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Max. Classroom Capacity

Marcus Dickson
Wayne State University

Up front, I need to say that most of the columns in Max. Classroom Capacity have been directly related to the classroom, and many have focused on undergraduate education. This time around, I’m focusing somewhat on the classroom and solidly on doctoral education. I hope you won’t mind.

This has been a busy summer for me. Apart from all of the normal things in a summer (getting ready for the coming fall semester, family events, etc.), I’ve had four students defend dissertations, including three defenses within one week. Of course, it’s all in the frame you apply around an event—I actually hadn’t had any students defend for a few years, and then suddenly several students who had been moving at different paces all found that they had similar deadlines, and all finished within a short period of time. But I can still say to my colleagues “How many of your students defended this week?” as if defenses are a weekly thing for me.

Over the course of my career, I’ve supervised 20 students’ dissertations, and of those, 7 have gone academic, and 13 have gone into either industry, consulting, or the military. Of the four students this summer, two have accepted academic positions, and two are in applied settings. That’s about right for our program. The last issue of TIP included an article by Rob Silzer and Chad Parson (2012) on the “balance” of different doctoral programs, and my program—Wayne State—showed up on several tables as a program that has a relatively even balance between students who pursue academic and students who pursue applied careers (though of course those distinctions can be overlapping and malleable). So I, like many I-O faculty members, come from the perspective that our students are highly likely to go into applied careers when they graduate and that that’s a wonderful thing.

Elsewhere in “the academy,” though, the conversation is occurring around what is being called “alternative career paths for PhDs,” where the clear implication is that the traditional career path is academic. As more and more universities rely on contractual instructors rather than hiring for the tenure track, there are fewer and fewer tenure-track positions available, and more and more competition for them, and so in many disciplines, there is open conversation about “a subject that graduate students tend to discuss in hushed tones among close friends or trusted mentors—or anonymously in online forums. The taboo topic: preparing for nonacademic jobs” (June, 2011).

Even in a program like ours, where we have a history of “balance,” there can be those unspoken pressures towards academia. I was laughing with one of the students who just defended her dissertation this past week, as we both remembered the day at the SIOP conference that she came up to me with a sad look on her face, head down, and said in what could only be described as a confessional tone, “I need to tell you something…I want to go applied.” Even in a field like ours that is explicitly referred to as “applied psychology,” going applied can carry some baggage for students who may be afraid to tell their advisers of their plans. Students applying to our PhD programs report being told to lie on their personal statements and say that they want to go academic in order to avoid harming their admission opportunities. This occurs even though the data suggest that about two-thirds of I-O PhD graduates are headed into nonacademic careers.

I don’t believe our program at Wayne State is perfect in any way, but Rob and Chad’s data suggest (and I agree) that our program is pretty balanced in terms of our students’ career outcomes. But what is it that leads to these outcomes, and what is it that we promote? There are several reasons this has been on my mind of late. For one thing, we’re in the middle of contract negotiations, with lots of contention about the role of administration versus faculty in setting the university’s agenda. We’re one of the three major research universities in Michigan, and our administration is heavily oriented towards research. In fact, not long ago, one of our top university administrators chided a program director in our department because that program director had sent out an e-mail sharing the accomplishments of an alum. That alum was providing tremendous service to her community, was living a healthy and happy life, and had truly made use of the training she had received in our department in a way that was serving people’s needs. Why was the program director chided? Because, he was told, our goal is to produce students who take jobs at Research I doctoral training programs, and alums like the one described were not the sort of alums of which we should be proud. Of course, I think that position is (as the soon-to-be-retired Car Talk guys on NPR would say) bo-o-o-gus, and I suspect that most readers of this column would, as well. So in our “balanced” approach to training and preparing our students for their careers, we are in some ways at odds with our administration.

Of course, when we try to recruit students, their intended career path is often a part of the conversation. For the 15 years that I’ve been at Wayne State, students and prospective students have asked whether we try to prepare students for academic or applied careers. My response has been that we don’t do either, we try to prepare students for a way of thinking about the world. Whether it is an idea for a research project, or a directive from your boss to investigate a problem in your company, or a consulting assignment, there are some similar processes involved.

  • We take a situation, and we convert it into a question.
  • We then think about what sort of data or information we would need to answer that question.
  • We then set out to gather those data or that information in a way that would allow us to be confident in its quality.
  • We then analyze the data or information in a way that is suitable and appropriate.
  • We then reach conclusions and try to answer that original question.
  • Finally, we report what we have concluded (and sometimes all that we did to reach the conclusion).

Of course there’s variation in how you do these things in different settings, but it seems to me that what we’re about is helping our students develop a systematic way of thinking about the world and about answering questions within that world. The content matters, but the half-life of the content we cover in our courses is probably relatively short—I’d guess 5-8 years, tops.

Beyond this somewhat philosophical approach to training, we have also done some very practical things. We created a program with a horrible acronym called APORG—Applied Psychology and Organizational Research Group—and hired a director with extensive experience as a practitioner (our first director was Joan Reiber [now of the Reiber Group], and most recently John Arnold [formerly of Aon] was our director). This program was designed to seek out project opportunities for students in which they could work on a variety of projects, large and small, for a great many clients. Of course, many doctoral training programs have something similar, but I think ours may be a little more extensive, with clients ranging from Ford, General Motors, and the FBI, to local nonprofits and start-ups.

We also seek out internships with local organizations that are identical to what a student would receive if he/she were funded as a teaching assistant—same salary, same benefits, same tuition coverage—so that neither our students seeking teaching experience nor our students seeking applied experience were disadvantaged. Finally, we have offered “special topics” seminars, taught by our APORG director with numerous guest speakers from the applied world, on organizational consulting, complete with project work, budget analysis, development of marketing plans, and client proposals. In short, we’ve worked over the last decade or so to build preparation for what NSF would call “alternative career paths” and what we would call “applied careers.” Our students who go on the applied market often report that they are highly competitive because of their extensive applied experience.

This isn’t an ad for Wayne State. The fact that our program is in the heart of Detroit almost necessitates that we prepare our students for applied opportunities, so I don’t describe all of this to suggest that we’re doing something unique—we aren’t. But what Rob and Chad tell us about balanced programs just means that we in I-O are wrestling with what our colleagues in other areas of psychology and in other departments are beginning to face, as NIH and NSF encourage graduate schools to offer planning assistance for alternative career paths, and AAAS and other professional associations join in to acknowledge what we already know.

How can we help our colleagues and schools? Is it possible for us to share what we’ve seen in our discipline for many years and what our data continue to confirm? I’m not sure how to take lessons we’ve learned about building preparation for a variety of careers into the coursework and all other aspects of graduate training, and I’m not sure that they’d listen if we did. As John Mcgraw, the great baseball manager said, “Experience ain’t hereditary… hell, it ain’t even contagious.” But I’m left to hope that we may have something to add to the conversation because for most of our students, “the work they seek after graduation is not an alternative career—a term that some say relegates nonacademic jobs to second-class status—but the only work they’ve ever wanted” (June, 2011).


June, A. W. (2011, November 6). More universities break the taboo and talk to Ph.D.’s about jobs outside academe. The Chronicle of Higher Education Online. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/More-Universities-Break-the/129647/
Silzer, R., & Parson, C. (2012). SIOP Members, graduate education, and employment focus. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 50(1), 119–129. Retrieved from http://www.siop.org/tip/july12/20silzer.aspx