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Getting the Degree in Cognitive Psychology

written by: Tyson Alexander•edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch•updated: 8/20/2010

Cognitive psychology is an excellent area of study for anyone with a passion for how the mind works. Professional cognitive psychologists either directly explore the structure of human thoughts, or apply current knowledge of the mind to make people's lives easier.

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    Cognitive psychology endeavours to explain the structure of human thoughts. Cognitive psychologists work to create explanatory models of mental processes such as memory, attention and perception. As such, cognitive psychology enjoys a wide range of real-world applications in fields ranging from education to industrial design. A field of study that focuses on how the mind works is certainly an exciting one to jump into, however you would be wise to think carefully about exactly what you want out of your degree. Rather than jump in head first, think about what you would like to be doing with your degree, when finished.

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    Theoretical Cognitive Research

    Theoretical research forms the core of cognitive psychology. The goal of theoretical cognitive psychology is to generate models that can be used to explain what is going on in people’s minds when they perceive, attend to and make memories of the world. While most theoretical cognitive psychological research is conducted with some real-world applications in mind, the central focus is always on furthering our understanding of the human mind. While focusing on theoretical cognitive research will leave you with analytical thinking and research skills that can be applied to a wide range of jobs, if your sole intention is to work outside of academia, you may want to consider an applied cognitive psychology domain.

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    Applied Cognitive Research

    Human factors researchers work to increase the efficiency with which people interact with machines. They apply knowledge garnered from the theoretical domain of cognitive psychology to help guide the design of machines and tools that people use on a daily basis. In an occupational role, human factors researchers pursue questions such as: the effects of cell phone use on driving, the benefits of projecting a car’s dashboard onto the windshield, and what effect fatigue has on airplane pilots.

    Human-computer interaction (HCI) is another popular area of applied cognitive psychology. As an HCI researcher, you would apply cognitive models of attention, memory and perception to make computer programs and websites easier to use.

    Cognitive psychologists are also able to apply their skills and knowledge to the realm of education. Some cognitive psychology researchers specifically examine things like how people structure mathematical equations in their mind, or how people perceive and understand written words. Models of how people solve problems and learn are then used to refine teaching techniques used in schools.

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    The Skills You Need

    While a graduate program in cognitive psychology will teach you the skills you need to become a productive worker in the area, time is money and it would be to your great advantage to be as familiar as possible in the skills used for cognitive psychological research right from the get go.

    Quantitative research is what drives cognitive psychology. Everything that is known about the human brain at a cognitive level is the result of careful application of quantitative research methods. A keen understanding of quantitative statistical tests such as ANOVA and regression is invaluable to a cognitive psychological researcher. If you are considering a graduate degree in cognitive psychology, then you have likely already taken statistics or research methods courses at the undergraduate level. Be sure to brush up on that knowledge before beginning your program, so you can hit the ground running.

    Computer programming skills are also an asset to a cognitive psychological researcher. The vast majority of experiments in cognitive psychology are done using computers. While there is experiment-running software out there that makes the process as easily as possible, most cognitive psychology students will not be able to get around doing a little programming. If you are still in undergrad, consider taking an introductory programming course. Or if you are currently out of school, try teaching yourself some basic programming by learning how to create simple programs in Visual Basic, or for smartphones. The skills you pick up in doing so will benefit you when you are figuring out how to code up experiments.