Welcome to Columbia!

Notes from a Former Chair

More than a half century ago, a distinguished historian of psychology observed:

Psychology at Columbia is not easy to describe. It stands for no set body of doctrine, taught with the consistency and paternalism found in more closely organized schools. Yet is shows definite and recognizable characteristics. A graduate student in psychology discovers immediately that psychology does not lead a sheltered life; that it rubs elbows with biology, statistics, education, and the world of affairs. [Graduate students] encounter many different trends of thought, and frequently come upon the same ones from different angles. But the separate stands of teaching are not knit together for them into a firm and patterned fabric. No one cares how they arrange the threads that are placed in their hands. The arrangement varies enormously from person to person.

Edna Heidbreder, Seven Psychologies (1933)

At the turn of the century, the Columbia School of Psychology could be readily distinguished from other schools of psychology (Behavioristic, Psychoanalytic, Gestalt). The Columbia perspective focused on the "dynamic" nature of psychology. It was concerned with "the workings of the mind" and "why people do the things they do." It was based on the premise that to understand these activities, "it is necessary to get as complete a view as possible of the process to be studied-- to follow it through its entire course, to discover both its minute details and its broad tendencies, to examine it both from within and from without, and on the basis of this knowledge to note uniformities and to formulate laws [Heidbreder, 1993]." To accomplish this objective, each of psychology's three fundamental levels of analysis-- social, cognitive, and biological-- had to be strongly represented in the department. Graduate training introduced students to each level. With this background, the student themselves could decide how to "arrange the threads that are placed in their hands."

Our department continues to be guided by the belief that an interdisciplinary perspective from multiple levels of analysis contributes to a rich understanding of psychological processes. Most of our faculty rub elbows with different disciplines and bridge different levels of analysis. This provides the maximum opportunity and flexibility for our graduate students to discover their own preferred arrangement for pursuing the science of psychology. Indeed, some of our students move from one level of analysis to another before honing in on their burning issue. Graduate course requirements are kept to a minimum in order to maximize our students' development as individual scholars and scientists. Our generous system of financial support also maximizes our students' freedom to make their own decisions about which research experiences and collaborations best meet their scientific objectives.

The opportunity for students to identify their own area of interest is one aspect of the Ph.D. program that makes graduate life here so exciting. Another is that our department functions as an integrated unit rather than just as a set of separate and isolated programs. Graduate student offices are all in the same area of the department. This facilitates contact among students working on different psychological problems. The department offers a set of proseminars covering the major areas in psychology that graduate students across the department take together. There is a bi-weekly departmental colloquium series on wide-ranging topics that are attended by all the faculty and graduate students. The graduate students also manage an informal bi- weekly tea to which all graduate students and faculty are invited.

By functioning as a department of psychology, our graduate students are exposed to a broad spectrum of psychological viewpoints. Another feature of our department broadens our students' viewpoints even further. The graduate program at Columbia is special in its international nature, with students from all over the world. This international quality of the program, together with its interdisciplinary quality, makes graduate life here very exciting. We hope that you will join us and contribute to the Columbia "dynamic."

E. Tory Higgins, Former Chair

Psychology Department

Tory Higgins smiling.