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What Jobs Can I Get With a PhD in Human Behavior?

by Robin Elizabeth Margolis, studioD

Doctorates in human behavior are usually granted by university psychology and education departments to students working in a specialty known as applied behavior analysis. This specialty looks at how negative behaviors can be weakened and replaced with positive behaviors. Charts are created to monitor behaviors to determine which interventions are working. Behavior analysis doctoral programs frequently offer two possible tracks: One track prepares students to become college professors and the other trains students who want to become licensed behavior analysts.


Applied behavior analysis began as a specialization within psychology called "behavior modification," by B. F. Skinner, a research psychologist, in 1938. Skinner's first experiments trained rats to press levers for food pellets and to switch off unpleasant electric currents. Skinner's research on positive and negative reinforcements was later applied to human behaviors and is now known as applied behavior analysis. As of 2013, the two wings of the profession -- the psychologists devoted to research and the licensed behavior analysts -- have split into two separate professional groups, the Association for Behavior Analysis International for researchers and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts for therapists.

Behavior Analysis College Professors

Doctoral students entering the teaching and research track take classes in applied behavior analysis and research study design. Students are expected to carry out their own behavior analysis research projects and write a dissertation. While the academic job market is crowded, a 2011 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report forecast that jobs for psychology professors are expected to grow by 10 to 19 percent between 2010 and 2020, an average rate of job growth. Applied behavior faculty positions also exist in university schools of education. Master's degree and doctoral-level psychology professors earned an average annual salary of $68,020 in 2011, according to the BLS.

Board Certified Behavior Analysts

Doctoral programs currently offer future behavior analysts training leading to independent practices or work with clients in organizations. A newly graduated Ph.D. takes a national examination to become a board certified behavior analyst. As of 2011, more than 9,000 behavior analysts holding bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees passed behavior analyst certification exams. In 2013 an estimated 35 states required future behavior analysts to comply with licensing or certification requirements.

Therapy Settings

Licensed behavior analysts work in a variety of settings. Behavior analysts treating autistic children teach them communication and socializing skills. A behavior analyst who specializes in school psychology may design and oversee behavior support treatment plans for children coping with emotional problems. Some behavior analysts form their own businesses and consult on behavior changes for families, schools and clinics. A 2009 survey by the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts showed that the majority of behavior analysts with master's and doctoral degrees earned between $40,000 and $80,000 per year. The survey indicated that most behavior analysts were treating children with autism or other developmental disabilities. Continuing growth in autism diagnoses will likely fuel ongoing increases in employment for licensed behavior analysts.

About the Author

Robin Elizabeth Margolis is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She has been writing about health care, science, nutrition, fitness and law since 1988, and served as the editor of a health law newsletter. Margolis holds a bachelor of arts degree in biology, a master's degree in counseling and a paralegal certificate.

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