Careers in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

By Rebecca Eldridge
May 25, 2023

If you are like me, the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” is a difficult question. When I was a kid, my answer was always, “I want to be Jack Hanna (America’s famous zookeeper).”  I love animals of all kinds and could think of nothing better than spending my days with them. In my teenage years, I found more things that interested me, such as teaching, psychology, making fancy coffee, travel and exploration, cooking, interior design, and the list goes on and on.

Picking just one thing that I wanted to be forever was an impossible task. In college and graduate school, I changed my program of study multiple times. And then, I found Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). I started off as a behavior rehabilitator (what we call a Registered Behavior Technician or RBT© today) working with kids with autism, and I was hooked! I loved kids with autism, and I loved ABA.

But, in graduate school, I learned that ABA has been used with so many different populations (e.g., kids, adults, military personnel, medical personnel, the general public) to solve so many different world problems (e.g., educational challenges, pedestrian safety, driver safety, effective nurse training programs, pollution, and waste reduction). My mind was blown. There was finally a field I could work in where I didn’t have to pick one thing.

ABA also appealed to my practical worldview – it’s based on science, data, and individual needs and produced viable solutions to many of the problems we face in our communities today. While I could go on about the limitless potential of ABA, I am going to focus on careers related to autism since that has been my life’s work. But ABA is effective for WAY MORE than just individuals affected by autism.

If you are just getting into the field or unsure what adventures could await you, you might consider starting as a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT). This is an entry-level credential requiring a high school diploma or equivalent, 40 hours of approved training and skill demonstration, and a written exam. As an RBT, you would be directly responsible for implementing a treatment plan written by a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) with your clients.

In training, you will learn the basics of ABA and how we use the science to change behavior in meaningful and significant ways, and you get ongoing supervision, support, and training from a BCBA for at least 5% of your work time. How cool is that? In this role, you get to teach skills to help individuals lead more independent and fulfilling lives!

If you already know you love ABA and want to pursue a bachelor’s degree in ABA, you can become a Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA). In this role, you serve as the intermediary between the BCBA and the RBT. This certification requires a more intense board exam, and additionally, it requires extensive college coursework in ABA and over 1,000 supervised fieldwork hours. With all that knowledge and experience, as a BCaBA, you get to help with assessing client skills, writing treatment plans, training RBTs, and ensuring your clients are making progress in socially significant ways.

Still can’t get enough ABA…time for graduate school! BCBAs have master’s degrees with an intense focus on learning the concepts and principles of behavior analysis, applying those techniques to address client needs, and teaching others to implement procedures effectively. In addition to coursework, BCBAs accrue 2000 hours of supervised experience and must pass an intense board exam.

As a BCBA in the field of autism, you typically get assigned a caseload of clients that desperately need your expertise to develop treatment programs to help them reach their goals and overcome obstacles. You also get a team of RBTs to train and support in implementing your treatment programs, and sometimes you get support from a BCaBA. You might work in homes, schools, clinics, hospitals, or the community to help your clients where they need it most.

ABA is a lifelong career for many people, and everyone’s path into and through ABA looks different. Some folks come in knowing they want to become a BCBA. Others have never heard of ABA and “fall” into the field just wanting to help people. However or wherever you start, each position can be lifelong as you hone your skills and adapt to the ever-changing needs of your clients and community.

You can also expand your skillset, gain more experience and education, and work your way up to leadership roles. After the master’s level BCBA, you can pursue a doctorate degree in ABA and become a BCBA-D (doctoral level). Many people with BCBA-D credentials are leading large organizations, teaching in universities, or actively researching more effective and efficient ways to apply the science of ABA to the needs of the world. So, what do you want to be when you grow up?

In the field of ABA, you don’t have to choose. You can try out lots of different roles, populations, or locations, and you can open yourself up to new opportunities as they present themselves. As we say in ABA, “All data is good data, even if it tells you that you need to do something different.”

If you’d like to learn more about our career opportunities, please click here.

More information

Click here to be directed to the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB).


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