An Unusual Career in Psychology

Executive Search Consultant

By Naomi Schwartz, The Romark Group

I walked out of my home this morning, then turned around and walked back into the garage entrance and up the stairs into my office. The establishment of a home office has been the latest step in the continuing evolution of my career as a search consultant (recruiter). As I planned the day and awaited the arrival of my staff, I tried to remember the other steps along the way...

As a college student majoring in experimental psychology, and later as a graduate student and government employee, I had no idea what the future would hold. I did know that my career interests in psychology were not clinical and that I probably would not get a doctorate. Concerns with sensory modalities, experimental design, influences of environmental variables on perception, and interactions among senses were some of my personal interests.

My graduate training took place in Boston, and many of the faculty members in our program served as consultants to the U.S. Army Laboratories in Natick, MA. I became interested in this work and joined Natick Labs as a civilian employee in the Acceptance Laboratory, which was then part of the psychology area. At the Lab, our most important function was to design and conduct studies to measure acceptance of food products developed for military personnel and for astronauts. This was my introduction to the field of sensory evaluation.

Sensory evaluation is now recognized as an essential research step in product development by most companies that manufacture consumer goods. Most important, product-development scientists rely on the test methodologies that sensory-evaluation scientists produce. Product-development scientists use test results to evaluate new products and product reformulations, storage studies, quality control, and market research.

As I learned more about this field, I realized that I wanted to expand my career in industry, rather than with the government, and I joined the General Foods Corporation as part of its product evaluation group. During my 7 years at General Foods, our group, consisting of a psychologist, a chemist, a home economist, and a statistician, developed test methods and trained exert panels to evaluate food product flavor and texture. As General Foods diversified, our work expanded to include the adaptation of texture evaluation methods for skin care products as well as foods.

When I left General Foods, I began work as a consultant in the field of sensory evaluation. I visited with client companies and research organizations to help them solve problems of test methodology, panel selection and training, and correlation of results of trained expert panels with consumer preferences.

After several years, I decided to join a recruiting firm on Long Island. This firm, which already had an excellent reputation in placing professional sensory scientists, needed someone with a better technical knowledge of the field. I was able to use the expertise and contacts I had developed to expand this area of the company. Four years ago, I purchased the business from my employer and set up my own office.

As a recruiter, my job is to work with clients and hiring companies to find fits. Although this sounds simple, it is actually quite complicated. The structure and function of a sensory program vary from one company to another. The number and type of products, as well as the purpose of test results, determine necessary qualifications for personnel.

I find that my background in psychology and sensory science has served me well as a recruiter in this field. I understand the vocabulary of the hiring manager and recognize his or her needs. I can tell the prospective candidate what to expect from a position and can clearly describe the functions of a particular group.

Entry-level candidates are quite diverse. Although corporate sensory programs now evaluate almost every type of consumer product, most entry-level scientists still come from university food science programs, which are the only ones that include sensory studies in their curricula. I do know, however, of many psychologists in the field who are welcomed by industry because of their knowledge of psychological relationships and experimental design techniques.

In conclusion, I have really enjoyed my work as a recruiter. Owning a firm that helps both psychologists and others in the field of sensory evaluation find more meaningful positions has been a satisfying career move for me.

[ guffaws to / ]