Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology Degree and Career Guide

Cognitive-behavioral psychology involves using a treatment called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to improve the symptoms of psychological disorders. Clinicians who practice CBT treat a variety of psychological disorders by using research-based techniques to help clients and patients change problematic thoughts and behaviors. The American Psychological Association (APA) has recognized Behavioral and Cognitive Psychology as a specialty since 2000 and psychologists who practice CBT can apply to become Board-certified through the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). Many cognitive-behavioral psychologists work in hospitals, psychology clinics, or schools and practice CBT with clients and patients; others work in research settings such as universities to help develop and improve the techniques used in CBT.

To be eligible for the full range of job options within cognitive-behavioral psychology, you will need to complete a doctoral program in psychology that includes training in both research and professional practice (in other words, working with patients and clients). Options for this degree include a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree in clinical, counseling, or school psychology. In some states, such as Alaska, Kansas, and West Virginia, you can become licensed to practice therapy with a master’s degree in psychology, which would allow you to provide CBT to clients and patients. Additionally, a master’s or bachelor’s degree in psychology may qualify you for research assistant positions in settings where cognitive-behavioral psychology is being studied.

Degree Requirements and Coursework

Doctoral programs in counseling, clinical, or school psychology usually take four to seven years to complete (including the year-long required clinical internship) and provide training in both research and professional practice. The minimum required GPA to enter a graduate psychology program is usually 3.0, but you may need a higher GPA to be a competitive applicant. Schools do not offer specific cognitive-behavioral psychology degree programs, so you will need to look into individual psychology programs to determine which ones offer specialized training in this area. Some programs will clearly describe themselves as having a cognitive-behavioral orientation to their training and research. In other cases, you may need to contact a program to ask if they provide coursework, clinical placements, and research opportunities in cognitive-behavioral psychology.

Students who attend a program that includes an emphasis on cognitive-behavioral psychology can expect to complete advanced coursework in a variety of topics related to professional psychology, such as assessment and diagnosis of psychological disorders. In addition, they will learn how to use general techniques to help clients change their negative thoughts and behaviors and will also become familiar with specific, structured cognitive-behavioral treatments (often referred to as “manualized therapies”). Students generally also take multiple courses in statistics, which prepares them to carry out research to help develop new therapies or improve existing ones. Examples of courses students in cognitive-behavioral psychology programs might take include:

  • Psychological Assessment
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Research Methods
  • Introductory and Advanced Statistics
  • Ethics of Psychology
  • Psychopathology/Abnormal Psychology
  • Theories of Psychotherapy
  • Clinical Practicum
  • Clinical Internship

Best Value Schools with On-Campus Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology Programs

The following table includes the best value colleges and universities offering training in cognitive-behavioral psychology. To create this list, we researched psychology programs at not-for-profit schools offering on-campus graduate degrees in counseling, clinical, and/or school psychology with a low net price (under $16,000 per year) and a high graduation rate (80% or higher). As of March 2019, all of the schools on this list offer doctoral psychology programs that identify as having a cognitive-behavioral orientation or provide training in cognitive-behavioral psychology. We’ve also included the relevant degrees offered at each school, US News & World Report rankings, and the percentage of tenured faculty. The table can be sorted by any of these values by clicking on the header.

SchoolGrad Degree(s)US News National Rank1Grad Rate2% Tenured Faculty3Net Price2
University of Washington – SeattlePhD Clinical Psychology
PhD School Psychology
#59 tie84%51%$9,443
University of North Carolina – Chapel HillPhD Clinical Psychology
PhD School Psychology
#30 tie91%43%$11,199
Brigham Young University – ProvoPhD Clinical Psychology
PhD Counseling Psychology
#66 tie83%46%$12,979
University of Texas at AustinPhD Clinical Psychology
PhD Counseling Psychology
PhD School Psychology
#49 tie83%49%$14,356
University of California – Los AngelesPhD Clinical Psychology#19 tie91%48%$14,760
University of FloridaPhD Clinical Psychology
PhD Counseling Psychology
PhD School Psychology
#35 tie88%52%$15,283
University of Wisconsin – MadisonPhD Clinical Psychology
PhD Counseling Psychology
PhD School Psychology
#49 tie87%49%$15,910
University of GeorgiaPhD Clinical Psychology
PhD Counseling Psychology
PhD School Psychology
#46 tie85%54%$15,934

See Table Notes and References at bottom of page.

Profiles of Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology Programs

When you are looking into doctoral programs that provide cognitive-behavioral training, you should search for one that is accredited by the APA, as this is required for licensure in most states. The APA does not accredit bachelor’s or master’s degree programs; however, attending a nationally- or regionally-accredited school where psychology research is being conducted will likely increase your job prospects and strengthen your doctoral program applications.

Master’s Programs

Villanova University: Villanova University’s Master of Science (MS) in Psychology program has been active since 1961. Although it is not intended to be a terminal program for psychological practitioners, students receive foundational training in graduate-level psychology and research that can help prepare them for doctoral programs in psychology. Students in Villanova’s MS in Psychology program are able to customize their coursework to fit their future academic and career goals, and many take courses outside of the department to supplement their psychology instruction. The program offers multiple courses that will help students learn the fundamental concepts involved in cognitive-behavioral psychology as well as one course specific to cognitive-behavioral techniques. Some of the coursework from Villanova’s MS program may be transferable to a doctoral program in psychology.

American University: American University offers a flexible Master of Arts (MA) in Psychology program with three different tracks: General Psychology, Experimental/Biological Psychology, and Personality/Social Psychology. Students in all tracks are required to complete coursework in both general psychology and research techniques but can tailor the program to match their specific interests. American University’s MA program offers a course in cognitive-behavioral therapy as well as multiple courses covering psychological concepts foundational to cognitive-behavioral psychology. Additionally, multiple faculty members list research interests in cognitive-behavioral psychology or related areas. Students can choose whether to complete an original research project for their master’s thesis. This option can be helpful for students planning to continue on to doctoral programs in psychology, as doctoral programs will sometimes waive thesis requirements for students who completed one in a terminal master’s program. Additionally, some credits from this program may be transferable to doctoral programs.

Doctoral Programs

University of Washington – Seattle: UW’s Clinical Psychology PhD program has been APA-accredited since 1948 and identifies as having a “strong cognitive-behavioral emphasis” in both their research and clinical work. The program has been ranked #8 by US News & World Report in the Clinical Psychology Graduate Programs category. Students can choose to specialize in general (adult) or child clinical psychology and multiple core and elective courses in cognitive-behavioral psychology are offered. Students also have the opportunity to train in the Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics, which offer clinical and research experience in cognitive-behavioral psychology. Graduates of UW’s Clinical Psychology program will be well-prepared for clinical careers, but the program places a particular emphasis on training scientists who will conduct research that contributes to the practice of cognitive-behavioral therapy.

University of Texas at Austin: The University of Texas (UT) at Austin offers PhD programs in Counseling Psychology, School Psychology, and Clinical Psychology, all of which are APA-accredited. Although these programs are housed across two different departments, there are ample opportunities for training in cognitive-behavioral psychology through coursework requirements and research experiences. The Clinical program specifically notes that it emphasizes cognitive-behavioral approaches. Students in all three programs are required to conduct research and receive clinical training in their area of specialization, including practicum placements and a year-long internship. UT’s Department of Educational Psychology, which houses the Counseling and School programs, has been ranked #5 in the nation by US News & World Report in the Educational Psychology Programs category, while the Clinical program has been ranked #8 in the Clinical Psychology Programs category.

Online Programs

Because practicing cognitive-behavioral psychology requires hands-on, experiential training, an online-only degree is unlikely to qualify you for jobs in this area of specialization. However, earning an online (or hybrid) bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology can sometimes be used as a stepping stone to in-person graduate programs that include training in cognitive-behavioral psychology.

University of Florida: The University of Florida, which has been ranked #5 in US News & World Report’s Online Bachelor’s Programs category, offers an online Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in Psychology. Students in this program are required to complete at least 30 credits in psychological theory and research, and courses include topics relevant to cognitive-behavioral psychology. In addition to the psychology coursework requirement, students must also complete classes in math (including statistics) and biological science. Opportunities to earn course credit through independent research and community work are available. Graduates from the University of Florida’s online psychology program may be eligible to apply for graduate psychology programs or research assistant positions.

Oregon State University: Students in Oregon State University’s (OSU) online psychology program are required to complete at least 65 quarter credit hours of psychology coursework. This requirement includes several mandatory courses as well as a wide variety of elective options, allowing students to select courses that fit well with their career interests. Students must also take classes outside of the psychology department to fulfill OSU’s liberal arts curriculum requirements, but are able to choose whether to pursue a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) degree. Graduates from OSU’s online psychology program should graduate with a breadth of knowledge that allows them to pursue entry-level research positions or graduate programs in psychology. OSU has been ranked #5 in US News & World Report’s Online Bachelor’s Programs category.

Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology Job Description

Many cognitive-behavioral psychologists work directly with patients to diagnose and treat psychological disorders and may be employed in psychology clinics, hospitals or other medical settings, and schools. Psychologists who practice cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) help clients and patients improve their functioning and well-being by using research-based techniques to change problematic behaviors and ways of thinking. Other cognitive-behavioral psychologists work in settings such as universities or research labs, where they conduct research studies on CBT to improve existing therapies and develop new methods of treatment.

All doctoral-level programs in cognitive-behavioral psychology will include training in both clinical practice and research. Therefore, some cognitive-behavioral psychologists have jobs that allow them to spend part of their time using CBT to treat patients and part of their time conducting research on CBT. These positions are usually found at universities or academic medical centers.

What Jobs Can You Get with This Degree?

With a PhD or PsyD in clinical, counseling, or school psychology that includes training in cognitive-behavioral theories and treatments, you can be eligible for employment as a cognitive-behavioral psychologist. Cognitive-behavioral clinical practice or research can be carried out in almost any position that requires a doctoral degree in the applied practice psychology, including:

  • Clinical psychologist
  • Child clinical psychologist
  • Counseling psychologist
  • Geriatric psychologist
  • Health psychologist
  • Professor
  • Research psychologist
  • School psychologist
  • Substance use psychologist

Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of degree do I need to become a cognitive-behavioral psychologist?

To become a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, you need to earn a PhD or PsyD in clinical, counseling, or school psychology. You will want to earn this degree from a program that includes coursework, clinical training, and research opportunities in cognitive-behavioral theories and treatments. However, in some states you can become licensed to practice psychotherapy (including cognitive-behavioral therapy) with a master’s degree in psychology. Additionally, a bachelor’s or master’s degree in psychology may allow you to apply for research assistantships in settings where psychologists are studying cognitive-behavioral psychology.

How long does it take to become a cognitive-behavioral psychologist?

Before applying to doctoral programs, you must complete a bachelor’s degree (which takes four years) and may choose to earn a stand-alone master’s degree in psychology (which usually takes two years). Doctoral psychology programs in clinical, counseling, and school psychology usually take between four and seven years to finish, including the required year-long clinical internship. To become licensed, you may need to complete an additional year of postdoctoral training. Therefore, the entire process may take over 10 years after you have finished high school.

Do cognitive-behavioral psychologists work with patients?

Yes, many of them become licensed and practice cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) with clients and patients in various treatment settings. Other cognitive-behavioral psychologists work in universities or academic medical centers, where they study the effects of CBT techniques and treatments on research participants.

Is cognitive-behavioral psychology the same as cognitive psychology?

Despite the similar names, these are actually two different areas of psychology. Cognitive-behavioral psychology focuses on research and clinical practice relevant to the treatment of psychological disorders. Cognitive psychology, which is often offered as a stand-alone PhD program, involves research into topics such as learning, memory, and thinking. Cognitive psychologists cannot provide clinical services.

Cognitive-Behavioral Psychology Salary and Job Outlook

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for counseling, clinical, and school psychologists is $81,330.1 The highest salaries for these psychologists are reported in home health care and specialty hospital (except psychiatric and substance abuse) settings, at $93,910 and $93,710, respectively.1 Of the 108,060 psychologists in this category nationwide, almost half are employed in either elementary and secondary schools (43,570) or offices of other health care practitioners (16,300).1

The outlook for clinical, counseling, and school psychology jobs in the United States is promising, as it is projected that the number of positions in this field will increase 14.2% between 2016 and 2026, amounting to 21,000 new jobs.2 Additional stability in this field comes from the fact that clinical, counseling, and school psychology has been ranked as one of the fields least likely to become computerized (<1% chance) in this ever-increasing age of technology.3

Additional Resources

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2017 Occupational Employment and Wages, Clinical, Counseling, and School Psychologists: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes193031.htm
2. Projections Central, Long Term Occupational Projections: https://projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm
3. Frey, Carl Benedikt, and Michael A. Osborne. “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” Technological Forecasting and Social Change, vol. 114, January 2017, pp. 254-280: https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf

Table Notes and References:
All school data is based on undergraduate statistics.

1. US News & World Report National University Rankings: https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities
2. National Center for Education Statistics: https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
3. College Factual: https://www.collegefactual.com/