Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Master's Degree

Reviewed by Dr. Sarah Woldoff

Some people just want to know how things work. They want to understand all the intricate whats, the befuddling hows, and the confusing whys. For students who want to apply that curiosity to human behavior, pursuing a M aster’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) isn’t just an eye-opening endeavor. It can also be a great way to start a career in helping people understand themselves and navigate the world around them.

Professionals with ABA Master’s degrees can be found running special education programs, improving mental health services, and even saving lives in substance abuse recovery programs. If you’re considering a career in any of those fields and more, here’s what you need to know about earning a Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis.

young boy smiling at therapist

Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis: Who is it Right For?

The biggest question to answer before enrolling in any graduate degree program is, “Will this degree help me and my career?” Fortunately, a Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis can be a flexible degree with applications in a number of psychology-focused careers.

ABA Practitioners

Licensed ABA practitioners, sometimes called ABA therapists, help people replace undesirable behaviors with healthier, more productive ones. Though practitioners often help children with autism develop coping, and social skills, they can work in any number of contexts.

ABA practitioners frequently work in:

Though the specific duties of an ABA practitioner change with the field, they’re typically responsible for crafting client treatment plans, working with clients individually, or overseeing interdisciplinary teams of caregivers and healthcare professionals.

Educators, School Counselors, and Administrators

To help students with physical, developmental, and learning disabilities, special education teachers often require quite a large toolkit. Pursuing a Master’s degree in special education with a specialization in ABA can be a great way to learn evidence-based techniques that can empower students in the classroom and beyond.

Likewise, school counselors with an ABA background can combine ABA theory and techniques with verbal therapy and play therapy to make their offices a welcoming, open place  for students struggling with any number of issues.

For those considering a career as an administrator, a Master’s in ABA can teach them how  to craft school policies and programs that help students, teachers, and parents.  In 2022, the National Education Association reported that an alarming 55% of educators were considering leaving the profession earlier than expected. In such a strained environment, an understanding of human behavior may go quite a long way.

Industrial and Organizational Management Professionals

Industrial and organizational behavior professionals typically handle anything human-resource related  within a company. They spearhead recruitment initiatives, solve workplace conflicts, direct training programs, and craft policies that keep workers engaged and motivated.

organizational management professionals

This role typically requires a degree in psychology, but with a Master’s in psychology with a focus on ABA, industrial-organizational psychologists can be prepared to handle human resource issues in a scientific, hands-on way.

Behavioral Specialists

Budding applied behavior analysts can choose to narrow their focus to a specific population or field of study. These people are, in a broad sense, referred to as behavioral specialists.

For example, a behavioral gerontologist is someone who helps elderly people navigate the many issues often associated with aging. A behavioral neuroscientist, on the other hand, focuses on the intersection of biology, environment, and behavior. And a forensic behavior analyst typically uses their ABA knowledge to help different law enforcement agencies.

Along with teaching core principles of the field, some ABA Master’s programs have classes focused on these specialized fields. In many cases, these programs offer enriching, relevant internships and fieldwork opportunities.

Research and Experimental Behavior Analysts

Not every ABA professional works with the general public or a specific client base. Some put their expertise  to use in clinical or research settings.

A lot of ABA research is done in colleges and universities, pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, and even economic research firms. And as research continues, these kinds of organizations will continue to need professionals who not only understand the nuances of human behavior, but can also direct ethical, forward-thinking projects.

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Master’s Degrees (MA, MS, MAT, MEd) in Applied Behavior Analysis

Master’s degree programs in ABA are usually housed in schools/colleges of behavior analysis, psychology, or education. However, not every ABA Master’s program is structured exactly the same or even called the same thing. Understanding the differences between degree types can help you narrow your search for a relevant program.

MA vs MS in Applied Behavior Analysis

Most graduate-level ABA programs come in the form of a Master’s of Arts (MA) or Master’s of Science (MS). In general, MA programs have a more interdisciplinary, liberal arts approach to education while MS programs focus more on developing specific technical skills in any given field.

However, the curriculum for MA and MS ABA degrees is often very similar. In many cases, the MA vs MS distinction depends on which school the program is located in. For example, MA ABA programs are often located in schools of education. An ABA MS program may be more likely to be offered through a school of psychology.

MEd vs MAT in Applied Behavior Analysis

Students who plan to enter education can pursue two additional types of ABA graduate degrees: Master’s of Arts in Teaching (MAT) or a Master’s of Education (MEd).

An MAT with an emphasis on applied behavior analysis might be useful for current or future teachers who want to add more robust behavior intervention techniques to their skillset. More specialized forms of this degree include an MAT in Special Education or an MAT with a focus on autism spectrum disorders.

On the other hand, MEd degrees are more tailored to current educators who want to become administrators or school leaders. While earning an MEd in ABA or Special Education, students typically learn how to:

  • Build a curriculum tailored to their students’ needs and challenges.
  • Use scientific research and ABA principles to guide school policy.
  • Support teachers on an administrative level.
  • Create inclusive learning environments where students with different needs can flourish socially and emotionally.

Admission Requirements

Master’s programs of all types require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Some ABA Master’s programs may require students to have a bachelor’s degree in ABA or another relevant field (psychology, education, etc.), but this isn’t always the case.

Other admission requirements for ABA Master’s programs often include:

  • An undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher
  • Minimum GRE scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Admissions essays
  • Interviews with program faculty

For Master’s of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis programs, students may also be required to submit an academic writing sample about a field-related subject.

getting down to work online

Master’s Degrees in Applied Behavior Analysis Leading to Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA®) Certification

Earning a Master’s degree in applied behavior analysis is one way to become a BCBA® (Board Certified Behavior Analyst), a professional designation offered by the BACB (Behavior Analyst Certification Board). According to many states’ ABA licensing laws, behavior professionals must be BACB certified. Here’s how getting a Master’s degree in ABA can put you on the path to certification.

Curriculum and Fieldwork Requirements

ABA Master’s degree programs typically follow all BACB curriculum requirements. So by the time students earn their degree, they will likely be able to qualify for the BCBA® certification exam.

According to the 2022 Board Certified Behavior Analyst® handbook published by the BACB, Master’s-level ABA programs should offer courses on:

  • Ethics, code-enforcement, and professional standards.
  • The core concepts behind applied behavior analysis as a field.
  • Experiment design and data.
  • Behavior assessment.
  • Behavior intervention techniques and how to choose them.
  • Supervision and team management.

In addition to studying this curriculum, BACB-certified behavior analysts must also typically complete up to 2,000 hours supervised fieldwork. So along with offering this course sequence, many ABA programs feature internship and professional experience opportunities to aid in fulfill ing this requirement.

ABA Master’s Program Accreditation

Even though the BACB outlines these standards and ensures all applicants meet them before taking the BCBA®, they do not actually accredit ABA Master’s programs. Instead, they work closely with the ABAI (Association for Behavior Analysis International), an accrediting agency recognized by the Council of Higher Education for enforcing its detailed criteria for ABA education.

The ABAI’s multi-tiered education guidelines follow BACB guidelines so that students can easily identify Master’s programs that could lead them to becoming certified behavior professionals. Because of this, degrees from ABAI-accredited programs are seen as the standard by many employers and state and local licensing agencies. In fact, to use one’s Master’s degree in applied behavior analysis as a stepping stone to becoming a BCBA®, the BACB says the degree must come from an ABAI-accredited or recognized program.

Find out more about BCBA® certification requirements, the BCBA® exam itself, and how your ABA Master’s degree can help you qualify for the exam. If you’re ready to take the next step, start searching for online ABA Master’s programs that could help you become a certified behavior expert in any field from special education to marketing.

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