Feature

Quantitative psychologist Mark Appelbaum, PhD, represents a dying breed--or at least a retiring one.

"There aren't enough of us quantitative people, and many of us are getting to be more senior," says Appelbaum, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego. "We're now getting to the point where the first piece of mail we open is the one that has the balance in the retirement account."

Appelbaum's not the only one who's concerned about an extreme shortage of psychologists trained in statistics, measurement and methodology. APA and the field as a whole worry that even as demand for experts in quantitative psychology is soaring, the number of students entering the subspecialty is decreasing. APA and others hope to change that. Many students aren't aware of the field, and those who are often lack mathematical ability or interest. The ever-increasing shortfall means that there aren't enough quantitative psychologists to train the next generation and ensure that all psychologists can properly analyze increasingly sophisticated research.

Now APA and others are launching initiatives designed to lure young people into an area they say offers enormous opportunities in venues ranging from academia to research institutes to testing companies (see sidebar).

A supply/demand mismatch

It wasn't always like this.

In an influential 1990 article in the American Psychologist (Vol. 45, No. 6, pages 721-734), Leona S. Aiken, PhD, Stephen G. West, PhD, and colleagues describe the heyday of quantitative psychology. Psychologists of the 1960s, they write, saw themselves as leaders in statistical, measurement and design issues. Psychology departments often had quantitative specialists, and graduate students were well equipped to handle the quantitative aspects of their research. By 1990, that legacy had faded along with the number of students aware of, interested in and able to enter the field.

Fast forward to today, and the situation is even bleaker. Although Aiken and West are still analyzing data from their latest survey of PhD programs, they estimate there are fewer than 10 major programs producing quantitative psychologists.

While the launch of some new programs has kept the total number of training opportunities fairly stable, says West, an Arizona State University psychology professor and editor of APA's Psychological Methods journal, everyone is having a hard time attracting students.

"A lot of the major quantitative programs over the years have died," says West. "We're one of three larger programs in psychology in the country, and we produced one PhD this year."

Why is it so hard to attract students to quantitative psychology? One problem is the fact that quantitative psychology faculty are "few and far between," says Aiken, who chairs the Arizona State University quantitative concentration in psychology. Another is the paucity of American students with sufficient interest or ability in math. Even those who are qualified may not pursue quantitative training, since undergraduate mentors and counselors are often unfamiliar with the subdiscipline. Some even steer students away. Meanwhile, some quantitative programs recruit highly qualified international students. On graduation many of these students return home; others remain in North America but often take research rather than teaching positions.

Yet the demand for quantitative psychologists is booming, say Aiken and West. In academia, they note, even departments that previously had no quantitative specialists are now seeking out psychologists who can teach a quantitative curriculum, and competition is so intense that schools sometimes go years without filling positions or give up entirely. Research centers--academic, government and private sector--are snapping up as many quantitative psychologists as they can get, desperate for those with the training to handle complex new research methodologies. Also, the educational testing industry is booming.

Wide-ranging implications

That mismatch between supply and demand has wide-ranging implications.

Take teaching: "There's a shortage of faculty trained in quantitative measurement today that's likely to lead to an even greater problem in the next generation of faculty," says Paul Nelson, PhD, deputy executive director for education at APA.

Because of that shortfall in training, researchers and clinicians alike often lack the skills they need to interpret ever more sophisticated science. Grant review committees now increasingly demand a methodological expert on the project team.

"There's a worry about the dumbing down of quantitative understanding in psychological research," says Steven J. Breckler, PhD, APA executive director for science.

For researchers, the danger is not really understanding one's own work. Quantitative methods are becoming more sophisticated and specialized, says Breckler, and the shortage of properly trained quantitative specialists is slowing progress.

"There are a lot of new developments on the horizon and not enough brainpower being put to bear on them," he says.

And statistical software can't compensate for a lack of training, emphasizes Harris Cooper, PhD, a Duke University psychology professor who spent 26 years in the quantitative program at the University of Missouri.

"There's more to critically analyzing data than just plugging it into a software package," he says, noting that people are increasingly relying on short workshops for quantitative training. "You've got to be able to interpret what comes out and do a careful check about whether or not the results make sense."

Finding qualified reviewers for journal submissions is another problem.

The analytical techniques used in manuscripts are increasingly complex, says Appelbaum, former chair of APA's Publications and Communications Board.

Yet there are few psychologists with the expertise--and the time--to review such manuscripts. The same people get asked again and again, admits Appelbaum, and the payoff isn't high. Reviewing manuscripts and grant proposals helps you shape the field, he says, but it doesn't help you get tenure. Plus, the sheer number of journals is increasing.

"APA has over 45 editors, and they all have in their Rolodexes the name and address of the same 24 people--almost all of whom are over the age of 60," says APA Publisher Gary R. VandenBos, PhD.

Attracting students

Fears about the shortage prompted APA's Publications and Communications Board to propose the creation of a joint task force with APA's Board of Scientific Affairs and Board of Educational Affairs. The three boards will discuss the possibility of a formal proposal when they meet in November.

Others already have ideas. The No. 1 problem is quantitative psychology's lack of visibility, says Roger E. Millsap, PhD, past-president of APA's Div. 5 (Evaluation, Measurement and Statistics) and a psychology professor at Arizona State.

Millsap points to himself as an example. Originally intending to be a clinical psychologist, he took a required statistics class as an undergraduate and got hooked--without knowing that quantitative psychology even existed.

"I happened to find out by accident," he says. "It wasn't a high-profile field even then." That experience helped convince Millsap that raising the field's profile must become a priority, a subject discussed at a symposium he organized at APA's 2005 Annual Convention in August.

Once students discover quantitative psychology, they need to hear how useful and exciting it can be, experts say.

"The key to getting bright graduate students interested is to pique their interest and show them how statistics and measurement principles are helpful for all research and applied problems in psychology," says Deniz S. Ones, PhD, chair of APA's Committee on Psychological Tests and Assessment and the Hellervik Professor of Industrial Psychology at the University of Minnesota.

The committee hopes to create a brochure about career opportunities for psychologists specializing in testing and assessment, she adds.

Emphasizing career opportunities is key, notes Aiken. As the number of psychologists with quantitative skills shrinks, their job opportunities and remuneration go up.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.