Quantitative Psychology - A Brief Interview
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Recently a student from a local college reached out to me interested in quantitative psychology. Her questions were insightful and interesting to answer and reflect on. It occurred to me that others might be interested in the information I provided for her, so below are the questions and responses I provided. Special thanks to Linda for giving me an opportunity to sit back and reflect on my experiences.
How did you enter this field?
As an undergraduate I really enjoyed both mathematics and psychology. Upon taking my statistics course in the psychology department I found I really had a knack for understanding and communicating the ideas. I was also able to apply what I was learning in the statistics classes in my research on women's underepresentation in computer science. I started taking more statistics courses and reaching out to faculty who did research focusing on statistical methods. I took a "gap year" between undergrad and grad school to be a lab manager in a social psychology lab, applying my statistics knowledge to data analysis in the lab, and collaborating with a faculty in quantitative psychology on a project focused on how we should be thinking about experiments with multiple control conditions with respect to statistical analysis. During that year I applied to get my PhD in Quantitative Psychology, and the following year I started at Ohio State working with Dr. Andrew Hayes.
What made you decide to pursue this type of career?
For most of my life I was told to choose the career I was "good" at. Although perhaps this is a bit conceited to say, I really struggled to make any decisions because I seemed to be good at almost anything I tried. When I was in high school I loved writing, I spent a lot of time playing music in marching band, concert band, jazz band and orchestra. I was very involved in theater, mostly in technical theater but also on stage. I loved science and math, and took AP classes. So I didn't really know what I was supposed to do with my life. Ultimately when I went to college it became clear to me that finding something you're "good" at doesn't mean that you like it, and the two things that I spent a lot of time thinking about in my free time were math and psychology. Quantitative psychology was a great opportunity to integrate those two things together. I also chose to pursue a PhD because I loved doing research. I love the idea of generating new knowledge, and I love teaching, the process of disseminating knowledge. So all these things together led me to this position.
What training, credentials, or experiences were critical for you to obtain this job?
Well, being a professor requires a PhD, typically in the field that you're teaching in or something very close. In order to get a PhD I needed a bachelors, and most people in quantitative psychology have some background in both psychology and mathematics or statistics. This doesn't mean you have to double major, but a minor is usually sufficient to demonstrate that you know how to do math. Getting a faculty position typically requires that you've been able to publish research in good journals and generate research questions of interest to a broad audience. You also need to demonstrate good oral presentation skills, teaching ability, and the ability to mentor graduate students.
What are your responsibilities and what do you do on a typical day?
My day is broken up into a variety of things. When I'm teaching a large undergraduate class (Psych 100A = 275 students) most of my time is spent preparing lectures, answering emails, writing quizzes, coordinating grading with the TA. I teach 2.5 hours per week + 2 hours of office hours and usually about 2 hours of meeting related to class. I also mentor graduate students and undergraduate students so I meet with them regularly, checking in on their progress with their research questions and generating tasks for them to keep projects moving forward. I also have to manage finances in the lab, so I often have to prepare forms to pay for costs and balance spreadsheets keeping track of the labs money. I spend time reading research articles as well as writing up the research that I'm doing, doing quite a bit of computer programming for my research as well. Ultimately, by the time you're a faculty, your time is spent more managing others doing the "on the ground" research. Where a lot of my job is making sure that the research lab is keeping all of the balls in the air rather than being the person doing the work on a specific project.
What are the greatest satisfactions you derive from your work?
One of the biggest pleasure I get is when I meet someone who does research in psychology, and when we start talking about a current project I'm working on they go "Oh, I need that!" This is ultimately my purpose, is coming up with methods and tools that help researchers get their jobs done better. And sometimes it's very hard to know what people in the field need, but it's really a joy to hear that something I'm working on is going to benefit others directly.
What do you like least about your job or organization?
There is a lot of bureaucracy in working at a large university. Change happens very slowly and it can often feel like it's holding you back from doing your best. My greatest frustration comes with teaching. Technology has advanced very quickly and I love to use that to our advantage in the classroom, but other instructors are not so keen, and that can cause some strife in trying to adopt best practices but getting push back from others. Recently, I've been teaching my introductory statistics course using R, but then the students go to the research methods course and are forced to use SPSS, which is very expensive and not something they will have access to in the future if they don't stay at a university. So, that's an uphill battle I'm fighting.
What is the typical career progression in your field?
I'm not totally sure what this question is asking. But, I guess starting with graduate school people tend to take 4 - 6 years to get their PhD (typical salary is around $25k/yr). Some do 1-2 years of postdoc ($60k/yr). When you transition to an Assistant Professor position at a big research university, you'll be on that track for about 6 years with salaries more like 80 - 100k. After 6 years you go up for tenure which is essentially job security forever. Your position title changes to Associate Professor and salary goes up about $15k at that point. Some people stay at Associate for ever, others go up for Full Professor in 6 - 10 years, and again a big pay bump when that happens. There are also other trajectories and potential positions like moving up to Chair or Dean, but this is the kind of "typical" trajectory for large research universities.
What are the most common issues or problems confronting people in your field?
I think the biggest issue in quantitative psychology is communication. Our field is based on this idea that we should be helping others do their research by innovating statistical methods. However, it's not very common to get our research into the hand of the right people, and even if they get their hands on it we've written in such an obtuse way (writing to others in our field) that they don't understand it. Tool building is a good solution to this but it's not particularly incentivized in our field. We don't get "credit" for writing an R program or an SPSS macro the way we do for publishing papers.
What are the best sources for learning more about your field?
APA Division 5 has some really great resources for learning more about Quant Psych. There was a task force a few years ago trying to get more people into Quant and from that they developed some really great materials including lists of programs, ideas of what courses are most beneficial etc. SMEP.org (Society for Multivariate Experimental Psychology) is a good resource if you're nearing the end of your PhD and looking for a position.
What entry-level opportunities are available in your field?
I and other faculty take undergraduate researchers into our labs. I have 4 undergrads right now and in the winter I'll be up to 6. Typically these positions are for college credit, but if there was a good person I would consider paying them for part time work. That's something that others in our field do. Entry level is a bit of a difficult descriptor for academic positions, since "entry" implies that you have a PhD. Technically I'm in an "entry" level position, but I figured that's not what you're asking.
What are the most effective techniques for obtaining work in your field/organization? How do individuals learn about job opportunities?
SMEP has job listings in quantitative psychology, and they also have a yearly conference that is important for networking with the right people and applying for jobs. There is also the Psych Jobs Wiki http://psychjobsearch.wikidot.com/ which keeps track of academic positions in psychology in general, and includes a quantitative section. Typically people get faculty jobs by networking and meeting the right people at conferences, then applying when the time comes.
How would you describe the work environment in your field/organization in terms of teamwork, culture, workload, etc?
Quantitative psychology is largely a lonely job. We're less collaborative than other areas, but I try to make the work I want. What I mean by that is that I like working on teams, so I create teams through my lab and through consulting opportunities. In general I seek out collaborative work. To a large extent though the research that we do is stuff we can do alone at home (or in our office) on a computer. Because we don't collect human participants etc our needs are relatively few. However, something that I find incredibly important for my work is having colleagues from whom I can seek advice and feedback. I think it's really easy to get into your own little silo, and your research will suffer for it. I actively seek out feedback from colleagues who I think will disagree with me, in order to challenge my thinking and improve my research. In that way our field is very welcoming, and I have not had trouble finding people to talk to and discuss ideas with.
Do you know anyone else in your field/organization that would be helpful for me to talk to?
If you're interested, we have 7 graduate students in our program and a few recent graduates that I would happily put you in touch with if you're interested in learning more about the middle step between undergrad and faculty positions.