How Do I Become an Applied Behavior Analyst?

The American Psychological Association’s endorsement of applied behavior analysis helped secure its distinctive role among the healthcare professions. This field has gained serious ground, applying psychological understanding to real-world behavioral cases. In 2020 and beyond, this career will continue to grow. Especially as the awareness of the prevalence of substance abuse disorders increases, public conversation about the discipline could lead to a greater need for qualified ABA professionals.

Applied behavior analysis is used to treat and understand trauma, traumatic brain injury, compulsion, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, and even addictive behaviors. Professionals in this role usually hold a master’s degree in applied behavioral science or psychology. What matters most in gaining an entry-level position in ABA is the ability to demonstrate competency in the areas of psychology, behavior studies, sociology, or applied behavior studies.

Other professionals possess a marketable combination of a two- or four-year college degree and industry experience, either broadly or specifically in applied behavior analysis. Most go on to obtain master’s degrees in psychology with an emphasis in applied behavior analysis or in counseling with an ABA concentration. Both types of programs tend to offer rich curricula in psychological theory, psychotherapy, applied behavior studies, counseling practica, and more. They typically range from one to three years in length.

PayScale (March 2020) reports that behavior analysts make an annual national average of $58,663, with the possibility of up to $1,462 in bonuses in certain higher paying markets in major cities. Professional certification and resources is available from a wealth of national and local ABA organizations:

  • The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB)
  • Association for Behavior Analysts International (ABAI)
  • The Association of Professional Behavior Analysts (APBA)
  • California Association for Behavior Analysts (CALABA)

Certifications usually require the applicant to have a requisite number of years of experience, in addition to other educational requirements. Affiliation with associations, organizations, and societies give professionals an opportunity to network with others in the field and tap into a rich body of knowledge.

Read on to discover how to become a certified applied behavior analyst.

Where Do Applied Behavior Analysts Work?

Applied behavior analysts are employed in a wide array of medical, clinical, or office environments. Applied behavior analysts also work in mental health clinics, mental health centers, public schools, hospitals, private research organizations, residential treatment programs, corporate offices, and branches of the government, among other facilities.

Steps to Becoming an Applied Behavior Analyst

There are many pathways to pursue a career as an applied behavior analyst. Here is one possible way to become an ABA.

Step 1: Earn an associate or bachelor’s degree (two to four years).

As a high school student, a focus on classes in psychology, behavior, the social sciences, anthropology, economics, and sociology can help build a solid foundation for ABA undergraduate study. Advanced placement and high school seminar courses in these subjects, if available, are recommended.

General requirements to apply for admission into a bachelor’s degree program are:

  • High school transcripts or GED
  • A letter or statement of purpose or intent
  • Completed application and fee
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • Letter(s) of recommendation, internship, or work-study experience

Aside from the more general education requirements, gaining a BS in psychology or applied behavioral science is a great place to start on the pathway to becoming an ABA professional. Examples of some of the types of courses found in these programs and courses which are recommended include:

  • Autism spectrum disorders in young children
  • Personality development
  • Exceptional needs children
  • Family therapy
  • Autism spectrum-focused therapy
  • Clinical psychology
  • Program design and evaluation
  • Experiment design
  • History of psychology
  • History of applied behavior analysis
  • Applications of applied behavior analysis
  • Anatomy
  • Physiology

It should be noted that the vast majority of applied behavior analysts hold graduate degrees. A bachelor’s degree is generally the absolute minimum educational requirement for entry into the field. As per employer discretion, a few years of industry experience can also go a long way towards bolstering an applicants candidacy for employment, if combined with a background of academic study.

Because the field relies so heavily on study and research, graduate degrees are seen as critical to a cutting-edge understanding of ABA. The ability to empathize and see things from a patient’s perspective is established in undergraduate degree programs. Later, it is applied and tested in graduate and doctoral programs through practicums, case studies, and various hands-on experiments.

This 100 percent online bachelor’s program in psychology with a concentration in applied behavior analysis from Purdue Global can provide aspiring ABA professionals the skills and knowledge they need to excel in the field.

Purdue’s online Department of Psychology is a leading institution in the industry, and boasts a faculty of expert ABA, counseling, and psychology professionals. Obtaining this degree requires a course load of 180 credit-hours and prepares students for the BACB examination.

Step 2: Gain industry experience to help prepare for certification and more advanced positions (one to five years)

A position as an applied behavior analyst typically requires at least a bachelor’s degree, and many employers ask that candidates have a graduate degree as well. One way to achieve career advancement as an applied behavior analyst is to gain work experience in the human behavior industry itself. This helps candidates prepare for certification and more advanced positions, which are typically requisite for positions in upper management. Depending on the type of certification, the time commitment could be anywhere from one to five years.

Step 3: Earn a master’s degree to increase expertise and earnings (one to three years depending on program)

Attending a master’s program in applied behavior analysis, psychology, or behavioral psychology (among other closely related subjects) allows aspiring ABAs to delve even deeper into the field and acquire valuable industry knowledge.

This fully online MS in applied behavior analysis offered by Drexel University features courses on behavioral interventions, experiment design, the fundamentals of behavior change, and more. Students can choose from two concentrations: autism spectrum disorders and social, emotional, and behavioral wellness.

Students choosing the practicum option complete the program with 750 hours of hands-on experience. The graduate tuition rate for this program during the 2019-20 period was $978 per credit.

Step 4: Apply for certification or state required license based on applied behavior concentration (one to two years)

To become an applied behavior analyst, it is necessary to become certified through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB). The BACB offers certification for the following credentials: Registered Behavior Technician (RBT), Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA), Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and the Board Certified Behavior Analyst-Doctoral (BCBA-D). All certifications require passing an exam.

To qualify for the BCBA certification, candidates must have a graduate degree and one of the following: qualifying coursework and supervised experience in behavior analysis; a full-time teaching role and qualifying practical experience; or ten years of postdoctoral experience and 500 hours of supervised experience. Applicants with expired BCBA credentials (within the past five years) can take the exam to recertify.

There are also a handful of more general authorities on applied behavior analysis, such as the Association for Behavior Analysts International (ABAI) and the California Association for Behavior Analysts (CALABA), which operates in one of the three states with the highest rates of applied behavior analyst employment and demand. The other two states are New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Learn more about licensing by state and state-specific requirements for credentials and experience on the BACB website.

Step 5: Become a certified applied behavior analyst and/or renew necessary certifications (timelines vary)

Professional certifications will need to be renewed periodically. Most applied behavior analysis credentials and certifications are relevant for a minimum of two years (depending on the concentration), so be sure to keep track of when you’ll need to begin preparing to reskill. State credentials also vary in their renewal procedures.

Step 6: Earn a PhD in applied behavior analysis (optional, three years or more)

While not necessary, a PhD in behavioral studies can qualify an ABA to lead clinics, research initiatives, or lecture and teach on the subject at both undergraduate and graduate levels.

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology hosts a fully online PhD in applied behavior analysis that can be completed in three years, following a master’s, or in five years following a bachelor’s degree. Applying to the program requires completing an application, paying application fee of $50, and submitting a resume or CV, two essay answers to provided questions, college transcripts, and three letters of recommendation.

Helpful Resources for Applied Behavior Analysts

Kenneth Parker

Kenneth Parker


Kenneth is a feature writer, poet, and musician living in the Pacific Northwest. His writing on remote work, education, and technology has been published by,, and other websites. His poetry, short fiction, and album reviews have appeared in Scifaikuest, Nanoism, and No Clean Singing. His background includes time spent as an associate editor, proofreader, private grammar instructor, freelance content editor, medical claims agent, and SEO consultant. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon, where he studied literature and worked as a composition tutor.

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