Board Certified Behavior Analyst Certification: Complete Guide

Are you considering a career in Applied Behavior Analysis and wondering if certification is right for you (see our post Becoming Certified in Applied Behavior Analysis for certification options)? Much of the advice available online is provided by individuals and companies trying to sell you training, or even trying to recruit new BCBAs – so almost everyone will tell you that working as a BCBA is a great career. But is it the best career for you?

Board Certified Behavior Analyst is a graduate-level certification in behavior analysis. Individuals who hold this certification are independent practitioners of Applied Behavior Analysis and are able to oversee the work of Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT) and Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCaBA). BCBAs can work in a variety of positions where behavior-analytic services are needed. They may create treatment plans for children or adults with autism and other disabilities, or use their knowledge to help clients manage stress, anger and anxiety. This level of certification isn’t easy to reach, however once obtained it is fairly easy to maintain. Individuals with this designation are highly in demand and pay for individuals with this certification reflects this need.

So, is becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst for you, and if so, how do you get there?

  1. What does a Board Certified Behavior Analyst do?
  2. Where do BCBAs work?
  3. What does it take to be a BCBA?
  4. Is working as a BCBA a good career?
  5. Do you have to be an RBT before you become certified as a BCBA?
  6. How much does BCBA certification cost?
  7. Is working as an BCBA stressful?
  8. How much do Board Certified Behavior Analysts make?
  9. How long does it take to become certified as a BCBA?
  10. Is it hard to become an BCBA?
  11. How can I become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst?
  12. How can I find a BCBA to complete the supervised fieldwork?
  13. How can I prepare for the BACB exam?
  14. How do I maintain certification once I obtain it?

What does a Board Certified Behavior Analyst do?

A Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) studies the behavior of children or adults, and creates a plan for reaching certain goals using the science of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). They may be tasked with reducing challenging behavior that interferes with an individual’s ability to learn, participate in social settings such as the classroom, or function independently. Or their role might be to teach their clients new skills such as self-care, play skills, communication and more.

While ABA is often associated with treating individuals with autism, BCBAs can work with individuals with any disability – or even those with no disabilities. Because of their unique understanding of behavior, BCBAs make excellent trainers or coaches and can often be successful in fields not previously associated with Applied Behavior Analysis. Many find careers in fields such as fitness or life coaching; and because the science of behavior is universal, some BCBAs even work with animals.

A BCBA can assist clients 1-on-1 in a clinic, school, home or out in the community. They often support parents, teachers and others by providing training in important ABA concepts.

Common tasks for BCBAs include:

  • Meeting with patients to observe and assess their behavior
  • Meeting with families, teachers or doctors to discuss the patient’s treatment and progress and recommend ways to address behavioral issues
  • Developing individual plans to reduce, maintain or increase specific behaviors
  • Helping clients set and meet behavior goals
  • Keeping detailed notes of patient sessions and documenting progress
  • Doing research and applying findings to their work
  • Providing training for parents and staff
  • Supporting RBTs, BCaBAs and BCBA candidates by providing supervision

For BCBAs who travel to various locations to provide services, they find they spend a good deal of time driving, setting up activities, cleaning up, and talking to parents or others providing care for the child – almost more than time actually spent working with the child.

Flexibility

Your experience will vary depending on your position and the opportunities that are available in your area. Some BCBAs find a lot of flexibility and are able to do at least part of their tasks from home, such as writing treatment plans. They may go to a clinic, school or client’s home for direct supervision, training or treatment by appointment while other work can be completed on their schedule (so long as they meet deadlines).

Other BCBAs work full-time in a clinic or school setting and may only be compensated for billable time (see the question How much do Board Certified Behavior Analysts make? below for more on pay structures for BCBAs). They may find themselves working in excess of 40 hours per week to meet billable hour requirements while struggling to find time to complete nonbillable tasks that are also important.

Hours

Some positions will require you to work full-time while others earn enough so they only work part-time. Unless you’re providing services in a school, you may find the highest demand for services to be after school hours.

BCBAs may be employees or choose a position as a contractor (see our post BCBA Compensation: An Interesting Survey of 478 Committed BCBAs for more information on pay structure for BCBAs).

Where do BCBAs work?

BCBAs can be found in virtually any setting where children or adults with disabilities receive education or services. As the appreciation for the benefits of Applied Behavior Analysis grows, the demand for BCBAs grows in a wide variety of areas. You can find BCBAs in any of these locations:

  • Home
  • School
  • Community
  • Outpatient clinic
  • Inpatient clinic
  • Hospital
  • Business

Anyplace where behavior-analytic services are provided, a BCBA is required. However, many BCBAs are finding careers out of these traditional locations as well.

What does it take to be a BCBA?

Becoming a BCBA requires years of education and supervised field experience (see the question How can I become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst? below for details), and only around 65% of candidates pass the exam on their first attempt (see the question Is it hard to become an BCBA? for more). But as important as the educational rigors of becoming a BCBA are the challenges you’ll face once you obtain certification. Working as a BCBA is extremely rewarding but it can feel isolating, overwhelming and exhausting. To be successful as a BCBA you must:

  • Enjoy academic reading and research
  • Learn and work independently
  • Have endless patience
  • Prioritize effectively

Academic reading and research

As a BCBA you not only need to obtain at least a graduate-level degree, you must also continue your education for as long as you maintain certification. The BACB requires 32 hours of continuing education credits every 2 years as of January 1, 2022 (see the BCBA handbook for full requirements). Additionally, it’s best practice to actively follow new research in the field of ABA through reading research articles and listening to podcasts. Often BCBAs are faced with unique situations that require investigation. All recommendations in treatment plans should be backed by solid research and many new BCBAs find this to be hard to fit in with their other duties.

Learn and work independently

While many of a BCBA’s tasks involve working with clients, parents, teachers and other caregivers, much of your time is spent working independently. As a BCBA you might find yourself working in an organization where you are the only individual with this training, having no one to turn to for guidance when you need it. They’re left to find answers on their own, depending largely on research articles, often wondering if they’re making the best decisions. For these reasons, many BCBAs feel isolated and unsupported.

It’s important for BCBAs to network with others in their field to fill this void. Many groups exist on Facebook, including our community. Ask questions, talk about your concerns and find support among your peers.

Patience

Often BCBAs find themselves working with clients who have significant challenges, or may even be aggressive. Progress in reaching goals can be slow, and individuals may even regress periodically, often causing BCBAs to question the effectiveness of their plans. A child’s progress can be impeded by health issues, an argument with a parent or sibling, medication and factors outside the control of the BCBA, however even knowing this it’s hard not to have doubts about your recommendations when progress isn’t being made.

New candidates can anticipate these challenges and plan for them. What they often don’t expect is the need for patience for not only the individuals they work with, but also parents, teachers, other therapists, management, insurance companies and more. Many BCBAs get frustrated by the demands of insurance companies, parents who cancel or other outside forces that impact the care they want to provide their clients. Management may demand an unrealistic number of billable hours, leaving BCBAs to wonder how they can ever provide the support they want to their clients. Collaborating with teachers and other therapists that may challenge, or even disregard your plan adds to the feeling of impotence.

This is another area where BCBAs can benefit from networking and joining a community. Join our group on Facebook to share your experience and get advice from others who have been there.

Prioritize Effectively

New BCBAs often expect that they’ll spend most of their time working 1-on-1 with clients or training staff and parents. They know a portion of their time will be spent writing treatment plans, sitting through meetings and performing administrative tasks but they’re often surprised at how much is required of them. In the end, many end up working well over their planned 40 hours a week just to get through these tasks.

Many might not see time management as the solution to this particular problem, but research shows that creating systems that provide a sense of control over time at work leads to reduced stress and greater job satisfaction (Claessens, Van Ferde, Rutte, & Roe; 2004). This is the stuff not taught in school that’s essential for success in a role as a BCBA. In our course Become a Master Prioritizer we share the secrets of creating this structure so you can spend more of your time working on the tasks you love.

Claessens, B. J., Van Eerde, W., Rutte, C. G., & Roe, R. A. (2004). Planning behavior and perceived control of time at workJournal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior25(8), 937-950.

Is working as a BCBA a good career?

If you’ve decided you have “what it takes” to be a BCBA, working as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst can be both emotionally and financially rewarding. As a BCBA you can make a life-changing impact for your clients and watch them reach goals others may have thought impossible. Because the demand for BCBAs is high, you can often have your pick of positions, and compensation matches this demand (see the question How much do Board Certified Behavior Analysts make? below for more on salary).

According to the Behavior Analytic Certification Board (BACB) , demand for BCBA certification has grown exponentially, especially since 2017. As of 2020, there are 31 states that require behavior analysts to be licensed to practice, and this number is likely to grow. While demand for BCBAs in California dropped from 2019 to 2020, this remains the state with the highest demand with over 7,000 positions with this certification, more than double the state of Massachusetts which comes in 2nd. Georgia saw the highest growth at an increase of over 100% between 2019 and 2020 when the number of positions for this certification grew from 783 to 1579. The top 15 states for BCBA positions is in image 2 below.

Image 1: Annual demand for BCBA certification from 2010-2020

Image 2: Demand for BCBA/BCBA-D certification by sate (comparison of 2019 to 2020)

Do you have to be an RBT before you become certified as a BCBA?

The BACB does not require you to obtain an RBT certification before you apply to become a BCBA, however you may opt to begin your work in Applied Behavior Analysis as an RBT before committing to BCBA Certification. Here’s what you should consider:

Start with RBT CertificationObtain BCBA Certification
You have no experience working with individuals with disabilitiesYou have experience with individuals with disabilities
You are unfamiliar with Applied Behavior AnalysisYou have a working knowledge of Applied Behavior Analysis either through experience or self-study
You have a high school diploma but little or no college creditsYou already have a bachelor’s degree or higher
You want to work in the field as you work toward a higher certificationYou already work in a related field, or are going to school full-time
You want to “test out” working in the field before committingYou know you want to work in the field of ABA

How much does BCBA certification cost?

There are several factors that make up the cost of BCBA certification including:

  • Which graduate degree program you select
  • Whether you pursue a doctoral degree
  • Which certification pathway you choose (see How can I become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst? below)
  • If you obtain part or all of your supervised hours through your employer
  • Whether your employer pays for the exam

With these variables in mind, the table below lists the expenses you will incur for certification at each level. Costs can vary widely depending on your selections and these charges should be used only as a guide (fees can be found in the applicable handbook: BCaBA and BCBA and are subject to change, figures as of 2021).

Type of ExpenseBCaBABCBABCBA-D
Training or College DegreeVaries – Bachelor’s RequiredVaries – Master’s RequiredVaries – Doctorate Required
Supervision/Competency Assessment75 hours @ $65/hour ($4,875)100 hours @ $65/hour ($6,500)100 hours @ $65/hour ($6,500)
Exam$125$125$125
Exam Rescheduling and Cancellation$59-69$59-69$59-69
Exam Retake Application$120$140$140
Certification Fee$175$245$245
Preliminary Coursework Evaluation$100$100$100
Preliminary Degree EvaluationN/A$100$100

Is working as an BCBA stressful?

BCBAs who are able to match their skillset to a position would likely not consider their job to be stressful. However, as is the case with most positions, you will likely find yourself tasked with duties you dislike or that fall outside your area of expertise. How much of your daily workload falls into this latter category can have a significant impact on your stress level.

Many BCBAs find the business side of their role to be the most stressful, since the reason they got into behavior analytics was to help people yet they find so much of their time eaten up by these types of tasks:

  • Generating documents
  • Attending meeting
  • Documenting billable hours
  • Making phone calls and sending emails
  • Insurance company billing requirements

Others might find these common challenges stressful:

  • Parents who repeatedly cancel, or cancel without notice
  • Clients who are aggressive (hitting, kicking, biting, spitting, etc.)
  • Issues with urine, feces, vomit, etc.
  • Lack of progress with clients
  • Staying current with research

Depending on your employer there can also be issues with:

  • Poor communication
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Unclear roles
  • Unreasonable rules

Stress can be reduced by finding a position that aligns most with your core strengths and working for organizations that share your vision and values. However, this is sometimes difficult to find and you may discover after you start challenges you didn’t anticipate. If this happens, it’s good to connect with others in the field for support and advice. You can join one of the many groups on Facebook, or the Master ABA Community to share your experience and get advice from others who have been there.

How much do Board Certified Behavior Analysts make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors BCBAs earn a median salary of $47,660. However, Zip Recruiter calculates an average salary of $87,000 for individuals specifically with a BCBA certification.

US Bureau of Labor Statistics :

Ultimately how much you make depends on the work you’re doing and the organization for which you work. Because BCBAs are able to work independently, without oversight, you also have the opportunity to start your own business with unlimited salary potential.

Salary by Location

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics the states with the highest salaries for substance abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors are Nevada, Utah, Alaska, New Jersey and Oregon. These might not be the states you would expect to have the highest salaries for any position, however the image below demonstrates that there several other states that pay toward the top end of the scale:

Pay Structure

When searching for a position as a BCBA it’s important to know that each organization’s pay structure is unique. We conducted a survey and were surprised to discover how much they vary:

  • Some companies select a salary or hourly rate that “bundles” the billable and non-billable tasks
  • Some companies pay a lower hourly rate for non-billable tasks
  • Some companies pay a salary for non-billable time plus an hourly rate for billable activities
  • One company paid an hourly rate for all time, regardless of whether the activity was billable or not

While the majority of BCBAs who responded were paid a full-time salary, a position that pays a lower hourly rate but pays for all activities may not generate as much salary as a higher hourly rate for only billable tasks if the BCBA is efficient at completing the non-billable tasks. See our post BCBA Compensation: An Interesting Survey of 478 Committed BCBAs for more information on pay structure for BCBAs.

How long does it take to become certified as a BCBA?

Because of the educational requirements, most candidates spend about 6 years working toward certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. This includes a 4 year undergraduate degree followed by 18 months to 2 years for the graduate degree. Many BCBA candidates accumulate their supervised hours while completing their degree, so upon graduating they just need to take the exam.

Is it hard to become an BCBA?

The requirements to obtain a BCBA certification aren’t easy to achieve. At minimum you must have a graduate degree in an ABI-accredited program (or a Master’s degree with behavior-analytic coursework completed in addition to the degree). You also need to meet the supervised fieldwork requirement (generally 100 hours of direct supervision), and pass an exam containing 175 questions (with a reported pass rate of only 65% as pictured below).

How can I become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst?

Beginning January 1, 2022 BCBA candidates have 4 pathways they can follow to reach certification (candidates applying before January 1, 2022 can refer to the BCBA Handbook for requirements):

Supervised Fieldwork Requirements

Regardless of the path chosen, you are required to meet the following practical fieldwork requirements:

What does this mean? Approximately 100 hours will need to be spent directly supervised by a qualified supervisor (generally another BCBA with at least 1 year). Typically this is received through your employer, however the BACB recommends candidates receive supervision from multiple supervisors. This will allow you to access the perspective of other individuals in the field.

While it might be tempting to rely solely on free supervision provided through your job, Many BCBAs feel unprepared once they complete their certification and they’re on their own. Use this requirement to your advantage to learn all you need to know.

Note that individuals pursuing the Post Doctoral pathway the fieldwork requirements are reduced:

Below are the requirements for each fieldwork type:

For more information on the fieldwork and documentation requirements see our post BCBA Supervised Fieldwork-Required Documentation.

Pass the Exam

The exam questions are broken down into the following categories:

How can I find a BCBA to complete the supervised fieldwork?

Many BCBA candidates opt to receive their supervised fieldwork experience through their employer, however in many cases it’s best to work with an outside BCBA for either some or all of your supervised hours. The BCBA recommends a hybrid approach and doing so has many benefits including providing access to a BCBA:

  • With whom you can be complete open
  • Who has experience different from other BCBAs from whom you might receive supervision
  • With a different style from other BCBAs
  • Who has unique strengths

By receiving supervision from more than one BCBA you will have a more well-rounded experience and be better prepared to provide supervision once you obtain certification. Our post How to Find a Great BCBA Supervisor explains the process of searching the BACB website for a BCBA who is willing to provide supervision.

Don’t forget to complete the required documentation. Check out our post BCBA Supervised Fieldwork-Required Documentation for full details.

How do I maintain certification once I obtain it?

All BCBAs must stay up-to-date on the BACB Task List and any change (see our post Identifying Changes to the BACB Task List for the BCaBA/BCBA Level for more information). Additionally, the BACB requires 32 hours of continuing education credits as of January 1, 2022. This must include 4 CEUs in ethics and 3 CEUs in supervision (for supervisors). There are 3 types of activities in which you can engage for CEU credits:

To submit your CEU hours and submit your recertification application visit the BACB Portal. You will also need to pay the required fee of $215 for a BCBA or $290 for BCBA-D certification (plus late fees if applicable):

See the BCBA handbook for full requirements, policies and procedures.

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