Scientist-Practitioner Model

According to the scientist-practitioner model, psychologists are both practitioners who apply knowledge and scientists who base their activities on sound research in the profession. Some individuals may function more fully as scientists, conducting research and publishing their findings, whereas others may devote their lives to its application, but each has a keen respect for the other. The scientist-practitioner model is an aspirational goal for psychologists as well as a prescription for how psychologists should be trained.

The model can be traced back to the end of World War II, when the Veterans Administration (VA) and the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) encouraged the training of mental health professionals to work with returning veterans. At the same time, more people were seeking graduate education in psychology to meet this need. This put quite a strain on the small number of psychology departments that were training clinical psychologists. Throughout the 1940s, small working groups within the American Association of Applied Psychology (AAAP) addressed these issues, primarily under the direction of David Shakow, and developed outlines for training programs for doctoral-level clinical psychologists. The early drafts recommended that students first gain a sound grounding in scientific psychology, followed later by coursework and internships in more applied practice skills. The hope was to upgrade the skills of future clinical psychologists as well as the reputation of psychology.

The AAAP merged with the American Psychological Association (APA), and with encouragement from the VA and the USPHS, a committee was formed to address the training of psychologists, including standards for educational institutions. This committee visited doctoral training institutions to accredit those that met the standards. To address many remaining concerns, a conference was held during the summer of 1949, when 73 psychologists and key stakeholders from the VA and USPHS gathered in Boulder, Colorado. By the end of the meeting, several resolutions had been adopted that defined psychologists as people who are trained in both scientific research and practice. The conference had another lasting impact: Programs that adhere to the scientist-practitioner model are often identified as “Boulder model” programs. Even today, the APA accreditation standards insist that training programs reflect the principle that the practice of psychology is based on the science of psychology; in turn, the practice of psychology influences the science of psychology.

Although the Boulder conference primarily focused on clinical training, the scientist-practitioner model soon found its way into other applied areas. When the Industrial and Business Section of the AAAP became Division 14 of the APA, its first two goals were to (a) ensure high standards of practice and (b) promote research and publication in the field. Many years later, when Division 14 incorporated to become the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, its mission statement prominently included promoting both the science and practice of industrial and organizational psychology. Later, the guidelines for education and training at the doctoral level focused on producing students who could be both generators of knowledge and consumers of knowledge. To this end, most, if not all, doctoral students take coursework in research design and statistics, in addition to classes in specific industrial and organizational topics, and their program of study culminates with a significant research project, the dissertation.

Although the scientist-practitioner model is pervasive, it is not universally accepted as either a standard for training or a description of the activities of most psychologists. Some graduates of psychology programs believe training overemphasizes research at the expense of practice. These concerns were voiced in 1973 at a conference in Vail, Colorado, leading to the development of an alternative model: the scholar-professional. In this view, psychologists are highly trained practitioners who are consumers rather than generators of research. Programs that adopt the Vail model often grant a PsyD degree in lieu of the PhD.


  1. Baker, D. B., & Benjamin, L. T. (2000). The affirmation of the scientist-practitioner: A look back at Boulder. American Psychologist, 55(2), 241-247.
  2. Ellis, H. C. (1992). Graduate education in psychology: Past, present, and future. American Psychologist, 47(4), 570-576.
  3. Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. (1999). Guidelines for education and training at the doctoral level in industrial-organizational psychology.