Variations on the Theme of Academic Careers: Beyond a Psychology Department

By Clare Porac, PhD

If you have spent your graduate student years in the psychology department of a major research university, you may think that a tenure-track position in a psychology department is your only academic career option. However, the interdisciplinary nature of psychology makes individuals with doctoral degrees in psychology attractive as faculty members in a number of different academic settings.

Psychologists are frequently sought after and appointed as faculty members in academic departments at colleges and universities. Tenure-track appointments in schools of business, education, medicine and health sciences are some of the most common faculty positions filled by psychologists. Another tenure-track academic opportunity that is increasing in frequency is called a joint appointment. Here you are appointed simultaneously into an academic home department and into an interdisciplinary center or institute, such as a gerontology center or an institute of family studies. Joint appointments across two academic departments, such as psychology and women’s studies, also take place.

An Academic Appointment

Upsides

There are exciting opportunities for psychologists who take faculty positions in adademic departments that are not psychology departments. For example, if you are a social psychologist who does research in leadership, being a faculty member in a business school setting can give you ready access to research opportunities in major corporations with established ties to your department. Such contacts may be harder to come by in a traditional arts and sciences department, such as psychology.

Granting agencies are increasing their funding emphasis on interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research projects. A faculty position outside of psychology provides the opportunity to work with colleagues from a number of different backgrounds. Such a situation expands the types of research projects in which you can be engaged, thus expanding your opportunities to obtain grant funding from a variety of different sources, both government and private.

Important Considerations

All Departments want to build their research reputations within their own disciplines, so faculty are asked to publish in the major peer-reviewed journals of the discipline of the department in addition to or instead of publishing in psychology journals. This means that a certain amount of research and publication movement away from psychology, as narrowly-defined, will probably be inevitable.

You may be asked to design and teach courses that emphasize the applications of your psychological specialty in ways that would not be demanded in a psychology department.

You will be asked to conform to the publication and teaching standards for tenure in the department of your faculty appointment and these may differ from those encountered in a psychology department.

Ways of Adjusting

Keeping in touch with the "purer" forms of psychology and with psychologists is a matter of personal choice. Most universities that have schools of education or buisness also have psychology departments and contact and eventual research collaboration with colleagues in the psychology department is certainly possible. You will most likely have to be the one to initiate the contacts and cultivate the relationships.

Frequently, traditional arts and science departments, like psychology departments, are cash- and space-strapped, while departments in other academic disciplines have more internal financial and other resources at their disposal. Members of the psychology department may be very willing to pursue lines of mutual research interest because collaboration with you will expand the pool of available research resources.

When searching for contact with psychologists, explore the backgrounds of the colleagues in your own department; there may be more psychologists there than you think.

A Joint Appointment

There has been a steady rise in the number of interdisciplinary research centers in university settings. These centers, institutes or consortia bring together faculty members from different academic disciplines in a collaborative endeavor focused on a specific area of concern. For example, a research center on aging may include faculty from psychology, sociology, anthropology, social work and health science departments, who work together on collaborative research and grant-writing projects that explore various aspects of human aging and the aging adult experience.

University administrators may decide to strengthen individual departmental ties with a research center by establishing faculty appointments that are budgeted administratively to span the two worlds of research center and traditional department. These are called joint appointments with the terms of the appointment specifying the amount of time that the faculty member filling the position will spend on departmental versus research center activities. Usually the split is 50%-50%.

Upsides

A joint appointment is another exciting opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration and research that expands the available sources of research funding and support.

Important Considerations

How will your career progress be evaluated?

Usually, the evaluation is done by a committee of colleagues in your home department, psychology. Your activities at the center will play an important role in decisions about your career progress but it will be your psychology department colleagues who will make the final recommendations concerning such things as salary increments and tenure.

A research center wants to establish its’ research reputation by having faculty associated with the center publish in major journals within the specialty area. Using our example, a research center on aging will want faculty associated with the center to publish in peer-reviewed journals that specialize in reporting research on aging and adult development. These publications may be in sociology or health science journals as well as journals associated with psychology. For this reason, you want to be assured that your psychology department colleagues will find all of your peer-reviewed publications, regardless of specific field, of similar weight when they evaluate your career progress.

How will your teaching duties be divided?

Research centers typically do not offer undergraduate courses, so your undergraduate teaching will be confined to the psychology department. However, your graduate teaching will most likely be associated partially with the research center and partially with the psychology department. Discuss your graduate student teaching and supervision with the director of the research center and the psychology department chair to see how these will be apportioned between the two academic units.

These career evaluation and teaching considerations also apply if the joint appointment is across two academic departments.

Psychologists are found in a wide variety of academic faculty positions. Academic positions outside of psychology departments may not be for everyone but if you are a flexible person who is willing to consider the points of view of colleagues from a number of disciplines these types of positions are good choices. Also, they offer interesting opportunities for a second career move once you have established yourself into the academic stream with your first faculty position.