Opportunities for Research Psychologists at Medical Schools

By Robert L. Balster, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Research Professor of Psychology, and Director of the Center for Drug and Alcohol Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University
Faculty positions in 'Medical Schools, Other Than Psychiatry Departments' is an employment setting for psychologists identified in APA employment and salary surveys. Although my doctoral training was in psychology, and I identify myself as a research psychologist, my primary appointment is at the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. I teach these subjects to medical students and other health professionals and to graduate students in pharmacology, and I conduct NIH-supported behavioral pharmacology research. There are over 20 PhD psychologists at MCV who are in similar faculty roles in this department and others in the medical school, with an additional 25 or so in the Department of Psychiatry. There are more psychologists on the faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) with primary appointments outside, rather than within, the Department of Psychology. I have the impression that our situation at VCU is typical. Indeed, a large majority of my scientific psychology colleagues in psychopharmacology and substance abuse research are not employed in psychology departments.

Faculty positions for research psychologists in schools of medicine typically require a minimum of 2 to 3 years of postdoctoral training. Indeed, in recent years, it is common for persons who successfully compete for permanent faculty positions in medical schools to have had 1 or 2 transitional positions following their postdoctoral training. Often these will be 'Research Associate' or other 'soft-money' research faculty positions funded completely by research grants to more senior faculty. It is not unusual for persons in these transitional positions to compete successfull for more permanent positions at the institution in which they are already employed. In recent recruitments I am familiar with at our university, the top applicants typically already have funded research grants.

Medical school faculty positions for research psychologists are highly competitive. Among their attractions is the excellent setting they provide for research. Medical sciences research buildings abound, often equipped with state-of-the-art instrumentation. The availability of shared scientific equipment is a common feature of medical schools, and the research support services are often very good. Medical schools are a rich environment for collaborative research and for so-called big science center grants and other interdisciplinary projects. Research is heavily emphasized and amply rewarded. Teaching loads in medical schools are typically less than those in psychology departments that have large undergraduate teaching responsibilities. Team teaching, in which faculty only teach a small proportion of each course, and usually only in their specialty area, is common. In addition, much of the teaching done by medical school faculty involves one-on-one meetings with graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and other trainees to discuss and plan research. Medical school faculty typically have 12-month, rather than 9-month, appointments, and salaries in medical schools are better, even when adjusted for the longer academic term. The APA 1993 Salary Survey shows that 'Medical School, Other Than Psychiatry Department' faculty salaries averaged about 8-18% higher than those in university psychology departments.

It would be interesting to know what proportion of psychologists with primary appointments in medical schools develop academic relationships with the psychology department at their university. I have been a Research Professor of Psychology for a number of years and have found my interactions with Psychology to be a positive feature of my situation. For me, the most important benefit has been the opportunity to work directly with both undergraduate and graduate psychology students. We routinely have part-time or summer research positions available for psychology undergraduates. This has served as an opportunity to identify students who complete their master's or doctoral thesis work in my laboratories. The availability of funded training slots outside the Psychology Department allows the Department to increase its numbers of trainees and provides ideal settings in which to prepare psychologists for faculty roles in health sciences research and teaching. Students have an opportunity to enroll in biomedical sciences courses with other basic health sciences students, take advantage of the seminar programs available in medical schools, and develop contacts with faculty and trainees in diverse fields.

Traditional disciplinary boundaries are breaking down in medical sciences. Organizationally, fields such as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, and microbiology are merging with each other and with other disciplines; interdisciplinary centers are playing an increasingly important role in university life. With this restructuring, a person's disciplinary field of training is less and less of a factor in faculty recruitment. If you further consider the opportunities for psychologists to obtain postdoctoral training in other disciplines and what I hope is an increasing realization of the role of misbehavior in health and disease, I am very optimistic about the future opportunities for psychologists as medical school faculty. APA President Robert J. Resnick, PhD, in a recent Psychological Science Agenda article, has called for a re-examination of the diverse employment settings for research psychologists. It is important to do all that we can to prepare research psychologists for diverse faculty roles, to provide paths that lead to these nontraditional employment settings, to keep an open mind about the areas of research and teaching that psychologists can legitimately undertake, and to maintain effective lines of communication with these psychologists in the diaspora. Psychologists are making essential contributions to medical research and training, ad both psychology and medicine are improved by the continued interaction of these fields.

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