The Academic Life


Kurt Salzinger, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Hofstra University

Life for the young PhD embarking on an academic career has become quite complicated. The first problem is finding a job in an unwelcome market. The second problem facing the new faculty member is even more daunting. He or she is expected to excel in teaching and service while trying to establish a credible research program under what often turn out to be extremely difficult circumstances. Few departmental resources may be available, and the competition for external funding--even for the small 'young investigator' awards designed to help new PhDs get started--is intense and getting tougher. And like all institutions today, colleges and universities are reducing the size of the faculty, which translates into heavier teaching loads. All the while, the tenure clock ticks away, caring not a bit about the young scholar's predicament! Clearly, the situation is not good, but neither is it impossible. For the dedicated scholar, the traditional attractions of aca-deme still exist. No other work environment offers the same degree of freedom, the intellectual stimulation, or the excitement of discovery and innovation.

Part of the current problem may lie in the fact that our academically oriented graduate training has not kept pace with the changing requirements of the academic job. Today's mentors, for the most part, matured in an era in which internal and external research support was plentiful enough to permit the aspiring scientist to get a program in his or her primary interest area off to a good start, and then sustain it for as long as it continued to produce solid publications. Indeed, doing successful research often excused less than stellar performance in other facets of the job, like teaching.

This model, which all too many still see as the only model, no longer applies. Instead, young faculty members should be encouraged to seek creative ways to relate their research interests to broader topic areas--preferably areas that might lead to a variety of potential funding sources, including unconventional 'applied' ones. As it happens, my own academic research career has followed an unconventional path which, while admittedly not by design, might serve as a useful case study.

My first real job was a research appointment at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where I focused on the comprehensibility of normal speech and relating it to social networks, as well as on basic processes of memory by using my comprehensibility measure on statistical approximations to English. Even though my research grants at the New York State Psychiatric Institute were to study such phenomena as schizophrenia or the effect of antipsychotic drugs, I was able to review the area of language behavior in general because, although basic research, it nevertheless related to my area of application.

In 1964, while continuing my research with human participants at the Psychiatric Institute, I added teaching responsibilities at the Polytechnic University of Brooklyn. The University had no facilities for research, so I was encouraged to continue my work at the Institute. However, as I spent more time at the University, I began to search there for research opportunities. For example, when some students from bioengineering asked me to suggest a project for them, I advised them to build a better food dispenser for conditioning goldfish. Those few goldfish, which I managed to bring into the school without too much commotion, were the beginnings of my laboratory at the Polytechnic University.

Over time, I was able to extend my activities to a variety of research projects. I continued to teach as well as to satisfy the requirements of the National Institute of Mental Health grants that I received over the years. Then in 1992, I moved to Hofstra University, where I became the director of the clinical/school psychology program. Inspired in part by my animal work, I have set up a human research laboratory to study human error. An important aspect of this research is my opportunity to work with students who are interested in doing research even though they may ultimately become clinical practitioners.

The moral of my tale is that these days, with all the pressures I noted, most new PhDs need to be both flexible and realistic. I believe that the desire to conduct research and to teach can be realized if one is persistent, creative, and adaptable. It may take more time to bring it all together than in the past, but it can be done.

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