Master’s in ABA - Is it Worth it?

You’ve heard of applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy. It’s recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health, the surgeon general of the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a number of other federal agencies and professional organizations. But what does a career in ABA look like, and more importantly, what will you study in school before becoming an ABA therapist?

Sponsored Online ABA Programs
Simmons University

Earn your master's in behavior analysis online in as few as 23 months from Simmons University. ABAI-verified; No GRE required.

Request more information from Simmons University
University of Dayton

You can earn a master's in applied behavior analysis online from University of Dayton in just two years. Bachelor's required.

Request more information from The University of Dayton
Pepperdine University

Complete Pepperdine University's online master's in applied behavior analysis in less than two years. No GRE required.

Request more information from Pepperdine University

Sponsored

A master's in ABA may help prepare aspiring professionals to positively impact lives through their observations, assessments and research in such specialty areas as autism and intellectual disorders, behavior gerontology, behavioral pediatrics, organized behavioral management, treatment of substance abuse disorders and more.

For those looking to begin or advance their careers in the field of ABA, a master’s degree in ABA will likely be required for a host of positions. That’s because a graduate degree is the minimum education requirement for the Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) certification. A 2017 study by the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) notes that this credential establishes entry requirements into the profession and signals to employers and clients that each requirement has been met. The BCBA certification, granted by the Behavioral Analyst Certification Board (BACB), is for independent practitioners and those who supervise assistants and technicians helping to implement behavior-analytic interventions.

Whether you end up in a supervisory role or as an independent practitioner, you may focus your work on any one of the subspecialties mentioned. Particularly in the area of autism and intellectual disabilities, ABA therapy led by BCBA professionals is often hailed as an effective, evidence-based treatment option for young children on the spectrum as well as those with other developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome. What’s more, research reveals that ABA treatment can yield results throughout a patient’s lifespan. For older individuals with behavioral or intellectual disabilities, ABA therapy works by teaching essential behaviors so they can function effectively at home, in school, at work and in the community.

While the decision to earn a master’s in ABA often comes down to personal goals and interests, it’s important to consider how your desired program might benefit your career—from the coursework to any hands-on experiences to networking opportunities. In this guide, we’ll provide some insights into the field and cover a few reasons why you might want to earn a master’s degree in ABA.

What is ABA and What Do Behavior Analysts Do?

Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization, describes applied behavior analysis as a type of therapy based on the science of learning and behavior. Therefore, the guiding philosophy for ABA is behaviorism, a premise that attempts to improve the human condition through behavior change, with behavior itself being the primary focus. The ABAI explains that, even beyond autism and developmental disabilities applications, behavior analysis has led to discoveries that have been successful in addressing socially important behaviors, including drug use, healthy eating habits, workplace safety and education.

Because the ABA field is expansive, behavior analysts may work in a variety of settings performing a wide range of tasks. Besides meeting with clients, their responsibilities might include researching and studying how biological, pharmacological and experiential factors influence human behavior, or in some cases, animal behavior. In doing so, they hone in on aspects of life that reliably influence the behavior of individuals. This is particularly relevant to the field as a whole since the goal of therapy or treatment is usually to acquire adaptive behavior or remodel problematic behavior.

Applied behavior analysts often begin the treatment process by assessing their clients needs. From there, they use a combination of techniques to reach a desired outcome. According to the Association for Science in Autism Treatment, some common ABA interventions include:

  • Applied Verbal Behavior.
  • Computer-assisted Instruction.
  • Fluency-based Instruction.
  • Incidental Teaching.
  • Modeling.
  • Peer-mediated Social Skills Training.
  • Picture Exchange Communication System.
  • Self-management.
  • Small Group Instruction.
  • Video Modeling.

There are a number of other therapy techniques ABA professionals use. How can you learn about them? Master’s programs, including online master's degrees in applied behavior analysis, focus on a broad and important set of ABA skills and treatment methods that can be applied in a variety of careers and industries. Designed for busy professionals, students in online programs need not put their lives on hold to obtain their master’s in ABA.

Reasons to Get a Master’s in ABA

How do you know if a master’s in ABA is the right choice for you? Comparing degree program outcomes with your goals might help you figure out if a master’s in ABA is best for you.

According to the Association for Professional Behavior Analysts, behavior analysts require specialized training, including the empirical identification of functional relations between behavior and environmental factors, known as functional assessment and analysis. The long-term goal of the behavior analysis is the design, implementation and evaluation of instructional and environmental modifications that lead to socially significant improvements in behavior. Students who enrolled in a master’s in ABA learn how to engage in the direct observation and measurement of behavior and environment involved in the field. In classes, students may explore contextual factors, operational procedures, positive reinforcement, stimuli and other elements that can help people develop new behaviors, encourage existing useful ones, or decrease existing problematic ones.

There may be multiple aspects of applied behavior analysis that appeal to you, including using real-world applications of learning theory and social interactions to improve lives. If you want to contribute to the body of research within the field or if ABA therapy interventions pique your interest, a master’s in applied behavior therapy may be a fit for you.

Because ABA techniques function across a number of environments, a master’s in ABA may be a flexible advanced degree for those in the behavioral health field—and that’s just one reason why you might be interested in this path. For example, the May Institute, a nonprofit organization serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), other developmental disabilities and neurobehavioral disorders, uses ABA in the following settings:

  • Homes.
  • Schools.
  • Places of employment.

So, there are a number of factors that may motivate you to pursue a master’s in ABA. Some common reasons for enrolling in a master’s in ABA program are:

  • You want to work with children and adults with ASD. Applied behavior analysis was first used for the treatment of individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism. Today, this practice area continues to receive recognition. The principles of ABA support individuals with autism and their families in a variety of ways, such as training how to communicate and interact with other people, developing self-control, improving self-management skills and skills for daily living, learning how to play with others, improving academic skills, reducing aggression, and building independence.
  • You find gratification helping different types of people with problem-solving. Behavior analysis has been used to help various kinds of learners gain different life skills, including methods for living a healthier lifestyle and learning a new language. Using their people skills, BCBA professionals forge trusting relationships with clients to help them achieve short- and long-term goals. Witnessing a client’s progress (no matter how big or small) might be the thing that draws you to this profession.
  • You are interested in the science, methodology and applications that go into behavior analysis. Scientific research drives applied behavior analysis interventions. Naturally, core courses in a master’s in ABA program expose students to the scientific principles and procedures that help to improve socially significant behaviors in meaningful ways. This might appeal to people with an interest in direct observation or methods of behavior and environment measurement.
  • You are seeking BCBA certification. To become certified as a BCBA (and potentially provide behavior-analytic services as an independent practitioner), you must have a graduate degree. BCBAs often have supervisory roles in addition to such responsibilities as conducting assessments, reviewing data, designing and updating intervention programs, training staff, writing reports and meeting with caregivers and other stakeholders.
  • You are seeking a supervisory role in the ABA field. A master’s in ABA with a BCBA may open doors to supervisory jobs in behavior analysis. According to the BACB, supervisors provide oversight to registered behavior technicians (RBTs) and board certified assistant behavior analysts (BCaBAs). The difference between a BCBA vs. BCaBA is that the latter is an undergraduate-level certification in behavior analysis, while BCBA holds a graduate degree and can therefore practice without supervision. The BCaBA must be overseen by a BCBA or BCBA-D (doctoral-level BCBA).

Specialize in a Variety of Areas: Career Paths for Behavior Analysts

You may be familiar with the role ABA therapists play in early childhood education and in supporting individuals with ADS or other developmental and intellectual disabilities outside the classroom. But did you know this career path may offer you more than that? There are a number of specialty areas and work settings you may consider as you research employment prospects and begin mapping out your career—all of which will allow you to observe behavior, conduct functional behavior assessments and implement and adjust treatment plans to meet your client’s goals.

So, where might ABA therapists look for employment? Behavior analysts may work on an array of social, business and community issues. Below is a small selection of potential positions, as detailed in a 2013 article in Perspectives on Behavior Science. Published as The Behavior Analyst from 1978 through 2017, Perspectives on Behavior Science is the official publication of the ABAI.

  • Sports Coach/Certified Personal Trainer: Behavioral analysis concepts, principles and techniques may be used to enhance athletic performance and the experience of athletes and teams. Common goals might include learning new skills, reducing persistent errors and problem behaviors, improving competition performance and motivation, increasing concentration and confidence, and fostering adherence to a healthy diet.
  • Substance Abuse Counselor: Using behavioral approaches and principles, counselors can prevent and treat the misuse of drugs and alcohol and the associated psychosocial problems that often accompany addiction and abuse. Behavioral treatments are implemented in primary care facilities, community-based specialty care clinics, Department of Veterans Affairs facilities and in research settings.
  • Human Resources Manager/Organizational Behavior Management Professional: Employing the ABA subspecialty Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), these professionals focus on assessing and changing the work environment to improve employee performance and workplace culture, resulting in meaningful and sustainable behavior changes as well as improved business outcomes. OBM managers and consultants work in a variety of industries, including human resources, manufacturing, finance, education, government and retail. If you’re interested in an OBM-related job, you may consider becoming a consumer behavior analyst. A BACB fact sheet [PDF, 61KB] explains that these analysts focus on improved customer satisfaction and retention, cultural integrations and increased revenue and profits.

Another job option is that of a criminal profiler. The FBI hires behavioral analysts to assist with a host of tasks like identifying crime scene behavior, interviewing offenders and developing investigative strategy based on behavioral science principles.

You can learn about related career paths by using online resources and contacting professional organizations and certified BCBAs.

Job Outlook and Growth

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not list a separate entry for applied behavior analysts in its Occupational Outlook Handbook. However, it does track substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors. From 2019 to 2029, the BLS expects these counseling jobs to grow 25%, much faster than the average for all jobs..

Counselors can be employed in a variety of settings, including family and individual services, hospitals, residential facilities and government agencies. They earn an average annual salary of $46,240, though compensation can vary depending on factors such as location and industries. The median average salary for government counselors, for example, was $52,720 in 2019.

According to a labor insight database assessment conducted for BACB by Burning Glass Technologies [PDF, 463 KB], demand for behavior analysts holding graduate-level certifications increased by over 4.2% from 2010 to 2020, with a 17% increase from 2019 to 20201. This may indicate a growing need for professionals with a master’s in ABA in various industries.

1 Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2021). US employment demand for behavior analysts: 2010-2020. Littleton, CO: Author. Return to footnote reference

Last updated February 2021.