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Finding Our Identity: Unique Collaborations With Other Fields Can Benefit Us All in Graduate School and Beyond

Ernest Hoffman and Noelle Frantz
University of Akron

Graduate school provides us with a valuable opportunity to forge our identities as scientists and practitioners in at least two critical ways (Ibarra & Petriglieri, 2010). On the one hand, we engage in identity work: forming, maintaining, and strengthening our identities as future academics or applied professionals. On the other hand, we also have a unique opportunity to engage in identity play, trying on new and provisional identities to see how they fit. Interestingly, our field as a whole appears to be undergoing a similar process (Ryan & Ford, 2010), experimenting with possible identities that vary in the extent to which they distinguish the work of industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologists from the work of other fields.

In this article, we share our personal experiences of collaborations with other disciplines while in graduate school. Although we are not the first to do so (see Fairchild & Shih, 2010), we hope to build upon the insights of previous authors by describing our cross-disciplinary work with our university’s Marketing Department (located within the College of Business Administration) and with its Career Center. We discuss the potential value of cross-disciplinary collaboration for graduate students seeking both applied and academic positions upon graduation. In addition, we highlight that such alliances can be just as beneficial to the identity work and play of other fields, the field of I-O psychology, and current scientist–practitioners as they have been to both of us as future professionals.

How We Ended Up in Other Fields

Both of us were approached by our department chair to work outside of the department as part of our annual graduate assistantship. Noelle had the opportunity to work for the Career Center at the University of Akron as the graduate assistant for Employer Relations. The Career Center is a university-wide resource providing services to help students throughout their entire college experience from an incoming freshman to a graduating senior, as well as assisting graduate and law students. Noelle primarily worked with the Employer Relations team to help connect local, regional, and national employers with University of Akron undergraduate and graduate students looking for part-time, full-time, and experiential learning experiences. Ernest worked with Suarez Applied Marketing Research Laboratories, a laboratory affiliated with the University of Akron’s marketing department. The Suarez lab specializes in neuromarketing, an emerging interdisciplinary field that uses physiological measurement techniques, such as dense-array electroencephalography and eye-tracking software, to research behavioral and neurological responses to various types of marketing stimuli. Ernest is primarily responsible for writing reports for various stakeholders, as well as building the academic reputation of the lab through conference presentations and publications.

What We Heard: Our Contribution as Future I-O Scientist–Practitioners to Other Fields

Our perceived contribution as graduate assistants to the Career Center and the Suarez lab was especially salient due to the fact that we were the first to represent our department in both of these newly created positions. It was clear to us that for each of these fields collaborating with the I-O psychology program constituted identity play. Both assistantship sites were interested in trying collaborative relationships and in learning what a psychological perspective could contribute to their work. We were also expected to be an integral part of each unit’s identity work, providing an outsider perspective that could help to organize and synthesize existing resources, insights, and capabilities.

Noelle’s original role was to collaborate with the assistant director of Employer Relations to maintain existing relationships and develop new relationships with potential employers of University of Akron students. Within the first month, however, the assistant director of Employer Relations resigned. The Career Center decided to create an Employer Relations team with Noelle playing an essential role in keeping Employer Relations afloat. Noelle attended weekly planning meetings in which team members took on the responsibilities necessary to meet the needs of employers, plan and execute events to connect students and employers, and meet the needs of the university. Although Noelle had many roles, her most integral contribution was her overhaul of the Employer Relations website. She worked directly with employers to modify the website in a way that met their informational wants and needs. For instance, the new website included an “Employer Toolbar” accessible on each page of the website with the information most searched by employers.

About a month before Ernest started his outside assignment, he met with representatives of the Suarez lab, the College of Business, and the Department of Psychology in order to chart a course for the year ahead. Representatives of the lab felt that he could primarily contribute to their work in three ways: (a) working with faculty to build recognition and respectability for the Suarez lab in the academic community, (b) applying psychological theory to a young discipline that was largely lacking in theory, and (c) translating complex neuromarketing data and neurological processes into user-friendly language for advertising executives. Ernest’s most distinct contribution emerged when he started working with the lab’s brain-wave data and introduced multilevel modeling as a statistical analysis tool that accommodated the large idiosyncrasies found in individual brain wave data. Previous neuromarketing studies had largely relied on mean-comparisons and non-nested data structures.

We have been fortunate to work with people who are just as concerned about our future success as they are about theirs. In the next two sections, we draw upon our own future interests in applied and academic work to discuss the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration for future applied and academic I-O professionals.

Collaborating With Other Fields Can Benefit Future Applied I-O Professionals

Noelle: For me, collaborating with the Career Center proved not only to be exciting but also enlightening. Although the Career Center is part of an academic institution, it functions very much like a business. I served as an employee participating in the daily activities not only for my department but for the Career Center as a whole. This afforded me the chance to serve as an I-O resource for my coworkers, adding a valuable component that had not previously been available within the Center. In addition to gaining the experience of work in a business atmosphere, I had direct contact with employers recruiting University of Akron students. These professional interactions with employees across multiple industries and disciplines were priceless networking opportunities. I was able to apply my knowledge about organizational culture and person–organization fit while learning about their specific cultures and what types of employees they were hoping to recruit. I was also fortunate to gain experience with a restructuring process as the Career Center began to evolve through a change of leadership. From my experience, I will not only be more prepared for an applied position, but I will have also gained significant experience in university policy and politics, web design, and career services.

Ernest: Collaborating with the Suarez lab has led to learning a lot about available resources and technologies that I otherwise would not have been aware of. It has also been beneficial to learn from the insights and approaches taken by another field that, like ours, is highly applied and solution focused in nature. I-O graduate students seeking a future in applied settings will find that such collaborations provide invaluable experience and feedback with translating sophisticated data and processes into stakeholder-friendly language and visuals. Opportunities to network at conferences and industry gatherings have also proven to be valuable experiences. In many cases, simply explaining what a background in industrial-organizational psychology is has provided a natural conversation starter, not to mention great practice for the future.

Interdisciplinary collaborations can also be beneficial to graduate students with a career in academia on the horizon, for reasons we now turn to discussing.

How Collaborating With Other Fields Can Benefit Future Academic I-O Professionals

Noelle: Working in a university support role provided me with a very different perspective than my previous academic role as a teaching assistant. In an academic role, it is important to recognize the vision and mission of the university leadership in order to fully grasp how your individual role contributes to the much larger system. In the comforts of the Psychology department, it can be easy to lose sight of that big picture. When collaborating with a department like the Career Center, which connects to every area of the university, campus-wide dynamics and the big picture become evident.

Another positive outcome was getting to know the student body. Through individual career appointments and university-wide career events, I was able to meet students from all parts of the university. Understanding who makes up the student body is very beneficial to future academics. If you are passionate for the academic side of I-O, I highly recommend gaining experience in an academic support role to broaden your understanding of all university functions, apply your I-O knowledge in a new and different way, and make university connections that may not otherwise be likely.

Ernest: I frequently frame my experience working for the Suarez lab as a realistic job preview of academia. I had to chart my own course and define this role to some extent, which gave me the opportunity to learn how to operate efficiently in a highly autonomous setting. Additional benefits included broadening my theoretical and methodological horizons, learning how to find common ground with other academic disciplines, and collaborating on research projects with nondepartmental faculty. Furthermore, as someone who wondered what the differences were between working in a college of business and a psychology department, this experience allowed me to directly compare and contrast the two firsthand.

Thus far, we have specifically emphasized the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration for graduate students and external academic fields and centers. As we stated previously, we believe that these benefits extend to current I-O scientist–practitioners and our field as a whole. The following section provides a brief discussion of some of these benefits.

What We Believe: Collaborating With Other Fields Can Benefit All I-O Psychologists

As current I-O scientist–practitioners discern a number of future identity scenarios (see Ryan & Ford, 2010), exposure to other fields and professionals undertaking similar processes of discernment can be especially constructive. For instance, Cronin and Bendersky (2012) suggest that such collaboration has an untapped potential to bridge the longstanding divide between academic research and contextual application. On the basis of our experience of collaborating with non-I-O professionals, we believe that an increased commitment to cross-disciplinary collaboration by graduate students, academic departments, university functions, consulting firms, and organizations can benefit all involved in at least three vital ways.

First, small collaborative steps can lead to larger ones. In Ernest’s case, a 1-year assistantship served as a trial that has since led to discussions regarding multiple assistantships, increased resource and technology sharing, and future plans to organize conferences and research projects together. Secondly, collaboration helps all involved to discern who they are and, perhaps more importantly, who they are not. We both have found that defining our identity is easier to do when we are able to work both within and beyond the conventional boundaries of I-O psychology. Third, we believe that existing academic departments, consulting firms, and HR departments will benefit from I-O program graduates who can offer them a multidisciplinary, diverse set of research and practice experiences. For instance, Noelle is currently utilizing the university training she received and skill sets she developed in website design to assist the department of Psychology with necessary website updates and changes. Ultimately, we were able to expand our repertoire of professional tools and knowledge base in a way that will be an asset to future employers.
Having made a case that interdisciplinary collaboration can in some way benefit every person reading this article, we turn to offering practical suggestions based on lessons learned.

What We Suggest: Lessons Learned From Life Beyond the Department

The following list of suggestions is not exhaustive but is meant to be informative to graduate students, academic departments, and organizations who might be considering future cross-disciplinary collaborations.

  1. 1. Think outside of the box. When each of us first found out about our respective assistantships, we were a little taken aback. Unlike more conventional assignments, the fit of these experiences with our career objectives was not immediately clear. This ambiguity would turn out to be an incredible asset. Everyone involved was new to this process, which meant that we were free to create something tailored to our unique knowledge, skills, and abilities. There was no way that things were “typically” done, which we found to be refreshing and intimidating all at the same time. New and original products and ideas were generated that never would have been possible had we and those who made the decision to collaborate chosen to stay inside of our respective “boxes.”
  2. A little humility can go a long, long way. We were absolutely amazed by the amount of respect that Suarez lab and the Career Center showed us from the very beginning. In many ways, we had to remember sometimes that we were still graduate students and not full-fledged colleagues, which speaks to the integrity and professionalism of everyone involved. Our assistantships were framed as opportunities to enhance these other areas with our I-O background, and in both cases we were seen as even larger assets than expected. Nevertheless, we have learned at least as much from the people we have worked with as they have learned from us. Approaching cross-disciplinary collaboration with a dual desire to learn and educate is critical.
  3. Stay focused on who you are, and who you are not. Establishing healthy boundaries is important when collaborating across disciplines. One thing we found that surprised us is the extent to which other fields define healthy boundaries differently. For example, Noelle’s office and event schedules were clearly defined, whereas Ernest had a considerable amount of flexibility but was still expected to be seen around the office. We did our best to create and maintain appropriate boundaries, particularly for future graduate assistants, by remembering that our departments chose us for these opportunities based on who we were. When we felt the need to speak up, we spoke up. And when we weren’t sure about whether we should speak up or not, we were fortunate enough to know the appropriate person to ask. Staying true to our boundaries seemed to engender trust and respect from our non-I-O colleagues as well as our I-O colleagues. In addition, we believe that our identity became more distinct in the eyes of our colleagues than it was when we had filled more traditional assistantship assignments.

Conclusion

Identity work and play are processes we all engage in, from those considering advanced degrees, to those enmeshed in a graduate program, to those who can barely remember going to graduate school, and everyone in-between. Tremendous opportunities exist to work together across disciplines, meaning that we do not have to, nor should we want to, work and play with our identity alone.

Our next column involves current trends in I-O psychology research.

As always, please feel free to contact our TIP-TOPics team at akrontiptopics@gmail.com!

References

Cronin, M. A., & Bendersky, C. (2012). The supply chain for producing quality organizational knowledge. Organizational Psychology Review, 2(1), 54–70.
Fairchild, J., & Shih, S. I. (2010). Cross-disciplinary research with engineering and information sciences and technology. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 47(4), 133–137.
Ibarra, H., & Petriglieri, J. L. (2010). Identity work and play. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 23(1), 10–25.
Ryan, A. M., & Ford, K. J. (2010). Organizational psychology and the tipping point of professional identity. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 3, 241–258.