How do I become an experimental psychologist?

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What is Experimental Psychology?

Experimental psychology is a specialty that uses empirical research methods to analyze how mental processes affect behavior. Empiricism refers to the assumption that scientific conclusions and theories are based on observation. Empirical methods involve the inclusion of how sensation, perception, memory, learning, and motivation influence behavior in humans and animals.

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), a German physician, was the founder of experimental psychology and the first person to refer to himself as a psychologist. In 1879, he opened the first laboratory at the University of Leipzig to begin psychological studies. Dr. Wundt used several pieces of equipment such as tachistoscopes (displays an image for a set time), chronoscopes (timekeeping devices), pendulums, electrical instruments, and sensory mapping devices.

Currently, experimental psychologists work in universities, research centers, government agencies, and private facilities. The area of research depends on many factors. For example, these areas vary from workplace safety to educational experiments. A specific application of experimental psychology exists in places visited by millions every year — namely, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

The popular tourist attraction wants each visitors experience to be memorable, enjoyable, and environmentally friendly. Disney employs a team, including an experimental psychologist, to measure ways in which the live animal exhibits are educational and conservation-conscious.


Bachelor’s Degree

Individuals aspiring to work in this field need to begin with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. You have the choice of a Bachelor of Arts or Science degree. Generally, the science option will have fewer courses outside the major, as well as more science and math classes. The latter courses will be beneficial when you start conducting empirical research and tabulation data.

Your undergraduate degree acts as a foundation as you venture into the study of memory, cognition, language, learning, and perceptual systems. The American Psychological Association advises that you start with a bachelor degree in psychology. Typically, the curriculum covers a range of topics, including social psychology, abnormal psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and child and adult development. If offered, electives in statistics, the psychology of personality, and research methods provide a base of knowledge as your education progresses to the graduate level.

Master’s Degree

At the stage, you can specialize with the choice of a Master of Arts or Science in Experimental Psychology. There are also online and campus learning formats.

A graduate program develops your skills in theoretical, statistical, and observational research techniques. A sampling of the core courses are:

  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental Psychology
  • Quantitative Methods
  • Theories of Personality
  • Neuropsychology

Many programs incorporate a thesis (6 hours) that is the culmination of your independent research under the supervision of a faculty advisor. As part of the master’s thesis, you will develop scientific questions and hypotheses, study design, data collection, data analysis, interpretation of the results. Your written report may also have the requirement of an oral presentation in defense of your empirical study.

A related degree is a Master’s degree in Quantitative Psychology, which prepares students for a career in research psychology. This degree is available online at The Ohio State University. The curriculum includes statistical and data analysis methods, as well as the study of mathematical psychology. This program leads to the completion of a Ph.D., which you may earn in as few as four to five years from the start of your master’s degree. The third and fourth years concentrate on research projects and the doctoral dissertation.

RELATED: What Is the Fastest Way to Become a Psychologist?

Ball State University also offers a graduate degree in quantitative psychology. Their 27-credits curriculum, plus a thesis, has two concentrations — a choice of Quantitative and Mixed Methods. The former is for students who want to develop further their statistical and equation modeling skills. Mixed Methods boosts your understanding of the effect of people’s reasons, motivations, and opinions. The program prepares students for a Ph.D.


A master’s degree may be the minimally acceptable level of education to work in this field. During those years, a background of statistics and research methodology prepares students for entering a doctoral program. Since there are Ph.D.s in almost every academic discipline, experimental psychology is no exception. Individuals who aspire to reach the pinnacle of their education and, with it, more career opportunities, should consider a doctorate. Essentially, it is a research degree for those dedicated to empirical psychological research in private industry, government, or universities.

There are also doctoral degrees in Applied Experimental Psychology. This degree emphasizes research techniques that can be applied to the solution of practical problems. Applied psychology, human factors, and cognitive science are the mainstays of the intensive research program. The Catholic University of America offers this degree. The National Institutes of Health and the Office of Naval Research support their Department of Psychology Ph.D. program.


To work in the field of experimental psychology, you will have more positions available with a master’s degree. The above material focused on a degree in experimental psychology from the graduate level and beyond. However, other degrees worth examining are:

  • Psychology: Human Factors
  • Cognitive Science
  • Industrial and Organizational Psychology
  • Child Development
  • Educational Psychology
  • Behavioral Economics
  • Applied Positive Psychology
  • Psychometrics

Any of these concentrations can lead to research positions in their respective areas of application.

Additional Resources:

What Degree Do I Need to Be a Psychologist?

What Are the Different Kinds of Psychology Degrees?

What Government Jobs are there with a Degree in Psychology?

What is the Difference between a Degree in Psychology and Sociology?

What Degree Do I Need to Be a Cognitive Neuroscientist?