Gerontologist Certification and Requirements
Gerontology lends itself to a fairly simple and straightforward definition: In the narrowest sense, it's the study of aging and issues associated with caring for the aged. But the job designation of gerontologist is much harder to pin down because, in practice, gerontology is a multi-disciplinary field, and a degree in gerontology can lead to any number of career outcomes.
Caring for an aging population requires all kinds of programs and services, from specialized health care in hospitals, clinics, and retirement homes, to community based social work and psychological counseling. You'll also find gerontology program graduates working as event planners, policy advocates, research assistants and financial and business consultants. The Association for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE) even lists "designing products to meet the special interests and needs of older persons" as a potential area of specialization for a gerontologist. What all of these various professionals share -- indeed, what makes them gerontologists -- is a clear understanding of the unique challenges that aging poses, both to individuals and society at large, and the academic training to successfully and compassionately apply that knowledge in the real world.
Gerontologist educational requirements
Because gerontology encompasses such a wide array of disciplines, there are a variety of ways to prepare for and pursue a career as a gerontologist. Two-year associate degree and certificate programs in gerontology and aging services, as it's often called, are available from community colleges and can prepare you for an entry-level position as a personal care aide or an assistant at a counseling center for seniors. The National Association for Professional Gerontologists awards gerontology credentials to graduates from associate degree programs in gerontology, and to students who have completed the equivalent of 24 units in gerontology from an accredited institution.
There are also an increasing number of colleges and universities offering four-year bachelor's degree programs in gerontology -- upwards of 500, according to the latest AGHE tabulations. However, it's also quite common for students to begin undergraduate studies in a related field like sociology, psychology or biology, and then add additional coursework specific to gerontology on their way toward earning a bachelor's degree. Along with academic requirements of the particular discipline, this can include classes in health care administration, medical ethics, research methods and statistics, theories of aging, and the psychology and physiology of aging.
Master's degree programs in gerontology serve a function similar to this specialized study, only on a much higher level. They are usually designed to accommodate candidates who already have completed undergraduate degrees in a variety of areas, from sociology, psychology and biology, to pre-med, nursing and social work.
Benefits of gerontology degrees and certification
It's no secret that, statistically speaking, the US population is getting older by the day. As baby boomers began reaching retirement age in the first decade of the 21st century, the percentage of the population age 65-and-older grew 18 percent, to over 41 million, according the Administration on Aging. By 2030, an estimated 19 percent of the population, or 72.1 million people, will be 65-and-older. That massive shift in demographics has created a significant demand for graduates with degrees and certifications in gerontology.
As in most professional fields, the best and highest paying positions tend to go to candidates with training from an accredited institution, and the skills and knowledge afforded by degree programs in gerontology and subsequent certification. The difference in job outlooks can be significant. A gerontologist working as a personal care aide doesn't have the same earning potential as a gerontologist licensed in social work, and neither is likely to match the salary of a gerontologist qualified for a position as a health service manager. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, from May of 2015, bear that out: Health services managers earned a national average annual salary of $106,070; social workers were at $50.99; and personal care aides at $21,790 (BLS.gov). But, as with every professional related to gerontology, the future is remarkably bright, with higher than average growth rate in the job market expected at least through 2022.
Medical and Health Services Manager, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes119111.htm
Medical and Health Services Managers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/medical-and-health-services-managers.htm
Social Workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211029.htm
Social Workers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
Personal Care Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes399021.htm
Personal Care Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/personal-care-aides.htm
"How Do I Become a Professional in Aging?", Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, 2014, http://www.aghe.org/500216
"A Profile on Older Americans: 2012," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging, Administration for Community Living, 2012, http://www.aoa.gov/Aging_Statistics/Profile/2012/docs/2012profile.pdf
"The Baby Boomers Retirement Crunch Begins," U.S. News & World Report, May 13, 2013, http://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/articles/2013/05/13/the-baby-boomer-retirement-crunch-begins