Psychology: Career or Calling?

Arthur Warmoth, Ph.D.
Sonoma State University

Remarks delivered on the occasion of the Psi Chi Induction Ceremony
at Sonoma State University, May 12, 2001

Good afternoon, members of Psi Chi, inductees, faculty colleagues, family members, and friends--I sincerely appreciate this opportunity to share a few thoughts with you on this auspicious occasion. The title of my remarks are "Psychology: Career or Calling?"

It seems to me that most psychology majors today are wondering about the future. What can I so with my degree? How can I make a living?

Psi Chi members tend to be particularly conscientious and responsible students. For that reason, they may be even more concerned with these questions than the average student.

Finding one's right livelihood is indeed an important developmental issue for young adults. In the context of today's rapidly changing society, I see many young people taking the entire decade of their twenties to sort out the issues involved. So right livelihood is the topic I want to explore with you in the next few minutes.

In particular, I want to suggest that your success in finding right livelihood will be greatly influenced by the ideas you bring to bear on your search. Ideas are the conceptual tools that are given to us by our culture. They can help us or hinder us as we develop a strategy for this search.

So today, I would like to compare and contrast two conceptual frameworks for thinking about right livelihood. One conceptual framework is provided by the idea of "psychology as a career." Another is offered by the idea of "psychology as a vocation or calling."

This distinction is important to psychology students because it relates to the different ways in which the organizations and academic programs in the field structure the opportunities and resources they offer to students. This distinction is of special relevance to the members of Psi Chi because, on the one hand, Psi Chi is sponsored by the American Psychological Association. APA is the principal national organization in psychology. And APA appears to be clearly committed to the "career path" model.

At the same time, you are majors in the Sonoma State Psychology Department. The version of psychology offered by this department is plainly at odds with many of the principles that guide APA. Our version of psychology is identified with the principles of humanistic, existential, and transpersonal psychology. I have spent more than 40 years participating in humanistic psychology and more than 30 years in this department. Over these years I have had contact with countless students. This experience suggests to me that the concept of "calling" or "vocation"--a concept with a rich history and deep spiritual overtones--is more appropriate to the aspirations of most of our students and graduates. Perhaps it is particularly appropriate to the aspirations of our most successful graduates.

This impression is reinforced by my experience in teaching an upper division seminar on "The Field of Psychology" during this past semester.

We began the seminar by considering the information on right livelihood offered by the APA. We looked at a book published by APA called Careers Paths in Psychology (Sternberg, 1997). We also looked at an article in the February 2001 APA Monitor called "The Career Path Less Traveled."

Both the book and the article define psychology in terms of careers that depend on attaining a doctoral degree. This usually means a Ph.D. But APA also recognizes the Psy.D. (doctor of psychology) and Ed.D. (doctor of education) as appropriate educational preparation. And both the book and the article imply that psychology offers well defined paths that students can plug into.

The book addresses such career areas as:

--Psychologist in teaching & research

--Psychologists in schools of education & business schools

--Psychologists in private practice & counseling psychologists

--School psychologists, organizational psychologists, and consumer affairs psychologists

--Human-factors psychologists, military psychologists, and health psychologists

APA recognizes that support for some areas of practice-- particularly licensed clinical psychology--has been diminishing in recent years. This has a great deal to do with impact of managed care on mental health practitioners. Therefore the Monitor article looks at more innovative career options. These include:

--Violent crime resource specialist for the F.B.I.

--Science writer, Science magazine

--Director of industry and market research

--Research associate, Federal Judicial Center

--Associate research scientist, Educational Testing Service

--Chief of mental health services, Maxwell Air Force Base

--Consulting psychologist, Cancer Risk and Prevention Program, Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital

--Director of Internet product development, Blackboard, Inc. (An educational technology company)

--Associate pastor for development, Richmond Hill, VA

--Assistant professor, Disaster Mental Health Institute, University of South Dakota

All of these careers, except possibly the last two, fall into a pattern. They require an educational background in scientific psychology. And they are in organizational settings that are heavily invested in science and technology. The two exceptions--the pastor and the assistant professor--are the only two people in the article whose salary is described in negative terms: "less than the average practitioner."

I am sure that all of these young people find their work rewarding. However, in contrast to these careers, the students in my seminar are interested in activities focused primarily on the quality of human experience in the local community. ("The quality of human experience," incidentally, is a theme that has been officially endorsed as a description of the focus of our department). The areas identified by my seminar students include:

--Elder care

--Cross-cultural communication

--Expressive arts therapy

--Animal assisted therapy

--Biofeedback and somatic education

--Addiction recovery

These are all 'low tech' professions. None of them requires the doctorate, although in some areas career opportunities would be enhanced by a doctoral degree. All of them focus on providing services at a grass roots level in the community. These are services that will enhance the quality of life for individual clients. And they will also enhance the quality of life of the community at large.

A colleague of mine once quoted the following definition of a "vocation" or "calling." "A vocation is the place where your deepest passion meets the world's hunger." I think that is an excellent definition. It is a definition that I can safely say applies to all of our faculty. And I am also pretty confident that it applies to the majority of our students. Much of the process of my seminar--and I believe much of the focus of our psychology curriculum in general--is devoted to identifying, clarifying, and encouraging students to own their deepest passions.

I hope that I can assume some shared understanding in this group of what it means to embrace psychology as an expression of our deepest passions. Assuming that I can, I would like to turn for a moment to the question of finding the place where our passions meet the world's hunger. It is in this area that the career model of APA offers some seductive advantages.

APA offers a large and well funded institutional structure that helps psychologists find careers. As an organization, it has substantial resources invested in marketing and lobbying for professional psychology. It has a large institutional infrastructure to support both academic careers and private practice. It is working actively to create new opportunities for psychologists with the proper credentials. And it provides well organized resources for financial security, such as insurance and investment, particularly for psychologists employed in private practice and non-traditional settings.

For those of us interested in community-based practice, the social infrastructure is not nearly so well developed. I am speaking of practice based on a passionate interest in the facilitation of creativity and communication, in ethical conversation and the exploration of the practical issues in the quality of life. I am speaking of practice based on a passionate interest in culture-weaving and sustainable community. In these areas, the institutional infrastructure that is needed to connect us economically with the satisfaction of human needs and to provide sustained economic support and security is not nearly so well-developed. For those of you who are accustomed to thinking primarily in terms of "finding a job," this situation might be discouraging.

Personally, I see it as an exciting opportunity. We have an opportunity to participate in the creation of new social infrastructure that can lead to a more humane society, and which can be more responsive to the economic forces of 21st century postmodern or postindustrial society.

If you are interested in understanding these economic forces, I highly recommend the recent book The Future of Success by former Secretary of Labor, Robert B. Reich (2001). Reich argues that the dynamics of the information technology revolution make the market for high quality, low cost goods and services ever more dynamic and innovative. This creates a situation in which we will be ever more inundated with high quality products. But at the same time, to quote Reich, this "economic dynamism...also brings financial insecurity, work that's more frenzied and intrusive, widening inequality of income and wealth, and greater social stratification--all of which is eroding personal, family, and community life" (2001, p. 233).

Reich suggests that we are in a period that requires attention to our public, as well as our private, choices. It is not unlike the period at end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. During that period, the technology of mass production led to the rapid expansion of the availability of mass produced consumer goods. But it also led to such abuses as child labor and unsafe and exploitive working conditions. These in turn led to public policy choices that abolished child labor, legitimized unions, created health and safety regulations, and required universal secondary education. The process of responding to the imbalances and inequities of industrial progress required more time than the implementation of the inventions that provoked the responses. But eventually, they happened.

We are in a similar crisis of rapid, technology-driven dislocation today. We are again challenged to find social policies and institutional arrangements that will permit us to regain some measure of balance in our personal lives, and some measure of ecological sanity and social justice in our society. And I believe that it will be professionals dedicated to the quality of community life who will lead the way in defining the social choices that we must make--largely at the community level--in the areas of education, economic and social planning, and the sustainable management of the environment.

For much of the late 20th century, the idealism of humanistic psychology was plugged into the received institutions of modern industrial society. Academic programs, even humanistic ones, emphasized their scientific credentials. Humanistic practitioners acquiesced in the science-practitioner model of psychological practice. Practitioners accepted third party payment, and both academics and practitioners accepted federal funding. And both accepted the American Psychological Association as the principal academic, professional, and lobbying organization to support research, theory, and practice.

However, the inappropriateness of this model for humanistic psychology is becoming increasingly apparent. Some of us believe that it is time to affirm the relevance of a humanities-based psychology as a necessary complement to the dominant scientific paradigm. Humanities-based psychology is open to the centrality of empathy and compassion in human affairs. Humanities-based psychology supports ethical discourse and values clarification, and it supports story telling and creative expression. Such a psychology calls for a breadth of knowledge and a depth of compassion, insight, and skill. It also calls for the integrity of the practitioner. And it calls for a recognition of the fact that the personhood of each of us, in our own wholeness and imperfection, is the core of our practice.

Although the social infrastructure for such a version of psychological practice is not as well developed as the APA's, it is not entirely absent. It exists in the educational programs of the Consortium for Diversified Psychology Programs, of which Sonoma State is a member. It exists in Division 32, the Humanistic Psychology Division, of APA. And it also exists in other marginal divisions of APA, and in organizations such as the Association for Transpersonal Psychology and the Association for Humanist Sociology. It exists in organizations oriented primarily toward humanistic values and lifestyle, such as the Association for Humanistic Psychology and the Institute of Noetic Science. And it can also be found in many organizations further removed from the label of "psychology." Many of these organizations serve the segment of society that the sociologist Paul Ray calls the "culture creatives." The culture creatives orbit around such values as spirituality, ecological sustainability, and social justice. Ray estimates that the may make up as much as a quarter of U.S. society.

So it can be said that the foundations for such a social infrastructure have been created by my generation. However, the development of a mature economic and social infrastructure to support the humanistic calling is a challenge for the next generation of faculty and community-based professionals. And it is ultimately a challenge for your generation of students of humanistic psychology. You are the ones who need this infrastructure, and therefore you are the ones who must ask for it and, if necessary, demand it. You must also help to co-create it with your vision, energy, and enthusiasm.

This is a challenge that calls for the development of deep self-knowledge, and of the skills of facilitating communication and personal growth. But it is also a challenge that requires the development of the high arts of networking, of collaboration, and of political organization. These are activities that are, in my view, as psychological, and as sublimely human, as the activities of personal growth and self-actualization.

And so, on this very special occasion, I wish you the best of success and good fortune in your challenging vocation. Thank you.


The career path less traveled. (2001). Monitor on Psychology, 32 (4), pp. 20-41.

Reich, R. B. (2001). The future of success. New York: A. A. Knopf.

Sternberg, R. J., Ed. (1997). Career paths in psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychologial Association