What does a cognitive psychologist do? A complete guide

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 8 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Cognitive psychologists study how people think, learn and remember. Although it is relatively new, the cognitive psychology field is growing and becoming increasingly popular. Having a better understanding of cognitive psychology and what cognitive psychologists do can help you know if it's a career that you may want to pursue. In this article, we answer the question, 'What does a cognitive psychologist do?', explain their duties and salaries and discover how to become a cognitive psychologist.

Related: Types of psychologists: a guide to choosing your speciality

What does a cognitive psychologist do?

The answer to, 'What does a cognitive psychologist do?', can depend on a variety of factors, including their experience and location. At its core, this role involves medical examinations of the internal processes of the mind, such as memory, perception, learning and language. They investigate how people understand, diagnose and solve problems and make decisions. Cognitive psychologists study the brain to understand how it works in order to develop strategies for individuals with psychological disorders. They make use of empirical data from scientific research instead of clinically based observations to draw conclusions and develop remedial strategies.

What kind of work do cognitive psychologists do?

The work of a cognitive psychologist can vary. Here is a list of tasks and responsibilities you may expect in a typical job description for this role:

  • Diagnose and treat patients with issues related to mental processes and memory loss.

  • Help patients recover from brain injuries.

  • Perform and interpret brain imagery in patients.

  • Provide therapy for patients with mental and emotional illnesses.

  • Assist patients to adopt healthier behaviours through cognitive behavioural therapy.

  • Study and develop useful means to manage mental illnesses in patients.

  • Develop psychometric testing for patients by measuring intelligence, aptitude and personality traits.

  • Advise educational policymakers on structuring learning systems to facilitate learning for students.

  • Work in the legal system and study the mental processes of criminals, witnesses, juries and judges.

  • Conduct research and publish knowledge on human thought processes.

  • Teach and lecture students at academic institutions.

Related: What's the difference between clinical and counselling psychology?

Where do cognitive psychologists work?

Cognitive psychologists work in many settings, including lecture halls, laboratories, government offices and neuroscience facilities. They may work in a collaborative capacity with other psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists, computer scientists and other professionals that work in brain-related fields. If they work in healthcare, then they may work with children, teenagers, adults and elderly persons of any demographic dealing with a wide range of behavioural and mental ailments.

Related: Your guide to psychology jobs and common careers

How to become a cognitive psychologist

If you want to get a job in this field, it may be difficult to know where to start. You can start with these steps:

1. Study for an undergraduate degree

The first step to becoming a cognitive psychologist is to complete an undergraduate degree in psychology or a related field. This typically exposes students to human behaviour, mental processes, perception, sensory encoding, psycholinguistics, problem-solving and statistics, amongst others. If you want to practise as a psychologist, then it's important that the British Psychological Society (BPS) accredits the degree you choose.

Related: How to become a cognitive psychologist

2. Choose a specialisation

There are different research areas in cognitive psychology, and you can specialise in a certain area in order to pursue a specific job. Choosing an area of research and specialising in it early on in your career can increase the likelihood of faster career advancement. It can help you focus on the specific skills required for your desired career specialisation in cognitive psychology. Some examples of specialisations in cognitive psychology include:

  • behavioural neuroscience

  • cognitive modelling

  • developmental science

  • neuropsychology

  • psycholinguistics

  • psychology of reasoning

  • sensory information processing

  • speech perception

3. Complete a postgraduate degree

To practise as a cognitive psychologist, the industry requires that you have a postgraduate degree. If you want to work as a teacher or researcher, then a master's degree may be sufficient. If you want to take up advanced roles, or if you want to treat patients, then your employer may require you to have a doctorate, which takes four to five years to complete. Most postgraduate degrees, including a cognitive psychology doctorate, comprise classroom and clinical training.

4. Gain experience in practice

To become a licenced psychologist, you need to have at least a year's worth of practical experience prior to beginning work on your own. Most psychology degrees incorporate supervised practical courses that provide this training and many doctoral programmes require you to complete at least a semester of practical experience. Internships also provide ways of gaining practical work experience and involve working with a practising psychologist under close supervision.

Related: What Are Psychology Internships and How To Find Them

5. Apply for licence registration

To practise as a cognitive psychologist in the health or care sector, register with the Health & Care Professional Council (HCPC). The registration process involves providing documentation to the HCPC that proves you have the correct level of education and the necessary experience. The council assesses your application in a four-week process and, if successful, you're able to practise as a cognitive psychologist. Once registered, the council requires that you continue your professional development to keep your skills and knowledge up to date.

6. Obtain a chartership (optional)

Becoming a chartered member with the BPS is not a requirement to practise as a cognitive psychologist. Although having chartership status indicates that you have the highest standard of psychological knowledge and expertise. This can boost your career and be beneficial when you're applying for work or even when you're starting your own practice.

7. Apply for jobs or start a practice

Once you become a licenced psychologist, you may wish to start applying for jobs. If you don't want to start your own practice, apply for a job at a previously established organisation. Here are a few of the most common places to apply:

  • academic institutions

  • corporations

  • government policy organisations

  • healthcare institutions

  • human resources departments

  • mental health facilities

  • military organisations

  • school boards

Related: How to become a psychologist in the UK

Useful skills for cognitive psychologists

There are many skills that can help advance your career as a cognitive psychologist, some of which are transferable skills. Employers may look for specific skills when they're recruiting for this role:

  • Active listening: As a cognitive psychologist, you gather a significant amount of your data from listening to patients, so being able to listen well is key. Active listening can help you pay attention to a patient's concerns while also noting body language to develop a more accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

  • Analytical skills: Many of the tasks of a cognitive psychologist require gathering data and using it to identify the source of patient issues. This process requires having strong analytical skills.

  • Attention to detail: Having expert attention to detail as a cognitive psychologist can help you make meaningful observations about patients. This can enhance your diagnosis and help to develop a well-thought-out treatment plan.

  • Communication skills: As a cognitive psychologist, many of your clients will be patients who will communicate with you. It is vital to have strong communication skills to understand your patients to allow you to diagnose them and provide effective remedial solutions.

  • Critical thinking: You are likely to deal with many people practising as a cognitive psychologist and so you may need to improvise and find solutions that are suitable for every patient. Effective critical thinking may help you devise unique solutions that achieve ideal results.

  • Empathy: Empathetic people can relate more effectively and handle problems appropriately. As a cognitive psychologist, you may encounter patients with unique problems, and appreciating each of these problems can help you handle their problems with care.

  • Interpersonal skills: Cognitive psychologists require excellent interpersonal skills to connect with their clients and build good relationships.

  • Problem-solving strategies: To be a successful cognitive psychologist, it's important to have problem-solving skills. Whether you treat patients, perform clinical trials or create policies, most of your work requires identifying challenges and solving them.

  • Research competence: Cognitive psychologists typically take part in studies and experiments, and may also publish findings and deliver lectures to discuss their scholarly contributions.

Related: 10 skills to be a psychologist and excel in your career

What do cognitive psychologists get paid?

Typically, psychologists earn an average salary of £35,692 per year. Actual salaries may vary because of factors such as qualifications, specialisation, experience, employer, industry, location and specific job duties. As an example, a psychologist who runs a private practice may earn more than someone working in a clinic or health care facility, as they can set their own rates.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed. Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at the time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ ‌‌vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organisation‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's‌ ‌experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background, ‌and‌ ‌location.

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