Education Leadership Conference

For Linda B. Smith, PhD, the transformation of the department she chairs at Indiana University in Bloomington from "psychology" to "psychological and brain sciences" is just one sign of an increasingly multidisciplinary world.

It also symbolizes a future in which psychology continues to thrive by bringing all sorts of psychological work under one roof, Smith told participants at APA's 2011 Education Leadership Conference.

In an alternative future, she warned, psychology could let its many different subspecialties spin off into other departments and cease to exist as a department itself — just as straight biology departments no longer exist on many major research campuses.

Already, she said, "strong, centrifugal forces" are threatening to pull psychology as a discipline apart. "Just about everybody" is now doing psychological research, she said, citing as examples physicists, philosophers, even roboticists. "We're not our own guild anymore," she said.

That dispersal is also apparent in the journals that now count the most in tenure and promotion decisions. Psychologists are trained to think of Psychological Review® as the most important journal in psychology, she pointed out, but it's only read by psychologists. To really make an impact, she argued, researchers need to publish in the widely read online journal PLoS ONE. Similarly, interdisciplinarity has become the buzzword at the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and other funding agencies.

Such changes mean psychology departments have to change, too. "We're in the midst of a period of enormous change in our discipline," said Smith. "We ignore it at our peril."

Her own department changed its name in 2003, after three years of discussion and a new strategic plan that called for growth in both cognitive neuroscience and molecular and cellular neuroscience within the department.

The department also decided to reorganize so that decision-making is department-wide and the traditional area structure is weakened, which enables more cross-area training and research. That means much more than colleagues working on research projects together. It also means graduate students are no longer recruited to work in particular areas. Instead, any five faculty members can recommend that a student be accepted; once in, students receive training by committees rather than faculty in a particular area.

Similarly, all hiring is now done department-wide rather than by specialty area. And new hires don't necessarily have psychology doctorates, said Smith, noting that the department now has faculty from medicine, biology, biomedical engineering and computer science and informatics.

Said Smith, "We have to think of psychology as being the hub or integrator discipline, bringing together all levels of analysis relevant to behavior."

—R.A. Clay