Behavioral Science Careers
Combining knowledge of sociology, psychology and anthropology with strong observation, research, and communication skills, a behavioral scientist works with communities and individuals examining behavior and decision-making. In addition, some even specialize in animal behavior and work in natural environments to study the habits and learned behaviors of other species.
Broadly defined, behavioral science is the study of human habits, actions, and intentions; it spans the fields of psychology, social work, human resources, economics, sociology, and organizational behavior. Behavioral scientists are able to choose their own unique career paths thanks to the wide variety of applications and panoply of available workplace settings.
In short, a behavioral scientist is any individual who is well versed in psychometric methods and the social sciences, and who uses this expertise and interest to examine the observable actions of living beings. Many work to broaden the scientific understanding of human (and animal) behavior, and many work hands-on to address social or individual problems. For someone adequately trained and educated in behavioral science, the employment options are nearly limitless.
Possible Fields of Study and Work
Expertise in behavioral science can lead professionals along a number of potential career paths. Some specialize in human resources (HR), training new employees and preparing various employment-related programs. Alternatively, those working in organizations can lead brainstorming sessions, improve client satisfaction, or mediate conflicts between employees. Other behavioral scientists operate in mental health settings, such as community clinics, hospitals, or prison systems. Those interested in criminal behavior can also work as profilers for law enforcement agencies.
Behavioral science also has a number of sub-specialties. These professionals may become behavioral interventionists who work to find solutions for unwanted or dangerous behavior patterns (such as addiction or self-harm). Behavioral scientists may also serve as healthcare specialists, helping people deal with physical, emotional or mental challenges. Specializations in consumer marketing, public health and other mental health issues are also available.
In general, behavioral science specialties fall into two categories: neural-decision and social-communication. Neural-decision science studies the way humans make choices or decisions, while social-communication science looks at how humans communicate, both verbally and non-verbally. Regardless of which field or specialty they choose, behavioral scientists enjoy the opportunity to help people, make positive changes to society, and further the empirical and theoretical knowledge base of their field.
Work environments for behavioral scientists are as varied as their career choices. Many of these professionals work in hospitals and healthcare facilities, or within private companies as consultants, analysts or marketers. Behavioral scientists also work in prisons or law enforcement agencies, or in private treatment practices. Academic settings allow behavioral scientists to conduct research and share their findings with the intellectual community; more applied settings allow for research results to be put to use for the betterment of society.
While behavioral science work is quite diverse, there are a few commonalities. In almost all settings, a behavioral scientist will work as part of a research or intervention team, with several peers as well as research assistants. Interdisciplinary work is common, so communication across research disciplines is vital. In many settings, behavioral scientists must also be able to assess, treat, or evaluate the performance of subjects, which may be laypeople or mentally ill populations, depending on the setting. Furthermore, nearly all behavioral scientists concern themselves with issues of life satisfaction or social justice, so a keen sense of ethics and compassion is highly beneficial.
A behavioral scientist must hold a four-year bachelor's degree, preferably in behavioral science, psychology, clinical psychology, or sociology. Not all universities offer specialized behavioral science degrees at the undergraduate level, so related fields may be the best option. For example, candidates may elect for a degree as a registered nurse, psychologist or social worker, and then go on to obtain a master's degree or PhD in behavioral science specifically. More often than not, a behavioral scientist will hold an advanced degree with some specialization.
For those interested in behavioral science, coursework should include psychology, sociology, statistics, research methods and abnormal psychology. Expertise in designing and conducting experimental and survey-based research is very important. A strong candidate ought to develop data analytic skills as well as the ability to write up and present research results in a professional, reader-friendly way.
After completing an undergraduate education, most aspiring behavioral scientists will have to choose a sub-area of study and begin seeking education and experience in that field. For example, a graduate who is interested in criminal justice should seek an internship or research position in a correctional facility, drug treatment center, or police department.
Behavioral scientists receive the bulk of their training through a degree program. This includes not only coursework, but also a mandatory internship or research assistantship as well. Training will involve mastering data analytic techniques; learning to design useful experimental studies; and practicing presenting research results and providing useful workplace recommendations.
A strong job candidate should accumulate several years’ experience prior to applying for a full-time position. However, depending on the candidates’ area of specialization, they may receive substantial on-the-job training as well.
Licensing and/or Certification
In some cases, licensing or certification is not required in order to work as a behavioral scientist. For example, those working as professional consultants or in the private sector will typically not be required to possess licensure. This is especially true of entry-level behavioral scientist positions or those only requiring an undergraduate degree.
However, behavioral scientists who work with individual clients as counselors or social workers must be licensed according to their state's requirements. The National Board for Certified Counselors offers information on each state's licensing requirements; most states in the US require a formal, sit-down exam as well as a minimum of 1000 hours of supervised internship work. Following licensure, continuing education credits must be earned each year in order to maintain a licensed status.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Successful behavioral scientists will have strong analytical, organizational and communication skills. The ability to create datasets in Excel, analyze data in SPSS, and write formal research reports in Microsoft Word or PowerPoint is essential. The average behavioral scientist must maintain large databases of participant information and should be able to do so with a formalized, reliable organizational system. Maintaining client confidentiality and data anonymity is also key.
For those who work with either individual clients or groups of people, good interpersonal skills are also important, particularly when working to change an individual's behavior. An effective counselor should be nonjudgmental, emotionally warm, and compassionate, but should also be assertive and authoritative, with strong leadership abilities.
Opportunities for Advancement
Opportunities for advancement can increase significantly for behavioral scientists with a master’s degree or PhD. For example, those working in marketing or HR departments in the private sector can advance to management positions, provided that they perform well in a single setting for several years and demonstrate satisfaction or productivity gains. Similarly, in order to become a head investigator on government-funded research programs, a PhD is required.
For professionals working with behavioral intervention in a prison, hospital, or counselling center, there are opportunities to move into more administrative positions. While these higher-status jobs come with significant salary increases and job security, they often require spending more time in meetings with stakeholders and less time spent directly with clients.
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According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average salary for behavioral scientists is $80,040. However, salaries in this field vary widely and are dependent on the specific position held, as well as whether the scientist works for the government or private industry. Generally, those with higher degrees and more years of experience will earn more pay. In most cases, private industry careers offer higher pay and greater opportunities for advancement than public sector or academic positions. Administrative positions pay better than lower-level counselling positions as well.
For behavioral scientists, there is a projected 2% increase in employment opportunities through 2022, according to the Department of Labor. This growth is slower than the national average when compared to other careers.