Career Specialty Preferences among Psychology Majors: Cognitive Processing Styles Associated with Scientist and Practitioner Interests

By Leong, Frederick T. L.; Zachar, Peter et al. | Career Development Quarterly, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Career Specialty Preferences among Psychology Majors: Cognitive Processing Styles Associated with Scientist and Practitioner Interests


Leong, Frederick T. L., Zachar, Peter, Conant, Lisa, Tolliver, Dwight, Career Development Quarterly


The authors investigated cognitive processing styles associated with interests in scientist and practitioner activities among a sample of undergraduate psychology majors who planned to attend graduate school. Results indicated that interests in scientist activities were associated with a greater motivation to engage in effortful processing (i.e., need for cognition). Interests in practitioner activities were not correlated with need for cognition. Contrary to theoretical expectations, neither interests in scientist activities nor in practitioner activities were related to ambiguity intolerance (i.e., preference for clear-cut solutions to problems).

This study attempted to gain better understanding of career specialty choice in psychology by examining the relationship between cognitive processing styles and career specialty preferences among undergraduate psychology majors. Gelso's (1979) reflections on the scientist and practitioner traditions in psychology served as the theoretical context for the current study.

In the tradition of Paul Meehl (1972), Gclso (1979) offered a series of influential reflections on scientist and practitioner interests in psychology. Influential psychologists met in Boulder, Colorado, in 1949, establishing a model of training devoted to training psychologists as scientists and practitioners. Their training recommendations are referred to as the Boulder model. The Boulder model's goal has repeatedly been hindered by the perception among psychologists that there are groups of psychology students whose strong interests in empirical research are associated with a disdain for clinical practice and vice versa (Leong & Zachar, 1991). The perception that the Boulder model advocates unrealistic goals has led to the development of competing models, specifically practitioner programs leading to the Doctor of Psychology degree, and the clinical scientist model, which puts a primary emphasis on research (McFall, 1991; Peterson, 1976).

One does not have to believe that science and practice are incompatible to speculate on why some people are not inclined to favor integrating them. Gelso's (1979) answer was that doing scientific research is associated with effortful processing, particularly a preference for strict logical thinking and control of emotionality. He believed that the successful scientist must be committed to engaging in scientific thinking from the brainstorming and idea-generation phase to the interpretation of results phase. Additionally, Gelso asserted that the scientist must be able to detect ambiguities; however, the primary goal is to reduce the ambiguities of the phenomena under investigation.

As for practitioners, Gelso (1979) suggested that these individuals must be able to think and feel, but they must be able to cognize the world primarily through nonintellective processes and secondarily through the intellect. Gelso also asserted that practitioners must possess a strong belief in the therapeutic process while instilling hope in clients concerning their ability to change. Therapists must also possess the ability to tolerate the ambiguity endemic to treating clients.

After briefly reviewing the literature on career specialty interests, we attempt to translate Gelso's ideas on scientist and practitioner interests into testable hypotheses. More specifically, we propose examining the relationship between scientist and practitioner interests and preferences for effortful cognitive processing and ambiguity intolerance.

Career Specially Choice in Psychology

As scientific disciplines develop, their research programs evolve from an initial consideration of broad questions to a narrower focus on more specific questions. An increasing interest in specific questions is also reflected in the evolution of vocational psychology. For instance, researchers exploring the trait-factor paradigm of vocational psychology initially investigated the relationship between general personality and general environment (Holland, 1959, 1985), whereas more recent research has begun examining the relationship between interests and career specialization (Gottfredson, Holland, & Ogawa, 1982; Holland, 1985).

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