Science Directions

We insist that psychology is a science. We despair when psychology is not designated so. To a large extent, we have only ourselves to blame. Consider undergraduate education. At most American colleges and universities, psychology is among the most popular majors. We like to think that students are drawn to psychology because of its relevance and interest value. Indeed, this does make psychology a big draw.

Schools vary dramatically in the demands they place on the psychology major. As a general rule, however, the basic science and math requirements tend to be relatively light. It is possible to earn an undergraduate degree in psychology without ever taking college-level courses in biology, genetics or mathematics. Some students are drawn to psychology because it offers a relatively easy major.

If psychology is not taken seriously as a science, perhaps we need to reconsider the scientific rigor we demand of our students and the psychology major. Basic education in any field of science is assumed to include course work in such areas as biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. These are prerequisites for science. Why should psychology not embrace such basic scientific education?

One could argue that such prerequisites for science are neither necessary nor relevant for undergraduate study in psychology. Perhaps this was true at some point in our disciplinary past, but nothing could be further from the truth right now. Student of psychology in the early 21st century cannot claim competence in their knowledge of the field without a good understanding of experimental design, neuroscience and genetics.

When it comes to undergraduate education and the knowledge we presume for a major in psychology, we can set the bar higher.

Undergraduate work sets the stage for advanced education and training in psychology, ultimately leading to graduate degrees. Demands on graduate training in psychology continue to grow. Students are expected to master rapidly expanding areas of knowledge, learn new technologies and be prepared to enter a world of interdisciplinary scholarship and research.

Graduate training programs—especially the PhD programs—are struggling to adapt. Not only must they train capable scientists in specialty areas within psychology, they must also make sure that their students achieve competence in areas outside the immediate specialty—translational research, data mining, neuroscience, genomics and other areas that seem to intersect every aspect of psychology. This is the reality of 21st century psychological science.

A tremendous burden is being placed on graduate training programs in psychology. It is a burden that can be lightened by requiring more at earlier stages of the educational pipeline. Students in every specialty area of psychology should arrive at graduate school with a solid education in basic science. Graduate training programs should demand advanced college-level work in statistics, biology, neuroscience and research methods as an admission requirement.

When it comes to graduate training in psychology and the selection of students to admit, we can set the bar higher.

The very same high bar should apply equally to clinical and practice-oriented areas of psychology. Medical schools demand basic science education of their newly admitted students; psychology schools should do the same.

By setting the bar higher, psychology will earn its rightful place among the sciences.