Drawing on a long and esteemed tradition

Nathalie L. Chernoff on career opportunities in the history of psychology

One of the strongest arguments made by historians of psychology for the usefulness of their craft points to the practicality of incorporating knowledge about what has been done in the past to inform our understanding of the present and inspire ideas for the future. With this in mind, it seems apt to start a historian’s own consideration of future career options by a brief exploration of the roles and positions that psychologists who specialise in history have occupied up to now. Psychologists have been writing histories of their discipline almost since it began (Bunn et al., 2001; O’Donnell, 1979). The first official histories of psychology were published as early as 1884 (Dewey, 1884). Early experimental psychologists viewed the writing and understanding of historical events in psychology as crucial to their experimental work and the training of their students (Boring, 1929; Titchener, 1929). Each of these psychologists had an important role both in pioneering areas of experimental research as well as producing histories of earlier research and attempting to link psychology to its philosophical and physiological roots.

As psychology grew and splintered off into specialist areas, so too did the specialisation of history writing. Thus, although the area of history of psychology may today comprise a relatively small group, the practice of writing history as part of the development and advancement of psychology draws on a long and esteemed tradition.

One of the main career opportunities for graduates in history of psychology today is in teaching and research. The proliferation of psychology over the past century and the heavy focus on experimental work have resulted in a comparatively small number of historians documenting and analysing the history of psychology. This leaves no shortage of research opportunities. Historians of psychology work in university psychology and history departments around the UK producing research for journals both within the discipline and beyond.

This interdisciplinary scope allows historians of psychology to contribute to a wide variety of academic fields. Psychologist historians may also provide invaluable collaborative research support to their colleagues in other areas of psychology by researching important and relevant theoretical constructs in use within psychology as well providing background analysis of important themes in experimental research (Danziger, 1994; Chernoff, 2010).

Alongside their own areas of research, historians of psychology contribute to the teaching of history within their departments. The British Psychological Society requires UK psychology departments to teach the history and philosophy of psychology. These courses teach students important themes in the history of psychology and expose them to a different style of academic writing and research. Alongside the teaching of specialised history courses, psychologist historians also use their knowledge of the discipline to teach introductory-level courses and often develop subspecialisations in research methods and statistics. Psychologist historians may use qualitative methods such as discourse analysis in their analysis of historical documents (Lamont, 2008) and may contribute to teaching of and training students in these methods as well as experimental methods. This pairing of methodological expertise with historical research is a model particularly encouraged by the graduate training programme at York University in Ontario, Canada (currently the largest history of psychology training programme in the world). Graduates from this programme have recently been appointed to tenure track positions at the University of Alberta (in Western Canada).

Another career path that psychologist historians may pursue is that of museum curatorship. These positions focus on such interesting and challenging tasks as researching and developing insightful and informative displays (such as the ‘Mind Your Head’ permanent exhibition at the Science Museum, London), which examine the contributions and legacy of psychological research as well as communicating what psychology is about to children and adult visitors to the museum. The BPS first sponsored a fellowship with curatorial responsibilities at the Science Museum from 1998 to 2001. The more recently created role of BPS Curator of Psychology is currently filled by Philip Loring (a history of science doctoral candidate: see p.999). There are several other psychology-specific museum collections in North America (at the University of Toronto, Montclair University and Columbia University) that employ graduates with expertise in the history of psychology.

A crucial aspect of any historical discipline is the collection and preservation of important archival materials. The BPS (as do most societies) keeps its own archives, which are overseen by incumbent archivist Mike Maskill (see p.998). He is occupied with the organisation and cataloguing of various psychologists personal papers bequeathed to the BPS as well as collecting audio recordings of interviews and cataloguing photographs and other visual records. These projects provide invaluable resources to historians researching the history of psychology in the UK. Successful appointment to a position such as this requires a particular training in archive and record management. However, here also, there are several positions currently filled by graduates of history of psychology. Both the director and assistant director at the American Psychological Association’s Archives of the History of American Psychology (at University of Akron in Ohio) were trained as historians of psychology with the director (Dr David Baker) also holding a position as full-time professor of history of psychology at Akron University.

A final option for historians of psychology lies in academic positions within other disciplines such as sociology, history of science and mainstream history departments. In this case the graduate would have to have a proven record of publication in historical journals and will develop a specialty in a particular historical period. There are currently at least eight departments in the UK with concentrations of researchers who specialise in history of psychology outwith a psychology department. These departments are located in prestigious institutions like the Wellcome Trust Centre for History of Medicine at University College London, the University of Oxford’s History of Science, Medicine & Technology department, and the Science Studies unit at the University of Edinburgh.

Thus, the graduate of history of psychology is presented with the possibility of a variety of careers in several different academic disciplines as well as more applied archival and curatorial roles where he or she could focus on communicating the history of psychology to the general public and providing resources and information to other researchers. These positions are admittedly not abundant but each year a small but dedicated number of graduates are successful in procuring those that do become available. Although there are currently more opportunities for these roles in North America, the success of new initiatives such as the establishment of a taught MSc programme in History and Theory of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh as well as the increasing popularity of teaching studentships for postgraduate students opens up new opportunities for graduates in the history of psychology to acquire valuable teaching experience in mainstream psychology topics as well as pursuing their own research projects.

- Nathalie L. Chernoff is a PhD student in the history of early psychological societies at Lancaster University


Boring, E.G. (1929). A history of experimental psychology. New York: Century.Bunn, G., Lovie, A.D. & Richards, G.D. (Eds.). (2001). Psychology in Britain. Leicester: BPS Books.Chernoff, N. (2010). History matters, so what are we doing about it? History & Philosophy of Psychology, 12(1), 42–45.Danziger, K. (1994). Does the history of psychology have a future? Theory & Psychology, 4(4), 467–484.Dewey, J. (1884). The new psychology. Andover Review, 2, 278–289.Lamont, P. (2008). Discourse analysis as a method in the history of psychology. History & Philosophy of Psychology, 9(2), 34–44.
O’Donnell, J.M. (1979). The crisis of experimentalism in the 1920s: E.G. Boring and his uses of history. American Psychologist, 34(4), 289–295.
Titchener, E.B. (1929). Systematic psychology: Prolegomena. New York: Macmillan.



BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber