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Ranking Graduate Programs in Psychology: APA Works for You Behind the Scenes…

It is often APA's "behind-the-scenes" efforts in science, education, and advocacy that accomplish important and long term goals for the discipline of psychology.

You hear a lot about APA's initiatives to advance science and education programs within psychology, and you hear a lot about APA's activities to advance psychological science's vital interests in the national agenda. You are less likely to hear about APA's "behind-the-scenes" efforts in science, education and advocacy arenas. Yet it is often these efforts that accomplish important and long term goals for the discipline. In this behind the scenes role, APA does many things - it monitors, provides information, serves as a conduit and catalyst, and sometimes as a friendly curmudgeon in attempting to be sure that psychology is well represented. One recent example is an upcoming activity to evaluate and rank graduate research programs, and APA's activities to ensure that how psychology graduate programs are counted and evaluated accurately captures and reflects the discipline.

The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences publishes reports assessing research doctorate programs across the United States. The first, landmark report was in 1982 (Jones, Lindzey, Coggeshall, 1982), and has been followed with periodic surveys of factors contributing to graduate program quality. The most recent was completed nearly a decade ago (Goldberger, Maher, and Flatteau, 1995).

These surveys are important - although not as well known or popular as the US News and World Reports of college programs, they are used in much the same way - to rank and rate graduate programs across diverse science fields. When the last survey was done, many complained that Psychology was not well represented - because clinical programs and other applied programs were not included in the evaluations, nor were emerging programs such as cognitive science.

During the last year, the NRC has been preparing for the next survey, to be conducted in 2005. The preparation has been carried out by a committee named "Committee to Examine the Methodology for the Assessment of Research Doctorate Programs" under the aegis of the NRC Board of Higher Education and Workforce. This committee has focused largely on issues of survey methodology, as its name implies, and on identifying the emerging fields and subfields of doctoral education and research (Brainard, 2003).

One of the issues before the committee was to come up with a list/taxonomy of fields and subfields that would be sampled in the survey. There was well-founded concern that psychology would not be appropriately represented. Psychology does, of course, present the committee with problem cases, and is somewhat of an anomaly among learned disciplines because of its breadth. Under the name "psychology" doctoral programs are distributed throughout many different university colleges or schools (e.g., arts and sciences, education, medicine, and engineering). In addition, there are both research (PhD) and professional (PsyD) doctoral degrees called "psychology". This means that identifying the rubric for finding all and only research programs is a complex task. There was concern that the committee would solve this task by adopting an overly restrictive definition of what programs would be assessed (e.g., largely omitting applied programs or programs in clinical psychology).

Late in 2002, APA staff (Merry Bullock, Science Directorate and Paul Nelson, Education Directorate) met with NRC senior staff to the committee responsible for developing the methodology and design of the 2005 survey, Charlotte Kuh and James Voytuk. One of the reasons for this meeting was to express APA's interest in the evaluation process and to address ways to identify psychology graduate research programs for their committee's taxonomy of sub-fields across the various science disciplines. At this early stage in the process, the sub-fields of psychology selected for study were limited and not in keeping with developments in the discipline, including newer interdisciplinary subfields (e.g., cognitive science) or applied subfields (e.g., I/O, clinical). In fact, the early drafts of the taxonomy listed only three areas under psychology.

As one of the outcomes of this first meeting, APA staff suggested mechanisms for identifying research doctoral programs, and provided demographic information about numbers of new doctorates across major psychology sub-fields to assist the development of taxonomy categories. APA staff also facilitated discussion between the NRC staff and the Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology (COGDOP) at COGDOP's 2003 annual meeting. At that meeting the NRC staff presented an overview of the NRC survey plans and received feedback from the graduate department chairs. After considerable discussion (and vigilance from APA staff, APA members and others) the NRC committee now lists more of those fields recommended for inclusion as sub-fields. More importantly, the committee is actively soliciting feedback on their taxonomy. Please see the committee's website for a summary of activities and the draft taxonomy of disciplinary subfields. Some sub-fields are still not represented in the survey taxonomy. One reason for this is that the survey will not tap doctoral programs with small numbers of graduates or graduate programs that are not located in psychology departments within colleges of arts and sciences.

The survey itself will begin in 2005. APA will continue to monitor its progress and provide input as necessary, often "behind the scenes" from staff to staff. We welcome your input and concerns.


Brainard, J. (2003). Survey of doctoral programs needs major changes, panel suggests. The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 10, p. A-10).

Goldberger, M.L., Maher, B.A., and Flatteau, P.E. (Eds.)(1995). Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States: Continuity and Change. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Jones, L.V., Lindzey, G., and Coggeshall, P.E. (1982). An Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.