Written by Matthew Roth and Jayne Holzinger
Disclaimer: The information presented on this page is meant to serve as a broad overview and may not be accurate for all jurisdictions. Please be sure to check with the practice regulations, as well as licensure and education requirements, for your specific jurisdiction.
This section is meant to provide information about some of the more commonly asked questions that students may have about graduate school or careers with working with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and using behavioral and cognitive behavioral therapy methods. Although this not a complete guide to helping you prepare for graduate school and beyond, we hope this provides a general overview that will get you going in the right direction!
Types of Degrees in the ASD Field
There are a lot of exciting and rewarding career options for working with individuals with ASD. From working with toddlers to adults, you will find a number of great opportunities! Students trying to enter the field understandably have a lot of questions about what the different types of degrees mean. To help address some of those questions, this section will focus on graduate level degrees for careers working with individuals with ASD, specifically focusing on paths that prepare you to use behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapy methods.
Differences in Degrees
When looking at degree programs, you may see a lot of different acronyms that can be hard to follow! This section will explain the differences between many of the degrees that are related to serving individuals with ASD using behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapy methods. Some of the degrees may be career-specific, but do not worry, those careers will be discussed in the next section!
Master’s degree programs provide intensive training in a specialized area. Although the training is rigorous, it can be completed on a part-time basis (depending on the program), in about 2-3 years. For most of the degrees in this area, licensure or certification is required after the completion of the degree, which requires numerous hours of clinical supervision. Research training is not always emphasized in Master’s degree programs, although some programs are research oriented or may require a research-based thesis. Some of the more common Master’s degrees in the ASD field include: Master’s in Counseling Psychology, Master’s in Applied Behavior Analysis, Master’s in Clinical Psychology, Master’s in School Psychology, Master’s of Clinical Social Work, Master’s in Speech-Language Pathology, Master’s in Special Education, Master’s in Occupational Therapy, and Master’s of Science in Nursing.
Doctorate degree programs provide training in both research and clinical methods. Typically, doctoral programs require a full-time commitment. However, many doctorate programs provide assistantships to offset the costs of being a full-time student. Completion of the degree usually requires a research-based dissertation/thesis or similar project. Doctorate programs can last from 4-7 years, depending on the program. Like a Master’s degree, individuals with doctorates will also need to complete licensure and certification requirements after graduation. Doctorate degrees offer limited space to students, and thus, can be highly competitive in admissions.
There are a few different types of doctorate degrees available, including:
- PhD – Doctorate of Philosophy – PhD programs range from having a high clinical-emphasis to a high research-emphasis, depending on the program.
- PsyD – Doctorate of Psychology – Compared to a PhD, PsyD programs have more of a clinical-emphasis. There is no difference in licensure between PhD and PsyD. The reduced research-emphasis may lead to the completion of the program in less time than the PhD. Many PsyD programs are competitive for admission; however, some professional schools of psychology (not affiliated with an university) may take more students than PhD programs or university affiliated PsyD programs.
- DSW – Doctorate of Social Work – Like the PsyD, the DSW is a specialized doctorate for the field of Social Work that has an emphasis on clinical work. It allows a Social Worker to obtain specialty training in the area of ASD, if desired.
- EdD – Doctorate of Education – The EdD has much overlap with the PhD in the varying range of emphasis between research and clinical work. However, EdD’s are typically granted by schools of Education within a university rather than school of Liberal Arts or Science, which typically grant PhD’s.
- MD (Doctor of Medicine) and DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) – Professional degrees for physicians. Physicians interested in working with individuals with ASD commonly specialized in psychiatry and developmental pediatrics. Although there is not a heavy emphasis on research training (no thesis or dissertation is required), MD’s and DO’s may receive training on conducting clinical research. Both degrees require comparable four-year training, residency, and licensure exams.
- SLP-D (Doctorate in Speech Language Pathology) and CScD (Clinical Doctorate in Speech Language Pathology)– Like the PsyD and DSW, the SLP-D and CScD are doctorate degrees for the field of Speech Language Pathology that has an increased emphasis on clinical work.
- OTD – Doctorate in Occupational Therapy – A specialized doctorate for the field of occupational therapy that has an emphasis on clinical work.
- DNP – Doctor of Nursing Practice – A specialized, professional degree, in clinical diagnosis and treatment. This degree is designed to allow a Registered Nurse to practice independently, often with similar responsibilities as a physician.
The Fields that Serve Individuals with ASD
The list below includes some of the more common degree specializations for working with individuals with ASD using behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapy methods. Within the parenthesis, you will find the commonly offered degrees in the field. Note that fields listed in the earlier section tend to more heavily rely on the use of behavioral and cognitive-behavioral methods, while the fields listed toward the end of the list use these methods less, usually mixed in with other types of interventions.
- Clinical Psychology (PhD and PsyD) – Provides therapeutic interventions (individual therapy, group therapy, parent training) to individuals with ASD and their families. Clinical psychologists generally focus on decreasing the problem behaviors and mental health issues associated with ASD (for example, anxiety), while building social-communication skills and adaptive skills. Consultation with other professionals and psychological evaluation (for example, cognitive testing and diagnosis of ASD) are also important job responsibilities.
- School psychology (Master’s degree, PhD, PsyD) – Works within the school system (but doctoral level clinicians can work in community and private settings) and consults with teachers, parents, and administrators on behavior plans. May also provide individual/group counseling and social skills training as well as conduct psychological evaluations for special education eligibility and behavioral assessments for behavioral management programs.
- Education Psychology (PhD or EdD) – Trained in developing, implementing, and evaluation of a variety of different educational programming for individuals with ASD across the lifespan. Can be eligible for licensure as a clinical/counseling psychology, depending on training program.
- Applied behavior analysis (Master’s degree, PhD, EdD) – Works in a number of different settings (school, hospitals, early intervention, and community and private practices) and focuses on how the environment is affecting behavior. Behavior analysts generally specialize on building new skills that will promote independence and reducing problem behaviors (like aggressiveness, disruption, self injury, and self stimulatory behavior). In addition to working directly with children with ASD, behavior analysts often consult with other service providers and families.
- Counseling psychology (Master’s degree, PhD, PsyD)– Includes many different subspecialties (such as mental health counselor, vocational counselor, school counselor, guidance counselor). Provides counseling for individuals and families. Counseling psychology is different from clinical psychology in that focus of counseling is generally day-to-day issues (like vocational problems) rather than more severe mental illness (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder).
- Social Work (Master’s degree, PhD, DSW) – Works in a number of settings like the public sector, mental health centers, hospitals, schools, advocacy organizations, and residential facilities, among others. Social workers have a number of important administrative responsibilities, assist families in applying for services and funding, coordinates services for individuals with ASD, and often provide therapeutic interventions with appropriate training (individual and group therapy, parent training).
- Special Education (Master’s degree, EdD, PhD) – Although most special educators work within the school system (in special education or inclusion classrooms), some special educators work for residential facilities, home-based agencies, early intervention services, and hospitals. Generally, special educators work with children from preschool to young adulthood (age 21). Their responsibilities include developing, implementing and evaluating individualized lesson plans (academic skills, social skills, and life skills) and communicating progress to the special education team, administrators and families.
- Speech Language Pathology (Master’s degree, SLP-D, CScD, PhD) – Works in schools, hospitals, clinics, early intervention, residential, private practice, home care agencies, and other settings. Speech language pathologists conduct therapy and evaluation across a number of different areas: articulation and speech production, stuttering and speech fluency, language comprehension, assisting individuals in using augmented speech devices, reading and writing skills, swallowing and feeding problems, and social-communication skills.
- Medical Doctors (MD, DO) – The more common physician specialties that work with individuals with ASD are psychiatry and developmental behavioral pediatrics. Psychiatrists are trained in assessing for a variety of developmental and psychiatric conditions and treating with these conditions with pharmacological interventions. Psychiatrist can also be trained in providing psychotherapy. Developmental Behavioral Pediatricians also provide assessment and treatment, however their focus is on developmental delays and disorders. They are not typically trained in psychotherapy but may receive training to treat behavioral difficulties (like toilet training). Although Medical Doctors may work in a private practice, many work in clinical settings, as part of an interdisciplinary team.
- Nurse Practitioner (Master’s degree, DNP, PhD) – Also referred to as an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, a Registered Nurse has received extra, advanced training that grants them with additional clinical responsibilities, similar to a Medical Doctor. For instance, a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner can diagnosis psychiatric conditions, prescribe medication, and provide psychotherapy. In some states, a Nurse Practitioner works under the supervision of a physician.
- Occupational Therapy (Master’s degree, OTD) – Works in a number of settings, including hospitals, specialized clinics, schools, residential settings, early intervention, and in home agencies. Occupational therapists focus on skills that prevent independent functioning, including feeding problems, fine and gross motor problems, sensory issues, handwriting, and daily living skills (for example, buttoning clothes, tying shoes, toileting, and tooth brushing).
Tips for Getting into Graduate School
If you are currently a student, or are interested in applying to graduate school in any of the fields discussed above, this next section will focus on some tips to help you prepare for applying to graduate school.
Type of Major
Although not necessary, having a degree in the major that is similar to the field in which you are applying will be beneficial (like a degree in psychology, education, or human development). Many graduate programs will require that you take some prerequisite courses in a given field (like research methods or child development) but may not require a degree in that area. If you have not taken some of these prerequisite classes, the program may require you to take them prior to starting the program (summer courses or delaying a semester).
Particularly for programs with a research emphasis (like PhD and EdD programs), research experience is often necessary and expected. In addition, having experience in a research laboratory during undergraduate training or after college (as a job) shows that you can handle a demanding position that requires a similar skill set to what is needed to succeed in graduate school, and will look good when applying for all types of graduate programs. Additionally, having a strong recommendation from a faculty member, who can speak to your ability to excel in graduate school and facilitate research, will also look impressive on an application. If you are unable to locate any faculty at your university, try researching other local universities or facilities that conduct research regarding ASD. If all else fails, try to locate any psychology-related research position, as any research experience is important.
Any relevant clinical work or clinical internship experience is extremely beneficial when applying to graduate school as it demonstrates you already have skills within the area. It also helps to determine the clinical area in which you would like to work (and what you do not like). Determine whether or not your school has an internship program for your specific major, which will help you to find a relevant clinical placement. You may have to seek out a clinical internship or employment opportunity on your own which will require some research. Search online postings, university postings, and ask fellow students about their experiences. Clinical internships and jobs involving ASD can be found at a variety of locations including schools, day programs, universities, hospitals, and in-home services.
GRE (and Psych GRE)
Most graduate programs will require that you take the Graduate Records Examination (GRE). There is also a Psychology specific GRE, but not all graduate programs will require you take it (check the program websites).. The graduate school you are applying to will list their cut-off scores for GRE quantitative and verbal scores. These are not always a deal-breaker, but it is best to meet the requirements. For more information:
Other Tidbits to Consider About Graduate School
Often, students may jump into searching for, or applying to, programs without considering a number of important variables. This section is meant to provide an outline on some of the things you may want to consider when applying to graduate school.
Finding the Right Fit
Going to graduate school may require a big investment, whether it is a time investment or financial investment. Therefore, the most important factor when considering graduate school and specific programs is how well the program will fit with your goals. For instance, if you have a particular research interest, find an advisor/mentor that can support you in that that interest. If you have a certain clinical interest, ensure that a program can provide practicum experiences or supervision in that area. Overall, graduate school provides many opportunities to learn, so make sure that you are getting the most out of your training experience!
Below are some tips on finding an advisor/mentor with the best fit:
- If you are an undergraduate or employee currently working with a faculty member in your area of interest, ask them (or other faculty members) for recommendations on other researchers or programs in that area.
- Take note of the authors of the research articles you find interesting. Look into their university webpages, which may indicate if they are taking a student in the next year. If the website does not indicate so, send the individual an email introducing yourself and inquiring whether they will be able to take a student in the next year.
- Attend conferences and attempt to network at poster sessions or special interest group meetings.
- Books on graduate programs, such as Graduate Study in Psychology (APA, 2014) and Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology (Norcross & Sayette, 2014) provide broad information on the different areas of research and clinical training offered by the different programs. Identify some programs in these books and find more detailed information on the programs’ websites.
A final word on fit. Programs also care about fit. They want students that will most benefit from their training. So, being a good fit with a program will only help you chances getting into a particular program. Applying to a program where you are not a good fit may hurt your chances.
Public universities are state-funded and will offer reduced admission for state residents only. For out of state public universities, it is possible to receive funding through either scholarships or assistantships. Often research-based doctorate programs are fully funded and offer a stipend. Clinically-based doctorate programs tend to be less fully funded, especially if they are based in a freestanding program.
Private universities are often more expensive than public universities, but that is not always the case. Private universities also often offer more financial aid, so do not always be deterred by tuition costs until evaluating all . Consider finding advisors/mentors that have grant money, who can subsequently provide assistantships and tuition remission, to offset some of the costs.
Practicum will often be a component of any graduate program that involves clinical work. This is a practical application of skills learned within the program and is similar to an internship experience. Your graduate program will often assist you in locating a practicum location. It is important to consider the specific population (for example, individuals with ASD) that you want to work with as well as the nature of the location (inpatient, outpatient, etc.).
Admission rates will give you a good idea of your chances of getting into the program. For example, clinical psychology PhD programs have extremely low admission rates and are highly competitive. It is important to keep back up plans in mind. For example, doctorate programs may be less competitive in certain geographic areas or a master’s program in clinical psychology may be easier to get into.
Length of Program
Full- versus part-time: Some programs will require you to attend full-time while others will accommodate part-time schedules. It all depends on the specific program as some are much more structured than others. Be sure to review the coursework and structure for each individual program in order to evaluate the commitment necessary.
Talk to Advisor About Options
Advisors and trusted faculty members can help to guide you in the right direction if you are feeling lost, as they likely have been through the process themselves. Come prepared with questions to ask regarding the specific program you are applying to.
For More Information:
Even if you are just starting to think about graduate school, you are likely to hear a bunch of different terms that may be new to you. This section will explain some of the more common terms in graduate school and beyond.
Thesis and Dissertation
Both are original pieces of work that one needs to submit in their academic career in order to graduate. Typically, in North America, a thesis is required for a Master’s degree and a dissertation is required for a doctorate. Both the thesis and dissertation papers are the write up of a research study, however they may sometimes be extensive literature reviews (depending on the program). Theses and dissertations have to be approved be a committee (ranging from 3-4 individuals) and typically require a written and oral defense.
Also known as “comps,” or “prelims,” an exam completed during doctorate programs. The exam is typically completed prior to the start of the dissertation project. The format of the comprehensive exam varies significantly from program to program (for example, over the course of weeks or completed in one day), but the graduate student will be tested in a number of areas, typically in both written and oral formats. The student receives a pass or fail, decided upon by a committee.
A student’s opportunity to obtain practical experience, or fieldwork, during their course of their study. Typically involving a lesser time commitment than a formal internship (see below), a student will receive supervision while completing responsibilities in a limited capacity (for example, seeing a small case load of clients). Compensation for completing a practicum varies by program.
Internships are much like practicum, in that a student will obtain fieldwork experience, however, it is a more advance training than practicum. The student will work longer (up to full time) and have more responsibilities (for example, a full case load). An internship is closer to the actual job the student will have once they graduate, thus it is completed at the end of their program. Depending on the field, internships may be assigned differently than practicum. For instance, when obtaining a doctorate in psychology, students have to undergo a matching system when receiving their internship through the Association of Postdoctoral and Psychology Internships Center (APPIC).
Many students that obtain a doctorate will choose to complete a “postdoc,” a temporary period of additional supervision and mentorship in a more specialized area. For instance, a psychologist interested in the ASD field may complete an ASD-related postdoc after internship. In the fields related to ASD service, postdoc can be research, clinical, or a combination of the two. Some individuals may be required to complete a postdoc while pursuing licensure, certification, or tenure-track position (see below).
Licensure and Certification
Licensure and certification both grant an individual the right to practice in a particular field (for example, psychology, special education, applied behavior analysis, etc.). Both licensure and certification typically require an individual to complete a degree, internship, have a number of supervised hours, and pass a professional examination. The difference between licensure and certification is that a license is granted by a governmental agency that regulates a particular field (for example, State Office of Professions) while a certification is granted by a professional organization not regulated by a governmental agency (for example, behavior analysts are certified through the Behavior Analysis Certification Board).
Tenure is relevant to many academic positions. When a faculty member obtains tenure, they can only be dismissed from their position with just cause. Tenure is meant to protect academic freedom, so the faculty member can perform their job without concern of external pressures. Obtaining tenure is based on a number of factors that vary across institutions, such as published research, teaching record, service, and ability to obtain grant funding.
Training in one’s specialized area post graduation. Typically, a certain amount of continuing education credits (known also as CEU’s) are needed to maintain a professional license or certification. CEU’s can be obtained through conferences, workshops, extended training, and through online courses. The amount of CEU’s needed by a professional depends on the licensure or certification granting organization.