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Checking in With the Scientist–Practitioner Model: How Are We Doing?

Deborah E. Rupp
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Daniel Beal
Rice University

The science and practice of industrial-organizational psychology is being influenced by a number of factors. For example, within academics, we see an increase in the number of faculty members taking positions in business schools.1 Within practice, we see an increase in the number of mergers and acquisitions among I-O psychology consulting firms. I-O psychology research is becoming increasingly multilevel and multidisciplinary. I-O practitioners face increased challenges surrounding what they can share with the profession at large. As we face these and other changes, it not only becomes important to reflect on the implications of these trends for science and practice but also whether the scientist–practitioner model, as it is currently articulated, represents the way we are or should be conducting ourselves as a profession.

1 As of this writing, SIOP data show that 50% of the 41% of  SIOP members working for academic institutions are working in business schools.

To respond to this need, the SIOP Strategic Program Committee hosted a special invited panel discussion at the 2007 annual conference charged with the mission to “check in” with the science–practice model and discuss how contemporary issues facing the field might affect the viability and interpretation of this model. The panel consisted of a sample of SIOP’s leading scientists, practitioners, scientist–practitioners, and practitioner–scientists: Rosemary Hays-Thomas, Leaetta Hough, Daniel Ilgen, Gary Latham, Ed Locke, Kevin Murphy, Nancy Tippins, and Howard Weiss.

The resulting discussion, debate, and dialogue brought many important issues to the surface. We summarize these issues below and hope that they will serve not as a prescription for any one perspective (as we learned, all such prescriptions are quite debatable) but rather as a catalyst for dialogue surrounding our current and future identity as a field.

Origins of the Model

The science–practice model has its origins in clinical psychology. It was conceived in 1949 at the Boulder conference as a model for graduate student training (Benjamin & Baker, 2000; Hays-Thomas, 2002). According to the model, psychologists are to be trained in a way that integrates science and practice such that activities in one domain would inform activities in the other domain. Graduate students are to learn about research and practice, and carry out research and practice under the supervision of faculty and professionals with expertise in both areas. Graduate programs are to house both research and clinical facilities, and curricula are to be structured to integrate these two activities whenever possible.2

2 It should be noted that the actual implementation of this model has been questioned within clinical psychology, and other models (e.g., the scholar–practitioner perspective, the local clinical scientist model; Belar & Perry, 1992; Korman, 1974; Stricker & Trierweiler, 1995; Wright, 1983) have been suggested. The appropriateness of this model for I-O psychology was also called into question by Murphy, Weiss, and Hays-Thomas.

In I-O psychology, science–practice has been adopted more as a model for the field than a model for graduate training (and the panel noted the great variance in I-O graduate programs with regard to practitioner training; Hays-Thomas, Hough). Although there is not an officially mandated definition of the science–practice model, most descriptions point to a reciprocal relationship between the two: Practitioners should look to the scientific literature for guidance on setting up effective workplace systems; scientists should take their cues from practitioners in identifying issues relevant to employee well-being and organizational effectiveness. Although seemingly straightforward, there are a number of issues embedded within this idea that are hotly debated.

To What Extent Should Practice Influence Science?

Although everyone on the panel agreed that science should exert a strong influence on practice, there were varied opinions about whether and how practice should have an influence on science in I-O psychology.  On the one hand, Locke made an argument for inductive theory building (Locke, in press) where we accumulate a large body of findings from both laboratory and field settings and then integrate these in order to develop a theory. This is in contrast to the hypothetico-deductive method where we develop a theory, make deductions, and then test them.  A similar perspective mentioned by several panel members was that, although research need not necessarily be governed by our observations of applied problems, these problems often do (and should) help determine the focus of our research interests.  As an example of this perspective, Latham described how several fruitful research efforts began by pursuing a practical problem of an organization (Latham, 2001).  After consulting the available scientific evidence related to the problem (e.g., goal-setting research), novel solutions were made apparent such as when to set a learning versus a performance goal.

On the other hand, some panelists (most strongly argued by Weiss) felt that there is a justifiable role in I-O psychology for research that is not at all guided by applied problems.  Instead, research can be stimulated by the simple desire to understand the psychology of people at work (see also Hulin, 2001).  In so doing, applications of our research will arise naturally, and it is precisely the role of practitioners to determine and implement these applications.  Weiss’s work on affective events is an example of such an approach (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996). Whereas we have learned a great deal through this research about the link among employee emotion, attitudes, and behaviors, and this research has implications for a number of organizational strategies that could serve to increase both the well-being and performance of employees, the research was motivated not by a goal of informing practice but rather a quest to more deeply understand the emotional experiences of people while working.

This perspective raises other important points. The first point, made by Ilgen and others, argued that if our research is of high quality, if we follow the scientific method (which Hough suggested should be the true basis of our graduate training, a point which received enthusiastic agreement from all panelists), and if we study topics that are relevant, then our research will automatically have important implications for practice. In the words of Locke, “any theory which is true and nontrivial has potentially useful applications.” As pointed out by Ilgen, this is, by definition, the nature of I-O psychology. The fact that it is psychology implies that it is scientific and follows the scientific method. The fact that it is industrial-organizational implies that it has implications for practice. Thus, whether we take an inductive or deductive approach, whether we are motivated by a pursuit of psychological understanding or practical relevance, whether our careers involve research, practice, or both, “we are all scientists–practitioners” (McHenry, 2007).

Of course, this statement is only generalizable to all of us if we allow for some flexibility in the interpretation of the scientist–practitioner model. As both our panelists and the literature point out, just because science should inform practice, and a scientist can’t conduct applied research without some understanding of work contexts, it is unreasonable to think that all SIOP members should be both conducting research and practicing I-O psychology (Brooks, Grauer, Thornbury, & Highhouse, 2003; Hays-Thomas, 2002; Kanfer, 2001; Murphy & Saal, 1990). Indeed, carrying out these two activities often requires very different skills and personality traits. In addition, the incentive systems within academic and practitioner jobs so often stifle the researcher’s practice and the practitioner’s research. Professors (especially those of a junior nature) are often under tremendous pressure to publish a great deal of research in the field’s leading journals. This doesn’t leave much time for consulting, which is often not valued by academic departments and also frowned upon by large research institutions. This trickles down to graduate training as well, where practice components of curricula are more often included in master’s programs than in doctoral programs (Hays-Thomas).

But the pendulum swings the other way as well. There are a number of contextual factors that not only impede practitioners from conducting research but also make it difficult for them to carry out evidence-based practice altogether. In our discussion, Tippins pointed out that practitioners are often forced to work in a world where science is completely undervalued. Sometimes research and evaluation work is only agreed to because legal departments require it. In fact, there are often career penalties for espousing academic ideals, in that doing research, reading journals, and going to conferences to potentially (in the eyes of organizations) divulge intellectual property and proprietary client information is neither furthering the goals of the employer nor a billable activity, and can be perceived of as doing more harm than good. Moreover, many contracts prohibit the disclosure of a client’s name, and some client arrangements allow hefty fines if a consultant divulges a client name, every time the name is divulged.  In addition, many corporate attorneys are quite concerned about protecting their company’s interest and frown upon disclosure of sensitive data. All of these factors can make it quite difficult for practitioners to conduct research—even when they have the data and motivation to do so.

Thus, a second point made by the current implementation of the science–practice model is that the statement “we are all scientist–practitioners” can only realistically hold true, if by “we” we mean the field as a collective. Given differing motives (knowledge generation, practical solutions), work preferences (research, consulting), and contextual barriers (tenure, billable hours), we will only truly be able to simultaneously enhance science and practice if we communicate effectively with one another.

Model or Mindset?

The myriad of issues raised thus far led the panel to suggest that science–practice may not be as much a model as it is a value system (Weiss), mindset (Latham, Ilgen), or career metaphor (Ilgen, on Latham), and some members of the panel suggested that this mindset need not be appropriate for all members of SIOP nor be fundamental to what it means to be an I-O psychologist (Weiss, Ilgen). What was agreed upon by all panelists is that I-O psychologists need to be trained to consume, critique, and carry out science (Hough). This is crucial for both doing good research and conducting evidence-based practice. It is also essential that these individuals are trained (either through their graduate programs or early career experiences) to interface and communicate with other individuals at various hierarchal levels and with various amounts of power and influence. These skills are needed to teach. These skills are needed to persuade organizations that research, consulting, or evidence-based HR systems are needed. These skills are needed to advocate on behalf of SIOP to inform the public about the purpose and importance of our field.

In his 2007 presidential address, Jeff McHenry argued for a three-pronged approach to the science and practice of I-O psychology:

  • Work with issues that are important
  • Measure outcomes that are important (at multiple levels of analysis)
  • Share knowledge effectively

There is something both parsimonious and universal about these three goals, in that none of them are in conflict with the (divergent) views of our panelists. That is, importance can be determined by the actor whether the actor is a scientist purely focused on the accumulation of knowledge, whether the actor is a scientist–practitioner inductively building theory based on organizational information, whether the actor is a practitioner focused solely on meeting client needs (but doing so in a scientifically informed way), or whether the actor is the field as whole, committed to enhancing “human well-being and performance in organizational and work settings by promoting the science, practice, and teaching of industrial-organizational psychology” (SIOP, 2007).

Although this model provides us with ideals to strive for, we will continue to face derailers. For example, Weiss and Murphy pointed out that as many researchers migrate to business schools the nature of our science will undoubtedly shift. Whereas this shift may expose us to multidisciplinary and multilevel research, we may be drifting further and further from core psychological research. McHenry also questioned what implications this might have on our reputation with psychology departments, APA, APS, and other groups affiliated with the broader field of psychology with which we have historically been connected.

We feel the answer lies in McHenry’s third recommendation: “Share knowledge effectively.” Our panelists offered a number of ideas for carrying this out. For example, Locke presented some creative ideas surrounding a science–practice networking Web site, where researchers can learn about issues practitioners are observing in the field and find sites for conducting field experiments, and practitioners can read summaries and abstracts of the current research being published in the journals. If science–practice is indeed a field-level value system, it is only through such information sharing that we will be able to live up to our mission as a discipline. Whether it be a model, a mindset, or a value system, science–practice is a highly relevant concept that has shaped our history as a field. We hope that our investigation has served to remind us of some old issues and to catalyze dialogue about several new ones.

Looking Forward

We also wanted to note here that our panel was one of many sessions at the 2007 annual conference that discussed the current state and future of our field. For example, Deidra Schleicher and Michelle Marks chaired a session entitled “Is the Future of I-O Psychology at Risk?” with panelists Michael Campion, José Cortina, Angelo DeNisi, Katherine Klein, Richard Klimoski, Frank Landy, Kevin Murphy, and Victor Vroom. Several issues emerged in this session that resonate with those described above. That is, panelists showed a lack of consensus regarding the state of the field, expressed concern about the migration to business schools’ effect on our identity, and conveyed worry that we may be losing credibility/respect within the broader field of psychology. Also emphasized in this session was a need for more definitive data on the nature of the challenges/issues facing I-O psychology.

In addition, Jerald Greenberg chaired a session entitled “To Prosper, Organizational Psychology Should...” with panelists Wayne Cascio, Jeffery Edwards, Michele Gelfand, Richard Klimoski, Joel Lefkowitz, and Lyman Porter. This session underscored many of the issues that were discussed in the scientist–practitioner panel, such as bridging application and scholarship (Cascio), improving education for future scientist–practitioners (Klimoski), and changing our value system to explicitly adopt the beliefs held implicitly by scientist–practitioners (Lefkowitz).  The session also covered a wide range of issues important to our field, including the development of more rigorous process-oriented theories (Greenberg), increasing the methodological sophistication of empirical research (Edwards), and adopting a more global perspective (Gelfand).

If one thing is clear, it is that we are certainly not at a loss of things to talk about. Indeed, it is an exciting time to be in I-O psychology!


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