Sage Advice on Going for Your PhD and BCBA-D

The thought of going on to pursue a doctorate in behavior analysis may seem like an impossible luxury: lingering student loans and the pressure to establish yourself early on may hold you back from pursuing this dream.

And, for some people it’s not the right choice.

If your goal is to simply “set yourself apart” as one Reddit commenter suggested, a Ph.D. program probably isn’t for you.

Asking the Right Questions

“The first thing that students need to think about is a combination of what do I want to be when I grow up, and, what is a Ph.D.?” says Dr. Michael Dorsey, LABA, BCBA-D Professor at Endicott College.

In the field of Behavior Analysis, a Ph.D. is a research-oriented program leading to professorship or to taking on the role of clinical director, where you will be supervising and doing research.

“We’re not here to train you to be better clinicians,” Dr. Dorsey explains, “We’re going to teach you—if you’re working in a public school, rehab hospital, or in a site with kids with autism—how to take the stuff we’re teaching you and extend the research in that area so that you’re providing better services. You’re solving problems that the current literature doesn’t necessarily give you the tools to solve.”

So if your career goal is to focus on providing solid behavioral services to clients, either one-on-one or as part of a team, a Master’s degree will give you the foundation you need.

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If, however, researching and developing methods to approach problems in new ways excites you, or if you feel passionate about training others to extend the reach of behavior analysis, a Ph.D. is probably in your future.

Get Involved in Research, Right Now, Wherever You’re At

Currently, only a handful of schools offer a Ph.D. in Applied Behavior Analysis, and getting into these programs can be very competitive.

Whether you’re just starting your bachelor’s, finishing up a master’s, or are mid-career you’ll want to take some specific steps to position yourself as a strong candidate.

First and foremost? Get involved in research, right now, wherever you’re at.

“There are so many people competing [for entry],” Dr. Dorsey says. “I mean, we have 60-70 people applying for what is nine or ten, eleven positions.”

He doesn’t minimize the importance of standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, and writing samples. However, when schools whittle down to the last handful of applicants they want to see your commitment to research.

“What have you done to not just talk about [research], but to actually take some time to do it,” says Dorsey.

A top applicant might be a BCBA actively involved in research, maybe leading a research team, who has published a few articles.

“Those are few and far between,” Dorsey acknowledges. If you don’t have that level of experience he recommends that you volunteer with someone in the ABA community in an area of research that interests you.

“We literally just had an undergraduate who’s getting ready to get her bachelor’s degree here at Endicott walk into Bryan Blair’s office this morning and say, ‘I’m applying to your master’s program, but I really want to learn research…while I’m doing my master’s can I work as a research assistant in your lab?’”

If you’re already out in the marketplace and feeling like you missed the early boat, Dorsey says there are other ways to stand out.

“Go to state ABA conferences…Go to national ABA conferences…Read research literature,” he says. On your application, share what specific area of research you’re interested in.

At some schools, like the University of Florida, you enter the graduate program right from a bachelor level and go straight through to get your doctorate. Other schools, like Endicott, only consider students who have first completed their master’s degree. Of course, Endicott also offers a master’s program.

Some people get their master’s degree and then spend a number of years working in the field before returning to obtain their doctorate. This gives time for practitioners to gain some experience and pay down their loans, but it also pulls you out of the habit of intense study.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

You’ve probably heard that doctoral programs are a full time, pricey affair. In the world of Behavior Analysis, however, this isn’t always true. In fact, not only is quitting your job not necessary to succeed as a doctoral candidate, it’s often discouraged.

ABA doctoral programs like the one at Endicott operate based on the scientist-practitioner model—that is, you are both a scientist researching your subject and a practitioner taking that research into the real world.

Instead of theorizing potential problems and solutions and then searching for subjects to take part in your research, you work things out in real time, on site. “You’re working in a classroom, and Bobby’s banging his head. You’ve done everything you can find in the literature, but nothing’s working with Bobby. [You’ve] got this idea, and want to do something new.”

That’s the research project, explains Dorsey.

“That’s when you come to us and we say, OK, here’s the research design, here’s the data collection system. Let’s write it up. Let’s get IRB approval. Let’s get consent from the parents, and then when you get it all done and Bobby’s not banging his head anymore, let’s make it a poster at a local ABA conference. Let’s go give a talk at a national conference. Maybe let’s write it up for publication.”

This sort of work can be a win-win for students and their employers; if your research project is successful the program you work for also succeeds.

Money, Money, Money

And then there is the pivotal question that often tips the scales: How on earth do I afford a Ph.D. program?

  1. Keep Working

    The first and most obvious piece of the puzzle is to stay employed at your current job. Because your job is your arena of study you maintain a steady stream of income while researching.

  1. Teach

    “We pay fairly well for adjuncts taking courses,” says Dorsey, “and they can almost pay their semester’s tuition by teaching a class.”Not all students will get to teach, however, as there are usually a limited number of spots available.

  1. Get a Little Help From the Boss

    Some organizations are willing to help pay for individuals pursuing advanced degrees, if they can see how doing so will benefit the organization.What can you offer them? Would you be able to focus on an area of research that could significantly improve outcomes for your facility? Is there an administrator looking to retire whose place you might take? Share your vision and ask how it might meld with the vision of the organization. As the saying goes, the worst that could happen is they might say no.

  1. Scholarships and Grants

    You may have heard that it’s hard to get financial aid for graduate degrees, but that isn’t always true.“Some programs, they’ve been around for a long time, they have big federal grants, research grants, and they can support some of their students that way,” says Dorsey.

    He encourages prospective students to explore the numerous grants available to them. This may turn into your first big research project, but financial aid is definitely an area where you get out what you put in.

  1. Loans

    And, of course, you can always apply for education loans by filling out the FAFSA. While you don’t want to chain yourself down with unreasonable financial burdens, remember that once you achieve your Ph.D. you’ll see a salary hike that should help whittle down those loans.

Earning a PhD and the BCBA-D is About Doing What You Love

The field of behavior analysis is known for a high level of job satisfaction. If you enjoy working one-on-one with clients and like to be the “boots on the ground” person, upgrading to a BCBA-D probably won’t make you happier…especially if you don’t love research.

If, however, classroom instruction and research make your heart beat a little faster and fill your brain with ideas you’d like to experiment with, a Ph.D. might be a good investment.

For Dr. Dorsey, both of the above drove him to furthering his career, and it came down to a key question:

“Do I want to just keep doing it myself, and having one-off clients, or do I want to try to figure out a way to help more people?” … And I figured the way to do that was to get involved in the education and training of behavior analysts.”

So what is your passion? Ask yourself the hard questions, and then go make your mark. At the end of the day whichever route you choose will open the door for you to help change lives.