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The Career Column: 
Career Paths: The Winding Road

Lynn A. McFarland
Clemson University

Editors Note: Please join me in thanking Lynn for her dedication and valuable contributions to TIP for over 2 years. Lynn has decided to retire to pursue other activities in her life (like a family). During her time on the TIP Editorial Board, Lynn has written 11 columns on diverse career paths in I-O psychology and has provided insights and suggestions for creating a quality publication. Along with Lynns retirement, she and I agreed that the time has come to retire the column as well. For now, this is the last career column. Thank you Lynn!!

One of the great things about being an I-O psychologist is the flexibility our profession allows us. Those who get degrees in I-O take jobs in positions as varied as academia, the government, external consulting, and within corporations as internal consultants. But, oftentimes, as in any profession, people decide a change in employment is necessary. This may occur for a variety of reasons, including family issues, change in interests, or even boredom. How does one decide to make a career change, what does one do to ensure the change is smooth, and are there particular challenges associated with making a career change? I interviewed four I-O psychologists who have changed careers to discover answers to these questions. First, Ill provide some background on each of these individuals so you can get a sense for why they decided to change jobs.

Background

By his third year in graduate school at Clemson University, Chad Van Iddekinge decided he would go applied after graduating in 2001. He wasnt sure what type of applied job he wanted, so he applied for both internal and external consulting jobs. He took a position at the Human Resources Research Organization (HumRRO), a nonprofit consulting firm headquartered in the Alexandria, Virginia suburb of Washington, DC. Although he really liked the organization and the good mix of research and application his job provided, he missed having time to plan and execute his own studies. In addition, as he became a more senior consultant, his responsibilities started to shift somewhat from research and development to project direction and management. Such a change is generally welcomed by practitioners, but Chad decided he enjoyed research much more than the administrative aspects of his job. From a personal standpoint, he and his wife decided they would rather live in a less urban setting, particularly close to a university. Thus, after 4 enjoyable years at HumRRO, Chad accepted a tenure-track human resource management position in the business school at Florida State University. He begins this fall.

Elaine Engle graduated from the University of Akron in 1996 and took a job as a personnel psychologist with the FBI. Although Elaine also had a job offer from a corporation (with a higher salary), she chose the FBI because she thought it would be a unique employment opportunity. Her work was predominantly selection related (e.g., job analysis, test development, validation). After a few years Elaine decided she wanted to branch out and do work in areas other than just selection and looked into switching to external consulting. Although her new consulting job provided the changes she desired (broadening the types of things she worked on), she missed being involved with the actual implementation of the procedures she developed. Therefore, she decided to look for another job as an internal consultant. Elaine felt internal consulting would allow her both the diversity of work she desired and to be more involved in all stages of organizational interventions. Elaine is now a vice president of Organization Capability for the Marriott Corporation and loves what she does!

Sandy Fisher graduated from Michigan State University in 1998. During her time in graduate school, she worked on a variety of consulting projects with professors at MSU and also worked with a local independent consultant. Therefore, it was clear to Sandy that consulting was for her. She took a job at Personnel Decisions Research Institutes (PDRI) as a research scientist and was involved in a number of projects such as conducting job analyses, developing performance appraisal and promotion systems, and evaluating training programs. Her decision to leave consulting stemmed from a dual-career issue. Sandy and her husband had the opportunity to teach at a business school at Clarkson University (which, as Sandy puts it, is in way, way upstate NY). This change in career didnt come out of nowhere. Sandy and her husband had talked about both taking jobs at a small teaching college some day. However, given the circumstances, some day happened sooner than expected. Although Sandy loves her job as a professor, she still keeps in touch with her inner consultant by taking on some projects. She finds this also helps her be a better teacher and researcher because consulting helps to generate research ideas and gives her several real-world issues to discuss with students.

Ted Hayes graduated from Rice University in 1990 and took a tenure-track assistant professor position in the Psychology Department at Wright State University. While at Wright State, Teds research interests began to change, and he also became frustrated that the program seemed to have a hard time attracting new faculty during that time. So, in 1994 Ted decided to make the switch to consulting and took a job with Gallup in Nebraska. Although he liked working at Gallup, to be closer to family, he decided a change in location was needed. His research on disability and employment led him to meet Mary Anne Nester, who worked for the INS in Washington, DC. Through this contact, Ted learned the INS had an opening and got the job. After September 11th, the INS was split and merged with parts of other agencies to form the Department of Homeland Security. During this time, Ted was asked to be a part of the team at the Transportation and Security Administration where his work consisted of developing job knowledge tests and behavioral misconduct forms. Coincidentally, Gallup had moved some operations to DC, and because he was on good terms with them and there was some need for his efforts there, things worked out for his return to Gallup in early 2004. 

Making the Change to Academics

The popular belief among graduate students is that if youre not sure what you want to do when you graduate you should consider academics first because its more difficult to go from a consulting job to an academic job. One of the reasons is simply because there are fewer academic jobs. However, another reason is because it is very difficult to conduct research and teach classes, necessary experiences to get an academic job, when one has a full-time consulting job. However, Sandy and Chad proved that it is not impossible to move to an academic environment, even after several years of being a consultant.

To make the change, both Sandy and Chad indicated that it was important to stay active in research while consulting to be competitive for academic jobs. Its a good idea to attend and present at academically oriented organizations (e.g., SIOP and Academy of Management) and publish if at all possible. However, few consulting jobs allow one time to conduct research during working hours. So, if youre looking to move from consulting to academics, you may find you need to work on research after work, during your lunch break, or on the weekends. This may be difficult to do, but without a history of research productivity, making the switch to academics will be very difficult.

Sandy suggests that one way to make the research process go more smoothly while in consulting is to collaborate with academic friends. Such a relationship can benefit both the consultant looking to go academic and the academic. One can hand data over to the academic and have him or her invest the most time in working on the research. The consultant can then get research experience without being the primary investigatorsomething a consultant rarely has time to do. Further, working with someone who publishes research as part of his or her job may help one learn the ropes of the publishing process more quickly.

In addition to research, its also important to get teaching experience. While consulting, Sandy was also an adjunct professor. This is good to do before applying for academic jobs to ensure you like teaching (which youll do regardless of the academic job you take) and also to allow you to provide teaching evaluations in your application. It also would help to teach something you may be teaching when you get an appointment at a university. This way youll already have at least one class prepared. 

Before applying for academic jobs, Chad also suggests that its a good idea to serve as a journal reviewer when at all possible and serve on professional committees. Such activities will make you more attractive to those who need to fill academic positions and will also help keep your name visible. 

You should also keep in mind that the process of getting an academic job is unique because most universities hire in the fall. Therefore, if you dont get a job in the fall you will probably have to wait a full year to be considered for an academic job again. On the bright side, this gives you plenty of time to get your materials together. Keep in mind that the materials one needs to submit for academic appointments are generally more extensive than what one needs for many applied jobs. For instance, most academic jobs require you to submit a cover letter, vita, research statement, teaching statement, teaching ratings, a sample of representative research work, and letters of recommendation. Thats a lot of stuff to get together so be sure to give yourself plenty of time to prepare these materials. In addition, be sure to have academic colleagues review your materials and provide feedback. 

Making a Change on the Applied Side

The academic job search process is certainly unique, but going from an academic job to an applied one, or even switching careers from different types of applied work (e.g., external versus internal consulting), can be tricky. For those in academics thinking of going applied, Ted thinks its important to realize that you wont stop teaching when you do applied work. In fact, practitioners end up doing a lot of teaching. They often need to educate clients and colleagues alike. Thus, education will still be a large part of your job. 

Further, if youre an academic thinking of going applied, its important to keep consulting while in your academic position. This will make you more marketable for applied jobs because you can demonstrate that you have continued to hone your applied skills, even while working in an academic environment. Given the flexible schedule of most academics, it is fairly easy to find the time to consult. However, finding clients may not be as easy. If youre finding it hard to gain consulting experience while in an academic job, talk to friends who work in applied settings and see if they have work they can subcontract to you. This could provide you with the experience you need and the extra help they were looking for anyway. 

Elaine also notes that its important, in both graduate school and throughout your career, to have a broad knowledge of both I-O and of business in general. In graduate school were usually encouraged to pick a particular area of work (e.g., selection or organizational development). Although this kind of narrow focus may aid one in an academic career (because one may more easily become well known if one publishes heavily in a particular area), it can be detrimental to the career of someone seeking to go applied, especially if one decides to change jobs. For example, Elaine noted that if she had not had such varied experiences in her first two jobs (working on selection related projects at the FBI and then survey work as a consultant) she may not have been competitive for the internal consulting job she now has. 

Elaine also suggests that its a good idea to have business experience in general. For example, it may be useful to take business classes in graduate school or, once in a job, try to get involved in projects that would require one to learn more about organizations and how they function. Such experiences will give one more credibility when seeking different types of applied work, particularly for internal consulting. 

General Advice for those Seeking Career Changes 

Although switching jobs may result in unique challenges depending on where one wishes to move, there is some advice that can be applied to any move you may make. First, everyone suggested that it is wise to broaden ones experiences in graduate school. Very often those in graduate school think they know precisely what they want to be when they have their degree in hand. But, even the most dedicated may find that their interests change. For example, Chad noted that his switch to academics would have been made much easier had he not geared much of his graduate school career to applied work. Not anticipating that his interests would change so soon after graduation, he had sought out as many applied experiences as possible to make himself marketable for consulting. His relative lack of research experience in graduate school meant he had to work that much harder to bolster his research record to be competitive for academic positions.

It may not even be a poor fit with a job that prompts a change in career. Most of those I spoke with noted the importance of family issues on their decisions to switch careers. These types of reasons for career changes can rarely be anticipated. Therefore, graduate school is the perfect place to get varied experiences fairly easily that would make one marketable for a variety of jobs. 

Whether youre currently thinking of switching jobs or not, its important to always stay active in professional organizations. Ted notes that this helps one maintain a network that will make a change much easier to make if one decides to move. Youd be surprised how often a person you randomly meet at a conference may help you make a fantastic job change. 

Once you decide a change in career is needed, Chad suggests asking those around you (those who know you well) how they think you would fare in the setting youre thinking of moving to. Different jobs require different strengths. For example, those in academics must largely be self-motivated. Academics have few hard deadlines and, therefore, if one isnt disciplined it may be tough to get stuff done to ensure tenure. Ask colleagues if they think you have the necessary KSAs to make the change youre thinking of. Just make sure you ask them to be brutally honest with you! 

Once you are interviewing for your dream job, be sure to ask the right questions. Because you havent worked in that type of job before try to learn as much as possible about your potential employer and the work environment so you have a good understanding of what this change will be like. The interview is as much an opportunity for you to get your questions answered as it is for the employer. 

Finally, those I spoke with noted that its important to be realistic about your career change. It may not happen overnight. It may take months or even years to get the experiences you need to be competitive for the career you want. Gaining as broad a perspective as possible early on may help one be more marketable if one later desires a change, making the change faster and easier. 

Farewell

Im sad to say that this is my last article as author of the Career Column. This has been a great experience. Ive enjoyed working with such an outstanding group of colleagues (particularly Debbie and Laura). Ive also appreciated the opportunity to speak with numerous experts on diverse topics. I have learned a great deal and hope TIP readers have valued the experiences and advice of these experts as much as I have. I can say for certain that SIOP members are very generous and helpful. Thanks so much, and best wishes for your careers!

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