Next time you're considering skipping stats class, think again. Quantitative expertise might be your ticket to standing out in a crowded field of new doctorates. All psychology graduate programs require coursework in statistics and quantitative methods, yet a dwindling number of students specialize in quantitative psychology — a diverse area that includes research and development in areas such as statistics, measurement and methodology. Since 1990, the number of first-year students pursuing a doctorate in a quantitative area has declined by 50 percent, according to research published in January's American Psychologist (Vol. 63, No. 1) and led by Leona S. Aiken, PhD, a psychology professor at Arizona State University (ASU). At the same time, she notes, demand for psychologists with a strong quantitative background has skyrocketed. "ASU has five PhDs graduating this year in quantitative psychology and all five already have wonderful jobs that they got quickly," says Aiken.
Why it's hot:
Quantitative psychologists pervade nearly every subset of the field, and they are critical to psychology's advancement as a science, says Aiken. As research questions become more complex and diverse, so too must the methodologies used to answer them. For example, the rise of growth-curve and multilevel modeling of longitudinal data has provided psychologists with new perspective on how children develop over long periods of time, and it has had a huge effect on the field of developmental psychology, Aiken says. In addition, the area of measurement — another quantitative psychology specialty — underlies high-stakes testing, she notes. In fact, a team of psychologists recently strengthened the SAT's connections to school curriculums while preserving its underlying score scale.
Innovations like these have been rapid for such a small field, but they illustrate the tremendous need for quantitative psychologists throughout the discipline, says Glenn Milewski, PhD, a 2004 graduate of Fordham University's psychometrics program.
"It feels like every time you open any journal in quantitative psychology, there's an article about a new breakthrough in the field," Milewski says. "What's scary is that the number of people who can really understand and use those developments is dwindling."
What you can do:
Students trained in quantitative psychology can pursue careers in almost any area, Aiken says. They conduct their own research and help researchers in a variety of fields design experiments and interpret their results, Aiken says. Quantitative psychologists work as faculty at major universities, as researchers at testing companies and medical centers, or at private research firms and government agencies.
Today's shortfall of quantitative psychologists has left many faculty positions in the field unfilled as older faculty retire. In addition, research centers at major universities and colleges continuously seek experts in measurement, statistics, research methodology and program evaluation, Aiken says.
Among the most common private-sector employers for newly trained quantitative psychologists are test-publishing companies such as College Board, ACT and Pearson, says Milewski, a product manager with College Board. These psychologists design tests for educational purposes, personnel selection and psychological assessment. Their work helps determine who qualifies for mental health services, who gains admission to college, which applicants are considered for jobs and who gets certified to practice in certain professions, says quantitative psychologist Marcia M. Andberg, PhD. Policy-makers also use the results of educational and large-scale assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of educational systems, she adds.
Federal, state and local government agencies call on quantitative psychologists to evaluate the effects of government programs and the skills of government employees, says Ilene Gast, PhD, a senior research psychologist with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. She says her skills in test design and validation help the agency make more selective hiring decisions that reduce employee turnover.
"Managers want to know what the bottom line is," Gast says. "A quantitative background gives you the tools you need to tell management why assessment tools are so valuable."
Salaries for quantitative psychologists vary widely depending on employment sector, Aiken says. For instance, a nine-month academic salary at a top research university in a metropolitan area starts around $65,000, according to an APA salary survey.
A new doctorate-holder accepting a job with the government could expect to earn about $55,000 per year, and a senior government researcher might earn $120,000 or more, says Gast. Private sector salaries tend to start a bit higher, Milewski says. Most test publishers, for example, offer new quantitative recruits between $85,000 and $111,000 per year, he says.
How to get there:
Many graduate programs prefer applicants who have taken college-level calculus and linear algebra as well as coursework in psychology. Undergraduates interested in applying to quantitative programs should also consider taking graduate-level statistics courses, says Michigan State University psychology chair Neal Schmitt, PhD.
But this desirable math background shouldn't deter students from pursuing quantitative careers, say Gast and Aiken.
"By no means is a math major necessary," Aiken says. Areas within quantitative psychology vary in the amount of mathematics that is necessary, and students may boost their math skills in graduate school.
While a degree in psychological measurement or statistics is preferred, a degree in nearly any subfield of psychology with many advanced classes in measurement and statistics could be acceptable for employment in the test-publishing industry, Andberg says. Those not graduating from a quantitative program should find an adviser to direct them to course work that will prepare them for the field, she adds.
Schmitt recommends that students get as many data-intensive experiences as possible — by conducting a master's thesis, participating in a capstone project or serving as a research assistant — where they are required to conceptualize a research problem, select an appropriate design and analyze data. They should also consider participating in quantitative workshops and serving as teaching assistants for research methods or statistics classes.
"The more quantitative training you can get, the better," says Schmitt, president of Div. 5 (Evaluation, Measurement and Statistics).
Pros and cons:
The variety of work and high demand for statistical and mathematical expertise are major draws for specializing in quantitative psychology, says Schmitt.
"You gain the instant respect of colleagues when you can do things that are helpful in their own research areas," he says. In addition, the fact that there are a relatively small number of experts in quantitative psychology allows early career psychologists and even graduate students to meet and do research with top leaders in the field with relative ease, Milewski says.
These perks, however, do come with some costs. Due to their small numbers and high demand, quantitative experts face heavy workloads, and they often struggle to balance their own research with helping graduate students and colleagues with data analysis, Aiken says. These additional demands can be particularly challenging for new faculty who are seeking tenure.
"You have to learn how to pick and choose the work you get involved in or you'll lose your way," Aiken says. "You have to be a strong manager of yourself."
By Amy Novotney