Starting with the pioneering work of Charles Darwin, Ivan Pavlov, and George Romanes, comparative psychology has grown into a popular branch of the diverse psychology field for studying the behavior and mental processes of animals other than humans.
As its name suggests, the sub-specialty area is focused on comparing the key similarities and differences between species to shed light on evolutionary relationships. Comparative psychologists often work to develop a deeper understanding of human psychology by studying the evolution, heredity, adaptation, learning, and mating behaviors of animals. If you're interested in blending biology with social sciences, below we've created an overview of this unique field to determine if becoming a comparative psychologist is right for you.
What Comparative Psychologists Do
Within an evolutionary framework, comparative psychologists work to understand the ultimate bases of behavioral diversity by studying the communication, cognition, recognition, social, and sensory systems of different animal groups. Many will also study the various physiological, psychological, and environmental components involved in these animal behaviors. Comparative psychologists will typically be involved in conducting research, publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals, applying for research grants, and employing their findings to improve the overall well-being of animals they've studied. Most comparative psychologists will also teach courses for the next generation pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees in psychology.
Where Comparative Psychologists Study
Employment opportunities for comparative psychologists are as wide-ranging as the animal species that they can study. That being said, the largest percentage of comparative psychologists can be found working as faculty members on university campuses or leading research teams at private laboratories. Studying animals in captivity on nature preserves or in zoos is rather common, but some comparative psychologists work freelance on their own schedule to research animals in their natural wild habitat. Comparative psychologists can work virtually anywhere that uses their knowledge in experimental psychology, animal behavior, and behavioral ethology to expand our understanding of non-human creatures.
How to Become a Comparative Psychologist
While there are job opportunities available at the bachelor's degree level for lab assistants, most careers related to comparative psychology will require you to have a doctoral degree. Typically, the pathway towards becoming a comparative psychologist will require at least four years of graduate school beyond an undergraduate degree in psychology.
Ph.D. programs will generally require extensive coursework related to animal cognition, human operant behavior, research design, psychobiology, ethics, anti-predator behavior, and teaching methods. You'll also need to complete an independent doctoral dissertation project related to animal behavior and defend it before a group of department professors. After graduation, it's suggested that you become a member of the American Psychological Association's Division 6 for unparalleled professional networking and increased career prospects.
Overall, comparative psychologists conduct animal research experiments to increase our understanding of our non-human counterparts and ourselves. From Pavlov's work studying the salivation of dogs for developing the classical conditioning theory to Harry Harlow's research with rhesus monkeys for highlighting the significance of social companionship, comparative psychologists have made ground-breaking discoveries throughout our history. If you choose a career in comparative psychology, you may also leave your mark on the field by illustrating important mechanisms of animal behavior that impact our life as human beings too.
Additional Resource: The Evolution of Psychotherapy