Developmental Psychologists: What are they and how to become one

How do differences in sensory processing affect complex behaviors? How does empathy develop in children? What is the neural basis for prejudice… or for human bonding? These are questions that a developmental psychologist might consider. Developmental psychologists study how cognition and emotional processing develop over time.

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Anyone who has taken a class in human development has at least a rudimentary understanding of developmental psychology. Piaget and Erikson might be considered early developmental psychologists. Whereas they worked to place cognitive development into broad stages, many modern developmental psychologists focus on more narrow areas of development or change. A developmental psychologist might, for example, focus on spatial cognition or syntactical development. He or she might become well versed in atypical patterns of development like autism or Down’s Syndrome. As the University of Chicago Developmental Psychology Department notes, human behavior is the result of 100 billion neurons. It’s also the result of interaction with the larger world – in short, this is a broad field!

A Developmental Psychologist’s Job Role

Developmental psychology is indirect psychology practice; it is not considered health service delivery. Although developmental psychologists may sometimes sit down with individuals to understand how their minds work, the focus isn’t on diagnosing individual children or teens helping them solve their problems; this is the realm of the child psychologist. Doctoral level developmental psychologists typically work in research or academia. They may carry out different types of study, for example, longitudinal or cross-sectional. A developmental psychologist will not necessarily require licensing; this is something that is determined at the state level.

Some programs are labeled “applied behavioral psychology”. These will shift the focus away from the laboratory setting and away from theoretical knowledge. However, the main emphasis is still not clinical work like psychotherapy. It may be policy, program evaluation, or even applied research. In an applied research laboratory, psychologists might develop an intervention model or assessment.

Developmental Psychology Education

There are developmental psychology programs at the master’s and even bachelor’s levels. Students gain an understanding of typical and atypical developmental patterns and apply this knowledge. A bachelor’s level position might involve working for a youth agency. A master’s level developmental psychology major might focus on program evaluation or policy development.

Grand Canyon University (GCU) offers a variety of Master’s in Psychology programs modeled after the standards and recommendations set by the American Psychological Association with emphases in: Forensic Psychology, General Psychology, GeroPsychology, Health Psychology, Human Factors Psychology, Industrial and Organizational Psychology and Life Coaching. Three Bachelor’s in Psychology programs are also offered. Click here to learn about GCU and their programs.

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) offers online Bachelor’s and Master’s in Psychology programs with several emphases to select from as well as a CACREP accredited online Master’s in Counseling. Click here to learn about SNHU and their programs.

Click Here to learn more about psychology education options based on your current educational attainment.

A career in research typically takes a doctoral degree. A developmental psychology doctoral program is more apt to be a PhD program than a PsyD program: developing a scholar, not a practitioner.

The first part of the program includes courses in human development and psychological methods. Coursework could include the following:

  • Cognitive Development: This may survey theories and current research in areas like cognition, memory, intelligence, and concept development.
  • Developmental Psychopathology: This will focus on maladaptive patterns and on childhood manifestations of illnesses like depression, anxiety, and impulse control disorders.
    The candidate typically works on a dissertation over a span of more than one year.

There may be different options within the developmental psychology major, for example, integrative neuroscience or developmental linguistics. Applied developmental psychology programs might focus on development within a social or cultural context. Since the field is broad, a student might want to select a program where there are several professors that share a similar research interest.

Developmental Psychology Trends and Options

Although developmental psychology has typically focused on the tremendous growth and change that takes place in the early years, the field also encompasses development in the later stages of the life cycle. One area of focus is memory in older adults.

Additional Resources for Developmental Psychologists

Division 7 of the American Psychological Association is a resource for developmental psychologists. The organization puts out an online newsletter.

An additional resource is the International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development (