Home All Of Research and Rigor: Building Your Career in Positive Psychology

Of Research and Rigor: Building Your Career in Positive Psychology

written by Orin Davis 12 October 2016
Heads-on research

Orin C. Davis is the first person to earn a doctorate in Positive Psychology. His research focuses on flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring, and it spans both the workplace and daily life. He runs the Quality of Life Laboratory and is a freelance consultant. Orin's Web site. Orin's articles are here.

I don’t know about other folks with doctorates, but I’ve found that I get asked a lot about whether someone should do a Ph.D., or do research, or go into positive psychology, and I’ve gotten enough inquiries that I put together a summary of my take.

Define “Research”

The first question is what people mean by “research”, because it’s taken on a very broad meaning these days. Some folks consider research to be synthesizing a bunch of articles and writing an opinion piece. This is the general idea behind a formal literature review, as described in the references, but most writers outside of academia do not cover a sufficient breadth of material, nor do they consider the quality of the sources. In this, the value of going for a doctorate is developing the transferable skill of assessing the quality of a piece by having a sufficient background in statistics, research methods, and field-related theory.

Others think that research just means collecting data, digging through the numbers, and writing up some kind of conclusion. This goes hand-in-glove with the false belief that, if you can wave numbers around, you are far more credible, and this effect is due to people’s unwillingness and/or inability to assess the methods used for collecting the numbers. Take a good look at the US News & World Report college ranking methodology sometime, and you’ll understand why I put no stock in it.

Again, doctoral training will give you the tools to rise above the fertilizer. Some have suggested that masters-level training is sufficient for this, but I believe it takes more years than the term of a masters degree to get the requisite depth of understanding. People with doctoral-level training can often tell the difference between the two levels, even if others cannot.

Similarly, some conceive of research as running some kind of intervention (with or without a control group), and then reporting about it. This, too, has different levels, depending upon whether the intervention is grounded in the known theories and precedents of knowledge even if only for the sake of going against them, includes a careful participant selection process, and so on.

Should I Earn a Degree in Positive Psychology?

I’m not a fan of credentialing battles, and I’m definitely not a fan of credential inflation. You don’t need a degree in positive psychology to be an expert in the field, but it does help! That said, positive psychology has not yet gained the traction we might have hoped in the academy, and different corners of the business universe love it and hate it, sometimes both at once.

The question isn’t so much the field in which you get the degree but the training that you get at the institution you selected and the people that train you and that train with you. If you complete the program with the requisite knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) to perform at an expected level in ways that relate directly to positive psychology, what your degree (or its level) actually says on it is of little import.

That said, the primary value of having a degree in a specified field is that people will make assumptions on that basis that make them more likely to be willing to investigate and trust your actual training and KSAs.

To Doctorate or Not to Doctorate…

That’s not your question! The question is which level of training you need to do the things you want to do, and whether you want to do academic or applied work. Ultimately, these are the questions you need to ask:

  1. In which field do I want to conduct research?
  2. What kinds of problems am I looking to explore?
  3. At which level do I want to conduct research? Am I looking to create quick solutions (business level), practical solutions (startup level), or uncover the mysteries of the universe (academic level)?
  4. Do I want to work with people, with my hands, with numbers, or some combination thereof?
  5. What are the skills/knowledge/attitudes that I can offer to a research group?
  6. Is this research work going to launch a career in research at the level I have chosen, or is it a means to an end in my career?
  7. Do I want to be in the actual lab, do I want to do field work, or do I want to work remotely?

From the answers to these seven questions, you will likely know where you belong. After that, it’s up to you to understand the vagaries of the field (and job market!) and to find mentors to train, advise, and advocate for you so that you can make your own mark in the field.


Mongan-Rallis, H. (2014). Guidelines for writing a literature review. University of Minnesota Duluth Guideline How-To Series.

University of California at Santa Cruz University Library. Write a literature review.

US News and World Report (2016). Best Colleges 2017: About the Rankings/Methodology

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons Licenses
Heads-on research courtesy of Tim Sheerman-Chase
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi courtesy of Encore.org
Jeanne Nakamura courtesy of Encore.org

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Judy Krings 13 October 2016 - 12:01 pm

Well said, Orin. I especially enjoyed your powerful questions. You opened my non-academic eyes to research definitions. I am coaching someone who is trying to make a decision about her career path after her doctorate. This article will really hit the mark for her. Many thanks for your wisdom and insight.

Orin Davis 13 October 2016 - 5:15 pm

Thank you, Judy! I’m so glad it’s helpful!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com