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Careers in Developmental Psychology

Learn how you can become a developmental psychologist.

father and child playing together
father and child playing together

A developmental psychologist studies human development—the physiological, cognitive and social development that takes place throughout every stage of our lives. They study both the biological influences (such as genetics) and environmental aspects (such as parenting techniques) that shape who we are. This is sometimes referred to as nature versus nurture, and developmental psychology professionals hone in on this issue, trying to gain greater insight into what influences human development most, genetics or environment. Of course, that question is just the start.

They also consider the speed at which development happens (slowly and smoothly, or in stages), the influences of early childhood compared to experiences later in life, and other theories that lead to a better understanding of the biological, psychological and social aspects that shape human growth.

Because of the large breadth and lifespan involved in this career field, most developmental psychologists choose to specialize in a specific life stage. They might also focus on developmental disabilities and their effects.

People Don’t Change . . . or Do They?

To start, we do change, perhaps more subtly later in life than we do as young children. Our experiences—from good fortune to heartaches—can change the way we perceive others and ourselves, can change our fears and attitudes, and can change our opinions. Plus, our personalities, which form when we are fairly young, although the exact age is subject to debate, also impact our perceptions and how we respond to life’s experiences.

Along with experience and personality, developmental psychology examines a number of factors that influence growth, including these:

  • Cognitive development
  • Gender development
  • Physical growth
  • Psychosexual development
  • Sexual development

How Do They Find Answers to These Questions?

In their research and studies, developmental psychologists perform the following duties to find answers to their questions:

  • Evaluate motor skills progression/regression
  • Study the development of moral reasoning and ethics among individuals and groups
  • Study the acquisition of language skills and other forms of communication
  • Research social patterns, behavior and personality development
  • Assess individual problem solving patterns
  • Evaluate developmental disabilities

What are Some Examples, or Case Studies?

Inside those factors that influence growth are aspects such as moral understanding, problem solving, identity formation and emotional development. Based on scientific study, developmental psychology explains or theorizes reasons we react to situations in certain ways or come to particular decisions.

1. Justice is Blind—But Looks Matter?

As CBS News reports, Cornell University recently conducted a developmental psychology study focusing on the justice system. In the study, developmental psychologists found that when it comes to minor court cases, unattractive defendants are more likely to be convicted and receive harsher sentences than good-looking defendants. Essentially, when cases lack strong evidence, some jurors may reason emotionally, considering irrelevant factors such as a defendant’s looks, rather than basing decisions on facts and logic.

2. Teens and the Art of Social Media

According to the Los Angeles Times, social media websites, such as MySpace and Facebook, can assist in an adolescent’s psychological development. Research conducted at several universities across the country shows that well-adjusted teens use social media in positive ways, staying connected with friends they know and avoiding conversations with strangers.

Developmental psychology experts point out that the level of safety kids exercise online depends more on the kids themselves than on technology. In other words, while well-adjusted teens will most likely have safe, positive experiences online, teens who struggle with depression, aggressiveness or other serious behavioral issues are more likely to take risks in their online worlds or become vulnerable to coercive strangers.

3. Get Me That! How Young Children Respond to Ads

Young children inherently see the world as being all about them. Advertisers understand this. Anyone who’s sat with a child through a 60-second commercial break during daytime cartoons knows very well that kids typically respond to ads with their own variation of “Can I have that?”

Fordham University in New York cites a study in which 6-year-olds were asked to explain the purpose of advertising, given four choices:

  • Don’t know
  • For a break
  • For information
  • To persuade

The group of kids virtually split their answers among the first three choices, with not one child in the study saying that the purpose of advertising is to persuade. As such, the researcher concluded that kids see advertising as a benefit to them, the consumer, not to the seller. Further, seeing commercials as a benefit is a hard habit for kids to break as they grow into adults—a result that advertisers more than likely understand as well.

Where can Developmental Psychologists Work?

Developmental psychologists are employed in a variety of workplace environments depending on their specialty. These may include:

  • Universities and schools
  • Research facilities
  • Elderly assisted living homes
  • Teen outreach programs
  • Homeless youth programs
  • Hospitals
  • Psychiatric institutions
  • Private practices

Education & Training

Developmental psychologists are scientists as well as psychologists. Undergraduate students are encouraged to take strong course loads in biology and the sciences as well as psychology, in order to thoroughly prepare them for an advanced degree program in developmental psychology.

Master’s in developmental psychology programs are limited, but master’s programs in psychology abound. Both programs generally take two years to complete, and provide internships and fieldwork opportunities to allow students to apply their skills outside of the classroom. A master’s degree is not a prerequisite for a doctorate program in developmental psychology.

The majority of developmental psychologists earn their Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) in developmental psychology. The main difference between these two doctorate programs is that the PsyD degree focuses more on clinical training and less on research. Both degrees generally take four to six years to complete. Students in doctorate programs are often placed in internships or supervised clinical practices that coincide with their specializations, such as teaching assistantships, hospital internships or research opportunities.

Developmental psychologists who wish to set up private practices must become certified within their state of residence. Further information can be found through the American Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards.

Salaries

Developmental psychologists are part of the larger field of psychologists, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2021 Occupational Employment Statistics. Check salaries where you’d like to practice.

Psychologists, All Other

National data

Median Salary: $102,900

Projected job growth: 2%

10th Percentile: $39,760

25th Percentile: $73,910

75th Percentile: $120,240

90th Percentile: $133,200

Projected job growth: 2%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alaska $113,340 $74,360 $137,780
Alabama $104,420 $39,560 $123,800
Arkansas $95,200 $26,230 $119,770
Arizona $105,000 $47,780 $124,090
California $116,490 $52,520 $165,060
Connecticut $113,570 $42,180 $133,760
District of Columbia $105,300 $51,670 $135,030
Florida $104,720 $48,690 $127,590
Georgia $101,340 $64,650 $119,770
Hawaii $105,640 $23,680 $142,380
Iowa $113,630 $62,350 $129,040
Idaho $92,120 $48,920 $113,630
Illinois $101,600 $38,310 $130,050
Indiana $98,280 $39,380 $120,790
Kansas $102,380 $29,350 $122,150
Kentucky $104,420 $64,270 $121,330
Louisiana $103,040 $43,720 $119,930
Massachusetts $112,860 $49,170 $133,370
Maryland $114,050 $52,170 $159,700
Maine $72,790 $48,770 $104,420
Michigan $64,650 $39,340 $121,410
Minnesota $64,500 $39,560 $130,360
Missouri $105,960 $46,760 $121,530
Mississippi $92,120 $26,230 $119,770
North Carolina $96,430 $46,890 $119,770
North Dakota $101,360 $48,920 $128,380
New Jersey $98,680 $38,210 $127,750
New Mexico $101,980 $26,350 $120,540
Nevada $99,740 $48,920 $128,770
New York $110,550 $30,160 $138,400
Ohio $105,500 $39,090 $132,390
Oklahoma $99,420 $39,630 $124,900
Oregon $108,160 $49,190 $169,620
Pennsylvania $107,540 $50,520 $130,210
Rhode Island $62,410 $29,820 $151,680
South Carolina $110,550 $47,580 $136,840
South Dakota $101,340 $26,230 $119,770
Texas $105,930 $52,960 $127,130
Utah $104,420 $44,990 $135,690
Virginia $107,630 $61,550 $134,780
Vermont $98,280 $77,020 $119,770
Washington $111,030 $56,730 $131,210
Wisconsin $95,200 $46,580 $124,690
West Virginia $40,730 $31,140 $110,550
Wyoming $113,630 $26,230 $169,620

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2030. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.