When Paul D. Nelson, PhD, began his graduate training in psychology over 50 years ago, he planned a career in academia. But instead of spending his career in university lecture halls and labs, Nelson took quite a different path. After 26 years in the Navy, he has spent the past 24 years at APA actually shaping academia. His work has driven change in accreditation, psychology specialization, preparing psychologists to be faculty, and just about everything else to do with graduate and undergraduate education, note Cynthia Belar, PhD, executive director of APA's Education Directorate and other current and former association leaders.
"Paul has been the heart and soul of the educa-tional endeavors of APA for as long as he's been there," says former APA CEO Raymond D. Fowler, PhD. Fowler and Nelson have known each other since Nelson's early days in the organization. Nelson has been one of APA's most visible representatives of education since before APA even formed its Education Directorate, notes Fowler.
It all began during Nelson's sophomore year in college.
The first psychologist to walk around the world
As an undergraduate at Princeton, Nelson planned to go on to law school--until he took an elective in social psychology.
"I had a kind of transformative experience," he says. "It was a totally different way of seeing life." Although Nelson did not major in psychology, he decided to pursue graduate work in social psychology, and for his senior thesis at Princeton conducted an experimental study of social perception. His work in graduate school at the University of Chicago also allowed him to minor in sociology while earning his master's in psychology.
Nelson next decided to enroll in the Navy and take a break before completing his doctoral studies. Although he was not drafted during the Korean War because he was a student, he'd wanted to join the Navy ever since his World War II boyhood. The Navy assigned him to an aviation psychology lab in Pensacola, Fla., to work on problems with naval aviator selection and training. The Navy next assigned him to an aviation training command staff position in Corpus Christi, Texas, as a research consultant. Here Nelson had another epiphany.
"These men were making decisions that affected the lives of student aviators," says Nelson. "In preparing to advise them on the basis of research, suddenly what I had learned about statistics and learning research became very meaningful." As he translated the research into decision-making models, the work he was doing made him eager to complete his graduate training and remain in applied research. So when the Navy offered to send Nelson back for a final year at the University of Chicago to get his doctorate in psychology, he agreed.
With his PhD in hand, Nelson was assigned to a naval medical neuropsychology lab in San Diego to do research on a variety of topics related to the stresses of naval service duty, the first of which was a look at how small groups function--or fail to function--under the stresses of virtual isolation and confinement. The assignment was called Project Deep Freeze.
"The next thing I knew I was on a Constellation [propeller plane] going down to the South Pole to see what life was like," he says. At that time, the U.S. facilities in Antarctica were all naval stations. After someone at one of the Antarctic bases had a psychotic break, possibly due to the extreme conditions and isolation, the Navy set up a psychological screening process, explains Nelson.
When Nelson arrived, the screening system wasn't very efficient. "At first, they didn't know what they were looking for," he says. "Talented scientists were being screened out for qualities that may have been quite adaptive." Nelson and his colleagues were the first team to systematically research the effects of isolation in the Antarctic. This line of research--at the dawn of the space age--was quite timely: NASA was beginning to think about long-term space flight, so Nelson and his team became part of a small community of psychologists who spent much of the early 1960s studying the effects of long-term isolation and confinement.
Nelson stayed in the Antarctic for about a month, and describes it as a wonderful experience--though very cold. "I think that I am probably the first psychologist to have walked around the world," he laughs, explaining that he walked from the South Pole station to see the actual magnetic pole.
As a naval research investigator and later a program manager of research, Nelson's work included studying the adjustment of young Marines during first enlistment and in combat. Among his projects were developing guidelines for operational commanders responsible for sustained operations over extended periods of time and helping to develop a plan for the medical and psychological rehabilitation of servicemen who had been prisoners of war in Vietnam. Nelson went on to become the chief of the Navy's Medical Service Corps, and before he knew it, despite initially intending to stay for just a three-year reserve tour, he'd been in the Navy for 26 years.
A commitment to education
As Nelson was considering retiring from the Navy, he happened to have lunch with Meredith Crawford, the then-director of accreditation at APA. Nelson was there to introduce Crawford to a colleague, but he left with a lead on two positions open at APA. He applied for and took on Crawford's old job working on accreditation of psychology graduate programs.
"I was fascinated by accreditation: What good does it do? What is the outcome? There was no systematic research in place," says Nelson. He became convinced that institutional self-study--assessing outcomes and effectiveness--was the key to quality educational programs. Under Nelson, the APA accreditation department started an annual outcome report that focused on student performance. Nelson and his team helped totally reorganize the accreditation system, developing guidelines more focused on assessing program outcomes and promoting changes that led to the establishment of the Committee on Accreditation.
Nelson was director of accreditation for 15 years, and also served as the initial interim director of the Education Directorate when APA created it in 1990. From there, he became the deputy executive director of the directorate and director of the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Education and Training.
"In higher education, he is the face of psychology," says Jill Reich, PhD, who was executive director of APA's Education Directorate from 1995 to 1999. "Paul was in some way part of or involved in all aspects of what the Education Directorate worked on."
Indeed, Nelson has spearheaded many projects that have helped create a new generation of scholars and teachers, says Belar. Nelson was central to the development and success of APA's TOPSS, Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools, and PT@CC, Psychology Teachers at Community Colleges. Through his work on APA's establishment of the Commission on Recognition of Specialties and Proficiencies in Professional Psychology and his collaboration with the Council of Credentialing Organizations in Professional Psychology and the Council of Specialties in Professional Psychology, Nelson has helped develop specialties in psychology, says Belar. He also guided psychology's participation in the national Preparing Future Faculty program, which helps prepare graduate students to be faculty.
Nelson is particularly passionate about this project. Though most doctoral programs principally prepare students for research careers, many students will take academic positions in which they will be expected to teach as well. Most graduate students are not being well enough prepared for teaching, especially in different types of higher-education institutions from the two-year college to the research university, Nelson notes.
The Preparing Future Faculty initiative helps widen students' academic training and also encourages them to consider nonacademic careers, Nelson explains.
Nelson's leadership in such programs has left an indelible mark on psychology, agree Fowler, Belar and Reich, but he will be missed most for his personal integrity and the formidable store of knowledge he has accumulated over the last 50 years.
"I think he will be most remembered for providing leadership to our discipline that brought out the very best in people and through that created the knowledge and assurance that we can more than solve our problems--we can be creative and effective leaders in our world," says Reich.
Fowler calls him the "ultimate diplomat" and says, "I don't know how anybody can work in a place that has such diversity--and sometimes conflict--as APA for 24 years and not make a single enemy,but Paul has managed to do it, and that's an accomplishment in and of itself."
Although Nelson has been "richly rewarded" by his experiences at APA, he's ready for another phase in life.
"There's an old scripture that says, in effect, that there is a season for all things," he says. "It's time for new blood to come into APA, and time for me to start a new chapter."
Nelson has no specific plans for retirement, but wants to remain intellectually active. And, he says, referring to a broken arm that is now on the mend, "I hope by spring to be able to swing a golf club."