Careers in Consciousness Research, Parapsychology and/or Transpersonal Psychology
Charles T. Tart
Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of California at Davis
Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Sofia University/Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto, California
(Revision of Nov 13, 2015)
The contents of this document are Copyright © 2009 and Copyright © 2015 by Charles T. Tart.
I get many letters from prospective graduate students who want to study human consciousness, parapsychology, transpersonal psychology, or some combination of these fields, either with me or somewhere: thus this brief note, trying to condense decades of experience into a few pages. This is my perspective, and may not be up to date in some areas since I am largely retired.
Because these areas are so important for a real understanding of human nature, and have so much to potentially contribute to making our world a better place, I am inspired by students’ interest in working in these areas! I want to encourage your interests, but also give practical advice about studying these areas in order to make a career in them.
Note that I give this “practical” advice with ambivalence. I feel an obligation to give realistic assessments to young people who will have to make a living in the modern world, even though the “practical” side will often mean having to suppress or deny, to varying degrees, the interests and idealism that you have. In my own case, I followed my own ideals in making career choices because I believed, and still believe, that the application of real science (as opposed to scientism) to understand the spiritual, start to separate sense from nonsense, and make it more effective in our time is so vital. So I really appreciate the students who say “Yes, I may not make a good material living and have good job security if I follow my heart, but I will follow it anyway!” But we have to be as practical as possible.
As Tom Potterfield, a former President of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology nicely put it, when we were discussing students with spiritual interests who go to conventional graduate schools and find, unfortunately, that they have to hide their deep interests because of widespread prejudice in such schools, “It would seem unhealthy for someone to go a place where that they had to hide or stuff their deepest desires just to fit in better. Life is too short to live under false pretenses.”
And yet the experience of too many of my colleagues suggests that if you apply to a mainstream graduate school, the faculty there, and possibly the admissions committee, may well contain a member who is irrationally prejudiced against parapsychological and transpersonal interests and will automatically vote to reject you. This prejudice is almost never admitted to, it’s held by people who pride themselves on being rational and scientific, and who would be really offended if you asked them, e.g., how much of the scholarly and scientific literature in these fields they had actually read in forming their opinion. It’s certainly the case with parapsychology that the more vocal and fervent a critic is, the less of the actual literature they have bothered to read. So you’ll need to learn to tolerate irrational opposition too often…and be careful who you talk to about your interests…
To start: because I am well known in these fields, people often believe there is an active, graduate level program in one or all of those fields at the University of California at Davis where I taught for many (1966-1994) years, but, unfortunately, the truth was that I was rather alone at UCD in being interested in consciousness, parapsychology and transpersonal psychology, and UCD had hardly any course work at all in them, much less a real program. Further, I retired from the UCD in 1994 in order to devote my time to more focused teaching in transpersonal psychology and to writing, so I no longer teach or research there at all. There is interest in consciousness research there now, particularly the neurophysiological bases of consciousness, but I have not followed this and can’t give advice on that UCD program, but as conventional psychology programs go, I’m sure it is excellent. I understand there is some research on meditation there now, but I think it’s largely on physiological correlates of “meditation” for stress relief, rather than spiritually oriented.
If your interest in consciousness research can be focused on a relatively accepted aspect of it (cognitive psychology or biofeedback, e.g., or some area that is “legitimatized” in terms of current fashion, such as by appearing to have some neurological basis), you can probably find professors and programs at many mainstream universities doing research in areas that you could work with. Check reference sources like Psychological Abstracts, Psych Lit, and MedLine, and do internet searches to see who is doing work in these areas and what institutions they are at, then write the people directly. In the last few decades the study of consciousness, long considered taboo and unscientific, has gained a fair amount of legitimacy in various mainstream fields of science (although a main thrust tends to be explaining consciousness “away” in terms of brain functioning).
If your primary interest is in transpersonal psychology or parapsychology, things get much tougher. You can forget mainstream academic institutions if you really want to get involved during graduate school. A further complication arises from whether your interest originates primarily from your head or your heart.
First let me clarify some terms: When I say “parapsychology,” I mean the field of scientific research carried out by people trained, usually to the PhD level, in some recognized scientific discipline (almost none are trained in parapsychology per se, due to lack of specialized programs, but come from biology, physics, psychology, etc.), research focused on understanding the nature of phenomena like telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis (PK), psychic healing, etc. The emphasis here is on very high quality, controlled laboratory experiments that produce experiments conducted up to or (typically) exceeding the methodological standards in other recognized fields of scientific inquiry, as well as a willingness to accept negative results (psychic functioning often fails to manifest on demand in either real life or the laboratory). Some parapsychologists have strong spiritual inclinations and may personally follow various spiritual paths, but this does not interfere with the scientific quality and rigor of their work, some others have no spiritual interests or even are somewhat hostile to spirituality, but find parapsychological phenomena uniquely puzzling and challenging, since they defy conventional explanations.
Almost all investigators working in scientific parapsychology are members of the Parapsychological Association, an international organization and affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with full membership usually requiring a Ph.D. degree in some recognized scholarly or scientific field and evidence of published contributions to the parapsychology field in refereed (meaning competent colleagues have judged the work to meet basic scientific standards) scientific journals. Fairly detailed information about scientific parapsychology and generally agreed on findings to date can be found via links from my web archives or from my most recent book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together.” Other important sources are the guides to parapsychology on the internet from the Parapsychological Association , and from the Parapsychology Foundation. I do not keep up to date on web resources, and there are many web sites of variable or dubious scientific quality, but these are high quality places to start a search.
The Parapsychological Association also maintains updated advice on education and careers in parapsychology at http://www.parapsych.org/section/34/university_education_in.aspx .
In an ideal world (at least by my and most of my colleagues’ preferences), anyone identified as a “parapsychologist” would meet these scientific standards, but the reality is that many people who call themselves “parapsychologists” do not have graduate degrees in the sciences, and/or often do not understand what the discipline of science in general is about, and/or, if they have any publications, they are not in refereed journals but in popular books and magazines where some of the few truths we know about parapsychological phenomena are too often indiscriminately mixed up with personal beliefs, careless and sometimes incorrect reporting of events, and sometimes just plain fantasy or fraud. There is no legal restriction on who can call themselves parapsychologists. Because of this, the few of us who have tried to do quality scientific research on the field get considerable extra rejection from mainstream science because we are ignorantly lumped in with these others. In spite of all the work I’ve done in parapsychology, for example, work I’m scientifically proud of, when I’m introduced as a parapsychologist I almost always try to correct this to my identity as a psychologist (where there are some legal standards), part of whose research has been in parapsychology.
I am not saying that only someone with a Ph.D. should be allowed to be interested in or write about parapsychological phenomena: that would be silly. It’s just a matter of not confusing people about what is and isn’t scientific knowledge. By analogy, I am all for people who are unconventional healers (if they get results that physicians usually can’t get) calling themselves “healers,” but I’m also all for putting people in jail if they falsely call themselves physicians when they aren’t. “Physician” is well understood by people to mean many years of intense training in conventional medical disciplines, and we have general social agreement that those who aren’t so trained shouldn’t mislead others.
I’ve gone on this long to make it clear that my advice about careers in parapsychology is primarily for those who want to do scientific research. If this isn’t your primary interest, that’s OK, let’s just not be confused about it. Perhaps transpersonal psychology (which is also one of my careers) is a more appropriate professional interest for you, for while much scientific research needs to be done in it, most of its current practitioners are working as therapists and counselors, helping people with emotional and spiritual problems, a necessary and noble undertaking. Or they take parapsychological findings for granted and are interested in understanding how people can integrate psychic experiences into their lives in growthful ways. Of course it would be better if we had much more scientific knowledge in transpersonal psychology, but meanwhile real people have psychological and spiritual needs that they can use assistance with!
To partly define transpersonal psychology, here are parts of a definition I mostly wrote from an older catalog of the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology (ITP):
Transpersonal psychology is a fundamental area of research, scholarship and application based on people’s experiences of temporarily transcending our usual identification with our limited biological, historical, cultural and personal self and, at the deepest and most profound levels of experience possible, recognizing/being “something” of vast intelligence and compassion that encompasses/is the entire universe. From this perspective our ordinary, “normal” biological, historical, cultural and personal self is seen as an important, but quite partial (and often pathologically distorted) manifestation or expression of this much greater “something” that is our deeper origin and destination………Transpersonal experiences generally have a profoundly transforming effect on the lives of those who experience them, both inspiring those experiencers with an understanding of great love, compassion and non-ordinary kinds of intelligence, and also making them more aware of the distorting and pathological limitations of their ordinary selves that must be worked with and transformed for full psychological and spiritual maturity…….
Transpersonal psychology is my primary vocation, and I see my scientific parapsychology work as a subset of the transpersonal field. After retiring early from the University of California at Davis, I taught part time at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (ITP) in Palo Alto CA for 20 years, until mid-2014. ITP was a fully accredited (Western Association of Schools and Colleges, WASC), independent graduate school offering MA and Ph.D. degrees in transpersonal psychology, as well as distant learning MA and PhD degrees, programs, with a far broader range of subjects taught than in conventional psychology programs.
In 2013, ITP changed its name to Sofia University and made a wide variety of internal, programmatic and staff changes. One result of these changes was my decision to retire from Sofia/ITP. Although I hope for the best for Sofia/ITP, I do not keep up with the changes, so while I include earlier advice which has some generality, below, I do not specifically recommend or not recommend Sofia/ITP, and cannot provide further information about its programs. So my use of “I,” “our,” and “we” below reflects history, but not current reality for me.
Starting in 2009, ITP was working on modifying our residential PhD program to make it more feasible for part-time students who need to keep earning a living, and that was operationalized. We also offered a PsyD program in clinical psychology with a transpersonal emphasis, and it was aiming for American Psychological Association accreditation. To my older knowledge, that was moving along fine, but I don’t know its current status. Note that CIIS, the California Institute of Integral Studies, in San Francisco plans to start offering an online PhD program in Integral and Transpersonal Psychology in Fall of 2016. This will be offered online, with two residential seminars per year, and is a research-oriented degree. In addition, CIIS is developing a research laboratory in order to support the integration of transpersonal psychology with neuroscience—and students who choose to do so will be able to utilize this laboratory for their dissertation research. CIIS offers many other graduate programs that would be of interest to those interested in transpersonal psychology or parapsychology.
Careers in Transpersonal Psychology:
In terms of realistic career advice, I should note that transpersonal psychology is a relatively new area and still considered “marginal” (at best) or “pseudo science” (at worst) by many in (prejudicially biased) mainstream psychology. If your goal is a tenured faculty position at a major university, with the ample time for research that the low teaching loads in these institutions allow (publish or perish!), please understand that a degree from a transpersonal school will not be looked upon with favor, indeed will probably give you much less chance of being hired than a doctoral degree from most mainstream institutions. Transpersonal psychologists usually make a living teaching (often part-time, due to lack of transpersonal positions) or doing clinical-like counseling practice or leading psychological and spiritual growth-oriented work. (A fair number of ITP graduate students already had a career that they could go back to, adding a transpersonal touch to it.)
If your interests in parapsychology and/or transpersonal psychology arise primarily from your heart, making a living helping people is no disadvantage at all! If you can work well from both heart and head, wonderful! Importantly, ITP tried to educate its students’ emotions, body, social skills, spiritual life and creativity as well as their intellectual sides, an approach unique in higher education, where putting clever words into your head is the main and usually the exclusive program.
If you are primarily interested in doing research, realize that very few transpersonal psychologists can afford to devote more than a small part of their time to research (even though it’s desperately needed). I was luckily able to do a lot of research in my career because I taught at a mainstream school, UC Davis, where faculty teaching loads are light, so faculty have time for research. I assume (I haven’t studied the proposed program yet) CIIS will give a basic, graduate level education in research methods, including exposure to many methods more suitable for transpersonal and consciousness research, but it may not be up to the level of methodological sophistication found in specialized mainstream schools: there’s only so much time in a program.
I was fairly passionate about what kind of students I wanted to come to ITP also, and I suspect some CIIS faculty will feel the same way. If job security and mainstream acceptance are your primary goals, CIIS is not the place for you. If you are sincerely dedicated to advancing and applying our growing scientific and psychological knowledge of the genuinely spiritual to helping the world, CIIS is one of the very, very few places that will not only support your ideals, but give you tools for doing this!
One way some people solve the problem of wanting the advantages of a mainstream position (they are real, although the personal costs of ignoring or denying your spiritual nature are high), versus the greater importance of the depths of transpersonal psychology, is by going to a mainstream school (where they are wisely discreet about their deeper interests – many prejudiced mainstream professors will write you off as crazy if you let them know of all your interests, or try to get you out of the program – it shouldn’t be this way, but it is), but keep up with transpersonal psychology or parapsychology by joining the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, which publishes the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and/or reading the parapsychological journals. Membership in the Institute of Noetic Sciences is also very helpful for keeping up via their annual meetings and publications.
In terms of other possibilities (few, unfortunately), especially in parapsychology, you might contact the Parapsychological Association for their current list of schools offering some (usually one) parapsychology courses or programs, the Society for Psychical Research, and the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, mentioned above, for schools offering courses or programs in transpersonal psychology. Another excellent source of info on careers in parapsychology is Irwin’s monograph. But please note that scientific parapsychology is a minuscule field, with only a few dozen people in the entire world working in it, most only part time. Unless there is an unexpected change that infuses a lot of money into the field, I must warn you that chances of a decent job, if you can find training, are small . If you are so dedicated that this news won’t stop you, that’s wonderful! But be realistic.
Note that some of my colleagues currently think people who really want careers in parapsychology should emigrate to the United Kingdom, where the academic and scientific attitude is less overtly hostile than in the United States – although there are still only a very few positions available. As one colleague waggishly put it, Americans should not have too much trouble with the language… 😉
The Rhine Research Center (formerly the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man), the successor of Professor J. B. Rhine’s parapsychology laboratory at Duke University, used to offer an 8-week summer training program each year that was very good (and usually the only thing available) for getting a solid introduction to scientific parapsychology. It may or may still be available in any given year. They are also a good source of advice about training and careers in parapsychology.
Note again that I am busy writing and do not keep up with all that is available, especially now that it is so readily findable on the web.
In terms of keeping up with my own work in consciousness, parapsychology and transpersonal psychology, you can go to my web site where reprints of many of my articles are available. I also have a blog accessible there discussing parapsychology, consciousness, transpersonal psychology, and notes on my personal problems and insights trying to integrate science and spiritual growth. Perhaps some will follow these ideas up and develop them beyond my rough beginnings. As I age, I am tossing out many of my observations and ideas in brief blog articles there in hopes that some may be useful to future researchers, as well as people in general. While I have been very successful in publishing in high prestige scientific journals, as I age I don’t have time to jump through those hoops.
There are so many other things I could say, but I’m sure you’re overwhelmed by now, so I’ll stop. Since you are reading this, I really appreciate your ambition and idealism in wanting to work in these fields! We need you, but the opportunities are, as I’ve sadly said, more limited than is needed unless you really want to go mainstream and have the talent to work in correlating psychological functioning with brain functioning. Our current scientific culture takes the belief that the mind is nothing more than the brain as unquestioned gospel, and so spends well on brain research, especially if it will make “funny stuff” seem to be explained away. I am constantly amazed at the brain studies that claim to explain (away) apparent psychic phenomena like out-of-body experiences or near-death experiences while showing that their authors know almost nothing about these areas.
Parapsychology, transpersonal psychology and consciousness research in general are vitally important fields for understanding our nature and possibilities. It’s too bad there’s so much prejudice to fight in scientists who should know better.
Whatever you do, good luck!
Please feel free to forward this information to anyone you think may be interested.
With best wishes for your career,
Charles T. Tart, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, University of California at Davis
Professor Emeritus, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology