socially significant behavior change and become leaders in the field of applied behavior analysis.
Psychology degrees in applied behavior analysis are offered at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels, providing opportunities for undergraduates, graduate students and advanced academics alike.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Psychology with an ABA Focus
Most undergraduate degrees in ABA are found in departments of psychology, thereby providing students with a strong foundation in both the principles of psychology and behavior analysis.
A bachelor’s degree in ABA offered through a department of psychology or a bachelor’s degree in psychology with an ABA focus provides students with the skills necessary to address behaviors in adults and children and solve social problems between individuals, families, groups, or populations.
A bachelor’s degree in psychology (BS or BA) with an ABA track prepares students for assistant applied behavior analyst positions in autism clinics, community health centers, schools, child welfare agencies, and community-based settings. It is also the minimum educational requirement to earn the Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA®) certification through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), a nationally recognized credential and common requirement for practice as an assistant applied behavior analyst, particularly in states that license these professionals.
Note: Not all bachelor’s degrees meet the curriculum requirements for BCaBA® certification. More information on choosing a program that meets BACB requirements can be found here.
Beyond working as an assistant applied behavior analyst, graduates of psychology programs are prepared for graduate-level studies in psychology, applied behavior analysis, or a similar field.
A bachelor’s degree in psychology with an ABA focus also provides the ideal backdrop for careers in human services, in fields such as urban planning, human resources, public health, and social services.
While a bachelor’s degree in psychology generally consists of about 120 credits and four years of study, a bachelor’s degree in psychology with an ABA concentration may require additional coursework, resulting in about 180 credits and five years of study.
Core coursework in these programs generally includes:
- Human Behavior and the Environment
- Survey of Social Problems
- Introduction to Psychology
- Child and Adolescent Psychology
- Personality Development
- Clinical Psychology
- Abnormal Psychology
- Exceptional Needs Children
- Autism Spectrum Disorders in Young Children
- Applied Behavior Analysis I, II
- Screening and Assessment
Many programs culminate in a capstone experience focused on applied behavior analysis. Capstone courses serve as the final evaluation of competencies learned throughout the program, providing students with the opportunity to use the knowledge and skills attained in their bachelor’s degree program to demonstrate mastery of ABA.
Master’s Degree Programs in Psychology with an ABA Concentration
A master’s degree in ABA offered through a department of psychology or a master’s degree in psychology with an ABA focus allows students to explore how social, biological and individual differences affect human behavior to produce leaders in the field of applied behavior analysis.
Master’s degrees (MA or MS) in applied behavior analysis meet the educational requirements to practice independently as an applied behavior analyst and pursue the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) certification through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). The BCBA® has become a common requirement for state licensure, insurance reimbursement under autism insurance mandate laws, and among many employers.
Note: Not all master’s degrees meet the curriculum requirements for BCBA® certification. More information on choosing a program that meets BACB requirements can be found here.
Graduates of master’s degrees in psychology with an applied behavior analysis focus or concentration are prepared to work as applied behavior analysts in a variety of settings, including:
- Mental health centers
- Health maintenance organizations
- Educational settings
- Research facilities
- Center- and home-based programs for children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities
Most programs require an undergraduate major in psychology or a similar field or the completion of specific undergraduate courses in education, psychology, and behavior analysis. Most programs require candidates to possess a minimum undergraduate GPA and submit supporting documents with their application, such as:
- Letters of recommendation
- Admissions essay describing their future goals and reason for completing a master’s degree in psychology with an ABA emphasis
- GRE scores (verbal, quantitative, and analytic portions)
A master’s degree in psychology with ABA focus requires the completion of about 36 credits and two years of study, including 20-30 graduate-level course credits and 6-10 master thesis credits.
Core courses in a master’s degree in psychology with an ABA focus generally include:
- Ethics and Philosophy in Behaviorism
- Measurement, Research Design, and Statistics
- Advanced Applied Behavior Analysis
- Research Methods in Behavior Analysis
- Functional Assessment and Intervention
- Community Intervention and Behavior Support
- Practicum in ABA
Students are often assigned practicum placements throughout the course of the program that provide them with opportunities to apply the skills learned in their coursework.
A master’s thesis or project is generally the culmination of a master’s degree in psychology with an ABA emphasis. Students are required to develop, implement, and conduct research or a project in behavior analysis. A master’s thesis is often chosen by students interested in pursuing doctoral-level study in applied behavior analysis.
Doctorate Degrees in Psychology with an ABA Focus
A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in ABA offered through a department of psychology or a PhD in psychology with an ABA focus prepares students for teaching and for applied work and research in business, industry, and academia.
It is also the minimum educational requirement to earn the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®-D) doctoral designation through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).
Note: Not all doctorate degrees meet the curriculum requirements for BCBA®-D certification. More information on choosing a program that meets BACB requirements can be found here.
A master’s degree in psychology, applied behavior analysis, or a similar field with a minimum GPA is generally required for admission. Many doctoral programs in psychology with ABA focus are competitive, requiring candidates to submit a variety of documents for admission consideration:
- Writing samples
- Letters of recommendation
- Personal statement or essay
- GRE scores
- Resume/curriculum vita with evidence of post-master’s experience in psychology/ABA
Doctorate degrees in psychology with an ABA focus consist of between 60-75 semester hours of coursework, research, and dissertation credits. These programs take about three years to complete, with the third year focused on the doctoral dissertation.
Most programs require students to publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal, submit a grant proposal, or sit for an examination given by the doctoral committee.
Core coursework often includes:
- Research design and data analysis
- Behavior theory and philosophy
- Applied behavior analysis
- Ethics in behavior analysis
- Research issues in behavior analysis
Depending on the program, students of doctorate degrees in psychology with an ABA emphasis may complete a number of professional experiences, such as:
- College teaching
- Independent research
- Psychology practicum
- Professional field experience
The doctoral dissertation involves working under the direction of a faculty mentor to develop an empirical thesis/project and defend it in an oral examination.