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Mastering Human Behavior

Beginning in January 2014, the Master of Science in Applied Psychology degree program will be offered online. The current on-campus and new online program will be led by Ellen Leggett, an accomplished applied psychologist who joined USC Dornsife in Fall 2013.

Ellen Leggett, an expert in the psychology of decision-making, joined USC Dornsife in Fall 2013 as director of the Master of Science in Applied Psychology program. Photo by Letty Avila.
Ellen Leggett, an expert in the psychology of decision-making, joined USC Dornsife in Fall 2013 as director of the Master of Science in Applied Psychology program. Photo by Letty Avila.

With nearly a decade of experience in marketing, Daniela Kerfin Canto was savvy enough to know that a deeper understanding of human behavior would help her garner clients.

She knew the marketing campaigns she oversaw for a dental implant company had the potential to draw more customers. 

 “Even though we thought we knew our clients very well, we would get varied responses to our marketing efforts,” said Kerfin Canto, explaining why she decided to study consumer behavior at USC Dornsife’s applied psychology program.

The Master of Science in Applied Psychology program is unique in that it teaches students psychological principles and research methods at the intersection of theory, research and practice in business settings. Students learn to identify key theories and apply them to a variety of challenges facing contemporary organizations, their employees and consumers.

The applied psychology master’s degree was developed four years ago at USC Dornsife to prepare students for entry into fields such as marketing, organizational development, human resources, advertising and public relations. Through a combination of coursework, seminars, an internship and a final capstone project, they learn to use both theory and data to further organizational goals and solve organizational problems.

Beginning in January 2014, the program will also be offered in an online format. It joins the Master of Science in Geographic Information Science and Technology master’s program currently offered online at USC Dornsife.

The online program will be offered alongside USC Dornsife’s current residential applied psychology master’s degree program, formerly known as the Master of Science in Human Behavior.

“Many people interested in earning a master’s degree in applied psychology can’t take time off to be a full-time student,” said Margaret Gatz, professor of psychology, gerontology and preventive medicine, who chaired psychology at USC Dornsife from January 2007 to August 2013. “The online format will help working professionals achieve this degree and develop skills and credentials to advance in their careers.”

The online format will provide an opportunity for working professionals and students around the world and in the United States to earn a degree from USC from the comfort of their homes.

“International students are attracted to USC because it’s a highly rated research university,” said JoAnn Farver, professor and current chair of psychology at USC Dornsife. “Students tell me they’re excited to be part of USC Dornsife and our great psychology program.”

Students will earn their degree online in approximately 16 months — the residential program takes one calendar year to complete — and will comprise the same curriculum as the on-campus experience. Program organizers expect the online program to eventually enroll approximately 200 students. The residential program will remain highly selective, enrolling 30 students per year.


Daniela Kerfin Canto studies consumer behavior at USC Dornsife's master's program in applied psychology. Upon completing her degree, she plans to return to her native Mexico and put her expertise to work for the marketing company where she worked previously. Photo courtesy of Daniela Kerfin Canto.

At the helm of the program is Ellen Leggett, who joined the USC Dornsife Department of Psychology in Fall 2013 as director of the Master of Science in Applied Psychology.

Leggett is a nationally renowned expert in the psychology of jury decision-making. For more than 20 years, she has assisted trial lawyers and witnesses in complex, high-stakes cases, personally designing, conducting and interpreting empirical research on juror decision-making. In 1996, she founded her own consulting firm, Leggett Jury Research, LLC.  Her clients are from a broad cross-section of industries including aerospace, automobile, banking, accounting, health care, technology, pharmaceuticals, real estate and retail, as well as government agencies.

She also brings with her substantial experience in academic administration. Leggett has served as a professor, researcher and administrator at Cornell University, Scripps College and the University of California, Riverside.

Leggett earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in psychology and education at Harvard University, and her bachelor’s degree in psychology magna cum laude from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She is a member of the American Psychological Association and the American Society of Trial Consultants.

Gatz said the department is thrilled to welcome Leggett as new director of the program.

“Dr. Leggett bridges an understanding of the breadth of what is required in the academic world and the business world,” Gatz said. “She has done exactly what we’re training our students to do.”

Leggett said her own mission with the program is to ensure that students receive a strong foundation in critical thinking — something she holds dear in light of her own liberal arts background.

“The best career preparation students can receive is in critical thinking,” Leggett said. “It is the most versatile skill to propel students’ careers into the future world of work.”

These are skills that Kerfin Canto values as well. For her capstone project, she plans to focus on the concept of social marketing — promoting products based on the positive social outcomes they can have. For instance, campaigns that promote healthy eating habits or improve the environment.

“I want to employ the knowledge I will gain for social marketing. I’m very interested in not just selling products, but better ideas for social good,” she said.

Kerfin Canto plans to return to her native Mexico after she completes her master’s degree and rejoin the marketing company she worked for previously. Eventually, she aims to make the leap to a larger organization such as Volkswagen or Audi, which have locations in Mexico, where she can use her expertise to help promote their sustainability efforts such as developing electric cars.

“After completing my master’s degree, I know my understanding of human behavior will increase exponentially, which will translate to a more successful career,” she said.

“I look forward to enhancing my networking and communication skills, which will help me build strong, long-lasting relationships with my clients. Most importantly, I’ll be able to design the best marketing strategies tailored for my target audiences.”

Learn more about the Master of Science in Applied Psychology residential and online programs.