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We agree with the focal article that “the language of practice is competencies” (Byrne et al., 2014, p. 5) and curricula should be focused as such. In fact, we have experience changing a traditional content-based curriculum to a competency-based one through the development of a new executive master's degree program in organizational psychology at one of our home institutions. Though there are some differences between doctoral and master's-level training, our experience has been that a true shift to a competency-based curriculum is more transformational both culturally and pedagogically than the focal article authors suggest and that such transformations alone may make the inclusion of certified post-docs or internships unnecessary. To support our contention, we outline some of the cultural issues underlying traditional content-based doctoral training and review the pedagogical improvements that we believe are associated with shifting the emphasis from core content to core competencies. At the very least, we would like to encourage those responsible for doctoral-level education in industrial–organizational (I–O) psychology to interrogate the cultural and pedagogical assumptions embedded in their current curricula prior to considering recommendations that extend training beyond the doctoral degree. We also suggest that implementing any recommendation without first examining these assumptions is a missed opportunity to transform the current state of doctoral-level training in our field.

The Traditional Content-Focused Approach

  1. Top of page
  2. The Traditional Content-Focused Approach
  3. Pedagogical Implications of the Competency-Based Approach
  4. Conclusion
  5. References

The excessively content-focused nature of most graduate and doctoral programs in I–O psychology is the byproduct of an academic culture that values autonomy and individual faculty expertise (Fink, 2003). In this culture, curricula are traditionally viewed as collections of separate courses based in large part on the existing knowledge base of a program's full-time faculty (Fink, 2003); lecture remains the dominant pedagogical approach and is based on expert, stand-and-deliver models of instruction where knowledge is received not constructed (Bain, 2004); and content integration and application are considered to be the sole responsibility of the student rather than a coconstructed activity between students and faculty, for which faculty share a certain responsibility (Bain, 2004).

As a result, most programs tend to focus the courses and educational experiences of their doctoral students around individual faculty content areas, delivered in isolation, and not around demonstrated competencies required for professional success. In our experience developing the new program, the shift from a content-based curriculum to a competency-based one directly challenged this traditional academic culture and led to profound and often unintended changes in the way we teach I–O psychology. We believe these changes provided an enhanced learning and development experience for our students that, if adopted by other programs along with a competency-based approach, might make the add-on recommendation of internships and post-docs advocated by Byrne et al. unnecessary. We outline these changes in brief below.

Pedagogical Implications of the Competency-Based Approach

  1. Top of page
  2. The Traditional Content-Focused Approach
  3. Pedagogical Implications of the Competency-Based Approach
  4. Conclusion
  5. References

First, a competency-based approach allows for an integrated curriculum where several content areas can be blended together to address larger practice or conceptual issues. This integrated curriculum better prepares students for the real-world (i.e., complex) challenges that the authors suggest are the work of I–O psychologists. For example, several different skill sets are required for leading diverse, cross-functional teams. In a traditional content-based curriculum, one might have to take four or five separate and distinct courses in order to learn the various theoretical and practical approaches to team leadership and facilitation (e.g., group dynamics, diversity, leadership, small group facilitation methods, coaching). In a competency-based curriculum, key pieces from each content area can be used to explicitly train students on the theory and practice of leading diverse, cross-functional teams. We believe that training of this sort, particularly experiential training where theory is applied to real-world cases and clients, would eliminate the need for an internship to synthesize and integrate various aspects of doctoral training, in part because those aspects are integrated in the first place. Moreover, rather than send students out to gain real-world experience, opportunities to learn experientially and through working with real organizations would exist inside the program and as an essential component of the curriculum.

An additional change brought about by a competency-based curriculum is that it allows for an interdisciplinary approach to training doctoral students, which the authors suggest is beneficial. For example, when training for the competency of leading diverse teams, it is possible and in some ways preferred to have students trained by individuals with different perspectives on leading teams, including traditional I–O academics, management scholars, and counseling psychologists, who the authors rightly note are welltrained in group process and assessment. In this way, doctoral students would not only be trained across content, but they would also have very different disciplinary lenses with which to approach complex problems. Moreover, conversation among faculty from related areas of psychology and with students inside the program would provide opportunities for mutual influence across subdisciplinary boundaries. As the authors of the focal article point out, I–O psychologists, and indeed all psychologists, need to be better informed about subdisciplines within the larger field and which of these subdisciplinary boundaries needs to be more permeable.

Finally, an integrated, interdisciplinary curriculum may lead to doctoral training that is less traditionally bounded and siloed, and more collaborative and team based. For example, our executive master's program curriculum is team taught, with a core group of faculty leveraging their expertise in a synthesized, deliberate way around a set of essential challenges and competencies. The implications of this change for doctoral training are profound and could certainly allow I–O doctoral students to garner some of the experiences that a post-doc might offer. Instead of having different individual faculty teaching courses in research methods and statistics over a string of disconnected semesters, a team of faculty could structure a series of research methods inputs and statistics deliverables around actual year-long research projects, working collaboratively with a group of students and each other, and integrating instructional and experiential activities related to managing an active research program (e.g., grant writing, work hygiene) with traditional research content. To the extent that these collaborations also include industry partnerships, they could go a long way toward decreasing the gap between relevance and rigor (Tushman, O'Reilly, Fenollosa, Kleinbaum, & McGrath, 2007), and would, again, support the aim of bringing “real world” organizational experience inside I–O doctoral training rather than simply adding it on in an internship or postdoc.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. The Traditional Content-Focused Approach
  3. Pedagogical Implications of the Competency-Based Approach
  4. Conclusion
  5. References

To be sure, there are great advantages to focusing on competencies in addition to content, and there are also challenges. Our experience has been that these advantages outweigh the challenges in terms of the quality of the learning and development received by individuals in our program, but we also recognize that our audience is more practice focused in nature than academic. Nevertheless, we believe that true improvements to doctoral training will not come from an “add and stir” approach of including more postdocs and internships but rather from changing the way we teach and creating opportunities inside our programs that enable students to graduate with a greater sense of how to apply their learning to the outside world. We believe that such change is strongly associated with the shift from a content-based to a competency-based curriculum, and we want to encourage the field and the various SIOP members tasked with educating doctoral students to consider more deeply than the focal article suggests some of the cultural and pedagogical implications of moving to a more competency-based approach.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. The Traditional Content-Focused Approach
  3. Pedagogical Implications of the Competency-Based Approach
  4. Conclusion
  5. References
  • Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Byrne, Z. S., Hayes, T. L., McPhail, S. M., Hakel, M. D., Cortina, J. M., & McHenry, J. J. (2014). Educating industrial–organizational psychologists for science and practice: Where do we go from here? Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 7(1), 214.
  • Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Tushman, M. L., O'Reilly, C. A., Fenollosa, A., Kleinbaum, A. M., & McGrath, D. (2007). Relevance and rigor: Executive education as a lever in shaping practice and research. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 6(3), 345362.