Last Updated: Dec 10, 2018
What Does a Behavioral Scientist Do?
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.
For behavioral scientists, work environments 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.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national average salary for behavioral scientists is $80,860. 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 counseling positions as well.
For behavioral scientists, there is a projected 12% increase in employment opportunities through 2024, according to the Department of Labor. This growth is a little faster than the national average for all careers.
Steps to Become a Behavioral Scientist
Obtain an undergraduate degree.
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 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.
Choose a sub-area for further specialization.
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.
Possibly seek graduate-level or doctoral degree.
For example, candidates may elect for an undergraduate 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.
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.
Behavioral science degree programs include 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.
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 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.
Behavioral scientists work in a variety of different disciplines, settings, and industries. Almost all hold a bachelor’s degree at minimum.
When planning your career in behavioral science, start by thinking about your interests. For example, a student who wants to learn about criminal behavior might major in psychology. However, she’d further her career goals by minoring in criminal justice, taking elective courses in abnormal and criminal psychology, and pursuing an internship with the justice department or corrections system.
Some common undergraduate majors for behavioral scientists include:
- Behavioral science (an interdisciplinary degree that combines the following disciplines)
Majors can also reflect your desired work setting. For example, if you’re interested in business behavior, you might consider majoring in business administration, human resource management, or industrial-organizational psychology.
Many four-year colleges offer degree programs in the behavioral sciences. When choosing a school, bear in mind that many behavioral scientists eventually go on to graduate school. It’s therefore important to choose a program that is:
- At a regionally accredited school
- Includes a strong research component
- Has many graduates admitted to master’s and doctoral programs in the behavioral sciences
Also consider internship and fieldwork opportunities. Having some real world experience can be invaluable when you’re trying to land your first job after college.
At the undergraduate level, behavioral science students can expect to study:
Survey how history, politics, religion, geography, and economics impact the world’s cultures.
Explore how the distribution of populations across physical space impacts land use, government, colonialism, economic development, and modernization.
Study how people behave in groups, with emphasis on roles, personality development, communication, and attitude formation.
Learn to select a research problem, design a study, collect and analyze data, and interpret results.
2–3 years beyond the bachelor's level
Earning a master’s degree in the behavioral sciences will qualify you for a wider variety of jobs. In some fields, notably psychology, it can increase your chances of being admitted to a doctoral program. (However, this pathway also adds a year or two to your education.)
Your master’s degree might be in the same field as your undergraduate degree, or you can use it to round out your expertise. For example, if you’re interested in working for a government agency, you might choose to major in psychology as an undergraduate and public administration as a master’s candidate.
Most behavioral sciences master’s programs can be found at larger universities. Many also offer an online option. Some programs have prerequisites (e.g., a bachelor’s degree in psychology or a course in research methods.)
If you eventually plan to apply to a doctoral program, look for a master’s program with research opportunities and a strong track record for doctoral admissions.
Some examples of master’s level classes in the behavioral sciences:
Measurement and assessment
Practice using psychometric instruments to measure cognitive abilities, job aptitude, personality, and other characteristics.
Learn how managers can apply principles of sociology and psychology to help teams meet their goals.
Gain an understanding of social scientists’ obligations to research subjects, the public, and the academic community.
Study factors that promote human achievement, resilience, and strength.
Master’s students in research-based programs also complete an independent research project and thesis in their area of interest.
6–7 years beyond the bachelor's level
Behavioral scientists who hold a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) generally have the widest career opportunities. A doctorate is also essential if you plan to conduct behavioral science research or teach at the college level.
Your doctoral major will depend on many factors, including your educational history, research interests, and career goals. Candidates generally use their PhD program to specialize in an area of their discipline (for example, a psychology major might pursue a doctorate in social psychology).
Doctoral programs in the behavioral sciences are mostly found at larger research universities. While it’s sometimes possible to complete much of your doctoral coursework online, you’ll almost certainly have a richer experience and make better connections in a traditional, face-to-face program. The PhD is the capstone of your education, so try to get the most out of it!
A few things to look for when choosing a doctoral program:
- Faculty research interests and projects
- Research facilities
- Career track record for alumni (what percentage go on to academic, government, and private sector careers)
Behavioral science doctoral students typically begin their program with a few years of coursework in subjects like:
Gain the skills you need to teach behavioral science courses to undergraduates.
Practice using a variety of technologies to gather data on the human nervous system.
Apply principles of human cognition to improve users’ experience with technology.
Learning and memory
Study how the brain forms short and long-term memories and accesses stored information.
In the first year or two, doctoral candidates gradually shift away from the classroom to become full-time teachers and researchers. Every PhD doctoral candidate works with faculty to design and complete an original research project and write a dissertation.
After completing a doctorate, many PhDs spend 1–2 years completing an internship or post-doctoral program.
Keys to Success as a Behavioral Scientist
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Analytics and organizational skills
Successful behavioral scientists will have strong analytical and organizational 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 a key.
Interpersonal and communication skills
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.
Behavioral scientists who hold a doctoral degree in psychology can pursue board certification through the American Board of Professional Psychology in the following specialties:
- Behavioral and cognitive psychology
- Clinical child and adolescent psychology
- Clinical health psychology
- Clinical neuropsychology
- Clinical psychology
- Counseling psychology
- Couple and family psychology
- Forensic psychology
- Group psychology
- Organizational and business consulting psychology
- Police and public safety psychology
- Rehabilitation psychology
- School psychology
To become board certified, candidates must meet the education and experience requirements of their specialty.