Executive Director's Column

Continuing Education for Scientists

Scientists and researchers should more completely embrace the concept of scientific continuing education. It will enrich our skills and abilities as individuals, and will it enhance the discipline by expanding the pool of shared knowledge.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

Continuing education is a professional fact of life for practicing psychologists. Indeed, most state licensing boards require a specified number of continuing education hours each time a psychologist applies for license renewal. The same is true for many fields of professional practice. It is an effective way for practitioners to stay current and in touch with the latest science and newest interventions.

For those of us whose professional life is focused on the science of psychology, and who spend their time doing research rather than practice, the concept of formal continuing education requirements is foreign. We keep up with the latest science and newest interventions by reading journals, writing papers, training students, and attending conferences. We don’t worry (nor do we need to worry) about accumulating continuing education hours.

Seen another way, science professionals are constantly engaged in continuing education. That’s what we do. The main difference is that no formal professional requirements dictate that we accumulate a certain number of continuing education hours or credits.

Of course, the kind of continuing education pursued by scientists is relatively narrow and self-serving. We keep up with the latest science and innovation within our own, immediate areas because that’s what informs our immediate research needs. Once we leave graduate school, we tend to quickly lose touch with advances in other parts of the discipline. We have little time and little need to further develop these aspects of our education.

In fact, researchers do have a need for continuing education that cannot be satisfied through the normal activities of their labor. That’s why the APA Science Directorate developed its Advanced Training Institutes (ATIs) – to provide continuing education in new areas of technology, methodology, and theory.

At the risk of aging myself, I’ll confess that at the time I was in graduate school we had no idea of how internet technology could be leveraged to collect data; that magnetic resonance imaging technology could be harnessed to learn about cognition, emotion, and behavior; or that geographic information systems could provide powerful tools for understanding complex social phenomenon.

If I want to learn about any of these things, or even understand their potential utility for my own research goals, I would need to go back to school. I would need some formal instruction, homework, and laboratory experience. I can’t just pick up a book and expect to learn enough. If I’m lucky, I will have access to some of these resources nearby. But most of do not have such access, and so the education we seek will require considerable effort, time, and money.

This is precisely what the APA Advanced Training Institutes do. Indeed, we have organized and hosted ATIs on functional MRI, on internet research methods, and on Geographic Information Systems (GIS), among others. These are typically week-long seminars, with expert instructors who also provide specialized facilities. The “students” often travel great distances to attend, leaving their labs and families for a week or more. This kind of continuing education requires a great deal of motivation, planning, and financial support.

It seems to me that our collective needs for this kind of scientific continuing education are underestimated and underutilized. APA will continue to develop Advanced Training Institutes, but we need to find a more efficient way to support them and to make them broadly accessible.

One possibility is to devote more of our professional meetings and conventions to scientific continuing education. The APA annual convention offers a great venue for this kind of education – lots of people already traveling to a central location, availability of meeting space, and tremendous efficiency for organizers. I’m certain that other models can be developed as well.

The point is that scientists and researchers should more completely embrace the concept of scientific continuing education. It will enrich our skills and abilities as individuals, and will it enhance the discipline by expanding the pool of shared knowledge.