What Is a Developmental Psychologist?

A developmental psychologist talking to a little boy

Are you fascinated by the way the human mind works and the factors that affect human behavior? If so, a career as a psychologist might be right for you. There are many specializations to consider within the psychology field, including developmental psychology.

What is a developmental psychologist and what does a developmental psychologist do? This in-depth career guide offers an exploration of this exciting career path.

In This Article:

What Is a Developmental Psychologist?

When you picture a psychologist, you probably imagine a professional who takes notes while a patient lies on a couch and talks about their challenges, thoughts and feelings. Although some psychologists do offer therapy services, many others work primarily in research and academia. In fact, most developmental psychologists belong to the latter category.

What is a developmental psychologist, exactly? This is a professional who specializes in the study of human growth and development throughout the lifespan — from birth until death. Developmental psychologists study all aspects of human development, including the following:

  • Cognitive development
  • Social development
  • Intellectual development
  • Physical development
  • Personality development
  • Emotional development
  • Perceptual development

The research conducted by developmental psychologists is crucial because it helps both laypeople and professionals to better understand the factors that affect a person’s growth and development. For example, when a child fails to reach certain developmental milestones as they age, a parent or pediatrician can recognize this delay and determine whether that child requires special assistance.

Developmental psychology is considered a non-clinical field because most professionals work in research and academia, rather than in offices that receive patients. However, some developmental psychologists do directly assess, evaluate and treat children or adults who have been diagnosed with, or are suspected of having, a developmental disability.

What Does a Developmental Psychologist Do?

There is no single answer to the question, What does a developmental psychologist do? because these professionals may complete a variety of tasks from one day to the next. Their daily responsibilities typically depend on their work environment.

Most developmental psychologists spend their days immersed in research, and those who work at universities often teach as well. During a typical day, developmental psychologists may perform any of the following tasks:

  • Designing new quantitative and qualitative research studies aimed at expanding knowledge in the field
  • Recruiting participants for research studies, conducting studies and analyzing findings
  • Writing reports on research findings for publication in peer-reviewed academic journals
  • Developing lesson plans and lectures for undergraduate- or graduate-level university classes
  • Delivering lectures and assigning and grading classwork
  • Meeting with students during office hours to provide additional help outside of class
  • Serving as a faculty advisor for students, which may involve serving on a doctoral committee
  • Attending faculty meetings and professional conferences

A smaller number of developmental psychologists work in clinical practice. These professionals may tend to specialize in working with a particular patient population, such as children, adolescents or adults.

A clinical development psychologist’s working environment generally depends on the specific patient population they serve. For instance, they might work in a healthcare clinic or a senior living community. No matter their working environment, a developmental psychologist needs to be licensed. Some of their specific tasks may include the following:

  • Evaluating children or other patients to determine whether they might have a developmental disability
  • Working collaboratively with a treatment team to identify and implement evidence-based treatment strategies
  • Studying the safety and effectiveness of treatments designed to aid individuals with developmental disabilities
  • Pursuing research projects, such as researching infant motor development, exploring how children acquire language or assessing ways to help older adults remain independent

Where Do Developmental Psychologists Work?

Before choosing a career path to pursue, it’s always a good idea to explore the possible work environments of professionals in that particular field. So, exactly where do developmental psychologists work? There is no single answer, because developmental psychologists can work across a variety of settings, including the following:

  • Colleges and universities – conducting research and teaching psychology students
  • Government agencies – working within the community to assess and treat individuals with developmental disabilities
  • Assisted living facilities – advising on policies and practices, and working with patients
  • Homeless and teen outreach programs – working one-on-one with individuals, identifying developmental disorders and fostering strategies for success
  • Hospitals – serving on a caregiving team in general and psychiatric hospitals

How To Become a Developmental Psychologist

Now that you know what a developmental psychologist is, you may be curious about how to become one. If you’re a high school student interested in pursuing this career path, you should speak with your guidance counselor about your career aspirations and your plans to earn a developmental psychology degree.

It may be possible to add courses to your schedule that reflect your aspirations, such as classes in psychology and child development. It is also a good idea to take all of the math and science classes you can, including statistics. You’ll also need strong communication and critical thinking skills, so don’t neglect the humanities, either.

Earn an Undergraduate Psychology Degree

After high school, the first step in your journey to become a developmental psychologist is to earn an undergraduate psychology degree. At this stage in your academic career, there is no need to be overly concerned about choosing a specialized degree, because you will begin to specialize during your graduate education.

However, if you already know which specialization you’d like to pursue, you might decide to earn a Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Science, rather than a general psychology degree. You could choose a Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Science degree program with a specific focus, such as an emphasis in childhood and adolescent disorders. The curriculum will vary from school to school, but in general, you can expect to study topics such as the following:

  • Physical, cognitive and socioemotional development in humans throughout life
  • The causes and development of abnormal cognitive and behavioral patterns and disorders
  • The assessment, diagnosis and treatment of childhood and adolescent disorders
  • Theoretical counseling models
  • Group developmental stages, therapist–patient dynamics and ethical standards

Your school may also offer coursework on professional ethics in behavioral health science. For instance, you might explore ethical concepts, related legislation and current trends in the field.

Another option for your undergraduate degree is a general psychology degree. Pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Psychology can give you foundational knowledge in the field that you can use as a springboard for your graduate work.

During your studies, you may learn about the following topics:

  • Foundational principles of psychology
  • The causes and nature of human behavior, as expressed through scientific measurements and theories
  • Stages of child and adolescent development
  • Group and social factors that affect human behavior
  • Principles of cognition and neuropsychology

Regardless of whether you choose to pursue a general psychology degree or a behavioral health science degree, you may be expected to complete a capstone course during your senior year. A capstone course is your opportunity to demonstrate everything you’ve learned during the previous years by completing a major project.

By the time you reach your senior year, you may already have a general idea of what you’d like to focus on in your career. For instance, perhaps you’d like to focus on child development. It’s a good idea to choose a capstone topic that aligns with your emerging professional interests.

Earn a Master’s Degree in Psychology

After you’ve earned an undergraduate degree in behavioral health science or psychology, it’s time to enroll in a graduate program to begin working toward your graduate-level developmental psychology degree. A master’s degree provides a steppingstone toward a doctoral degree. It also allows you to further develop your research and writing skills and sharpen your professional focus.

Master’s degree programs involve additional study beyond your time in your undergraduate degree, and online, on-campus or evening classes may be available. If you decide to work while earning your degree, it may take longer to complete a master’s program but flexible program offerings makes it achievable. Look for a degree program that aligns with the standards of the American Psychological Association.

Some master’s degree programs require the completion of a master’s thesis. This is a lengthy research paper (about 40 to 80 pages) that explores a specific topic in the field. Unlike a doctoral dissertation, a master’s thesis does not require original research.

However, not all master’s degrees require a master’s thesis. Instead, you might complete a professional capstone course that involves a different kind of project. For instance, you may develop and present comprehensive ideas for original research.

Earn a Doctorate-Level Developmental Psychology Degree

After earning your master’s degree in psychology, you’ll be ready to apply to a doctoral degree program.

At most graduate schools, doctoral students begin by taking the required courses for their degree. Next, they must pass a rigorous exam to achieve “all but dissertation” (ABD) status. At this point, they officially become doctoral candidates, rather than doctoral students.

Once the doctoral candidate has achieved ABD status, they begin working on their dissertation. Do note that at some graduate schools, the dissertation process is built into the coursework, meaning that students can begin working on their dissertations while taking classes. In some cases, this may help to accelerate the process of earning this terminal degree.

A doctoral dissertation itself consists of an original research project accompanied by a lengthy paper explaining the research, methodologies, studies, results and analysis. On average, a psychology dissertation is between 80 and 150 pages long. Writing a dissertation is an opportunity to conduct an in-depth exploration of a topic in which you have a strong professional interest.

While you work on completing your research and dissertation, you’ll benefit from the close guidance of your dissertation advisor and other dissertation committee members. They will help you refine the focus of your research and provide general feedback as you proceed with your work.

Job Outlook and Salary Range for Developmental Psychologists

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is the agency tasked with tracking employment data and projecting future employment statistics in the U.S. The BLS does not offer statistics specific to the specialization of developmental psychology. However, the BLS does provide general employment data for all types of psychologists.

The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for psychologists to increase by about 6% from 2021 to 2031 — as fast as average for all professions — accounting for an estimated increase of 14,100 jobs in the field.1

In May 2021, psychologists had a median annual wage of $81,040, according to the BLS.2

You can take your first step toward pursuing a rewarding career as a developmental psychologist by applying for enrollment at Grand Canyon University’s (GCU) College of Humanities and Social Sciences. GCU offers a number of undergraduate psychology degree options, including the Bachelor of Science in Psychology and the Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Science with an Emphasis in Childhood and Adolescence Disorders.

After earning your bachelor’s degree, you can apply to enter one of our graduate programs, such as the Master of Science in Psychology with an Emphasis in General Psychology program, followed by a doctoral degree. Fill out the form on this page to begin your academic journey at GCU, an accredited Christian university.


1COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is effective September 2022, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, psychologists, retrieved on April 5, 2023

2The earnings referenced were reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), psychologists as of May 2021, retrieved on April 5, 2023. Due to COVID-19, data from 2020 and 2021 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may also impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the BLS. BLS calculates the median using salaries of workers from across the country with varying levels of education and experience and does not reflect the earnings of GCU graduates as psychologists. It does not reflect earnings of workers in one city or region of the country. It also does not reflect a typical entry-level salary. Median income is the statistical midpoint for the range of salaries in a specific occupation. It represents what you would earn if you were paid more money than half the workers in an occupation, and less than half the workers in an occupation. It may give you a basis to estimate what you might earn at some point if you enter this career. You may also wish to compare median salaries if you are considering more than one career path. Grand Canyon University can make no guarantees on individual graduates’ salaries as the employer the graduate chooses to apply to, and accept employment from, determines salary not only based on education, but also individual characteristics and skills and fit to that organization (among other categories) against a pool of candidates.


Approved by the assistant dean of behavioral health of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on April 5, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.