Neuropsychology is the study brain systems and functions and how they relate to human behavior. It can be thought of as the combination of two disciplines: on one side there’s neurology, which looks at the physical aspect of the human brain and central nervous system, and on the other side is psychology, which focuses more on human behavior and thought processes. This guide will explain the neuropsychology profession in more detail, including neuropsychology degrees, what graduates can expect, and the most common neuropsychology careers.
Given the physiological component of neuropsychology, neuropsychologists tend to work in research and medical settings, rather than treating patients like a clinical or counseling psychologist would. Of course, this is not to say that neuropsychologists do not directly treat patients – some of them do.
Neuropsychology is a broad field with a wide range of choices for specializations and work settings. It is considered a specialty within the discipline of clinical psychology, which includes psychologists who treat clients or patients. Neuropsychologists are employed as researchers and teachers, as well as by hospitals and health care facilities. The majority of neuropsychologists engage in research, studying the human brain and how its physiological state affects human cognition and behavior. Much of this research is aimed to improve the diagnosis and treatment of currently known neurological disorders.
A small portion of neuropsychologists directly treat patients, especially those suffering from brain injuries, neurodegenerative disorders and neurodevelopmental disorders. Other areas of interest include neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and learning disabilities. Many neuropsychologists are engaged in researching these diseases for cause and effect, along with potential treatments.
Neuropsychologists have a fairly attractive median salary. But given the variation in demand and cost of living, what a neuropsychologist can expect to make will vary based on their place of employment, including geographical area. The following map presents state-specific neuropsychologist salary data and gives graduates a better idea of what a neuropsychologist can expect to make in a given state.
What does it take to become a neuropsychologist? Since very specialized education is needed, the steps are rather straightforward.
The path to a career as a neuropsychologist begins by earning a bachelor's degree from a fully accredited college or university. Prospective neuropsychologists typically earn their degree in psychology, biology, pre-medicine, neuroscience or a closely related field. A bachelor's degree commonly requires four years of study and entails the completion of general education requirements in a variety of subjects.
Students should bear in mind that they need to continue on to earn a doctorate degree and postdoctoral field experience related to neuropsychology. As a baccalaureate degree does not guarantee acceptance into a master's or doctoral program, undergrads need to maintain the highest GPA possible. Following completion of a bachelor's degree program, most graduate school candidates have to sit for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and obtain letters of recommendation to present along with their graduate school applications.
Generally speaking, a master’s degree is not required to be accepted into a doctoral program in neuropsychology; most programs will accept those who hold a bachelor’s degree. It is important to remember that the master’s degree is not a terminal degree in this field; it serves as a stepping stone to the doctorate or a route to specialized knowledge.
The APA notes that a specialized study of clinical neuropsychology begins at the doctoral level, with profession-specific education and training at the postdoctoral level. Most graduate students earn their doctorate in either neuropsychology or clinical neuropsychology. An alternative is to earn a Ph.D. or Psy.D. in clinical psychology and follow up with a postdoctoral certificate program in neuropsychology. Some doctoral programs do not offer a degree in neuropsychology. Instead, they offer a doctorate in psychology or clinical psychology with an emphasis, major or concentration in neuropsychology, clinical neuroscience or very similar field. Most of these will be a PhD, which is research-oriented, rather than a PsyD, which is practice-oriented.
Regardless of the type of doctorate chosen, students have to commit to anywhere from three to seven years of additional formal education. During that time, they learn to administer and evaluate standardized tests for brain dysfunction. Studies include highly focused subjects such as neuroanatomy, principles of neuroscience, causes or etiologies of neurological disorders, neurodiagnostic techniques and so on. Most degree programs further require the completion of a number of practicums and an internship or mentorship, most likely with a practicing neuropsychologist. Students may also be required to complete and present a doctoral dissertation. Doctoral and postdoc programs should be accredited by an association such as the APA.
In order to practice as a neuropsychologist, state licensure will be needed. While each state has its own requirements, most require graduation from a doctoral program, a certain amount of practical experience and passing the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology.
This is an important requirement if a neuropsychologist wants to become board certified, as several years of postdoctoral experience are necessary.
Being board certified isn’t an absolute requirement to become a neuropsychologist, but it’s strongly recommended. This certification can enhance a reputation and provide wider employment opportunities. The professional associations that offer certification in the field include the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology (ABCN). ABCN certification candidates must, among other requirements, hold a doctoral degree from a designated accredited degree program, complete an APA-accredited internship or equivalent year of supervised experience, be licensed to practice in a U.S. or Canadian jurisdiction, and pass both written and oral examinations.
There are numerous paths a student can take in their undergraduate program. Here are a few of the most common ones for aspiring neuropsychologists.
A bachelor’s degree in psychology offers one of the best foundations for students interested in neuropsychology. The major provides comprehensive instruction on psychological concepts, theories and methods. Given the medical/biological element to neuropsychology, undergraduate students majoring in psychology are well served by taking medicine and biology related courses as well. With respect to the psychology degree, higher level courses students can expect to take include:
This is the study of the brain and nervous system. As a multidisciplinary major, neuroscience covers topics in chemistry, biology, physics and psychology. Neuroscience is one of the closest majors available to students who are interest in neuropsychology.
The most common program for future neuropsychologists is the doctoral degree in psychology (or clinical psychology) with an emphasis in neuroscience. Although every school has its own set of doctoral program admission requirements, there are common admission requirements found at most schools. These requirements are listed below, but should not be considered exhaustive. Prospective students are advised to consult with specific schools they’re interested in to ensure they have the full list of actual requirements for that particular school.
For students interested in applying to a master’s degree program, the admissions requirements are very similar, if not identical, to the admissions requirements for doctoral programs.
In order to become a neuropsychologist, a doctoral degree will be needed. Most programs are either a PhD or PsyD in psychology with a neuropsychology concentration. A master’s degree generally doesn’t serve as a terminal degree for neuropsychologists, but some employers might be willing to accept the master’s degree in psychology with emphasis on neuropsychology or neuroscience.
Time to Complete: Two years
A typical master’s degree consists of 45 to 60 hours of coursework plus a practicum and/or thesis. The difference between an MA or MS degree is largely dependent on the school’s curriculum. However, an MS degree is often more technically and research focused than an MA degree.
The MA or MS in psychology with a neuropsychology emphasis is unique because it’s the first serious opportunity for students to study neuropsychology in depth. This chance to gain additional knowledge can open up career paths that may not have been possible otherwise.
Individuals who do not need a doctorate degree but need neuropsychology instruction; those who would like to apply to a doctorate program in neuropsychology that does not also offer a master’s degree as a part of the doctoral degree curriculum; or those who will be applying to jobs where a master’s degree is preferable.
Courses typically found in a master’s degree program include:
Students receive basic instruction on how the human brain and nervous systems works and how they affect human behavior.
This course teaches students the basics of designing and assessing clinical research studies and treatments.
Various forms of addictions are studied and explained in this class.
The behavioral and physical effects of various psychoactive pharmaceuticals are presented to students in this class.
Students will be exposed to several methods for assessing the memory performance of patients.
Time to Complete: Four to seven years
The first two to three years of either doctorate program will consist of coursework. The amount of coursework depends on the student’s prior academic record in psychology and related subjects, such as whether the student has a master’s degree in psychology. Following the coursework, students will usually have at least one written examination and take at an internship that lasts about one year. The last component is the dissertation, which is much more common in the PhD program than in the PsyD program. Most reputable doctoral programs will base their curriculum off of guidelines set forth by the Houston Conference on Specialty Education and Training in Clinical Neuropsychology.
Admittance into either program is very rigorous, but once enrolled, students are on their way to become members of one of the newer psychology specialties. Either degree will provide the minimum educational requirements for state licensure upon graduation.
For anyone who wants to become a neuropsychologist, a doctorate degree is needed. Much of the time, either the PsyD or the PhD will work. But for students who lean more towards research a PhD might be a better fit, while students more interested in clinical practice might be better served with a PsyD degree.
In a typical neuropsychology program, students may find some of the following courses:
The basics of research design and data analysis using statistical means are reviewed in this class.
This class focuses on the major and more complex neurological functions of the human brain.
This class provides an overview of modern scientific methods commonly used in neuropsychological research.
Students should engage in a detailed examination of the human brain and central nervous system.
This class provides an in-depth look at psychological disorders and the results of untreated patients compared to those who have received adequate intervention.
Even though neuropsychology is an emerging and relatively specific field, there are many ways neuropsychologists can specialize in a given area or setting. The following is a list of five potential neuropsychology career concentrations.
Cognitive neuropsychologists focus primarily on the cognitive functions of the brain, such as memory, language, judgment and thoughts, but take a physiological angle to understanding those functions. Cognitive neuropsychologists either treat or study how the physical makeup of the human brain and central nervous system affects cognitive functions.
A clinical neuropsychologist is one of the rarer types of neuropsychologist because they work to diagnose, assess and treat patients rather than simply study them for research purposes. Many clinical neuropsychologists can be found in private practices, hospitals and clinics working with individuals suffering from psychological issues that have a neurological or physiological origin.
Experimental neuropsychologists engage in research to better understand, identify and treat neurological conditions and processes. The research can include the study of healthy brains, to better understand how the brain works, and unhealthy brains, to better understand the causes of certain problems and figure out ways to treat those problems.
A forensic neuropsychologist works with judges, lawyers and other court officers to facilitate the administration of justice and courtroom proceedings. They help explain psychological concepts of a neurological nature to members of the courtroom so that the problems can be better understood. Sometimes a forensic neuropsychologist will serve as an expert witness to explain certain topics to the judges and jurors.
Pediatric neuropsychologists focus their treatments and studies on the brains and nervous systems of children. The tasks of a pediatric neuropsychologist can include treating children with brain injuries and conducting research that examines how the brains of children change as the child grows and learns.
Neuropsychology is a relatively new and evolving specialty of psychology, with a targeted focus. There are several skills and traits necessary to succeed in this field, as well as certain tools and credentials that matter.
Whether it’s conveying instructions to a patient or explaining an idea to a colleague, being able to communicate effectively is extremely important. This includes not only in speaking and presenting ideas, but writing them succinctly as well.
Neuropsychology is a research-driven field. This means most neuropsychologists must be able to create and administer research studies. Even those who don’t engage in much research will need research skills to be able to properly understand and interpret data from other researchers.
Being able to interpret and analyze data, as well as design and conduct research, requires critical thinking skills and being able to take unconventional approaches to problems or issues. Critical thinking is also useful in translating recently discovered ideas to practical applications.
Whether it’s diagnosing a patient or researching the cause of a neurological disorder in a group of people, problem solving skills are essential for neuropsychologists.
Neuropsychologists study human behavior and brain function. Not surprisingly, they must have excellent observation skills to recognize particular human gestures, movements and other actions as well as review and analyze research data and findings.
Neuropsychologists must have state licensure in order to practice as a psychologist. State licensure is also needed for certification. Each state will have its own licensure requirements, but minimum requirements usually include a doctoral degree, several years of relevant experience and passage of the Examination for Professional Practice of Psychology.Certification
One of the most widely recognized certifications for neuropsychologists is given by the American Board of Clinical Neuropsychology (ABCN). Certification requirements are intense and require a doctorate degree, completion of an APA certified internship, state licensure, documented didactics, several years of postdoctoral training, approval of two practice samples and passage of ABCN written and oral examinations.
Those interested in neuropsychology may also want to consider careers in one of the many occupations related to the field. Alternative career choices include neuroscience, neurobiology, neuropharmacology, psychobiology, neuroscience nursing and many others. The graph below offers a look at the potential salaries for occupations related to neuropsychology.
Finding the right location to establish a practice is one of the most important elements to career success in neuropsychology. The following search tool allows for a comparison of neuropsychology salaries in cities and metropolitan areas within a selected state.
The AACN is at the forefront of establishing and maintaining professional and certification standards for the neuropsychology profession.
A specialty board of the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP), the ABCN administers board certification for clinical neuropsychologists.
The APPCN works to provide high quality residency training in clinical neuropsychology.
The mission of the INS is to facilitate corroboration between professional who study brain behavior. The INS promotes education, science and applying research to real world issues.
A nonprofit professional organization comprised of professionals who strive to treat brain disorders and injuries.
The SCN is also known as Division 40 of the APA. It serves as professional organization for neuropsychologists and psychologists who study the human brain and behavior.
The SNS is devoted to reducing the effect of concussions on amateur and professional athletes. The SNS also serves as a resource to those looking for a sports neuropsychologist.
There are many factors to consider when choosing a degree program including cost, reputation, choice of majors, academic requirements and school location. Numerous psychology programs are offered nationwide, although those focused on neuropsychology are more limited in number. This search tool is designed to help students identify potential programs of study.