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Early Careers: Heres to Your Success

Dawn L. Riddle
Institute of Human Performance, Decision-Making & Cybernetics

Lori Foster Thompson
East Carolina University

Several years ago, SIOP celebrated its 50-year golden anniversary, complete with a healthy dose of fanfare and paraphernalia (coffee mugs, t-shirts, the whole nine yards). Shortly thereafter, Mike Coovert, then editor of TIP and our major professor, called us into his office. The two of us didnt really know each other, and we peered at one another curiously as Mike handed out two medium-sized boxes labeled Dawn and Lori. With the boxes came two golden anniversary coffee mugs accompanied by an invitation to write a student column for TIP.

We have long since graduated and transitioned from that student column to the Early Careers segment of TIP, and as we noted in our last column, its time for us to transition once again from this, our final column as editors of Early Careers, to other endeavors. (Can you feel the sappy, grab-a-box-of-Kleenex nostalgia coming on? Well try to keep it to a minimum, but we offer no ironclad promises.)

Now, if youve been following this column over time, then you know our main objective has been to facilitate success among I-O psychologists facing the early stages of their professional lives, doing so in part by exploring how others have succeeded and in part by investigating issues impacting our early careers. In keeping with this goal, The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist segment of this issue features our friend and mentor, Mike Coovert (we thought it appropriate to save this interviewee for last, to finish the way we started). This segment begins with a detailed account of Mikes career path, outlining various roles and jobs he has taken on and illustrating the model that led him to a successful career. This professional summary is followed by a personal inquiry, which offers a feel for the guy behind the name by describing the philosophies, practices, and yes, even the beverages that Mike has embraced during his journey toward success.

Our profile of Michael Coovert is followed by a final segment called Early CareersIn a Nutshell, which summarizes the tips, tactics, and pointers weve gathered while writing this column during the past few years. In keeping with the columns main objective, this concluding segment provides a tool that can be used to pick and choose strategies that may assist you as you travel your own personal road to success.

The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

We begin our profile of Michael Coovert with a summary of his professional exploits. Condensing our synopsis of Cooverts impressive career so that it would fit on a TIP page or two was no mean feat. After several rounds of editing, we finally managed to pare his most significant accomplishments down to a few pages. We publish this with the caveat that the following summary really doesnt do him justice. It will, however, give you a sense of the kinds of professional activities Michael Coovert has tackled over the years.

Michael D. Coovert: The Professional

Educational Background
BA, Chaminade University of Honolulu (Honolulu, Hawaii), 1979
        Majors: computer science and psychology
MS, Illinois State University (Bloomington-Normal, Illinois), 1981
       Major: psychology (general-industrial-organizational)
PhD, The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio), 1985
       Major: psychology (industrial-organizational)
       Minor: computer science

Professional Positions
Coovert joined the faculty of the University of South Florida (USF) in 1985, shortly after earning his PhD at Ohio State. He is currently a professor of psychology at USF, where he spent 3 years as associate department chair. Over the years, he has completed research fellowships with several branches of the military, including the U.S. Air Force (Brooks Air Force Base, San Antonio) and the U.S. Navy (Naval Training Systems Center, Orlando). He is founding director of the Institute for Human Performance, Decision Making & Cybernetics (since 1991). Coovert served as TIP editor from 19951998. In fact, he and Phil Craiger were largely responsible for moving TIP online (rumor has it, TIP was compiled via snail mail in the era B.C.1). Coovert has served as a manuscript reviewer for scores of journals, including the Academy of Management Review, Personnel Psychology, and the Journal of Applied Psychology. Today, he is editor-in-chief of the e-journal, Ergometrika.

1Before Coovert

Distinctions and professional affiliations
Coovert has racked up a variety of awards and distinctions, which collectively reflect excellence in both teaching and research. In 1995, he received a State of Florida Teaching Incentive Program Award, and in 1998, he earned the University-Wide Jerome Krivanek Distinguished Teacher Award. He has been elected as a member of the prestigious Society for Multivariate Experimental Psychology (SMEP), and he has served as a visiting scholar at the Hastings Center.

Coovert currently serves on SIOPs Executive Committee. He is also affiliated with the American Psychological Association (APA), the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the IEEE-Computer Society, and the American Psychological Society (APS), where he is chair of the I-O Conference Program Track. Over the years, he has served on national conference program committees within a number of associations, including the following: APS, SIOP, APA, and the Academy of Management.

Research, consulting, publications, and presentations
Coovert received formal training in both computer science and psychology, and much of his work blends these two interests. In particular, his research areas involve the impact of technology on individuals and organizations, quantitative measures, and performance measurement. He has acquired dozens of grants and contracts, allowing him to conduct research and solve applied problems within a variety of organizations including the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, the State of Florida, and the National Institute of Health. His work has been published in many esteemed journals, and he has written and edited books in the areas of computer supported cooperative work and the development, validation, and application of scaled worlds. On top of all that, hes authored a number of book chapters, presented lots of invited addresses, and delivered at least a hundred other conference presentations in exotic lands including, but not limited to Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands, and Missouri.

Mike Coovert: The Guy

But thats not the end of the story. In fact, theres a lot more to Mike than the accomplishments that show up on his vitae. We caught up with Mike one Friday afternoon and fired off a series of meddlesome interview questions that would have made Barbara Walters proud. Our questions are provided in bold italics below. They are followed by Mikes responses, which define the personal side of the impressive professional youve been reading about.

What do you do to relieve stress? The thing that works best for me is exercise, Mike replied, indicating that running, swimming, and biking have a way of getting rid of his headaches and changing his worldview. Those who know him well say hes even run marathons and completed triathlons in the past, though a nagging foot injury has prevented these lengthy treks lately. So whats his favorite sport nowadays? Hmmm...Id have to say kickball with David and Molly, Mike mused. David is his 9-year-old son and Molly is his 7-year-old daughter. Yes, definitely kickball, he concluded after a short pause, Ive been playing a lot of that these days!

If you were stranded on a desert island and had one piece of reading material, what would it be? This is going to sound corny, but Id take along a book from one of my college lit classes, Mike admitted. Its a really thick Norton Anthology Reader. A little background research indicated that he was talking about Bain, C. E., Beaty, J., & Hunter, J. P. (Eds.). (1977). Norton Introduction to Literature (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton and Company. Although this was supposed to be a hypothetical question, Mikes response was actually rooted in reality. I was headed for the Cayman Islands, and I only had room to pack one book, he recalled. He took the Norton Anthology reader because it contained ...something for all moods: poetry, short stories by Ibsen and Chekhov, song lyrics, you name it. No matter what you feel like, the book has a story to suit your frame of mind. One of us considered asking if that riveting Coovert and Thompson (2001) Computer Supported Cooperative Work book was in the running but then thought better of it and moved on to the next interview question.

What do you do during your time off? Mike likes to spend his leisure time playing with David and Molly. In fact, he tries to schedule his workday so that his time off coincides with their time off. They have busy schedules that interfere with my play time, he joked. When hes not wrapped up in kickball games with David and Molly, he likes to read.

Do you have a nickname? If so, how did you get it? Bear, Mike replied, like the animal. Lest you think hes referring to the teddy version of the creature, we should tell you exactly how he acquired this pet name.

I played football in high school, [Mike disclosed]. It was the first game of my sophomore year, and we were playing our arch rival, East Peoria. I hit one of the opponents so hard, I bent the steel cage on my helmet and left the guy lying on ground, not moving. After he got up, the team started yelling Ya! You hit him like a bear, and the name stuck. This is not something that I spread around a lot [Bear continued].

Naturally, we promised to keep this between us and those few people who read our columns and the picture captions that precede them.

What is your favorite beverage? Ice water, Mike promptly replied. No wait! Coffee! he recanted, I want to change my answer! Now, Regis might have been okay with this, but Barbara Walters never would have put up with it. Mike was obviously having issues with the beverage question, and we were determined to get to the bottom of it. Facing an impending column deadline, we decided to throw him a quick lifeline. We went straight to the expertsthose who know him best. Heres what our SMEs had to say:
David: COFFEE!!!
Molly: COFFEE!!!
...they screamed simultaneously. Coffee it is.

Do you have a routine that you like to follow? Mikes routine typically cycles around the kids schedules. They get up, eat breakfast, and ready themselves for the day. Then its time for school/work. He picks the kids up from school or meets them at the house around 3:00 p.m., and the rest of the day varies depending on the activity du Jour, which ranges from swimming to dance to baseball and softball practice. Afternoons without practices are spent getting a jumpstart on homework or sneaking in an extra game of kickball. From there, its dinner, play, homework, and then time for bed.

I try to not work at home nearly as much as I used to, [Mike offered]. If work is available, then its easy to get in a habit of focusing on that instead of the kids. Of course, now that the kids are getting older, Im getting blown off a lot (Dad, can I spend the night with a friend?!), but thats okay. You gotta be flexible and look at where theyre at developmentally.

Describe a dark professional hour in your early career. What did you do to get through it? Mikes darkest professional hour occurred shortly after an I-O student completed a masters thesis under his direction. One day, the student showed up at Mikes office door with a concerned look on his face. The student explained that he had given an electronic (disk) copy of his thesis to a faculty member in another department within the university shortly after defending it. Without the students knowledge, the faculty member passed it along to one of his recent PhDs who had just taken a job elsewhere. That person took the thesis and turned it into a conference paper, listing herself and her major professor as first and second authors, and the I-O student third. When Mike directly compared the conference paper with the thesis, there was an 82% overlap! Mike was blown away. He wrote a letter of complaint, but the I-O student decided not to pursue formal charges because he didnt want to make waves. As a result, the other departments chair did nothing other than counsel the faculty member not to do this again. I seriously considered resigning from my job at that time, Mike admitted. I thought it was shameless the way the university handled the matter, and I did not want to be associated with an institution that would permit this type of behavior.

So, what did he do to get through this difficult time? I got through it by talking to colleagues whose opinions I trusted and respected, Mike explained. I still believe the situation was handled poorly. There have to be consequences for this type of unethical behavior.

What factor(s) contributed significantly to your career success? In response to this question, Mike discussed four factors that have meaningfully impacted his career: hard work, a helping hand from others, a niche, and a focus on organizational goals and objectives.

First, you have to be willing to work hard. In I-O, nothing ever comes easy, Mike pointed out. Second, he indicated that success partially involves being lucky enough to meet people who are willing to help you out.

This is certainly the case in academics, but I think it also holds true in other areas. Often people dont become successful without a lot of help from others. A number of people have looked out for me at various points in my career. For example, Rich Klimoski has supported me professionally on several occasions, and Wally [Borman] nominated me for editor of TIP.

Mike also feels that good students have fueled his success. You run into students who are willing to work hard with you and for you. I firmly believe faculty should thank and be appreciative of the students who contribute to their work.

Third, Mike suggested that having a niche can be helpful. In terms of my own particular career, something that helped me was having a background and interest in areas outside of hardcore I-O, Mike mentioned, suggesting that his training in computer science helped to set him apart from the crowd.

Think of your career as a marketing problem [he offered], and ask yourself the following questions: Whats going to be my niche? As a new person, what do I bring to table that makes me unique? Whats going to set me apart? Being able to demonstrate your talent within your unique areas is an important component of success.

So, exactly how do early career psychologists set themselves apart?

Well, if you dont have an innate uniqueness in terms of training and background, you can do a market analysis [Mike suggested]. Look at the people around you and ask, How can I complement what these people do? For academicians, being a boundary spanner (for example, using those good I-O quantitative skills in other areas) and getting involved with faculty in other core programs can make you a valued asset.

Of course, your market assessment may also uncover areas where you require additional training. You may need to go and make yourself more unique, he said. Even though you thought you were done with classes, it is sometimes wise to go and take one or two that will distinguish you from your peers. A good example is the class that Mike recently took from Robert (Bud) McCallum at Ohio State this past spring. Believe it or not, he took a day trip to Ohio every Tuesday to complete a course on Multilevel Modeling. As this example suggests, early career I-O psychologists arent the only ones who need to concentrate on establishing and marketing their talent within unique and relevant areas.

As a fourth and final recommendation for career success, Mike noted that I-O psychologists at every stage of their careers should keep an eye on the goals and the mission of the organization for which they work. As you evolve, ask yourself why the organization you work for should stay interested in you. As long as you can tie your behavior and performance to the organizations mission, youll be successful.

What factors do you think might be critical for success in general? Mike views career success as one piece of a much bigger pie. One factor he sees as critical to overall success is workfamilyself balance. Real success is ...not just keeping the people at work and your family at home happy, its keeping yourself happy, too. To accomplish this goal, Mike recommends periodic self-assessments, which force you to recognize your nonprofessional passions and avoid living on autopilot.

If you do things because theyre routine, then youll soon find that it is too late to do the things you really wanted to [he reflected]. So ask yourself What was important for me when I was younger? and Am I doing those things today?

For Mike, the answers to the first question involved flying an airplane and scuba divingtwo goals he set when he was in high school. Although his piloting aspirations have not come to fruition, he did manage to complete his scuba certification last year.

Mike also feels that life success involves recognizing and exercising your right to adjust your priorities over time.

The workfamilyself balance is intertwined with the notion that you have different cycles or phases in life where certain things are more important at one point than another [he concluded]. When your kids are young, they may take the focus. Careers are important, and that takes a dominant theme during some phases of life. Of course, when these two phases coincide with each other, things can get difficult, making it all the more important to take the time to ask yourself What is central to my life now? and Where do I want to head in the short and long term?

Early CareersIn a Nutshell

The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

For close to 3 years, our features in The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist segment of Early Careers have allowed us to get to know them as professionals and as individuals. Weve shared their remarkable vitas, described unparalleled contributions to our field and been amazed at their accomplishments. Weve also unearthed some interesting dirt, some pretty quirky habits, some unexpected hobbies, and some very unique beverage preferences.

In addition to offering amusing factoids about their personal idiosyncrasies, our featured psychologists have also described, on a more earnest note, the factors that have contributed significantly to their successand there are lots of them! The challenge for you is to take advantage of their collective wisdom by identifying specific keys to success that are consistent with your priorities and career goals and that can be incorporated into your work, routine, or life. While tackling this challenge, keep in mind an observation from one of our most prized correspondents:

The purpose of the profile segment is to interview folks who are at the very top echelon of the field. Achieving such status requires an extraordinary amount of dedication, which is exactly what the comments of the interviewees portray.That said, it may be important to remind readers that these folks are outliers in terms of objectively defined career success. What is arguably most important for most of us is our own subjective standard of success that takes into consideration all of our valued life roles. For example, fewer publications, but more family time may equal success for some folks. Each person needs to define success from his or her own subjective standard.

In short, objectively defined work success is only one piece of the proverbial pie. Recognizing that models or standards of success vary from one individual to the next, we suggest that you begin with a clear definition of what overall success means to you. Professional accomplishments will likely play some role; how big a role they play depends on your personal model of success. Avoid being limited, constrained, or driven by someone elses values; craft your own standards.

The following pages summarize the strategies for success handed down by the experienced psychologists weve profiled during the past few years. You may wish to use this checklist as a tool for identifying tid-bits with potential for facilitating your personal brand of success. 

The basics
Hard workJust do it. Its been called one of the most important factors, neither glamorous nor immediate,[but] theres no substitute for time on task.
DiversityTry different things. A range of interests introduces new ideas and ways of thinking about things. Approach issues from alternative perspectives, and work on multiple projects and topics simultaneously.
FundamentalsEstablish a solid foundation in the theory, methods, and practice of I-O psychology.
Time managementDo what it takes to finish the last 10% of a project and get it out the door; recognize your peak performance hours and dedicate those hours to your most important project; develop an increment-a-day approach to task accomplishment.
HomeworkDo your homework prior to anything youre called upon to accomplish as a professional.
Programmatic researchTry to develop some really basic interest and passion around some specific area that is intuitively appealing, to you certainly, but also to others.
Work the systemDevelop an understanding of the politics in the organization as early as possible.
Make the most of a sabbaticalTackle sabbatical projects away from home or office. This affords you the opportunity to learn new things and allows you to stay focused on your sabbatical activities.
Keep the goal in mindAs an academician, develop a sense of what is important to practitioners. 

Philosophies to Work and Live By
Seek balanceLive by family-friendly work rules; establish straightforward scheduling expectations with family and coworkers; become a subscriber (a season-ticket holder to athletic events, the theater, or the performing arts center).
Be happyMaintain a philosophy of having fun while doing, giving, and evolving. Do what you like, and like what you do.
Keep an open mindRecognize projects that afford opportunities to grow professionally.
Know thyselfDiagnose your strengths and interests, and then try to identify a position in which these will serve you and your career.
Professional developmentTake the concept of continuous learning very seriously.

MentorsGet one! A reliable, sincere mentor providing advice, guidance, and feedback can be invaluable.
Identify reliable colleaguesImportant for sharing ideas, challenging you, and helping you along the way.
SIOPGet involved! Serve on committees and attend conferences. Youll help perpetuate your profession, stay up-to-date on the latest developments in the field, and increase your visibility and network of contacts as well as friends.
CollaborateTeamwork works! Working collaboratively on projects broadens your circle of colleagues, exposes you to different perspectives, and may increase the visibility of your work.
Shared values and goalsSpend time around others who understand your personal and professional efforts and values.
Location, location, and locationLocation affects the opportunities to which you are exposed and the relationships you can potentially develop.

Career Gear

Over the past few years, the second regular segment of our column, Career Gear, has leveraged the experience of our featured psychologists by allowing them to identify issues impacting early-career professionals. In many cases, our contacts raised issues that we had never even considered! With the suggestions of our featured psychologists in mind, we sought further input from professionals across the country and wrote about a wide array of matters that are critical to the career development of new I-O psychologists. Below weve recapped our investigative findings for each segment in yet another handy-dandy checklist! If youd like, take this opportunity to check off the segments of interest, which you may have missed, which may be more relevant to you now than they were before, or which you just want to reread cause they were so good the first time around! (Back issues of TIP are available online at http://www.siop.org/tip/backissues/backissues.html.)

Developing organizational smarts (January 2000)Understanding the politics of your organization can be crucial for navigating early- career successes. An organizationally smart professional understands the culture, the politics, and the informal rules that shape a workplace and often an early career.
Consulting, teaching, or extra research on the side (April 2000)When trying to determine whether taking on that extra work is right for you, two pieces of advice emerged. First, wait a while. Whether youre working in a university or an industry, firmly establish yourself in your primary position before taking on extra work. Second, be resourceful. Take on work that not only offers additional experience (and money) but that also advances your primary role.
Forces pressuring I-O psychologists to turn HR generalist (July 2000)Many I-O practitioners are pressured to become HR generalists at some point during their careers. For the practitioner, such a move often involves more money and power and may be the only way to rise to higher ranks in the organization. The shift may also significantly increase non-I-O responsibilities, resulting in a migration away from our profession.
Review work (October 2001)Peer review work offers many benefits to early-career folks including the opportunity to improve your own research, practice, and review skills, as well as the chance to increase your professional responsibilities.

Career Gear has also underscored the importance of critical early-career skills, offering how to advice on practical topics (e.g., developing adaptive writing skills and managing your time and projects) and discussions of more philosophical issues (e.g., maintaining worklife balance and staying current in the field).

Developing strong yet adaptive writing skills (July 2001)Start small and practice; model others; identify habits that work best for you; seek feedback.
Identifying and focusing on the work that really counts (January 2002)Establish a marathon mentality, adopt an increment-a-day approach to task accomplishment, work an extra hour per day, and be willing to go bulldog in order to wrap up big projects.
Establishing worklifefamily balance (January 2001)Adopt specific philosophies to live by, communicate your values and scheduling expectations at home and in the workplace, actively work to achieve and maintain balance, and put yourself in a family-friendly environment.
Staying current or up-to-date with the field (April 2002)Develop strategies for keeping abreast of the latest literature in I-O psychology and related fields. Pay attention to relevant policy debates and current events. Read journals, business publications (e.g., Forbes), and TIP. Peruse the popular press (newspapers) and attend conferences.

Its Time to Cue the Fat Lady

Over the years, the I-O emblems on our SIOP golden anniversary coffee mugs have slowly worn away, a consequence of having been called into action every time we needed to jump start our karma (when an impending column deadline has necessitated a little extra java, for instance). Throughout our tenure as coeditors of Early Careers weve certainly learned a lot, and we hope that you, our readers, have also profited from our columns in at least some small way.

Before we go, wed like to publicly thank Mike Coovert for giving us the opportunity to be a part of TIP, and Allan Church (former editor) and Debbie Major (current editor) for allowing us to continue our involvement with the publication. We also thank the many professionals who have generously shared their time, talents, and insights with us while we solicited opinions and researched various topics for Early Careers. Finally, we thank you, our readers, who have shared your reactions to our writings, inspiring and encouraging us along the way. You made our efforts worthwhile and rewarding, and for that we are very grateful.

Questions, comments, kudos, and criticisms pertaining to the current issue or previous editions of Early Careers are welcome and appreciated. We can be reached at Dawn L. Riddle (riddle@luna.cas.usf.edu) and Lori Foster Thompson (FosterL@mail.ecu.edu).


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