Behavior Analyst

Behavior analysts assist individuals struggling with developmental disabilities or behavioral disorders. These professionals find employment in a variety of settings, and many work with specific populations, such as adolescents or the elderly. Using specific protocols to assess client behavior, behavior analysts develop personalized strategies to monitor and improve their patient's condition. Most behavioral analysts work in research or counseling roles. Researchers examine environmental and cultural influences on behavior and use their findings to develop cutting-edge techniques and treatment protocols. Counselors incorporate this research into professional practice, using recently-developed methodologies and time-tested theories in both therapeutic settings and public awareness initiatives.

Every behavior analyst begins their career by earning a bachelor's or master's degree. While some schools offer behavior analysis as a major, others feature a general psychology major with a concentration in applied behavior analysis. Both programs typically include a hands-on component, such as an internship or practicum, during which students gain practical experience in a clinical setting. Educational requirements for behavioral analysts vary by location, and some states require practicing analysts to hold a master's degree and obtain state certification. While a master's degree often leads to better employment opportunities and higher earnings, it may also set candidates apart in a high-demand field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 23% job growth rate for behavioral disorder and mental health counselors over the next decade, which is more than double the national average for all other occupations.

How to Become a Behavior Analyst

Degree Requirements

Much like clinical social workers, most states require behavior analysts to pass an exam and complete a period of supervised clinical hours. A behavior analyst must hold a master's degree to practice as a private counselor. To provide group therapy or support services, analysts need an undergraduate degree. However, behavior analysts do not need to major in applied behavior analysis to work as counselors. Some schools allow students to major in psychology and take a minor or concentration in a behavior-related field. While all students who acquire fundamental knowledge of human behavior and psychological development are qualified to pursue careers as behavior analysts, those who intend to open a private practice or work in research should obtain a master's degree.

Master's programs in psychology come in two forms: master of arts programs are typically liberal arts-based, while master of science programs center upon scientific research. Both allow students to concentrate on a specific area of study, such as behavior analysis. On average, graduate students spend two to three years studying theory, acquiring applied skills, and preparing to work directly with clients. Every master's program includes a hands-on component, during which candidates explore real-world situations through supervised client interaction. In addition, some programs feature a thesis option, which provides learners with the opportunity to perform original research and present their findings in writing.

Clinical Experience Requirements

Students must complete a designated number of hours of clinical practice before becoming certified. Often, candidates fulfill this requirement through an internship or practicum. Every master's degree program in psychology or applied behavior analysis has an internship requirement, which typically begins in a student's second or third year of study. Program advisers help students secure internships and monitor their progress. Distance learners must also fulfill internship requirements. Many online programs pair students with advisers who arrange opportunities in nearby facilities. Following the same guidelines as traditional students, online learners report to their internship advisers regularly to ensure that they are meeting all requirements.

Internships and practicums differ slightly. A practicum requires students to shadow a working professional for a few hours per week and record how they perform their job duties. The student may be asked to perform certain tasks using the knowledge they've gained or complete assignments related to the practicum. In an internship, students perform job-specific tasks and duties similar to those of a paid employee. Internships may consist of up to 30 hours per week. Interns report to an on-site supervisor who assigns tasks and evaluates their performance. Whether you complete an internship or practicum depends on the individual program, as well as state guidelines. In some states, students must log 2,000-3,000 hours of clinical experience before taking a certification or state exam.

Licensure and Certification Requirements

While licensure and certification are both crucial to becoming a professional behavior analyst, they do not convey the same qualities. Certification demonstrates that an individual has mastered particular competencies, often within a specialized area. A state license grants the holder legal authority to practice and provide services to the public. While license requirements differ from state to state, candidates must typically hold a master's degree or higher in a behavior-related field and must complete a designated number of hours of supervised clinical experience. Most states also require students to provide proof of certification before taking the licensure exam. The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) offers numerous credentials. The board certified behavior analyst credential (BCBA) is granted to qualifying individuals who wish to practice independently. To be eligible, applicants must hold a master's or doctoral degree and significant clinical experience.

The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards awards the certified autism specialist credential to candidates with a master's degree in psychology, social work, therapy, or education and two years of experience working with autistic individuals. Professionals who currently work with autistic clients and have completed 14 or more continuing education hours may apply for an autism certificate through the Board. After earning any of these credentials, candidates may apply to sit for the state licensure exam. The state's licensure department reviews prospective analysts' credentials to determine if they qualify to take the exam. Because licensing requirements vary by state, applicants should review their state's health department or licensing board website to ensure that they meet all guidelines.

Master's Degree vs. Doctoral Degree for Behavior Analysts

Behavior analysts who wish to provide clinical counseling services must possess a master's degree at minimum. While master's programs impart critical counseling techniques and methods, a doctoral degree offers intensive, hands-on training in clinical settings. Doctoral candidates work closely with counselors on-site to strengthen applied skills. Graduates who hold a doctoral-level behavior analyst degree work as industry experts and are compensated accordingly. The table below demonstrates the correlation between education and earnings.

Average Reported Salary for Counselors by Degree Level

Degree Level Average Salary
Master of Science, Behavior Analyst $57,048
Ph.D., Counseling $77,079

Source: PayScale

Master's Degree

After finishing their undergraduate degree, many students enroll in a master's program for behavior analysis or psychology. Master's programs emphasize research and analytical skills, and typically require two to three years of study. Most include an internship or practicum component, which fulfills the clinical experience licensure requirement. Many students also use their internship or practicum experience as the basis of their master's thesis. A thesis is a research project in which students assert an opinion or identify a theory, using original research to support their argument. Theses often take months to complete, and candidates are typically appointed an adviser to assist them in their research.

A master's curriculum includes core courses that impart advanced, theory-based assessment and analytical techniques. Many include concentrated academic tracks that emphasize working with different population groups or focus on particular disorders. A student interested in autism may select a concentration that prepares them to work with autistic individuals. Offering the specialized knowledge and skills needed to obtain niche credentials, concentrations present students with a path to professional success. In most states, counselors must hold a graduate degree to practice professionally, and individuals with a master's degree typically enjoy a wider variety of job opportunities as well as higher salaries.

Sample Courses

  • Statistics in Psychology: This data analytics course examines statistical concepts through the lens of psychological assessment. Candidates gain the mathematical skills required to accurately analyze data.
  • Behavioral Assessment: Students acquire numerous methods and strategies for identifying behavioral and developmental disorders. During applied course activities, candidates assess and create intervention strategies for model clients.
  • Ethics and Professional Development in Applied Behavior Analysis: Lectures present the ethical concepts and challenges unique to behavior analysis and related disciplines. Students explore the relationship between professional conduct and behavior analyst certification.
  • Experimental Methods in Psychology: Focusing on single-case research and its uses in psychology, this course examines the pros and cons of experimental research strategies.
  • Advanced Issues: Autism: This specialized course presents a survey of the issues surrounding autism spectrum disorders, including cutting-edge research, etiological theories, and therapeutic strategies for children and adults.

Doctoral Degree

After completing a bachelor's or master's degree, many students choose to immediately enter a Ph.D. program. However, individuals with a master's often fulfill doctoral requirements in less time. A student who holds a master's degree may take three years to complete an online program in applied behavior analysis, while candidates who enroll directly after earning a bachelor's typically finish in five years or more. Graduate-level programs introduce advanced theoretical concepts and provide hands-on clinical experience. Because graduate students usually complete a thesis during their master's program, many find it easier to compose a doctoral dissertation. A dissertation requires students to research a particular topic or problem in the field and present their findings in writing.

Candidates applying to a Ph.D program must carefully review admissions requirements and application instructions, as well as licensing opportunities a program may provide. Many schools develop curricula according to BCBA and BACB certification requirements. While graduates do not automatically receive these credentials after earning a doctorate, these programs impart many of the concepts and skills featured on certification exams. Once certified, graduates qualify for a variety of high-level positions, and many take roles in research or academia.

Sample Courses

  • Critical Analysis of Research in Verbal Behavior: Coursework offers an in-depth look at major theories related to speech and verbal behavior. Students investigate each theory's strengths and weaknesses through careful examination of scholarly publications.
  • Supervision and Consulting in ABA: Because many doctoral candidates go on to work as advisers, they must know how to properly supervise and train their colleagues. This course instills administrative techniques such as supervision and consulting.
  • Experimental Analysis of Behavior: Experimental analysis is a major component of behavior analysis, and this class imparts the reading and comprehension skills needed to gather and assess scientific data.
  • Human Prenatal Development: Lectures cover prenatal growth and brain formation during the germinal, embryonic, and fetal stages of human development.
  • Organizational Behavior Management: This administrative course introduces performance evaluation methodologies, as well as how each may be used to assess and correct behaviors. Hands-on activities let students test methods on individuals and groups.

Skills Gained in a Behavior Analyst Program

Certain skills are crucial to becoming a successful behavior specialist. Most behavior analyst programs stress the importance of soft skills such as problem-solving and communication, which helps professionals connect to clients on a personal level. While concentrated courses develop many of these aptitudes, internships and practicums provide opportunities to strengthen and apply skills like the following.

  • Interpersonal Skills: A certified behavior analyst with good interpersonal skills knows how to communicate effectively with team members and collaborate on projects. Most employers closely examine an applicant's interpersonal skills to ensure that they can both successfully lead and work within groups.
  • Communication Skills: An applied behavior analyst should be able to write clearly and effectively. Analysts must also understand how to communicate verbally with clients, who may struggle to express themselves. In addition, many board-certified behavior analysts develop special modified techniques to communicate with clients.
  • Organizational Skills: Organizational skills help licensed behavior analysts maintain client records and record their research. Because analysts are constantly monitoring clients, they must develop methods of keeping accurate, accessible notes.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: Problem solving is the basis of behavior analysis. Board-certified behavior analysts identify patients' behavioral problems and create treatment systems to resolve their issues.
  • Research Skills: Behavior analyst programs revolve around research. Students constantly research techniques and theories, testing the efficacy of each and determining if and when they should be applied in therapeutic settings. Analysts must maintain strong research skills at all times.

Employment and Salary Outlook for Behavior Analysts

According to BLS projections, psychologists and related professionals should enjoy a higher-than-average job growth rate of 14% in the coming decade. Despite this positive employment outlook, a candidate's career prospects still depend largely on their education level, experience, and specialization. Many behavior analysts find roles as counseling or developmental psychologists. Developmental psychologists work primarily with children or the elderly in school or nursing home environments. Counseling psychologists tend to work with a broader client base. Many take positions with government or nonprofit organizations, or aid in implementing community-based programs. Professionals who hold state licensure and nationally recognized credentials qualify for a variety of jobs, including roles in research and analysis. The table below highlights the industries that employ the largest number of clinical, counseling, and school psychologists.

Industries With the Highest Levels of Employment for Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Elementary and Secondary Schools 43,570 0.51% $77,43
Offices of Other Health Practitioners 16,300 1.86% $92,130
Individual and Family Services 7,100 0.31% $81,160
Outpatient Care Centers 5,840 0.66% $82,700
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals 5,510 0.10% $85,090

Source: BLS

Industries With the Highest Concentration of Employment for Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists

Industry Employment Percent of Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Offices of Other Health Practitioners 16,300 1.86% $92,130
Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals 3,500 1.46% $82,420
Educational Support Services 2,420 1.36% $74,250
Outpatient Care Centers 5,840 0.66% $82,700
Elementary and Secondary Schools 43,570 0.51% $77,43

Source: BLS

How Much Do Behavior Analysts Make?

Behavior analysts' earnings depend on several factors, with education being one of the most influential. Analysts with a master's or doctoral degree command higher earnings than those who hold an undergraduate degree. Certification also impacts earning potential. Analysts with specialized credentials often qualify for high-level, higher-paying positions. As in most industries and employment sectors, candidates with more experience tend to earn higher wages than entry-level employees.

Location plays a significant role in salary and earning potential, and demand for behavior specialists is higher in certain regions than others. The BLS lists Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania as states with the highest concentration of mental health and behavioral disorder jobs. However, counselors in Utah, Alaska, and Oregon receive the highest wages. As you explore employment options, pay close attention to areas where counselors are in high demand, as well as regions with above-average pay rates.

Salaries for Licensed Behavior Analysts by Experience

  Entry-Level (0-5 Years) Mid-Career (5-10 Years) Experienced (10-20 Years) Late-Career (>20 Years)
Behavior Analysts $50,000 $60,000 $62,000 $71,000

Top-Paying Industries for Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists

Industry Employment Annual Mean Wage
Home Health Care Services 270 $93,910
Specialty (Except Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals) 520 $93,710
Management of Companies and Enterprises 350 $92,640
Offices of Other Health Practitioners 16,300 $92,130
Local Government 3,270 $90,450

Source: BLS

Top-Paying States for Behavior Analysts

According to the BLS, clinical counselors and school psychologists in New Jersey, Alaska, and Hawaii out-earn those in other states, and regularly draw six-figure salaries. However, there are many variables that influence counselors' salaries, including state licensing requirements, population, and laws regarding mental health care and services. States with a higher concentration of special needs clients have stricter licensure requirements, and behavior analysts employed there tend to earn more as a result. In addition, some specialties may be in higher demand in some states than others. The BLS separates counselors into groups and classifies some behavioral specialists as mental health and substance abuse counselors. Usually, these specialists have undergraduate degrees and work with clients in treatment or 12-step programs. Clinical counselors fall into other categories, based on their education, certification, and experience.

Related Careers for Behavior Analysts

A behavior analyst degree provides graduates with a broadly-applicable skill set, making them ideal candidates for a variety of professional positions. Students majoring in behavior analysis develop communication strategies for connecting with special needs clients and their family members. Over the course of a program, candidates master research methodologies, learn to assess clients, and recognize common behavioral disorders. Many students interested in disorders such as autism pursue specialized academic tracks before obtaining certification that qualifies them to work with specific client bases. Other graduates become teachers, researchers, or work with nonprofit and community organizations. The career paths described below are just a few of the many roles graduates choose to pursue.

Occupation Description Salary Degree Level Required
School and Career Counselors These counselors help students select appropriate career and educational paths. They assist individuals with resume development and organize career-building workshops. $55,410 Master's
Special Education Teachers Special education teachers work with students who struggle with developmental, physical, or mental challenges. Many specialize in particular disorders or age groups. $58,980 Bachelor's
School Psychologists These psychologists work in educational settings to assist students with emotional, social, and mental health difficulties. $75,090 Doctoral
Social Worker Social workers strive to protect vulnerable members of the population. They help clients secure food, shelter, medical services, and job assistance. $47,980 Master's
Rehabilitation Counselors Rehab counselors assist patients with disabilities as they recover from illness or injury. $34,860 Master's

Source: BLS

How to Find a Job as a Behavior Analyst

Many individuals pursue an advanced degree with the intent of improving their job prospects. Statistics show that candidates with advanced degrees are more likely to find employment in their chosen field. In addition, certifications from respected organizations like the Behavior Analyst Certification Board make candidates much more attractive to employers. Developing a specialization is another great way to improve your resume. Many master's programs offer concentrations and allow students to pursue internships and practicums related to their specialization. Internships present valuable opportunities to build a professional network, acquire letters of recommendation, and receive job offers.

Because schools strive to place their graduates in high-paying positions, many institutions offer career services to help students before and after matriculation. Typically, candidates must schedule a consultation with a career specialist. Specialists offer interview tips, help learners write and revise resumes and cover letters, and provide general career advice. Some schools also organize career fairs, during which corporate representatives gather to recruit students for internship or job opportunities. While career fairs usually take place during the fall and spring semesters, you may wish to contact a career adviser for information about upcoming job fairs and career-building workshops.

Professional Organizations for Behavior Analysts

  • Behavior Analyst Certification Board: As the premier nonprofit organization dedicated to behavior analyst certification, the BACB establishes certification guidelines and industry standards. Students and professionals may obtain one of four BACB credentials awarded on the basis of educational level.
  • Association for Behavior Analysts International: Association members gain access to a variety of professional resources, including exclusive job listings, continuing education opportunities, and research publications. Members may also attend the association's annual conference.
  • Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies: Connecting scientists from across the globe, this nonprofit organization seeks to develop practical solutions to human behavioral problems through research and continuing education.
  • Research in Developmental Disabilities: This online interdisciplinary journal publishes original research related to developmental disabilities. Students may submit articles for publication and explore the journal's early career resource database.
  • Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis: Exploring experimental analysis from multiple perspectives, this psychology journal presents cutting-edge research and case studies.
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