The field of psychology is massive, diverse, and steadily growing as the stigma associated with mental illness continues to decline. A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association (APA) revealed what many of us already know: It’s a popular field that’s marked by a growing demand for psychologists in nearly all specialties. That’s good news for psychologists and the professionals who work alongside them and great news for the future of our nation’s health.
One such area that’s achieved mounting interest in recent years is applied behavior analysis (ABA), an evidence-based therapy that’s been largely used among psychologists and other practitioners who treat children and adolescents with autism and similar developmental disabilities. However, as the scope of ABA continues to evolve, psychologists are increasingly using ABA to improve the lives of many types of populations and people across the lifespan.
This means outstanding opportunities exist in the field of ABA, both as a psychological assistant and as a future psychologist.
Whether you have your sights set on a master’s-level career in psychology or you’re working toward your doctorate degree and psychologist state license, a job as a psychological assistant is what you covet. This important support role is both interesting and rewarding and is the source of outstanding opportunities in the psychology field.
What is Psychology?
Simply put, psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. It is a scientific discipline that seeks to understand the mind, how it works, and how it affects behavior.
To fully understand the role of a psychologist assistant, it’s important to first have a firm grasp of the study and practice of psychology and its role in today’s society.
The History of Psychology, From the Greeks to Freud and Beyond
While its origins can be traced back to ancient times (As far back as 500 B.C., the Greeks and Romans understood the concept of the integration of body and mind, or mens sana in corpore sano – healthy mind in a healthy body.), psychology as a scientific practice didn’t really take shape until around the turn of the nineteenth century when a German psychologist named Wilhelm Wundt began using research methods to better understand the mind and behaviors. In 1874, he published Principles of Physiological Psychology and in 1879, he founded the first psychology laboratory in the world at the University of Leipzig.
Just a few years later, psychology as a discipline took root in the U.S., with William James earning a spot as one of the country’s first psychologists. In fact, thanks to his book, The Principles of Psychology, he quickly earned the title as the father of American psychology. His work largely focused on the role of behavior and how it is used to help people adapt to their environment (termed ‘functionalism’).
The early twentieth century brought what today is the two, major theories in psychology that largely dominate the contemporary field of psychology:
- Psychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis was largely defined by Austrian physician Sigmund Freud, whose work focused on the importance of the unconscious mind and the related unconscious and often unresolved conflicts and how they shaped behavior.
- Behaviorism: While Freud’s view on psychology is about looking inward, behaviorism instead looks outward, to the environment, to understand our behaviors and how to change them. ABA therapy is built on behaviorism, and psychologists and other practitioners in the human services field have used this form of therapy for decades with great success with children and adolescents with autism and other developmental disabilities. Its scope and reach continue to grow, both in psychology and in a number of other fields, including education, occupational therapy, and counseling.
The Goals of Psychology
Open up any Psych 101 textbook and you’ll likely be met with the foundation of psychology, or its goals, which are:
- To describe (the behavior and mental processes of others)
- To explain (the behavior and mental processes of others)
- To predict (the behavior and mental processes of others)
- To control (the behavior and mental processes of others)
Because psychology is a science, it is studied and practiced through observation. Through observation (via the scientific method), psychologists are able to gather information to analyze both healthy and unhealthy behaviors. These professionals pose a question, offer a theory, and then, through rigorous testing and experiments, test the hypothesis. According to the APA, through this intensive course of study, psychologists are able to create “evidence-based strategies that solve problems and improve lives.”
The Branches of Psychology
Studying and practicing psychology is a focused effort, with practitioners largely directing their work on a specific area of psychology. Because of this, a large number of subfields have developed over the years. In fact, the APA is home to no less than 56 Divisions that include everything from addiction psychology to trauma psychology to international psychology.
However, some of the most common subfields of contemporary psychology include:
- Brain Science and Cognitive Psychology
- Climate and Environmental Psychology
- Clinical Psychology
- Counseling Psychology
- Developmental Psychology
- Experimental Psychology
- Forensic Psychology
- Health Psychology
- Industrial and Organizational Psychology
- Social psychology
- Sport and Performance Psychology
- Quantitative Psychology
- Behavior Analysis
What is a Psychological Assistant?
As the title suggests, a psychological assistant provides support to licensed psychologists in a variety of ways. Duties and tasks of psychological assistants depend largely on the type of psychologists they’re working with, and the subfield/setting in which they are working.
Psychology today is by no means a ‘one-size-fits-all’ field, and psychologists research, study, and practice it in a myriad of settings. This means that the work of psychological assistants may also occur in a wide array of settings.
While many psychologists work as healthcare providers, providing care in private practices, hospitals, schools, and social settings, other psychologists work outside of clinical practice, lending their expertise to the courts, to private businesses, to nonprofit organizations, and to state and federal governmental entities. In fact, psychologists can be found in some of the world’s largest organizations and companies like Google, NASA, Boeing, and the nation’s healthcare insurers.
The APA Model Act for State Licensure of Psychologists recognizes psychological assistants as graduate students, interns, unlicensed postdoctoral trainees, and applicants for psychologist licensure, all of whom are permitted to work under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. Some of the titles for those working toward licensure include:
- Psychological trainee
- Psychological resident
- Psychological intern
Other acceptable titles for those not working toward licensure may include:
- Psychological assistant
- Psychological technician
- Psychological associate
In all cases, psychological assistants must work under the supervision of a licensed psychologist who is fully responsible for their professional actions.
The job duties of psychological assistants largely depend on two factors: (1) the psychologist under whom they are working; and (2) the state in which they are working. While some psychological assistants are limited to research and clerical work in some settings, in others they work closely with the psychologist to perform patient assessments and interventions.
Psychological assistants are often responsible for patient intake, which includes interviewing and gathering medical history. They may also administer and score neuropsychological tests at the request of the supervising psychologist but not interpret the test results.
Updating records, contacting patients, taking notes during assessments, and maintaining patient files are all typical job duties of psychological assistants.
Outside the clinical environment, psychological assistants are actively involved in research projects and clinical trials in academic, governmental, private, or nonprofit settings. Their work often includes gathering and analyzing research data and presenting it in written reports.
All of the work of a psychological assistant must be done under the supervision of a licensed psychologist, in all cases. However, because many psychological assistants are doctoral students or doctoral graduates training to become psychologists, they often sit in on counseling sessions in an observatory capacity. In special circumstances, they may also provide specific outpatient counseling services and administer specific therapeutic procedures.
How to Become a Psychological Assistant: Degree and Registration Requirements
There are no hard and fast rules for becoming a psychological assistant in the U.S.
In some states, such as Delaware, psychological assistants must have a doctoral degree (and be working toward state licensure as a psychologist), while in others, like Iowa, they can practice with a bachelor’s degree.
However, most states/employers require psychological assistants to hold a master’s degree in psychology. Master’s degrees may be designed in a number of ways:
- MA/MS in Psychology
- MA/MS in Clinical Psychology
- MA/MS in Organizational Psychology
- MA/MS in School Psychology
- MA/MS in Counseling Psychology
- MS in Behavior Analysis
- MS in Applied Behavior Analysis
- MS in Psychology – Applied Behavior Analysis
- MS in Psychology – Behavior Analysis and Therapy
- MS in Behavior Psychology
All master’s degrees in psychology include specific structured learning experiences in the form of an internship, practicum, or other hands-on learning opportunity.
Registration/Certification Requirements for Psychological Assistants
In some states, psychological assistants must meet specific educational requirements and be registered or certified with the state. Some examples include:
California: Psychological assistants in California must have a minimum of a master’s degree in psychology or education with an emphasis in counseling psychology, and they must apply to the California Board of Psychology for registration as a psychological assistant.
Texas: Psychological associates must be licensed with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychology. They must have a graduate degree in psychology that consists of at least 60 semester hours, and they must pass the Examination for Professional Practice in psychology, a jurisprudence examination, and have at least 6 semester hours of practicum, internship, or other structured experience under the supervision of a licensed psychologist to qualify for licensure. Once they earn at least 3,000 hours of post-graduate supervised experience within 24-48 months, they may earn independent practice authority as a psychological associate.
Delaware: Psychological assistants must be registered with the Delaware Board of Examiners of Psychologists by their supervising psychologist. Psychological assistants here must be working toward satisfying their post-doctoral hours and must have plans to apply for their psychologist license after completing the post-doctoral requirements.
Yet, in most states, no specific statutes regarding the practice of psychological assistants exist.
Contact your state board of psychology to learn more about certification/requirements to practice as a psychological assistant.
Options to Advance Your Credentials: BCBA Certification
Adding a behavior analysis credential to your master’s-level training may allow you to broaden your professional opportunities in the field, both now as a psychological assistant and down the road as a licensed psychologist.
Your master’s degree in psychology may have already prepared you for licensure as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, provided it included specific coursework in behavior analysis. Otherwise, you can achieve this credential by completing a verified course sequence (VCS), which is either offered as a stand-alone sequence of courses or as a graduate certificate. If your school offers the VCS, you may be able to complete it as part of your master’s degree.
You may also elevate this credential to the doctoral-level BCBA-D once you’ve earned your doctorate in psychology.
Salaries for Psychological Assistants: What They’re Earning and Where
Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provide an overview of what psychological assistants earn at the 25th, 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles, as of May 2021:
- Social and Human Services Assistants: $30,440, $37,610, $46,960, $59,490
- Social Science Research Assistants: $44,800, $49,720, $61,970, $79,140
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Social and Human Service Assistants and Social Science Research Assistants reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.