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Early Careers:  Putting it in Writing

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

Lori Foster Thompson
East Carolina University

I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume, for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my easeobserving a spear of summer grass. ~ Walt Whitman

Yes, summer is here, and according to old Walt, theres no better time to kick back, relax, and chill out (at least we think thats what he was trying to say). If, on the off chance, you grow weary of gazing at blades of grass after a minute or two, we offer a diversioninsights from a slightly more practical Walt. As usual, this columns first segment, entitled The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, offers an inside look at the professional and personal life of a successful I-O psychologist whos been down the road youre now traveling. This edition focuses on Walter C. Borman, a man who virtually embodies the term successful career.

The second segment, Career Gear, highlights a theme with career-related implications. Specifically, this issues Career Gear topic addresses the importance of developing good writing skills. Note that this is not intended as a how to for getting a paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (JAP). There are plenty of resources available for that elsewhere.  Instead, we address the issue of I-O psychologists as writers, continuously adapting to the different contexts in which we find ourselves.

For starters see the TIP-TOPics Guide to Publishing and Scholarly Writing on the SIOP Web site at www.siop.org/TipTopicsGuide.htm.

The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist

Dr. Walter C. Borman, The Professional

In attempting to formulate a brief synopsis of Dr. Bormans career, we soon concluded that summarizing American history in 100 words or less might have been easier! After shortening the abbreviated version of a condensed abridgment of Dr. Bormans vita (phew), we produced the following abstract, which simply doesnt do him justice at all. It does, however, provide a sense of what Dr. Borman has been up to over the years. Here goes.... 

Educational background

AB, Miami University, 1964 (followed by a stint in the Navy, 19641968)
PhD, University of California (Berkeley), 1972

Professional Work Experience 

Walter Bormans early career began in Minnesota at Personnel Decisions, Inc. (PDI), where he worked as a consultant from 19721975. In 1975, Dr. Borman became the first paid employee of Personnel Decisions Research Institutes (PDRI), when Marv Dunnette asked Leaetta Hough and him to help begin this new research establishment. Since that time, Dr. Borman has been an integral part of PDRI, holding titles such as executive vice president (19751982), president (19821988), president/director of research (19881996), and chief executive officer (1996present).

A resume sporting that record would be career enough for most, but remarkably, Dr. Bormans professional work chronicle doesnt end there. Amidst all of this PDRI activity, Dr. Borman has also found time for a successful career in academics. He spent two quarters as a visiting professor at The Ohio State University in 1985, and he is currently on the faculty at the University of South Florida, where he has served as both professor (1990present) and director of the I-O program (19922000).

Memberships and Editorial Activities

Dr. Borman is a Fellow and past president of SIOP. Additionally, he wears many hats within the APA. He has served as a member of APAs Council of Representatives, and he belongs to both Divisions 8 (Personality and Social Psychology) and 19 (Military Psychology). He is also a member of the Society for Organizational Behavior, and he has served or is currently serving as consulting editor for numerous journals, including Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, Group and Organization Management, International Journal of Selection and Assessment, and Human Performance. He spent several years on the Frontiers of Industrial-Organizational Psychology editorial board, and he has worked as an ad hoc reviewer for more than a dozen journals. 

Research, Publications, and Presentations 

For the one or two readers who dont already know, Dr. Bormans research revolves around performance measurement, criterion development, personnel selection, job analysis, person perception, personality assessment, and assessment centers. His first publication occurred in 1973, and at the time of this writing he has eight in press. Dr. Bormans first Journal of Applied Psychology article emerged in 1974, the most recent appeared in the year 2001, and he has authored no fewer than fifteen JAP articles in between these two. Of course, this says nothing of the many other esteemed journals in which he has published (e.g., Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Personnel Psychology, Human Performance, etc.), and it also fails to account for the numerous books he has edited, the dozens of book chapters he has authored, and the 100 plus symposiums, posters, papers, and other presentations that he has delivered at conferences, institutes, and universities worldwide.

Wally Borman, The Person: Golfer, World Traveler, Really Nice Guy

If you attended SIOP 2001, you probably saw Wallys name attached to a wide variety of sessions. Nothing new about that, but between those busy sessions you may have seen something a bit atypicalWally sitting in front of a tape recorder, patiently answering inquiry after inquiry while being interrogated for a TIP column. Yes, we hit him with our usual, sometimes quirky questions (provided in bold italics below) in order to get a feel for the person behind the name. Heres what we found out:

What do you do to relieve stress? I may be fooling myself, but I actually dont mind stress. I dont mind stress at all. In fact, I more or less thrive on it, Wally promptly responded to our first interview question. He must have read that Come again? look on our faces, because he quickly elaborated. I think its important to put yourself in situations where youre challenged, where youre really stretched. But, its gonna be a little stressful. In short, Wally doesnt necessarily try to rid himself of stress; in fact, there are times when he intentionally generates it! He adopted this outlook early in his career. Early on, I really did not want to give talks. It wasnt SIOP at that point, it was APA. I thought it would be much more fun to just go and, you know, have a good time, listen to other peoples talks, and so on. But, I made myself give talks, and at first it was kind of stressful. Well, in fact, it was a lot stressful! But, I made myself do it. Then, after about 3 years, I started to actually enjoy it. I think doing things like that is really importantnot just presenting, but also writing articles targeted toward the best journals. Or volunteering to do stretch assignments as a corporate team member or consultant. This is stressful, but my approach is, so what? I dont mind stress.

What do you do during your time off? That being said, Wally admitted to some nonstressful pastimes. He loves to travel, and hes been to lots of distant places including the U.K., Italy, and France. Recently, he spent nearly a month in Australia and also took a trip to China. He usually travels with his wife and often one of his two grown sons. I consider myself fortunate that my sons still seem to actually want to do stuff with me! he confessed. When hes not traveling, Wally enjoys playing golf. (In his earlier years, he even considered it as a career.)

Do you have a nickname? If so, how did you get it? If you ever watched Saturday Night Live, you might remember the guy who stood beside the copy machine, creating nicknames for every passerby. Wally went to college with that guy. Well, okay, it wasnt literally the guy from Saturday Night Live, but it was someone similar. Fortunately, (or unfortunately) none of the monikers stuck. Although Wally hasnt acquired any nicknames since college, youd be hard pressed to find someone who actually calls him Walterhe goes by Wally nearly all the time.

What is your favorite beverage? He used to do a couple of high octane Cokes per day but has backed off to diet, caffeine-free. Wally also admitted to being something of a wine connoisseur, with a special fondness for oaky Chardonnay.

Do you have a routine that you like to follow? During the week, Wally usually arrives at the office between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. He typically skips lunch and works until 6:00 p.m. or so. On the weekend, though hes no stranger to the golf course, he still manages to put in a half-day of work nearly every Saturday and/or Sunday. Beyond these few habits, he doesnt follow much of a routine. Moreover, hes perfectly happy with his somewhat chaotic workday with lots of interruptions. He spends a fair amount of time writing yet feels no need for a dedicated block of writing time per day. I can write in bits and spurts and do okay with that, he explained.

What factor(s) contributed significantly to your success? I just had a lot of luck. I had a lot of lucky breaks. Wally declared. First, getting a job. The job market in 1972 was just impossible and I got a job at PDI. There was an opening at Purdue and an opening at PDI, and those were the only two jobs that were any good at all, and I got one of them! I felt that was just unbelievably lucky.

Okay, but when Wally suggested that PDRI was one of his big lucky breaks, we just had to challenge the Luck Theory. We futilely suggested he must have made a rather big impact in 3 short years to get invited to help establish PDRI, to which he insisted, No, really, it was just luck! I mean, I guess I did okay from 1972 through 1975 to get on (Marvs) radar scope, but still, I consider it pretty darn lucky.

Wally also attributes much of his achievement to good colleagues. I have teamed up with many peoplepeople who have had a lot to do with my success, he said. Who initiated these fruitful alliances? Real early [in my] career, Marv Dunnette pretty much sought me out. After that, colleagues and I have either sought each other out (we happened to be in the same place at the same time). Or, in other cases I singled certain people out.

After a bit of wrangling, Wally fessed up to an additional success-related factorambition. Ive tried to be ambitious but not obnoxiousnot pushy-ambitious. But, Ive definitely had ambitions in the area of research.

What factor(s) might be critical to the success of others, in general? In response to this question, Wally emphasized the importance of carefully and consciously diagnosing your own strengths and interests, and then trying to put yourself in a position where these will serve you well, both in the initial job and in positions that you might move up and into. Although he suggested his next point is primarily for academics, he acknowledged that the following approach served him well in other contexts, too. Try to develop some really basic interest and passion around some specific area that is intuitively appealing, to you certainly, but also to others. For myself, since graduate school Ive been interested (maybe obsessed?) with why observers of behavior disagree in what they see and how they evaluate what they see. I was interested in that topic at a very basic person-perception level, but of course it has obvious meaning for performance appraisal in I-O. It is a similar point to the usual advice academics get about developing programmatic research. But, what Im talking about is even more thematic and basic (I think anyway).

In case you dozed off toward the end of our last issue of Early Careers (all tuckered out from our anniversary edition exploits?), we interrupt this column to remind you of the brand new interview question that has been added to this segment. The newly featured question below is designed to assure us early career folks that at one time or another we all face seemingly insurmountable challenges and that these challenges can be overcome.

Describe a dark professional hour in your early career. What did you do to get through that time? PDRI was doing poorly in 1980 and the first part of 1981, Wally explained in response to this question. We had taken pay cuts, and I felt personally responsible for this. The executives were taking 35% pay cuts, down to the clerical folks, who were taking 10% pay cuts, and it was terrible. Fortunately, the Project A contract was awarded to the consortium with which PDRI was involved. It totally bailed us out, Wally recalled. So, he did what any self-respecting scientist would do. In my office, I had an Army t-shirt that said Go Army! and when we found out (about Project A), I tore off my shirt, put on my Army t-shirt, and started racing around the office yelling and screaming, letting everybody know that we got Project A.

Wally offered another dark hour, which occurred a little later in his career. I kind of stopped publishing in 1984 and 1985, and I started to feel like well wait a second, is this all there is? Am I done? Around the same time, I had this idea about personal work constructs and folk theories of performance that got rejected at Journal of Applied. And, I was kind of low. I really thought, well, maybe thats all Im going to do, and thats kind of sad because Id only been around for about 13 years. But Wally persisted; he wound up getting that paper published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and he really started to take off again in 1987. I sort of pulled out of it and got more active in publishing. Other than those two incidents, Wally said he couldnt think of any other low points. Its amazing, he exclaimed. Ive been unbelievably lucky. I mean, I just havent had any big crises.

If you were to choose a topic for our columns Career Gear segment (any issue that you feel is important in the development of an I-O career), what would it be? Here, Wally suggested that we focus on the development of writing skills. This is highly important whether youre an academic writing articles, books, and chapters, or writing from a corporate or consulting setting, Wally noted. Indeed, I think a very important part of our identity as I-O psychologists is as writers. I wanted to be a short story writer when I was in college and for awhile after, so maybe my view is a little extreme, but I have spent considerable effort trying to improve my writing skills over the years. I hope Im still improving. 

Career Gear

Wally noted that writing skills are important whether youre working in an academic or a corporate setting. Early career psychologists especially, are susceptible to trouble transitioning between the writing styles required in these different contexts. Some hit roadblocks when attempting to switch back and forth between academic and nonacademic roles, while others simply have trouble shifting their writing from dissertation mode to practitioner mode when tackling those first few corporate job assignments. In light of these dilemmas, this segment narrows the topic of authorship to a specific focus on the development of academic versus applied writing skills.

Of course, we tread rather cautiously as we compose this piece on writing skills (lest you become savvy regarding what constitutes good writing, and we lose our audience!). To take some of the pressure off of us, we turned to the experts, gathering input from a group of professionals with varied experiences and perspectives regarding the world of writing. Specifically, we consulted Wally Borman (you already have an idea of his credentials) as well as Paul Spector, who obviously knows his way around an audience (he was ranked one of the 50 highest-impact authors in psychology between 1986 and 1990). Both Allan Church and Ann Howard provided insights based on years of applied and editorial experience, and Ren Nygren summed up the corporate viewpoint. Finally, Tammy Allen offered the perspective of a successful early career author. We asked these folks to address three questions: (a) What are the similarities and differences between academic and applied writing styles? (b) What are the challenges faced by writers who are required to change contexts (e.g., moving from academic to applied)? and (c) How can writing challenges be overcome? An amalgamation of our six respondents answers to these questions is provided next (i.e., these are their words, cut and pasted into a combined format).

Academic Versus Applied Writing Styles

Differences between academic and applied writing derive in part from the audience for which we write. I-O psychologists in academe write for audiences that include but are not limited to the I-O audience (e.g., journal articles); psychologists in general; social scientists/researchers (e.g., methods books); and both graduate and undergraduate students (e.g., textbooks and instructional materials) from psychology, business, and many other disciplines. The academic style has a formal structure that supports the scientific method. The definitive examples are journal articles, whose sections are standardized and give writers little leeway. APAs publication manual provides more than 350 pages to enforce objectivity and conformity. Because academic publications in our field are meant to build science, writers must show extreme caution by citing all sources, documenting in excruciating detail their methods and statistical findings, and drawing conservative conclusions. As a result, much academic writing is detailed, stilted, and stuffy.

Nonacademic audiences include consumers such as: the nonacademic I-O audience; non-I-O professionals (e.g., clinical psychologists, MDs, nurses, social workers, etc.); managers; reporters; and the general public. More importantly, each of these audiences requires a different style. Many new I-O psychologists are required to write for non-I-O business people, such as managers. This kind of applied writing supports the culture of business. The appropriate style reflects an emphasis on give me what I need to know to make this process work. It must convey a message clearly and quickly, especially in the fast-moving electronic world. Conclusions often come first, followed by brief bulleted statements giving the rationale. (Indeed, this style sometimes requires you to oversimplify and give conclusions without a thorough explanation of where the conclusion comes from.) Qualifying or probabilistic language, popular in academia, creates annoyance; business audiences want to read that a method works or it doesnt. As a result, much applied writing is brief, direct, hard-hitting, and bold. This rule extends beyond documents composed for internal purposes. A typical practitioner piece in a trade publication (which might reach 50,000 HR managers) is usually 10 pages long and contains a story, a set of key process steps or learnings, some pull quotes, perhaps an interesting graphic, and probably no references.

As for the similarities between academic and applied writing, there are many basic principles of effective communication that apply across settings. The style may be a bit more technical for journals, books, and so forth, but the goal is still to write simply and clearly. Good writing is precise, smooth, and arranged in an orderly fashion. Correct grammar, economy of expression, and strong active verbs always help. As a writer, you should have two important objectives: make sure your audience understands, and keep their attention.

Challenges Within and Across Writing Contexts

Psychologists usually develop the academic style of writing during their formative years. Therefore, learning the academic approach is rarely an issue for early career I-O psychologists; however, moving from academic to applied writing styles can be an intransigent problem. Regardless of the setting, its always a challenge to write within the rules of your governing environment without letting them sweep you away. The academic must ward against becoming pedantic, the applied writer against the tendency to overstate or oversimplify.

Some challenges are common to both academic and applied assignments. For instance, in both environments, writers easily fall into the trap of too much jargon and too many acronyms/institutionalized expressions, making it difficult for others, especially outsiders, to understand their messages. The academics abbreviations of methods (assessors provided only PEDRs and not OARs) are matched by the applied writers abbreviations of departments or positions (assessment for BDMs, AEs, and GAMs). New academic and applied writers also err by getting too caught up in detail. Sometimes, new authors make the details and fine nuances too important, when the reality is that often the audience is not sophisticated enough on the topic to appreciate the differences. Often, all the audience can understand right now is the bottom line. People learn in layers. First they get the general idea, then more details, layer by layer. Many writers dont want to lay down the first layer.

Other errors are specific to the professional who is attempting to transition from an academic to an applied style of writing. A common mistake of the applied writer is creating essayslong paragraphs, many paragraphs. You have to learn to write in bullets. This is good discipline; it forces you to distill the essence of what youre trying to say, avoid repetition, organize your ideas, and test your logic. A second mistake is documenting every sentence with a reference. Business readers usually dont care about references; they just want the conclusions in a nutshell without having to read further. Unless youre trying to impress someone with how much youve read (occasionally the case), you should either skip the references or put a few major ones at the end. If you use someone elses table or graph, put the reference in a footnote to the figure. Third, new I-O psychologists writing for applied audiences often have trouble translating theory and research findings into truly meaningful application discussions (and this does not mean a statement like these findings have implications for the management of organizations). A fourth and final common mistake is overwhelming readers with statistics and tables. Simpler is better. Draw graphs; use percentages. Perhaps the old adage about writing in business applies to this point. It doesnt pertain, of course, if the recipients of your communications are also I-O psychologists (note the hedge).

  • For your peers, create a detailed report (academic writing).
  • For your manager, condense it to one page (with bullets).
  • For the vice-president, write one paragraph (shorter bullets).
  • For the CEO, draw cartoons.

Overcoming the Challenges

Regardless of their environment, writers are challenged just to write wellclear, crisp, and lively. Early career psychologists can overcome the obstacles that prevent them from writing clearly and for multiple audiences by starting small, practicing, modeling others, identifying/developing useful writing habits, and seeking feedback.

Start Small and Practice

For starters, practice is key. Practice developing an ear for writing. That is, develop a sharp critical eye. Be able to recognize when an area of the document needs work. Additionally, you should begin early, write often, and start small. If youre used to writing in an academic style, try writing a 500-word piece for a regional association newsletter or a more informal piece for something like TIP. Show the piece to your friends that work in real organizational settings. Or, find a publishing practitioner and partner with him or her on some applied research. On the other hand, if youre used to writing short practitioner pieces and want to try a peer-reviewed publication for the first time in a decade, locate one of the less competitive (and aggressive) journals, and try your work out there first. 

Model Others

In addition to practice, modeling techniques can prove very useful. It is often helpful to identify authors whose writing you really enjoy, and then model your own efforts after these examples. Isolate a few authors whose work you think is particularly well written, and begin reading more works written by those authors to gain a greater sense of their writing style and what it is that appeals to you. Use those authors as a way to help model and develop your own writing rhythm and style.

Identify Habits that Work Best for You

Surprisingly, it seems that there is no single best way to sit down and write. Successful authors differ in terms of the writing methods and procedures that they follow. Some are quite happy writing in bits and spurts. Others emphasize the importance of a writing schedule, recommending that you figure out the time of the day in which you do your most creative thinking and try to establish a schedule that allows you to write during that time. You might even make an effort to save less-inspired time for the more mundane aspects of writing (e.g., creating tables, checking references). If blocks of time are necessary for your creative flow, then dont be afraid to schedule sacred meetings in your planner between just you and your computer.

Regardless of whether you like to write in blocks, bits, or spurts, there are lots of different ways to tackle that first draft, and it is important to identify the approach that works best for you. Some authors believe in setting goals and getting to a point where the first draft is in really good shape. According to these authors, the desired product emerges when you force yourself to sit down, think clearly, and make sense the first time arounda practice that may involve beginning with an outline. Other authors take a somewhat different approach to the initial writing process, suggesting that you get all of your materials together first and generally let the ideas flow as the manuscript unfolds without too much self-censoring. This is the initial rough cut. The document then emerges through a process of chiseling and molding until there is a polished finished product.

In short, although there is no single method that leads to a successful document, good writers analyze and recognize the habits that work best for them, and then stick to those procedures when approaching their writing assignments.

Seek Feedback

Finally, be prepared when entering a new writing environment to seek feedback. For a new practitioner, ask an experienced colleague, manager, or member of the target audience to give feedback. Alternatively, you could establish a feedback network. (After all, you dont want a lovable, but hyper-critical manager or journal reviewer to get the first viewing of your article. The method meticulously described in your manuscript that seemed crystal clear to you may be mud to others!) Establish a network of colleagues that will read your work and give you critical feedback. Do the same for others.

Conclusion

In closing, we hope that this edition of Early Careers has met its objective and armed you with another piece of the professional puzzle. If you feel that your puzzle is still missing an edge or two, rest assured that youre not alone and stay tuned for our next issue, which features none other than Dr. Deniz Ones from the University of Minnesota. Until next time, feel free to contact the Early Careers editors with questions, kudos, and criticisms at Dawn L. Riddle (riddle@luna.cas.usf.edu) and Lori Foster Thompson (FosterL@mail.ecu.edu).

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