The expanding role of psychology: interview with Dean Elizabeth Riley

November 14, 2018

Elizabeth Riley, PhD, returned to Capella University in February 2018 as the dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Previously she served as a Capella faculty member, Faculty Chair, Research Chair, and Academic Director of Doctoral Affairs, before taking on a provost role at a nursing school in California. She’s excited to be back—and she has lots of thoughts about the future of psychology programs at Capella.

A musical start

Riley’s psychology career began in a surprising way. She studied music at a conservatory where she had a violin performance scholarship. She came to realize that rather than performing, she was more interested in learning about the effects of music on human behavior and emotions. Changing majors, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Chapman University before getting both a master’s and a PhD in Experimental Psychology from Southern Methodist University (while giving violin lessons all the way through school). Her thesis and dissertation research focused on the use of music and creative arts therapies with cancer patients.

A return to capella

“Capella is really part of my heart and soul,” she says. “I had a hand in growing the program during my first years here. It was such a hard decision to leave, but I was interested in gaining additional leadership experience.” That additional experience—as Vice President of Instruction for a nursing and health sciences university—is something she feels will benefit her as she returns to grow the School of Psychology at Capella.

“It’s exciting to bring back views from a different field,” she says. “It really expanded my scope of understanding about what we need to do to grow while still meeting the needs of students and employers.”

Psychology is everything; Everything is psychology

“Psychology is the study of human behavior. It’s useful in every aspect of life—in all of our personal and professional relationships. Psychology is everything, and everything is psychology.”

This concept of the universality of psychology interests Riley, especially how it pertains to career options for up-and-coming psychologists. “Psychology can be useful in a variety of settings,” she says.

“Mental health is, and will always be, a critically important part of the psychological field, and the need for mental health practitioners is great. But there are other ways a psychology degree can be used. My role is to look at how the degrees can be applied in a wide array of work settings, such as education, business, and technology. I’d love to see more of a connection between psychology and big data at tech and consumer companies. These companies all collect data on human behavior, and psychology is essential to interpreting that data–it’s the missing piece. And companies are starting to realize it.”

She also sees potential to expand the reach of existing degree programs, such as Applied Behavior Analysis and Industrial-Organizational (I/O) Psychology. “These are programs that can make a direct impact in areas of huge concern to people today, applying psychology to everything from autism to motivation and performance in business settings,” she says.

Challenges and opportunities in the field of psychology today

“From a student perspective, a big challenge is how to communicate the value and utility of a psychology degree to a potential employer,” Riley says. “We need to work not just with our students to prepare them for the work world, but with their potential employers to help them understand the value this degree can bring.”

As for opportunities for Capella and its students, Riley sees many. “Our faculty is full of thought leaders who are doing research, presenting at conferences, and publishing in the field,” she says. “We also have faculty practicing in mental health settings=, with up-to-the-minute experience. They provide students with valuable insight into what it takes to be a practitioner today.”

Riley also sees an opportunity to expand the role of social media in promoting the field. “I’m really passionate about the use of social media to get the word out about psychology, research, and advocacy,” she says. “We can create community and inform people. We can develop a network for each other to share learnings and benefit others in the field.”

How does Riley see her role as dean? She looks forward to developing a pool of educated, skilled psychology degree graduates who can have a positive impact across a wide scope. She’s eager to make it happen.

Learn more about Capella’s online psychology programs.


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