The Changing Image of Psychology: The Rise of Applied Psychology

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education show tremendous growth in the number of psychology degrees granted at all levels. Over the past 30 years, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded each year has more than doubled, as has the number of doctorates. The number of master’s degrees has nearly tripled. In contrast, the number of undergraduate and graduate degrees awarded in economics, political science, and Sociology has remained stagnant.

What becomes of all these new psychologists? There has been a striking decline in the proportion of psychologists entering academic positions in favor of applied positions in business and government. Applied psychology, once overshadowed by more traditional careers in psychology, is at the heart of a dramatic change in our field. Two speakers at the Western Psychological Association’s annual meeting in Vancouver in May addressed the growth of applied careers in psychology and what educators can do to prepare their students for these careers.

Stewart Donaldson, dean of the school of behavioral and organizational science at Claremont Graduate University, focused on the growing interest in nontraditional careers. In exploring this trend, Donaldson noted that some students are attracted by the flexibility to create their own positions, some are excited by the interdisciplinary nature of applied jobs, and others are drawn by salaries that are generally higher than those offered in more academic careers. Donaldson emphasized that students’ expectations at the beginning of their graduate training do not predict what they want by the time they graduate. This implies that graduate training should not proceed under the assumption that students will follow in their professors’ academic footsteps, even if that is what students initially believe. He said that students should not be separated into academic and research tracks. Instead, all students should be given the tools to successfully apply the science of psychology in a variety of settings.

So what tools do applied psychologists need? Dale Berger, also of Claremont Graduate University, attempted to find this answer by examining the careers of applied psychologists. In his presidential address at the 2003 Western Psychological Association, Berger, a Charter Member of APS, gave his audience an overview of the varied careers available in applied psychology. It has always been common for organizational psychologists to enter applied settings, frequently offering consulting and evaluation services in the business world. However, Berger emphasized that opportunities are open to psychologists of all subdisciplines. For example, Douglas Kent was a graduate student in social psychology when he helped a friend with a data analysis at the Westminster Police Department in southern California. At the time, the department was developing a program to curb the emergence of Vietnamese gangs. Kent conducted such an impressive evaluation of this program that the police asked him to do the same for their domestic violence program. Kent pursued funding from the U.S. Justice Department, and eventually he established the office of research and planning within the police department. By the time Kent left, the office employed four researchers and several trained interviewers. Although Kent has transferred to a program evaluation position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Westminster Police Department’s Office of Research and Planning is still thriving, now under the management of Julia Jim, a doctoral student of social psychology.

Berger told the stories of several other applied psychologists in a variety of fields; he spoke of a cognitive psychologist who uses her research training to work on international projects with the World Health Organization, a developmental psychologist employed as a Research Analyst for a Los Angeles County program dedicated to improving the lives of young children, and a social psychologist employed as a Senior Research Consultant of automotive consumerism at Toyota’s U.S. headquarters.

Berger identified three common threads that ran throughout these stories. One thing that many of these case studies have in common is that these applied psychologists created their positions. For example, Toyota was unaware of how badly they needed a research consultant until Jeff Mercer came to show them what consumer research could do for their company. Creating your own position requires a high level of insight and confidence in one’s abilities. Applied psychologists need to be keenly aware of the skills they possess, recognize opportunities to use these skills, and have the confidence to convince others of the valuable contributions these skills can make.

Several of Berger’s applied psychologists also noted how important it is to have a wide breadth of knowledge. For example, Katie Fallin, the developmental psychologist working for Los Angeles County, has worked on projects dealing with child abuse, early literacy, parent support, child health and health insurance, non-profit management, program evaluation, and community strengthening. This displays a greater breadth of knowledge required in most academic positions.

Each of Berger’s applied psychologists emphasized the importance of a strong background in research principles, methods, statistics, and psychological science. Methodology expertise is a core component of each job and is often the defining characteristic that makes the psychologists valuable to their employers. Closely related is the ability to communicate statistical and theoretical findings to colleagues who have not had scientific training. Miriam Manley, a social psychologist with her own education consulting organization, noted that it is easy for her to hire people who can run high-level statistical analyses, but it is very difficult for her to find people who can run such analyses and present the results articulately to lay people.

Berger believes that graduate psychology programs are already doing a pretty good job giving graduates some of the tools they need to succeed in applied settings. For example, training in research gives students a solid foothold in the scientific method, critical thinking, research design, and statistical analysis, all components of the research principles so important to applied psychologists. However, there are some areas in which psychology programs could better prepare their students. First, students need to develop a breadth of knowledge both within and outside of their chosen disciplines. Graduate students should be encouraged to develop a breadth of knowledge within their own fields before delving into specialized areas for their dissertations. It is also beneficial for students to expose themselves to fields outside of psychology. Unlike academic psychologists, applied psychologists are almost certain to work with people from a variety of disciplines. If students are going to work with people from fields such as education, management, sociology, and political science, it is important to understand the knowledge, theory, and methodology of these fields.

Psychology programs should also help students find mentors and experiences in applied settings. It is easy for academically-minded students to find mentors; virtually every professor is a potential mentor. It takes more effort to find mentors for students interested in applied careers.

By the time students receive a PhD, they have ample experience in the academic world. They have conducted research, are familiar with the perks and demands of an academic lifestyle, they’ve begun to establish a professional network, and many have experience teaching. In contrast, most students graduate with very little experience in applied settings. Such experience can help students decide whether an applied career is a good fit, develop professional networks, and establish credibility in the field.

Finally, to truly embrace applied psychology, both students and faculty must be tolerant of ambiguity. As is evident from Berger’s case studies, many applied psychologists hold jobs that did not exist while the students were preparing for them.

Although both WPA addresses focused on how academic psychologists can foster applied psychology, it is also worth considering what applied psychology can do for academic psychology. For better or worse, academic institutions often value their professors based on how applicable these professors’ skills are outside the ivory tower. The most highly paid fields are generally those that are commonly applied in business and industry; engineering and management stand out as examples.

Universities must pay engineering and management professors well because these professors can easily find employment outside academia. In contrast, professors of the humanities are often the lowest paid because their job prospects are generally considered to be limited to the university. The growing recognition of the versatility and marketability of psychology degrees will further bolster psychology’s standing within academia. As psychology becomes a more applied discipline, it is likely to change psychology’s image in ways that are beneficial for everyone.

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