Presidential Column

Disciplinary Drift: Psychologists’ success in their adopted fields

Among the things not emphasized enough in graduate school is the versatility of a psychology degree in academia. This thought occurred to me during a visit to Wake Forest Medical School to give a talk in the department of neurobiology and anatomy, where my best friend from graduate school is the chair. As psychology graduate students at the City University of New York in the late 1960s, we imagined all sorts of future employment possibilities, but I don’t think we ever considered the type of positions we currently hold. Our situation is not at all exceptional. I can think of dozens trained in psychology who now hold appointments in departments far removed from psychology. In many cases, only a few colleagues even know of their graduate degrees in psychology. Although there is disciplinary drift in all scientific fields, it seems much more prevalent in psychology. What’s more, many psychologists in non-psychology departments have attained high levels of success.

What accounts for the relatively high shift in academic fields among psychologists and the high success rate in the adopted fields? This might be a good topic for a future APS Annual Convention symposium, but for now I can only offer my take on the situation. It seems to me that the answer to both questions harkens back to the training traditionally offered in psychology graduate programs. One learns right from the start that the discipline of psychology has always been opportunistic. The founders of our discipline borrowed from whatever field seemed best suited to explain a particular behavioral problem, whether the field was psychoanalysis, physiology, or mathematics. To a large degree, this reflected the lack of a solid empirical framework for dealing with complex behavioral issues. But it is also the case that the various approaches offered by big-name traditional psychologists (i.e. Tolman, Hull, Spence, Skinner and others) just didn’t provide satisfactory explanations for behavior. This dissatisfaction prompted many trained in psychology to seek other avenues for dealing with behaviorally-relevant issues. The leap from asking how we learn to how learning is stored in the brain is small and entirely logical. And who else but a psychologist would have the audacity to start tinkering with the brain to address this issue, particularly at a time when techniques were crude and seldom effective?

What about the high success among psychologists who have ventured into other fields? Here again I believe that the training received in psychology graduate programs is the key factor. Remember the ABBA method (for non-psychologists, that’s not a Swedish singing group), the constant scrutiny for confounded variables, the repeated measures design, and so on and so forth? What other discipline teaches courses in experimental design and demands, at a minimum, a year-long study of statistics? When it comes to designing experiments there is no one better than experimental psychologists, and this knowledge serves well in whatever scientific field one may chose to enter. We tend to take this for granted, sometimes even trivializing the skills involved in formulating rigorous experiments. But the reality is that many exceptionally trained physiologists and molecular or cell biologists are at times astonishingly deficient in the basic tenets of designing experiments, as anyone with study section experience can attest. Indeed, the best grant reviewers are often those trained in psychology graduate programs, irrespective of their current position.

I have focused on scientific investigation in the academic setting because that’s the arena in which I have spent my professional life. Of course there are many non-traditional venues outside academia, where psychologists have thrived and excelled, and here again it would be useful to have a better picture of these opportunities and accomplishments at a forthcoming APS convention. The fact is that incoming college students, as well as those embarking on graduate programs, have much too narrow a sense of the opportunities afforded by a degree in psychology.

Case in point: I’m searching for bagel chips in my favorite upscale supermarket when I overhear this exchange between a college-age twosome:

She: “So what’s your major?”
He: “I just declared in Psych.”
She: “That’s awesome; I’ve decided to major in Psych!”
He: “Cool. We’ll be able to analyze each other.”

They may be right. The “psych” courses they’ll take might provide mutual insights into their interactions. But it could also be the case that this encounter was but the first step in a long process where one day the no-longer-young man introduces this woman as an invited speaker in a department of neurobiology.


Observer Vol.18, No.11 November, 2005

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