Larry Nader

From the Navy to SIOP President: An Interview With Dr. Eduardo Salas

Josh Cotton and Kristin Saboe

World-renowned I-O psychologist and former SIOP President Dr. Eduardo Salas is one of the most often cited SIOP members, having co-authored over 300 journal articles and co-edited 27 books. His contributions to the field of I-O outside of his own research include his service on the editorial board of the Journal of Applied Psychology, Personnel Psychology, Military, and many other well respected publications. He has long dedicated his energies to building future researcher through his tenure at the University of Central Florida and now as the chair of the Department of Psychology at Rice University. He is possibly best known for his foundational research in two areas: training and teamwork. What many of his fans may not know about Dr. Salas is that he is approachable, humble, and service minded, and much of his career success can be directly tied to his work with the US military.

Dr. Josh Cotton and Dr. Kristin Saboe sat down with Dr. Salas to discuss how his years of working with the military have impacted his career success.

“Without my experience in the Navy I wouldn’t be here,” said Dr. Salas.

After a pause and reflection he simply said one word, “Wow.” He was reflecting on the early days of his career and comparing it to his many other roles he has held since then, “the 15 years I was with the Navy was the most fulfilling, most rewarding, most challenging, and most impactful because it was a great time. [With all of the I-O psychologists I was working with] we had a tremendous motivation to make a difference in the soldiers, airmen, and sailors.” Fueled by his motivation to help he learned how to be better at his job, “we devoted ourselves to trying to understand their context, how they operated, and under what conditions, and then what we can do as I-O psychologists to help them.”

Bridging the scientist–practitioner divide is at the heart of what it means to be a good I-O psychologist, something Dr. Salas learned during his time with the Navy, “along the way, we translated the science into something they could do…commanders training personnel or leaders of different commands would do things differently because of what we did, found, and translated.” Knowing he and his team had forever improved the way the Navy operated he said, “that was tremendously rewarding to us. We really had an impact.”

Impact is what we all seek as I-O psychologists. Impact is why we get up each day, why we pushed through those stats classes and navigated the stress of a dissertation. But life is not a destination, it is a journey, and what we learn as we move through challenges makes us stronger. Dr. Salas shared with us some of his lessons.

One lesson he learned that contributed to his success and that of other I-O psychologists is the power of understanding someone’s context and a willingness to work alongside them to come up with solutions that serve their needs. Dr. Salas went on to describe a colleague who went aboard a $1 billion, 300 person, 80,000 horsepower, fully armed missile-carrying Navy cruiser for 3 full weeks as part of the job of an I-O psychologist working for the Navy. “The credibility we gained” working alongside the sailors on the Navy cruiser was immeasurable and was necessary for impact.

Overall Dr. Salas described the 15 years at the start of his career as civil servant personnel research psychologist as “very fulfilling.”

His advice to anyone interested in exploring working with the military: “It’s a great ride, very impactful.” If you can demonstrate your motivation is to help and you can earn the credibility “there is not a better place to help. It is the most beautiful, impactful, challenging, and rewarding place to do I-O work because what we do, what we say, and what we find matters a lot.”

Dr. Salas is most famous for his teamwork and training research, all of which is based almost entirely on military samples. Although he supported the Navy and our service men and women with his work, his research has ultimately provided a foundation and driven a far larger body of knowledge for the world of I-O and applied sciences. During this time between Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving, take the time to thank someone for their service, knowing they risked their lives for us while sailing, marching, and flying, but thank them also for funding our research and allowing us to study them because doing so helps I-O psychologists increase our impact throughout Fortune 500s, small businesses, classrooms, nonprofits, and the government.

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