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Gerontologist Education, Schools, and Career Overview

If you're interested in pursuing a career that can enable you to help the oldest members of the population, the field of gerontology deserves your attention. In the narrowest sense, gerontology is 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 or other related degrees can lead to any number of career outcomes as a gerontologist.

Specializations

Caring for an aging population requires all kinds of programs and services, from specialized healthcare 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.

At a high level, occupations in the field of gerontology can be segmented into two main branches:

  • A social gerontologist might go on to work directly with people in the community, at senior centers or retirement homes, counseling families or organizing activities.
  • A biogerontologist is more inclined toward clinical research or product design. Internships are often a crucial part of the training.

Here are a few of the diverse occupations that can be paired with a specialized focus on gerontology:

  • Health services managers
  • Social workers
  • Physician assistants
  • Speech pathologists
  • Nurses
  • Occupational therapists
  • Physical therapists
  • Audiologists
  • Psychologists

How to Become a Gerontologist

According the Administration on Aging, by 2030, an estimated 19 percent of the population, or 72.1 million people, is expected to be aged 65 and older. This growth in this demographic is likely to lead to a greater demand for graduates with degrees and certifications in gerontology. A four-year bachelor’s degree is generally considered the best preparation for the job market.

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.

Degree Programs

  • Certificate programs in gerontology and aging services can prepare you for an entry-level position as a personal care aide or an assistant at a counseling center for seniors.
  • Associate degree programs in gerontology can qualify graduates for credentials from the National Association for Professional Gerontologists. Credentials may also be awarded by the NAPG to students who have completed the equivalent of 24 units in gerontology from an accredited institution.
  • Bachelor's degrees can be earned in a variety of gerontology-related disciplines such as sociology, psychology or the health sciences. The AGHE even lists anthropology, architecture, and political science, along with pre-med and nursing, as relevant areas of study. Although colleges and universities with bachelor's degree programs specifically tailored to gerontology have become more common, as have institutions offering minors in aging as part of other academic majors, it's common for students to begin undergraduate studies in a related field and then add additional coursework specific to gerontology.
  • Master's degree programs in gerontology are usually designed to accommodate candidates who already have completed undergraduate degrees in other areas, such as sociology, psychology and biology, to pre-med, nursing and social work. Degree programs at this level can be helpful for those seeking the jobs in the field as administrators, project managers and public policy consultants.
  • Doctoral and postdoctoral programs. While a growing number of universities offer Ph.D. degree programs in gerontology, many allow students to specialize in aging within another field, like psychology, social work or economics. Those who complete programs at this advanced level typically pursue careers in clinical practice, teaching, administration or research.

Coursework

Because gerontology is a multi-disciplinary field, biology, sociology and psychology are usually the core areas of study associated with a degree. But the education involved in becoming a gerontologist can embody much more than that. For example, a student in a bachelor's degree program might begin by completing the prerequisites for a biology major, and follow up with more specialized coursework in:

  • Theories of aging
  • Geriatric psychology and physiology
  • Social science statistics and methods
  • Government policy
  • Healthcare administration

Career Outlook and Salary Information

Gerontology includes a wide range of disciplines and it therefore can include a variety of work environments. Like other professions, education, experience, geographic location and even certification can determine how much an individual earns per year.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not specifically provide occupational information for gerontologist careers. Instead, these careers are encompassed within broader occupational descriptions, such as the following ones:

  • Health services managers
  • Social workers
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Physician assistants
  • Speech pathologists
  • Nurses
  • Occupational therapists
  • Physical therapists
  • Audiologists
  • Psychologists
  • Personal care aides
  • Home health aides
  • Medical assistants

As baby-boomers have started to reach retirement age, the number of people aged 65 and older is projected to grow significantly over the next two decades. This upward trend is expected to translate directly to a greater need for those trained in all of the various areas of gerontology.

Sources:

  • 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
  • An Aging Nation, U.S. Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p25-1140.pdf
  • Audiologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291181.htm
  • Audiologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/audiologists.htm
  • Five Questions for Financial Gerontologist Cyndi Hutchins, The Baltimore Sun, July 17, 2014, http://www.baltimoresun.com/business/bs-bz-5-questions-hutchins-gerontology-20140717-story.htm
  • Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes290000.htm
  • Home Health Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes311011.htm
  • Home Health Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/home-health-aides.htm
  • How Do I Become a Professional in Aging?, Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, 2014, http://www.aghe.org/500216
  • 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
  • Medical Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes319092.htm
  • Medical Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes319092.htm
  • Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm
  • Nurse Practitioners, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291171.htm
  • Occupational Therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291122.htm
  • Occupational Therapists, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm
  • Personal Care Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, January 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/personal-care-aides.htm
  • Personal Care Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes399021.htm
  • Physician Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291071.htm
  • Physician Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm
  • Psychologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.htm
  • Psychologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/psychologists.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
  • 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
  • What is a Gerontologist? Virginia Commonwealth University. http://sahp.vcu.edu/departments/gerontology/about-us/what-is-a-gerontologist/

Gerontology Schools