Cover Story

A Chinese curse/blessing for psychology graduate students might read like this: May your education be general, and may it be specialized.

Shaping your psychology education is no easy feat. The requirements can be daunting, and you may not know what you want to specialize in. Add the fact that the field is hugely broad and increasingly subspecialized, and you have a recipe for some sleepless nights.

"Graduate school is like a candy store," says Christopher Loftis, past chair of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS). "You want to explore all of the very appealing research and career options available to psychologists, but it can be hard to be practical and settle on a direction that accomplishes the immediate goal of finishing your doctorate."

Of course psychology students of different stripes experience the specialization/generalization issue differently. Students on experimental tracks usually start with a specific research area in mind, while practice students tend to develop areas of concentration and specialty later on. But, a few strategies can help you focus your studies, get the most out of your education and prepare you for an enriching career, no matter what your bent, says Loftis, who's doing his internship in pediatric neuropsychology at the Baltimore-based Kennedy Krieger Institute.


Given the increasing complexity of the field, many graduate students are tempted to specialize as quickly as possible. An oft-repeated piece of advice from seasoned students and professionals, therefore, is this: Don't limit yourself.

"Some students see anything that's not directly related to their thesis topic as slowing them down," notes psychology professor J. Bruce Overmier, PhD, who has mentored scores of experimental students at the University of Minnesota. "But when you open yourself to more possibilities, you have more avenues for solving problems."

With pre-set tracks and preselected mentors, research students are especially prone to this bias, Overmier notes. But this mindset may short-circuit learning by foreclosing access to the wealth of scientific theories and techniques, he says. It can also block career opportunities by narrowing students' vision about possible job avenues and limiting what they can offer at job interviews.

To combat overspecialization, Overmier suggests asking your adviser if you can work in other labs with other faculty and students: Most, if they're good scientists, will agree.

For example, Overmier meets regularly with an interdisciplinary cognitive science group and an interdisciplinary brain and behavior group, and he encourages his students to do the same.

On the intellectual plane, Overmier adds, the approach makes you a better scientist who's able to tackle problems with greater insight and sharper tools. It's also a career move: Major federal science-funding agencies are pushing for good multi- and interdisciplinary projects, and "the more you know, the broader your spectrum and opportunities for movement," Overmier says. "If you're a one-trick pony, you can only fit in one little notch in these kinds of programs."

Certainly, an interdisciplinary focus is what keeps third-year doctoral student Patrick Bennett interested in his chosen subspecialty, the social psychology of religion.

"We pull in faculty from a lot of different areas-psychology, sociology, health psychology, family studies," says Bennett of his department at the University of Nevada, Reno. "It gives us a lot of options for studying the breadth of different phenomena."


While practice students tend to get a more generalist education than scientists, they too can fall prey to the "specialize quick" bug, says Linda Knauss, PhD, director of internship training at Widener University's Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology.

Widener's clinical program addresses the need for generalization by building in strong practicum and internship requirements, she notes.

David Ballard, PsyD, a recent Widener graduate and APAGS chair, is a case in point. "I had never thought about doing forensic work until I started doing some of my rotations," says Ballard, a seasoned management professional who held positions in retail and entertainment and, on entering graduate school, initially thought he wanted to work with adults. But one of Widener's requirements is a rotation with children, and Ballard soon discovered a passion for working with young people. As a result, he now works with youth who have been abused, neglected or have behavioral problems at Assessment and Treatment Alternatives, a community-based outpatient psychiatric clinic in Philadelphia.

Tapping another strategy, Mayday Levine, a fourth-year doctoral student at Antioch New England Graduate School's psychology doctoral program stepped outside of program requirements to broaden her horizons. She deliberately chose a practicum in an area that didn't interest her-neuropsychological assessment-to balance her school's more humanistic slant on patient care.

"I felt I'd better expose myself to different ways of operating as a psychologist," she says. "At Antioch, we gravitate toward a more holistic, client-driven model, and this placement is really and truly medical. I think it's going to push me in ways I don't like to be pushed."


Staying open to the general has the ironic added benefit of helping you discover specific interests and specialties, as Ballard discovered. Other ways to find specialty niches include talking with faculty and students who are doing things you're interested in; educating yourself on market forces that are influencing the field (see A bull market for creative grads); and reading journal articles, specialty texts and Web sites on topics of interest, including APA's graduate education Web site:

Some schools provide concrete avenues to specialization; Widener, for instance, offers an array of concentrations and joint-degree options designed to give students the maximum practical edge once they hit the job market. Ballard, for example, got concentrations in organizational and forensic psychology as well as a master's in health and medical services administration, all of which help him in his present job.

Bennett found his niche in the social psychology of religion through a combination of his own interests and those of faculty at his undergraduate institution, George Fox University.

"If you're going to spend the rest of your life in teaching or research, you need to find something you can really be passionate about," he says. "When I started getting involved with the social psychology of religion, I found I was infinitely interested in it-there are a lot of different aspects I can study and find interesting."

Once you determine your areas of focus, nurture them into larger career opportunities, those involved say. To do that, select good mentors, advisers and colleagues, says Loftis, by picking faculty who have clear boundaries, a respectful attitude and a willingness to share authorship when appropriate.

Another way to fuel your interest is to join professional and policy groups relevant to your topic areas. When Bennett joined APA's Div. 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology), for example, cutting-edge topics and interesting people opened up to him that wouldn't have otherwise, he says. Loftis, too, expanded his professional vision by doing an assistantship on Medicaid topics at the University of Florida, an experience that fueled his desire to pursue a congressional fellowship in Washington, DC, he says.


Once your interests solidify, make sure you get a depth of training, Widener's Knauss advises. "You want to be sure you're competent in the area you say you are competent in," she says.

The most official way to specialize is to become board-certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP). While APA's Commission for the Recognition of Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology (CRSPPP) recognizes the 11 specialty areas listed at, not every area has a specific credentialing process. Although there is no single answer to how much training is required to be considered competent in a specific area, Knauss adds, it should be substantive-certainly more than one or two continuing-education workshops.

But that specialization focus comes later, reiterates Cynthia Belar, PhD, APA's executive director for education.

"Students don't always understand why they need breadth," she comments. "But part of the reason is so they learn how to learn, so they aren't just trained like technicians or blacksmiths who are out of business when change occurs."


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, NY