An interesting career in psychological science: NCAA researcher

By Thomas S. Paskus

Thomas S. PaskusThomas S. Paskus

PhD (1997) - Quantitative Psychology
University of Virginia

Principal Research Scientist
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)

Indianapolis, Indiana

Working as the principal research scientist for the primary governing body for college athletics in the United States -- the National Collegiate Athletic Association or NCAA -- is challenging in terms of project management, research design and analysis, and communication with varied audiences.  I will touch upon those components of my job shortly.  However, a more challenging aspect may be redirecting the perceptions of others when they find out my employer and job title.  Some colleagues from the world of athletics joke about whether a “research scientist” wears a lab coat and safety goggles around the office (only when we work with particularly messy data).  University academicians with only a passing familiarity of the NCAA often seem unprepared to accept that a PhD-level quantitative psychologist might work for an athletics organization (what field doesn’t work with big interesting datasets these days?).  Friends and family want to know whether I am somehow involved in ticket distribution (I am not).

So, what is the NCAA and what role does psychological science play here?  Well, the NCAA is not just a central office in Indianapolis, but rather a membership organization of over 1,000 colleges, universities and athletic conferences.  Most decisions concerning college athletics are made by rotating committees of college presidents, faculty, athletics administrators, coaches and student-athletes who represent the entire membership.  The NCAA national office then assists the membership by maintaining the governance structure, accrediting college athletics programs, implementing and enforcing rules and policies, running championship events, serving as liaisons to high schools and prospective college student-athletes, working with government and corporate entities, administering youth and community outreach initiatives, and conducting national research on college athletics.  Our in-house research staff is relatively small but with a broad directive: Enhance the NCAA’s ability to make data-driven policy decisions across all these other domains.

Many research questions of interest to the NCAA are similar to fundamental questions in higher education and psychology but with a focus on college students who are also high-level athletes.  What high school academic variables predict academic success in college for student-athletes?  Why does college transfer occur among student-athletes and how does it impact their academic trajectories?  What other scholastic and non-scholastic variables affect college persistence within this group?  How do athletics time commitments impact student stress and subsequent academic and health outcomes?  Are certain forms of academic support or counseling more effective in this population?  How does identity as a student versus identity as an athlete relate to educational and life outcomes within this population?  To what extent are connections with faculty and other students helped or hindered by being a member of a sports team?  Are student-athletes more prone to certain types of risky behaviors (e.g., substance use or gambling) than other college students?  Does athletics participation affect attitudes about gender, race/ethnicity, ethical behavior and community service?  Do former student-athletes live healthy lives as adults?  Are changes occurring in the demographics or participation patterns of those involved in sports?  How does the economics of college sports relate to that of the university enterprise as a whole?

At the same time that we are creating research or using previous research to answer such questions, the focus is squarely on how study results should affect national policies for college student-athletes.  Research in a policy setting is a bit different from what you might experience in an academic setting.  For us, the research process tends to move more quickly.  We may conduct a study over a yearlong period but there are many others where data are needed in weeks or days (given the high visibility and impact of our research within this field, great care is needed at all stages to ensure that our data and analyses lead to accurate results).  Research results also need to be highly relevant.  We work directly with policymakers to frame their issues as testable research questions and then hone those questions with them throughout the research process.  We also assist our NCAA colleagues in understanding and responding to outside research studies that may have implications for their policies or operations.  On the back end, a crucial skill in this setting is learning to communicate analysis results that may be quite complex to extremely varied audiences.  We need to be able to speak comfortably to faculty members and college presidents, but also football coaches and college sports writers.

In this job, familiarity with complex issues in measurement, statistics and large-scale data collection is crucial.  For example, at the request of our university presidents, we work closely with other NCAA staff and the membership to design new academic success metrics for teams and schools.  These include a graduation formula that better accounts for transfer students than the standard federal formula and a real-time proxy (using term-by-term academic measures and retention status) for eventual graduation called the Academic Progress Rate (APR).  Such efforts entail significant and on-going validation analysis.  To carry out these and other studies of academic behavior, we acquire high school and college transcript data on well over 100,000 student-athletes yearly, collect survey data on thousands of current and former student-athletes, and then try to make sense of longitudinal files that can contain up to 2 million cases spanning high school to early adulthood.

Although we partner with outside researchers and select contractors, the bulk of the work we do is handled by a small core of about a dozen internal staff.  Given our wide range of tasks (research design/analysis, study management, data management, survey design, outreach to policymakers, results communication, etc.) and research topics (psychology, education, economics/finance, etc.), our staff is rather varied in formal educational background.  Two of us have PhDs, one has an EdD, a couple have MBAs and others have master’s degrees in areas like psychology, social work and library sciences.  More importantly, to meet our charge we need a staff of passionate, hard-working, critical-thinking, competent, flexible multitaskers who work exceptionally well with each other (almost all projects require extensive collaboration).

How did I get to this particular place?  I am not sure my path is too distinctive beyond attempting to involve myself in as many research projects as I could throughout my schooling.  I entered psychology in the second half of my undergraduate career at Dartmouth College, where I had some fantastic mentors (e.g., Drs. Paula Schnurr, Robert Drake and George Wolford) and opportunities to engage in a wide range of basic and applied research studies.  I eventually headed to the University of Virginia where I worked with Jack McArdle (now at the University of Southern California), John Nesselroade and a talented and interesting faculty on my way to earning a PhD in quantitative psychology.  Besides learning about psychology, longitudinal research, psychometrics, statistics and data management, I gravitated to a research project that Jack had recently begun with the NCAA.  What started as a small consulting gig turned into a dissertation and then a two-year post-doctoral fellowship.

From there, I took a faculty position in the College of Education at the University of Denver.  I love teaching and thoroughly enjoyed the university, the experience, and my students and colleagues there.  However, when given the chance to accept my current job, I could not refuse even though it meant stepping off the tenure track.  Why make what some would consider a risky career detour?  Well, it allows me to work in a national setting where my research can directly assist colleges and students in real-time.  I also can collaborate with the best in various fields while still having opportunities to grow as a methodologist.  And, perhaps most importantly as a parent with young children, it enables me to craft a family-work balance that suits my family a little better at this time.  There are exciting challenges and opportunities each day in this role, so even jokes about lab coats are quite alright.