Matters to a Degree

Dr. Nabil Hassan El-Ghoroury

Most psychology graduate schools ask students to specialize. While students may take general courses at first, their later coursework, research and training often focus on a single narrow field of study. This focus allows students to develop expertise and write a thoughtful dissertation that contributes to the literature.

Laser-like focus, however, has its downsides. It limits our ability to discover and apply principles and findings from other areas of psychology or from different fields, such as biology, sociology and public health. If we only read what other scientists in our subfield write, we overlook ideas that could benefit our research and practice. After all, innovations often spring from merging findings in disparate fields. For example, dialectical behavior therapy, a frequently used intervention for borderline personality disorder, combines Western cognitive-behavior therapy with Eastern mindfulness strategies — ideas that are based on the philosophy of opposites and balance. Psychologist Marsha Linehan's ability to mix approaches from different fields and cultures has led to an effective intervention for a disorder many previously considered to be untreatable.

Major funding agencies are also providing incentives to look outside your specialty area, as large grants increasingly go to scientists who can translate new findings into groundbreaking interventions — work that requires interdisciplinary teams of scientists who understand one another's work and language.

As a graduate student, you'll spend most of your time sharpening your expertise, but you can also keep the bigger picture in mind. Practically speaking, you can:

Read Articles That Are Outside Your Specific Field of Study

As you prepare your dissertation, it's easy to get tunnel vision about your topic. However, occasionally reading an article in a different field can get your creative juices flowing. One easy place to start is by reading the American Psychologist, which you receive as a benefit of being an APA member. Read an article or two that are not in your field. If you're short on time, skim the abstracts of review articles in high-impact journals, such as Psychological Bulletin and Current Directions in Psychological Science. And don't forget about news from other sciences, which you can learn about on Science Daily and research blogs.

Drop in on Random Conference Sessions

When you go to meetings like APA's Annual Convention, attend a session that is a stretch for you, or one that is completely outside your comfort zone. You may learn something you can apply to your research or practice. To identify such sessions, look at the references for your dissertation and attend a talk by an author who is cited in one of your references but not in your specific field, such as a developmental or cognitive psychologist for someone studying child clinical psychology.

Take a Class in Another Graduate Department

If you're a developmental psychology student, try taking an education class. If you're a neuroscience student, perhaps audit a comparative biology class. You'll need to clear it with your adviser, but taking classes in other fields will expose you to new topics, give you new ideas for projects and could help you meet future collaborators.

Seek Out Interdisciplinary Training

Consider volunteering as a research assistant on a project in a different field or doing a clinical practicum in a less traditional setting, such as primary care. Working with professionals in a variety of fields exposes you to the challenges they face — challenges that your training may help them address. For example, working with pediatricians and residents in a hospital taught my supervisee about challenges that physicians have, such as how to talk to Latina mothers about general parenting issues in a pediatric primary-care setting, a topic that became her dissertation.

As you can see, looking beyond our silos can expose us to innovative approaches or unique perspectives on issues that we have been studying. It can also reinvigorate our research and clinical work. So, as you become an expert in your subfield, remember to take the time to think expansively. It's worth it.