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Things I Learned Along the Way

Paul M. Muchinsky*
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

* Fan mail may be sent to pmmuchin@uncg.edu.

Alright children, gather ’round, gather ’round. In celebration of the 40th year of Uncle Paul’s illustrious career, I will share with you some timeless pearls of wisdom accumulated over the past 4 decades. Be you an academic or a practitioner, be you I or O, be you a researcher or a meta-analyst, adhering to these nuggets of truth will make your life better. These verities are not simply mine. Any seasoned veteran of SIOP will attest to their sagacity. What separates my telling them to you versus everyone else is the bard of SIOP has animated each with a memorable anecdote. Each and every event occurred in my career. So listen up and pay attention.

1. Always carefully proofread your work

Early in my career I had a wonderful secretary, Marti. This was before the era of word processors and spellcheck. I would always give her material to type I had written longhand. Although I thought my handwriting was legible, occasionally Marti would come across a word she couldn’t read. Rather than leave a blank space or type the word incorrectly, she would correctly type the word she thought I wrote. When I proofread, I developed the bad habit of just looking for typos not wrong words.

I had gotten a RFP from the U.S. Department of Education that appealed to me. They were soliciting short proposals for small grants. I had some nifty idea about behavior modeling I thought was worthy of funding. A key part of the grant proposal was where you had to specify the population that would benefit from the research. I said the findings from my proposed research “would be important for elementary school children.” The grant was submitted, and it was not approved. Weeks after I received the rejection letter I happened to reread my proposal. I discovered why, in all likelihood, my proposal was not funded. Marti had typed my proposed research “would be important for eliminating school children.” I guess overcrowding in schools was not a big problem in the late 1970s.

2. Sometimes right is still wrong

This story occurred when I was a graduate student at Purdue. I was the TA for a graduate stat course. The professor had me create homework problem sets for the students based upon the lecture content. This particular week the professor was teaching some statistical concept that began with the letter B. It was either binomial or Bernoulli, I can no longer remember which. The particular homework problem I created involved computing the probability of heads and tails in a coin flip after a certain number of trials with given results. The class as a group had a difficult time with the problem. One student computed the probability of heads to be .64 and tails to be .51. I told the professor about the overall poor performance on the question and this one student’s answer in particular.

The professor takes this person’s homework and writes in bold letters, “The probability of heads plus the probability of tails must equal 1.00!!” (Please note the double exclamation point.) The professor then tells me to give another question like this one in the next homework problem set. I do so. The class as a whole did much better the second time, but my favorite student submits this answer:

“The probability of heads is 1.50 and the probability of tails is -.50. The probability of heads plus the probability of tails equals 1.00, correct per the instructions of the professor!!” And positioned next to her calculations was a BIG checkmark just to further telegraph to me that she got it right this time. I didn’t have the nerve to bring this particular student’s homework paper to the attention of the professor a second time.

3. Don’t use big fancy words that sound similar to another word with very different meaning

I had a client who was having trouble with a senior manager. The guy was a technical wizard but he was terrible in interpersonal relations. In particular, he didn’t seem to handle one-on-one meetings very well at all. My job was to interview his direct reports and then propose some skill training for him. I had interviewed several people who said the guy was especially quick to criticize his subordinates. So I am talking to this one employee and the following exchange occurred.

Me: “I have been hearing from other employees that [the manager] is quick to castigate his subordinates. Is that your experience as well?”
Employee: “He’s tough alright, but no, he won’t cut your balls off.”
Me: “Duly noted.”

4. Just having a graduate degree doesn’t make you better than others

I was collecting work analysis data from employees in a book printing company. I was interviewing operators who ran large printing machines. Each machine performed a different function in the process of printing books. Few of the operators had a high school diploma, as the jobs were very simple. Basically each operator had to load thousands of sheets of paper in one end of the machine and then unload the sheets at the other end of the machine. It seemed like truly mindless work. Many of the employees I spoke with used the word “sucker.” The expressions were like, “that sucker was running hot,” or “those suckers were really moving,” or “I hate it when that sucker jams.” It was very warm in the room and my brain had started to fry from the heat and the tedium of work analysis. So I’m in the middle of my final interview of the day, and I decide to speak the language of the locals, just for a change of pace. This particular worker ran a slicing machine that trimmed and squared the pages before they were bound. I forget my exact wording, but I asked a question like, “So, how do you load that sucker?” The employee’s face went blank, and then I was dutifully (but politely) informed, “There are no suckers on my machine.” It was only then I cleverly deduced a “sucker” was not a generic slang term, but referred to a small rubber suction (like the rubber tip on the end of a child’s arrow) that descends on a piece of paper, lifts it (through suction), and enters it into a slot whereupon print is applied to it. This being a page trimming machine, no suckers were utilized. I was ashamed at my haughtiness, assuming these uneducated workers were merely filling my ears with local vernacular. I felt foolish for being such a sucker to my own hubris.

5. Don’t take any guff from students

Every now and then we get a student who whines about the tests we give. I once had an Olympic champion in whining who was in my class on test development. Not only did she whine about my tests, she probably medaled in stupidity as well. Following a test she said to me, “You are always talking about valid tests. How do you know the tests you give are valid?” I replied, “I know they are valid because the scores on the test are highly correlated with the grades I assign.” She was too dense to figure out the delightful absurdity of my statement.

6. Even editors make mistakes

This occurred in the 1980s. At the time I was doing research on vocational choice. I was a member of the editorial review board of a leading journal on the topic. I would receive one or two manuscripts per month to review. I had just finished a lengthy study on the topic and mailed the manuscript off to the journal. This was long before the era of electronic submission of manuscripts. About 2 weeks later I go to my mailbox and find an envelope from the journal containing a manuscript to review. I let it sit on my desk for about a week before I opened it. I discovered the manuscript was on the same topic as the paper I had just submitted myself. It took me an honest 10–15 seconds of reading it before I realized this was the very manuscript that I had submitted to the journal about 3 weeks previously. I was licking my chops with delight as I wrote the following terse review of the manuscript to the editor: “This is the finest manuscript ever written in the history of the planet Earth. I should know. I wrote it.” The editor wrote back and said while my expertise on the topic was unquestioned, just to be safe an evaluation of the manuscript by another reviewer would be sought. I still can’t figure out why I didn’t immediately recognize the manuscript as my own, but I didn’t. The manuscript was eventually accepted but not without some totally unnecessary revisions. Why improve upon perfection?

7. When using words with multiple meanings, be sure people understand the particular meaning you intend

I was teaching a class on research methods. I described how sometimes psychologists use confederates as part of the research design. I can’t remember the particular study I described (it might have been the famous Asch study on conformity), but I asked the class to critique the research regarding the limits of generalizability. One budding scholar said the findings from the study had limited generalizability because there were no Yankees in the study, just Confederates. Because I went to Gettysburg College for my undergraduate work, maybe he was just playing to me.

8. Don’t trust acronyms

I had a client that hired me every 3 years to conduct an employee opinion survey. My contact person was head of HR. To get the project approved, I had to appear before the top VPs and CEO to address their concerns about the survey before it was administered. I was assured the meeting would be a brief courtesy call. It was anything but. It seemed like every VP was a closet psychologist, with the VP of Finance in particular grilling me on almost every question. What I was told would last about 20 minutes wound up taking about an hour and a half. At the end of the meeting I felt I had just gone 15 rounds with Rocky Marciano.

I was told on another day I had to meet with the “EAC,” the Employee Advisory Committee. The EAC was a recently created committee designed to facilitate communication from the top tiers of the organization to the lower ranks. Unlike my meeting with the executives, this time I took nothing for granted. I prepared slides, explanatory handouts, and mock results to show how the findings would be presented. I was as prepared as I could be. The meeting with the EAC lasted about 10 minutes. The EAC had no questions for me at all, as the members simply assumed I knew what I was doing. I wasted about 8 hours preparing for this affair. I then administered the survey without incident.

Another 3 years go by, and it’s time for another survey. In the intervening years this company merged with another, and there was even more upper-level bureaucracy. I was told over the phone I would again meet with the EAC. I wasn’t going to be fooled a second time about this cream puff committee. I show up at the head of HR’s office and quickly deduce he is highly agitated. I asked him what was bothering him. He said he found meetings with the EAC to be very stressful since the merger. And because this was the first time the opinion survey was being given following the merger, he wanted it to go well. I simply couldn’t understand the basis of his concern, as the other time I met with the EAC, they were about as placid a group as one could find. We get in the elevator and pushed the button for the top floor. He continues to fret. Finally, I said, “We’re meeting with the EAC, the Employee Advisory Committee, right?” His eyes open wide and says, “Hell no, we abolished that useless committee about 3 years ago.” The elevator dings and the doors open. “We’re meeting with the EAC: the Executive Administrative Council, the new name for all the top brass following the merger.” My mouth went instantly dry as I spied my favorite VP of Finance (now Executive Vice President of Finance) as he entered the conference room where we were meeting. Without so much as notes, somehow I schmoozed my way through the meeting. I never trusted an acronym again.

9.     Stereotypes are often inaccurate assumptions about behavior

I made a reservation to rent a car at the Miami International Airport. I approached the rental car counter. The agent on duty is an attractive young lady. I will not mention the color of her hair. The conversation between us went like this:

Agent: “Do you have a reservation?”
Me: “Yes, I do. My name is Muchinsky.”
Agent: “What?”
Me: “Muchinsky.”
Agent: “What?”
Me: “Muchinsky.”
Agent: “What?”
Me: “It’s like three words, Much-In-Sky, but it’s pronounced Mew-Chin-Ski.”
Agent: “Much-In-Sky! Are you Indian?!”
Me: “Lady, if it helps me get my car, yes, I am an Indian.”
Agent: “What tribe?”

Upon telling this story to my students, I acquired the nickname “Chief Much-In-Sky.” Stereotypes are often inaccurate assumptions about behavior. But not always.

10.   What goes around comes around

This occurred when I was in graduate school. I was the TA for Dr. Joseph Tiffin, who was in the final year of his distinguished career at Purdue. Dr. Tiffin taught a seminar for incoming graduate students in industrial psychology. The class consisted of reading assigned journal articles, and the students responding to a question posed by Dr. Tiffin about each article. Dr. Tiffin had taught the class the same way for many years and did not change the assigned readings nor the questions he asked about each article. Previous cohorts of graduate students had recorded the questions asked and also wrote the answers Dr. Tiffin wanted to hear. So, in effect, every incoming class of students was given the blueprint of how to conduct themselves in class from previous students.

By this stage in his career Dr. Tiffin had a very truncated style of speaking. He barely opened his mouth when he spoke and sort of grunted out his words. I don’t think you could have fit a potato chip in between his lips when he was speaking. But because the students knew what questions he was going to ask in advance, we really didn’t need to understand what he was saying. Each student would answer his or her question, and then Dr. Tiffin would record his assessment of the student’s answer.

One of the students in my class was a lovely woman from India. Her name was Nina. She had a very heavy Indian accent that was sometimes difficult to follow. One day before class Nina says to me, “Paul, I must tell you. I know Dr. Tiffin is very bright, but I must tell you, Paul, I have not understood a single word he has said all semester!” Being Dr. Tiffin’s TA, I assisted him by carrying his material to and from class. After class one day we are walking back to his office, and he says to me in his compressed speech, “Paul, I gotta tell you. You know this Nina? I know she is very bright, but I gotta tell you, Paul, I have not understood a single word she has said all semester!”

Well, there you have it. Over 40 years of life’s lessons reduced to just a few moments of reading time. When you get to be old like me, share what you have learned along the way with others. It is more gratifying than isolating yourself and perturbating.