Behavior Specialist Careers: Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a behavior specialist career? Get real job descriptions and salary info to see if becoming a behavior specialist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as a Behavior Specialist

Behavior specialists, which include fields like social work and counseling, are professionals who have obtained training to assist individuals with a range of disorders, such as autism, oppositionality and ADHD. Keep reading to consider more pros and cons:

Pros of a Career as a Behavior Specialist
Good job outlook for several behavioral specialist occupations*
There are numerous overlapping education paths that can qualify for these professions (bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree in fields like social work, psychology, education, counseling, etc.)**
Flexibility and variation in job duties (may work with autistic children, individuals with emotional disorders, teenagers with inattention; may interact with patients, evaluate data, work with databases, collaborate with other professionals, etc.)**
May work in various settings (private practice, government agencies, hospitals, mental health centers, substance abuse rehabilitation facilities, etc.)*

Cons of a Career as a Behavior Specialist
Vague career title (a behavior specialist may refer to professionals with varying functions and responsibilities, making it somewhat difficult to pin down salary figures, educational requirements and/or employment numbers)*
Potentially extensive education (many specialist positions require at least a master's degree)*
A license may be required, which involves a graduate degree, an extensive amount of supervised clinical work, an exam and continuing education*
Potentially long, unconventional hours and on-call duty (specialists may be required to work on nights and weekends)*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Online job postings from December 2012.

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Behavior specialists are professionals who have obtained training to assist individuals with a range of disorders, such as autism, oppositionality and ADHD. These professionals are responsible for a variety of tasks, such as designing treatment plans, conducting behavior evaluations, performing administrative work and facilitating. This line of work may also require you to travel to and from client homes or other facilities.

Job Prospects and Salary Info

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn't explicitly categorize behavioral specialists, so solid employment and salary information for this profession are rather difficult to pinpoint. However, by considering the job outlooks and salary numbers for several professions within the field, you can get an approximate idea of your earnings potential. Between 2012 and 2022, the BLS predicts that the national employment of marriage and family therapists would increase 31%, mental health counselors could see 29% growth, and social work positions in all fields (including family, school, healthcare and substance abuse) were expected to go up by 19%.

In 2014, the BLS reported the mean annual wage of school, family and child social workers in the U.S. was about $46,000. At that time, the annual wage for those social workers in the bottom 10% of earners in the field was about $27,000 or less, while it was about $72,000 or higher for those in the top 10%. By comparison, the mean annual wage of marriage and family therapists was about $52,000, with the bottom 10% earning about $30,000 or less and the top 10% earning about $79,000 or more. Mental health counselors earned a mean wage of about $44,000. The lowest 10% of earners made about $26,000 or less, while the highest 10% of counselors brought home approximately $67,000 or more in 2014, also per the BLS.

Career Skills and Requirements

Behavior specialists can work with a range of individuals, from children and adolescents to the elderly. The area in which you specialize depends on your employer and the clientele it services. Many employers require specialists to hold at least a master's degree in a field related to their intended area of practice. Educational programs that can prepare for behavioral work include social work, therapy, counseling, psychology, human services and related fields. In addition to formal education, behavior specialists are often required to hold state licensing, the particulars of which may vary by state.

There are many kinds of credentials that employers may require of behavioral specialists. A couple of the more common ones are Qualified Mental Health Professional (QMHP) and Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). You're considered a QMHP if you are a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), or a licensed psychologist. Other credentials that jobs might request include Certified Counselor, Mental Health Counselor and Certified Autism Specialist. Requirements for these credentials vary, though you typically need at least a graduate degree plus professional experience or supervised fieldwork. Mental health counselors must have a master's degree and 2,000-4,000 hours of clinical experience, while marriage and family therapists need a master's degree and two years of professional clinical work. Clinical social workers need a master's degree and either 3,000 hours or two years of supervised clinical work. Passing an examination is typically the last step to earning certification, though you'll usually need to periodically complete professional development workshops or continuing education courses to maintain your certification.

Useful Skills

You'll need to rely on a number of technical and soft skills to successfully complete your professional tasks. These can include the ability to:

  • Effectively conduct conflict resolution
  • Listen actively
  • Manage multiple tasks simultaneously
  • Creatively and efficiently solve complex problems
  • Empathize with patients and family members

Job Postings from Real Employers

A December 2012 search conducted on Indeed.com revealed several job posts for all types of behavioral specialists. Particular education and certification requirements varied depending on the employer. Most employers required candidates to hold a graduate degree and have prior professional experience in the field. In addition, many applicants were required to undergo criminal background checks. Below are a few summaries from actual postings taken from that search:

  • A human services company in Pennsylvania advertised for a full-time behavioral specialist with at least a master's degree in social work, psychology education or a related field. The successful applicant also had experience treating autistic individuals and an ability to conduct behavioral assessments. Additionally, the employer wanted someone with supervisory and administrative skills and a valid driver's license.
  • A government agency in Virginia sought a full-time behavioral specialist with at least a bachelor's degree in a field related to human services and one year of professional experience in treating children with severe emotional disorders. The QMHP credential was also required. Acceptable candidates would also need a strong clinical background in the field.
  • A Seattle-based international health services organization advertised for a behavioral health specialist with a master's or doctoral degree in counseling, psychology or a related field plus an official license or certification relevant to the area of study (such as Licensed Social Worker or Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist). In addition, the successful candidate would have 1-3 years of professional experience working with disabled, elderly and other high-risk clients. Applicants needed to be bilingual and have prior experience working in a multicultural health setting.

How to Stand Out

An effective way to distinguish yourself as a behavioral specialist is by obtaining board certification through the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB), since this proves your expertise and credibility. As stated above, some employers may require applicants to obtain this credential; however, in situations in which it isn't required, it may give you a leg up on the competition. The BACB offers two levels of credentialing: Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) and Board Certified Behavioral Analyst (BCBA)

The BCaBA requires at least a bachelor's degree; either 500 hours of intensive practicum work, 670 hours of practicum work or 1,000 hours of supervised fieldwork; and successful completion of an exam. The BCBA credential requires at least a master's degree; either 750 hours of intensive practicum work, 1,000 hours of practicum work or 1,500 hours of fieldwork; plus successful completion of an examination. In order to maintain the BCaBA, you'll need to complete at least 24 hours of continuing education every three years; the BCBA requires 36 hours every three years.

Other Careers to Consider

Psychologist

If you don't think that the salary of a behavior specialist will be enough for your taste, you may consider becoming a psychologist. In 2011, the mean annual wage of clinical, counseling and school psychologists practicing nationwide was about $73,000, per the BLS. Greater education requirements come along with a higher salary though: psychologists typically need to earn at least a doctoral degree, complete a professional residency and hold licensure in order to practice. Some psychologists, like industrial and organizational psychologists, can obtain employment with just a master's degree, but research and independent practice positions mandate a doctorate. Another pro of a psychologist career is that you have various sub-fields of practice to choose from, like clinical psychology (which deals with behavior), school psychology, forensic psychology, developmental psychology and social psychology. Another bonus of this career field is that the job outlook is expected to be faster than average from 2010-2020, with 22% growth, according to the BLS.

Rehabilitation Counselors

If you'd prefer to treat individuals suffering from physical as well as mental disorders, you may consider a career as a rehabilitation counselor. These professionals treat individuals with a range of disabilities. Patients may include veterans, addicts, the elderly and individuals suffering from autism. You evaluate patients' disabilities and then help them adjust to daily life tasks and reclaim independence, often working with a team of healthcare professionals. Rehab counselors are usually required to hold at least a master's degree. In addition, some employers require you to hold a license and/or certification. The BLS estimates that the national employment of these professionals would grow by 28% from 2010-2020. Unfortunately, your salary could be lower than that for the behavior specialist jobs discussed above. In 2011, the mean annual wage of rehab counselors practicing nationwide was about $37,000, according to the BLS.

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