Senior director's column

Global Imperative? Defining Needs

It is time for us as a discipline to think creatively about how to foster an international psychology and to explore outside the box to facilitate international opportunities, especially for those at the beginning of their psychology careers.

by Merry Bullock, PhD, Senior Director
APA Office of International Affairs

Today’s students and young professionals are international to a degree undreamed of by earlier generations. The internet, global social networking, the ease and lower costs of long distance travel, and interaction in an increasingly diverse and international student population, combine to make this the most international generation ever. Defining and meeting the needs and expectations of this increasingly international group offers challenges to any profession. How does psychology fare?

What are International Needs?
For psychology, from the perspective of the APA, considering the American context, there are at least three kinds of international needs -- one is in the subject matter of psychology – an internationally informed curriculum, literature, and range of topics. A second is exposure to international venues – sampling international colleagues, settings and research, for example through attending conferences or international workshops. A third is delving deeper into international experience through opportunities to live and work internationally.

Beginning with this issue of Psychology International we will carry articles addressing each of these themes –in this issue there is a summary of the recent, APA-sponsored Education Leadership Conference with internationalization of psychology education as its focus (see also; in the next issue we will address the second issue, international exposure and, exchange with a look at attendance trends for international conferences and international attendance at APA’s annual convention.

The third area, international experience and opportunity presents a complicated picture. The general, conservative sentiment is that international professional activity – whether research, teaching or applied – is something best pursued “later” in a career pathway – yet one of the most frequent queries from students and early career psychologists is “how can I combine international experience with my education / research / internship / work?” Clearly as a discipline we are not yet meeting those perceived needs. How we think about addressing such international needs may, of course, differ depending whether we are talking about research, teaching or practice. But identifying and addressing these needs may also require breaking set and facing some common challenges to psychology’s approach to international opportunities.

1. There is little funding for international research, especially for younger invstigators. Recently the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) at the US National Institutes of Health teamed up with the University of Minnesota to sponsor a two-day “Conference on Challenges and Tensions in International Research Collaborations” that addressed the legal, academic, cultural and interpersonal challenges to creating and maintaining international research collaborations. It was clear that despite wide disciplinary variation in the extent of international collaborations, there are similar core issues across disciplines. Similar to conclusions from the workshop sponsored within psychology last year (see the conference presenters articulated the need for international collaborations to aspire to be partnerships, mutually beneficial to all participants, rather than touristic research or collaboration. They noted a need for attention to transparency in assumptions in all phases of a research project, to be sure that expectations and values as well as procedures and methods are shared among investigators. And they pointed out the value of undertaking such collaborations early in a research career.

Interesting among the presentations were talks from funders – most notably the Fogarty Center at the National Institutes of Health – who pointed out that there are funding programs for health-focused researchers at all levels, from student through senior faculty (see and that there is growing awareness of the need to support people early in a research career. That said, finding support for sustained international research, especially for the important early seminal stages, especially for behavioral research, remains a challenge.

2. There is little departmental support for international research. A commonly lamented feature of international research is that it is slow– it takes time to forge international partnerships, and the conduct of research abroad often takes longer for both pragmatic, as well as conceptual reasons. There is a belief among younger internationally minded researchers, apparently reinforced by faculty mentors, that this means international work should be postponed until later in a career when tenure and promotion are no longer an issue.

3. There are few possibilities for clinical training or practice abroad. The vision of many students is of a professional life that includes an international clinical internship and easy transfer across national borders for professional work. The reality is that such mobility is rare indeed. One reason for this is, of course, the nature of the discipline. Much of psychology is relationship based, and much of psychology clinical work requires expertise grounded in a culture and language. Without these skills, many argue, one should not engage in direct clinical intervention. This, along with important impediments to professional mobility because of licensing or regulatory constraints, does limit the possibilities for straightforward international practice.

Next Steps
Given the real challenges – of funding, support and opportunities, it is no wonder that psychology as a discipline offers fewer opportunities for its constituencies than related (health science, social science) disciplines. In conversations about how to encourage international collaboration and exchange, one often hears that generating a truly international psychology will require a culture change – in seeing international activities as a viable and valuable career path, in understanding that international collaborations often do take more time and effort, in valuing the input from our international colleagues, and in valuing the richness that international experience brings to domestic scholarship and applied work.

It is time for us as a discipline to think creatively about how to foster an international psychology and to explore outside the box to facilitate international opportunities, especially for those at the beginning of their psychology careers. It is time to develop partnerships that offer even short term experience as consultants and trainers or work with NGOs, the Red Cross, and university programs, as well as global organizations such as the World Bank, UNESCO and the like. Although these experiences may be new to the traditional career path, they provide a participatory entree into the international world, and offer a flavor of international possibilities.

From where we sit in the international office it is crucial to begin to address the sea change in expectations and desired career trajectories with serious thought about how to develop concrete opportunities. More students in this generation than ever before have passports and have used them; more students in our schools are themselves international; more attend international meetings and more believe there is an imperative for us to be professional citizens of the world. Ψ