In many areas adjacent to psychology, a doctoral degree such as a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is mandatory to work in the occupation. That isn’t the case in the field of behavior analysis, in which fully certified roles exist at the master’s-degree level and assistant-level roles are available to candidates with only a bachelor’s degree. However, many students of behavior analysis still choose to pursue their doctorate. Earning an advanced education, including but not limited to a Ph.D., is part of attaining board certification in this field. There are also a number of benefits that come with holding a Ph.D., not only in terms of salary and job prospects but also in expanding your knowledge of the field through doctoral studies. Ultimately, each individual who plans to practice in the field of behavior analysis must weigh the pros and cons of doctoral education to decide if earning a Ph.D. is worthwhile.

Becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst

The most common credential in the field of behavior analysis is certification from the Behavior Analysis Certification Board. As a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), you can perform the full range of services involved in the clinical practice and research efforts of behavior analysis. BCBAs can perform behavior assessments and write intervention plans independently, unlike the undergraduate certification option of Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA), which works under the supervision of BCBAs.

Will a Ph.D. Help Me in the Field of Behavior Analysis?

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Both master’s degrees and doctoral degrees in the field of behavior analysis, education and psychology are sufficient to meet degree requirements for the BCBA credential. When considering a Ph.D. program in behavior analysis, students should know that the doctorate is optional, but an education through some form of degree-granting graduate-level program is required.

The Behavior Analysis Certification Board offers three paths to becoming a BCBA, all of which require an acceptable graduate-level degree. Only one option, the one that revolves around candidates’ postdoctoral experience, actually requires a doctorate.

The Benefits of a Doctorate in Behavior Analysis

There’s a certain amount of job prestige that comes with earning a Ph.D. In the field of behavior analysis, advancing your education this way actually confers a special doctoral designation: the BCBA-D. Despite the separate credential title, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board clarified that BCBA-D is a designation within the BCBA credential, not a separate credential in its own right. A BCBA with a master’s degree can do everything a BCBA-D can do, including supervising BCaBAs, behavior technicians and aspiring BCBAs in training. The only distinction is that they cannot represent themselves as having the doctoral designation.

Although their job duties aren’t distinct, the job opportunities and earning potential for behavior analysts with a doctoral degree may be better. In fact, while the number of job postings that required the BCBA credential grew by 153 percent, the number of job listings that expressed a preference for the BCBA-D designation grew by 186 percent. PayScale lists an average salary of $83,000 per year for BCBA-Ds, compared to an average salary in the high $50,000-range for BCBAs without the doctoral designation.

If you want to run a private practice, being authorized to use the BCBA-D designation may help you impress and win over potential clients who are looking for the most qualified practitioners available.

What You Will Study in a Ph.D. Program in Behavior Analysis

Besides the master’s or doctoral degree, coursework in specific content areas of behavior analysis is necessary to obtain the BCBA credential. Both master’s degree programs and graduate degree programs can provide this coursework. A graduate or doctoral education from an acceptable program will include studies in the philosophical underpinnings and principles of behavior analysis, the practice of behavior assessment, behavior-change procedures and data measurement and experimental design, among other subjects.

College programs can choose to meet these content area requirements in different ways, rather than following a uniform structure. Class titles and areas of study can differ from one institution to the next. In one school’s Ph.D. program, you might complete studies in behaviorism, analysis of verbal behavior, experimental analysis of behavior, single-subject research design methods, education and teaching in applied behavior analysis and organizational behavior management. Another Ph.D. program might include a different set of required courses, such as behavior analysis and learning, assessing autism interventions, ethics for behavior analysts and language and social skills for individuals with autism. In addition to your school’s specialized behavior analysis curriculum, you should also expect to complete a dissertation and practicum or other fieldwork experience as part of your doctoral education.

Ph.D. programs often take five or more years to complete, considerably longer than a master’s degree. Some candidates find the gains in knowledge, job opportunities and salary potential well worth the time and expense, while don’t find this extra education worth it.

Additional Resources

Should I Get a Master’s Degree in Applied Behavior Analysis?

How Do You Become a Certified Behavior Analyst?

What Can I Do With a Bachelor’s Degree in Behavior Analysis?