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Max. Classroom Capacity: My Brain Got Drained! And It Didn’t Take Long…

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

Welcome readers!

I just began a new academic position at a business school in Southern California! Last year my wife started her dream academic job nearby, and with three young boys at home, we felt that it was unfair to deprive their lovely grandparents (who also live nearby and, incidentally, are awfully good babysitters) of them. It had nothing to do with the weather. Or the salary increase. Or the beaches. Or the weather—sorry, did I already say that? In all seriousness, I am so excited about the incredible professional opportunity to join a dynamic and congenial group of teachers, researchers, and students at CSUN!

Anyway, to get to the point, I figured (a) I’m not the only I-O academic who has moved from a psychology department to a business school, (b) others out there might be contemplating such a move, and (c) it might be of value to talk to some folks who have done it and share their wisdom regarding what to expect. Towards that end, I reached out to Allison Gabriel and Lily Cushenbery, both of whom are I-O psychology PhDs now teaching in business schools. I also drew on my own experiences teaching business students in the international executive MS in HR and Global Leadership and PhD in Management programs at Baruch College, my former employer.

Before we get into it, please note that much has been said of the trend of I-O psychologists joining business schools—if you haven’t already you may want to read the IOP focal article by Aguinis, Bradley, and Brodersen (2014) and its associated commentaries. Aguinis et al. discussed potential implications on the field of I-O of a “brain drain” of elite I-O researchers moving from I-O doctoral programs to business schools. In contrast, the goal of this column is to talk about what differences there may be and what to expect when shifting from teaching in a psychology department to a business school.

To frame the conversation appropriately: I am an I-O psychologist, having received my PhD from The University of Akron and a BSc in psychology from McGill University. Allison Gabriel also has her PhD in I-O psychology from the University of Akron, as well as an undergraduate degree in psychology from Penn State. Lily Cushenbery has her PhD in I-O psychology from Pennsylvania State University and an undergraduate degree in psychology from Fresno State University. So we are all psychologists by training. I’ve condensed the discussions I had with Allison and Lily around four questions.

  1. What were your reasons for joining a business school?

As I noted earlier, my reasons for joining a business school were mainly personal. In contrast, both Allison and Lily noted strong professional reasons underlying their reasons. For Allison, her decision was a combination of market forces and fit: “As an undergrad, I TA’d for a variety of psychology and sociology classes, and as a PhD student, I taught Intro to Psychology and Quantitative Methods to undergrads, and was a TA for a PhD quantitative statistics seminar. Based on these teaching experiences, I always assumed I would be teaching psychology students as a faculty member, but the market obviously worked out differently! When I first went on the market in 2012, I was a better fit for business school departments than I-O departments in terms of research needs, so as a newly minted PhD, I found myself teaching Organizational Behavior at the undergraduate level immediately.”

Lily’s experiences in grad school and as a postdoc were influential in her decision: “I… did a post doctoral research fellowship at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism [at Penn State] and then got a job in OB at Stony Brook. Penn State had a practicum program that gave us several years of hands-on projects with companies, and I also did a few other consulting projects during graduate school as well. It was a great fit for me because I've always liked the applied side of our research. I truly believe in the scientist–practitioner model and do some consulting work in addition to my university role. These experiences have really shaped my research questions and focused my work on questions people need to have answered. Teaching MBAs is also fun because when they share their experiences in class it can help guide my leadership and innovation research.”

Because my own job search was extremely geographically limited, I considered and applied for positions in psychology and business, and evaluated each opportunity holistically. I identify strongly as an I-O psychologist, so it was a big plus to me that CSUN has other I-O psychologists in the business school. This made me feel that my colleagues would better understand what I bring to the table. I have applied to other business schools in which the search committee members seemed genuinely confused or uncertain about what an I-O psychologist is. In addition, unlike Lily, who has a behavioral research lab at her business school, having my own lab was not an option. Therefore part of my calculus was how well I could shift my focus to non-lab based research and rely on collaborators for future lab studies. So, those of you who are considering teaching in a business school might wish to reflect on the extent to which your research interests would be supported in a business school and the extent to which your future colleagues are familiar with I-O psychology. 

  1. What is the biggest difference between teaching in a psychology department compared to a business school?

The consensus seems to be that the most salient difference is the increased need to focus on application in business school classes. For Lily: “the expectation from business students is that research will be translated into actionable solutions that they can use immediately. Though I do discuss the importance of theory in class, I try to end each day with a summary of key concepts that can be translated into effective behavior change.” For Allison: “the biggest difference in teaching is the framing of the content—in psychology, I would spend ton a ton of time discussing study design and components of the research in lots of nitty gritty detail. In business, I still talk about research but facilitate discussions less focused on study design and more focused on implication—knowing what we know from research, how can we improve current practices and the experience of employees at work?” These views are consistent with my own experience teaching MS and MBA students. Thus, if you are thinking of teaching in a business school you should probably consider whether you are able to and interested in teaching in this way. Personally, I would have found this very challenging to do as a newly minted PhD with little consulting or work experience.  

  1. In what ways (if any!) do you think that your training in I-O psychology did NOT prepare you well for teaching in a business school?

The answer to this question likely depends on the PhD program that one attends. All three of us are products of programs that excel at research. I don’t think I would have been particularly well prepared, but mostly because at the time my interests were more on the theory side, and my visa status largely precluded me from seeking out opportunities for consulting or other applied work. In contrast, my fellow Akron alum Allison felt well prepared: “I think the biggest switch was digging really deep into case studies and current events, more so than I would in a psychology class where we would focus more on methodological aspects of the research we were discussing. In business, the real world application has to be immediate, and because of this I find myself spending a lot of time each morning on Twitter searching for current events and curating popular press articles I can incorporate into my slides. The “why is this important?” question has to come before the “why is this interesting?” question, and that was a bit of a flip for me as a researcher/psychologist.” Another area in which we may be ill prepared is in the use of business jargon, as Lily noted: “I don't feel that I-O psychology teaches you some of the jargon associated with business, and general business structures and strategy. For example, when an MBA student tells me his career goal is to be a "CSO" (a chief sustainability officer), I have to go back to my office and google that. However, we do have an edge with our depth of knowledge in our own field of psychology, and that has been invaluable to me in both my teaching and consulting work.”

  1. Are there particular teaching methodologies or assessment practices that you do differently in business compared to psychology classes?

The shift in teaching methods follows the shift in emphasis towards application. I use more case studies, self-assessments, business simulations, and activities designed to build specific work or leadership competencies (e.g., communication skills, feedback delivery). This was true for Allison as well: “When teaching business, I’ve increased my use of simulations and case studies for sure. Students want to see the hands-on application of the content versus discussing the theories and ideas more abstractly. That’s been a fun change to my class that I didn’t use too much when I was teaching psychology courses. My exams have also taken a much more application-based approach than they did previously.” For me, part of this is a tendency to get “less into the weeds” on research methodology than I might in analogous psychology classes.

Additionally, there may be other advantages of shifting from a psychology department to a business school. Lily noted that her transition has benefited her research on innovation: “As an innovation researcher, I know that this unique combination of experiences and perspectives benefits our field… There is a lot of opportunity to advance the field of leadership through lab research. MBAs are working adults, and putting them in controlled situations can give us more indications of causality than we may be able to get in the field. We can get answers to different kinds of questions through this research method, which is more often used in psychology.” I also view classroom methodologies such as self-assessments and business simulations as great opportunities for research. For example, I routinely ask my undergraduate and graduate business students to complete multiple self-assessments throughout the semester. Business simulations that test teamwork, leadership, creativity, and so on, particularly those structured as activities that take place for prolonged periods of time, may also be designed as randomized experiments, panel studies, longitudinal studies, and so forth, and may yield valuable insights worthy of publication.

As a final note, most academics that I know who love to teach love it partly because they believe that teaching is a two-way street: We learn as much from our students as they do from us. I have found this to be especially true with business students whose backgrounds and interests differ most from my own. Like Lily, I have spent my fair share of my time googling jargon, acronyms (lots of these!), cases, CEOs, and careers that I knew nothing about before students raised them in class. Although challenging, I think this is one of the great joys of teaching.

--

Thanks to Allison and Lily for their wisdom! Allison can be contacted via email at asgabriel@email.arizona.edu. She can also be found on Twitter--@ProfASGabriel--talking about the trifecta of management research/teaching, food cravings, and pictures of animals. Lily can be contacted through her Leadership and Creativity Research Lab website at www.theLCLab.com or you can follow her on Instagram and Facebook @theLCLab.

Readers, as always, your comments, questions, and feedback are welcome!

Reference

Aguinis, H., Bradley, K. J., and Brodersen, A. (2014). Industrial-organizational psychologists in business schools: Brain drain or eye opener? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 7, 284-303.

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